She lost herself in the wor(l)d of Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway died by scratching an itch on the back of his head with the bullet of a shotgun that left a hole in his cranium.
That always intrigued her in some odd way.
“It takes courage,” she would say, “to do something that irrational.”
“It’s cowardice,” I’d say and she’d give me a look that showed that she respected what I’d said, but was sure that I was wrong.
We were too young at the time to understand anything Hemingway had to offer. His voyage through life was sort of mystical to her, but to me he was just another author on the bookshelf.
Sarah was one of those girls who reminded you of how beautiful life was. Or if it wasn’t at that moment, it would be. All her wallows and sorrows remained inferior to her greatest asset: she dared to hope. And that’s what inspired me to do the impossible. It inspired me, for the first time in my very short life, to dare to love a human being, more than I loved myself. If it were any other person, I wouldn’t have taken the risk. Humans are tricky and Sarah was the only exception.
But after high school came turbulent times. When I went off to college to pursue medical studies, she stayed in our old city by the lake and studied English. Hemingway had caught her eye in a way I never had. His words spoke to her like they were written by God in the Bible and she followed what he wrote like they were the Ten Commandments. She would tell me how she sat near the crystal blue lake and read for hours. Till the sun hadn’t kissed the horizon and the streetlights hadn’t flickered yellow against the reflection of the lake, she would read on.
I used to take time off during semesters to come see her, and every time we met she seemed a little more distant than the last. Her infatuation with Hemingway went from mere admiration to obsession in almost no amount of time. There was a wall of words that were insurmountable for me. She had lost herself in the words of his spirit. She began talking like him. In short and precise sentences about hopeless things. It took a toll on her, like a cocoon she could never really break free from.
When my concerns turned into worries I confronted her. I began gently about the things that worried me and her long infatuation with Hemingway’s work. I made sure my voice was never higher than hers and I listened to her carefully. But what she told me made little sense and she felt offended that I felt so strongly about her admirations with the man. That once soft and gentle Sarah faded into a parody of herself. She was lost in the what’s and when’s of a human that had long lived his life and stopped her from living hers. She didn’t understand it.
It was soon after that she called it quits on me. There was another person who had valued her sentiments towards literature in a more respecting way and she had fallen in love with him in my absence. She had called me to tell me this one afternoon, during my finals at college, and my phone had fallen from my hand, my knees felt weak and I lay ill for several weeks.
There’s a kind of pain that your first love gives you that no other pain can come close to. It’s piercing. It’s volatile and it’s also necessary. From that point on, I had no interest in love. I had no interest in being the perfect version of me for someone else, so I stayed who I wanted to be. Her face shadowed over me for an infinite amount of time, like some holy ghost that the devil himself had sent. Life became a drag and I had started surviving rather than living.
I never spoke to her after that phone call in the hallway. I never saw her face or heard from her. Sometimes I’d hear rumours about her marriage. Another time I’d hear that she was expecting. I’d hear anything the wind blew at me but nothing stuck. Life had moved past like a breeze except it wasn’t. I was amidst a torrential hurricane and I waited for the disaster to stop. It was long before, I found myself with a person who was willing to accept the baggage I so naively carried around with myself, and decided to finally let her go.
And I had let her go. As one does when a dear one passes away. Or when a memory is so far in the past that it loses its purpose. I let go like the clouds let go of the raindrops. Like the river jumps off the edge of the cliff into a waterfall and never looks back. Like the ocean so timidly let’s go of the wayfaring sailor. I let go of Sarah and finally dispatched my last batch of baggage, out of my life and into the pit of nothingness that rested deep within my soul.
It wasn’t until that horrific night when I got a call from the police at 4am, that it reminded me that it doesn’t matter if you let go. It only matters if it lets you go. I remember it vividly. It rung twice and I picked it up the third time. After much identification the policeman spoke.
“I’m sorry to inform you that Mrs Sarah Riley has been found dead in her apartment at 19:17 hours on January 28. Her cause of death, breakage of the spine from the neck and suffocation.”
This time I hung on to the phone, but my mind had blanked out. I didn’t hear a word out of the officer’s mouth and I believe he was still speaking when I thanked him and shut the phone.
I was weeping quietly in my pillow and my wife had no idea what was going on. Ignorance was indeed bliss. The pain I felt then was different though. It was knowing the loss you had witnessed was irretrievable. Nothing can bring the dead back, that’s what makes the dead so important. Had I known it, I wouldn’t have let her go on that phone call those many years ago.
