Could we afford to stay in our beloved little house? Did we even want to? Every time I left the house I passed the doorway to the garage and saw him again. I walked quickly and resisted the almost magnetic pull to look at the eave. Part of me longed to leave the scene of Neil’s death behind but my neighborhood had become our family. The last months solidified our roots with friends who absorbed us into their lives and we felt safe. I added numbers over and over as if I might come up with a different total. Could I keep paying the mortgage on this drafty little house with a long list of needed repairs, including a new roof? On just my salary, it felt impossible. But I had been doing it. Neil’s employment was erratic and even when he earned a paycheck he supported his drug habit before us.
I always associated Social Security with retirement so was surprised I would receive a monthly check for Molly based on the few years Neil worked in the US. Documents in hand, I drove to a nondescript building across from the courthouse and took the elevator up to the Social Security offices. A woman behind a thick plastic window buzzed me in and directed me to a skinny man who looked like he’d been there for a century. His desk was piled with files. He nodded and then began to drone out what documents I should hand to him.
“Social Security card.”
He sounded as if he were a surgeon asking for a scalpel. I shuffled through the papers in my manila envelope and handed it to him.
“It’s expired, although I don’t suppose that matters, does it?” I said.
“Is it the most recent one?”
“Yes. His license had been suspended so he couldn’t get another.” This unnecessary detail of my troubled husband was of no interest to the man peering over out-dated, silver rimmed glasses at the page in front of him. Did I hope for some reaction from him? Why did I want to tell this guy my story? Obviously, he wasn’t interested.
Watching the back of his oily head I was grateful he wasn’t looking at me as I my eyes filled with tears.
I handed over the slim maroon UK passport stamped with dates that triggered flashes of wandered streets, savored meals and us holding each other tight in a world that felt ours.
“Is there a Green Card?”
His Green Card – the cause of so much frustration while waiting for permission to work. Was that when he started up with cocaine again?
“Will I get these back?” I asked.
“Yes. I just need to make copies.”
A cliché civil servant, the man did his job without looking at me. No word of condolence, not even the refrain I heard so many times during the past two weeks, “I’m sorry for your loss” or some platitude to make this all less cold and official. Maybe some gallows humor even a little sarcasm would be welcome. He took Neil’s documents off to the copy machine. I tried to suppress a sob, crumpling the yellow envelope. Returning, he read from his computer.
“You will get $565 a month for your daughter. Are you working?”
“If you lose your job or for any reason are not working anymore, you will get $967 a month,” he said without looking up from his paper. “A check will be mailed out the week of the deceased’s birthday each month so you should expect your first month check around the 10th of next month. And there is a one time death payment of $250 mailed out to you within the next two months.”
“What do I do with that?”
“It’s up to you.”
“Do you need anything else from me?”
I was anxious to get out of there. When the dented metal door to the elevator closed with a groan, the tears I’d been swallowing spilled down my face. How pitifully our lives are measured – by this handful of documents now back in the crumpled yellow envelope – a packet of government-issued laminated plastic cards as proof of our lives and then our death. But, I could finally count on monthly support from Neil just when I thought he had left us only his debt.
Lucy reported from England that the family held a funeral and cremation. For Molly’s sake I decided we should hold a memorial service. I had long ago rejected the religion of my childhood and anyway, it was not Neil’s. The only church I had connected with was a nearby Unitarian Church. Molly learned about many religions and I appreciated that no guilt was being doled out from the altar while I sat for a quiet hour in the lovely glass building surrounded by trees. Sometimes Neil, trying to be the family man, would join us. We both liked the minister and it felt uncanny how often his straightforward, mostly secular sermon was exactly what we needed to hear. When this happened we left affected and for a few hours I allowed myself to hope something profound had shifted for Neil, that he heard and felt the same thing as me and that a shared insight might be the miracle to turn our lives around. I called the minister to discuss a memorial service.
Frank’s shock of white hair and full beard, rosy cheeks and twinkling eyes made him a natural for the Santa outfit he donned each Christmas. It was this comforting face that greeted me as I entered his office. The walls of his office were glass and the surrounding trees seemed part of the room. I sat on a comfortable couch full of pillows across from the minister who listened quietly as I told him about Neil’s suicide. When I finished he let out a sigh and said, “Well, that was a huge ‘fuck you’ he gave you, wasn’t it? He gave you the ultimate finger.”
I looked back at him and burst out crying.
Frank understood and targeted my anger and made it seem okay to feel that fury.
“I’m sure you know Shakespeare’s Hamlet soliloquy: ‘to be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them?’ – I think it speaks volumes.”
“Yes, Neil loved it too – he knew it by heart. Hamlet was the very last film he worked on before leaving the movie business. This should definitely be part of the service.”
We would not honey coat the story. While celebrating Neil as friend, father and husband, I would not shy away from nor be cowed by the stigma of his disease or violent death. Acknowledging the damage he wrought in his addiction and death seemed to dissipate some of my bone-aching anger and pain. As Frank prodded me gently, memories of the goodness of Neil also returned. Neil was an addict who did a terrible thing in killing himself, but he was a good – not terrible man. Planning the ceremony led me beyond memories of lies and the chaos of living with addiction and beyond the image of his horrific last act.
