The night is dark, his mind is darker. He sits on the floor of a quiet garage. All windows and doors are secure. His car idles. At the back of his car, he connects a hose to the tailpipe and, as his phone rings, he puts the hose into his mouth and drifts away, away, away.
“…For life is quick in passing,
“Tis as a single day.”1
Life passes especially quickly when we expedite our expiration date. Every day as I leave the hospital after radiation treatment, I pass a newsstand. All week long, several of the covers are devoted to a woman who is choosing to end her life.2 Her promised suicide, designed to outrun her brain cancer’s sprinting death march, sparks outrage, compassion, and introspection across the country and within my own heart. She is me, and I am her—innocent bystanders to cancer carving a home in our brains. But our solutions look so different. She is traveling the world and keeping her loved ones close, doing television interviews and looking confident. I barely leave the mattress on the floor of my lonely apartment, two hundred miles from my husband, sleeping my days away as clumps of hair fall to the floor. It is unclear who is really winning their fight with cancer.
A year later, I am restless. Every moment is poisoned by the unfairness of my plight. I suffered more than anyone I see, yet I deserved it less. I lost more than anyone I see, while they have everything they ever wanted. I cried for lost dreams more than anyone I see, and they take their peace for granted. I stew in a thick pot of resentment, focusing behind me, on the trauma of my cancer.
Two years later, I am drifting off to sleep next to my husband, when he receives a text message.
Austin*: I just want to say thank you for all your family has done for me over the years
Husband: Of course my brother! You are like family to us. What’s up?
Austin: I’m checking out man, I’m done.
My husband shows me the texts. We look at each other, somewhere between puzzled and horrified. For the first time in our married life, my response is not, “Just deal with it in the morning; it’s late.” My husband calls Austin and I breathlessly hover near the phone to listen, worry clouding my face.
Husband: “Hey, man, I got your text. What’s going on?”
Austin: (flatly) “Yeah, I’m over it, it’s not worth it, I’m just checking out. Thanks, though, for all that you and your family has done for me over the years. I’ll never forget your parents, they treated me like a son.”
Husband: “Of course, my brother. You are family to us. But what do you mean ‘checking out?’”
Austin: (laughing) “Just checking out, brother, just ending all this…”
Husband: “Austin, where are you?”
Austin: “I’m done, I’m done, I’m just…done.”
Husband: “Austin? Austin? Are you okay? Where are you?”
Austin stops talking. My husband continues to text and call him for the next five minutes, without response. Then, as I helplessly look on with a hand on his shoulder, my husband frantically calls a series of police departments, trying to remember Austin’s home address out on Staten Island. When the police arrive at Austin’s home, his wife reports that he is not there. She suggests a couple places where he may be.
Time drags on; we lay silently in bed with ominous tension, hearts pounding with dread. When the police finally arrive at Austin’s workplace, stunned officers look through a window to find Austin slumped onto the floor, his mouth around a hose connected to a car’s tailpipe. Police break glass to get into the garage, desperate to try to save him. The shadow of carbon monoxide discolors Austin’s distorted face. Although medics say he was literally moments from death, hovering between life and total darkness, Austin is revived.
The next day my husband receives a message from Austin’s wife. She admits that they are divorcing and that she had already kicked him out. Her words pierce deep when she says, “You saved his life.”
I cannot stop the argument from surfacing, like the young woman planning her physician-assisted suicide, Austin and I are the same: he is me, and I am him. Although my past year has been full of therapy and doctors, I too was threatening my life by simply refusing to live it. I may have thought I was on the high road by choosing surgery and radiation over suicide. But poisoned by bitterness, I was not living. Austin tried to waste his precious future life by letting the present control him. I was wasting my precious present life by letting the past control me. My past and his present are and were traumatic, sorrowful, and anxiety-laden. But no matter how cankerous, they cannot tarnish our spotless tomorrows.
Trouble and Trial bind us with their gnarled, ugly claws. Trauma’s grip ever-tightens as we struggle against it or try to change it. We toss and turn, we sob and wail, we shout that, “It is not fair!” And, truly, it is not fair. But the miracle is this—bound though we may feel by our sorrows, when we let go, our sorrows let go.
“I removed his shoulder from the burden…Thou calledst in trouble, and I delivered thee…”3
When desperation and irrationality threaten our very mortality, I witness that the very simple solution may be to just bury what we’re fighting. If we cannot change it and we cannot live with it, then it is not time to stop living; it is time to live without it.
“And thus we see that, when these Lamanites were brought to believe and to know the truth…that they buried their weapons of peace, or they buried the weapons of war, for peace.”4
Suppressing trauma has its own dangers, but once you have re-hashed it, worked through it, and derived any potential meaning from it, the time for burial arrives. As dirt separates you from unmanageable trouble, life becomes manageable once more. Not all things are meant to be nursed and coped with; some things are destined for discarding, if we value peace.
Austin and I learned this, in our own ways. Our new lives are interconnected, though Austin may not realize it. The night that he got a chance to confront the choking hand of Trauma, was the very night that I recognized Trauma’s tight grip on me. Seeing the tender fragility of Austin’s mortality, and blessing God for preserving His suffering child that night, is exactly what helped me recognize the tender fragility of my own mortality; especially fragile with the heartless blows of bitterness I was pounding into it with every waking thought. And so we began again. Observing the present for the gift that it is, and honoring the future for its glorious promises.
“Why should this anxious load press down your weary mind?
“…I’ll drop my burden at His feet and bear a song away.”5
1. Improve the Shining Moments, LDS Hymnal, 226.
3. Psalms 81:6-7
4. Alma 24:19
5. How Gentle God’s Commands, LDS Hymnal, 125.
*This is a true story, but the subject’s name has been changed.