Excerpt: 'Sanity and Grace'

In Sanity and Grace, renowned singer/songwriter Judy Collins chronicles her journey from pain to survival following the suicide of her son, and offers comfort to those who lost loved ones in the same way.

Here is an excerpt from the Preface and Chapter One.

Preface

I have written Sanity and Grace to shed more light upon the dark taboo of suicide. The suicide of my son was devastating beyond words, yet here I am again, trying to put everything I know or have read or heard or thought about suicide into words, for my own healing as well as that of others.

In writing and thinking about the subject, it has become clear to me that even with the popularity of books and movies about suicide, such as The Hours and Savage God, and the dedicated work of survivors and professionals alike, the taboo is strong and growing. It is my hope that Sanity and Grace may bring hope to those who are in need of solutions for suicide — that is, finally, to all of us.

When my son died, I made the decision that I would live every day as if it were my last — every moment to the hilt. As the years since my son's death have passed, and I have continued to grow and create, the question often arises from friends or acquaintances, "What are you working on at the moment?" Among the records and new songs, the television specials and other gifts that life has offered, seemingly more after my son's awful passing, I answer that I am also working on the subject of suicide — my own experiences, as well as others' — a sort of monograph of tears but also of research on loss, and lessons from other survivors. A gasp often greets this information, then a tone of recognition and perhaps fear. Then, if the talk continues, people remember "their" suicide — the one in the family no one ever mentioned but everyone sensed, the dark, forbidden territory of the psyche, the mother, child, the father, cousin, the sister, the friend. What follows is usually deep and curious, like walking on the moon, and then strangely familiar, like walking in your own living room. I have found that people want and need to explore this subject in their own lives, that the discussion brings needed relief — to all of us. For we all, being human, have some suicide story in our past or our future.

One day, suicide might attain the normality, in a sense, of heart disease or lung ailments, diabetes or cancer. We might be able to say, "Here is the situation medically and psychiatrically, now what can be done to prevent it? To cure it?" And if, as with some diseases, the cure is impossible, then the dignity of respect, the honor of understanding, may be bestowed upon the suicide and his or her family. Otherwise no sacred act is really sacred, when we condemn a sick and suffering soul to secrecy and render them lost, and ourselves sick, from the secret of their passing.

This book is for all of those who are gone, and for all of us as well, those who remember and those who try to forget.

The sacred is always expressed in remembrance.

There was a pause — just long enough for an angel to pass, flying slowly.

journal entry, february 7, 1992

It was as though time stopped, the clocks stopped and I stepped into the gap, walking into it as though it were a mansion with many rooms. It was all right that you were gone, because it was only a minor detail and some bright and sweet and soft angel was saying those details are not important, there is here there, there here; it is all one and the same.

And I planned the rest of my life, and then stopped planning, because I knew it was not the point, that love was the point, that all was love, and you were love and I am and we are and no passing terrible thing can alter that, that only a perception of something between the gaps can sustain us, nourish us. The moment of stopped time is the most important of all, it is what counts, not the other.

I will live in the gap, live in the moment between the breaths, in that pause where wings of an angel pass, where the flowers bloom, where love is born out of trouble.

Let me stay in the moment, in that place of timeless wonder.

Chapter 1

Whales and Nightingales The Heron In the vapors of the lake At dusk One single Heron Stood, a whiteness on the shore. Alone, his wings spread And in flight he filled my vision So that it was only him I saw. The lake, it was, that Flew away. — judy collins

The first time I remember hearing the word "suicide" was a lazy spring afternoon in Denver, Colorado, in 1949. I had come home from school. My father was there in his big easy chair, running his fingers over the pages of a Braille book, a glass of whiskey at his elbow, the ice slowly melting. My father's drinks never got too watered.

