Jennifer Wilson

On our son’s birth certificate, father’s place of birth is listed as “Remainder of the World.”

“It indicates that the system which generates these birth certificates is using a set of assigned codes for places of birth. The father was born in a foreign country for which the system had no code assigned, and to which was therefore assigned the code for “Remainder [of the] World.” (Roots Web)

Mike’s own birth certificate lists his place of birth as Ancon Canal Zone, Panama. Gorgas Army Hospital. His father was in the army working on the canal expansion, saving ships wishing to travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean 7,872 miles by allowing them to cut across the isthmus that is Panama instead of sailing the southern route to Tierra Del Fuego around Cape Horn through waters known as The Sailor’s Graveyard. There are some who still choose that southern route for the beauty and the danger. Yachtsmen call it “rounding the Horn.”

When we first married I hoped, of course, that we would be wed forever and meld into the coupling of two that we see in those who have endured both the joys and frustrations of marriage over time, a marriage not perfectly or falsely harmonious, but one in which the discordance gives way quickly to resolution. But I knew it was possible that he would fall into darkness as he had done for a time during our seven-year courtship. I had lived with it for a year or so, and then left him until it subsided. I didn’t recognize it as a depression then, but as a prolonged state of vitriol, absent understanding or resolution or kindness. It was a state that demanded perfection from those around him, from me, perfection that I could not attain because it was defined by him alone. The only clear parameter was that he was right, and the rest of the world was wrong or bad or stupid or ugly. When we married, it seemed to have disappeared. But I knew that if our marriage were to fail, it would be because I was not willing or able to live with his darkness should it arise again. I did not consider that he would kill himself, leaving a residuum, a remainder.

I asked my mother-in-law, Frances, what it was like living in Panama. What she remembered most was that it was so hot and humid that she had to bake bread every day. If left overnight, it would mold. Anything not kept in the icebox would spoil in a matter of hours or be eaten by giant bugs. I asked her about the culture. I wanted to know what it was like to live in another country and to get to know the people. It was unsafe, she told me, to venture off base.

West Indians recruited with promises of wealth and success confronted a very different reality upon arrival at the Isthmus. The dense and untamed jungle that covered the 50 miles between coasts was filled with deadly snakes. The venom of the coral snake attacked the nervous system, and a bite from the ten-foot Mapana snake caused internal bleeding and organ degeneration. The rainy season, which lasted from May to November, kept workers perpetually wet and coated in mud. (“The Workers” pbs.org)

In an article I read recently, the author argued that suicide is not selfish, and that only those who have suffered depression have the right to pass judgment. The author claimed to have suffered a suicidal depression, but her assertions seem somewhat suspect, considering she wrote the article. I don’t know whether suicide is selfish or not. I don’t care to define it one way or the other as though we are talking about a kindergartener’s refusal to share a toy. What good does it do to assign motive to one who is not present and no longer able to tend to the detritus left behind?  I suppose, though, that the discussion of selfishness is better than the trite adages about suicide that are made and repeated by people who have never met suicide, or they would know that there is no permanent solution and there is no temporary problem. In their effort to compartmentalize suicide, understand it, and put it away, they reduce the muddy, tangled knot to its lowest form.

I asked Frances what Mike had been like as a child. He was difficult, she said. Defiant. But smart, very smart. He read their entire set of encyclopedias before he was in high school. She told me that every time she left the house, he would take something apart — her toaster, the radio, even her sewing machine — to see how it worked. She didn’t mind, she said, except there was always one part left over. And her appliances were never the same.

A few months before he killed himself, Mike gave Scott a box containing his medical school class ring, his Air Force medals, the watch he got on our honeymoon, the wind-up toys that used to line his desk at work, replicas of the characters from his favorite book series, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and other precious remnants.

Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!” can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling. (David Foster Wallace) 

What is left after the simplifying — that is real. That is the remainder.

What is left after the dividing. What is left unclaimed. What is left after the bullshit. What doesn’t fit into any even amount. Remains.

After Mike died, I decided to go back to school to study linguistics. I took a writing course as one of the requirements. In that first writing classes, we were asked to make a list of things we would not want to write about and would not show anybody if we did. Among the items on my list were suicide, love, and closure.

In a moment of strength and clarity, I had insisted Mike get some help from a psychologist. Mike saw Ellen for only a short time. I went occasionally before he died and then a few times afterward. At our first appointment, she encouraged me to keep a journal and I did so, though it seemed silly. I had kept journals before, some helpful, some not. They all had a formula: write a gratitude list, write an inventory of my wrongs for the day, write only positive observations, write problems with the intention of solution. This new journal seemed pointless, too small for the issues at hand. It seemed to be just something that a psychologist might recommend; pro forma. The first entries were no more than doing what I was told: a daily list of my thoughts and actions. Early on, I wrote, “I know we all get angry. I just can’t live with anger as a state of being.” “I miss the peaceful times.” Then, a lament of grievances, the sum of my discontent: “Mike was not at the hospital for Scott’s surgery.” “Ellen says he is bullying me. Maybe she is right. He criticizes Scott and me compulsively.” “It is his love.” “I don’t want to hurt him.” It was of little use, it seemed, and the litany of complaints did not yield any valuable insights, but merely reinforced what I knew. I knew only what I did not want.

