Carving Compassion

Creative Nonfiction by Linda MacDonald

Carving Compassion

It was cantankerous Tony who got me thinking about suicide again—the middle-aged widower played by Ricky Gervais in the Netflix series, “After Life,” struggles to move forward after losing his wife to cancer. When he finally succumbs to peer pressure and goes on a blind date, he’s set up with a contented widow. Rather than commiserate with him, she challenges him on his desperation and desire to just put an end to it all. Suicide is easy, she claims. Her husband had done a great job of it, and if Tony was really serious about killing himself, he’d have been successful by now.

I felt Tony’s pain and frustration. But I also realized that for much of my adult life, I may have shared the widow’s sentiments. Her dismissive pronouncement took me back five years, to early January 2015. My older sister, Wendy, and I sat side by side facing the on-call psychiatrist in a room beside the Intensive Care Unit.

I hadn’t thought much about suicide before that, the distinctions between attempting versus succeeding. But I’m embarrassed to admit that before I arrived at Wendy’s bedside in the ICU, I was probably one of those who waved a dismissive hand. Who discounted it as just another cry for help. “Oh, don’t worry about her. She doesn’t really want to die.” If Wendy had been serious about killing herself, she’d have been successful. That call to 911 meant she wasn’t desperate enough or skilled enough to get the job done.

***

As a teenager, I assumed Wendy and I would grow up and lead parallel lives; we’d go to university, meet our soulmates, get married and have children. But our actual trajectories couldn’t have gone in more opposite directions. A vicious cycle of self-destructive behaviors and shame created chaos in her life, and I grew tired of being on the receiving end of alcohol infused rants and sober tears, and being her go-to detox chauffeur and amateur therapist. Fueled by anger and resentment, I became focused primarily on her selfishness and its ramifications.

Since Wendy’s move to the Maritimes in 2008, aside from her occasional visits to Toronto to see family, our contact was limited to a phone call every two or three months where we had a superficial chat tinged with antipathy. Pangs of guilt for putting limits on my emotional investment gathered in the crevices of my conscience, but like the dust bunnies hiding in the crooks and curves of my living room, out of sight meant out of mind.

On December 25th, 2014, Wendy and I wished each other, “Merry Christmas,” by phone. Two weeks later, she was rushed to the hospital and placed on a ventilator in the ICU. As soon as I heard I caught the first available flight from Toronto to be at her bedside.

When I got there, she was propped up, the back of her bed partially raised to the upright position with her eyes closed and arms trembling. I stood still, watching her chest rise and fall with each hiss-pah of the ventilator.

Without warning she jolted, and her hand grabbed at the tube that was helping her breathe. “She’s just agitated,” the nurse said. She stroked Wendy’s arm, her soothing voice urging my sister to, “Relax … relax.”

Wendy opened her eyelids slowly. As she recognized me, tears spilled down her swollen cheeks. I squeezed her hand. As I felt her squeeze in return, years of pent-up exasperation evaporated. My negative judgement about her inability to “just get her life together” or to “see the glass half-full rather than half-empty” seemed suddenly irrelevant.

The nurse told me, “With so much sedation, her memory of the first twenty-four hours will probably be a blur.” Then she turned to Wendy and said, “You, my dear, are one lucky lady. Aren’t you? I’m certainly glad you called 911.”

‘Me too,’ I thought, profoundly thankful for that fleeting moment when Wendy had changed her mind and decided she feared death more than life.

That night, back at the hotel, I lay in bed haunted by the hiss-pah’ of the ventilator. Self-reproach poked at me. Until last week, before she’d flirted with death, I’d have considered Wendy’s failed suicide attempt just a cry for attention, and that she was “just an addict” who didn’t have the willpower or desire to be sober.

***

As children, regardless of how alike we looked in our Mom-made matching smock dresses, we couldn’t have been more different.

Wendy had burst out of Mom’s womb in 1960, her right brain oozing creativity, and flaunting the rules. Two years later, I was born, a logical and methodical thinker, more reserved, and eager to conform.

Wendy’s love for the arts and her artistic talent were a genetic gift in part from Mom’s mother. Our grandmother was a printmaker of linocuts, etchings and silkscreens. When we were young, visits to Granny’s townhome, halfway up the steep slope of Montreal’s Mountain Street, inevitably included time in her basement studio.

