It's been said that suicide is painless, but I say that whoever believes that
has never tried it.
It's the most painful thing I've ever experienced, even more painful than when Butch, my husband, died two years ago. I thought I'd never get over that, and it, of course, is what led me to the suicide thing. But I'm getting ahead of myself now.
I'm not the melodramatic type. I didn't choose to do it on a Panama Canal cruise because of any theatrical element. I didn't much care that people back home would wag their tongues about my returning to the scene of Butch's death, right there in Guatemala, to end my own life. I guess curiosity just overwhelmed my need to make a clean exit. I wanted to see where he died, just get a glimpse of what he'd gone through when the tornado, spawned from a hurricane, had destroyed the building he was in. I wanted to picture it in my mind, not to end the pain I'd carried since his death, but just to bring closure to his life and mine. I had chosen to die in Puerto Quetzal, simply because that's where I'd be when I reached that closure.
But I never intended to go with a group of Christians. All I told the travel agent is that I wanted to travel cheap. Next thing I know, she's telling me I can get a group rate if I hook up with this single's group from Something-or-Other Church that just happens to be going on this Panama cruise. The rate was actually lower than the cost of flying to Guatemala on my own, so I jumped at it, emptying every penny of my meager savings account to purchase the ticket. I figured it wouldn't be so bad traveling with that group since I had no intentions of joining in their festivities anyway. But imagine my surprise when I unlocked my cabin door and found a roommate inside.
She was cute, in a church mouse sort of way, with big eyes that looked startled and a smile that ate up half of her face. "Hi!" She practically squealed when I came in. "I'm your room mate." She stuck out her hand. "Mitsy Carpenter. They told me you were new in the group and that you were from Chastain, and I grew up just down the road in Montclair, so I thought it would be fun. I'm a nurse at St. Francis Hospital. Oh, that's such a cute blouse. Where in the world did you get it?"
My life flashed before my eyes as I gaped at her. "Uh...Sears, I think. I'm not supposed to have a roommate."
Her expression crashed. "No? Well, they told me this was my room. You are Sharon Jones, aren't you?"
Her smile snapped back across her face. "Well, then there's no mistake. We're roomies! Don't worry. I promise I won't get in your way. My hair is short so I don't have to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror, and I'm flexible on when to take showers and things, and I don't snore."
I just stood there, wondering how this could have happened. I imagined her wanting to stay up all night talking and trying on my clothes. I'd had visions of spending the time alone, writing a few letters to people who would feel betrayed at what I was about to do, thinking about my husband and how the pain would soon end. I wondered how I could get rid of her. I looked around. "No offense, but this place is just not big enough for two people."
"Sure it is. See? Two beds."
"But we can't breathe in here. Really, there must be an alternative."
"Actually, there's not," she said with a look of apology. "Every cabin on the ship is booked. Your only choice is to switch roommates, if you want. But I'd understand if you wanted to do that. Really, I'd be fine with that."
The catch in her voice suggested that the very thought of my switching could warp her for life. I dropped my bag on the bed and sank down next to it. I should have known. It never occurred to me to ask if I had a private room. I just assumed I did. But I had asked for a cheap trip, and the travel agent had given me one.
As Mitsy busied herself putting her things in the tiny closet and her drawer, I tried to run back over my options. I could get off the ship and find another way to get to Guatemala. Or I could forget my need for closure, and just end things back at home. The final option, of course, was to bite the bullet and stay. After all, how bad could it be? We'd be at Puerto Quetzal in just a couple of days, and then it would be over.
I glanced up and saw Mitsy looking at me with her eyebrows arched like a child persuading her mother to play Barbies. "Stay, Sharon, and I'll do my best to stay out of the room as much as possible. Mostly, I'll be with my other friends on deck. We'd love to have you join us. We have this great speaker who came with us, and he's going to be leading us in Bible study every night."
"Bible study?" I asked with disdain. "You came on a cruise to do a Bible study? Couldn't you have stayed at home and done that?"
"Well, most of us don't drink or gamble, and believe it or not, I love to study my Bible, especially with a teacher like this one." She pulled a dress out of her bag and slipped it on a hanger. "I've always wanted to take a class from him. It's like a dream come true for me. Why don't you come with me?"
I sat there, almost amused. "No, thanks. I don't think so." Her disappointment was like a neon sign on her face. I hoped I wasn't that transparent. "You probably have other friends on board, huh?" She asked.
