My ex-husband suffered bipolar disorder. We lived among the facts of his illness. Trips to the emergency room, where he sought relief from migraine pain. Nests of paper scraps littering the futon where he had fallen asleep — finally — mid-collage-making, open scissors in hand, pointing up toward his sleeping face. Frenzied letters to friends, words scrawled and sealed inside envelopes to be sent cross-country and returned, their addresses unreliable. Before the illness, our house contained magic, coherence; when I met him, my heart made up stories about how our life would be. The ways he touched me remain uncountable. ‘You are my queen,’ he would say, ‘La mia regina.’ He gave me a tiny pin in the shape of a crown, which I wore on my brown wool hat. He was a poet, wrote poems, saw poetry everywhere. Said he wanted to take care of me. No lover had ever said that to me. I leaned into him like a life, until the illness finally admitted itself, and he was eclipsed by it. No longer sturdy, he would bend, then break. I stopped leaning. The glittery bits that had decorated the water of our love settled, sedimented. My first heartsick pebble was shaped like me, with no place to lean. Stones accumulated.
I have carried these stones for years. I feel their heft in the voice of singer-songwriter David Sylvian, or the scent of heady ylang-ylang oil, essences of our life together. Eating pickles, sometimes I recall my beloved’s nickname (his child-word for pickles), which I resurrected when we were together to remind him he had once been as young as that. My collection of stones is heavy, unbearable sometimes. I don’t like the way things ended. I have found ways to move the rock pile outside of my body, but when I go somewhere, without thought, I pick it up and bring it along; its weight is always with me.
I saw what mania and depression did, how it hollowed our home. I thought I knew its contours and cracks. My collection smoothes with time. When I find a stone in my pocket, I touch it again and again until my skin snags on a rough spot. Or something hard trips me. I see a stranger with a medicine-dulled face, a shuffling step, and I look into those eyes, which are always the shade of sadness, and without words, try to say, “Yes, I see you; I’ve lived near that burden.”
Or sometimes the demand of the rocks is metamorphic. For instance: I’m sitting at a writing conference in Seattle (the city where, twenty-one years earlier, we met, and first loved), listening to the poet Rachel McKibbens recite a poem about bipolar disorder, entitled “Letter From My Heart To My Brain.” She begins, “It’s okay to hang upside-down like a bat, / to swim into the deep end of silence, / to swallow every key so you can’t get out.” And from the second part of the poem, “Letter From My Brain To My Heart”:
You have my permission not to love me;
I am a cathedral of deadbolts
and I’d rather burn myself down
than change the locks.
As I sit and listen, the stones, accidentally brought from Ohio onto the airplane — no wonder my carry-on was so heavy — take wing, open my mouth, tumble in, and catch in my throat on the way to my belly. I’m swallowing stones whole and as I choke on them, I realize that I have never fully appreciated what that man felt. I could never know, but can now imagine, the discord inside his skin.
Next, the poet Taylor Mali says he had planned to read something else, but after hearing Rachel McKibbens’ poem, he must read “Entire Act of Sorrow,” about his wife, Rebecca, who had bipolar disorder, and killed herself. The poem finishes:
I knew that she would one day do this.
Even – and I cannot stand myself for saying so,
Even hoped she would
In the same outrageous secret way you hope a dog –
Like our dog, the one she picked out herself,
Because he cowered in the back of his cage
As though he did not expect to be saved from the shelter –
In the very same way you hope to God this dog will die,
Before you have to put him down.
Taylor Mali’s words, the way he pronounces, carefully, the open wound in the word “hoped,” these humanities toss wet stones through my body as I recall my own shadowy feelings; I sit in the now-sanctified room at the conference, next to strangers (having no tissue, wiping my face on my balled-up sweater), and these poems and this moment must have set the rock piles of others shining and tumbling too, because many of us are crying.
Tara Hardy is about to read her poem, “Bone Marrow,” but before she begins, she says, “Breathe,” and “Also, it’s okay to laugh,” and I do, and I do I do I do and I married him even though at the time a brave friend said it’s okay to wait to be sure, but those wise words I did not heed; I do I do I do because it’s him and the invitations were already printed with our date in periwinkle, and a friend was sculpting a cake top — for groom, a lion, tiger for bride — so I went ahead and I carried lilacs because I loved him then, and I do I do I do and at that time I decided if I didn’t marry him, anyone else I might someday meet and marry could only (ever) be named “not-him.” And though now I know that this was untrue, at the conference, next to a stranger, here is my exquisite and growing pile of stones, my body full of baggage, and yet there are more at my feet, and I dry my face on my crushed sweater, and I see that my work now is to climb every nugget, for the only way to the other side is over, and over, and over, and pebbles tink their way down the pile making music as I climb, and partway over, I kick off my shit-kicking boots because they are too heavy and bare feet are surer; protection is no shortcut.
And poet Tara Hardy says:
…I have been obsessed with achieving immortality through poetry,
but when I was told in no uncertain terms
that this rickety container has an actual expiration date,
I knew that immortality is bull shit,
so I left that hospital with a horse’s dose of right fucking now.
We don’t get to take anything with us
and anything we leave behind is not one foot still in life,
because once we are dust we are literally for the wind.
So on my agenda, with whatever time I have left, is joy.
Somewhere, my former beloved breathes, I tell myself, somewhere he is breathing, somewhere he fills his lungs, lives his current life with others who love him. Somewhere there is joy. And I am not alone in this room in our Seattle full of poetry and strangers who are also breathing. The poet told us to breathe; we breathe.
(My beloved was a poet. Is he still?)
And this, this is why poetry matters. This is what it does. This climb, this catharsis, this letting go of rocks, of boots, of everything. How words put together in beautiful piles can allow us to imagine things we never could without them.
My heart, built of stones, has been scaled by other hearts in this room of poetry, tears, and breath. Not alone. We and our bodies full of rocks are led by the words shared with grace and courage and no bullshit because who has the time for bullshit and self-protection and veils?
My gratitude to these crusaders against bullshit, these poets (who throw down their own rock piles before us as evidence), splits my body, lets stones slip through the wretched mess of wet and fall to the ground, where they fade, and finally become ghosts.
This is my belated love letter, oh, my once-dearest, because back then when I saw a frightening mess of paper and scissors, you saw pain and dreams and magic that I could not fathom. You were so much more than your illness; I forgot that, or never really knew; I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not understanding, for seeing only what was flat, my own suffering. For feeling only the exhaustion of my thin attempts to save you.
You know who you are. And now, because this glorious avalanche has cleared my path to the truth, so do I.
p.s. Once-dearest, inside the wrapper of a chocolate bar I brought on the airplane to Seattle (chocolate, outlaw muse which you loved but had to limit, because it gave you migraines) was part of “The Dream” by Theodore Roethke, whose poetry, like chocolate’s bittersweet, you so loved:
She came toward me in the flowing air,
A shape of change, encircled by its fire.
I watched her there, between me and the moon;
The bushes and the stones danced on and on;
I touched her shadow when the light delayed;
I turned my face away, and yet she stayed.
A bird sang from the center of a tree;
She loved the wind because the wind loved me.
p.p.s. And by the way, poetry was always a little closed to me because you were a poet. Did I ever tell you that? You were the only person who ever wrote a poem for me. You wrote pages of poems for me, but all I can recall are tomatoes: how, in winter, their ripe sunshine offered summer’s proof. And that iconic line you wrote, was it, ‘I am Rebecca, drink me,” was that it, inspired by the bible, and my name? There are pages I will never remember, stanzas now gone.
Oh you dear ghost, maybe that’s where you are, maybe, still.