This particular day was one of those quiet afternoons when I was reading and my father was stirring the ice cubes in his drink with his index finger, making that clinking sound that could mean a mellow night, or a horror show. We never knew. The prelude was usually calm, full of intelligent conversation and good stories, reading, listening to music. But Daddy fought his own demons, mostly in front of me and my mother, Marjorie, and my siblings.

It was that afternoon that he told me about the suicide. We were sitting in the living room of our red brick duplex on Willow Street. I listened eagerly to Daddy's voice, probably glad to put off my inevitable daily date with the keyboard. I was ten.

Daddy was reading from a big Braille copy of Moby-Dick. With his fingers, he caressed the thick pages as though they were made of some fine silk, the raised dots spilling out Melville's epic tale of the greens, rights, sperms, and humpbacked whales, and the journey of Ishmael and Ahab. His smooth baritone voice rose and fell among the gentle noises of the household about us — my mother in the kitchen preparing the evening meal, my three siblings, Mike, David, and Denver the baby intent on the chores and solaces of the afternoon. The fading light splintered and fluttered in the room as the story of Moby-Dick unfolded. My mind roamed a thousand miles away, my imagination fired with water and spears, waves and heathen tattoos, ambergris and whaleboats rolling in foam.

My father paused, the story halting in midair like ocean spume, diamonds of water catching the light. His hands fell quiet on the pages of his book. I was left amid the waters of the North Atlantic, a whale ship rigged to chase a pod of females, the spears and tackle ready to fly into bright air. The spell was broken, and as I stirred, taking a sip of my Kool-Aid, green and sweet around my lips, my father's voice rearranged the silence. He cleared his throat and began speaking, this time not reading from the book that lay open on his lap. His voice filled the room as he began another story, that of a man named Al Taylor, a stranger to us, someone whose widow and children we had recently met on moving to Denver from Los Angeles. Al Taylor, it seemed, had taken his own life. He had committed suicide, my father said.

It was the first time I had heard that word spoken. I don't remember having read it, but I somehow knew it was a terrible word, anyway. It was like a small knife in my stomach, and it seemed to sit there, waiting for me to either take it out or call for my mother to take it out. I asked my father who Al Taylor was and why he had committed suicide. For a ten-year-old, I was very smart about suicide, for someone who knew nothing of it.

Daddy told me about Al Taylor. He said Al, whose widow, Margaret, I had met, as well as her children, Peter, Gary, and Hadley, was a successful, seemingly happy man. He wasn't sure why a person like that should take his own life, but there must have been reasons. Maybe he was unhappy, I offered. "Maybe," my father replied. "Maybe."

Many years later, I learned something about Al Taylor, but never much, although his son was, by then, my husband, and my son was his grandson.

Would have been, that is, if Al Taylor were to have lived.

I don't know why my father chose that moment to share the story with me. Perhaps it was the drama of Ahab's obsession, the images of frothing water, men on the hunt for wild giant beasts; perhaps it was the intimacy of the moment we shared in the quiet afternoon. He didn't spare me the details of Al's suicide. Daddy always thought I was man enough to understand that life was not for everyone. He would, in the future, tell me many of his secret stories, about himself, about his longings, his dreams, often during our reading sessions. In school in Boise and Gooding, Idaho, he learned to read and write Braille, type his own scripts for his radio shows, both Braille and script. He played the piano beautifully, and his life had been about survival, about overcoming his handicap, his drinking, his setbacks, and whatever fate threw at him. He had fought his way up and out from under the dirt-farm Idaho childhood, with hard labor and little reward for a life of grueling work, to a life of a good degree of fame, in Seattle, in Los Angeles, and now in Denver. He was a well-known man about town, well read, intent on education and the love of his wife and his five children (my sister Holly was still a spark of light in my parents' imaginations). My father was difficult in many ways, but he was also a successful father, breadwinner, and even, lover. He was committed to life, in all its contrasts, in all its glory, in all its vagaries and mystery.

