Editor’s comments: We will occasionally see the word “courageous” in descriptions of the best memoirs and personal essays. This descriptor signals that the author has taken us on a very personal…often uncomfortable… journey, bypassing normal fears of telling to share raw feelings while unearthing ours. We know we are experiencing the author’s quest for truth and meaning. That quality distinguishes literary writing as an art, a search for truth. This is what distinguishes Kerry Leddy’s courageous writing in “Beside Myself,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
So much about those first days following Sarah’s death have vanished, like a drawing on an Etch A Sketch that has been shaken. All that remains are a few blurred images of the steady stream of friends and family arriving at our door with Tupperware containers filled with stews, casseroles, and salads. Our refrigerator was overflowing; my stomach was empty.
But the visit of one condolence caller, a neighbor, has stuck in my mind with an awful clarity. Almost as soon as he finished hugging me, he asked, “So, did Sarah ever try this before?” His tone was chipper.
“Suicide?” I asked, befuddled, certain I had misunderstood.
“Yes. Did she?”
Did he really want me to tell him the details that she had been hospitalized once before? I hoped my terse response signaled that I did not want to discuss this further.
“Oh, so this time she was successful,” he said, his voice rising at the end, injecting a bizarre tone of enthusiasm, as if Sarah had finally broken a new swimming record.
Shaken, I responded, “Why, yes! We always wanted her to persevere. She did it!”
Immediately, I wanted to take it back, imagining that in his anxiety and discomfort, he wasn’t thinking clearly, that he would soon regain his reason and feel terrible. But, no, he seemed not to notice my sarcasm. He just pursed his lips and nodded, as if we were in complete agreement that kids today need to work harder and stick to it.
With the death of my eighteen-year-old child, I had been plunged into a world I barely recognized.
I longed to disappear into sleep, but I couldn’t. My mind was afraid of what I might see and feel in that vulnerable space. Instead, I walked and walked, through the rooms of our house, up and down the street, back and forth. I was like a caged lion trying to pace my way back to life as it should be.
When sleep finally came, it was more like taking the batteries out than gradually powering down. Usually a vivid dreamer, now I found only white space. My thoughts were saying “No, this I refuse to envision.”
One morning, I was standing in my driveway retrieving the newspaper when my neighbor Janet walked over “for a visit.” She took a deep breath, took my hand, and said, “Kerry, how are you? I don’t know how you survive. I know I couldn’t.” Her words were meant as a kind of compliment, but they sounded strangely accusatory, as if she were saying, “How can you be standing here, surviving at all?” Were my grief truly devastating, I would not be standing upright. I would be forever prostrate, inconsolable. At one time, I too would have imagined I couldn’t go on, wouldn’t survive if I lost one of my children. But you do go on breathing in spite of yourself. In spite of the knee-buckling despondency that continues to overtake you.
Now I had a new way of understanding the word “visit.” I lived in a world others did not want to stay in. A place where a child, once vital and full of hope, could become ill with bipolar disorder and wish to die. Friends might come and sit for a while, chat, drink tea, have dinner, but no one would want to feel at home here, to imagine this kind of tragedy could happen to them. Parents need to think they can keep their children safe. I was every parent’s nightmare.
Before Sarah, I would have been right there with them—just visiting.
How could I be with others when every part of my body hurt, even my eyelashes? Every encounter, every street corner, every moment brought deep pain, as if shards of glass were flying at me from all angles. Each outing was perilous and left me close to weeping. Seeing people do ordinary things—going to lunch, shopping, walking dogs—acting as if life were exactly the same. Didn’t they know nothing was the same? For me, the very sunlight was an intrusion. I wore sunglasses at all times, even indoors.
Every word, every action, had a new context, a new meaning. One afternoon, I went to pick up my younger daughter, Anna, from school. I was searching the halls when the dean of students popped out of her office and inquired in a friendly voice, “Have you lost a child?” As soon as the words left her mouth, she looked stricken.
