Into the Wild

This week I found myself in the cd store, looking for this album. I didn’t bother asking the clerks if they had it. They never have anything I ask for. I feel like I’m not cool enough or young enough for the cd store….even though a woman my age is the vestigial buyer of cd’s, and my survivor status should galvanize me to be a kick-ass woman, and an unintimidated customer, no less. No bother, they didn’t have it, so I bought a used Dar Williams cd. I downloaded Spotify and have since been listening to the Into the Wild soundtrack, over and over.

Last spring, I taught an evening course that had a very small enrollment. Because of the small size and the late hour and the personal subject matter and the fact that we often moved our class meeting to a large table on the back porch of the building, the class got pretty intimate. I learned more about my students’ personal lives than I usually do. One bright student suffered from mental health issues. One had a friend who committed suicide that term. His eyes welled up with tears when he told me why he missed class. I shepherded these young people as best I could.

Toward the end of the term, we watched the film, Into the Wild, together. It’s the story of an idealistic young adult who starves to death while trying to camp out alone and unprepared, in the Alaskan wilderness. The masculine-identified adolescents found the main character to be a hero. The rest politely shared their discomfort with his rejection of society and community. Me, I found it to be a cautionary tale. I was so moved by a not very macho male student who was ticked at the protagonist because he broke Hal Holbrooks’ heart. Holbrook’s character bonded with the young man, who similarly connected but nevertheless moved on. He was young, idealistic, following an inner demon. In rejecting society and middle class conventions, he broke people’s hearts.

I loved this class, I adored these students. After that class meeting (or maybe the class after; the mind plays tricks) Pseudonymous Friend–who also taught an evening class–and I got together at the pub after teaching, a welcome new ritual we’d just made up. She gave me a ride home. I told her I couldn’t meet the next week because it was my son’s birthday, as well as his 8th grade graduation. We shared a heartfelt goodbye. I remember that because it’s about the last normal thing I remember about my old life. I got out of her car, looking forward to getting home, seeing the family after a long day, wrapping up the term, collapsing into the new bed that had been delivered that day. My husband had texted me a picture of the freshly-delivered bed that afternoon and we shared a funny exchange about our relief at having something really nice.

Two days later, my husband hung himself in the basement.

I can’t stop thinking about that week as I listen to this soundtrack, over and over. I’ve gleaned two things.

First, I crave new music. I’m in the car a lot, doing errands, shuttling kids. Listening to music helps, but I can’t listen to the music that husband and I shared. The new normal may well start with a new soundtrack of our lives.

Second, I don’t think I’ll ever teach that class again. I don’t think I could bear it.

8 thoughts on “Into the Wild

  1. This post stopped me in my tracks. My heart is still racing. I am deeply saddened by what you have shared. But even more so, I am in awe of you, and your calm, persevering strength. Never would I assume that sharing this was easy, or that you feel “strong”. So many of us here write from the heart of our loss, and it’s not to show “strength”, it’s survival. But your strength is clear to me. You are definitely writing the new soundtrack. For what it’s worth, I am listening, and I am a big fan. And I am so sorry for what your family has endured.

  2. I am shaken, too, after reading this post. I never knew or would have never guessed the circumstances surrounding your husband’s death. I lost a good friend to suicide and have some idea how hard that is on families, especially kids.

    I can see why you love this haunting CD track. I’m going to order it for myself…it’s so beautiful. By a strange coincidence I just posted a blog with two tracks of music that have been haunting me and that show feelings I can’t find words to express as deeply as the music can.


  3. I also remember so many details from that seemingly ordinary night: the arrival of the new bed, the end of the term, your interesting class. We shared fried cheese curds, which don’t *sound* good, but they are.

  4. I’m sorry to spring it on you like that. I focus on my grief here, as that’s my story to tell. I’m still so protective of him and his suffering, and I try not to dwell on it. But now that I’m back at work, the memories are flooding back, and now his story is my story, too. It will be my children’s story, for the rest of their lives.

