Undead (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: NONFICTION)

Issue #150
Winter 2021-22

In nonfiction, our winner is Madeline Vosch, for her essay “Undead.”

This essay, nonfiction judge Paul Lisicky says, “is as much about the mystery of the life force as it is about the crisis of our time and how we fail the suffering. Every note is on pitch; there’s no excess, no unnecessary embellishment, and it’s that rare piece of writing that’s both unfettered in its thinking and rigorous in its expression.”


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? When did you first call yourself a writer?

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Small things, poems and scraps in the margins of notebooks. The second question is stickier. I spent a lot of years thinking I wasn’t a “real writer” (whatever that means), not taking my work seriously. My laptop is full of stories, essays, poems that I started, lost faith in, and abandoned. I didn’t think anyone would ever see them, didn’t think the rough drafts were worth the time and effort to make them good. It took a long time, and a lot of help from professors and friends, to start taking my work seriously. I’m still not sure if I think of myself as a writer.

When I was an undergraduate, I took a few creative-writing classes with Pete Rock, who once said of himself that he is not a writer, he is a person who writes things sometimes. There is so much tied up in calling oneself a writer, a lot of self-fashioning, self-making that can be good and empowering, but, for me at least, thinking of it as an action instead of an identity has been helpful.


Describe your writing process. What works for you as a writer? What do you find challenging, or even difficult, about writing?

My writing process is messy. I am not an organized person, so my process often begins with a scattered and chaotic first draft, and then combing through for edits. Editing and revising is the hard part, finding the patience to coax the piece into a shape that makes sense, into a flow that the reader can follow. 


What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing?

I am always researching; for me, researching and writing happen in tandem, simultaneously. I am an academic at heart, and often when I am writing something, I will make a note of a phrase, an idea, and then go looking through JSTOR to see what other people are writing about it. I have a background in religious studies and queer theory, and seeing the work of academics in those fields is inspiring. I also read creative work to study how other people write. I was just reading H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald—she writes these long paragraphs, a kind of paragraph that I shy away from. Looking at how she builds a paragraph was helpful for me to ask myself, Why not write a long paragraph? Why not trust the reader to stay with me?


Who are you reading now? What writers or works have most influenced your writing?

I’m currently reading Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist [and] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, and slowly working through Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim.

Dorothy Allison has been a major influence. I first read her work when I was in college, and encountering it felt like the world was suddenly cracked open with possibility. The honesty with which she writes about her life, the way she lets things stay messy and complicated, it’s incredible. This is potentially embarrassing, but sometimes when I’m feeling discouraged, I’ll watch one of her talks on YouTube. There’s a video of her giving a talk at the San Francisco Public Library that I have probably watched ten times and would highly recommend. Terese Marie Mailhot’s memoir Heart Berries was completely life-giving, a book that made me feel that it was possible to tell the story that I’m trying to tell, in all its sordidness. Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Leslie Jamison have all been extremely influential as well.

In addition to contemporary writers, my work has been deeply shaped by Andrei Platonov and Viktor Shklovsky. The way those two play with and distort language, how Platonov estranges words and meaning on a sentence level—I can’t overstate the impact that the two of them have had on my writing.


What inspired “Undead”? What works or writers would you say directly informed this essay?

For a few months, everything I wrote was circling around the story that sits at the heart of “Undead.” Poems, fiction, ghost stories, all skirting the edges of the question: How do I write about this thing I survived? It felt inevitable, that eventually I would need to face the question head-on.

The writers who informed the work are numerous. Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Dorothy Allison, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. [Michel] Foucault’s History of Madness (the unabridged version!) was instructive as well, as it helped me think about what it means to call a thing or a person “crazy,” what it means to be abject.


What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you received?

It’s hard to pick just one, honestly. Something that has been valuable for me when thinking about nonfiction is to make yourself as ugly as you make other people. Which is not to say gratuitously flagellate yourself for the reader, but rather, if you are telling the truth about how other people made mistakes and acted poorly, you have to tell the truth about yourself as well.

Write the thing you are afraid of, write toward your fear.  


What risks do you take with your writing that have paid off?