"Actually, I don't know a soul," I said, almost defiantly. I got up and unzipped my bag and irritably started unpacking it. She came near, as if to help.
"Are they bringing your suitcase up?" "Nope," I said. "This is it."
Mitsy gaped at the duffel bag. "Boy, I wish I could travel that light. You don't look like you've got more than one or two days' worth of clothes."
"Actually, I don't. I'm only going as far as our first port." "Really?" She asked. "They let you do that?"
"What can they do? I paid full fare. I can get off any place I want."
"Then you'll only be here for two days?"
"That's right." She watched as I pulled out two pairs of shorts, a couple of T-shirts, some rolled-up socks, and a framed picture of Butch.
"Oh, is that your boyfriend?" She asked.
I shot her a look that said her curiosity wasn't appreciated. What was her problem, anyway? I thought of grabbing the Bible off of the television set and thrusting it at her. Go take a class or something. Knock yourself out. "No, he's my husband," I said.
"Well... why didn't he come with you?"
"Because he's dead." I knew the words sounded callous, and I didn't say it like that to shock her. But I just didn't have the patience for niceties. Not now
"Oh!" She said, as if she'd just committed the biggest faux pas in history. The Manners Police would be banging the door down any minute now "I'm so sorry!"
I looked up at her and saw that her eyes were full of tears. Was this woman for real? Tears for a man she didn't even know? Bizarre. I kept unpacking, unfolding and refolding the few things from my bag.
"How... how long ago?"
"Six months," I said. To my surprise the words came easily, without that constricting of my throat or the stinging in my eyes.
She sank down onto my bed, as if we were slumber party pals. "You poor thing."
I didn't want to be thought of as a poor thing. "I'm fine," I said.
"So ...are you taking the cruise to get your mind off of things?"
She was nosy, as well as pushy-and I wanted her to go away. I pulled my stationery out of my bag, two changes of underwear, and the big ninety-day supply of my sleeping pills. "You might say that. We had been saving to take a cruise. So I decided to come ahead anyway."
"Good for you," she said. She wiped her tears. "Was he sick?"
"Nope." I opened the drawer and dropped my things in one at a time, with slow, deliberate movements, placing them carefully, as though their position was of grave importance. "He worked for the Associated Press. He was in Guatemala covering the hurricane, and a tornado leveled the building he was in." "That's awful," she whispered again, as if the drama were unfolding right before her eyes. She looked at his picture as I set it up next to my bed. If I'd known I was going to have a roommate, I probably wouldn't have brought it. But I'd wanted to talk to him along the way. I'd wanted to believe he was on this journey with me, understanding and even encouraging.
I must have gotten that dark-tunnel look on my face because, before I knew it, she stood up and hugged me. My first thought was that she had a lot of nerve, hugging a person she'd never met before, acting like we were best buddies. I resented it and stiffened. But she didn't seem offended.
"My pastor... he deals with grief all the time. People burying loved ones. If you want to talk to him, he's on the ship, too. I know he could help you get through this."
"I don't need help," I clipped. I zipped up my bag and stuck it under the bed. From the look on her face, you would have thought she was the one who'd lost a husband.
I picked up the bottle of pills, and tried to drop them into my purse. I must have been shaking, because my hand slipped and the bottle fell to the floor and rolled under my bed. I bent to reach for it, but in a second she was on her knees, reaching under the bed to catch it. "I got it," she said, then held it up to me.
I took it, hoping she had not seen the contents. But her face changed again. "Ambien," she said. "We give this to patients who have trouble sleeping."
I didn't say anything. I was beginning to feel violated. "That's a big supply," she said. Her voice had hushed to a whisper, and I didn't look at her as I dropped the bottle into my purse. She knew, I thought. She was putting the pieces together, and she was figuring out my plan.
Suddenly, I had to get away from her. "Are you gonna be here a while?" I asked.
Her eyebrows arched hopefully. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Then I'll see you later." I grabbed my purse and started to the door, knowing I had probably hurt her feelings. But she seemed like the type who could get over it.
I bought some stationery in the gift shop because I didn't want to risk going back into the cabin and running into her. Then I found a quiet place on deck and started writing my letters as the boat moved down the coast of Mexico. I wrote to my mother and told her I loved her and that none of this was her fault. She often blamed herself for every negative thing that had occurred in my life. I told her that I simply saw a light at the end of all this darkness, and I was heading toward it. As I sealed the envelope, I hoped that would be a nice thought for her.
