Today marks four weeks since I lost my fiancée to suicide on Friday, October 16. During these weeks I have wept endlessly, panicked frequently, smoked constantly, and slept little. I’ve temporarily relocated to rural Maryland, far from Austin, Texas where my beloved died, to begin what I suppose is called recovery. I have procured both a grief counselor and a therapist, and I have joined a suicide survivor support group. Intermittently, I read books about coping with this particularly painful kind of grief, some of which are insightful, while others are not. On most days, I write about my relationship with Serenity in what is more or less a memoir, chronicling our intense love and colossal struggles, and in the process I am trying to come to terms with how little I understood what I am now beginning to understand too late. As of today I am 42,000 words into our story, and I intend to keep writing until I feel I’ve written enough. Whether or not anyone apart from me and a few close friends ever lay eyes on the manuscript, I cannot say.
I think about her all day, every day. My mother reminded me of the time, twenty-two years ago, when her father asked her if she could talk about anything other than my father’s sudden death. She said, “As soon as I can think of anything else, I’ll let you know.” That’s how it is for me, as well. Sometimes I think about how kind Serenity was, and how much she yearned to help others, and how much she did help without realizing it. Sometimes I obsess over the root causes of her illness and the blinding cruelty of a world that let so much trauma happen to such a gentle, beautiful girl. Often I replay the events of her final twenty-four hours in my head, dissecting it down to each moment, and catalogue all the things I might have said or done differently in each of them. Almost every night I have nightmares that revolve around me failing to rescue someone from imminent harm. Almost every day I fall to pieces, bemoaning my inability to save the person I loved most from herself, when I promised so often to keep her safe.
At the beginning of 2014, when I was at one of my lowest points, I fell madly and passionately in love with a gorgeous and damaged young woman. We came together quickly, got engaged quickly, made plans quickly for a future filled with the love and happiness we both so desperately craved, and which neither of us truly believed we really deserved. We promised one another 50 years, and we only got 22 months. I worried daily about losing her to illness, or accident, or unhappy circumstances in which she lived but no longer with me. I never believed that this wonderful, fragile angel, who had tried several times before to end her own life, would ever do so again now that she knew what it was to be loved, respected, and needed. I never imagined that the world could possibly still rotate in her absence, which would surely blot out the sun and freeze time in perpetual stasis. For me, it has. But only me. Serenity was the light that came unexpectedly into my deep darkness in those cold, ugly days in early 2014. Her love and warmth pulled me out of those shadows and into a glow I came to require as a basic condition of life. Today, four weeks into this grief and lonely sorrow, I still can’t reconcile how I continue to breathe on a planet upon which she does not walk. It is a foreign atmosphere that ought to destroy me by all rights. This is a world I do not know, understand, or accept. I have become an anomaly to myself.
I am making some tentative plans, and in doing so I feel as though I am betraying her. Moving on would be an injustice. Braving each day seems ludicrous but vaguely necessary. I think about ways I can continue to honor her for as long as I continue to exist, which offers some small comfort at rare hours, here and there. I want to finish the story we started together last year and have it published where people can see and understand her voice and talent. I want to get involved in child sexual abuse advocacy and discover ways to help people who have suffered as my beloved suffered. These are reasons to keep getting out of bed each day until I am functional enough to work toward those goals, in memory of her. But some days it only barely seems enough. And each morning that I wake up alone, I shiver and I remember and my heart breaks all over again. I’ve read and been told many, many times in these four weeks to expect my grief journey to be an unpredictable rollercoaster in terms of the waves of emotion that will wash over me, leave me stunned and numb, and then start again. This has turned out to be true. It’s like having temporary, conditional sanity that abandons me without notice on regular occasion. I suspect she knew quite a lot about how that can feel.
Today marks four weeks, and next Friday will be five. On December 11th it will have been two months, and on October 16th it will have been a year. If I live to be 80 I will cry on her birthday, and on May 1st when we got engaged, and on December 20th when we reunited after that terrible time apart, and on October 16th all over again. I may not be as broken in those years to come as I am today, but she will still be here within me, and the memories we shared, and the pain I must endure from the loss of someone so extraordinary, so bright and fundamentally good.
I told her as often as possible that I loved her more every day than I did the day before, and I meant it. Mine was a love that grew and developed and evolved for her, and it still is. It is equally true that I miss her more every day since she died, that this wound deepens and widens as the days float past. Fridays are especially hard. This one is the worst yet. I awoke around 3:00 AM and stayed in bed for a little over an hour. My brain started to get ugly there in the dark, so at last I got up, made a pot of coffee, and came outside to smoke until 5:00 rolled around. This was the time I stopped hearing from her that morning, four weeks ago. This is the time when she died, the day that she died, the moment when I lost everything and began this metamorphosis into whatever it is I am becoming. It’s still dark out as I write this, and what remains of my heart is aching so badly I’d rush myself to the hospital if I didn’t know any better. But I do. I grow more familiar with this pain every day. Maybe more so on Fridays.
Not an especially hopeful post, and for that I apologize. All of these days are dark ones, but some are darker than others. You’d be doing me a favor if you were to go now to the one you love and hug that person so dear to you, because I cannot. Our final hug and kiss was not a particularly passionate one, because I did not know it was our last. I don’t know if she did, either. All I know is I am unwhole without my beloved Serenity, that I’m colder without her, I’m apart from the world in which I lived and loved with her. But I also know I’m a far better man for having known her and clung to her, and that though I could not save her, my beloved most assuredly saved me. There it is. Another reason to get out of bed and, I think, the best one yet. I’ll honor her by preserving that salvation, somehow. She deserves that much, at the very least.
I am focused when I write about her in a way that otherwise eludes me. For this reason, I don’t cry as much when I’m doing it. Now it’s time again for tears. Four weeks is a long, long time. So very many more to go. Wish me luck.