    I didn’t plan to spring it here. It just came pouring out. Maybe it’s because a few weeks before he died, he and I went to that cd store. He seemed keen to go, and I thought there was something he had in mind, but he didn’t pick anything out. I picked cd’s off the shelf, hoping that would prompt some action; he’d look, then return them. It was odd but not worrisome at the time. I now think that he was trying to want something.

    I feel humility and regret at being unable to help him, to have missed or misread the signs, and at being unable to shield my children from the horror.

    Thank you for your compassion in taking this in. I’m grateful to find people to just share the realness of the grief, and all the pain and dark humor that brings.

    Pseudonymous Friend, that may be the last basket of cheese curds I’ve had. We also talked about the job at the university that he applied for earlier that week. He was such a good fit for the job. Things were on an upward trajectory for him. I think he feared he couldn’t make it all the way.

    • There is no need to apologize for “springing” it. This is your blog. This is your story. I feel privileged being let into people’s very personal and painful stories of loss. What you and your children are going through, I perceive as a very complex loss, one that could carry a heavy shadow, yet you still show a certain lightness, and optimism in your writing. I feel a connection to your voice, And I think that is why I was affected by learning more of your circumstances. My heart goes out to you, and I thank you for continuing to share.

  5. You wrote: “I didn’t plan to spring it here. It just came pouring out.” When you really think about it I’ll bet you’ll agree that it came pouring out here because it needed to come out. Something inside you is ready to share such painful memories and hopefully that can lead to more healing. You also said something else that strikes a cord with me: “…now his story is my story, too. It will be my children’s story, for the rest of their lives.” I think this is one of those things about widows that few people really get and it’s especially true when someone whose spouse took their own life. It’s a lot for you to process before sharing is possible.

    My friend who committed suicide at least left a letter for each of his three young children (his wife had passed away exactly a year to the day of his death) but even with those letters and the letter to the children’s grandparents who ended up with legal custody it was very hard to forgive him for what was perceived as a selfish action on his part. In the end we never really know what goes on in another person’s mind and we have to forgive ourselves for not seeing signs that someone obviously worked so hard at covering up. But you used the word “regret” in not being able to help your husband, not “guilt”, and I take that as a good sign……

  6. Oh my goodness, thank you. After hours and hours of therapy and a lot of time reading David Foster Wallace and Anne Sexton–writers who revealed the suicidal mind–I better understand the illness and the pain. I’ve stopped bearing guilt for it, because I accept I was powerless to stop it. The angrier I got, the clearer his suffering became, and the more I was able to distinguish the man from the illness. When triggered, I revisit a memory with the benefit of hindsight, making What Happened less inexplicable. It’s still painful for me, but at least it’s pain I can understand.

    The lightness is, indeed, here. This situation is so serious that I can’t take many things seriously, and I’m learning to let go of the worries I tend toward naturally. The course of our lives is so absurd that I can hardly play along with a straight face anymore. Sure, we look like we’re playing along–the kids wear their Lands End clothes. They ace their classes. I bring the garbage can in in a timely manner–but we’re ready to go rogue, as soon as we need to. The occasional day of playing hookie, canceling a meeting without a moment’s hesitation if the kids need me, willing to be unreliable to anyone but each other–these are small acts of resistance, guided by what we know we need in the moment instead of middle-class rules. I thought our hearts would turn to cold, dark stones, but instead we have all become a little more light-hearted (except when we’re not).

    The manner of his death is an open secret in our town. People talk about it, I guess, but not with me. I reserve those conversations for a close circle of family, friends, and professionals. They help me walk through it, confidentially and respectfully of my husband. I will not let him be a subject of scandal, and this town has been decent about that. If people haven’t been decent, I don’t know about it, and that’s decent, too.

    It wasn’t a secret here so much as something I didn’t feel was my tale to tell. Now that I am accepting how inextricably it is part of my story, I’m okay with sharing. But the next thing will happen, and it will likely involve toilets, yoga, snow shoveling, or housework, and that’s what I’ll write about here.

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