Sweet, Sweet Spirit

When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.  ~ Christina Rossetti

For Gina Nichole Leach

May 31.

It’s been twenty years since you walked into the river of death. Ten days prior to that you languished in a coma plugged into a breathing machine.

Today, two decades ago, you finally stopped breathing. You stopped. You finished it. You answered the prayer I’d whispered in your ear, when I told you, “It’s OK. You can go. You can go now.” I held your hand and listened to the slow sucking sound of the machine forcing air into your lungs. I listened as your heart monitor steadily beeped. I kissed your hand before I left your hospital room, knowing I wouldn’t be back, knowing I’d never see you again.

I knew you were gone, girl.

You left behind a bereft three-year-old girl, who at the end of September this year will turn 24. She is nearly the age you were when you became pregnant with her. I haven’t seen her since your memorial service in Magnolia Park where she walked around holding a red balloon, waiting for the exact moment when your mom told her to “let it go,” and we watched 28 balloons sail toward heaven, each one representing a year in your short life.

It’s been twenty years since your last speedballs of heroin, your last refusal of help when the cops came to your door at the behest of your mother, hoping to prevent your suicide. “Everything’s fine,” you told them. “My mom’s worrying over nothing.”

An hour later, you slipped the Buddhist prayer beads I’d given you around your neck like a necklace and shot up for the last time. The syrupy drug raced through your blood, slowing your pulse; then, you swallowed handful after handful of Tylenol with codeine and typed up an incoherent suicide note on the computer using all caps.

You screamed at everyone who loved you, one last time.

Your erstwhile boyfriend — who days earlier had walked out on you — found you that night, comatose, but breathing.

And for a few hours after the paramedics revived you and took you to the hospital, it seemed to your family you might pull through. You talked to them briefly. You ‘seemed fine.’

But you’d decimated your liver and kidneys and one by one your internal organs began to shut down.

In your suicide note, you told your family to, “pull the plug, if this doesn’t work.” You said your daughter was better off without you, the world was better off without you, the circle of friends you’d cultivated was better off without you.

“Anything’s better than this,” you said, meaning the constant darkness of bipolar depression, the frantic highs of mania, the subsequent allure of hard drugs to numb out. You felt like a raw nerve ending, the pain relentless.

“Anything’s better than this.”

Even oblivion. Even leaving your daughter. Even quitting this world two weeks before you finished your undergraduate degree at the University of Washington.


At the time, I knew you were depressed. Hell, I was depressed, too. But I had no idea how far you’d fallen.

I used to think of suicide as something that was the ultimate fuck-you to anyone who’d ever loved the person who died. But I’ve learned this is not true.

It seems that way to anyone who’s never dealt with the deep, blustery, black dog of clinical depression. It seems like something no sane person would ever choose. However, that’s where we go wrong. By the time suicide feels like an option, it’s already too late. Suicide becomes door number one after you have fallen so far off track, there’s virtually no chance of ever coming back from that impulse.

For a long time after your death, I wondered if there was anything I could have done to change the outcome.

I felt guilty, sad, lost.

But I know now that we all have to live with the choices we make; no one can save someone hell-bent on drowning.

You wanted to go.


A couple of years after your death, you visited me while I slept.

“I’d do it differently now,” you told me, sitting at the foot of my bed, as I rubbed my eyes trying to awaken. “I keep wondering why didn’t my guides save me –why didn’t they intervene?”

I didn’t have answers. I couldn’t form words.

I sat, a silent witness, unable to speak.

“You didn’t know how bad it was. You didn’t think I’d do it,” you said, eyes somber.

The next morning I woke up crying, your voice still ringing in my ears.


Of course, I didn’t think you’d do it, even though you’d attempted suicide several times over the previous 14 years.

I didn’t think you’d commit suicide because I would never do it.

And that was the blind spot for me, thinking that you were more like me than you actually were.


A psychic I used to know said ours was a ‘past life’ connection. We’d known each other — been lovers, perhaps — in a previous life. That’s why our connection was profoundly deep, even though I only knew you for 18 months.

In the two decades since your death, I’ve thought of you often.

I include you in the prayer for the dead each day when I do my morning and evening prayers. Each year the list of those who’ve crossed the river of death grows longer. Each year I wonder what you would think of the life I’ve built.

You dreamed of owning a home and decorating its lawn with tacky garden gnomes and lawn ornaments. You wanted to be a music photographer; you hoped you’d be a ‘good mother.’ You smoked too much and drank too much coffee. You had a wicked, bawdy sense of humor.

You and your daughter looked just like your mother and grandmother. You were like nesting dolls, one inside the other, the same almond eyes, the same sloping noses.

I haven’t spoken to your mom since my last year of grad school. I never published the book I wrote about you as my master’s thesis, though I did give it a good run with agents for about four years after I finished my degree. Maybe I’ll publish it one day. Maybe I’ll revise it and fictionalize it. Maybe I’ll turn it into a coming of age story and give you a more uplifting ending. Maybe I will unravel all the ways in which you taught me to start living.

You got me to read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In fact, I applied to graduate school because of you. You were the one that pushed me to write. You were the one who saw something in me that needed release.

You died just eight weeks before I left Seattle for Los Angeles to start my professional writing program.

I remember that summer – in fragments – in bits, pieces. Hobbled by what happened, I still felt I had no choice but to keep going. I got on the plane and left.

I stumbled into South Central Los Angeles to start grad school, overwhelmed, overweight, and overcome with grief. I wrote about you because it was all I could think to do. I wrote what I remembered and what I wished had happened instead of what actually did.

I fell back in time.

I remembered the rush of riding in the car with you at lunchtime — leaving the mental health advocacy agency where I worked and you interned — and heading over to buy groceries in Ballard. I smelled the salt and kelp wafting off of Puget Sound. I remembered your daughter’s laughter.

I sat in my apartment at USC and wrote. I wrote about loss. I wrote about how fucked up I felt. I wrote about everything that puzzled me and stymied me and made me sad.

And as those words burbled up, I stopped choking on my sadness. I felt clearer. I realized I still wanted to live even if you didn’t.

Twenty years later, dear heart, I am still here.

I am still here.

Your body’s gone, but you live on in your daughter. Your spirit’s written all over her face.

You live on in the words of the only letter you ever wrote me, sent to me the last time you went through rehab, the last time you checked into the mental hospital.

You live on in the streets of Seattle, in the bluffs of green oaks and magnolia trees on the hillsides, and in the walls of that apartment you rented the year before you died. You live on in the degree that the university awarded you, posthumously. You live on in the people who knew you and loved you and didn’t know what else to do.

I still carry you, wherever I go.

I sometimes wonder what you’d think of this world, two decades later. You’ve missed so much wonder and so much horror.

You were gone before the twin towers fell or this endless war in the Middle East started. You never had an iPad or a cell phone or an email address. You never saw babies drowning trying to escape from Syria with their desperate parents. You didn’t witness mass shootings or the election of the first black President of the United States.

You signed off before all this started to untangle and burn.

I wish you could see your daughter, see the mirror image of your face, staring intently back at you. I wish she could know her mother loved her with a messy intensity that nearly swallowed her whole.

I wish you’d never tried heroin. I wish you’d never been sexually molested as a child. I wish your life hadn’t been such a searing gash from the age of nine onward.

I wish I’d been a balm for you. I wish I’d known how to make things better.

I wish you’d known your beauty as well as your darkness.

Sweet, sweet spirit.

I am still heartbroken you are gone.

© 2016  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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