Cape Horn lore is extensive, full of fear and fascination—summed up in the sailor’s motto “below 40 South there is no law, below 50 South there is no God.” Over the past four hundred years, the Horn’s cold, tempestuous waters have claimed more than one thousand ships and fifteen thousand lives. Since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, there has been no need for most commercial ships to run the risk anymore, though adventuring sailors and yacht racing enthusiasts continue to test their luck. (libweb5.princeton.edu) 

My later journal entries were more poignant. “Ellen suggested that I would be honoring myself and Mike more if I were honest with him about what I want. What is it that I want?” When my mother died just four years before Mike killed himself, I grieved in such an honest, deep, unrestricted way. I could cry until my tears ran out and my chest was lead and my face was chapped raw, red, and swollen. Now, I can laugh when I’d see Imodium at the store because I can hear her saying, in her Southern accent, that she had to take her I-modium with the emphasis on the “I.” And I giggle when I see those little toe cushions for corns because she was forever cutting those up and putting them on her toes. Twelve years later, I still take out my phone to call her before I remember that I cannot. I feel warm and familiar when I look at my hands — wrinkled, veined, spotted, looking older than they should for a woman of my age — because they are my mother’s hands. Only good remains of my mother because, when she died, there was only love. She knew I loved her and I knew she loved me and there was nothing else. Even if there had been leftover hurts or resentments, they would have disappeared with her passing because our love for one another made any discord so trivial as to be nonexistent.

Suicide is different. Discord is not resolved; hurt is not assuaged. Every vestige of discontent festers, swirling in memories as what-ifs and I-wish-I-wouldn’t-haves, memories I play over and again, searching for different endings. What if I had been more patient, more assertive, more or less or different somehow? What if I had been more insistent that he be hospitalized? What if I had never asked him to move out? Could I have been more understanding? What if, when he told me he could not live without me, I had believed him? Sometimes I can delight in seeing Mike’s eyes or hearing Mike’s laugh through Scott because they remind me of the naïve and blissful days, and even of the ordinary days when Mike was okay.

The sad thing is this: Suicide doesn’t end the pain. It just passes it on to someone else. (Kim Kirkup, psychotherapist and mother) 

My sister called one of our closest friends, Karen, as soon as we knew that Mike had killed himself. She was at my house immediately, preparing food and my home for the inevitable onslaught of company. She was angry with Mike the very night it happened and for some time afterward. “He was trying to hurt you and he did,” she said. She is also a pastor and gave the eulogy at his burial. I expected a traditional sermon with touching and funny stories that completely ignore shortcomings. Instead, she addressed the reality of him. I can’t remember exactly what she said, but I do remember that she mentioned his struggle with mental illness and the pain it caused him and those around him. But she also said that he didn’t get the help he could have. What I thought I wanted was someone to tidy up the painful, noisy mental chaos. Now, I can see that her honesty was far more healing than the lies she could have told. Anecdotes and sentimentality — even in his eulogy— would not have relieved anything anymore than a Band-Aid relieves a broken arm. Recognizing the rippling devastation wrought by his depression took away any chance that I may have had to believe that my difficult journey had ended with his death when, in fact, it had really just begun. Karen also prayed that he would be at peace — that we all would.

“I hope you don’t blame yourself” people say. I thank them for their concern, but what I think is, Of course, I blame myself. Of course. If I had made different choices, there would have been a different outcome. I know that the choices I made leading up to Mike’s suicide did not give him solace, and his pain had to have been great enough to overcome the human desire to live. I was hurt and angry and confused by his behavior. I was unkind, frightened by his ire and unpredictability. I retreated inward behind an emotionally vacant façade. It’s not that I didn’t have feelings, but it looked and felt that way to Mike and he told me so. In an attempt to be kind, I smiled a fake smile and offered shallow support so transparent to him that he begged me to show some genuine emotion. Where I had once been completely vulnerable — honest without restriction, love and trust seeping from me — I created a barrier so solid there was nothing he could have done or said that would have weakened it. Now I wonder if it was my coldness that made him go to such extreme in an attempt to break through.

