"What's the world for you if you can't make it up the way you want."

-Jazz, Toni Morrison

Digging Up Bad Memories–And Good Ones

Digging Up Bad Memories–And Good Ones

“I am living in a world of fear...” 

I was looking for a pair of earrings in my mother’s jewellery box for a wedding, but instead I found his note. It seemed so casual and so normal that I didn’t realize I was holding it.  A yellow, lined post-it note, folded three times. Crinkled from opening and closing it, but carefully enough to not make any tears. He spelt ‘remember’ and ‘good’ wrong or sloppily and then scratched them out. Written in cursive and signed it like a letter: “Regards, Tom.” It was never mailed, but for me it arrived 20 years late. 

I knew my great-uncle Tom struggled after he suffered a traumatic brain injury. I knew he had tried to commit suicide, but I didn’t know he had left a note. My mom said she doesn’t remember which attempt it was from. 

I didn’t know there was more than one attempt.  

My Uncle Tom suffered a serious brain injury at the age of eight from an icy snowball to his head. As a result from the trauma, Uncle Tom had a metal plate and a brain shunt put at the base of his skull. It didn’t real seem to affect him, other than his hearing loss in one ear. He would suffer a stroke and fall down my grandparent’s basement stairs. And he would attempt suicide multiple times– my family still cannot agree on the exact number of times. 

He would survive all of his attempts. My Uncle Tom died in 2009 at the age of 63 from an embolism–a blood clot in his leg that travelled to his heart. His death was hard on us, most of all for my mom, but that note seemed to open a new kind of wound inside me. He was already gone for almost a decade, but finding his words made me feel that he was alive– and in pain. I never heard my Uncle Tom speak a sentence longer than a few words, let alone write. This was my first glimpse of Uncle Tom before the stroke and fall, his words at his lowest moment, trying to explain why he felt that death was the only way to stop the pain. 

There was a 51-year age gap between us. I only really began to find similarities between us after reading the note. We had both suffered from hearing loss at an early age–mine regained from surgery when I was a toddler, and his damaged as a result of the accident involving a snowball, gaining a metal plate and shunt instead. We had both fallen down basement stairs that resulted in trips to the emergency room. We both suffer from mental health issues.

Uncle Tom lived with my parents for almost six years, and always seemed to be a part of the big moments in their lives. He was the one who “ruined” my parent’s proposal according to my dad. 

My dad wanted to propose at a nice dinner, but my mom complained about spending money so he made a home-cooked meal for two. My mom insisted that my dad was being selfish and Uncle Tom should join them for dinner. They split a meal for two between three people, and my mother complained about not having enough food after a long day of work. Just short of a year from their first wedding anniversary, my mother was due with my older sister, Rebecca. My mom was two weeks away from my older sister’s due date when he attempted suicide at their home. We were lucky for Uncle Tom to survive.  For every pregnancy and welcoming home the new baby, my Uncle Tom was there.

Before his attempts, my Uncle Tom worked at a grocery store chain, driving a forklift in the back. After being put on heavy anti-depressants, he was reassigned to sweeping the floors and organizing shelves. He stopped working shortly after Ciara was born. 

When Ciara was only a few months old, my mom started to have nightmares about the house catching on fire. Within those years of living with my parents, my Uncle Tom caused two fires and a flood from his forgetfulness. “Three kids, three-years-old and under,” she remembers. She told me about the plan she had come up with in case she was caught on the upper floor of the house if a fire started. At the time, it never occurred to her to move my Uncle Tom out of the home.

The last straw was when I was a toddler. My mom was taking care of my newborn sister when she received a phone call from a neighbour. “Meagan is running down the street!” I wasn’t even two-years-old yet and I was stumbling down the street in pajamas and little sockettes in the middle of February. My Uncle Tom had let me out the back door. When she asked my Uncle Tom why he let me outside, he said I wanted to go outside. “Like how you let a dog out.” She didn’t mean it in a malicious way. He just didn’t understand. 

“Please try to remember me as a good person.” I will. 

I think about you whenever I eat chocolate Timbits or when I hear certain Christmas carols. I’ll always remember your arms outstretched and the smile that would appear when you called my mom’s name. 

Writing this, I realize how much I loved him and how he has impacted my life in the biggest and smallest of ways. When I read over the letter now, I see what my mom sees. I see the joy that came after he survived both his accidents: the photos of him holding my siblings, the funny stories of living with my parents and the shenanigans at the retirement home. His brain injuries were a part of him, but there were so many other good parts.

Suicide has taught me the pain it is to lose someone who is suffering and feeling helpless– trying to show them that they want to live, but my Uncle Tom’s letter has taught me about living and loving. People are easy to love, but loving their suffering is difficult.  I know now that no one could have saved my Uncle Tom. But that doesn’t mean we stopped loving him. That’s all you can really do. I don’t know quite know what I want you to take away from this story; I only know that I am grateful that he lived long enough for me to grieve for him, to love him and to meet him. 

Meagan Casalino is a journalism student at Carleton University. Typically they write stories for traditional journalism, but they decided to use their skills as a journalist to interview their family and to use writing as a way of reopening a wound losing their uncle and his mental health history. Instagram: @mmrcasalino

Cover photo by Ravi Pinisetti on Unsplash



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