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The Ties that Bind by Tammy Delatorre


Tammy Delatorre’s “The Ties that Bind” is one of three winners of the 2020 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, judged by Joy Castro.


Stunning in its intensity and concision, Tammy Delatorre’s essay “The Ties that Bind” is an anticolonial love song, a visceral elegy for those upon whose labor and loss the blithe tourism of the well-to-do depends. The essay’s deft, elegant layers unfold swiftly, and Delatorre’s relentless, unflinching curiosity presses on the sutures that stitch together passion and pain, illuminating the tragic free-falls that happen when those threads snap. I love this essay’s risky leaps, its haunting motifs, and its lyrical logic, the way its lines are laced together with alliteration and internal rhyme. Delatorre leads us to the brink and leaves us there, breathless with grief and hope.  —Joy Castro


Content Warning—suicide


 

On the Big Island of Hawai‘i, Honokaa is the town tourists drive through to get to Waipi‘o Valley. At the top of the valley is a scenic overlook, which provides an unobstructed view to the black sand beach, river, and sea cliffs below. The view is breathtaking, so the spot is usually packed with tourists, all wanting a glimpse of untouched beauty.

Whether arriving or leaving, tourists can drive through Honokaa in just a few minutes, passing tacky souvenir shops with lauhala mats, puka-shell bracelets, and little tiki statues.

But to island locals like myself, Honokaa is known for Tex Drive-In, where you can buy the island’s best malasadas and affordable plate lunches. In the center of town, next to Malama Market and the post office is a road that will take you almost all the way down to the sea to a rundown neighborhood called Haina Camp. This is where the laborers who toiled in the sugar cane fields once boarded. After the mill shut down years ago, the town’s economy slid into decline.

In this town, a number of attempted suicides radiated out like a contagion among my family and friends. A few of them failed.


Experts say blood doesn’t turn blue in the body. But without oxygen, blood takes on a bruised hue. This is after it’s traveled the distance through muscles, organs, and other internal systems on its way back to the heart.

My brother married a girl whose family lived in Haina Camp. I’ll call her Roslyn. Her father attempted suicide by hanging.

I imagine the deoxygenated blood pooled in his lips and face, blood vessels in his neck broken, the skin discolored. He would not die by suicide. He’d die later due to cancer.

The clothesline he chose to use was not tall enough for his feet to be off the ground. He simply folded himself at the knees, as if kneeling in prayer.

What an act of will and restraint to do it in this manner, when he could have changed his mind, let the innate mechanism to breathe take over and rise to his feet. Instead, something compelled him beyond bodily pain to end a greater hurt.


Roslyn didn’t usually wake at that early hour of day. But there was something in the air, an eerie stillness, an electric energy that made the dawn air raw with static.

She found her father and cut him down. I imagine this father-daughter scene evenly lit with soft morning light, as she looked over his body, trying to detect signs of life—breathing, a pulse, a fluttering of his eyelashes. Perhaps she was struck by drowned-blue coloring in his face and neck. She was just sixteen. What would finding her father in this way do to a girl at her age?

I never learned what her father did for a living. I assumed he worked in a job similar to the laborers in my family, work that left a man with callused hands, something he woke up at dawn to do, his body sweating profusely as the sun moved over the rattling coconut fronds. He’d continue to work into the late afternoon, punching out at a clock, his body tired and full of aches. Maybe that’s why he woke up early in the first place, accustomed to the rhythm of his work. And perhaps he appreciated the second chance because when the cancer came, he fought for his life.


My father lives down the road from Roslyn’s family with his “lady friend” Cheryl. This woman has a well-groomed garden of orchids, anthuriums, and other rare flowers, as well as grass she often manicures with scissors.

Cheryl met my father shortly after her husband hanged himself in the garage, the same garage where my father has me park my rental car when I come to visit from California. Sitting in the driver’s seat trying to gather myself before I go in, I imagine her husband’s body hanging above the hood, listing from its own weight.

When I first met Cheryl, I quickly came to realize she was the kind of woman who discussed all sorts of matters, whereas I was not. She described to me many times how she had found her husband that morning and was the one to cut him down. But I am the kind of woman to wonder what kind of knife she used, one from the kitchen or a sickle from the garage. Did she require a ladder? Did she take care as to how his body would land?


