7.10.2011

the night we walked 18 miles in my brother's memory

L-R Cousin Robin, Sister-in-law Rebecca, Brother Kevin, Mom, Brother Chuck, Me, Dad)

I've mentioned before that summer is my season. I love it deeply and wonder constantly why I don't move to San Diego. But summer has also become a season of heightened grief. It was in June, four years ago, that it became clear just how unwell Jeff, my brother and best friend, had become. And it was in August that he died by suicide. And from June to August we were a family in crisis, doing everything in our power to help the gentlest member of our tribe.

Now, it's amazing how, even when I'm not thinking of Jeff, the distinctly summer temperatures, breezes, and light can remind my body of that summer of intense grief, subjecting me to sharp, sudden pangs of re-grief. This happened the other day when I was happily walking to the train. Out of nowhere I was flooded with grief, and I wept for a couple of minutes, missing him acutely. Then I wrapped myself back up.



I share all of this to prepare you for the possibility that over the summer I might delve deeper in my writing about universal issues of grief, plus help you get to know my brother better. Trust me, he's worth knowing. I know, grief is not as summer-fun as barbecues, swimming, or corn on the cob, but chances are you don't crave warm fuzzies or comic relief, and think "Oh, I know, I'll go check out Kyle's blog." (By the way, for that, I highly recommend Cute Overload, my favorite website.)

I'll start with sharing about a profound experience that took place about one year ago. On June 26th and June 27th, 2010 my family and I walked 18 miles in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston. A year later, it's clear to me that aspects of that profound experience planted the seeds of chutzpah that helped me launch Laughing in Traffic a few months ago. The following story is an updated version of a piece that I wrote a week after the event and shared with those who donated to the walk. 


opening ceremony for the walk, at Boston's City Hall


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Close to midnight on August 17, 2007, a few hours after we learned the horrific news that my brother Jeff died, my oldest brother Chuck arrived from Chicago to join my mom, my dad, my brother Kevin, and me at my parent's vacation home in the woods of New Hampshire. There are way too many details about this tragic night that I'll unfortunately never forget but there is one moment that I would choose to preserve, if only memory were a matter of picking and choosing. Chuck entered the house, then came into our circle in the candlelit living room, landed on the ottoman that was floating in the middle of the room, and declared, with a startling strength, like the calm before a storm of grief, "I've never been as proud to be a part of this family as I am right now."


my brave family, listening to the opening ceremony


He was referring to the collaborative and heroic efforts that we'd all undertaken, and would have taken for the rest of our lives, to help Jeff. He was alluding to how we'd pulled together as a team, suspending old patterns and interpersonal struggles, in a desperate attempt to reach Jeff. And I don't know that any of us could have forecasted it at that excruciating moment, but I believe that Chuck was also talking about the ways in which we would go on to survive this devastating loss in the years that followed, refusing to be ostracized into the silence of shame that surrounds suicide.

As I unwound from the experience of traveling 18 miles through the night with my family, in honor of Jeff, and in commitment to suicide awareness and prevention, Chuck's words of nearly three years prior echoed through my mind over and over again. The continuity of pride reverberates. The clearest thing I can say about the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk is that I have never been as proud of my family as I was on June 26th and 27th, 2010.


me with brothers Kevin and Chuck - don't know what I'd do without these guys

Tears fill my eyes as I remember glancing back at my dad, soldiering on, mile after mile, despite a red eye flight from Scotland that same day, a one hour nap, and an aching back held in a wrap. I was overwhelmed with admiration watching my tenacious mom walk five miles over the course of the night. Less than six months prior she'd had major surgery for first-time lung cancer and less than three months earlier she'd landed in the hospital with painful chemotherapy complications. On this night of nights, she was willing to do anything it took to remain a part of the Overnight experience, like relinquishing her pride to accept the assistance of a wheelchair, which we drummed up en route.  (I contacted the hotel where my parents were staying to deliver a wheelchair by taxi to Copley Square at 11 pm!)



