I didn’t get far. Just the act of typing out the words “I’m sorry” sent me reeling because it made it so real. So much more real than ever before. I’d had previous attempts, but they’d always been impulsive, the kind that happened because I was overcome with emotion and couldn’t see past the pain of the moment, and never had I come even close to my life being in danger. I’d never had the time to sit down and write a note.
This time was different. This time started with me speaking to myself in a rational tone of voice. Making a promise. And slowly, as the days passed, growing ever surer in my promise. I had motive. I had a plan. I had determination. If such-and-such didn’t happen…I would kill myself.
THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER is about coping with a mother’s suicide. It’s contemporary but fantastical, the story of Leigh, a biracial girl who, after losing her mother, travels to Taiwan to visit the grandparents whom she’s never met, in search of the bird she believes her mother has become. It is exquisitely written and heart-squeezingly devastating at times. As I read, I kept stopping to take notes, to write down a chapter number and a line or two that specifically affected me.
Chapter 6. One of the first books I ever tried to write was a dual-perspective novel, following a girl after her best friend killed herself as the left-behind finds she can hardly cope. I had tried to kill myself a few months before, wound up in the hospital, and was trying to put myself in my friends’ shoes and imagine their life after me.
The biggest struggle was I just couldn’t fathom that they would be devastated.
Leigh says: “The mother-shaped hole became a cutout of the blackest black. Something I could only see around.” (19).
Am I wrong for wishing they might be sucked into the black hole?
The day before I began reading THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER was the day such-and-such was supposed to happen, or not. And as the hours dragged on, I became surer that it wouldn’t happen. That I would have to die. I was a mess. I cried. My hands shook. I scrolled through my phone’s contacts, trying to find someone I could tell. I started my note. I shuddered and couldn’t finish.
In the end, I didn’t do it. I lived another day, to open up Pan’s novel, and find myself…completely shaken.
Chapter 19. Leigh wants to know whose fault it is. Did she not love her mom enough? Did her father fail in some way? Did her mom’s friends drop the ball?
I wanted to yell that no, of course not. The ball is too fucking heavy for them to carry. It’s too heavy for me to ask my mom, my best friend, the boy I have a crush on, to carry. It’s definitely too heavy for me, but I’m trying. I’m lugging it behind me and brushing the sweaty hair from my forehead and wishing I were stronger.
“If I had only— ” (77).
No, baby, there was nothing you could do.
I wish I could blame someone for this. Say they didn’t love me enough. But the truth is my brain is a cannibal and it’s eating me alive and no one’s sacrifice will ever be enough. Ever. Not even mine.
What do you when you find yourself relating not to the book’s protagonist, Leigh, but to her dead mother? When every description of the mother who killed herself rockets through your body and lights you up from the inside, eating you alive with recognition?
Everything about Leigh’s mother could have been written about me. From the memories where she shines, joy sparkling from her eyes to her fingertips to the way she moves about the room. There are moments in which I feel this about myself. Moments when I am joy incarnate, when I imagine a third-person narrator saying of me, She walked with a spring in her step, emanating a joie de vivre that infected everyone around her. She may as well have been in a musical on a beautiful spring day, waltzing through a quaint, charming town while wearing a fluffy, pink sundress.
And then there are descriptions of her as she is depressed. Slumped, physically bowed down by the weight in her mind, in her heart, unable to even recognize that it’s time to celebrate someone else: a prisoner to her illness.
That’s me so much of the time. It feels like there are weights tied to my fingers and my toes and my nose and they’re all pulling me downward, pressing me into the ground. I get in the car and my hands barely hold onto the wheel, my foot presses the gas gauge too far…I have to pull over, take a deep breath, straighten my back and demand strength from my limbs that isn’t there.
Chapter 24. Leigh finds her mom passed out on the kitchen floor.
I used to pray I could pass out. Hell, I still do. I am overcome with emotion and it hurts like hell and I want it to go away, at least for a moment.
When I cut; when I walk crying down the street; when I post on Twitter; I’m screaming. I’m screaming for you to help me. What do I have to do to get your attention? Pass out? Collapse? Bleed?
Chapter 29. They thought she was better.
But it was always going to come back.
THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER is a story of grief. Intense, brilliant grief. Every instant where Leigh grieves her mother hit me in the gut, not because I’ve felt that grief, but because I’ve almost been the cause of that grief.
I haven’t lost a loved one to suicide. I’ve been the loved one who was almost lost to suicide.
Chapter 30. Leigh asks herself what makes someone decide to kill herself. Especially when this person is loved.
I flash back to mid-July, 2017. I wish I remembered details of the day other than that it was a Sunday, but that’s all I’ve got. It was a Sunday. I was on the middle or top balcony in Hammerstein Ballroom, at the Manhattan Center. I was out of control. I was surrounded by friends, people who didn’t just profess to love me, but who acted out their love, showing it to me in everything they did.
“You have so many people who love you,” someone mentioned, and the guilt knifed its way through my gut. I knew it was the truth.
It’s not often that I know I am loved. Most of the time I hope I am loved, but fully disbelieve it regardless. This time, though, I knew it.
And it still wasn’t enough.
Chapter 33. Leigh thinks maybe a place to exercise her religion would have saved her mother.
I have a place. I call it home. I call it church. I call it family. It’s a megachurch that meets in a theater in midtown Manhattan and the line stretches halfway down an avenue most Sundays. The worship music is loud and exciting and when I sing out so strongly that my throat gets raw, I feel like it will be okay.
If I could just stay in that cocoon all the time. If I could wrap myself in that comfort, familiarity, home, for the other six days of the week…
It still wouldn’t be enough.
I don’t know what will be enough. I don’t know if anything can be enough. I have it all. I have friends and love and God and worship and home and dreams and safety and it is still not, never, enough. Because I still wander through the middle of most days wondering when it’s going to happen.
When I’m going to kill myself.
And I don’t know what the grief would look like for the people I love, who profess to love me. Honestly, sometimes I don’t believe that they would grieve. I doubt it would wreck anyone the way it wrecked Leigh.
But maybe it would. Maybe, just maybe, my friends would find themselves shaken, at a loss, sick to their stomachs, knowing I was gone. Maybe they would attend my funeral and have no words for their sorrow. Maybe they would fling their lives away, travel to foreign lands in search of me, in search of a reason, in search of an answer.
I doubt it. But maybe that doubt is the depression speaking.
Regardless: what do you do when you read a book and know you’re not the hero: you’re her heartbreak?
Chapter 52. Leigh’s mom can’t hold herself upright. Her body droops, sags, drapes along the floor and the shoulders of those who carry her.
There have been moments, usually when I’m behind the wheel of a car, when my body becomes weighted down. My shoulders sag, my head lolls forward. My eyes close for a blink and it takes a second, two, six, for them to snap open again.
We like to call depression a mental illness, relegate it to the kingdom of the mind and pretend it has no physical effects. But there are moments when my body is just as sick as my mind. When the strength seeps out of my muscles and my bones may or may not be made of silly putty and I think it would be easy, so easy, to simply disintegrate.
Chapter 52, but later. Leigh sees a happy family picture and wonders how a picture can lie about so much brokenness.