A lot of people who meant well told me that I should wait a few more years before writing “Undead.” The typical advice I’ve heard for memoir seems to be to wait enough time that the events are distant, that the writer needs some space to be “objective.” I bristled at this. I didn’t want to write something with a clean narrative of progress, where the speaker was on the other side of something, tying a neat bow on things. I wanted the mess, the chaos, the questions, to be charged, alive for the reader. I wanted to write something where the speaker was still in the middle, leading the reader into the fraught moments of trying to make sense of things, trying to find a way forward.


Do you have any advice for new or aspiring writers?

This is a hard question. I still consider myself aspiring/emerging, whatever that really means. I guess I would say to write the story that you needed (or need) to hear. 


What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?

“Undead” is an excerpt of a book I’m working on. Finishing the book is my top writing priority at the moment. When I’ve needed a break from “Undead,” I’ve been writing short stories. I’ve been really into monsters lately, and it’s been refreshing and productive to alternate between working on a sad book about suicide and stories about zombies.







The thing they don’t tell you about coming back from the dead is that it happens slowly. It’s not a single moment, eyes snapping open, full of energy, to greet a bright new morning.

You wake with eyelids heavy, rub something other than sleep from your face. Your body is not yours. The morning is a stranger. The hours are bright and unfamiliar. You wake up alone and there is no one to remind you that you are real.

There are a million ways to die, outlined in history books, medical texts, easy to find on the internet. There are countless websites that detail the steps, how it feels to die of one of many afflictions, how to take it into your own hands.

There were none to show me the way back.

The thing they don’t tell you about coming back from the dead is that it’s easier to die. To end the story there. How is a person supposed to live after dying? What is it supposed to feel like, the coming back? Who can you tell? Where do you go?

I have read more books than I can name that take the reader down, step by step, into that dark place, to show the moment a person chooses to make their own ending. These books end in mourning, in dirges. I have never found a book that holds at its core not the dying, but the coming back.

I am trying to answer the silence.


When I say that there were no stories to show me the way back, there is the inevitable refrain. But what about the ancient Greek heroes, like Orpheus, who traveled to the underworld and returned? What about the article in The New York Times, about the people who jumped off bridges and lived, who testified to their regret? What about the canon of Buddhist literature and thought, in which resurrection, reincarnation, is a fact of life?

Those months after I lived, I read everything, and saw myself nowhere.

There was nothing, no book, no pamphlet, no novel, no blogpost, about how a person is supposed to live in the first months after they tried very hard to die.

I searched on the internet. Suicide survivor support groups. It would follow the same pattern. I would find an in-person group, an online forum, get excited. I would go to the website and read the same description over and over. This is a group for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. These are the suicide survivors, the ones who are left behind, the ones who mourn.

And what of those of us who live?

And what about Sylvia Plath? someone asks. Have you read her work?

The Bell Jar ends just as the narrator leaves the hospital. Plath does not offer a path after, only a path toward.

Trust me when I tell you that in those months, when my body was a live wire, when every breath was miracle and surprise, I looked everywhere, and the world was quiet. I read every book I could find on depression, on suicide, on hospitalization. There was nothing to answer the question, how is a person supposed to feel, how is a person supposed to live, when they sincerely meant to die, and didn’t, and woke up to a world that has not changed?


Sometimes, a hero is so good, so important, that a story cannot continue after their death, the story relies on their resurrection. Superman was killed by Doomsday and was brought back through some miraculous Kryptonite. This is not what I’m talking about. The Christian god is murdered and comes back, through some divine mystery. This is not what I am talking about.

I am talking about a creature, a needling thing, who screams into thick air, who has never been a hero, who never will be a hero, who looks in the mirror and knows this, who wants more than anything for the narrative to find a resolution, for their story to be over.

You know what I’m talking about.


The thing they don’t tell you about coming back from the dead is that you get to choose what happens next. The world breaks open as never before. In one direction that same path, once traveled, beckoning again. And there, unspiralling, a million directions you have never imagined.

My logic is thin. The knees of my logic are shaking. Don’t push too hard.

The thought: I tried. They told me what should have happened. It didn’t happen. Now it is time for something else.


