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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Eight

March 8

I’m as old now as dad was when he killed himself. I think unhappiness was only part of the reason he committed suicide. I think it was also an act of defiance, against a life he may have thought he’d never had much choice in. Or maybe he thought that by one simple act he could obtain a kind of simplicity, a kind of purity that he never thought he could have in life. I don’t think it’s enough to say that for him suicide was just a way out. I think suicide can be the recognition of death itself, as part of the order of life. Death is natural; suicide is about as unnatural as you can get. It violates a law of nature (question for Father Adamowicz – is a law of nature the same as ‘natural law’?); it’s hard to imagine an animal committing suicide. Even though he never went to church, let alone a Catholic church, I wonder if dad felt like he was breaking a law. If so, I can think of a couple of reasons why he thought he had a right to do so.

He might have thought he was above the law, in effect saying, “Look, I won’t live by the same laws by which human lives become so cramped and inconclusive.” Suicide as refusal. I didn’t get to know him very well, but that doesn’t seem like Dad. Another possibility is that he believed he was actually following another law. It might have seemed perfectly logical: “I’ve done something wrong, and if I kill myself I won’t do anything else wrong.” He might even have seen himself as an evil being in the midst of good people, sparing others the risk of suffering because of his contagion. Maybe he thought he was sparing me. If he did think this, he was way, way wrong. But this doesn’t seem quite right either. Mom never said that he ever did anything that was especially wrong. In fact, she says he was very moral man. Which doesn’t mean he thought so. Maybe there was something mom never knew.

If he is one or the other, I think it’s probably the former. Mom said he could be pretty angry, and not at anything in particular, and that he was also pretty depressed. I can see a lot of this in myself, so I know this is true. Although when I think of suicide it’s usually along the lines of stopping a contagious disease. This is the sort of problem that makes me question the church’s reversal of the prohibition against full Christian burial for suicides. I think that prohibition is actually helpful for people like me. Although I guess it’s helpful in the same way that the idea of hell is helpful as a kind of next-world sanction against immorality in our own world.

Of course I really don’t know what was going through dad’s mind at the time.

The person who kills himself values deeds above words; maybe actions and words became polarized in his mind. This is proved not so much by the silence he wanted for himself (he didn’t even leave a note) as the silence he believed he could compel in others. Some suicide notes are a testament to the uselessness of further discussion: ‘Words fail to express…’ or ‘I can’t go on…’ Does the typical suicide want to be talked about, or to leave others in silence? I think that any words that follow that kind of silence will always seem futile. But I guess there’s no such thing as a typical suicide.

I think the virtue suicides value above all others is courage. For all I know they are right to do so. Like any virtue, it seems to me, courage cannot be valued too much, but as is possible with all virtues, the thought overtakes the suicide to such a degree that he values as very little any other virtue, such as kindness.

Diana put the pen down and stood up from the table where she’d been writing and walked over to the window. It was a beautiful day. Too beautiful to be cramped up indoors with thoughts like these. How many days in a row had there been like this? She looked across Lake Union and saw the radio towers still blinking in their usual pattern, although it was harder to make out in broad daylight.

She’d made no plans for the day, and here she was staying at home writing about the past and trying to clarify certain dark thoughts that had led her to consider joining the church. What would people think if she were to read this out one Sunday morning? She made a promise to herself not to do so under any circumstances. Never mind what her fellow catechumens would say, what would a professional say? What would Father Adamowicz say about all this – especially her ruminations on the church’s position regarding the burial of suicides? She began to think she was getting in a little over her head. She thought there was a good chance she was simply wrong on doctrinal matters. So she looked it up in the catechism she kept on her shelf. She was right. There it was, in sections 2280 through 2283. It couldn’t be spelled out any clearer.

This, she realized, was the reason she was joining the church. Was it the only reason? she asked herself. Maybe. Was it enough? She clung to those sections of the catechism as the survivor of a shipwreck holds onto a life preserver. And of course, however officious the language of the document was, that’s what it was meant for.

She caught herself absentmindedly biting her nails while looking at the scene outside. She was able to refrain while writing in the diary, chewing on the end of the pen instead, but while now trying to figure out the consequences of these latest thoughts she fell back into her old habit, almost gratefully. Something was wrong there – if keeping a diary was supposed to be such a great thing, shouldn’t she find the process healing in some way? That’s the word that was used so much at the RCIA meetings. Why did she feel so little of it in her own life? The writing seemed more like picking at a scab, or going back to a sore tooth with a compulsive tongue. Was it really supposed to help?

