Monday, October 26, 2015

NaNoWriMo '15: The Scholar Returns

Trigger Warning: references to death and suicide

Like a beacon unto the shadows, National Novel Writing Month has returned, and in the process drawn me out of hiding. To be sure—for those of you who follow me on Twitter or know me personally—I haven't exactly been "off the grid". But as a friend recently observed, there's less of myself in what I do post these days, and I think that's a fair assessment more often than not. Truth is, in the time since my last blog post, a great many things of transpired—wonderful things and terrible things and at least two full seasons of the year. So before the veil between Now and Beyond winnows to mere gossamer, and our purviews turn irrevocably away from the warm season that was, allow me to close the gap between entries and bring the Fane back into the present. 

I've been dreading the writing of this post for some time. In the wake of the struggles referenced in last year's two-part entry, The Times That Try: A Scholar in Crisis, 2014 ended on a discordant note at best. As 2015 began, it seemed that the arbitrary boundary between years had done little to keep that string of hardships in the past. By late February I'd decided I'd had enough. I couldn't continue living in perpetual reaction—I needed to exercise some agency, starting with walking away from unnecessary pressures and obligations. This is how my blogging/writing hiatus began.

In the year leading up to that point, life presented me with no small number of indicators that perhaps I should become more health minded. Not the least among these was the fact that my summertime stress eating had led me to my highest recorded weight, just shy of 300lbs. Add a few weight-related health scares in the family, and it became imperative that I enact some lifestyle changes sooner rather than later, and hopefully before it was too late. 

What began as a light breeze in a more favorable direction soon became a whirlwind. Leisurely strolls gave way to determined hikes, simple home cooking became "clean eating", and while I should very much like to explore this particular journey in greater detail allow me to summarize in a few pictures: 

Now, the "Before" shots here are from 2011 and 2013, respectively; there are no pictures of me at my peak weight, but the difference is hardly significant in light of the fact that I am now 80lbs removed from that dangerous height. To say I have become obsessed with healthfulness seems an understatement, but I can at least assure you that it has not been to my detriment in the least. I'd long planned to return to the blog with professions of devotion to the websites and apps that helped facilitate this journey, even before reaching my current fitness level seemed plausible. For the first time in my life, I was intentionally losing weight. I felt more in control of myself and my destiny than ever before, more sure of myself, more optimistic about the future, more positive and fulfilled in general.

After nearly two full months of tracking meals, and exercising almost daily, I decided I deserved a cheat day. They aren't the most advisable of practices but it helps me to recharge my willpower if I give in to a craving every now and again. I worked out hard, made room in the day's caloric budget, and ordered a pizza. I ate the entire thing while marathoning the latter half of Daredevil season 1. I made dinner date plans with friends. I reveled in my recent successes. I went to sleep fatted and contented and happy. I don't think I can say I've been truly happy since.

That night, around 2:30am, I received a call from my brother. At 10:16 the previous evening, while I was basking in my triumphs, our father—who had for so long struggled with alcoholism, depression, and hardships innumerable—had called the Help Hotline for what might have been the thousandth time. It was also to be the last. By the time they'd sent someone to check on him, he'd already hanged himself. The attempts to revive him failed. My father was dead. 

