Issue 6 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Chelsey Clammer

Then She Flew Away

“The problem with dying in private is that the rest of us don’t get to watch it happen, and things that happen without us seem less real, not quite finished, maybe even impossible.”

—Sarah Manguso

 

She climbed the stairs. She found her ledge, that hiding spot. That safety. She sat down not knowing what to do next, but preparing for something. Considering. Brain space tangled up in the logic of if she should do this. She was no longer safe in her life, could no longer find that space of solace.

She walked up five flights to find it.

 

 

 

Sofie’s journal lies in front of me, looking up, expectantly, asking if I really want to do this. I do want to do this. At least I think I do. I think so. Maybe. So. Journal opened. There, right there. A phrase inked into the inside cover of that new journal, the one I bought her, a tool to help extract the toxins rooted deep. So severely internal. Eternal.

Her inscription:

Last night I watched myself sleep then I flew away.

Does her journal speak truth? Did Sofie really witness herself sleep then fly? A dream remembered? Though maybe it’s a lyric to a favorite song. Or poem. I could look this up, could scour the internet to find my answer. But I resist, do not want to research it. I want to hope for—need to believe that—the beauty of those words came from her. That something inside her spoke serenity.

 

 

 

My job was to just be there. “There” being a transitional residency for homeless youth with drug addiction and mental-illness issues. I worked overnights, was there for the youth to come and talk to if there was something they needed to talk about. No professional license here, no MSW or LPC or LMSW or LMHC or PhD or MD or any of those letters that say you can help someone. I was just a woman with a sober heart, with a steady and medicated brain, with a belief in each youth’s sobriety, there to help them talk through their issues instead of shooting them up or glugging them down or inhaling with a hope that it would all just dissipate, like smoke.

 

 

 

Last night I watched myself sleep then I flew away.

Opening Sofie’s journal breaks me. The pages break into a shattered mind, breaking up the rhythm of my heart trying to beat beyond the bottomless canyons of why? But grief is a continuous echo.

A ritual:

Apartment 302. Top floor. Corner unit. The one with book cases and Christmas lights and thumbtacked images ripped from magazines—the constantly growing collages of angry rappers and tortured rock stars covering thin putty walls. After meds, past 10 p.m., Sofie was always a lump on her bed. I saw her sleeping so many times, woke her up so many times to check her sobriety. The blood-alcohol machine putting booze in check.

Memories of standing above her, briefly watching her sleep—heavily—before I reached down and tapped her shoulder. Her resting place just a mattress and box spring slapped on the floor. Clothes scattered about—a symptom of her depression. Each night she was a body of melancholy crashed on a bed, a body that slowly rolled back over, away from me, after blowing a sober breath. Each night I blew out the black candles flickering on her floor as I left.

I didn’t see Sofie fly. Though at times she appears in my dreams. I fall asleep and can see—no, feel—her fly, can breathe in the beauty of that belief, that image of a soft escape.

Because gravity pushed her down five stories, crashed her onto the ground.

But in my dreams, she flew.

 

 

 

In The Guardians, Sarah Manguso writes about her best friend who escaped from a psych ward, and, ten hours later, threw himself in front of a train. As she grapples with how to understand and accept this event, she meditates on death and suicide, writes to figure out how to tell the story of her dead best friend. But, she discovers, “My friend died—that isn’t a story.”

There is no plot here. Just a woman, falling.

 

 

 

On the videotape I made to document the weekend I took Sofie and three other youth on a writing retreat in the Colorado Rockies, I asked the group what they learned most about themselves while there. After a few silent seconds, Sofie slipped her low voice into the air, attempted to put words to her experience: Well, I learned that … a pause, thoughts congregating, body leaning forward over the table, a heavy exhalation, chin palmed, well … she leans in farther, fingers caressing the plump curve of her pale cheek, I know this is going to be really shallow but, and now she stares into the camera, eyes piercing past the black jagged line of her bangs, she admits, I love napping.

Removed from the regular routine of therapy appointments and AA meetings and group therapy and psychiatry appointments and case-management meetings and job searching and résumé-making and constantly shaming herself for sleeping too much, for stuffing sighs into her gray apartment instead of going outside like her friends do with their free time, it is in the mountains that Sofie owns it. Knows it. Accepts the symptoms of her depression. Because, yes, Sofie slept.

She missed the town outing. She missed the homemade fudge from the general store, missed picking out a small gift—the souvenirs I bought each of them to commemorate our writing weekend.

I blame the unrelenting depression. The illness that trapped her in bed, the sheets a straitjacket that kept her from moving, from getting up.

Sofie slept.

I’ve been there. I’ve known that straitjacket. I, too, have slept that type of sleep.

At 10,000 feet in the air, Sofie heavily sighed, sank her body into a bed.

What dreams can you have when you’re depressed? Dreams of sleeping more, I guess. Dreams of a blank slate, I suppose. That place where you can just exist, no anxiety about how to continue to live. Dreams full of never waking up.