Granny taught us how to do linocuts and then let us loose to produce our own designs. While I stared at the blank sheet of linoleum wondering what I could possibly produce that was worthy, Wendy dove in. She sketched her vision onto a scrap piece of paper and began carving with purpose, fully aware of the concept that even today, I struggle with: that whatever she carved out of the lino would be what was missing from the final image.

Wendy knew exactly which blade to use – the big U-gouge, small V-gouge, square gouge or knife – and when to use it to get the desired effect. She etched with precision, notching, slitting and slicing her way to an art-worthy creation. She then brushed her carved lino with paint, laid paper over top, and with the back of a wooden spoon gently massaged in a circular motion to transfer the image onto the paper. The final print revealed multiple textures, shadows of darkness and light, and borders that softened from clean to frayed.

I didn’t have the courage to expose myself the way Wendy did—to add detail and complexity. Outlines were good enough for me – stark and bold. I dug deep into the linoleum using the largest U-gouge, cutting out big chunks, mostly unclear as to what the upside-down, inside-out, final image would be.

Creating texture and shade were beyond my scope. For most of my life, I’ve struggled to see the greys along the continuum of black and white. I used definitives to describe my world and those who inhabited it. I labeled people: good, bad, moral and immoral. Vulnerability implied weakness. Impenetrability implied strength. In my late thirties, after a decade of riding my mother’s waves of relapse and recovery, I started using another label – addict. For the next ten years, addicts were just that to me. Addicts. I disregarded everything else about them, all of the good stuff in-between the black and white. Sober or addicted. Worthy or unworthy. Lovable – or not.

***

Lying sleepless in my hotel room, I reflected on Wendy’s choices. Seeing her at her most vulnerable had hit me like an open-handed slap across the face. That smack reset my compassion switch to maximum and gave me new perspective. How can anyone judge a person’s unsuccessful suicide attempt as a failure? I thank God that Wendy found a speck of hope and the strength to keep living. And why are unsuccessful attempts so often dismissed as “just” a cry for help? Of course it’s a cry for help. Wendy needed help, and I’m grateful that she has the opportunity to start over.

By mid-afternoon the following day, Wendy was off the ventilator. For the next three days, we held council at her bedside, she and I. We rehashed the past, searching for clues, anything to help us better understand her sorrow and pain, and her inability to maintain sobriety. I was sure the ICU psychiatrist would agree that Wendy was a potential harm to herself and that she would qualify for a seventy-two-hour psychiatric hold – an opportunity to be assessed and granted access to a wider range of mental health services.

The moment I actually met the psychiatrist, doubt kicked in. His gray beard was unkempt, a potbelly bulged over his belt, and sweat stains yellowed the underarms of his ill-fitting polyester shirt. His lack of personal care shook the confidence I’d mustered that Wendy would be taken care of. My input and her candor about her struggles with anxiety, depression and addiction went in one of his ears and out the other. It didn’t matter to him that she’d been part of the AA community and sober for six years prior to relapse. He ignored the fact she’d left a suicide note, declaring her love for her family, and apologizing for putting them through such agony. He didn’t care that she had no fight left in her on her own behalf. There was no persuading him. He had no room for shades of gray.

He looked at Wendy and pronounced, “There’s no justification for a psychiatric hold. You were intoxicated when you took the pills. And you called 911.” The stench of judgement I used to put on seeped from his pores, and his tone was accusatory as if trying to shame her for making that last-minute decision to live. He leaned over the side of his chair, reached for his briefcase and stood up, preparing to leave. “You have to stop drinking. I can’t help you with that.”

The following day Wendy was discharged. To return home. To rewind. To repeat.

She recommitted to Alcoholics Anonymous, found a new sponsor and began reworking the steps. We texted daily.

Way to go! Thumbs up! I responded to a picture of her thirty-day sobriety chip. And later, Congrats on forty-five days!

But as the sixty-day mark approached, communication ceased; texts went unanswered, phone calls went straight to voicemail.

Eventually she answered the phone and confessed that she’d slipped.