Someday I will address this tragedy as thoroughly as it deserves, but for now I'll share what I'd written in the immediate aftermath:
I feel as if I should be writing to capture the feelings as they happen but there's either too many or too much or something about the timing seems off. I'm not sure what to do with myself and so I just sit here and it seems wrong, so I get up and move around and it seems wrong, and in either case the thoughts flare up and subside, visions of what happened, intangible imaginings of the loneliness and despair that must have preceded the act, and always this sadness not for my own loss but his, the loss of the last of whatever fledgling hope had kept him going for this long. His had been a long-endured suffering, from his earliest memories to his final moments, with only glimpses of happiness like starlight bright shimmers amidst a black sea of night sky. His pain was constant and total, so frequently all consuming, and his long-term degradation at the bottom of the bottle only deepened his capacity for more. Displaced and broken, downtrodden and alone, it's only too easy to see from this vantage how he could have lost sight of his own agency, only too readily comprehensible that he could think that this was his only escape. 
His final status update—the last I heard from him—was an assertion that no one would care whether he died that night. My comment—the last he heard from me—was that it wasn't true, but that it didn't matter whether it was true or not because HE needed to care. I'll no doubt spend years torturing myself over whether or not I should have taken a warmer tack, whether I should have called the Help Hotline for him long before he'd called them himself only too late for them to prevent what happened from happening...but it was also true. I couldn't do that caring for him, none of us could. 
I don't know what the future might have held for my father had he soldiered on long enough to outlast the mounting troubles which led him to this tragic choice. It's my belief that suicide isn't a wish to die, it's a wish to stop living life as it's being lived at the moment. When one can't see another means of affecting change, death begins to appear the only option. He'd rallied for a time, after surviving a first attempt on his own life back in January. But he fell back into old habits, his choices caught up with him, and he couldn't see a way of escaping them. Jobless, facing eviction, had he asked me to find a solution I would have been at a loss. I couldn't have painted a picture of a more successful or easier life ahead, or drawn a map of how to get there. But I believed in general that he had a future. I hoped, at any rate. I knew there was a chance he'd try again, and I was prepared for it, but one can only prepare so much for something this hard. 
We don't know yet whether or not he left a note before he departed. Maybe we'll never know what went through his mind that final, tragic day. It's easy enough to guess, but we have no business trying to know. For us, it is enough to know that one of our own felt so irreparably damaged, so hopelessly alone, so impossibly powerless, that the sum of his available agency was expended exiting a life of pain the only way he thought he could. I will never not miss him. I will never not wish that he had chosen life. But I hope his suffering is at an end now. He endured more inhumanity and degradation than anyone I have personally known, and right now all I can wish for him is that his pain has finally come to its end. 
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, dear father. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Robert Craig La Salandra, Oct 30, 1955 – July 25, 201

There was no funeral for my father. These are the only words that were ever said for the occasion of his passing. Instead of a service or memorial, there was me, alone, viewing his body in the back room of the funeral home, just before it departed for the crematorium. There was no interment, either, at least not yet; at present his ashes sit in a makeshift shrine of sorts, next to my writing desk. Someday soon, I'll find a way to properly lay him to rest, and then the matter will be finished. That, sadly, will have been the story of him.

What does one do under these circumstances? There are no guidebooks. I'm sure there are a fair few volumes on the grieving process, but they can only ever treat the subject in a general way. Last year I remarked that Robin Williams' suicide had hit me hard, for if he couldn't make it what chance did I have? How much closer to home was this, now, for my own father to succumb to his demons? 

I'd like to say I did the normal thing, flailing about until the loving support of friends and family helped set me aright, but in reality all I could do was cling firmly to the simple fact that he had been proud of me, in the end. I think people kept expecting that I'd fall apart, but it never really came to that. We'd had our differences, sometimes violently so, but we'd found common ground and ultimately repaired our relationship as best we could. To be sure, there were weeks of depression, and I'm not entirely certain they've come to an end, but early on I realized I had to accept that it happened, that these were his choices and not mine, and then carry on as I'd been before his death. It's what he would have wanted, I'm sure; for the loss to undo so much hard work would've been adding insult to that final injury. And so, if a bit shakily at first, if a bit coldly even now, I did just that—I've carried on. 

I still miss him, of course. I still grieve and mourn. As his birthday nears, he is more in my thoughts than he had been in recent weeks, but progress yet continues apace. Most days, I remember to dedicate my efforts to him, to continuing the work that made him so proud of me, even as his own life deteriorated into a miserable chaos. I think he'd forgive me the days I forget. What I do for my daily exercises, I will now do for NaNoWriMo. I'll dedicate this year's novel to him, and forge ahead. I almost didn't sign up for it, I wasn't sure I had it in me, but I realized I really couldn't stand for that. While his death will forever be a part of my story, I can't allow it to become a negative influence. I can't let it stop me, no matter how tempting that may seem. The most fitting tribute I can imagine is for me to win the day over those same demons which for so long assailed him, for his legacy to be found in the perseverance of his sons, and for his name to grace the dedication page of what I hope will be my first completed manuscript.

While there's life, there's hope. And so it goes...

In Memoriam: R. Craig La Salandra, 1955-2015

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