I, too, have dreamt.

 

 

 

I told her mothers my story, showed them how I connected with Sofie. The psych wards and the cutting. Alcohol and mental illness. Risky behavior. Stuck in the belief that it will never get better. Suicide ideation.

A few days after Sofie’s memorial service, I went out for coffee with her mothers. This was when I told them my story. This was when they asked what helped me to get through the addiction and the mental illnesses and the body hatred. What should we have done differently for our sweet Sofie?

They assumed that because I was alive, I knew the answer.

I wanted to tell them it doesn’t matter now. I wanted to tell them that what I learned won’t bring Sofie back. I wanted to tell them that no matter what they did, what I did, what we all did, Sofie still would have relapsed, would have found that parking garage, that tall ledge when she felt like she needed it, regardless. That space of flying—no matter how brief her final descent—is what she wanted, was searching for. Flying can set you free. And nothing can ease the gravity, the pain of a daughter now dead.

You did everything you could, I said.

 

 

 

“I don’t want to admit that I couldn’t have saved Harris from his death, that I’m not magic, that I’m not special, that I won’t be able to save anyone.”

And I don’t want to admit that Manguso’s words thrum within me, that I know that fallacy, that magical thinking that says I’m special, that I could have saved Sofie.

 

 

 

Scene: Sofie’s bedroom. Her on the bed. Me making a space on her floor, piling the clothes elsewhere, the mess that depression makes in your home. It consumes the concept of cleanliness, sloths you. Unable to pick anything up, because the depression is tiring, holding you down.

This is a conversation Sofie would only have with me.

Your friends told me you’ve been cutting.

Yeah. Her dark eyes dart into mine.

I start with the logistical questions.

Do you need stitches?

No.

Is anything infected?

No.

This next one is most important, as it helps to take away the anxiety about being judged and recognizes we can, in some way, take care of ourselves.

Do you need more Band-Aids?

No. Well. Yeah.

Four years ago my first aid kit was quite impressive. All of the gauze and tape nurses gave me after giving me stitches. A stock pile of tools used to protect what’s in from the harsh elements of what’s out.

I think back to my cutting days, and remember the one question that made me feel better, relieved. A huge exhale.

Do you want to show me?

No hesitation. Pant leg pulled up. I, too, used to cut my legs when I ran out of space on my arms.

She rips off the Band-Aids. My eyes settle with hers on the cuts. They’re not that deep, just lines that scratch the surface of trying to attend to what’s inside, what torments her. But I know the significance of shallow scrapes. She’s not done cutting yet.

 

 

 

Manguso writes, “When a poet ends her life, ghouls send lines of the dead woman’s poems back and forth all day.” We want to find something. We want to know. We want to look at what’s left of the one who left us, want to make sense of all this senselessness. We want evidence. To prove we couldn’t prevent it. “Or maybe,” Manguso says, “we want to find a clue we should have noticed, since it was right there in her poems, all along, that we should have known to save her, that she would have wanted us to.”

 

 

 

June 28, 2014. Sofie wrote in her notebook how her addiction was gnawing on her, how her desire to stay sober kept yanking on her, like a child, wanting attention. She edited this entry, though, as one sentence lives in the margins, perpendicular to the rest of the text. Just five words: Its child smile is gone. Her sobriety was getting frail.

More about addiction:

Fangs grow and drip with sabotage.

Eleven months after this entry, seven months after her death, I dive into her words, her journal, try to understand her and why she wanted to die, but I begin to drown. The handwriting on the page morphs into an image of her face. She stares up at me, the visage swallowing the letters, written meaning transforming then soaking into that skin I will never see again.

A child’s smile is gone.

 

 

 

Sunday night one of my youth was raped. I assured myself that I wouldn’t place blame on myself for its occurrence. That didn’t work. I blamed myself for not helping her, for not letting her come back to the apartments because she was drunk. She was drunk and at a house full of high people she didn’t know, people who raped her. I didn’t let her come home. I heard about the rape the next morning. Monday night she returned to the residency. We sobbed together. Hugged. Tuesday night I didn’t go to work. Things still felt hard. The rape. Wednesday morning, I was scheduled to meet up with my supervisor to check in about my emotions.

An hour before the meeting, a knock on my door. I open it. My supervisor and the deputy director of the organization I work for are standing in my doorway.

Something happened last night.

Tuesday night I got a call. Someone relapsed. Sofie, again. She was having a tough time. I asked my coworker if I should call her. He said he didn’t care. He thought Sofie should be kicked out for another relapse.

It was a Tuesday night when I called Sofie, when she didn’t answer my call. I didn’t know it was because of a fall. I left Sofie a message, but by then her body had already crashed onto, cracked all over the concrete.

 

 

 

In the 2011 film, Insidious, the character Dalton Lambert says, “Last night I watched myself sleep then I flew away.”