She looked at her nails and grimaced. It was Lent now, and though she was telling people that it was her shift drink that she was sacrificing, she was hoping to do something about her nails as well. Not that Lent should be a self-improvement course… she sighed and dropped her arm down at her side and went back to looking out the window, from which she could see the northern part of Lake Union. A plane was picking up speed as it pulled away from the shore, and she watched it until it went behind a row of buildings on the left hand side of her view. Instinctively she followed the projected route of the plane in order to watch it pop back into view. By putting her face close to the glass she was able to watch it as it flew up over the area around Gasworks Park, on the north shore of the lake. She never got tired of watching all the activity on the water, or just the water when there was no activity at all.

She went over to the phone in the kitchen area and made a quick series of phone calls, first to St. John’s and then to make an appointment at the hair salon she’d been going to for the last twelve years. Although she hadn’t considered it a break, standing at the window had refueled her energy somewhat, so she returned to the table to record some additional thoughts, crossing out every couple of lines until she felt that she’d gotten it down right.

As often as I might tell myself that I can never know what was on his mind at the time, I can’t seem to stop myself from trying. I can think of several reasons the suicide might have in mind on the verge of taking the final step.

The suicide might believe that he is carrying out justice on himself. There is an argument against this, of course: we are always our own worst critics. There is also an argument in favor of this: we know ourselves better than anybody else. With this in mind, to then not commit suicide is to live a fate worse than death, since one has failed to do what one believes is the right thing to do.

The suicide might believe he is merely playing out a pre-determined course of action. The suicide is caught in a kind of death-bent logic. In this frame of mind I wonder whether in some sense death in occurs twice, first in plan and then in action. Whatever thoughts he may have only strengthens this sense of determination. For the person who refuses to commit suicide life must then be lived in the belief that one really is free, or life becomes one dodge after another.

Having written this, it now seems to me that these two reasons for suicide are really different facets of a single idea, which I think is in some way an inverted conception of free will. As much as I understand the idea of free will. For the person who refuses to commit suicide, life afterwards is by turns either a fate worse than death or a life in which fate plays no part at all. Someone who refuses suicide may become confident that she has made the right choice, but there is also the real possibility that she will face the decision over and over again.

It also seems to me now that for the person refusing to commit suicide, a cosmic system of rewards and punishments doled out by God intent on modifying the behavior of his subjects cannot be entertained seriously. Either God doesn’t exist, or God loves us so much he can only pity us for the punishment we inflict on our own lives.

Soon after writing this, the phone rang. She thought it might be St. Bosco’s (an appointment with Father Adamowicz was required of all the catechumenates), but it wasn’t. Every couple of weeks, on no particular day of the week, Diana or her mother would call to check up on the other. Her mother’s call might come from Florida, it might come from Cabo, but it was most likely from some place sunny this time of year. Summer might find her on a cruise ship to Alaska, but this time she was calling from Palm Springs.

“Hey Mom. Good to hear from you…” The cheer in Diana’s voice was a relief after all the writing above.

“How are you honey?” asked her mother. “Are you taking good care of yourself?”

“Yeah, doing my best. I’m on my way to get a manicure, just like you suggested.” Once she began to speak she realized how thirsty she’d become – and that she hadn’t noticed this while writing. She reached for the cupboard beside the sink and pulled out a pint jar – one of half a dozen supplied by Queequeg’s. Two of them were glasses that had become clouded from long use, but the others were almost as good as new.

“That’s a good idea. What you need is to smooth out those edges so you won’t have anything to pick at. And use plenty of lotion in that dry weather.”

She opened the fridge and pulled out the filtered pitcher, a movement she managed at three-quarters speed with only one hand. It was the coldness of the water she’d come to appreciate so much, and for taste she’d been in the habit of adding the juice of a lemon – the practice, as well as the lemon taken from the Q.

“Not so dry here, Mom, you’re thinking of the desert.” She let it pass that the manicure had really been her idea in the first place. But what could a manicurist do? Her nails seemed to her beyond repair.

“Yes, well, use Kerri lotion. Still the best, still the cheaper than most.”

“I will, Mom.”

“Now Diana, have you heard back from any of those companies?” Occasionally her Mom got after her about finding a job in which she could actually use her biology degree.

“Oh yeah… I mean no, I haven’t yet, but I will Mom. I will.”

