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.