I needed to write my sister and Butch's mom and my father, whom I hadn't seen in years. But the letter to my mother had taken a lot out of me. I was glad I had two days to do the rest. I decided to walk around the ship, see what it was like, imagine what Butch and I would have been doing if life had gone differently. This cruise was obviously hosting passengers besides the church group, for the casino was alive with gamblers, drinks in hand, hovering around tables and hunched over slot machines. I glanced into the theater, and saw that a game of bingo was being called.
I passed little bars and cafes of all themes and a man playing guitar at the center of some tables, where couples sat nursing their margaritas. I imagined Butch pulling me to the small dance floor, spinning and dipping me as I laughed out loud. It had been a long time since I'd laughed. I turned and walked away until I could no longer hear the music.
The scent of the world famous meals being cooked below already wafted up the stairwell, advertising that dinner would soon be served. But if I went, I'd have to sit with Mitsy's crowd, so I made the decision to skip eating tonight.
I passed a glass-enclosed room with a bar, and saw Mitsy sitting at a table with about twenty other men and women. They had their Bibles out and were talking animatedly. I stopped and stared, not meaning to, wondering why anyone would want to sit around reading their Bibles on a cruise.
But stopping had been my mistake. Mitsy saw me, and before I could escape, she was on her feet and pushing through the door. "Sharon! There you are! Come in here. I want my friends to meet you."
I backed away. "No, I can't. I was just on my way to... bingo."
It was lame, I knew. I was no more the bingo type than I was the Bible type.
"Just for a minute," she said. "Come on. I told them about you. I hope you don't mind. About your husband and everything. We prayed for you."
I was embarrassed. I felt the others' eyes on me, and I wanted to shrink away. "You what?"
"I don't need prayer," I said quietly through clenched teeth. "You had no right to tell other people about me."
"Well, I didn't tell them much, because I don't know much. But my heart went out to you."
I couldn't believe her gall. "Keep your heart to yourself," I said. "I don't need you or anybody else praying for me, okay?" I didn't know why I felt like crying-I hadn't even cried while packing my bag or writing to my mother.
"I didn't mean to upset you. I just believe in prayer, and that God is listening and watching over you. I know He loves you..." "Oh yeah?" I asked defiantly. "Then how come He let a building fall on my husband?" I blinked back those tears stinging my eyes and backed away. "I don't need or want your prayers, so tell your friends just to forget about me. Tell them to consider me a figment of your imagination."
"They can't do that," she whispered. "Why not?" I demanded.
"Because you're not here by accident. Neither are we." "Well, at least you got that right. I'm not here by accident. I have a plan. And you are not part of it."
"That's fine," she said, not at all angry, even though my words had been chosen to cut. "I don't have to be. But if you want something to do-something other than bingo-it's a really great group of people. A couple of them have lost spouses, too. You see that woman sitting at the end, with the red hair? Both her husband and baby daughter were killed two years ago in a car accident. Drunk driver. She suffered horrible grief, but the Lord saw her through it. I know it would help you to talk to her. Maybe I can get her to sit with us at dinner."
I stole a look over her shoulder and saw the redhead actually laughing and talking with the group. Was Mitsy putting me on? Why wasn't that woman rabid with rage? Why wasn't she contemplating her own suicide?
The questions renewed my anger, and I didn't want to feel it. I wanted that numbness to invade me again, to keep me moving according to plan. I had more letters to write. I had more thinking to do. I wanted to be alone.
"Look, I know you mean well," I managed to say. "But I have things to do." With that, I took off walking as fast as I could, as if my life depended on getting to that bingo game.
That night, I might have bought something to eat at one of the snack bars, but I had no money to spend. Except for what I'd left in the bank for my burial expenses, I'd spent all I had on the cruise. The hunger pangs almost felt satisfying, since they'd spared me the irritation of dining with Mitsy. I considered sleeping out on the deck, but one of the porters told me I couldn't. I hung around in a bar until the wee hours drinking only water, since it was free. Finally, just before dawn, I went back to the cabin, hoping Mitsy would be sound asleep.
She wasn't. She was sitting up in bed, reading her Bible under the light of a lamp. She looked up at me as I came in. Man, this woman had problems, I thought.
"Mom, I'm home," I said sarcastically. "Are you all right?" She asked.
"Fine," I said. I grabbed a big T-shirt out of my drawer, then went into the bathroom and changed. When I came back out, she was lying in bed. The lamp was still on. "We missed you at dinner."