Last week, late at night as I was winding down for bed, a familiar intruder spoke to me. I think it was Friday, two weeks to the day after I lost my fiancée to suicide, and the intruder was strongly recommending I do the same. It was the first time since Serenity died that this had happened, though I have become accustomed to these occasional moments, a byproduct of my lifelong depression. I call it an intruder because that’s how I’ve come to cope with and understand it—this is not my rational mind, but something foreign and irrational, a tiny demon that lives in my skull who is not interested in my best interests. It lies, and it’s ugly and evil, and I hate it. It typically comes to me when I’m tired and alone, as it often had when I was working the night shift and my mind would begin to float over all of my inadequacies and failures, my shortcomings and innate unlovability. The upshot of this is that I’d become so accustomed to these occurrences over the years that 90% of the time I had a prepared response to the demon intruder when it made an unwelcome visit to my thoughts in those most vulnerable times: “Nobody asked you, so go fuck yourself.”
Yet here it came again, the night before Halloween, and this time it was stronger because it came armed with much more incentive than ever before. My beloved was gone. I was likely responsible by failing her so spectacularly. Her pain was now my pain, and I was now alone. All of my hopes and dreams were annihilated in an instant: there would be no wedding, no family, no cross-country road trip. No new memories, no new joys. My life as I knew it was over, so when not seal the deal? I did not dig out my pat response as before. Rather, I started to consider the wisdom in the intruder’s advice. To wit—the daily messages from friends and acquaintances checking in on me were becoming fewer and less frequent day by day, my mother was surely growing tired of caring for a grown man who could do nothing by weep and grieve, the world (to my astonishment and horror) was still spinning and moving right along as if nothing had ever happened. Yet I was stuck, in the stasis of this grief and agony, and there seemed no reason to believe this pain would ever abate or anybody would still give a shit tomorrow, or the day after that. In brief, I was broken. And in this day and age, we usually only have one response to things when they break. We throw them away.
On that Friday night, sitting alone on the back porch with my cigarettes and my thoughts, I knew that as soon as I crawled into bed and closed my eyes, I would be immediately assaulted with the same images that always torture me at that time of night—the love of my life as I’d found her two weeks earlier, dead on the floor. Though I’d been told this would get better in time, in truth it was only getting worse. Some suggested this was post-traumatic stress, which could develop into a lifelong struggle to compound those already present and accounted for. I had no plan or method in mind, but for the first time in a long time I was seriously considering the intruder’s point of view. Life without Serenity makes no sense to me, and I tend to think of myself as a fairly rational person most of the time, so what’s rational about living a senseless, loveless, painful life?
I lit another smoke—I now smoke like I used to drink when I was an alcoholic, which is to say there’s always “just one more”—and began going over what seemed like important details. Chief among these was my body of unpublished work. In the months before Serenity died, I was in in overdrive at the keyboard, churning out novels like I needed the keystrokes to breathe. A couple of them were in submission to agents or publishers, but that was no guarantee, and there was yet more work on my hard drive, besides. I decided I needed a custodian for all of this material, someone who cared enough about me, and knew enough about what to do with the unpublished work, to be competent to handle it in the aftermath of my death. Thereafter, I spent the better part of an hour trying to decide who was best suited to this important job. A lot of names crossed my mind, and as I winnowed them down it became a rather tight race. But I never reached a conclusion, never selected a “winner.”
Because it dawned on me what I was doing. I was planning for the future. I still cared about something, and it was important to me that I not let that fall away. Perhaps more importantly, my mind did not go blank when I decided to try selecting a custodian for my work. Instead, I thought of a lot of different people I know, many of whom I think would have been honored to do what I wanted—and devastated that they had to.
This, in my characteristically long-winded and roundabout way, is what I’m attempting to get at here. I am in pain, excruciating and heartbreaking pain, and there are times when it’s really damn hard to believe it will ever abate, even a little. I think most people I know, whether they have suffered a loss like this or not, have been in similar positions throughout their lives, when it truly seemed the noise in their head would never quiet, the pain would never subside, and worst of all, that the world would be a better place without them. THIS IS A LIE. It’s the intruder, the demon, and it lies to you. When my Serenity made the decision to end her own life, she took substantial parts of me with her. I can never be the same, and I do not believe I will ever stop mourning her, not completely. And whereas I believe in the moment she made this horrible choice she believed her demons and was convinced that she was improving the state of things by removing herself from them, it was the most wrong she’d ever been. She devastated me, she left her children motherless, she left friends and family shaken, angry, confused, and in significant ways broken. There can and will be healing to an extent, but she left a ragged, gaping hole in the universe when she died, and that cannot be changed or repaired.
The world is not a better place for her absence and death. It is a much, much worse one. For any of the mistakes she may have ever made, any of the times she may have hurt someone she loved, by taking her own life she made sure there would be no healing for those comparatively insignificant issues. In the whole, she was a magnificent person, beautiful and compassionate, full of love and open to the hurting hearts of so very many. And so very many of those hearts are now broken and bleeding, because she listened to those lying bastard demon intruders.
After my last post, “Spirit in the Sky,” in which I clumsily eulogized my beloved, I received a message from an erstwhile stranger to me. A friend of a friend, we had only quite recently connected on Facebook, but never spoken. In talking to her that evening, I learned that she, like Serenity, suffered from a number of issues and demons that have at times brought her to the brink of the abyss. It’s been a couple of years since her last attempt, she told me, but in reading about my loss and grief, she found herself startled by a new revelation, something she’d shied away from before then, a reality that appeared to leave her shaken and willing to reevaluate the way she thought about herself, her intruder, and the omnipresent possibility of self-destruction that looms over people like us in the darkest of times. In other words, in observing how Serenity’s death by suicide has affected me—and indeed so many—she was forced to confront the falsehood of the belief that “the world would be better off without me.” The following morning, a close friend of hers told me I had inadvertently made a profound impression upon her, and he thanked me for that. I’m not sure if I said so then or not, but it isn’t me who made the impression. That was Serenity, and the hole she has left in the world and in my heart. For this erstwhile stranger, and now burgeoning friend, the lie is much more obvious. And I’m writing about all of this now for those whose intruders are lying to them, as well.