There is a small brown box in my bedroom. In this box, there is a dried leaf. There is the bud of a bougainvillea, plucked from a pot that hung on a friend’s porch. There is a letter. There, on the underside of the opening, is a Band-Aid with numbers written in permanent marker, taped against the wood. There is a triangle of paper, folded over and over itself, covered in tape. There are two bracelets, one from the emergency room, the other from the locked ward. Mostly, though, mostly it is empty orange bottles. I will not tell you how many.

Once, I tried to do the math. I took out the empty bottles and read the numbers printed on the outside. Estimating. How many of what. I multiplied. I added. I checked websites, what is a lethal dose. I started to choke. My hands were shaking. I put the bottles back and closed the box. I promised not to tell.


When the Christian god died and came back, they were brought to heaven through the ascension. This death meant something; friends, family, strangers marked this death, this rebirth. The wounds were visible on the body. The holes in their hands, their side. This body, bearing the marks of death, walking again through the world.

When you leave the hospital, you go to the same apartment in which you died, peel the sheets back and lie in the bed. The world is the same. You walk past people who do not notice, you talk to friends as if it has been a week like any other. You are the same, but you are not, no, no, no, you are not the same.

You breathe. This, this is the first and most important thing. You breathe.

You look up facts and statistics and carry them in your chest. The reports and articles stating what is trembling in your heart, that people are 100 times as likely to kill themselves after being released from the hospital for trying to kill themselves. You look people in the eye and hold this close. The days are vibrating around your body and all the things you can’t fit into words.


The thing they don’t tell you about coming back from the dead is that you have two birthdays. The day you were born and the day you didn’t die.

Those weeks, I marked each month as a ritual. Every thirty days, I went to the same flower store, spent money I didn’t have to adorn my house with color. I walked through the streets haunted by ghosts I couldn’t name and bought flowers to honor them. I walked through Harvard Square in a gauze of petals and phantoms. The midday sun, the light that used to press down into my lungs so that I couldn’t breathe, the midday sun became a song. I walked with my head up. Look at me, in it.


Where are the stories of those of us who lived, we who were not heroes, we whose faces were ugly, crumpled and crying, we who breathed deeply in lungs miraculous, who stared into eyes of friends and could not say, not really, where we had been, we who woke up again and again and again to mornings terrifying and bright, mornings that opened in every direction?


There is no agreement on exactly what happened to Jesus those three days after the crucifixion. I imagine him waking in the tomb, alone. His hands, moving slowly to touch his own face. His eyes adjusting to the sliver of light that sneaks under the stone that has been rolled to cover the entrance. His fingers feeling, exploring. This rock. This body. These ribs. The motion of a belly moving inward and outward with breath. How many days there, alone in the silence of the tomb, relearning, reexperiencing, what it was to be alive when everything in the world says you are supposed to be dead.

I am not comparing myself to a god. I promise.


People talk about it all the time.

Or, maybe I just notice it more now.

No, people talk about it all the time.

It comes up at dinner parties, casual brunches, offhand at gatherings, walking next to a friend. The word is said as if it knows you are there. The word is said as if to find you out.

What can a person do, when they have done this thing that cannot be taken back, when they have held their own hand down that road, when they thought they would be gone, and then they woke up, and then they woke up and someone else looked down at them where they lay, took them to overheated rooms, and slowly, slowly, days blended into days, and they fought to find some soft thing to hold on to, some small growing reason to keep opening eyes in the morning, to rise from bed even while the body begs for an ending?

What can a person say, when friends, strangers, acquaintances, bosses begin to talk about a person they have lost, when they say that word sui generis, slipping from lips, when the spine freezes, and the thought turns and turns in one’s head, the wonder, the question, repeating, is this how people would have talked about me?


The thing they don’t tell you about coming back from the dead is that more people will care if you had died. You imagine the Facebook posts, the digital acts of mourning, the people coming together for your funeral. But there you are, breathing, and in front of friends, choking. There are no words. Because you lived, because your pulse beats a rhythm in your still-being body, you are unremarkable. You blend in.

A few weeks after I didn’t die, I traveled to a wedding. I gathered with friends I had known since I was a child, hidden in the Catskill Mountains, to celebrate the marriage of one of my oldest friends. In snatches, in side conversations, I asked in a voice that did not know how to speak, “Something big happened, can we talk?”