Another time during that first month, I received a call from a woman who ran a support group for parents who had lost children. I imagined there must be some database of grieving mothers, since I had received several calls offering help. After inviting me to their next meeting, the kind woman told me about the other parents in the group and the comfort they found in sharing their stories. “No one other than another parent who lost a child can understand what we’ve gone through,” she said.
Her words struck me. What are we to call ourselves, we parents who have lost a child? If a husband dies, you are a widow; with the death of a wife, you are a widower; when your parents die, you are an orphan. We have ways of understanding these losses. But when your child dies, there is no word for what you become. It defies our language, defies our comprehension. Too dreadful to have a name.
Thinking about the group, I found myself hesitating, questioning whether I could sit with others, listen to their pain. On the one hand, it could be comforting to be with people who would understand what I was going through. On the other, I wondered if I was up to it.
As she went on, pointing out the many ways parents in the group found solace in each other, my mind went back and forth between yes and no. It felt as though I had flipped a coin when I said, “Yes, I’ll come.” Grabbing a pad and paper, I jotted down the time and location.
When I was about to hang up, she asked, “How did Sarah die?”
My head whirled. “She was sick. Depression. Bipolar. Suicide.”
Clearly sensing my hesitancy, she added, “I’m so, so sorry. You know we have another mother who comes regularly who lost a daughter to suicide ten years ago.”
After a brief pause, she added, “And, even more tragically, three years later her other daughter took her life.”
I felt like my brain was going to explode. “Oh, my God,” I gasped, almost dropping the receiver, as though a shock wave had passed through the phone line and burned my hand. I wanted to cover my ears, tell her to please, please, stop. I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough. In that moment, no matter how much sympathy I felt for this mother, or how much support I needed, I didn’t want to get anywhere near her. I didn’t want to be in a world where losing my other daughter was even a possibility.
A few days later, I received a call from a friend-of-a-friend- of-a-friend whose son had died a year earlier, asking me if I might want to get together. I decided lunch with just one mother, who had lost just one child, might be manageable.
We sat in a booth, across from each other, at a local restaurant that I have no memory of—but what I do remember was her very first question: “How many were at your service?”
I could barely absorb her words. I kept thinking I must be misunderstanding. I knew my brain was still not functioning properly—maybe that was the problem.
“I’m sorry…how many…What?” Gradually, understanding seeped in. “Oh, at the memorial?”
“Um…” I tried to envision the service, to calculate the numbers, to give her an answer. I could barely remember the room. I started to feel lightheaded.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know. I can’t picture the place or who was there.”
She continued, “We couldn’t even fit everyone at ours. There were over a thousand people. They needed an extra room to hold our overflow. They had to watch the service by video.”
I just stared as I pushed the food around on my plate.
For a second, I felt transported back to the early days of mothering: Whose kid read youngest, whose was the most gifted, the best athlete, whose kid had the most friends? Was I meant to feel that my daughter’s funeral might not have been good enough, big enough, well-enough attended?
It took everything in me to get through that meal. I had already left the restaurant and was just waiting for my body to join me.
Time was passing. Bit by bit, I was being called to pick up the pieces of my old life, before Sarah’s death, but that only made me more painfully aware that she was really gone. As was my former self.
When the email reminder arrived for my next book club, I didn’t respond. I was changing my mind hourly. While several members were my closest friends, women I’d known for over twenty years, I still wasn’t on safe ground. A part of me wanted to see them—they had been with me throughout this ordeal, we had raised our kids together—but I didn’t feel ready to face the entire group.
Mostly it was my conscientious side that felt compelled to push through. But when I pictured myself sitting there, carrying on small talk, it seemed impossible. How could I go back to my old life when my old life was gone?
I said to my husband, Alan, Sarah’s stepfather, “I don’t think I can go.” Then, moments later, “Maybe I should try.” To each round of my obsessing, he would join whichever side I was leaning toward: “You shouldn’t go if you’re not ready,” or “It might be good for you to get out. You can always leave if it feels bad. But only go if you feel up to it.”