Winters are warm in Hawai‘i. The snowbirds are from places where winters are white. They don’t think twice about spending top dollar to stay at luxury resorts, but money barely trickles into the hands of locals.

When I was growing up, my father worked as a mechanic at the Keahou Country Club, where he maintained and repaired golf carts for tourists who jetted across eighteen fairways. My mother cleaned rooms before the next batch of tourists checked in. To help make ends meet, my family members picked coffee and macadamia nuts after school and on weekends. It was work that had us on our feet from daybreak until just before sunset.

After work, dirty, but too tired to shower, I collapsed on the front lawn. Under the cobalt expanse of evening, I watched for falling stars and wished for a better life.


I was first introduced to Roslyn when she was seventeen and had just started dating my brother. What a pretty girl, I thought, pretty smile, though she rarely smiled.

I was there when my brother told my father Roslyn was pregnant. And when my brother said it, I stood in the dirt driveway of Roslyn’s shanty house. I tried to turn away so my brother wouldn’t see my tears. I hadn’t meant to express disappointment, but he was only nineteen. He had dropped out of high school. He was working at some minimum-wage job, caught in the same predicament as our father who had conceived me at the same age.

All that Roslyn and my brother could earn barely covered their living expenses. It’s hard to bear that kind of economic reality, caring for a family with pockets filled with more dirt than dollars.


Roslyn and my brother would conceive four children; only three would survive.

For their eldest son’s first birthday, we threw a luau, as is customary in Hawai‘i, to celebrate the fact that the child made it that far.

Roslyn and my brother invited 200 guests. We had thrown large luaus before, for weddings and other special events. Preparing for a luau is hard work. I flew home to do my part. In my father’s kitchen, we chopped vegetables and meat for the feast, a monotonous task, especially when you’re not good at cutting. After several hours, our hands and eyes grew heavy; making it easy to slice a finger. A good song came on the radio. I turned to my sister and said, “Okay, you do a move, then I’ll do one,” thinking it might lift our spirits.

My sister did hers, smiles around the table. I did mine, a couple rotations of my hips one way, then the other. Roslyn keeled over laughing. I had never seen her laugh like that before. But then she covered her mouth; she stifled her happiness.


Cheryl says my father doesn’t like her to talk about her husband’s death, doesn’t like her to talk about her sadness over this loss, and this seems right about my father, both demanding that you not talk about the past or in any way insinuate that you would love anyone but him.

My father isn’t one for talking, unless he’s been drinking, in which case, you’d hope he’d stop talking about a great many things, like how after his second wife, Mary, left him he had tried to take his own life. And maybe we should have seen it coming because he quit his job, he sold the house and gave us, his three kids, all the money. I told him I’d just hold it for him. Of course, there were many talks with my father during that time in his life, when he believed he had nothing left to live for. His children were grown and didn’t need him anymore.

I need you,” I said. But I was his child from a different woman so perhaps he didn’t figure me into his will to live.

I wonder in one of his drunken bouts if he’s confessed to Cheryl that he had tried to do it in a similar manner, with rope, which he often kept in his truck. How he had tried one last time to get Mary back before he tossed the rope over a branch at Pine Trees Beach where he was living, a homeless man.

As the rope tightened and he took his last gasps, my father felt himself leaving his body. But the branch broke. He joked that god kicked him out of heaven. But certainly, my father knew the heliotrope trees on those beaches are prone to give up their limbs in the turbulence of tropical storms rather than be uprooted.


I don’t want to think about Roslyn.

She found her father and cut him down. When she went to do the deed herself, did she think someone would come and make the cut for her?

I don’t want to consider the knot she used, whether it was a sailor’s knot, square, or hangman’s. How many knots could one girl know?

Don’t want to think about the type of rope: nylon, polypropylene, Manila, or paracord, how quickly it tightened around her throat.

Don’t want to wonder whether she changed her mind at the last minute, clawing at the fibers to make it stop.

Don’t want to think about the agony she endured to get there, believing life hadn’t given her any other options.

Don’t want to think about how alone she felt when her cheeks went the same shade of drowned blue as her father’s.

And what of the fact that it was her eldest son who found her? He was only sixteen, the same age Roslyn had been when she found her father.

