A place to rest

Meaning of Shelle: from Rachel and Rochelle; a little rock; a place to rest. 

August 17 is my sister Shelle’s birthday.

It’s easy to think about her on this celebratory day.

It’s far, far easier than thinking about the April morning two years ago when she took her own life.


The end of 2011

If this were any other year, I’d join a million other bloggers in trying to start a discussion about the year in arts & entertainment, or news, or anything we’ve experienced as a community and can talk about.

But 2011 was a year like no other for me.

At the risk of invoking a cliché (and being a plagarist) few words fit this year for me like the opening of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way. 

For me, it was a year of high highs and low lows. It was a year where it truly, deeply sucked to be a grown-up.

A few great things happened. My partner and I bought our first home. Being a home owner is not without stress, and the search for a home was incredibly stressful. But there’s a security in owning a home that I haven’t experienced before.

I returned to college this year. My complete and utter wipeout during the first go-round at university has always haunted me, and while I’ve managed to carve out a successful career without a degree, the whole experience felt completely unfinished.

This fall was one of the most intensely stressful periods in my life, but it was incredibly redemptive when I met with success in my classes.

I continued my genealogy research, and made some really compelling discoveries along the way. But the worst of times of this year was losing several family members. It was definitely a year of loss for our family tree, as we lost an aunt and an uncle.

And, unthinkably, my sister took her own life in April.

I haven’t written about my sister since I initially wrote about her death. Losing her, and the events that followed, made for some of the ugliest moments I’ve ever experienced.

The story of what led my sister to this point, and to this irrevocable decision, continues to be more and more complicated, with more points of view than Rashomon. And at the end of the day, my sister is no longer with us. Part of me wants to let go completely. And part of me thinks writing about her will honor her memory.

And speaking of clichés – like the Dickens I invoked at the beginning of this post – the loss of my dear, sweet sister and the effect it had on all of us revealed to me the truth of many clichés.

Value the family and the people in your life, and let them know how much they mean to you.

Having a positive point of view – or positive people in your life – makes a difference. 

Value the time you’re here on Earth, and don’t let fear prevent you from experiencing life and embracing new adventures. 

And maybe that’s the lesson I will take away from 2011. Maybe the conventional wisdoms and definitions I’ve lived by – of what a cliché is, of what a grown-up is – should be discarded and left to rot.

I’m still processing what’s happened this year, but what I can tell you is that I am out of a long corporate cubicle slumber. I may not be ecstatically happy or completely content at this moment. But I am alive, awake and aware. And that is a good place to start 2012.

No answers here

The main job of any writer is to make sense of the world around them. In my work, I try to help my readers think about ideas and events in a different way. If I’m lucky, I can dig deep enough in a subject to provide context and really put things into perspective.

But even the most experienced writer can’t solve every puzzle, or resolve every question. And I have no rationale, no context to understand why, on a clear Sunday morning a month ago, my sister Shelle took her own life.

It’s usually so easy for me to write, but it’s been such a challenge to line up words in a sentence about her death. Suicide is such a final choice, and all of us who knew and loved my sister are still in shock.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours, awake and half asleep, talking with other family members, trying to replay the events in my mind and answer the unanswerable: why? I never thought I’d be saying goodbye to her so early. Or picking out music for her memorial service. Or reading a medical examiners’ report about someone who was so alive to me.

We can all try to get to WHY but the truth is, we’ll never know what led to that sequence of events. I know she was in significant physical pain; her liver had been damaged years ago and she’d been experiencing massive physical symptoms; she described the pain as someone “tightening a belt around my midsection and pulling.”

And when you lose your health, it devastates every single other aspect of your life – your relationships, your work, your family life. And so it was with my sister. The lightness we all need to have balance in our lives was blotted out for her. We offered our help and our love. Why did she make the choice she did?

I have regrets – did I do enough? Should I have known? My last text message exchange with her reads like a cry for help in retrospect, but at that moment, it was just like hundreds of other text messages she’d sent me.

I feel guilty. I wonder if I took the process for granted – that if she really, really needed help, she’d ask. We had a similar situation in our family where someone suffered from severe physical pain that drove them to a suicide attempt. But they got the help they needed – both mental and physical – and went on to a much better phase of their life.

I wanted that so much for Shelle, and I am deeply sad she couldn’t be here for it. My heart hurts for her husband and my nephews, her two sons, both of who are still school age boys.

I don’t know that I will ever understand why. And perhaps it’s not for me to know. It reminds me of the lyrics from “I Don’t Like Mondays”:  They can see no reasons / ‘Cause there are no reasons / What reason do you need to be shown?  No “reason” can ever really be an answer. A dear cousin told me something that made so much sense to me. She learned it from the teachings of Catholicism but I think it’s a universal thought: The moment that someone leaves life, or goes to their God, is an intensely private one, and a sacred moment.

I will never understand what prevented her from making another choice. But ultimately, I need to learn to let go, to forgive her (which I already have – as if I was ever mad), and to honor her memory. I love my sister so much, and I don’t want the way her life ended to define in any way the person she was before that.

I want people to remember how sweet and tenderhearted Shelle was, how shy she was as a child. How loyal she was to all of us. I want everyone to know what a great big sister she was, spending hours with me when I was a kid and carting me around with her once she was old enough to drive. She was 7 years older than me, and as soon as she had wheels, she had to take me to my weekly allergy shots, but she never complained once.

I want people to know what an amazing nurse she was, and how she was such a perfect combination of my parents – my dad’s perseverance and work ethic, and my mom’s heart and empathy for others. My other sister reminded me how funny and silly Shelle could be – like my mother, she never met a camera she couldn’t make a face at!  I want people to remember what a great friend my sister was, and how our house was filled with her friends.

We no longer have that family home, but when I close my eyes and think of my sister, it’s there I see her: in our game room watching TV, in her bedroom with the seizure-inducingly loud wallpaper, playing her Bay City Rollers (and later, Styx and REO Speedwagon) records with her friends, at our kitchen table with our Mom, in our backyard splashing around in our swimming pool.

And she’s home now, both there in my mind’s eye, and home with my mother, both of them resting high in the hills of Cambria County. I have to pray she is finally at peace, and pray that all of us who loved her can move forward in healing and reconciliation.