Book club began at 7:30, and at 7:30 I was still in my kitchen—not going. Then, at 7:35, I was going, but late. I’m never late.
Pacing the kitchen, Alan tried settling me down with a hug. “Please, don’t!” I said. I was jumping out of my skin.
Finally, hating this indecision, I grabbed my keys and headed out to my car.
My hands gripped the steering wheel as I drove through strangely empty streets. My stomach clenched. Come on, I said to myself—it’s only book club, not a root canal. Halfway to my friend’s house, I pulled off on the side of the road. I would turn back.
My cell phone beeped with a text. “Where are you? We miss you.”
I urged myself on, suddenly fearing that if I didn’t go tonight I might never return, that I would let my former life slip through my fingers.
Pulling up to the house, I turned off my car lights and sat in the dark, staring up at the silhouettes of my friends milling about the kitchen. It was easy to imagine the conversations inside, conversations that I had been a part of for years, about jobs, husbands, perfect children, imperfect children—perfectly alive children.
Taking deep, long breaths, I climbed out of my car and approached the house. My legs felt heavy. I crept along the side path, out of the kitchen windows’ line of vision, in preparation for flight.
As I reached the front door, I started to cry. “I can’t do this,” I said aloud and began my retreat.
But another car had just then pulled up. Without cover, I turned the doorknob and went in.
Instantly the room fell silent, but then quickly my friends all began talking at once, greeting me with long, deep hugs.
No one mentioned Sarah, perhaps fearing I would dissolve. Still, she permeated the air and every molecule of my body. She was the absent presence.
Through a haze, I watched as the ladies returned to drinking wine and nibbling on hummus and chips, as we always did before we got started talking about the book. I had no appetite, but to keep busy I picked up a cracker and with shaky hands spread some cheese. I took one small bite but quickly realized that I couldn’t chew or swallow. I grabbed a napkin and tried to spit it out.
I could barely hear the words floating around me as the small talk resumed. I watched lips move, but no sound came through the loud humming in my head, the kind I do during scary movies, to block out the scene.
Yet somehow the clinks of the wine glasses broke through, and I heard a voice say, “Kerry…Kerry.”
Oh, that’s my name. Respond. Respond, I directed my brain.
“We made your favorite—brownies.”
“Oh…thanks,” I said through a half-dead smile.
Then the first land mine detonated. One of the book- clubbers announced, “Oh, we are so thrilled! Molly got this incredible scholarship to Brown.”
There were some half-hearted congratulations as my closest friends cast sympathetic looks my way; one took my hand and gave it a tight squeeze. Another tried to change the subject, but I needed to get out. I headed for the bathroom. I stared in the mirror, repeating my now familiar mantra—breathe in, breathe out— willing myself to stop crying.
There was a knock on the door.
“Ker, you okay in there?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll be right out,” I said as I wiped away the smudges of mascara.
“I know this must be horrible,” a voice said through the door. Afraid to speak, fearing I would fall to pieces, all I could say was, “Yes.”
Returning to the group, I stood off to the side, my arms wrapped around my chest. Nearby, Laura was telling several of the women about a historical novel she was reading. Suddenly, she stopped mid-sentence, touched my arm and gently asked, “You okay, baby? You’re swaying.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, adding, “I didn’t realize I was moving,” as I tried to quiet my body.
In my head, I repeated, “Please, no one look at me, no one speak to me.” But within minutes I was moving again, shifting my weight from one foot to the other.
I thought of Sarah, how like most infants she loved motion—constant motion. Sometimes, as I swayed and bobbed with her in my arms, she would throw her head back or twist around to take in the world, especially faces, from another perspective. I think I found this rhythm as comforting as she did, like soothing music playing in my head.
During the first year of her life, whenever Sarah wasn’t in my arms, I’d still find myself swaying. How naturally all that swaying came to me—maybe something wired in me from my own mother, maybe from all mothers to their babies. I remember disembarking from a weeklong cruise, returning to steady ground, and how my brain continued rocking and rolling for days—my sea brain, unable to recognize the solidity of land.