Now all his life my nephew will continue to find her in this way, hanging, under the house, perhaps at the most inopportune of times, like when he’s about to kiss a girl; and any time he sees a length of rope, he’ll remember how heavily his mother’s body fell when he made the cut, how he listened at her chest and knew he couldn’t cry, not then, as he tried to hear her heartbeat.

Did he put his lips to hers? Did he try to breathe life back into her?

These are questions I do not ask him, knowing it will only hurt him.

I don’t want to think about what gets handed down.

Did Roslyn learn this from her father?

In turn, will her son learn it from her?


Roslyn and my brother’s third born would be a girl, stillborn, a rash of blue allium bulbs under the gauze of her tiny lips.

Roslyn, healthy for all nine months of her pregnancy, only felt unwell the night before the baby shower—not sick or nauseous, but something she’d later characterize as death inside her.

My brother took her to the hospital. Their baby girl had been strangled by her own umbilical cord.

Roslyn still needed to schedule the birth, even though the baby was dead. It could be done by C-section or induced labor.

Roslyn chose labor.


Every fall, my family picked coffee. We wore bamboo baskets around our backs. On the weekends, we worked all day. At lunch, my back ached; my fingers, with little nicks from the hardened stems, burned. We sat under the shade of the trees, listened to the wind blow through leaves, watched random clouds in the shape of boats and farm animals traverse the sky.

Our hands were dirty—black from the sticky residue from the beans. Mary passed around a jug of water. We poured the cold, grey fluid over our hands, rubbing them together. We didn’t bring soap. We smeared our damp hands on jeans or tattered T-shirts, hoping to wipe off the filth. Once, Mary forgot forks. We had to eat with our dirty hands. We were ravenous and didn’t care. The spam and sausage could be pinched between fingers, the rice balls cupped in our palms. We licked our fingers, tasting the acidic, dark flavor of earth and beans.


Roslyn texted my brother the night before she hanged herself.

Using a tracking app on his cell phone, she saw he was on Oahu. He had left her, maybe for good this time.

Love me! Or if you leave me, I’ll take my life.

I’ve felt this way before.

Members of my family have lived this way—putting everything on the line for love.

A therapist once told me, after I experienced my own heartbreak, after a man I loved left me, after I felt the ragged edge of elsewhere beckoning me to end the hurt, that it must be so amazing to love that deeply. It was hard for me to imagine a person not all in. But when the therapist said it, I realized some people don’t go that far.

It was the first time I realized I had a choice.


My brother had been on Oahu visiting Mary, his mother, my stepmother, when he got the call. Roslyn’s family told him Roslyn wasn’t well and had been taken to the hospital. They didn’t tell him about the hanging. They didn’t tell him she was already gone. Instead, they said, come home. He was still her husband.

He was angry he had to pay for a plane ticket back so soon.

My father picked him up at the airport and took him to Roslyn’s house where her family told my brother what had happened. They loved him and didn’t want him to do anything rash. Right there in their dirt driveway, he lost the will to stand and fell to his knees.


A few weeks after Roslyn had passed away, I asked my brother how he was doing. I expected him to cover his emotions like I often did and say something like, I’m doing the best I can. Instead he said, “My heart is broke,” like it was simultaneously fragmented and destitute.

And how did I get by, knowing he was in pain?

I thought of all the knots I knew; there weren’t many.

I thought of my father tying a fisherman’s knot on a hook.

I thought of how heavy a lifeless body must be.

I thought of the darkness under Roslyn’s house, where she chose to do it, which was quite different from the spot her father chose—out on the lawn, in plain sight for all to see.


During the summers, my family picked macadamia nuts, although “picked” seems inaccurate; we didn’t pick them off trees like coffee. We gathered them from the ground, squatting, crawling, and kneeling to collect the ones that had fallen from the trees.

Besides nuts, the trees shed thorny leaves. The farm owner blew the prickly foliage into piles. Strong gusts brought down more leaves or rattled the pile back over the nuts. Our fingers were pierced by needles. We didn’t wear gloves. That would have slowed us down. Instead, we wrapped our cuticles with bandage tape, leaving our fingers agile. We worked quickly, but our hands got cut up, and our knees, bruised.


Roslyn had threatened to do it. My father said she didn’t seem like the kind of person who would go through with it; my brother could leave, if that’s what he wanted to do.