I wanted to laugh. "I bet," I said as I pulled back my covers. "I brought you some leftovers."
I turned around and looked at her. She had her face to the wall. "You did?"
Yeah. --- the fridge.
I looked around and saw the small, square refrigerator at the bottom of our closet. I hadn't noticed it before. I opened it and found the Styrofoam box there. It was full of fruit and rolls, things that didn't need to be heated. "Thanks," I said.
But she didn't answer. I was pretty sure she had fallen asleep. I sat on the floor and ate, wondering why she would have done that for me, why she would have waited up the way she had, why she would have told her friends to pray...
Questions swirled around in my head like the tornado that had taken my husband from me. And as I drifted to sleep, Mitsy's words continued to play through my mind like a warped CD. "You're not here by accident ...you're not here by accident..."
But that strong sense of resolve returned to me two days later when we reached Puerto Quetzal in Guatemala. By then I had finished all my letters. They were addressed and stamped, and I had safely dropped them into the ship's mailbox. It was my way of sealing my decision, I thought. I couldn't turn back now In just a few days, those suicide notes would make their way into the mailboxes of those I loved the most. It was final.
Everywhere I went that day, I noticed Mitsy nearby. She never looked as if she were following me, exactly. She was just there, alone or with a friend, fanning herself in the sweltering heat. I decided I was going to have to shake her before I got off the ship. I thought I had managed to do just that, but as I walked down the ramp, I heard a voice behind me.
"You mind if I come along with you?" She asked in that perky voice. "I got separated from my friends somehow"
If you hadn't been playing my shadow, maybe you could have kept up with them. "Actually, I do mind. I really wanted to be alone today." I started walking faster.
"Maybe you think you do," she said. "But this is gonna be painful. Seeing where your husband died..." Her voice broke off. "I'm coming with you."
I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around. "No! I don't want you to come!"
"I know you think you don't," she said. "But I'm sure when you get there, you'll wish you had someone."
How could I get through to her? "Read my lips," I said with narrowed eyes. I knew my words hurt her. But I no longer cared. "I want to do this alone."
"Okay" she said. "Then I'll just hang back, and I won't say a word. You won't even know I'm here."
"No!" I said. "I don't want you with me. Get off my back!" She got tears in her eyes again, but she wouldn't give up. "Look, I know I'm getting on your nerves and that you wish you'd never met me. But I've just got to tell you that God loves you more than you'll ever know, and someone's already died in your place. You don't have to do this. He can help you find the light again."
I wondered if she had read my letters, if she'd shared them with her friends ...Then I realized she couldn't have. I had mailed them. They were on their way. But I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had figured out my plan. She had seen the pills and put the few things I'd said together. I never should have told her I wouldn't be going farther than Guatemala.
A crowd came by and I took the chance to cut through it, losing her. I took off running, running, running until I knew that she wasn't behind me. Then, leaning against the wall of an old adobe building riddled with bullet holes, I tried to get my bearings. Trying to catch my breath in the stifling heat, I saw the hills surrounding the town, crowded with tiny adobe houses topped in red tiled roofs. The poverty was visible, an ironic contrast to the tropical beauty and lush colors of the landscape.
I got out my map and tried to find the area where I knew Butch had been found. It was near the coast, l thought, not too far from here. He would have been right around here, staring intently at the ocean, waiting for the eye of the storm. He would have been making sure he got it all-the feel of the winds off the Pacific, the debris flying through the air, the sight of the tornado making its way toward him...
I walked for miles, carefully checking the map and noting the landmarks. I passed a barefoot child who tried to sell me a dead chicken and another who offered to take my picture. Occasional vendors made some kind of tamale in their stands, and cruise tourists lined up for them as if they hadn't eaten in days. A man with a guitar stood on a street comer, singing a song in Spanish. I tripped over the hat he'd set out to collect tips.
At last I found the place I had marked on my map, the place where my husband's life had ended. I looked around and saw the mountains he had written so descriptively about. He'd been captivated by the beauty and power of them, knowing that some were active volcanoes ready to erupt at a moment's notice. After the hurricane, those picturesque hills had caused lethal mud slides, killing thousands. Funny how beauty had such deadly potential.
Evidence of the hurricane remained all around, broken trees and destroyed buildings not yet rebuilt. At last I found the crumbled foundation of the hotel where Butch had been sheltered. My heart began to pound hard as I stepped into it, wondering where they had found him. Had he suffered at all? What were his last moments like? Had he thought of me? Had he prayed? Had he run through the might-have-beens? The house we might have bought, the years we might have shared, the children we might have borne?