With Sarah, my brain never stopped registering her as part of me, her body as familiar as my own. Here I was, rocking myself to soothe my distress, as I had once soothed hers. Maybe my swaying brought her back, comforting me in a place where once I had felt so alive and essential, but where I now felt so completely adrift and alone.
“I’m sorry, I have to go,” I said and headed for the door.
A week or so later, Alan and I ventured downtown for tapas. My old dance teacher, Lin, whom I hadn’t seen in years, was leaving the restaurant just as we arrived. I was trapped. Knowing she had likely heard about Sarah, I steeled myself for her approach, the uncomfortable outbreak of “I’m sorry.”
But Lin neither avoided me nor made light conversation. Instead, she walked right up, looked me in the eyes, held my gaze, and gave me a long, tight hug. Then she walked on. Not a word uttered. Nothing was required of me. I slowly exhaled. I couldn’t have told Lin what I needed, but somehow, she had gotten it exactly right.
It was late October, three months after Sarah died, when Anna’s first semester parent-teacher conferences were scheduled. It felt crushing having only one student, one child to consider. When I arrived for my first allotted ten-minute meeting, I sat numbly across from Anna’s math teacher. I tried my best to look interested, but I’m sure I appeared to be in a trance. I was doing my own math, counting the tiles on the floor, then the ceiling.
My second conference was with Anna’s Spanish teacher. As soon as I sat in the chair across from him, my mind flashed to Sarah’s memorial service, where he had sat to my right, with the headmaster and the many teachers who had come to support Anna. My composure dissolved. With no place to hide, I wept. Not a few tears—this was a downpour. No matter how hard I willed myself to stop, no matter the embarrassment, there was no off valve.
My tears blotted Anna’s test papers, which Señor Murga had laid before me. He continued on, telling me how amazing she was, about her latest grades and her homework assignments as I wept. The nicer his words, the harder I cried. When my time was up, I shook his hand and left the room.
I hadn’t spoken one word.
No longer able to see or touch Sarah, I was in a constant state of dislocation. A few days later, as I was driving home on the Beltway, I heard Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful on the radio—the song that had played as mourners walked out through the sanctuary at Sarah’s memorial. Within seconds, my sobs made it too difficult to drive. I pulled off at the next exit to calm myself. I would take the local roads home. I started up the car to resume my ride, but I couldn’t remember the route. I felt brain damaged, unable to make connections; it was as if I were looking through a kaleidoscope. In my mind, I could only see two spots— my home and where I was now—nothing in between.
Strangely, in that moment, my mind touched on a simple game from childhood that I used to play on long car rides. A little blue car sits atop a piece of cardboard with a picture of a road curving in all directions, like a maze. The car was held in place by a plastic cover. With a magnetic wand held under the board, my goal was to move the car from the starting point to the finish line.
As I sat, frozen, enclosed in my car, on the side of the road, my hands stuck on the wheel, staring straight ahead, I thought how I needed a magnetic wand to lead me home.
I called my husband.
“I’m so scared. I can’t figure out how to get home.”
As I drove, listening to his directions, I kept repeating to him how beside myself I was and how frightened I felt.
Only once before had I experienced anything close to this. It was the morning I took four-year-old Sarah and her friend Connor to the playground. The park had ten slides, a train ride, and, most importantly for Sarah, a plastic pig trash can that “ate” your trash. After watching the two of them line up for the longest slide, I waited at the bottom to catch them. Connor swooped into my arms first. I expected Sarah right after, but another child appeared. I felt a pang of worry, but I assumed she’d be out next. When she wasn’t, I grabbed Connor’s hand and quickly climbed up to the start of the slide. No Sarah. I started calling her name. Other parents jumped in to help. I don’t know how long it took before we found her; she had wandered over to feed the pig some trash she’d found. Then, realizing she had drifted too far, she had set off looking for me, but in the wrong direction.
Right before a mother yelled, “I found her!” I saw myself from above the park, floating, as if in a dream—beside myself. As if everything was being recorded in slow motion, the image and feelings disconnected.
