THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER: Being the Hero's Heartbreak

trigger warning: depression, mental illness, suicide, suicidal thoughts

possible spoiler warnings for THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, by Emily X.R. Pan

Chapter 2. The book starts with a series of scratched-out suicide note attempts. So simple, such a small thing, and I am immediately wrecked. Fingers trembling, aching to turn the pages and move on, eyes fixed to the words, I’m already crying.

I get it. I’ve been there. How do you encompass a lifetime’s suffering into a note? How do explain that you love them so much, so much that you have to go? How do you convey your sorrow and apology when they won’t get it?

I want you to remember: I do, too. Remember me. The good times, not this pain. Raise your children with my picture on the mantel. Don’t forget me. Just because I have to go doesn’t mean I want to erase my existence entirely.

The day before I began reading Emily X.R. Pan’s stunning debut THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER, I sat down and, for I think the first time in my life, began typing out a suicide note.

Books, tables, plants, oh my!

Books, tables, plants, oh my!

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?

Die?

Help me. 

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.

Maybe.

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.

It me, the selfie queen

It me, the selfie queen

I am the queen of selfies. It’s partly because I have no shame in public, partly because I don’t like the way I look from any other angle. And I smile. Liberally. I laugh, loudly. I tell jokes and I spiral upwards and if you looked at me and didn’t know, you just might think I was okay. Better than okay: amazing.

It’s always the broken ones who laugh the hardest.

I don’t know how to cope with being a hero’s heartbreak. I honestly don’t. For me, I read to understand. To put myself in Leigh’s shoes and my friends in mine, to seek to understand what it’s like to lose someone to suicide, to envision my loved ones going through that…to swear to never put them through it.

There’s this thought I have often when I’m depressed: that I know this is a terminal disease. Not because it’s going to be with me until I die, but because it’s going to be the reason I die. Because it’s going to be my hand which takes my life in the end. 

An old counselor of mine used to say that even then, it wouldn’t be depression’s fault. Because it’s my hand which yanks the blade, scoops up the pills, etc, etc. 

I believe her but mostly I don’t. And I read THE ASTONISHING COLOR OF AFTER and I cry because I understand the mother and why she did what she did even though no one else does and it breaks me into infinitesimally small pieces. In every instance, I relate: not to Leigh but to her dead mother.

Chapter 63. It is the image of a cicada molting. How many times have I wished I could claw my skin off my back. How many times has the pain in my mind sent me reeling, cursing, clawing.

How many times have I wished for a new self, a new skin, a new mind. How many times.

Chapter 65. In which Leigh’s aunt, in a memory, reflects upon her sister, Leigh’s mother. The mother who killed herself. The mother who was depressed, yet had a spirit bursting with creativity and ambition.

I think I am Leigh’s mother.

Chapter 83. I have never seen my pain represented so clearly on the page, so fully and starkly. We kaleidoscope through suicidal moment after suicidal moment while Leigh’s mother — while Dory — contemplates death. A bottle of pills. A knife. The one that hits the hardest: freezing in the snow.

I didn’t know I was suicidal until I was in high school. It was a boarding school, in the Black Forest, in the mountains of Germany. I lived with a woman who abused my emotions. 

There is a moment, crystallized in the amber of my memories: I walked out of her apartment on the second floor of the centuries-old farmhouse. I stepped into the next room and looked out the window, took in the hills soaring into the sky, transforming into snow-topped mountains.

I would leave. I would walk, then run, then traipse and stumble through the chill, through the snow, until I could no longer move. I would rest. And eventually, my rest would turn to ice. My blood would stop moving in my veins. My heartbeats would slow down until eventually they stopped. I might not even notice when it happened. But one minute, I would be, and the next...I wouldn’t.

I didn’t know I wasn’t alone in dreaming of snow taking over.

I didn’t know, and I read the words, and I broke.

The last thing I want is to make the people who love me suffer. Grieve. Cry. Wonder. I don’t want to turn into a bird. I just want to turn into someone who can survive life.