Regrets and grief and anger flooded over me, literally knocking me to my knees in the stones and dirt. Unexpectedly, I began to cry. I had planned to do this thing easily. To simply come to this place; sit down and tell my husband I loved him; and then with the breeze wafting in from the ocean, take my little pills. I hadn't expected this pain, this ambush of grief, this despair that didn't lessen at the thought of my end.
I had lied to my mother. There really was no light at the end of my darkness. There was only blacker darkness. Maybe I had mistaken the light for a reflection that wasn't even real.
Still, with tears running down my face, I reached into my bag, felt around for my bottle of pills. I couldn't feel them. I searched through my purse-there was my wallet, my sunglasses case, my room key, my passport.
The bottle was gone.
I sat back hard onto the ground. Obviously, Mitsy the meddler had taken it. Rage erupted like molten lava inside me, and I wanted to scream or throw something. Now I wished she had followed me so I could turn this indignation on her. She had no right! This was not her life. She didn't have to live it.
And neither did I.
I looked out over the water, saw the rough waves frothing against the shore. I wasn't a good swimmer, never had been. I could walk down that pier, drop off the end, and let the ocean be my grave.
Making the decision, I abandoned my bag there on the dirt. There was nothing in it I would need again. Perhaps some hungry Guatemalan child would claim it probably before I even hit the water. He would rummage through it, thrilled with his finds.
With renewed energy, I headed for the pier. Each step took me closer to my goal, closer to the end of this pain, closer to the light, reflected or not.
I reached the end of that pier and gazed down into the green foaming waves. I'll jump in, I thought, and swim out as hard as I can, and at some point, my arms will give out and I'll go under, and the current will carry me away. I tried to picture that light, but all I could see, no matter how hard I imagined, was darkness. Smothering darkness, oppressive darkness, unending darkness...
I dropped down onto the pier and wailed into my knees, sobbing just like the night I got the phone call telling me Butch's body had been found.
You don't have to do this. He can help you find the light again. Mitsy's words came back to me, but this time, I imagined Butch saying them. And I wanted to shout out that no one would ever help me find the light, that it had gone out when he was killed, that there wasn't any more light on this earth for me.
Lift your face. A voice, still and small, emerged from the chaos of my mind. And as if someone's finger physically lifted my chin, I looked up. There before me, I saw the glory of a Guatemalan sunset, full of vibrant color and moving toward the horizon. Then, like a nuclear explosion that irradiated everything within its reach, the sun burst into flame, coloring the sky in blinding burnt orange light.
He can help you find the light again ...You're not here by accident... We've been praying for you...
Suddenly the thought of throwing myself into the darkness seemed so futile, and even the pills, if I found them, held little hope. But here was the light, bright and burning in the sky and glittering off the water, as clear as the hope that Mitsy knew It was the same light I had seen in her face. The same light I had seen in the red-haired widow's eyes. The light I had witnessed in that group that took so much pleasure in printed words from a sacred book...
In stunned silence, I sat there watching the light until it faded down beneath the horizon. I felt the rage and misery and grief seeping out of me. I felt the beginning of light glowing in my heart, the hope of joy again-the prelude to life. Was it possible that Butch had found this before his death?
Slowly, I rose to my feet. A warm breeze feathered gently across my face, whispered through my hair...like a sweet caress that promised rest and peace.
What if Mitsy was right? What if the Giver and Taker of Life
really did love me? Could it be that He had assigned me to a room with her?
Not totally certain whether I had won or lost the fight for my life, I wearily left the pier and went back to search for my bag. Miraculously, it was still there, waiting for life to go on. Waiting for new life to set in.
And as I walked down the coast back toward the boat, I wondered where I might find Mitsy. I needed her to tell me how I might truly find the real light I'd glimpsed today. The light that was bright enough to chase away my darkness. The light I had seen shining in her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Award-winning author Terri Blackstock has published eleven Christian novels since leaving the secular market, where she had 3.5 million books in print under two pseudonyms. Her bestselling projects include the Sun Coast Chronicles series, the Newpointe 911 series, and Seasons under Heaven, a novel cowritten with Beverly LaHaye. Terri has appeared on national television programs such as The 700 Club and Home Life, and has been a guest on numerous radio programs across the country.
Blackstock, Terri. "So Shine" from The Story Teller's Collection. Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2000, p. 16 - 30.
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