Watching my two dear brothers, Chuck and Kevin, and my boyfriend at the time, Jim, despite their own fatigue and discomfort, carry my backpack or gladly take turns pushing my mom and me in the wheelchair, moved me beyond words. Seeing my cousin, Robin, trudge to the finish line in her custom made t-shirt covered with Jeff photos, and my sister-in-law, Rebecca, wearing the special honor beads that she and her teenage son created for all of us, made my heart smile. (All walkers wore honor beads which connoted our relationship to the cause: e.g. orange beads = losing a sibling; white beads = losing a child; green beads = struggle with depression, etc.)  In addition to our Jeff photo buttons and honor beads, we all wore heart buttons that I made from a blue plaid shirt that Jeff wore to nearly every semi-formal occasion for twenty years. He was a man of very simple means.


the buttons I made - for the heart buttons I used Jeff's famous dress shirt
We were an extraordinary TEAM on this night.  The surreal experience was a radical departure from any other experience I've ever shared with my family, as we walked among hundreds of other survivors through Back Bay, along the Charles River, Fenway, South Boston, the North End, and back to City Hall. The walk was an apt metaphor for the dark night that we've walked together since Jeff died. As with the ever-changing process of our individual and familial grief, sometimes we walked closely together and at others, Team JPF thinned out into smaller groups of rotating membership along the route, but we never strayed too far from one another.  It felt like there was an invisible tether that kept us connected the entire night, no matter how far any one of us may have drifted from the epicenter of the group.

Around 4 am, my family team rejoined tightly, the wheelchair being pushed without anyone in it. All of us were determined to enter the candlelit City Hall Plaza assisted only by the company of each other. After leaving the final rest stop, Team JPF, deliriously tired, walked the final mile together, concluding our all night journey by walking into a field of luminarias (decorated bags honoring the hundreds of precious lives lost).





I anticipated that this walk would be more about connecting with other survivors. But it turns out that it was about connecting deeper with my survivors, my people who knew and love Jeff as much as I do. I am proud beyond words that we bravely showed up as an entire family, in spite of our respective fears about immersing ourselves in an intense environment of hundreds of other survivors, who would remind us for twelve straight hours the painful way in which we lost Jeff. I'm awed that my dad, Kevin, Chuck, Jim, Rebecca, and Robin walked the entire 18 miles. I'm so proud of my mom and myself for doing our best, using our creativity to stay on the path and in the experience, despite our physical challenges. It was a painful trek on many levels, but i'm also proud that as a family we were able to laugh and playfully tease each other the way we've always done so well. It's comforting to learn that even in the middle of the night in Boston on a suicide prevention walk, we are a family of loving smart asses. I felt the deepest love I've ever felt for my family, as a collective, on this night.

                     

In my original fundraising letter for the walk, I exposed publicly for the first time, my own chronic struggle with depression. This revelation was the first of many scary steps along this journey. There were many moments during this experience that allowed me the chance to practice self-acceptance, which I suspect may be one of the most critical components needed to heal from chronic depression.

Talking about suicide without talking about depression is like talking about cooking without talking about food. So again, with some trepidation, I reveal here one of the personal and profound aspects of my Overnight experience, in hopes that doing so gives others the permission to share, to feel less alone. The better acquainted and less fearful I become of my own depression and the more privy I am to hearing the stories of others who struggle similarly, the more I realize that depression is most tenacious when it marinates, alone, in an inner environment that lacks gentleness.




On June 26th and 27th, as I walked with my family, I experienced what might be the beginning of the unraveling of my long-term relationship with depression. I walked only 7 miles of the 18 mile course. For some, finishing the course was a victory. For me, not finishing the course was a bigger victory. Historically, I would have silently scolded myself into doing the whole thing, despite the certainty of long-term consequences for my longstanding joint problems, OR shy of completing the whole thing I would have quietly berated myself and dwelled in disappointment for not being able to do what I set out to do.

But instead, on this night, by some miracle I was able to genuinely celebrate the fact that I'd individually raised $18.400 for suicide prevention, and that I'd been able to walk 7 miles in spite of my physical challenges! Completely uncharacteristic of my depressive tendencies, I focused on what I was able to do instead of what I wasn't. This kind of self-gentleness is such an inexplicable departure for me that it's hard not to believe that Jeff had something to do with it. Granted, I like to ascribe just about anything positive and inexplicable to Jeff. He's gets a lot of credit these days.