Please believe me when I tell you I know how serious it can get, how painful and seemingly fatal. Perhaps my fiancée made this decision because she convinced herself she failed those she loved, and I completely understand those feelings. I feel that way now—that this happened because I failed her. I’m working on that in counseling and through the support of friends, but I still feel it. When my ex-wife left me, I thought it was because I failed. When I was laid off from my job six months after that, I thought it was because I was worthless and inadequate. When I acted impulsively in 2014, publicly broadcasting the rather extreme difficulties I was having in my relationship with Serenity, and later publicly apologized for my rash and thoughtless behavior, I thought no one in the world would ever want anything to do with me again. I stopped talking to friends, certain I’d burned all my bridges. I feared attending professional conferences, sure in my heart and mind that everyone there hated and judged me—and for good reason. Listen to me when I tell you I was wrong on all counts. Serenity was wrong on all counts. We depressives are often unable to view ourselves fairly and with clear eyes. We fall into these traps where we dislike ourselves so intensely it only makes sense that everyone must feel the same way about us. They don’t. That’s just the intruder. And the intruder is your enemy. Fight it.
In the weeks since Serenity’s death, there has been an astounding public outpouring of grief and shock. Hundreds of people, many who only knew her in a peripheral sense, have expressed their sadness to me and to the world at large, pained and confounded that such a beautiful person could possibly have done something like this. I have learned that dozens of them had contacted her over the years, or been contacted by her, when they were at their lowest moments, and that Serenity—with her uncommon compassion, love, and grace—helped lift them back up again, breathe again, and feel ready to face another day. I think it is some of those people in particular who have been most stricken by this tragedy, that a woman who believed so strongly in the worth and beauty of others could not find the same in herself. The simple fact of the matter is this: Serenity made the world a better place. She mattered, and she was loved and deeply admired by many. The lies should never have won.
There are countless reasons so many of us experience chronic emotional pain and feelings of worthlessness. In her case it had largely to do with the abuse she suffered as a child, but there are many variables to go into a toxic mix like that. I grew up with a distant father who genuinely disliked me, and I ended up in a loveless marriage that fell apart and left me feeling alone and irrelevant. The happiest moments of my life were those shared with Serenity, and I am almost certain the same is true for her. We both made mistakes, and sometime we hurt one another in ways we should not have done. We were human. There should have been another day, and another one after that, and many more years following during which we would learn from these mistakes, become still better people and better partners. I should have realized I never burned as many bridges as I thought I had, and I wish she could have grasped how many people would have leapt in front of a bullet for her, myself included. Depression and PTSD blocked her view. The intruder got between her and that wall.
Sometimes that might happen to you, too. You might have done or said something you wish you hadn’t done, and think since you can’t take it back you’ve rendered yourself worthless. That’s a lie. You are a human being and you make mistakes. Learn from them and let yourself heal. Forgive yourself. Remember that, even when it truly doesn’t seem to be the case, you are loved and you are needed. Read this again and again if you have to, and believe me when I tell you that you matter, and that your absence in this world would do so much damage, break so many hearts, even if you don’t feel like it would. Talk to someone. Pour your heart out. Scream and sob and punch pillows if you feel like it. That is perfectly okay. I’m doing quite a lot of that myself, lately. But whatever you do, never forget this:
The world will be darker and uglier without you. If you think you’re hurting someone now, removing yourself from them will only hurt them a hundred thousand times worse. You can’t really hurt someone who doesn’t care about you deeply. Work through it, learn from it, let the pain hurt a little while longer and trust that it will get better. Life can really kick the shit out you sometimes, and I don’t know many people who know this better than I do now. And to be honest, it’s incredibly hard for me to see and believe that it will ever improve at all, but I’m sticking around to find out.
I will never stop loving Serenity, and I will never stop missing her. Twenty years from now something will trigger my memories and my pain and I’ll collapse into a fit of heaving sobs. I know this, and I’m going to try to be ready for it. Life isn’t easy. I never expected it to be, though I never really expected it to be this unbearable, either. But I would rather bear that pain than transfer it to anyone else, especially all those who care about me, who in these awful weeks have shown me to be far more numerous than I ever imagined. The same is true for Serenity. I wish so badly she could see that now. Yesterday, her friends, peers and loved ones raised over $600 for RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, in honor and memory of her. More is still coming in. So many cared about her, and still do.
So if you’re struggling like she was, and like I often do, think about that. Reach out to someone, and if they don’t give you what you need, reach out to someone else. You are loved, people care about you, and one of us out there will help you get through to the light at the end of that nasty tunnel. Keep trying. Keep fighting. I promise you it’s worth it, and I doubly promise you that you’re worth it, too. I’m fighting right beside you, my friend, and neither of us is ever alone, no matter how much that intruder wants us to think we are.
Last night I watched a silly little 1950s comedy from the UK called Penny Princess with my mother. The film was directed by Val Guest, who I recalled had made a number of minor sci-fi classics in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as contributing to the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale. I remarked that I’d never much cared for the latter, and made mention of the fact that 1960s era comedies didn’t appeal to me, as I didn’t really “get them.” Even in the midst of the worst time in my entire life, my innate film geekery couldn’t resist making a brief cameo appearance.
I slept fitfully, wrought with nightmares as has come to be expected, and when I awoke this morning, for some unfathomable reason my mind returned to the comment I’d made the night before about disliking 1960s comedies. That’s not entirely true, I thought. I don’t particularly care for Casino Royale, but what about Batman: The Movie? I’ve probably seen it ten times and it always cracks me up. From here, my brain began cataloguing some of my favorite gags from the film, from the shark repellent scene to the terrific deadpan line, “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” I quite nearly cracked a smile, when the horror washed anew over me, crown to toe, and in an instant I was filled with loathing for myself and these inane, inconsequential thoughts.
