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Heroine

It’s tough to spot the changes a person goes through in a decade while you’re living through it. Falling pregnant, the birth of a child; family divorces and shrinking relationships. Getting on with your life and accepting the darkening shades of cynicism that come with it – it happens, gradually. You can still love someone but slowly float apart from them until one day, when you’ve not even noticed it, you realise you are oceans apart.

We were best friends as children, my cousin and me. We shared summers on the beach and a bed on the nights we stayed over at our grans. We swapped sandwiches at picnics and watched movies like The Land Before Time and Labyrinth on rainy afternoons – I wasn’t allowed to watch the latter alone as Bowie’s character gave me nightmares, but with her I felt safe. I always felt safe.

During our teenage years, high school and opposing social-circles wedged a small divide in our bond. On paper, we belonged in different worlds – the way popular kids and outcasts do – but despite this clinching division, Jamie was always very much present in my life and often came to my rescue. Every time I’d walk past a group of ‘popular’ guys in my year, I’d hold my breath and try to fold myself into the corner of the passing crowd; life was easier when I avoided detection. Being the only open school homo though I stuck out in the masses like a pulsing flamingo-pink neon sign in the pitch dark. ‘Gay boy!’ they yelled at me, their collective face incredulous that someone like me would even be allowed to tip-toe around the same corridors as boy like them. Next thing I know my back is thrust against a concrete wall, and I’m being lifted-up by the collar of my shirt by one of them. ‘Fucking batty boy,’ he sneers at me. My heart is racing, there’s a wave of fear running through my veins. This isn’t new for me, yet still it comes as a surprise every time it happens. Then she appears, emerging defiantly from a circle of pretty girls. ‘Get off my cousin, Lee.’ She issues this command without hesitation, and before he has time to comply she’s removed his hands from my shirt and pushed him away. She threatens him, and there is genuine fear spread across his face. My cousin may have been a small, petite-framed 14-year-old girl, but there was a ferociousness in her eyes that only shows when you’re protecting someone you love – and she did that for me; as a kid, as a teenager, and later as a young man fighting depression – She always protected me.

When I found out my cousin had taken her own life the information sat uncomfortably in my stomach and smacked me about for days before any of it sank in. My aunt, my mother’s sister, called me one morning, awakening me and my hangover in the process. My phone rang. ‘Is that you, Chris?’ a voice asked faintly.  I’m lying on my back, my head spinning as the room bobs up and down, trying desperately to get my bearings. Eventually I conjure up a reply.  ‘I’ve got some news, I need you to pass it on your mum too.’ She then proceeds to tell me that my cousin has died; that she took her own life. I didn’t understand. Not because I had just woken up, or because I was hungover. I didn’t  understand how this could happen – she was always the strong one. 

After a brief negotiation with my thoughts, trying desperately to keep them calm, my brain rummaged around trying to work out a delicate way to break this news to my mother.  There had been an argument between my mother and my aunt some time before, the way all siblings do, and it had caused complete radio silence. But fractured family bonds heal themselves in times of crisis, allowing what was once wedged between them to be removed. Of this I was sure, but still I couldn’t find the words to tell my mother the news that my cousin had taken her own life. How do you do that? How does anyone do it? Relaying the message that someone you both love, someone you both share blood with, is no longer here? How do you tell someone that? I didn’t know what to say. The only thing I knew for sure was that the dissociated feeling I had in that moment wouldn’t last forever, and that reality was on its way. Later on, I found the words neatly tucked at the back of my mind, and wobbly I told her though shaky breath what had happened. She called my aunt right away.

The day after Jamie died, my mother drove through and picked me up on the way. We abandoned all attempts at conversation, because what can you really say in these situations. During the short journey from my flat to my aunt’s house we seemed to pass an almost endless landscape of countryside, one that days before was bursting with life and beauty, but were now painted in a sharp, colourless way. My mum cried harder than I thought possible, and handed me her tear-soaked tissues. The moment she crossed the threshold of my aunt’s front door, they both broke down and embraced each other with a love that only sisters share. Needing space, and silence, I left and went for a walk. I wandered the winding streets and twisty braes, my mum’s crumbled tissues still in my pockets, until I reached a bench on the waterfront. As I sat there the thoughts came back harder. For a solid hour, I rubbed my hands together trying so hard to untangle what had happened.