Heads shook. “Is it something heavy? We probably don’t have time.”

I swallowed myself. I gulped down wine and buried the secret of my breath in my heart.


I became obsessed, for a time, with the story of the Christian god. How, in the beginning, in the outside of time and space, this omniscient being decided to create thingness, timeness, the boundedness of bodies, knowing that this would require the god to be killed. How maybe, in the forever of the outside, this god started to long for a way out. How maybe, this god created the whole of everything so they could have an exit, however brief. How all of creation was made to facilitate a god’s death. How in the beginning, this god made their own ending.

Call me a heretic, it’s OK. I’ve been called worse.


One by one the doctors tell me.

Lethal doses, they say.

My therapist tells me that he does not understand how I am alive. The things I took, the number of them. I had been drinking. I had barely eaten. He tells me it works like this. This combination of things slows your systems, slows your breathing, until eventually your breath comes in such long intervals, the breaths get so spaced out, it happens that you exhale and before you can inhale again, you die from lack of oxygen. The time between the breaths so long that they stop coming. If you don’t die, there is brain damage.

I do not know what to say to this. I am sitting in front of him and I am breathing.

If you had been down on the floor, he tells me, you would have crushed your nerves. Lying in one place for twenty hours, the body immobilized. If any part of you had been pressed against any hard surface, the nerves would have crumpled against it, the nerves would have never healed. Parts of you would have been paralyzed.

At the end of our session, I get up and walk home.

Outside a bar, a stranger makes a joke about suicidal ideation. I watch their mouth and try to copy the way they laugh.


In one of the closing bits on Seinfeld, when Jerry is alone on stage performing his comedy routine, he looks down at the audience, away from the camera. He makes an imploring gesture with his hand. “The thing I don’t understand about the suicide person,” he says, “is the people that try and commit suicide, for some reason they don’t die, and then that’s it.”

For months after I lived, if I heard the word hospital, if I heard the word suicide, I folded inward. If I was not with the people who had been with me there, my jaw clenched. Did anyone know? Could I tell them?

“They stop trying. Why? Why don’t they just keep trying? What has changed? Is their life any better now?”

I walked through the world haunted by unsayable things, things too dark, too ugly to share.

“No,” Seinfeld declares. “In fact, it’s worse, because now they’ve found out here’s one more thing you stink at. That’s why these people don’t succeed at life to begin with.”

My body was a lie waiting to be found out.

“Because they give up too easy.”

On my days off work, I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. My feet ached. My head throbbed. How much longer could I go without health insurance? How much longer before my savings ran dry?

“I say, pills don’t work, try a rope.”

I sat on my back porch in the sun, the mosquitoes dancing in the air. I lit a cigarette, just for the smell of it, the secondhand smoke the strongest sense memory of all those college friends I had lost.

“Car won’t start in the garage? Get a tune-up,” Jerry says. The audience laughs. “You know what I mean? There’s nothing more rewarding than reaching a goal you’ve set for yourself.”

I imagine someone in the audience looking down into their drink. Forcing a smile as their date chuckles, as the sound of laughter surrounds them. How their throat might tighten. On their walk home through a blue New York night, they scuff their shoes on the sidewalk, quieter than normal.

“What’s wrong?” their date asks, holding on to their hand.

“Nothing,” they say, turning their lips up in what is supposed to be a smile. “I’m just tired.”

Unimaginable, that someone there, in the audience, could have survived a thing like that. A thing like that, big, and sad, and distant.

That night as they go to sleep, they might turn their back to their date, hold their arms around their own body, close their eyes and let it all wash over them, quiet and alone.


Sometimes, when I talk about it, when I say these words aloud, there’s an almost unavoidable assumption. I must not have meant it. I must have been relieved. It must not have been that serious. If I had really meant it, when I found myself alive, wouldn’t I have tried again? People try to make sense, and in so doing, don’t hear.

Once, when I shared these words, there were no stories to show me the way back, someone reminded me of a story published in The New York Times, a story of people who jumped off bridges, who survived, who said they regretted it on the way down.

I cocked my head to one side, tried to understand the connection between those stories and my own.