But my father didn’t know, and perhaps my brother had forgotten, that Roslyn had tried once before, when she thought my brother was leaving her.

That time, she used pills. Someone found her and rushed her to the hospital. The doctors pumped her stomach.

And perhaps my father had forgotten how my own mother, his first wife, was once in similar peril after he left her.

She had dragged me to Oahu to chase after him.

But he had flown to Oahu to be rid of her.

She wanted him to come to the high-rise hotel where we were staying.

He refused, so she went out on the balcony, climbed onto the other side of the railing, and screamed, “Look at what you’re making me do,” as if he could hear her.

I was six and begged her to come inside. But she wouldn’t listen to me. Two police officers jumped onto our balcony from the room next door, pulled her away from the edge, and slid the glass door shut.


After Roslyn’s death, I had several dreams of her.

In the first dream, we were all at her house running around with machetes in our hands. I was running, thinking I could get to her in time, but none of us could find her.

In another dream, I found her sitting on a cement slab near her house. She had a young girl on her lap. The girl was the right age to be the daughter she had lost, the babe who died in her womb.

You’d think that a woman who had lived through so much loss would find nothing but happiness afterward. But life doesn’t work that way.

Here’s how it worked in her real life: Roslyn woke up early. She locked everyone in the house, including her three sons. This is the part where I stopped and wondered what kind of house has its locks on the outside. She went under the house, where it’s tall enough to stand. That’s where she did it. That’s where her eldest son found her after breaking one of the windows to get to her.

But in the dream, I said to Roslyn, “Come on, I’m going to save you.” She laughed, showing me her teeth and gums, so full a laugh I could see the back of her throat. She didn’t stifle her happiness. She let her laugh run loose. Maybe the dream place was heaven.


I took time off from work.

I told my colleagues I had lost my sister-in-law. They seemed consoled by the fact it wasn’t my actual sister.

But Roslyn and I were sisters in the fact that we were two brown-bodied girls born to fathers who tried to hang themselves. We were sisters in the work our bodies performed, picking coffee and mac nuts, serving tourists who visited the island.

People sent condolences to the point I thought condolences felt like the sad songs DJs played at school dances, where I just stood against the wall. Condolences felt like the government dole, where we were given large blocks of bright orange cheese, which we ate until it made us constipated and sick.

The darkness won. My sister hanged herself, and there wasn’t one thing I could do to stop it.


In my own time of desperation, I never thought to use rope.

Instead, driving fast on the freeway and nearing my exit, I thought, Keep going. Right into the barrier wall.

One of my aunts died this way. She was a butcher, ending each workday covered in blood. At the end of her last shift, driving someplace other than home, she crashed her car. Her death, a mystery. No other vehicles were involved, but where the road turned, she did not and rammed full speed into a telephone pole.

And I didn’t mention my cousin; finances forced him to live with his wife and kids in his parent’s converted garage. One day, he wrapped his mouth around the end of a rifle, swallowed a bullet that splattered his brains on the wall.

So many brown bodies buried or burned in cremation, lives taken at their own hands. But even the ones who didn’t die from the attempt, their minds and bodies bore the brunt of being brought to the brink.


Tourists who visit our island don’t much consider the lives of locals. In one of her last jobs, Roslyn worked as a cashier at a souvenir shop, her husband’s and eldest son’s sandalwood carvings offered as cheap keepsakes.

Roslyn chose death rather than face a world where love left her. But having come from the same economic despair where love is everything because we had nothing except the people we tethered ourselves to, I can’t help but consider the agency that her decision gave her, a choice rife with potency. She’s gone, and we’re left missing her with the whole of our broke hearts.

As I approach the anniversary of her death, I celebrate her life, a mother of three sons and one dead daughter, a woman I embraced every time I saw her, someone for whom I would have gladly broken out my dance moves just to see her laugh.

In her moment of despair, I wish she had called me. Hell, it didn’t have to be me. Take me out of the story. I wish she had called someone to say, Please help. I’m hurting. And I need it all to end. Maybe she could have found another way.


I’ve been under Roslyn’s house where she took her own life. It’s a dark, damp place, with just enough room overhead to stand. At certain times of day, I imagine this space cast in so much shadow that, if you’re hanging, it’s hard to see your feet to the floor.

