Condemned to be Free

I didn’t walk this morning. Sometimes it’s a freedom to go inward rather than outward. I took the time to write. To double check the date on the side of my father’s box of ashes. It’s with great irony that a laughing Buddha sits on him now. It’s a beautiful box. I never planned to keep it. Nor did I plan to put a Buddha on it. Most of life happens like this – by chance. We have less control over life than we like to believe we do. At the age of 10 I wanted to become a priest. At the age of 30, my father was sending me books on Christianity and I was sending him back articles on Narcissism. I think it is good to live life with intention but, in the end, we don’t get to actually make too many of the choices for ourselves. The choices we do make, however, are the ones that give our lives their real shape. The last choice my father made was to end his life, on this day, 9 years ago.

I am not sure when his actual moment of death came. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine what it must have been like: how and when it actually happened. My understanding of human consciousness is that it is unlikely that we experience the moment of death. It also seems that the decision to die does not happen in a single moment. In the end he would have suffocated somewhere in the depths of the night: confused at first; maybe euphoric for a few brief moments; then he would have lost himself in a sea of unconsciousness. The anesthesia he was craving – respite from the pain of his own living. What might have come before the half-asphyxiated elation? Was there determination, perhaps fear, or was he angry? His cellphone was plugged into the car charger. A sign, perhaps, that he did not really want to die alone. It is a pretty deliberate thing to do: To cut a piece of hosepipe just long enough to reach from the exhaust to your window. I only realise now, while writing this, that hosepipes lying innocently on the grass have always had a hidden meaning for me. The first time my father tried to end his life in this way, I was my son’s age. I discovered him unconscious in his car with enough time for my mother to slap him awake again.

The thing is, you are not really choosing to end your life, you are choosing to end your pain. The fantasy of suicide visits us when we are faced with struggles we feel that we can no longer bare and yet have no solution to. It’s a bit like a mental doomsday clock: every year we set it slightly further away or slightly closer to the possibility of an inevitable end. But, the possibility is always there. “I’d rather die” is a phrase all of us might have used at least once in our lives. The reality is, despite what religions or your insurance companies might say, you are that free – to choose your own ending.

A client tells me about her daughter’s relapse. Wine coming from seemingly nowhere keeping her in a disconnected and deranged state. Many people in lockdown are struggling to be with themselves without medicine. She tells me how worried she is about her. That her daughter is talking of her own ending. I tell her that this is the place where recovery happens – the moment we decide whether to live or die. Choosing to live is choosing to finally deal with those pains. We choose endings and beginnings all day long. Suicide is simply the most obvious and final choice. In this way, life can be like a slow puncture: a gradual yet undetected suicide. To eat the extra piece of chocolate cake; to not have that mole checked out; to stay in a bad relationship; or to not resign from that job.

The reality is, we are free to do whatever we like. Such freedom is somewhat of a burden. The ownership is on us to make life what it is. This is why Sartre spoke about us being “condemned to be free”. My father tried to call me that night. I didn’t take the call. He is probably drunk, I thought to myself. I was sitting in a psychiatric hospital, listening to an inane “continued professional development” talk. His message said “Alice has left me, but I am okay.” When I called back, he didn’t answer. I knew the inevitable moment had come. His doomsday clock was finally too close to midnight.

The thing that kills us is
there’s nothing to explain
us: moral courage is
not natural, striving
to unearth it is.
We need to know
how others stare
into the eye of pain
and wade across the river
to talk to us again.
– Don Maclennan, Suicide (an extract)

My father didn’t make it across the river that night. Perhaps he could not make sense of his own pain any longer? I like to think it was a choice he made out of courage rather than confusion. I have had those nights myself, but my sons stand in my mind, on the other side of that river, and so I have managed to wade my way across it. I was no longer standing on the other side, waiting for him. I had waited too long already.

Josh just asked me “Dad, it looked like you wanted to say something”. There was something on my mind but I didn’t want to make it his problem. I replied, “Yes, but I have decided not to say it. Parents should be responsible for their children, children should not feel responsible for their parents.” He nodded.

With freedom comes the responsibility for the most difficult thing – accountability for a self carved out of the choices we make.

And so, I sit here asking myself, what are the choices I want my sons to know me by?

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