The evening of the service Molly and I waited in a side room watching our friends and neighbors enter the church. As the principal and assistant principal of her school walked up the steps, followed by a few classmates Molly danced around the room, thrilled they were there for her. Neighbors came and people from my work, old friends – a steady stream soon filled the boat-shaped building. My heart felt full watching the parade of people who cared about us, who had stood behind me through the joys and struggles of the past 10 years. There were couples from the joint Al-Anon and AA meeting Neil and I went to, old friends with their spouses and children. A few of Neil’s past work-mates came, but mostly his friends were from AA. They were better at forgiving his transgressions or maybe knew better than to lend him money or believe his promises so never felt burnt by him. Molly and I followed the minister up the center aisle to the front row. The massive windows were open and an occasional breeze filled the space with the sound of rustling leaves from the surrounding forest.
The minister recited the Hamlet soliloquy, poetically addressing suicide head-on rather than letting it dangle with the terrible weight of the unspoken. He then invited Molly to light a candle on a small altar with Neil’s picture on it. Molly’s new shoes with a bit of a heel, clip-clopped up the few steps to the stage. She carefully used a long stick to take the flame from one candle to light the votive in front of her father’s photo. She’d turned nine just a few days earlier. The candle flickered in front of a headshot Neil had taken when we first arrived in the US when he thought he might try and get back into the movie business. His face fills the frame, full and healthy, eyes looking straight at the camera, smiling.
Molly and I sifted through hundreds of photographs taken over the years to make the collages in the church foyer, laughing as we glued pictures of Neil wearing Molly’s tutu and in a New York café with a beard of cappuccino foam, capturing the man constantly putting on a show. Craving attention, requiring the spotlight, yet never revealing his self. What effort this must have taken, so impossible to sustain. I glanced at his actor’s photo.
Then it was my turn. I stepped up to the podium and with sweaty palms, placed two sheets of paper in front of me and looked up. I knew these faces, close to a hundred friends who filled the room and looked back at me. Many knew of the struggles of my home because I had vented, wept and worried to them over the years. Others knew Neil as the character who made them laugh and greeted them warmly in the neighborhood and little else. How could they know?
“I’m overwhelmed to see everyone here. Thank you for coming.” Taking a deep breath, I began, periodically looking up from my paper at the sea of friendly faces.
I talked about how Neil loved to have people around the house. He was a generous host and put out a great spread, taking pride in preparing plates of food as beautiful as they were delicious. And no one ever came to our house without getting offered a cup of tea.
“I already miss his cups of tea…”
I choked up, remembering his last words to me. Struggling to regain my composure, I continued, my voice breaking only a little, “… that he made throughout the day, they were a reason to just stop and sit together.” I stopped for a moment to swallow my tears.
“Neil will be missed in the neighborhood. Walking Tetley, he always shouted out greetings to neighbors, waving to people as if he were mayor. Neil was so friendly, warm, fun and exciting and made quickly made any community in the world, his own.”
I described meeting Neil in February of 1993 in Sarajevo and how he transformed my bleak life there and all the good things he did as a humanitarian aid worker in a war zone. In some ways, they were his best days. Perhaps only war was big and hideous enough to distract him from his inner demons. In Bosnia, he felt needed. He conjured hilarity even as shells thundered around us, yet he recognized danger and was adept at getting out of dicey situations – talking his way through checkpoints manned by drunken soldiers, befriending a few of the bandits along the way. Neil saved lives – yanking people out of sniper fire into his car or smuggling whatever ethnic type was on the out, into a safe-zone. And he kept at it when we moved to Connecticut. As Molly and I sorted through photographs, we found an ‘Unsung Hero’ certificate awarded to Neil by the local Red Cross for pulling a woman out of a burning car on I-95. He was on his way to work and for once had a good excuse for being late because, of course he stopped. His instinct was to go towards trouble instead of away, to see if anyone needed saving. He joked how it was his best excuse ever for being late and was sure to bring the police report as proof.
“But he couldn’t save himself,” Molly had wisely said as she sat on my bed and looked at the snapshot she held in her hand of her handsome father.
“Neil hated the disease that haunted him. He would hate me mentioning it even now. He wanted to keep it secret from everyone, including me and even, I think, from his self. His dark secret, this demon of drug addiction, ultimately killed him. So I feel compelled to name it. Many of us were hurt by his habit and are still baffled by it – and by his death.”
I thanked everyone for coming, and for the love and support during the month that had just past and through the years. And I thanked Neil for the laughter and for the most unbelievable joy in my life: Molly.
I stepped down and took my seat next to her, pulling her close. I had thought long and hard about acknowledging Neil’s addiction in this venue. Of course many here already knew – but not all – not the school principal or many of my neighbors. In the end, I decided I wanted Molly to know there was nothing for her to be ashamed of.
Friends gathered round and reminded me of good times, sharing anecdotes of Neil’s humor and warmth. The ceremony gave us a chance to recreate those days and recall the goodness of his life. Slowly, I could hope, the haunting, last image of my husband would be replaced by one of the man I had loved.