I did not jump off anything, and I did not regret it.

I lay down and did not think I would get back up. I pulled the sheet over my body and thought about what I would do if I woke up. I went to the kitchen and got the biggest knife we had, just in case. I put it on my bedside table, scribbled a note in red ink, with the only pen I could find, on a scrap of paper.

give all my money to my mother

I lay back down. I closed my eyes. I smiled. Relief spread over my body, warm and clean, and I thought that finally, finally, things were going to be OK.


There are moments when I curdle into myself, lemony and silent.

Four of us at dinner at home. The laundry bumping gently in the background. Outside, a siren went screaming into the autumn. Someone mentioned the last time they were in an ambulance, a sprained ankle. Someone else shared a story about drinking too much, going to the hospital. I sat back, wordless. Wanting to let out some noise but instead there it was, a rerun that would not stop, playing out in flashes of memory.

Strapped to the gurney, my backpack full of schoolbooks. Ted and Rachel had brought me things from home, were there watching as they took me from the emergency room, transferring me to a different hospital. Ted had brought me a peanut butter cookie and a large hot coffee that I did not know would be my last for days. It felt ridiculous, bordering on grotesque. Not allowed to walk, I was made passive. I was wearing the same clothes as the day before. I was carted away, through the big doors into April.

In the back of the ambulance, a man who looked barely older than me sat, his hand on the gurney, steadying it.

“Can I ask,” I said, “do you know, will this ambulance ride be covered by insurance? I’m on MassHealth.”

I was lying down, strapped in. He was sitting, looking up, out the window, glancing back down. “Normally, in cases like these, when doctors ordered it, normally it’s covered. Don’t worry about it,” he said. He coughed. I asked where they were taking me. “Probably McLean,” he said.

“How long have you been an EMT?” I asked.

“Couple of years,” he said. “My girlfriend and I moved to Boston a few years ago. I’m training to be a medical assistant.”

“The hours must be exhausting.”

“Yeah, I work overnight a lot. We’re not supposed to work shifts longer than eight hours, but everyone does. For the overtime. When it’s slow, I can sleep in an ambulance when it’s not being used. It’s not so bad.”

He had a face that made me want to protect him. “Do you have a union?” I asked. He laughed.

Outside, one of the first warm spring days was blossoming through Cambridge. Through the back window of the ambulance, I could see trees with white buds, the branches reaching up and away.

“I guess we’re taking you to Walden,” he said.

They were gentle with me. Rolled me down the hall, into the elevator. The sun was bright, streaming in through the windows. I thought they were just moving me for another checkup. I thought I would be home soon.

After riding up the elevator with me, they pushed me out into the hall. “Do you know which wing?” one of them asked.

“Probably to the left,” the other said. They pushed me to the side, pressed a large button. “Hello?” We waited. A woman appeared on a video monitor. “We’ve got someone for you.”

She shook her head. “We’re not expecting anyone. Try across the hall.”

“Weird,” one of them said. They pulled me to the other end of the hall, where there was another set of double doors. They rang another bell, crossed their arms, and waited.

A woman came out to take me.

The men helped me out of the gurney, sat me in a chair. The one who had ridden in the back looked at me like he knew something I didn’t. “Good luck,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder as he left. I smiled, waved.

They took my things. Gave me a johnnie. Took my vitals. It was a Sunday night. It was a Sunday night before my last week of classes of graduate school, when I should have been studying, or at work, but instead, there, the door locked.

In the kitchen, my housemate made a comment about ambulances that I can no longer remember, and I sat silently. I was clutching something. The thing was a fork. The conversation moved to their graduate school. Professors. I looked down at my body, the broccoli and carrots on my plate. I took a deep breath and waited for my arms to stop shaking.


They took my clothes, dressed me in a johnnie.

A woman with dark hair led me past the double doors, doors that I realized too late I could not return from. Doors that locked and stayed locked. She led me through the main room, around the nurse’s station, to another room where she would take my pulse, my vitals. This was the first word that came to take on new meaning, as they yelled it every morning, as we stood in line, waiting for the nurse to check us.

