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Bethany Hang Out

Catholic contemplative life and devotion

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suicide grief

Coffee and cigarettes (my brother part 1)

My brother and I were standing on the loading dock at the Eagle Newspaper where we both worked, looking out at the woods across the street, the sky, the parking lot. People were working around us unloading trucks, driving the forklift, walking in and out of “the roll room” where the giant rolls of newsprint were stacked waiting to be loaded onto the press as needed. Sometimes he lifted his chin curtly at someone going by. He was the Production Director so there was hardly any such thing as a break for him. There were texts, phone calls and people stopping by to ask questions.

“Yes… that ad, yes. I called already, yes. You. Pain is the ass. Yes.”

The Eagle had a family atmosphere and Mark was like everyone’s Uncle and to most people he was also their friend.

I was trying to talk to him about his smoking, hopeless though I knew it was. “I read that non smokers live an average of ten years longer than smokers,” I was telling him as he listened patiently, drawing on his cigarette as I spoke. “So what?” he asked charactaristcally. I said, “Since I am a vegetarian and we live eight years longer than meat eaters, that means I will have to live eighteen years without you! I don’t want to live all those years without you!!!!”

He looked at me then, holding his latest lungful.

“Better start smokin’!” he said in chokey voice.

That is one of my funny Mark stories. There are so many.

He was funny, quick, tough, talented, cocky and competent, sometimes arrogant and “full of piss, wind and vinegar,” as my granny used to say.

He was short so he had to learn to be like that. It worked for him, and I am so proud of all that he accomplished. I was his sister. I knew he could do anything and he pretty much could.

He wrote in an e-mail to me once, “You are among my chief comforts.” Did I say eloquent? Because he was eloquent, too. Intelligent. Thoughtful. Reflective.

He was a person of depth. He was a master of banter but he disliked meaningless conversations.

He always knew the right thing to say to me.

When I was pregnant with my first daughter and freaked out about the overwhelming prospect of motherhood, he had said, “Shawn think of it this way, there will be a new sweet little baby in the world! And that baby will grow up to be a gentle human being. We need gentle human beings. I know that’s what I value most about myself.”

Some people would be surprised that he valued his gentleness most. They wouldn’t know he had that quality. He could definitely play the games of the world- something I have never been able to do. He really did see the corporate world, the business world, the get things done world as a game. It was fun to him though I saw that he regretted it deeply when someone was personally hurt by him winning. He was a good guy even though he enjoyed being a little deviant at times. I mean coloring outside the lines in ways he thought benefited the people who worked for him over whom he felt very protective. (When people around him were mad at him they thought he was patronizing. He could be patronizing.)

Some of the things he did were big heroic risks that saved people’s jobs at the risk of his career had he lost his bet with luck. Other times I thought he was just showing off a little bit or seeing what he could get away with. “Ha haaaaa! Gotcha!”

I think he felt justified if the people he fooled were mean or threatening to his “people.”

Also almost anything was justified if it was funny. That is an unspoken rule in my family. You better be smart and if you mess up it had better be funny. Or at least being funny or making the whole thing hilarious will get you points. Always.

My brother had the gift of presence. The people closest to him knew that sitting with Mark in silence or telling him something important was different than being with or talking to anyone else. He was all there with you, with all of himself. Somehow he understood everything, or seemed to, the way the person in front of him was feeling it. As our friends since childhood, Mike and Kenny said about him, “Listening to music with Mark was different than listening to music with anyone else.” Part of this may have been that the four of us were in a band together for 16 years. But I think it has more to do with the quality of Mark’s presence and friendship than that.

He was loyal, and he invoked that loyalty in others. People who loved him would do anything for him and did.

There were little everyday things he did that showed his mind was on the people around him. He always kept a cache of nickels (his favorite coin since childhood) in his desk drawer at work in case anybody needed change for the vending machines.

His co-workers did little things for him too.

Cindy, his right hand person, parked in his parking spot just to make sure it stayed open for him one time. He laughed. He appreciated that kind of thing.

The people around him had faith in his abilities. When I worried about him, his friends at work would say, “He didn’t get where he is by being stupid. He’ll be fine.”

He liked to bring people together to enjoy each other. He loved watching people he loved talk and have fun together.

That is one of the reason he had a pool put in at the old house we grew up in. He loved having people over to the pool and waiting on them hand and foot.

When my first husband lay in his coffin after the Vigil (wake) my brother put his hand on his chest and promised him he would take care of me and the kids.

He kept that promise almost until the end of his life. He was part of my kids’ daily lives. He was over almost every day. When I was at my wit’s end he would come pick up the girls and take them to The Kettle (a diner kind like Denny’s in our town where we used to hang out.)

They would clamor all over him until he said, “Shut it, Rat!”