I yelled into the phone, “Damn it! Pour the rest down the sink. Get to a meeting!”

“But I’m too embarrassed,” she sobbed. The next day she went back to a meeting.

I texted Congratulations, on her second thirty-day chip. Doesn’t if feel great to be sober? Your voice sounds strong. Keep it up!

It really does feel good, she agreed.

But then another stretch of silence, another tearful confession.

“Damn it!” I shouted. “Don’t you get it? This disease WILL KILL YOU. Please call your sponsor!”

“It’s too late,” she cried. “I should have reached out before I drank. I’ll go to a meeting in the morning.”

Thumbs up! A chip for twenty-four hours sober. Keep up the good work.

After eight months, Wendy declared, “I can’t stop … not on my own. I need to go to rehab.” She entered a facility located an hour outside of Toronto.

I promised to pick her up on the day of her discharge.

***

Six weeks later, Wendy waved to me as she marched towards my car. “Thanks for picking me up.”

“No problem,” I said. My shoulders dropped away from my ears. “You look fantastic.”

“Thanks. I feel good,” she said with conviction. “I feel strong. I’m ready to go home.”

As we buckled up, Wendy asked if we could make a stop before getting on the highway. “On my walks I’ve gone by this shoe store several times. I’m dying to try on these amazing boots they had in the window.”

“Sure,” I laughed.

Still artistic after all these years, Wendy is the queen of middle-age fashion in rural Nova Scotia, and to keep that reputation, she capitalizes on every trip back to Ontario

In the store Wendy showed me the boots.

I assessed the two-inch heel. “Where in the world would you wear those?”

“Inside! Around the house.”

I smiled, picturing her cooking dinner in her high-heeled boots.

A half hour later, boot boxes littered the floor and she was now trying on boots without a heel. She looked up at me. “You must need something. Shoes? Boots? Come on. Treat yourself.”

Then I glanced at the pair in her hands. “How much are they?”

At her answer, my jaw dropped. The only boots I’d ever bought were for walking the dog, $49.99 at Costco. Faux-fur lining included.

If we’d been shopping together two years ago, I’d have communicated my negative judgement, sighing loudly for her to hear. I’d have voiced my belief that shopping was just an escape for her, a Band-Aid for wounds she kept picking at. And I’d have ridiculed her for wanting such a fine quality boot. For not being practical. For not being like me.

I dropped into the chair beside Wendy. I picked up one of the pairs she’d tossed aside, slid my foot into it, then drew the zipper upwards, embracing my calf in soft, supple leather. I did the same with the other.

“Oh my God,” she said, “they’re gorgeous. Don’t you love them?”

“But I don’t need them.”

“It’s not about need. You’ve never owned a pair of leather boots.”

“But I have nowhere to wear them.”

“Oh, come on! You can wear them inside and outside. In fall, winter, and spring.”

I smiled. “Well maybe if I think of them as dual purpose … a shoe and a boot. They do look good. Don’t they?”

“They’re gorgeous. Walk around. Make sure they’re comfy.” Then she lifted up the two pairs of boots and looked back and forth. “I can’t decide.”

I joked that if given enough time, she’d rationalize buying both pairs.

“You guys are hilarious,” the salesclerk said.

“We’re sisters” Wendy proclaimed. “But complete opposites … obviously. She’s the sensible one.”

I laughed. “Somebody has to be.”

As we stood at the cash register to pay, I glanced at Wendy and smiled. We hadn’t had this much fun in years. Her suicide attempt had caught my attention, and taught me to appreciate who she’d been all along – my eccentric, artistic, emotional and funny sister who will always struggle with addiction. Her cry for help was answered. And so was mine. I learned to be more tolerant, more open, and more grateful that her addiction hadn’t dug too deep and created a permanent absence. Her flirt with death offered me a glimpse into what that negative space would feel like, and gave me the courage to use all of my skills and abilities to create the textures and shades of a meaningful relationship.

About the Author

Linda MacDonald

Linda MacDonald’s creative non-fiction writing explores the multiple dimensions of family. Her First Person Essay "Room to Grow" appeared in The Globe & Mail in October 2019. Her current project, a memoir entitled "All to Pieces and Back Again," examines authentic connection between siblings, and parent and child.