What in the world am I doing thinking about this or anything like it when my beloved fiancée has been gone less than two weeks? Am I insane?
Adam West was thus banished from my head, the vacancy filled with grief, hopelessness, self-hatred, and the permeating sense of loss and aloneness that only grows inside me day by day. I curled up on my side, and I wept for what must have been half an hour before I could muster the control to get out of bed.
It has only been a week and a half since Friday, October 16, when I returned home to the apartment I shared with my fiancée, the love of my life, to find her dead. A lifelong depressive with complex PTSD, Serenity had taken her own life while I was whiling down the last hours of my night shift at a local hotel, worrying about her silence when usually we were texting, and telling myself over and over she must have either fallen asleep or suffered one of her increasingly common seizures. Despite these petty self-assurances, once my relief finally arrived at the hotel (fifteen minutes late), I sped home as fast as I could, my panic mounting. Traffic was worse than usual. I managed to hit every single red light on the way. Halfway home, I called Serenity’s cell phone. I got her voicemail and left an urgent message, reminding her that I loved her and would be home soon. A few minutes later, still slogging along in the dense traffic, I called again. Voicemail again. I hung up and spewed obscenities at the stoplight that seemed to remain red for ages.
By now my panic was in full swing. I was getting dizzy, aggravated that the world would not get out of my way. I knew how my fiancée suffered bouts of deep depression from time to time, worse than the usual condition, and could think of little other than how low she seemed to be feeling of late, that we’d hit a rocky patch in our relationship and neither of us was handling it very well.
We had only just returned from a writers’ convention a few days earlier, and though she had been so excited about attending and meeting everyone, once we were there in the thick of it her mood dropped—she became worried nobody liked her, that she didn’t belong, that no one was taking her seriously. Her social anxiety peaked, which I understood completely because mine did, too. But in her case, it was far worse. On the way back from a restaurant with a large group, she experienced a massive seizure and dropped on the sidewalk. I rushed to hold her up as she came to and helped her back to the hotel, where we sat and I asked her if she was all right a hundred times. She said she was, but in the night she woke me in a panic, having had a nightmare, and she was momentarily unsure where she was. I held her and talked to her until she fell back asleep.
She seemed uncertain about how she was received when the con was over and we returned home. I reminded her that she’d met several people who were extremely interested in her ideas and encouraged her ambitions. An editor insisted she get a story to him for an anthology that was long closed to submissions, because he believed in her unique voice and talent, as I always have. She appeared on a local radio show with me and held her own like a champ, offering acute perspective and asking important questions. I was so incredibly proud of her, and I told her so. For all her frequent insistence that she could never really be a writer, that she had nothing to say, the circumstances of just a few days had surely proven her wrong. It was not just me, who she always claimed was biased in my view, but numerous writers and publishing professionals who were charmed by her grace and intelligence and obvious talent. I felt confident that, despite her needing to unwind and readjust after such a chaotic circus like a writers’ convention, and despite the persisting quietness and withdrawal of her latest bout of depression, this experience would renew and energize her, perhaps instill some of the confidence in her ability she so richly deserved.
It didn’t. Rather, she withdrew further still. She went to work that Wednesday—hotel night shift, like me, at a different property—for an unusual twelve-hour shift. It was my last night off before going back myself, so I stayed home and texted with her as usual. And as usual I paced and bemoaned the long hours, rarely able to focus or feel comfortable in my own skin in her absence. The following night, Thursday, she was scheduled for yet another long one, so we got up early to allow time for me to get her there by seven PM prior to getting ready for my own eleven PM shift. But Serenity called out sick. This was not something I ever questioned, because she suffered from a host of debilitating physical issues that quite often caused her pain, exhaustion, and nausea. Instead of taking her to work, we watched a movie. Shortly thereafter, I went to work. I would never see her alive again.
I bolted up the stairs to our second floor apartment that Friday morning, nearly knocking over a neighbor on her way down to the parking lot. When I reached our front door, I found it unlocked, and I was immediately seized in the grip of terror. This never happened. Serenity had a lot of problems with feeling safe, and never felt particularly safe when she was alone. The deadbolt was always locked when I came home in the mornings, and she would have to let me inside. I hurried into the apartment, dropping my things and calling her name. A second or two later, I found her. For the next several hours, I sat on the concrete steps outside, howling and sobbing in the wretched Texas heat, trying to be kind to the chaplain they sent after I told them I did not want one, asking the officers and detectives over and over again, Could there be some mistake? Is this really happening? Is this my fault?
The police insisted I call someone to come be with me. I told them several times I had no one, that I was all alone. A year earlier, my relationship with Serenity imploded over the course of several weeks, we split up, and I made a shamefully grotesque public spectacle of the whole horrible series of events. Six weeks later we commenced our tearful and grateful reconciliation, but I was entirely convinced that I’d burned most of my bridges and nobody wanted anything to do with me, at least not among the people I knew locally. But the police persisted, and I turned to two people I had not seen in nearly a year, begging them to help me, to not leave me alone for this horrific ordeal. To my complete surprise, they did, without hesitation. One of them let me stay at his house that night. Other old friends rallied, as well, and offered substantial support and love, and they listened while I rambled and cried and tried to make sense of the most senseless thing I’ll ever experience. This did not fix anything, but I cannot imagine how I could have survived those first forty-eight hours without them and their selfless support. Thank you Billy, Nate, Lee, John, and Michael. Though I hurt and grieve more now than then, and more every day, you can never know how much you did for me, nor how crucial it was.