As I concluded the walk and the four month fundraising journey, I felt most overwhelmed with pride for our team member who couldn't walk, my brother, Jeffrey Parker Freeman. I love and miss him fiercely. I'm intensely proud of him, and who he was in the world, for a million reasons. I'm especially proud of his bravery for hanging in with us as long as he possibly could. When I look at the family photos from the walk, I see a giant gaping hole. Jeff should be there. No matter how much time and healing takes place, it will never be fair that we lost him. We were a team. But now we're a team whose job is to carry Jeff's legacy of unrivaled thoughtfulness and passion for a kinder, gentler world, into our selves and our lives.

                 

Towards that end, I'm proud to report that Team JPF was the fourth highest fundraising team for the walk, raising nearly $26,000 for suicide prevention!  The entire event raised 2.2 million dollars.  That's a lot of money, and a lot of promise. Here's hoping that our collective efforts make it so that fewer and fewer people have to experience the devastation of depression or suicide.

When my brother Chuck overheard me describe the experience to someone else as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he chimed in with his big grin and laugh, "Damn straight, it's once-in-a-lifetime.  Don't even think about trying to get us to do this again next year."  I giggled.  No comment. (2011 Update: To my family's relief, I didn't harass them about doing the walk again this year. I think we're all still recovering from last year.)

If you're on Facebook and you'd like to see more photos of our experience, click here. 

The critical work of suicide prevention and raising awareness about depression continues. But still, one person dies by suicide every 16 minutes. If you feel moved to make a donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, please click here. Thank you.


To learn why I started this blog, and to get more context for this post or any other on Laughing in Traffic, please check out "about this blog".

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7 comments:

  1. I cried as I read this post. Hard to explain, but feeling some sort of hopeful grief. Kyle, I am so grateful that you are able to share yourself in this way. I am in a prayerful place as I think of Jeff, you, and your family. You are so dear.
    Elizabeth

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  2. I just wanted to say that I read this whole thing and you are in my thoughts! The walk sounds like a very powerful experience and you and your family are extraordinary and inspiring. Looking forward to more Laughing in Traffic... :)

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  3. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    you should be proud of this post/repost, Kyle; it's an essay of courage and hope, and a testament to the woman you are growing into. thank you for sharing along your journey; be well. love, Rick

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  4. Kyle,

    You continue to be one of the most courageous people I know. Thank you foe sharing your story. I pray that the telling will bring healing to many, including you.

    jennifer kuhlmann merck

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  5. kyle if "chutzpah" leads to this beautiful brave blog than all power to chutzpah! it is funny to read this today because just last night i had a very vivid dream (visitation) from my best friend and partner who died 11/4/91 after a 7 year battle with leukemia. i was blessed to be with him when he died...i miss him still and often and i consider those moments of active grief like the one you refer to above as gifts. gifts of rememberance. the person is near in those times. that's what grief is-those deep moments that come like a weather system and move off as such. i had one in my dream last night. anyway lots more to say abt grief and loss but this is your blog! keep on keepin' on. i am so glad you wrote about your brother Jeff. i feel love for him at this moment. fancy that! Jenny P

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  6. This is a beautiful post. I'm very proud of your family.
    I've lost friends to suicide, and have attempted it twice. I am Bi-Polar. Luckily, I've been stable for about 18 years now. People often don't understand the depths that depression can reach. It's not just being sad. It consumes you. I felt like all the color had been taken out of the world. (as an artist, that is an overwhelming feeling to say the least)

    I'm sorry I'm rambling.
    My mother too had lung cancer. Unfortunately, it was discovered too late and she passed within a year of diagnosis. She died June 23, 1993. I understand what you mean about the bitter sweetness of summer. I have always loved the summer, but it also reminds me of the time I lost my mom, and my best friend. How much she has missed, and how much I miss her.

    But again, I digress.
    Thank you for sharing.

    (I found you through Chronic Babe. Drop by and see me sometime. http://picnicwithants.wordpress.com)

    wendy

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  7. AnonymousJuly 21, 2011

    Kyle,

    Another amazing post. I love to see you continually reminding yourself and everyone reading your blog about the connection between mental health and self-kindness/compassion. I could use a daily reminder, personally :)

    Amy W.

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