“Okay dear…” Was Mom chewing gum? “Remember, Diana, we only go round once. Remember that you have a lot of natural talent. And all that hard work you’ve already done.”

“I will, Mom. I will.”

“Now Roberto says hello. He wants to know if you need any money. Do you need any money?”

“No Mom. I’m fine. Say hello for me.”

“Okay honey. I’m glad you’re getting your nails done.”

“Thanks Mom.”

How was it her mother had come through so entirely unscathed? “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger!” she had said to her daughter quite a number of times. Diana wasn’t dead, but why didn’t she feel stronger? She felt weaker every year – which made sense now that she was over thirty, but she’d always remembered it being true.

“And let us know if you need anything. You know, money or anything else.”

“I will Mom, I promise.” They wished each other well and said goodbye by saying “Toodaloo!”, the preferred form shared between them for as long as Diana could remember, in imitation of a television show or a movie forgotten a long time ago.

And yet she knew it hadn’t been entirely easy for her mother. With help from her own parents her mother had been able to gone back to school and became a nurse, which soon gave her a living with which she could comfortably bring up Diana. She’d had a harder time getting back into the world of dating. She’d remained single the whole time her children were in school, although it while Diana was in college she’d found out that her mother had been involved in a ruinous affair with a doctor she’d met at the hospital. Ruinous because it had wrecked the internist’s family beyond any meaningful repair, and because her mother had taken to swilling vodka a pint at a time – a habit she’d picked up from the good doctor and continued to work at for some time after he’d quit drinking himself and returned to his wife and children. When Diana confronted her mother over the immorality of her actions, her mother retorted in a voice that was half slur, half bark, “It would do you shum good to find a man yourself. When you get older you’ll undershtand. That’s what it all comes down to!” Diana had been too surprised to say anything. Mom poured herself yet another drink; Diana went to her room and bawled, crying for a father she could hardly remember and who, she realized yet one more time, was never coming back.

Her mother had recovered from the affair just as she had recovered from her husband’s suicide, probably (Diana guessed) by quoting back to herself the very nuggets of wisdom she now so urgently offered to Diana from all those far away hotel rooms. She’d become a model of sobriety, and after meeting Roberto (in another hospital) and both of them for the most part retired, she’d begun migrating south with him for the winters. They often invited her along, but Diana preferred to stay in Seattle.

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“Let’s have a look at those nails.”

Diana complied a little reluctantly, bringing her hands out of her lap and presenting them to the young woman sitting across the table from her. The work desk had been covered with a white towel, and underneath this there seemed to be a kind of padded rail on which her forearms were supposed to rest.

“Looks like you’ve been working on these for quite a while,” said the young woman, as she gently put the hands back on the towel. “But we’ll get you fixed up, and those nails will look like they’re supposed to look. After today they won’t seem much different, but with the acrylic I’m putting on you’ll break your teeth before you manage to tear off any more nail.”

“I guess that’s good,” said Diana

The young woman turned her attention from Diana’s eyes to her fingers, studying them each individually under the bright light of an especially warm lamp.

“OK, it looks like you’ve worked your way right into the plate – the quick, the part of the nail that’s connected to the fingertip – right on top of the nail bed. And you have a little infection here, so we’ll get that cleaned up as much as we can.”

The young woman began by going over each of Diana’s nails with a small rotary device that reminded Diana of one of her father’s woodworking tools that lay around the garage long after his death – a router, she thought it was called. In the girl’s expert hands the tool was used both to rough up the surface of each nail (so that the acrylic would more easily adhere), and to smooth out each of the edges, so that hopefully Diana wouldn’t tear at them any more. This took about five minutes, if that, but by this time Diana was beginning to feel more relaxed in the woman’s care. The dust from her nails had to be wiped off with a towel, after which the young woman opened up a drawer and pulled out a small vial that looked like a perfume sample.

After cutting the tip of the plastic off she began applying a strong smelling substance to each of Diana’s nails, explaining that it was an adhesive that would cause the acrylic to bond all that much more firmly to the nail.

“We’ll just wait five minutes or so for the adhesive to set,” explained the girl, and then asked, “Day off?”

“No; I usually tend bar during the day, but I helped a friend out by trading places for tonight. I guess it helps me too.”

“Oh, fun. And that might explain why your hands are so dried out. And that’s tough on nails.”

“Yeah – the whole hand will be bad if the detergent in the washing machine is too strong. The skin will crack, and a couple of times they’ve even started to bleed.”