Within a few days, I came to rural Maryland to stay with my widowed mother, resigned from my job, and settled into a cycle of chain-smoking, drinking coffee, and bursting into prolonged bouts of sobbing between periods of stunned numbness or indignant anger. I have heard from people I barely know, and I have heard from very old friends I knew as a kid in Arkansas, all of them offering sincere condolences and some of them asking what they can do to help me. I tell them all some variation of the same thing: there isn’t anything, and you can’t help me. The beautiful, broken soul with whom I fell so deeply and quickly in love nearly two years ago, this compassionate, sad-eyed, brilliant girl who wore my engagement ring and promised me a minimum of fifty years together, is gone. Every single morning I awake and realize this is true as though understanding it for the first time. My heart is shattered, my body hollow. My mind in on a constant, unstoppable loop of what-ifs, replaying the things I said and the things I did not say. Daily I argue with my mother or my best friend that I simply did not do enough to save her, much less fix her. There is no help for this. No repair. Only grief.
Grief, and so much self-blame it borders self-hatred. Our financial situation was so dire, so precarious, that we often needed help to make rent or buy groceries. Serenity would say she was a burden to me, and I would beg her to understand that simply wasn’t true—she was everything to me, and we’d make it through, somehow. But I didn’t succeed in convincing her.
In the last few months I’d thrown myself into my writing like never before, churning out nearly three novels, in a focused attempt to land an agent and make a decent career for myself, something that would have, to my mind, greatly benefited us both. Two of these were part of an intended series based on suggestions she brilliantly made, and she spent hours advising me about technical matters pertaining to nursing and helping me fix plot holes. Now I fear in so doing, I actually made her feel neglected and isolated, even unimportant. These projects dominated my thoughts, conversations, and even my anxieties—when perhaps she most needed my attention to be focused on her and the pain she was suffering.
Serenity was a survivor of prolonged, systematic sexual, physical, and emotional abuse for as long as she could remember until she left home at seventeen. In fact, this sort of unfathomable, unforgivable horror was her very first memory. This colored everything for her, all her life it shaped and twisted her perspective, her worldview, her feelings about herself and how she fit into the broader picture. How she related to herself and others. I believe it broke her, long before she and I ever knew one another existed, and I think it never relented, the pit from which the demons who consistently tortured her sprang. She could never forget it, but sometimes I did. She would tell me I’d saved her, that my love for her was healing her, and more often than not I accepted that at face value. She was going to be all right. But then she would gradually seem to lose herself, her grasp on everything—me, us, herself, her great worth and value. She would escape to secret worlds and fantasies, something I now approach understanding in terms of how she grew up in a dangerous world of secrets and lies—again those inescapable demons. I approach this understanding far too late, because just as it was this off-the-rails self-loss that led to our dramatic separation in 2014, it was beginning to happen again, a year later. I wept, I raged, I pulled her in tight, and I withdrew. I, too, am a lifelong depressive, an oversensitive soul with less than the best esteem for myself, and in times of crisis I do not often know what to do or how to respond. I let things go for a little while, ignored them. Naturally, nothing improved. I tried to reason them out with her, coolly and rationally. She sucked into herself, sullen and removed, unable to make eye contact, rarely opting to speak and when she did, in a whisper I could barely make out. We had been here before. We survived it, conquered it with our passionate love for one another. We learned hard lessons and our bond deepened, our priorities strengthened. Of course we would reemerge from this, as well, no matter how much we both were hurting. There was a precedent. And besides, we’d promised each other fifty years—there were still more than forty-eight to go, filled with ups and downs, triumphs and disappointments, mistakes and regrets and soulful, deep returns to understanding and healing. Surely, I thought, there was no way she could possibly forget that no matter what transpired, what was done or said, my love and commitment for her was non-negotiable.
But that would be to underestimate the fetters of depression, PTSD, and the inexorable effects of long-term child abuse on the fragile heart and mind of so gentle and tortured a soul as my sweet, beloved Serenity. I wanted desperately to believe that unlearning the bad lessons of her horrendous childhood, and indeed much of her adulthood, could be far easier than it really was. That the day was just around the corner when she could look in the mirror and see what everybody else who knew her so clearly saw: a radiantly beautiful young woman, so magnificently unique and brilliant, charming and graceful, admirably compassionate and well worth the time it took to unlock her many mysteries and enigmas. How could she not? When, to me, it was so blaringly obvious?
“You’re biased,” she would say, to my frustration and chagrin. She was wrong about that. From the very first time I saw a photo of her, my life was changed. I had never seen beauty like that, so sad yet so seemingly persistent in hope, nor had I ever encountered anyone with such a perilously open heart, practically asking to be pierced for the tremendous risk of love, or at least acceptance. From our first phone call in January 2014, we never went another day without talking, usually for hours, about anything and everything, as she very gradually unraveled herself, the core of her, to me. And when at last she confessed that she struggled with numerous medical and psychological issues that could possibly worsen, suggesting it might not be worth the effort getting to know her, I said, “For Christ’s sake, can’t you tell when somebody is in love with you?”
I wasn’t biased. I only saw her more clearly than she could ever see herself. She deserved far better than me, and told me almost weekly that she was not good enough for me. In truth, we were two damaged people adrift in a storm, clinging to one another for dear life, hoping against hope that love was going to be enough to guide us safely to harbor. Someday.
Serenity wasn’t only good enough for me. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. She, along with her love and patience, coaxed me out from the bottom of a bottle into the rough, new frontier of sobriety. I do not believe it could have happened any other way, and she bravely joined me in the same struggle. She encouraged me to ignore my own demons, particularly the ones that regularly demanded I quit writing, and insisted I seek bigger and better opportunities for my work, because she believed it was worth it. She believed in me. She loved me. But she did not believe in herself, and she did not know how to respond to being loved, as much as she wanted and needed that.
I think she wanted to outrun herself. I think she spent her entire life in fight-or-flight mode, always on guard, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think I never fully comprehended this until now, just like I never fully comprehended why she tended to panic when she was alone at work, or why she would tell me she cried every time I left for my job, as though I’d never come back again. There is so much—so very much—that I will never comprehend about my beloved, either because she kept these things too private or simply because I did not and could not live inside her troubled, wounded head. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough to understand. Perhaps in my zeal to navigate us both to sounder, calmer shores I skipped too many steps. She used to say the words “I love you” were inadequate to express the depth of her feelings for me, that she knew of no words that were up to the task. I agreed, but now I worry that I should have tried harder to find those words and express them. They would have been the truest words ever spoken, whatever they are.