Daylight struck my window and I had no clue of it. Maybe I had no care of it either. A million different memories played clearly in my mind like a projector projecting a movie. I pictured all of our talks and walks, reliving them briefly in those tiny seconds of the morning. I was waist deep in thoughts when I heard the doorbell ring.
I jolted upright and fixed myself up, unable to register that my doorbell had rung at 6am in the morning. I walked up to the door and peered through the eyehole to see blazing blue and red lights at my front door. I pulled open the knob and saw an officer standing with a piece of paper in his hand.
“I spoke to you on the phone a few hours ago,” he reminded me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I nodded.
Words were unable to form in my dried up throat.
“Mrs Riley left a suicide note, signed to you. She wanted you to have it.”
He handed me the piece of paper and just skimming through the page, I immediately recognised her writing. The way she curved her y’s and g’s was impeccable.
“Thank you,” I managed to say and was about to close the door when the officer place his boot in between and stopped it from closing.
“Oh and another thing,” he said.
He motioned towards the car and an officer standing by the vehicle opened the rear door and out came a little girl.
“She comes along with the note, Sir.”
He pointed at the section where Sarah wrote that she wanted Emma’s custody to be given to me.
“But that’s impossible. Where’s the father?”
The little girl kept walking up my front porch and was at hearing distance of our conversation.
“We called him up, but there was no response. Apparently the father hasn’t been residing with them for years. The child has no recollection of the father.”
“Family, friends? I can’t be it!”
Suddenly there was power in my voice, a kind that a protestor has when he demands his rights.
“We tried family, Sir, but they too have denied custody. Friends? Well you’re it. It says so on the note sir.”
Emma stood three feet away from me.
“Unless you want us to keep her in provincial custody?”
I looked at her. Her big brown eyes and dark long hair falling gracefully upon her shoulders. Her pink lips pursed ever so tightly and squished between her hands and her chest, a brown fuzzy teddy bear. Everything about her reminded me of Sarah. I bit my bottom lip and opened the door. I thanked the officer and closed the door behind me.
Emma stood there, harmlessly facing the wall. She didn’t glance at the pretty painting my wife had put above the fireplace, or the expensive leather sofas she had picked out from Ikea. No. Emma stared straight into the emptiness of that beige plastered wall. I walked passed her and sat on one of the couches and began reading the note.
“I’m not brave any more, darling. I’m all broken. They’ve broken me.
I’m writing this, moments from my inevitable end. We all must end sooner or later and I choose sooner. There’s the word. Choose.
Life has thrown at me bitter apples which I have most gullibly eaten. I have lived through the best and the worst and the exceptional. Charles was the best. Henry was the worst. And Emma is the exceptional.
What makes me hang myself tonight is not known to me, nor will it be known to anyone else. All I know is l love my daughter, and I hand her custody to the man that I may have not loved the most, but who loved me the most. And I hand him the responsibility of raising her and teaching her everything I so pretentiously refused to learn from him. I was a fool and I pray she won’t be one. I’m sorry, Charles.
I read the note twice and then read it once more. Tears fell from my eyes like little diamonds pressed against the weight and the heat of the underground. I looked up and saw little Emma stagnated at her spot in front of the door.
“Emma,” I called out.
And she turned her head to me. Her eyes pooled with water that refused to fall. I called her to me, but she did not budge. So I set the note aside and walked up to her and knelt.
“Emma, it’s okay,” I lied. “It’s going to be fine.”
Fake pleasantries were all that I had in store. She stood there solidified and shaken. I hugged her. It wasn’t long before her wet, warm tears fell on my neck and she went into repeated sobs. I held on to her for as long as she needed me to. Eventually her sobs turned into sniffs and then heavy breaths and I let go of our embrace.
Her brown eyes had turned red and snot dripped from her nose. I pulled her back towards the couch and cleaned her face up with a tissue. The note that Sarah had written was crushed underneath the weight of my body - I had no time for the dead while the living lay broken in front of me.
I suspected some small talk would do us good in these wee hours of the morning. I fixed some chocolate milk up for her and sat beside her. Her bag lay gently on the floor as we sat in dense silence.
“What’s in your bag there, Emma?”
Her innocence poured through her eyes as she lifted them towards me and then back at the little knapsack that had accompanied her shoulder.
“Books,” she replied.
“Oh you read books?” She nodded. “What kind of books?”
“Chapter books.” Her reply was plain and honest.
“Who’s your favourite author?” I asked and she looked at me with the most expectant eyes and I dreaded the next words that came from her mouth.
“Ernest Hemingway,” she said and her voice echoed indefinitely through my mind.