Now Sarah was gone, and I was once again pulling myself out of the scene at my most fragile moment.
For the rest of the day, those two words, beside myself, kept echoing in my head. I Googled the phrase and saw that it comes from the fifteenth century and meant “maddened or out of one’s senses.”
I thought back to Señor Murga, how I had been dissolved in grief, yet at the same time I was noticing his perfect composure. From this place, I was able to watch myself. The observing part of my brain was carrying on a conversation between my feeling self and the thinking one. Now, I pictured myself asking him, “Señor Murga, have you been speaking to weeping mothers all morning long?”
Yet even now, as I write these words, I notice it is the clinical part of my mind writing. The emotional part has gotten up and left the room.
Keeping busy became my fallback. When the weight of grief pinned me to my bed in the mornings, I would think of Anna. She needed me not to crumble, to be the mother she knew, not some ghost of myself. Yet I feared that if I turned my mind away from Sarah, I would lose her completely, shattering my past. I already felt I was losing a part of my future—seeing her as a college student, a young woman, an artist, a mother. All of that had been painted over with one brushstroke.
I needed to find a way to hold on to both my daughters and still move forward. After my mother died, I remember hearing my father say to friends: “I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.” It wasn’t until years later that I heard him add, “I was so distraught. I was afraid if I stopped I would never move again.”
I decided to get moving, clean out a cabinet, a closet, empty the dishwasher. I wrote thank-you notes to friends for all the meals and support over the weeks and months. I started to deal with the bills and insurance forms that had arrived in our mailbox. I spent hours on the phone with “insurance consultants” who rejected all our claims. Mental illness was not as “real” an illness as cancer or diabetes.
I became fixated on getting one bill paid—the ambulance that the residential hospital called when Sarah died. She had been there less than a week. That, I figured, was an expense that should be covered.
“I’m sorry,” said the woman on the other end of the line “but that wasn’t pre-certified.”
“Pre-certified?” There must be some confusion. The bill was for an ambulance.
The woman kept repeating that it wasn’t pre-certified, and I kept repeating that one could not pre-certify an ambulance.
I asked for a manager.
“I am a manager.” We went on in the same endless loop.
“But you’re not hearing me. It was an AM-BU-LANCE! You don’t know you need one until it happens,” I argued. “It was an EM-ER-GEN-CY.”
“You don’t need to raise your voice with me,” she said.
I took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you.”
Pleading, I went on, “Just think about it a second—how can someone know they need an ambulance beforehand? Right? Even if you won’t pay me, can you at least please see my point? Just agree that it doesn’t make sense and I will go away. I promise. I won’t even tell them you agreed with me.”
No, she could not.
In the end, I gave up, saying, “Well, I’d like you to pre- certify us for five ambulances for the future, so that if someone else in my family ever needs one we will be covered. I want you to write that down and email me a copy.”
“I can’t do that,” she answered.
I paid the bill.
A couple of months later, we applied for new insurance.
Filling out the application, we had to list previous health issues. Fortunately, physically healthy, the only recent doctor appointments I had listed were the eight sessions of what I termed “grief therapy.” As if that were even possible.
A rejection letter arrived explaining that they were not insuring us because of the therapy. Assuming it was an error, I called the insurance company. The woman on the phone, after briefly listening, said, “That’s correct; that’s why we didn’t approve you.”
“For eight sessions?” I asked.
“Well, one can never know where therapy can lead to, can one?” she replied.
Actually, I had a pretty good idea where it could all lead.
“What, as compared to bills for things like cancer, lupus? It was only eight sessions…after my daughter died…She was only eighteen.” I started to cry.
Her curt response, “Well, my mother died last year, and I didn’t need therapy.”
“I am hanging up now,” I said.
Unable to let go of this rejection and this woman’s cruelty, I wrote a letter to the State Insurance Commission. Within a week, I received a call from one of the department heads.