Whenever I’m back on the Big Island I seek solace in the sea. Immersed it its waters, I’m awed by the endless shades of blue. I dive down to the ocean floor, look up through a depth of cerulean to a sky painted that same hue. I think of a cold, unbeating heart stopped with the darkening blue of blood. Deep beneath the sea’s surface the pressure is unrelenting. Blood vessels could burst. But there’s a clarity I can only get when I’m down here, nearly out of breath. I’ve heard it said that water holds emotion. I am swimming in it. When I can no longer stand the seething in my chest, I push my legs off the bottom and re-emerge at the surface, grateful to draw a lung full of air.

 


TAMMY DELATORRE was named a 2020–2021 Steinbeck Fellow. She’s received other literary awards, including the Payton Prize, Slippery Elm Prose Prize, CutBank’s Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and Columbia Journal’s Fall Contest. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, Hobart Online, The Rumpus, and Vice. She obtained her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Read more of her work at tammydelatorre.com.

 

Featured image by mana5280 courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

Using Grief as the Needle to Sew the Story

I did not set out to write an essay about my sister-in-law’s suicide. Some traumas get set down simply because we survive them.

Many events in my life have left me torn apart. In writing this essay, grief became the needle I used to pierce my own skin, to get to the story in my brokenness.

My sister-in-law attempted suicide on June 15, 2018.

My father called to tell me. “Roslyn hung herself. They’ve taken her to the hospital.”

My throat tightened. I couldn’t bring myself to breathe. I hoped she would make it.

My father was about to hang up.

“Wait, Dad! I mean, she’s going to be okay, right?”

“No.” There was a pause. “She’s gone.”

Thread the needle’s eye with a thick, cotton strand. Feed the point through a thin peel of skin. Watch it burrow beneath the flesh.

After she was gone, I wrote, as I often do, in titled fragments:

June 15, 2018—“It feels like the darkness is winning”
June 15, 2018—“To the woman crying in the street” (the woman was me)
June 17, 2018—“I want to save a life”
June 20, 2018—“I can’t think about Roslyn”
June 20, 2018—“This is what I remember about her”
July 11, 2018—“Roslyn’s suicide”
July 24, 2018—“Imagine the weight of a lifeless body, hanging”
July 25, 2018—“She had threatened to do it”
Aug 7, 2018—“I dreamt about Roslyn”
Aug 15, 2018—“I wish she hadn’t done it”

At the time, I didn’t realize the fragments were cuttings I would use to make an appliqué.

In July 2019, with the perspective of more than a year, I wrote another fragment entitled, “hangings run in my neighborhood.” I tallied the attempted and successful suicides: eight.

A stitch can be a pain in the abdomen, sharp and stabbing, or it can be a hard cramp, the kind that forces you to slow down, stop your running, and face the pain.

After Roslyn passed away, I had to slow down. This was not just my loss; my brother lost a wife; my nephews lost their mother. There was our grief but there was also our guilt. We hadn’t been able to stop it.

There were days all I could do was sit with the stitch in my side.

But a stitch can also help close a wound.

A stitch can be a single pass of the needle and thread to bring things together.

I stitched the story, sometimes with the thread clumsily showing through; sometimes, with my pieces arranged in a manner that didn’t make sense. At some point someone said, bring Hawai‘i to the foreground of the tragedy. Of course, that’s where these events occurred, among the tourists who don’t think twice about the locals who live there.

I affixed the final motifs. From the subversive weave, resorts emerged built on the backs of locals, island getaways embroidered with the still-bloodied fibers that sew up our hearts.

The location was a huge part of the whole—but so was the work my family members performed in this lush island setting, their bodies bent and aching in the high heat of the midday sun. Some locals work so hard, yet they can barely support a family. The futility can drive one to the brink. I know because I’ve been there. When all one can afford is to love the ones we tether ourselves to, sometimes the rope becomes a noose.


TAMMY DELATORRE was named a 2020–2021 Steinbeck Fellow. She’s received other literary awards, including the Payton Prize, Slippery Elm Prose Prize, CutBank’s Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and Columbia Journal’s Fall Contest. Her writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, Hobart Online, The Rumpus, and Vice. She obtained her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Read more of her work at tammydelatorre.com.