I worried constantly about losing her too soon. That she would have a seizure too severe, or the cancer that nearly killed her years ago would return, or any number of conceivable tragedies would befall this extraordinary person who had suffered a hundred times too much for one lifetime already. And though I scolded her for sometimes being her own worst enemy, and fell into anxious, reproaching lectures when she said she could not live without me, I never for a moment believed I could lose my beloved the way I did.
Yesterday I saw a mental health professional, a social worker who specializes in grief counseling. She told me for every sincere attempt a person makes at ending her own life, the chances of an eventual success rise exponentially. I knew Serenity had tried to take her life before, during the childhood abuse and after. She had the scars to prove it. And I knew she had an uncommon focus on mortality. I reasoned that during the worst periods of her life, it almost made sense that she would have wanted to escape in that way, but that this was well past her. I also reasoned that nearly dying herself on more than one occasion, and worrying about her physical health on a regular basis, explained her attention to the topics of death and dying.
Further, early October marked the first anniversary of the death of her biological father, the chief source of her abuse and pain, about which she never obtained anything approaching closure. She paid special attention to dates and anniversaries, and I knew she was having extra difficulty with those particular phantoms, a difficulty my words did not appear to lessen or much help. Too often I worked toward appealing to her intellect, which was far above average, rather than her heart. Too often I discounted the power and effectiveness of quietly listening instead of talking, of holding her without saying anything at all, of simply being present in every way I could. I spent too much time outside, smoking alone, and too little time beholding her tremendous beauty or asking how she was feeling or just holding her hand. My feelings were too easily hurt, and I took too long to rebound when they were. Worst of all, I did too little to understand why she might do or say something unusually hurtful, and turned sullen and quarrelsome instead. For that, I don’t believe I will ever forgive myself.
Many, many times in the last ten months or so, since Serenity and I happily reconciled, she needed reassurance or reminding that I had not stopped loving her while we were apart. I did not. Rather, it was until now the most painful period of my life. I slept on the couch because I could not bear to be in what had been our bedroom, and I nearly always awoke crying. I selfishly and cruelly railed against her in the rare moments I could stand human company because it masked the agony of her absence. I quite literally paced our small, one-bedroom apartment until my feet blistered and bled. It was a terrible time, and our reunion of weepy apologies and renewed promises was probably the happiest I have ever been. We spent our first Christmas together shortly thereafter, and I plagued her with my off-key renditions of songs from White Christmas for days. It would also be our last.
I don’t know why this horrible nightmare happened. All day, every day, I parse it out, trying to somehow undo it in my head, but there is no satisfaction or relief in this. Some of the time I explode with anger at her for doing this, for taking herself away from me and everyone else who loved and admired her. For erasing our bright future, for denying the healing power of our love. A lot of the time I tremble and weep, certain that I must be to blame, despite the dozens of friends, family, acquaintances, and mental health professionals who have insisted otherwise. Some do, however, blame me. I was excluded from both her funeral and her hometown obituary, and I will never again see her engagement ring or the necklaces I gave her which she never removed. I informed her family that she told me more than once she wanted Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” played at her funeral, but I don’t know if they listened or fulfilled that wish. In calmer moments I come close to forgiving all of this, somewhat understanding that with grief—particularly grief in the wake of something as horrific and unfathomable as suicide—comes anger, confusion, and a desperate need to explain the inexplicable. Yet still this has only served to compound my own grief and confusion and pain. I am not the only one destined to spend the remainder of my days asking how this could have been prevented, if my efforts to rescue Serenity from herself were insufficient.
Loving someone who does not love herself is a challenging road to walk in the best of times. This is what we both faced, Serenity and I—a person before us we saw as ideal and unconditionally lovable, who for whatever reason could not see the same in themselves. I always thought she was the bravest person I ever knew, and I still do. I also thought anyone who could survive and persevere through the unimaginable horrors she faced in her life could survive anything. She did, for a long time, until she could no longer bear the weight, and that still makes her brave and incredibly strong and admirable beyond measure.
She helped a lot of people through their dark nights, anyone who reached out to her, with kindness and patience and total understanding. She never judged anyone, and I think a great many people owe her a great deal for knowing her, even if only in passing. Had she given herself the chance and heard the many that encouraged her, she would have been an extraordinary and successful author with a voice that already touched so many. She was, simply put, the very best person I ever had the privilege to know and love, and I will love her just as fiercely as ever for the rest of my life. I just don’t know how to finish out this journey without her at my side, her hand in mine. I feel so empty and hollow. So broken. I miss Serenity so terribly much. I miss her warmth and her wise counsel, her rare and captivating smile, her gentle touch and unyielding love. And as I told her nearly every time the circumstances of life forced us to be physically apart, even for a few hours, I am incomplete without her. There is a hole inside me now, an unbearable ache of longing and loss, which cannot be repaired or filled.
I wouldn’t wish this horror on anyone, though many have experienced it and many still will, a fraternity and sorority of pain and grief no one should have to join. Just reach out to those you love who may be hurting. Listen. Hug them. Don’t bury them under a mountain of empty platitudes, but just be there for them. Understand that pain and trauma can make people do or say things that are hard to understand. And if you knew my sweet girl, that beautiful and courageous young woman who I wanted so much to marry and hold close all my life, please always remember her in your heart. Her memory is all I have left in mine.