He loved them like they were his own children. He fretted about them, picked them up from school, lectured them, talked about them to his friends, came with me to teacher meetings if he could. I can’t imagine a better Uncle.

He could also be ridiculous like when he would try to reason with a wildly weeping teen-aged girl in a restaurant parking lot with me saying, “Mark! You are just making it worse!”

He liked to take me to lunch. He liked to talk to me about his problems over coffee and cigarettes and listen to mine.

If we hadn’t seen one another or had time to hang out for a while he would sometimes say, “Hey, we both do better when we make time to be together enough.” It was true.

His spiritual beliefs could be described as fairly minimal, although he believed in Something. He just thought that Something was unknowable. His argument was that God is so big you can’t know him like you know a person. “We’re all just fleas. What do we know?” I knew he respected my spirituality so I said, “What about me?” He said, “You’re just a really smart flea.” I loved it.

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Photo by Hieu Nguyen Trong on Pexels.com

It’s funny how he claimed basic agnosticism or only the vaguest spiritual beliefs but he understood my most intimate of secrets in my experiences with God as someone very serious about the life of prayer would. He got it. “I just translate it into my own language,” he used to say. I was fine with that. I always felt understood by him and he felt understood by me.

One time he found a little baby bird and he looked up how to care for it. He took care of it for several days and was heart broken when it died. “Yesterday he wasn’t feeling very good,” he said with the sadness you would normally see in someone talking about about a sick relative. When the little bird died he could hardly talk about it.

He worried he had fed it the wrong thing. He kept trying to figure out what made the little bird sick like that.

Sitting with him on the porch was like total inner peace to me. Even when he wanted to take me on a wild ride on his motorcycle or his latest car I was never scared. I laughed or I closed my eyes happily but I was never scared. He was a skilled driver and I simply trusted him completely.

He felt taken aback that none of that scared me. Not going over a hundred miles and hour on his bike, not a jump in a go-cart. He thought my fearlessness was a little creepy. I think I was fearless because of trust.

We had a few fights and disagreements. We had terrible crises we weathered together. But that trust in our essential unity gave me total confidence that we would get back on track every time.

We had observed that since we were kids we felt like he and I were the family. We had these parents and they did this and that but we were what we called “the core.” We reminded one another of that in the many losses and tragedies in our lives. No matter what we always had each other.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We told each other everything. We even shared gum. (Mostly to gross out other people at work but if I said, “Hey you have gum where is MY gum? He would half his piece and give it to me even if he was already chewing it.)

I think of blue eyes and cigarette smoke, a cup of coffee and the setting sun, a new song he wanted me to hear. Laughter.

I can’t really tell you all about my brother. Like you, he was an entire universe. Like all deep relationships, ours was also a living thing, a world we comfortably inhabited together and sometimes let other people hang out in, too.

How can you share a universe with someone who never traveled there? I don’t know. But I know there are people you love very much; maybe as much as I loved my brother, maybe as much as he loved me (which my dad said was more than anyone on the planet loved anyone but I think he was exaggerating.)

This month is suicide awareness month. I have decided to follow Leticia Adams’ lead and write about my experience with suicide. This is what I wrote today, I will write more.

It’s been four years. It was four years in August. The pain changes but it hasn’t stopped. There are tears in my eyes as I write this.

It hurts like hell.

P.S. He wouldn’t have liked this song. Just so you know. However, right now it is on target with how I feel. So he can just deal with that.

Kiss the sky; a blessing

A priest and I have met in a cool, bustling lobby on a hot summer day. We smile at one another. We don’t know one another really except by sight and a few short conversations. But we have a warm, positive regard for one another and I feel safe and encouraged as soon as he comes in. I am so grateful that he is here.

We are about to head up to bless the place where my brother committed suicide. I know this is not a light task to ask someone to come along and join in.

I came here twice before to make sure I could handle it. The first time I sat in stunned silence for an hour and a half without even realizing the time that had gone by. The second time I was pretty sad but I thought I was ready. I am ready.

I am impressed that this priest who barely knows me responded to my request so readily and agreed to come here for this.  He seems to understand the need for healing, both emotional and spiritual for all concerned.

Our plan is also to commend my brother’s soul to God, and to pray in that place for my family’s healing.

Father walks with me toward the elevators, which we take to a high floor. We walk down a hallway, then through a stair exit, and out onto a tiny bare balcony overlooking a pool area.

“Just be however you need to be,” he says reassuringly.

This is the spot where my brother, Mark, sitting on the railing here, shot himself and fell down to the concrete below even as friends and family repeatedly called his cell phone and frantically texted him begging him not to do it while the police looked for him not knowing where to begin. I have thought of those moments over and over, tried to understand, tried to feel the way he must have felt, wondered why it had to be this way, watched my family and our friends do the same.