The woman who led me to a back room, who handed me a hospital gown, a johnnie, she called it, pointed to a spot on my body. An electrode was stuck to my leg. As she peeled it away, she saw another. “They should have taken these off at the ER,” she mumbled. The white, plastic square left behind a patch of gray, a remnant of adhesive, when she pulled it from me.

The days jumble.

When I arrived, I signed a release. To submit to treatment for seventy-two hours, after which I would be let go. The thing they didn’t tell me, the thing I heard from stories, from the teenagers that sat coloring at the circular table in the main room, is that every three days, they can force a person to revoke it. To sign a new one, consent to a new cycle. There is no limit for how long they can do this. If a person declines, if a person insists on leaving, they can take you to court, which guarantees at least four more days locked, there, as you wait for your appointed time in front of a judge, where the doctors who have seen you for half an hour can argue too depressed to know what’s good for them, just wants to get out to try again, and you will stand alone in front of them, every word you say tainted by who you are, by what you have become.


In the weeks after I got out of the hospital, I read every book, listened to every podcast, desperate for anything to reflect my story back to me. I scoured the library. I read fiction, memoirs, psychology books. Nothing was right. The women in Girl, Interrupted did not worry about the things we worried about. Kaysen writes of the “day-to-day business of being nuts,” in a tone that grates. The women in her book can leave the ward, with supervision they can walk to an ice cream shop.

Sylvia Plath’s ghost haunts Cambridge. She was taken to a good hospital, the nice hospital, and she did not have to worry about losing her home, about losing her job. When Sylvia Plath was taken to McLean, the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty paid for her treatment. Went to check on her.

Plath’s novel The Bell Jar traces the gentle, gradual fall into the fog of depression. I read it and saw traces of myself and saw myself nowhere. The main character, Esther, is not working, has a mother who loves her. When I read it, I was glad that they no longer use lobotomies as treatment, sure that if I had been alive eighty years before, this would have been the cure for whatever was wrong with me. The novel ends as Esther leaves the hospital, and we don’t get to know what happens to her, how she does or does not adjust to life after. We see her fall, we see her steady, and we move on. The novel asks you to consider a girl who wants to die, who has material resources, whose treatment is shaped by the way she is gendered, who is supposed to return to being what a proper girl should be.

Reader, I am asking you to consider me.

I am asking you to consider the rest of us. People who went to hospitals with no safety nets, people who sat in hospitals and worried about jobs, about rent. People who were fired because we missed a shift, we were a no-call no-show. People who left locked wards and had to keep living, whose stories continued without a road map.


In another age, someone would have shoved an ice pick up my nose. In another age, someone would have locked me away and never let me out. In another age, I would have been excommunicated, worse than dead, damned forever.

In the weeks and months after I lived, I kept myself quiet. The word too big. Commit. I tried to commit. They tried to commit me.

People say it almost without thinking. They committed suicide. To what other acts do we give that verb? To commit an act of genocide, to commit murder, to commit adultery. Horrible, sinful acts.

To someone on the outside, the desire to kill the self can be unfathomable. Strange and big, necessitating a strange and big word to match it. But it is in this word, in this phrase, that the shame sneaks in.

There are people who are careful in how they say it, knowing what the words carry. In certain circles, with people who work in mental health or people who have been through the system, the phrase to “commit” suicide has been retired, replaced. When people do say it, the hard edges of commit throw me off balance.

It is not that everyone means to call this thing shameful, to call this thing monstrous, I don’t think. It is the phrase that most of us have heard our whole lives.

Whether we mean to or not, the shame slips in, settles, there between the lines.

Though we no longer cut the heads off people who have killed themselves, though we no longer bury them at night, though we no longer try to make sure their corpses and ghosts will never find the way home, still we bury them in language of sin, of shame. In our words we mark them as strange, as other, as doing an incomprehensible action that defies our idea of rightness.

What would it mean, to refocus the gaze, to shift the vocabulary?

No longer commit, no longer locked away, no longer a single person acting irrationally, but something else.

We say that someone died from a heart attack. Most of us don’t say that someone died from suicide. To align self-killing with “natural” or accidental deaths is to point fingers in all directions. Where were the doctors, who could have stepped in to help? Where were the signs, who noticed, who didn’t? What were the causes?