 

 

 

Sofie was nineteen when she died drunk. Who bought Sofie the booze? It’s just one of many questions regarding the details of that night I’ll never know. How did Sofie get across town? Why was she in that parking garage? Where did the person who bought her the booze go as Sofie climbed up five flights? What did she do for those few hours between when she left after lunch to when she went down with the sun at dusk?

Who bought Sofie the booze?

Some guy, her friends assumed. A guy she was pining away for. A guy who either treated her terribly—which made her hate herself—or a guy who treated perfectly—which made her hate herself.

Sofie hated herself. So Sofie got drunk. And answers won’t un-dead her. But the question nags. We want the answer. We need to know who to accuse so we can stop blaming ourselves.

 

 

 

Manguso will always wonder what nurse let her friend Harris leave the hospital. “Think about the person who opened the door for my dead friend. Imagine her closing it behind him.” And while she knows there must have been more than one nurse there, knows she should assume there were multiple staff members on the ward when someone opened a door, she also knows how “it feels very good to focus my attention on some imaginary, wicked, murdering angel.”

 

 

 

There is only one place we can go for absolute solitude—inward.

The safe space. Until it’s not, and we try to find somewhere physical to go, somewhere to hide from the world. Ourselves. Because no one feels safe when everything feels so exposed. The rawness of vulnerability, that tenderness. The infection of depression. Take off the bandage. Let the wound air out.

She climbed the stairs. She found her ledge, that hiding spot. That safety. She sat down not knowing what to do next, but preparing for something. Considering. Brain space tangled up in the logic of if she should do this. She was no longer safe in her life, could no longer find that space of solace.

She walked up five flights to find it.

 

 

 

And then the story changes.

 

 

 

Sofie thought no one could see her, thought that the railing she climbed up then over to get down to that ledge was concealed. It was, but not totally. Security cameras caught it all. They saw her climb down. Though they didn’t see her once she sat down and continued to drink. They didn’t see her talk to her best friend on the phone. They didn’t see the change in Sofie’s face when she agreed with her best friend, when she was finally convinced to not jump.

What they saw was Sofie’s first actions after making that decision. She stood up, her body then appearing on the cameras. What they saw was a woman climbing back up and over to safety.

What they saw was her foot slip.

What they saw was how she tried to hold on. How she dangled. How she screamed. How she lost her grip. The security cameras didn’t catch the entire fall. A different camera picked up what happened on the ground. The fallen body. The best friend that ran up right then, racing up a few seconds too late, sprinting to the spot where Sofie landed, laid dead.

 

 

 

Manguso: “I used to believe that death would come when I was ready to walk through the last door. When I was done with suffering, I’d just open the door and walk through it.” I know that door. I, too, have reached out for it. I’ve been in that place where I was ready to walk through it, but Manguso twists the certainty of how we come to death, how death comes to us: “Now I believe that someone or something else will open the door.”

Gravity is something I can’t control.

 

 

 

Before Sofie turned away from suicide, she posted a picture of herself on Instagram. Eyes closed. A slight smile. The accompanying text: I’m finally free.

 

 

 

They held her signature on their faces. Painted Sofie’s art on their lips and eyelids. Long mascara-ed lashes stretching out to connect. Memorialize. Black eye shadow and thick red lips. Sofie’s signature style.

They used her makeup.

To feel a connection. To stay together at the memorial service in order to show their love for the woman who no longer lives. That friend. That soul and feel and look of her kept in their memories, shown to the world.

Sofie would have loved that. Sofie would have thought that was the shit. Her lipsticked lips would have opened up, all rise, would have let that laugh out. They hoped she saw them in the pews. Hoped she saw how much they cared. Prayed their style gave her a smile she could keep this time.

 

 

 

I saw her a week after she died. Saw her outside. Saw her not quite hovering, and not in any way floating or levitating. She was looming. Just outside my sliding glass door, just a few feet away. The startle, then the jolt of my body that could feel her there. Right there. Sofie. I saw her standing on my balcony, not expecting to be let in, but just letting me know she’s there.

She’s here. She breathes lighter now, I imagine. So much more space to move since the straitjacket of depression was unfastened. Uplifted.

Her flight to freedom.

 

 

 

Manguso saves me: “I’m comforted when I remember that energy that appears missing has just gone somewhere else, has been surrendered to the system of the world.”

 

 

 

I have a picture sitting on my desk of Sofie and me. It’s from when I took her on that writing retreat and she accepted the beauty of sleep. I look at her every time I sit down to write. I look at her while I write this. My desk is cluttered, and I have to push some folders and cups out of my way to make space for my notebook. As I nudge a candle with the corner of a book, the picture of Sofie and me topples over and lands on my floor.

Fuck, I say.

What? My husband asks from across the room.

And then before I can stop myself from saying it, before I can stop myself from even thinking it, I say, Sofie fell again.

 

dingbatsmaller

Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and Black Warrior Review, among others. She is the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown and Founding Editor of www.insideoutediting.com. Her second essay collection, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub. Selected by Elissa Washuta.

Image © ND Strupler via Flickr Creative Commons.

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