After Donald identified himself, he began, “I wanted to call you personally. I was outraged when I read your letter—at what happened to you. Both for the rejection of your policy, but mostly for the way that woman spoke to you about your daughter.”
Now he was choking up. “I lost my son five years ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t feel grief. For that woman to so callously dismiss you and equate her mother dying to your daughter is outrageous.” We spent the rest of our conversation talking about our children.
I no longer cared about the insurance.
The days grew shorter and the leaves on the nearby C&O canal turned gold and red and then disappeared—even without Sarah. How could anything happen without her there to see it?
One cool, sunny afternoon, I headed out to walk along the canal path. As I rounded a bend, I noticed Bridget walking toward me. Her pace was spry and brisk, despite her seventy-plus years. I braced myself. I hadn’t seen Bridget since Sarah died. She slowed and smiled softly, her face flushed pink from the cold. Walking up to me, she caressed my arm and said, “Ah, Kerry. I’m so sorry, my dear Kerry.” Her melodic Irish accent was as comforting and sing-songy as if her words flowed over a cobbled streambed. “But remember, she is with God. A good, safe place.”
Earlier encounters with friends and neighbors had felt like blows that I couldn’t recover from, but on the canal with Bridget I felt as if she were giving me a gift. While I have no belief that Sarah is with God, she most certainly would be if there were one. But I do think she is resting in heaven—a place that exists in the minds of those left behind, where a person is remembered with love.
Slowly, I returned to the routines of life, once again cooking, once again going to cycling class, once again shaving my legs. Some color was creeping back into a world that had been only black and white.
Yet the earth could still shake and the ground open beneath my feet—maybe for a moment or two, or maybe an hour— plummeting me back, with everything turning gray. I hadn’t erased Sarah’s number from my cell phone. How I wished her old phone messages remained so I could hear her voice. I kept time by how long it had been since she died. First it was days, then weeks, then months, and now years.
In some ways, I don’t want the time to lengthen, or to have the immediacy of her loss lessen. And if I am honest with myself, there are times I am loath to give up the pain, because it binds me to her. Like a pebble I carry in my pocket that I turn over and over, its edges worn down by constant rubbing and caressing.
One afternoon, around the second anniversary of Sarah’s death, I took a painting of hers to be framed and the man helping me said, “Oh, wait, now I know why I recognize you. Your daughter was with mine in school. Um, it’s Sarah, right?” He seemed so pleased to remember. “Yes,” I said, as that crushing feeling returned to my chest. I glided over to another wall, averting my eyes. Following closely behind, he asked, “So what has she been doing?” My face crumbled as I began to weep, momentarily, once again, beside myself. Almost as quickly, anguish spread across his face. “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. I had heard about Sarah. How could I forget? I’m so sorry. How could I be so stupid?” Ruefully, in that moment, I wasn’t sure which one of us I felt sorrier for.
When Sarah was a sophomore, she was a member of a fencing team. With her long limbs and quick eye-hand coordination, she was built for the sport. To fence epee style, one needs an arsenal of lunges. Grief had become my opponent, and I had learned some tactics of my own—when to expect the slash and how to shield myself from the flick of the blade.
I grabbed the painting and headed for home.
Kerry Leddy is a Maryland writer and therapist in Potomac. She is co-chair of The New Directions in Writing program. Her essays have appeared nationally in newspapers, magazines and literary journals including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Zone 3, Washingtonian Magazine, The Huffington Post, Arlington Magazine, The Account Magazine, and Delmarva Review, which nominated her for a Pushcart Prize. She is the co-author of Wearing my Tutu to Analysis and Other Stories (2011), The Therapist in Mourning: From the Faraway Nearby (2013), both published by Columbia University Press, and Who’s Behind the Couch (2017) published by Routledge Press. Meet the Moon is her first novel.
Delmarva Review publishes the best of creative nonfiction, poetry, and short fiction selected from thousands of submissions annually from authors in the region, across the United States, and beyond. The independent literary journal is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Print and digital editions are available at Amazon and other major online bookstores. Website: DelmarvaReview.org.