To say that someone did not commit but rather died by suicide, is to say that it might be comprehensible. A venture, a guess at understanding, a step toward acknowledging that the causes can lie outside a person as much as inside. That maybe this thing does not need to be so covered in shadows, maybe it does not need to be so hidden in shame.

Mark E. Button writes that such an understanding of suicide, one that takes at its core that a person is acting in response to the conditions of their life, should evoke an existential and institutional crisis, as we turn the gaze back to ourselves, to the world we have built and ask: what is it about this place that makes people want to die?

No longer an individual floating in a void, staring into an existential question, to be or not to be, unplaced in time and space. Instead, a person in relation to their environment, a person whose death is an indictment to us all.


I carried death in my mouth like a tongued pill. Hidden, pressing on my jaw, waiting for someone to come and ask me to share it. No one did.

The people who knew where I had been were too polite, too decorous to ask what had happened. The people who hadn’t noticed my disappearance would have no reason to suspect that anything was different, that there was something there, in the way I carried my body.

The days pricked my skin, the moments full of the pressure of not knowing. Every day was a year, and, no, there was no one to share this wonder with.

How strange, to be alive and breathing in the mornings.

I started seeing someone who didn’t drink and began to prefer seltzer to beer. I went to bed early. I looked forward to my shifts at the coffee shop, run by a family and their friends, who invited me to their parties, who took me swimming on days off.

And still it was there, waiting for someone to ask, for someone to tell, undissolved, the fact of it. I wanted to sit in a room of people who would look at me and know, who would gasp, who would sit with me in this feeling that refused to dull, who would watch as I opened my mouth, and this thing would come out.


In the months after I lived, I waited for something to go wrong. I waited for evidence, for the loss of brain cells to announce itself. I was worse at mental math. The numbers unfamiliar and unwieldy. I used to have a good memory, sharp and precise. I was forgetting things, had to triple check my work schedule, suddenly unable to recall details in the stories friends told me. When I met new people, their names slipped away. I mixed up Isaiah and Isaac, forgot which name was attached to which face the moment I learned it. Was this memory loss because of what happened, or just from getting older? I could still write a paper; I could still write a poem. I waited for a day the words would stop coming, when I wouldn’t be able to spell or make complete sentences. I thought I might die in the middle of the night, that whatever had not killed me was still there, biding its time before it shut down my heart, interfered with the blood to my brain. I thought that maybe I had died, and this was all a strange dream. I waited to wake up.

I made strong, bitter coffee in the mornings. I sat on the back porch, I walked to work. I went on dates. I thought I saw one of the doctors from the hospital at Market Basket and ran home with my groceries.


How many books have been written about Lazarus, this sainted, beloved of God? This chosen man, whom Christ awakens from death? How many articles, how much exegesis, to make meaning out of this holy man’s life, his rebirth? Remembered, sainted, beloved.

There is a girl in the Christian gospels who is not given a name. She is known by the name of her father, Jairus. She is known by the blessing the god gives her.

There is a moment in the synoptic Gospels where a man comes running to the Christ figure, desperate. His daughter is dying. He begs the god to come and make her well. A woman, sick for the last twelve years, reaches out to touch the cloak of the god, knowing that just by brushing her fingers against the hem of their garment, she will be healed.

The god pauses, turns, asks the crowd who touched their clothing. The woman comes forward, trembling in fear. She has taken what was not even hers to ask for. The god tells her that her faith has made her well, she need not hide what she did.

In the time it took to identify the healed woman, the child, Jairus’ daughter dies.

Strangers come to deliver the news, to tell the god not to bother going to Jairus’ house, there is no longer a person there to heal. The god shakes their head and goes to the house anyway, passes a crowd of mourners, women wailing, and goes to the place where the girl lies.

Talitha koum, the god says. Little girl, get up.

She opens her eyes. She gets up. She walks.

The girl is not named. The girl, resurrected, does not speak. After she is brought back, the god leaves her to the living, surrounded by mourners-turned-celebrants. Her voice unheard, this little girl who felt death move through her body, left to live.

Talitha koum, the god says.

And then what? The text is silent, the question echoes. And then what?