Neither of us was always perfect. I wish I had been more so. I have never felt more imperfect than I do now. Writing this post, or eulogy, or rambling mess, is the most I’ve done in nearly two weeks, and I expect I won’t do as much in the next two weeks, or the two weeks after that. I smoke, I drink coffee, I explode into spasms of grief, I sleep. I’m nauseous most of the time and spend hours in a near-catatonic state, still and staring, before I collapse again into wracking sobs for what seems like forever. Maybe I’ll write again, and maybe I won’t. I have no idea. All I know is I can never be the same, and I can never be whole. Life apart from the girl I love more than anything was agony. Life without her is unfathomable and terrifying.
From the beginning of our relationship, Serenity and I had an agreement that we never said “goodbye.” If we were concluding a phone conversation or temporarily parting ways for whatever reason, that word was never used. Not once. Instead, we said those inadequate words that nevertheless meant everything, that in such critical ways defined us and who we were. They were the tether from the parting to the next reunion, a promise that there would always be us, that in the morning everything was going to be all right again.
I love you, Serenity.
One of the strangest complements I regularly receive comes from people who have read A Wind of Knives and tell me they enjoyed it despite not liking Western fiction. To me, that’s a contrary and fundamentally untrue sentiment, because if you enjoy that particular book, you enjoy Western fiction. What they are really saying is they haven’t enjoyed certain examples of the genre in the past, but the execution of this story in particular worked for them. And though there are countless ways to tell a definitively Western story, the form has been gradually dying out for decades.
The literature and media of the Old West were a mainstay in American popular culture from the start of the Twentieth Century, with the publication of Owen Wister’s wildly popular novel The Virginian in 1902, to the late 1960s, when over a decade of oversaturation on television peaked interest, which thereafter waned exponentially. The genre survived the 70s and struggled its way through the 80s and 90s, but by the dawn of the Twenty-First Century, interest—and indeed venues—for Westerns was at an all-time low, in danger of expiring outright. For modern-day fans of the genre (few though we seem), and so much more so for writers of Western fiction, this is a sad and alarming trend. Apart from a handful of ongoing pulp book series like Longarm and the odd film or short-lived cable series here and there, the downward spiral into oblivion appears for all intents and purposes to be continuing apace. Another generation or two and the Western as we know it could well be an artifact of the past, relegated to the same dusty corners of vaguely remembered relics like Cold War sci-fi and jungle adventure stories. But whereas one can, perhaps, understand how those subgenres were a product of time and place, how can we reconcile the faltering decline of an entire genre once as ubiquitous and beloved as the literature of the American West?
Is this merely a bump in the road, or is the Western truly fated for extinction?
Twice in the last few months I’ve been contacted by editors who acquired short Western stories of mine to inform me the projects, a magazine and an anthology respectively, were going under. The stories were kicked back to me, orphaned, but worse than that these venues for collected stories in the genre were dead and buried. I do not resent or blame either of these fine editors in the least—rather, I commiserate with them. Time and again, after prolonged periods of no ongoing markets for Western short fiction whatsoever, something comes along to ignite that spark, to stir interest and excitement that, just maybe, the phoenix is being reborn…only to quickly fold due to lack of interest and sales. Whereas for most of the last century you couldn’t spit at a newsstand without hitting a periodical carrying Western stories in one incarnation or another, the form is today consigned largely to a handful of websites run and written by devoted—and typically unpaid—enthusiasts. There are always standouts like Joe R. Lansdale’s outstanding novel The Thicket and Jeff Guinn’s Glorious, but I can’t help but see these as exceptions to the new rule, not to mention few and far between. (And most major news items I’ve seen regarding the forthcoming film adaptation of Lansdale’s novel refer to it as a historical crime thriller rather than a Western, as though using the term might be considered the kiss of death.)
My kneejerk impulse, as both an aficionado and a creator in the genre, is to put forth an impassioned defense of the Western in an attempt to convince readers that by ignoring or dismissing it they are being unfair and depriving themselves of a rewarding experience. Yet this immediately calls to mind those things of which I am so consistently dismissive, myself—I refuse, for instance, to give hip-hop music a chance. I’ve heard enough of it to determine I don’t care for it in the slightest, and I honestly cannot imagine an argument that would change my opinion on the matter. I will (and often do) state flat out that I do not like hip-hop, period, full stop. So why, when I hear people tell me that they don’t like Westerns (and they often do), am I so bitterly determined to illuminate what I perceive to be their myopic short-sightedness? Is there an organic nature to the shifts in cultural tastes to which old stand-bys like Yours Truly are ridiculous to object? After all, you can’t stop a train. If the myriad vagaries of culture and history that produce such shifts should blow a favorable wind in the Western’s direction once again, that would be fantastic—and if not, maybe that would be an inevitable outcome, catastrophic as I may view it.
But I can’t really accept that. Hip-hop is in no danger of demise due to my lack of interest in the form. It’s up to somebody else to argue its merits when and where that may need to happen, and despite my feelings about it I harbor no doubts that such merits can be successfully put forth. Moreover, I hear hip-hop music all the time. I have a solid foundation upon which to build my opinion, rather than saying what I really hear when I’m told someone doesn’t care for Westerns, which is that seems like something I wouldn’t like. Based on this model, the real problem with the genre’s decline seems less like a shift in cultural mores, but instead a few generations into a population unwilling to either expand their horizons or acknowledge that maybe some of the stuff grandpa is into isn’t all that bad. I’ve felt for years the so-called “hipster” movement among American youth rests its laurels on ironically mocking anything perceived as old or commonplace—I recall Christa Faust talking about hipster kids laughing out loud during screenings of classic noir films, for example—and this isn’t really anything new. There was a recent kerfuffle over young people taking to social media in order to boldly express their rampant cultural illiteracy, having learned that Kanye West was recording a duet with Paul McCartney but having no idea who the latter is. Relating specifically to the Western, there appears to have been some forty years of young people increasingly turning their noses up at the genre without ever having given it a look, due perhaps to their forebears’ appreciation of it. And while I can’t logically or legitimately say every man, woman, and child is obligated to love John Ford’s film of The Searchers as much as I do, can you logically or legitimately say you don’t like John Wayne movies without having seen it? (For what it’s worth, it was the first Western film I watched of my own volition, at age 20, and the moment I became a fan of the genre for life. Up until then, I couldn’t have cared less about it.)