“The Remainder Theorem is useful for evaluating polynomials at a given value of x, though it might not seem so at first blush. You don’t have to understand the proof of the Theorem; you just need to understand how to use the Theorem. The Remainder Theorem points out the connection between division and multiplication. For instance, since 12/3 = 4, then 4 x 3 = 12. If you get a remainder, you do the multiplication and then add the remainder back in. The Remainder Theorem says that we can restate the polynomial in terms of the divisor.” (Purple Math)

In that same writing class, we were asked to write about one of the things on our list of things we would not write about. This is what I wrote: “Closure is a myth perpetuated by those who have not suffered trauma and those who seek to run from trauma they find too difficult to bear. The very idea brings to mind a Tupperware container into which you put knick-knacks and tuck away in the basement next to the old clothes that no longer fit. Any situation that would bring out the word ‘closure’ is more significant than that. By trying to box away the worst moments in our lives, we deny their importance in our development as human beings. We cannot exorcise these terrible events from our core. Without these events, we are like adolescents. We see what life is but experience it only peripherally.

When one person says to another: “You need to find closure,” they are really saying, “I want things to be the way they were. I want you to be who you were for me. This is awkward and uncomfortable. Can we please pretend this never happened?” But, our obligation to each other is not to stay the same, it is to grow and encourage others to grow — even when it’s not pretty. It would be a better choice to say: “I don’t know how to help you.” or “What can I do to help you heal?” or “How about a cup of coffee?” or “Ya wanna rent Airplane and eat a whole box of Capt’n Crunch?”

We want life to be neat and tidy. Life is glorious. Life is wonderful. Thankfully, life is much more glorious and wonderful than it is tragic. Yet, we try to lock away the bad and then say that we are not victims of our circumstances. By doing this, we think we are stronger and can ‘go on with our lives.’ Whether or not a person becomes a victim is a choice. It is also a choice to become stronger. We cannot become physically stronger if we lock our free weights in the basement, and we cannot become emotionally stronger if we lock our circumstances away in the basement. Our lives will go on either way, but if we seek closure instead of solace, it will always elude us. We should seek an end to the daily pain, the return of true joy, and, finally, acceptance and a new normal. We cannot close the door on our past, and we will get weak trying. We can, however, open the door to our experiences – the good and the bad. Invite them in, learn from them, and go out into the world whole human beings.”

The Yaghan people constantly had a fire stoked to keep themselves warm; they even chanced the demise of their transportation by starting fires within their bark canoes, providing warmth while they traveled the chilly waters. The very name of this region, Tierra del Fuego (meaning “Land of Fire”), was inspired by this group of indigenous peoples. (Adventure Life)

Ancon Canal Zone no longer exists as what it was, who owned it, the name the Americans gave it. But the canal exists, the city of Ancon exists, Panama exists. Mike no longer exists physically, but as a presence, a vestige. He exists in Scott’s mannerisms, in his looks, in his heritage, in his identity. He exists in my struggle to reconcile. He exists in my memory, recollections sometimes made more grim or more beautiful or more clear because of his passing and the passing of time.

For several years after Mike’s passing, I kept our house exactly as it had been when he was alive. Even our bedroom was the mostly same. His clothes were gone, except for some old ties that hung in the closet, old t-shirts in his drawers. A picture of him in his Air Force dress uniform, one of us when we first began dating, and one taken through the stained glass at our wedding looked back at me every morning. Then one day, with no precipitating event, it was just time. I painted, hung new pictures, and removed those things that had become merely nostalgic, but didn’t bring me great joy.

On a hilltop of Horn Island, a monument to the memory of the mariners lost in the waters off Cape Horn keeps watch. The interior outline of its facing steel sheets form the image of a wandering albatross in flight; a nearby marble plaque is inscribed with a Spanish poem by Chilean Sara Vial:

I am the albatross that waits for you
at the end of the world.
I am the forgotten souls of dead mariners
who passed Cape Horn
from all the oceans of the earth.
But they did not die
in the furious waves.
Today they sail on my wings
toward eternity,
in the last crack
of Antarctic winds.

Eventually one has to rise and accept that what remains is not inherently deficient. The remainder can be multiplied and added back in to the whole. It can be restated. My deficiency was not causing the death of my husband. My deficiency was what I had made of myself or had not made of myself. The deficiency is the lack of what should have been. The remainder was mine to make whole.

I recently ran into the psychologist. We hugged, Ellen and me, in a way we could not when I was her patient – tightly, as friends. I asked about her and she asked about me, how I am doing, what I am doing. I am grateful, I told her. Content, happy, impassioned. I study writing. I write. I write about Mike and Scott and me. And through that writing I find as many questions as I do answers, but I also mine bits and chunks of clarity and understanding. I eke out truth and madness and peace. I give voice to my life.

It is hard to brave a passage without imagining what lies beyond the isthmus, but I must brave one passage or the other. I must move forward. I cannot float in the gulf of the aftermath of suicide. There, I will only meet the constant tempest of guilt and unanswerable questions. The simplest route is through the isthmus, but that confining space gives no answers, it belongs to another country, another people. The confines of the canal repel me and force me around to the bottom of the world, through the Sailor’s Graveyard. And I wonder if the journey will ever yield the brave explorer’s triumph or if I will succumb to the thrashing of the waves.