The girl had taken out what looked like a painter’s brush and had begun by first dipping into another container of viscous fluid and then a small plastic dish containing a pinkish powder. “The acrylic,” she explained. She scooped a small half moon out of the dish with the brush and then dabbed it on to the tip of Diana’s nail. Once put in place it lost its carved shape, melting into a drop just large enough to cover the nail, maybe an eighth of an inch thick. When the young woman had finished the left hand she laid it down on the towel and positioned the lamp directly above it. She repeated these same motions for the right hand, and when she had finished she took out the router, or whatever it was, and went back to work on acrylic now covering the nails. This took a little more than five minutes. By the time she was finished the hands of both Diana and the young woman were covered with a fine, flesh colored dust. When she had finished with the electric tool she then took a large emery board and began shaping the nails. Since there wasn’t much of the nails left to shape, this part didn’t take very long. For the most part she continued the smoothing process she’d begun before adding the acrylic.

Her young guide (for that is how Diana had come to regard her) at that point said something in Vietnamese to one of the other girls in the shop, who then brought over a hot towel and wrapped it around Diana’s hands. She felt the warm glow spread throughout her entire body, and felt like asking for more time as the towel was being removed. So she was pleasantly surprised when her left hand was then placed in a pink plastic soaking dish filled with a soapy solution. The manicurist then excused herself for a minute to go look for something, and when she came back she briefly patted the hand half-dry and placed her right hand in the soaking dish. While the right hand was soaking she began working on the cuticles of her left hand fingers with what looked like a tiny pair of needle nosed pliers. It all seemed extremely efficient, even if it took a little while because Diana’s cuticles were in such terrible condition.

“We’ll just have to see how these turn out,” said the young woman. “They’ve been chewed down so far that there might have been some nerve damage in the area of the hyponychium.”

“The what?” asked Diana.

“Hyponychium,” said the manicurist. “It’s the area here underneath the tip of the nail.” She held up Diana’s left index finger. “Here you can see the free edge at the tip, a kind of ridge that should be there on every finger. The nail grooves here on the side have been roughed up quite a bit as well.” She made a motion with her own index finger and thumb, using the nail of the former to tear up the skin next to the nail, imitating the exact process by which Diana had torn up her both of her thumbs.

“In some places you’ve chewed down halfway to the lunula, this white crescent here right next to the cuticle,” she continued. “All that constant pressure is probably what makes them so wrinkled.”

Diana was beginning to think the manicurist was a little too proud of all her technical vocabulary, but was so pleased with the feel of her nails that she couldn’t hold it against her. They were still embarrassingly short, but they certainly looked better. For the rest of the day she held up her hands and extended her fingers every few minutes, just to look at them, anticipating the day when they grew out past her fingertips. Hopefully they’d hold up okay at work.

Comments

  1. Rufus McCain says

    Yes! This was already my favorite chapter before you added the Catechism references. (At least I don’t recall them being there before.) But coupling the manicure scene with the journal entries and the Catechism and explanation of her impulse to become a Catholic –this is really the crux of the whole novel ennit? I think it’s good that you made it more explicit here and fleshed out her mystery a bit more — despite what I said before about too much exposition. (Maybe it’s just that I want any exposition that does occur to focus on Diana because I see her as the really compelling character among your cast of characters and I don’t really care that much about Tom’s past, etc. for example, but I do find myself caring a lot about Diana so I want more about her in all the modes — exposition, description, dialogue, interior monologue, journal entries, beer wenching.) And I think the lovely descriptive passage (Lake Union) is new, too, which is also what I asked for after my first read — namely more of a sense of Seattle as the place this all takes place.

  2. Rufus McCain says

    Footnote for our readers:

    From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    Suicide

    2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.

    2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

    2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal. Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

    Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

    2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

  3. As I read I remembered that part of the reason why I became religious for a few years – an atheistic form of Christianity – was because of a fear of suicide.

    I am against suicide and the legalisation of assisted suicide.

    Possibly the only time it might be contemplated is if one knows one is a great danger to the lives of others – a great danger as opposed to a hypothetical danger, in that I could always knock someone down by cycling absent mindedly on the pavement. But never to punish yourself for something done in the past, by a past self.

    Take care if any of this is autobiographical, and, seriously, contact me if you need to (I believe you have log in details).

  4. I have to say that I think I might be more likely to find meaning in politics than religion a second time around.

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