Then again, I’ve never read a proper romance novel in my life, and it’s not too likely I ever will. In this analogy, I’m just as guilty of dismissing something with which I have no personal experience, apart from assuming that it’s not geared to my tastes. No one is obligated to like anything, nor to try anything that doesn’t appeal to them. If we’re being completely honest, I don’t need to read a dozen Danielle Steele novels to determine whether or not that’s my thing; I am confident without ever having read any of them that it’s not. Which brings us right back to the idea of shifts in cultural trends and public consumption—if there exists an active public interest, there will exist a market. If not, the product will wither and die. And old curmudgeons like me will stand on the sidelines, shaking our fists at the whippersnappers with their newfangled passions and interests, little of which make any sense to the old timers whose time has come and gone, right along with the books and stories we read and wrote.
Every so often there is a resurgence in something nearly forgotten, a renewed interest in swing dancing or big band music or new wave synth pop. It lasts a few months or a few years, or in rare cases re-roots and sticks around for a while, having only gone into temporary cultural retirement. There are far more factors involved in the rise and fall of trends like this than I’m prepared or capable to discuss here, but suffice to say if the American Western has got what it takes to stay the course, it will, one way or another. I happen to be of the opinion that the Western inherently holds clues to our national and cultural identities, large-scale and in microcosm, which are worth continually investigating from countless perspectives. Stories big and small that help us understand who we are and how we got that way, the things we think we’ve worked out but really haven’t—and also what I see as a paring down of the narrative instruments, the way punk rock reacted to prog and arena rock by bringing everything back to the basics. In the Western, the hierarchy of needs is made simpler and more immediate, the conflict necessary to storytelling stripped away to the bare essentials of human life and desire, survival and fear, love and hate. It’s about opportunity and competition, greed and revenge, racism and war and civilizations at dangerous odds. It’s about crime and mystery, endurance and shifting perspectives on life and its meaning, willpower and desperation. The Western is about the human spirit—not just Americans, but people in general—both good and bad, extraordinary and mundane, what makes us tick when you really get right down to it.
If you ask me, that’s not only thoroughly contemporary and fit to our Twenty-First Century tastes and interests, but definitively timeless. But what do I know? I’m just a fan and an author who earnestly hopes more readers will fall in love with Westerns as I did, half my life ago, before it molders in an unmarked grave on Boot Hill.
Needle honcho Steve Weddle asked me to talk about my story “Falldown Church” in the latest issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir. Here’s what I had to say, and be sure to visit the Needle site for more from Paul Garth and information on getting the issue.
Originally posted on Needle: A Magazine of Noir:
Ed Kurtz’s “Falldown Church” appears in the Winter 2014-15 issue of Needle: A Magazine of Noir, our 10th issue. We asked him to tell us how he came to write the story.
By Ed Kurtz
Having grown up between Virginia and Arkansas and spent the preponderance of my adult life in Texas, I’m quite fond of writing dark, pastoral stories set in the rural South. Most of my published short work (including novellas) so far can be thusly characterized, though for some reason my novels tend to end up in places like New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles. Why that is would be fodder for another essay, but between novels – or indeed when I get stuck in one – I turn to briefer venues and almost always end up in small towns. “Falldown Church” is no exception, though unlike so many of its predeccesors the protagonist is not some…
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My new mystery novel Angel of the Abyss is out today from DarkFuse. It’s a Hollywood noir about a legendary lost silent film that resurfaces and causes an awful lot of trouble and quite a few murders. You can find it on Amazon or the DarkFuse Shop.
When Graham Woodard is hired to restore part of a previously lost silent horror film—Angel of the Abyss—the last thing he expects is the first in a series of murders clearly meant to keep it lost.
With one-time friend Jake Maitland in tow, the two must now navigate the treacherous enigma that is the lost film, while piecing together the story of the film’s ill-fated starlet, Grace Baron, who vanished in 1926. The closer they get to the truth, the more blood is spilled, and it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the lost film than anyone expected, as there are still forces that will stop at nothing to keep it and its star buried. The darkness the strange film conjured all those years ago has come alive again with its discovery, and now everyone from Graham’s own estranged ex-wife to the LAPD is getting involved.
And the body count is growing.
From the burgeoning film studios of 1920s Hollywood to the perilous streets and dark underbelly of modern-day LosAngeles, Angel of the Abyss is a dangerous tapestry of cinema, history and murder, at the center of which stand two men with everything to lose.
The lovely blokes down under at The Crime Factory are publishing my Texas noir novella Freight as part of their marvelous Single Shot series. This is the third in the line after Jedidiah Ayres terrific Fierce Bitches and Jake Hinkson’s Saint Homicide. The book drops on October 12th, but you can order it now in paperback, e-book, or as an inexpensive bundle. I’m quite proud of this dark little tale and I think you’ll dig it, too.
To Enoch and Doc, two down and out men working as railway brakemen in an impoverished Texas town, it seemed like a simple enough heist: steal the copper wire off a train in the middle of the night.
But the carriage contains more than metal. Soon lives are at stake and an unfathomable evil has to be dealt with. And there is no one in Blackwood, Texas for the job but a no-account ex-con.
“Freight is the story of a brief, brutal impulse toward grace that illuminates a dusty, wasted life like a fork of lightning from a summer storm…A bleak and wrenching read.”—Dan O’Shea, author of Penance and Greed
“Heartbreaking, tragic, moving – all the sights, smells and language of Texas 1973, woven into a classic drifter story.” —Anonymous-9, author of Hard Bite and Bite Harder
“In less sure hands, Freight would be an unending train of grief, but Ed Kurtz has this amazing ability to present the darkest corners of society, and then reveal the good and decent human heart that beats underneath.” —Rob Hart, author of The Last Safe Place and New Yorked