What is there to say in a place like this?

After a time of respectful silence, Father talks to me earnestly about how the Cross conquers everything. “I believe that,” I say.

He has such a kind face, I think to myself. It’s an easy, open, playful face, too. He is the kind of person who puts others at ease.

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photo Renee Bork

I get out my phone and show Father one of my favorite pictures of my brother. I briefly tell him about Mark, about my symbiotic relationship with him, and what happened to him as best I am able to understand it now.

Mark Timothy Manning

This gentle priest takes all this in thoughtfully.

He tells me what he would like to do, how he would like to proceed now.

I show him what I have brought: a grocery bag full of rose petals, some bubbles; a small bottle for each of us.

He smiles. He says the bubbles are a great symbol for what we are doing with the commendation. He blesses them.

He puts a thin priestly stole over his shoulders and smiles at me.

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Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

We begin with the Sign of the Cross together. He prays the prayers for the blessing of a place, telling me we are also reclaiming this place for God. In our prayers we invite the angels to come and drive every trace of evil from here. We bless and bring healing to this place where there was so much pain, where there was such a tragic, senseless death.

Seriously and with purpose, he begins to fling holy water all around us; over the rail, down the stairs, all over the balcony, the walls of the building, and splashes it down to the concrete below. He blesses this place in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

I tell this dear priest how hard it is not understanding what happened, and how I agonize still about how my brother could do this. Didn’t he know we loved him? Didn’t he know that any of us who loved him would have forgiven anything, given anything, done anything for him? How could he do this to us?

Tears are running down my cheeks.

Father listens closely, nodding.

I tell him how I have come to understand that somehow, that for some reason I will never know, my brother wasn’t able to let our love and support change what he did. Maybe to him we seemed so far away, he just didn’t know his way back.

I have to cry a little bit.

“You’re being really strong right now.”

“Thank you.”

He reminds me that as Catholics we believe every soul is given a moment of choice at the time of death, an encounter with God’s merciful love and truth, so each of us has a chance to choose the embrace of mercy.

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“Jesus” By Bob Chapman

He mentions that our Lord is here on this balcony with us, and that our Holy Mother Mary is here with us, too, to pray with us.

I am moved to talk to her. I tell her I had never thought I would be OK again but now I see I can have a new life and that Jesus wants me to have life. I spontaneously renew my consecration to her offering my life to her and committing to follow her Son better than I ever have before.

I can hear Father quietly praising Jesus as I speak these words of my new hope to Mary.

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I close my eyes and smile. I say, “I love you, God.”

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Photo by Elia Clerici on Pexels.com

 

In his gentle voice, the priest reads a reading from one of the Gospels, and we pray for my family’s healing. We pray the Our Father together. I pray for the deep inner healing of the Holy Spirit for each person in my family. We say Amen.

We talk. We pray more. I tell him about the evolution of my understanding of my brother’s death through the tenderness of God in my prayer life right through all the horror of this death, this overwhelming loss, and fear I had of finding out something that would make this even worse. I explained that I still needed to understand all the same, and how I feel God helped me in His ingenious ways.

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I feel so much less alone as the priest listens quietly and with compassion to all I am saying. I don’t think even I knew how much this day would mean to me. I am grateful for his courage and kindness in coming here.

He said he would like to pray the Prayer of Commendation now, that we use for funerals. He says it is our prayer to send the soul to God, commending the person to God’s mercy and love. It serves as some release to us too, allowing us to send the person forth with love, to God.

So he prays the beautiful Prayer of Commendation.

Together we pray a Litany of the Saints.

We blow bubbles and watch them glide out shimmering, into the sun, cascading down the side of the building, drifting out over the pool. We send streams of them up into the blue and watch them float gently. We can’t help but smile.

I open the bag of rose petals and toss some out over the rail. I sprinkle some over Father. ‘Yay! Thank you so much!”

We grab more and more handfuls of petals and throw them out, everywhere, like confetti at a party. Some of the petals drop quietly onto the water below, some waft out on the breeze, some scatter themselves on the patio.

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“Did you SEE that?!”  he exclaims, as, amazingly, some of the petals suddenly spiral upward into the sky and away. Laughing we throw more and more of them everywhere, as if we are showering the world with roses.

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He takes some holy water and blesses me with the sign of the cross on my forehead.

With trembling hands, I drape a rosary over the end post of the rail and fasten two white silk roses to it.

Something I need to say to my brother:

“You’re not that.” 
You are not the way you died.

You’re just… my beautiful brother.”

Smiling, Father and I take pictures of each other, of the balcony, of the draped rosary, and the scattered petals, so my daughters can see what this looked like today.

 

We hug, and peacefully we leave the rose petal strewn balcony.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O God.
~ And let perpetual light shine upon him.

 

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