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Making Your Own Memorial

The night of May 26, 2020, I went to sleep at 8:30 but was not afraid. If I awakened at 2:30, I could read or write or, at the worst, call someone. That morning, I called a friend in Austria at 4:00am—ten in the morning for her. We agreed that everyone should have a dear friend at least six time zones away. With very few exceptions, it was my first night sleeping alone in nearly twelve years.

The image that lingers is of Terry as a still, white, statue, a memorial of himself. I suspect it will linger a long time. Suicide is a quiet act of violence, the creation of a memorial.

As is so often the case, it was the middle class to the rescue: the policemen who stood as sentinels for several hours, directing me like traffic; the blessed medical examiner who worked mostly behind closed doors; the diminutive “Christian” pastor who meekly, like Jesus, endured my lecture about how evangelicals did unholy damage to people like Terry who were suffering so acutely that they could no longer summon the will to live, calling them sinners; the grief counselor who listened and gave a few practical tips (you can tell her everything!), “Now you’re bargaining,” she commented when I speculated about why Terry had killed himself; and the detective who courteously apologized that every suicide is a crime scene and “I’m sorry but I have to take some pictures” and a sworn statement affirming that I did not ever wish to harm my husband. He had to ask me if Terry had a history of suffocation masturbation. He was just being thorough, as he should have been, but it was grotesque in the moment. If he had ever done such a thing, I likely would not have known about it. “This is so strange,” I said, “to complicate an already complex situation by being considered a murder suspect.” I’d left my fingerprints when I lifted the plastic bag from his head! “No, ma’am, don’t worry,” the detective said.

I needed those people around because I wasn’t sure I was steady enough to walk across the room. I kept having to pee. The policemen watched me carefully, ready to retrieve me if I collapsed.

Since that night, angels have flown in from everywhere. The biggest, strongest one my son, who flew in that night from San Francisco. This morning he said, “Let’s put in the air conditioner, it’s hot,” and he lifted the heavy thing up and carried it to the window like Superman. He takes on the now-daunting task of driving the car, solves dense, zenlike riddles like where we should take a walk.

My daughter’s swift and penetrating brain uplifts and supports me on whatsapp video calls from Argentina. Friends are ready to fly, drive to my side. The wild flower seeds I scattered last week are now tiny green shoots that have decided to live and grow.

I will grieve the absence of Terry’s time, presence and attention, the easy pleasure and affection of his company, withdrawn abruptly and not at all like a heart attack.

What I most dread now is a world devoid of men. Writing groups and conferences, hiking groups, classes for this and that, meditation sanghas, yoga class are almost entirely women. In the choir, the women are singing tenor and sometimes the steady reassuring rumble of a bass is missing. We have come to thrive on a world of women, the ladies cheering and waving their hands in joy that the group is “all girls.” Something is out of balance when the men stay home.

I’ve become unafraid of the wee hours. I write, listen and read, then fall back to sleep again. Death is part of life and I’ve come to know it rather well, the wage and reward of advanced age.

With the support of known and unknown helpers, I will soon be able to reliably cross the room without fear of falling. I know that, and thank you for your condolences.

I am now in possession of a new package of intelligence held by a surprising but usually regressive group of my fellow humans (how odd that when the world turns black, dogs and birds don’t kill themselves. maybe they don’t have the hands to do so). What it’s like to lose a loved one to suicide. Like the specialized intelligence of a war veteran, a law enforcement officer, a nurse. I hope to wield this newfound intelligence into a staff of healing of myself and, in the future, certainly not now, others. When I can once again think straight.

Those of you who knew Terry Stoeckert—his students, colleagues, friends, family, residents of our apartment house where he lived for 40 years, know we lost a good man. He had a sometimes annoying bias toward the underdog, championing some pretty sorry specimens, was wicked smart, especially with numbers, loved his work as a professor, played a darned good game of GO, was a reliable and amiable partner on the tennis court. Only I will know what a wonderful husband he was, though spectators got the point.

Those of you who didn’t know him will have to take my word for it.