Grief manifests itself in unlikely ways, but on this occasion it presented itself as guilt, shame and, stranger still, as jealousy. The guilt was born from surviving, from still being present; the shame was from my own suicide attempt a little over a year before. The jealousy? That was more insidious. It was because my cousin had succeeded in doing what I once so desperately had wanted to do but had failed at.

As I sat there my head throbbed with questions. Where is Jamie? What will happen to her son? Is she conscious? What happened to make this seem like the only option? Why didn’t I save her? But for months after that I did save her, in my head, in my dreams. Each day I thought of new-ways to save her; to stop her from doing it; different scenarios in which I pulled her back from the edge. Always though they were just in my head. Always though the guilt stayed.

In the days that followed, the reasons why slowly started to filter through, helping us paint a picture of what happened in our minds. I still to this day don’t know what’s worse: the ignorance or knowing the facts. Ignorance causes your mind to wander through a field of ‘what if’, and ‘why’; but the facts solidify the event, making it a reality and worst still, for me anyway, it caused me to picture how she did what she did.

The day before the funeral and we go to my aunts to say goodbye to Jamie in our own way. We share our favourite memories of her. I offer up the story about the time, when we were both in Primary 7, that she had stayed over at mine. I kept her up for hours singing The Spice Girls with my squeaky, high-pitched voice. Point blank refusing to shut up and let her sleep, around 1 AM she grew so weary of my singing that she punched me in the face and I ran downstairs crying. After we’d shared stories we went to say our goodbyes to Jamie herself.  They say that they look like they’re sleeping as they lay there, but she really did. Beautiful as always, quietly sleeping. My other aunt stroked her face and ran her hands through her hair – telling her how much she loved her. I stood behind her, looking down at my cousin. The smell of flowers began to make me uncomfortable and suddenly I was a child again with an endless list of questions as to why the world worked this way. Eager to be educated about the place where the ones we lost go; desperate to know why she couldn’t just wake up.

The funeral was as beautiful as it was solemn; I resent describing anything tragic in a pretty way, because there was nothing positive about any of this. Yet still, the service was beautiful and we bowed out to her favourite song ‘In My Head’ by Jason Derulo. Afterwards friends and family retreated for food and drinks, to celebrate the life of someone great. Yet I couldn’t feel anything apart from guilt; why didn’t I help her as she had helped me so many times before? I was devout in the belief that she should still be here and not me. And I knew, as much as I have ever known anything, that if God were to ask me to switch places with Jamie I wouldn’t even hesitate to say yes, because somebody that special should still be here. That stands to this very day.

Depression is inherited; it’s an unwanted family heirloom that will reap havoc on whoever ends up with it. It’s ugly, it’s cold; it doesn’t go with anything in your life, but you’re stuck with it. Forever. All any of us can do is love and support others with unwavering patience and unshakeable love – because once they are gone, then that’s it. Not everyone wears their depression on their sleeve, I’ve learnt that over the years. A smiling mother with a beautiful son was still hurting beyond measurement and I didn’t even notice, or ask. I guess my advice would be that if you haven’t spoken to someone in a while, someone you were close with, drop them a little message on Facebook or a text. Make that effort.

I keep a photograph of my cousin and I together on cluttered shelf in my room; it reminds me of what you can lose and that a little effort and kind can change the course of someone’s day and even save a life. Every day I look at that photo and every day I mourn the loss of someone so truly special and caring. I mourn the loss of one of the purest souls I was fortunate enough to know. A girl who was funny, a woman that was kind; A mother that was loving and a cousin that was also my heroine.

 

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