Wednesday Morning — March 6, 2002 by Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC

It was 5:20 a.m. and I was standing outside my apartment in Magnolia, a little neighborhood north of downtown Seattle waiting. The sky had hints of yellows and pinks of morning but the sunrise was still a long ways off.

Catherine had offered to drive me to the airport and I had told her that I would take a cab. The flight was early and I had to be at the airport early and a cab would have been the easiest but Catherine had insisted.

“I’ll be at your place at 5:15 a.m.,” she had said.

She had been with me when I had gotten the news yesterday of my brother’s death and she came to my apartment last night to check on me. She was really one of the handful of friends I had in Seattle. Intense grief creates such a sense of helplessness for the grievers and those who are trying to support them. It made sense that she wanted to do some “thing” and driving me to the airport was a “thing” she could do.

It was already 5:20 a.m. and there was no sign of her. I already didn’t like flying and the thought of being at the airport late caused my stomach to flop. I had spent so much money on the ticket and the rental car and I didn’t want to be late. In the distance, I heard a “chug, chug, chug” sound.

“Must be a tug boat in Puget Sound pulling a hundred foot barge,” I thought to myself. As a pair of headlights pieced through the misty morning air, I realized it was Catherine’s car coming up the hill towards my apartment.

From the minute I stuffed my bag in the back seat of Catherine’s old beat up car that was cluttered with posters for yoga retreats and a Reiki healing seminar, her dog, Bohdi (pronounced BO-DEE, which means enlightenment), began barking. You would think from his reaction that he thought I was plotting to kill Catherine and he was barking to somehow warn her that I was dangerous.

But something about my emotional state felt dangerous. My brother had died the day before of suicide. Two days ago he was here and today he was gone. I felt my emotions were vacillating between numbness and hysteria. Maybe the dog could sense something about me that I couldn’t even sense myself.

“He’s sensitive to emotions,” she had said to me with a smile.

“So am I,” I responded and climbed into her shit storm of a vehicle.

Catherine was one of the kindest people I had ever met. She was wise and insightful and had done so much work on her internal world that I was amazed at how well she knew herself. She and I had deep and intentional conversations about life and love and family, often over a pot of tea at a local Thai restaurant we both loved. She looked like a young Mother Earth, maybe Mother Earth’s younger sister who had been fathered by Ireland with a red ponytail meticulously woven and trailing down her back to her waist and a Irish smile that was often stretched across her face. She was beautiful inside and out.

The dog kept barking; nonstop barking and it was doing little to calm my nerves.

“Is he always like this?” I asked?

With a little nod and a knowing look, she had pulled some kind of dog treat from her pocket and lobbed it into the back seat and the dog immediately became quiet.

We drove in silence towards the freeway, unsure of what to say to one another. My stomach was upset and I was nervous. I didn’t like flying anyway but there was an odd push and pull to my current state. I didn’t want to fly but I desperately wanted to be with my family. There were so many questions. Why did my brother kill himself? When will the funeral be? What about my job? Was it ok to be gone for a week? Two weeks? How were his kids, my nephews? How were my parents? My siblings? How was I?

As we reached the freeway, her car lurched and chugged down the ramp towards Interstate 5 with her foot pushed all the way down on the gas pedal. Even full tilt, the car was doing about 47 miles per hour and the smoke billowing from the tailpipe looked more like a roving coal factory than a vehicle.

The last time I physically saw my brother was at Christmas. Things seemed fine at the time but were they? Was he thinking about suicide back then? I would come to learn that there had been other suicide attempts but the shame and secrecy in my family had kept that knowledge hidden. I wasn’t really sure who knew what and when they knew it. If I had known more, would I have done more to try to to help him?

I shook my head quickly back and forth as if this physical act would somehow erase my thoughts, etch a sketch like from my mind.

When I opened my eyes, Catherine was staring at me with a look of compassion that bordered on pity.

“Is your car going to make it?” I asked with a smile and a small lilt in my voice to let her know that the question was intended playfully and that I was intentionally trying to change the subject.

She got very serious.

“You won’t believe what happened over the weekend,” she began. “I went to the co-op and my car was acting strange and when I got home, I checked the oil and the oil reservoir was completely empty. Luckily, I had some old oil in the garage and I filled the engine and now the car is working better than ever.”

I pondered the words “better than ever”. This was better than ever? I couldn’t remember if I had ridden in Catherine’s car before so it was difficult to compare. I knew enough about cars to know that running an engine for any amount of time without oil was a serious thing.

She turned her attention back to the road, full of confidence for her knowledge of engine mechanics. I gripped the door and the seat cushion hard, anticipating an explosion.

The car was definitely not working “better than ever” but I knew that it would do no good to argue with her at this point. I just needed to make it to the airport. Traffic on Interstate 5 was already heavy but it was not yet stopped.

We were getting closer to the airport and Tacoma. You could tell because there was a stench from the paper mills expunging a pulpy sulphur smell that was often called the “aroma of Tacoma”. Even miles away, I could already smell it.

“You’re brother killed himself…” was still echoing from my mom’s voice through the phone line yesterday from hundreds of miles away. What exactly did that mean?

“How are you feeling this morning?” Catherine asked as she took the airport exit ramp.

“Tired, but OK,” I answered. It was a well timed question. Not much time really to answer because the airport was laid out before us and there wasn’t much of an answer that I wanted to give. I wasn’t OK. I wasn’t anything. I was numb. And I was moving through the motions of my life, disconnected from my feelings.

Catherine’s car chugged up to the curb of the SeaTac departures.

“Don’t turn the car off until you get home,” I joked, “You might not get it started.” I tried to lighten the mood but Catherine wasn’t buying it. She reached across the center console separating the front seat and grabbed me, pulled me towards her and hugged me tight.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said. And as she released me, she finished by saying, “ and don’t you let go.” And as she turned her head back forward, I could see tears welling up in her eyes.

I would later learn that siblings of someone who dies by suicide have a forty percent greater chance of dying by suicide themselves. Catherine seemed to have more awareness of this.

I waited for her to say more but after an awkward pause, nothing more came. I realized that is how she thought about my brother’s death.

She thinks he let go.

“Don’t you let go.” I emphasized the “you” as I repeated it to myself. Catherine had more experience with traumatic loss. I wondered what was she trying to tell me?

After a moment of silence she reached across the center cup caddy of the car and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. She looked me in the eyes and I squeezed back and after a moment, I sighed a deep sigh and I stepped to the rainy airport curb. I retrieved my bag from the backseat. Bohdi gave a couple more barks, as if to say, “Get the hell out of my car and don’t come back.” But it was only a couple more barks before he jumped into the front seat I had just exited and laid down.

The back car door slammed and I stepped forward to give her a little wave. She glanced at me, smiled and waved back and I stood on the curb and watched as she headed back towards Interstate 5. I watched until her black smokestack ambled out of sight.

Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC is a grief and trauma therapist in St. Paul, Minnesota. Discover more at www.grieftrauma.com.

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