Daddy would have probably been home most of the afternoon by then, and he might have gotten a little buzz on if he was off the wagon. He would have done his radio show, Chuck Collins Calling, which was on the air regularly every weekday in Denver, or on stations in Los Angeles and Seattle, where my family had lived before we moved to Denver in 1949. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" was the song he used for his theme song, "Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep, just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street." He had a sweet and lilting baritone, and so it was usually with the sound of Daddy's voice and his cheer that I would bound out the door, defying the mood of the night before — my parents' fighting, perhaps, or the disputes over money, and over his drinking — with my brownbag lunch of whole-wheat sandwiches. My father gave us lectures on the evils of white rice and white bread, and the glories of Gaylord Hauser's fruit juice and health — food diets, which Daddy used in his efforts to come off his horrific hangovers. So I had whole-wheat bread and peanut butter and chopped carrots or celery and one of my mother Marjorie's big chocolate brownies, for good measure. I think my mother wasn't too sure about Gaylord Hauser, and the brownies were her fist in the air to the guru of Hollywood health.

By the time I got home from school, Daddy usually would have returned home, often on the bus. The bus driver on that route never figured out that Daddy was blind until somebody told him, "You know, that Charlie Collins can't see, he's blind as a bat." Then the driver was embarrassed he hadn't noticed, although he was not alone, for it was my father's lifelong determination that no one should notice he was blind — not even himself. He wouldn't use a cane, and never used a Seeing Eye dog. He spent every energy to that end. He wore blue glass eyes that looked, to all the world, real. In the morning, struggling to get himself together for his day, he would occasionally drop one of those blue glass eyes on the tiles of the bathroom floor and it would crack, split, fly in a million pieces across the white riddle of stone. He had more; he was never at a loss for other eyes. The custom glass eyes came in little crates, like sets of eggs, from the factory near Denver where they were handblown and handpainted. They were perfect for my father, and if you didn't know he was blind, it would take you a while to guess, if you caught on at all. Probably only if you saw him drunk would you guess.

When the bus driver found out Daddy couldn't see, he offered him the lower price for people with disabilities. My father refused, saying he would pay the full price, just like everybody else. He was like that.

My memory of him is filled with the beauty of the songs he sang and the poetry that poured out of his ideas and his vision. On nights when he had a crowd around the Baldwin grand piano and on the radio in his morning shows, he would sing the great songs of Rogers and Hart and Gershwin, and if the mood was nostalgic and the hour late, he might do his rendition of Don Blanding's great poem, Vagabond House.

When I have a house … as I sometime may… I'll suit my fancy in every way. I'll fill it with things that have caught me eye, In drifting from Iceland to Molokai… As he recited the poem, he played resounding piano chords in the background, and when he had reached the final lines, "…Well… it's just a dream house, anyway," there was seldom a dry eye in the room. Daddy was an entertainer, and singer extraordinaire.

And he was a wonderful father. He loved his home and his children. Returning from a morning of music on the radio, Daddy would spend the afternoons doing chores for Mother, mowing the lawn with his feet bare so that he could "feel" where the lawn mower had been, practicing the piano, and collecting ideas and literature, jokes and songs, for his daily radio show. Then, when I had come home from school, before I started my own practice session at the piano, he liked to read aloud to me or to be read to from Time magazine or the "great books," Dostoyevsky, Melville, Dickens. He loved the afternoons with his children. I was the oldest.

He had struggled to live, to give his children good lives. He found it hard to understand why anyone would take his own life, when he had fought so hard to live his.

Al Taylor's death was haunting to my father, as it was to me, even as a ten-year-old. I learned from Al Taylor's daughter Hadley, later my sister-in-law, what happened on the night of Al's death. Hadley remembers the night of her father's suicide as being filled with unusual good humor. Al had dinner with his wife and family. His children, Gary, Peter, and Hadley, and his wife, Margaret, were in especially good moods. Hadley remembers they all made popcorn balls, sticking them together with caramel sauce, giggling and laughing at the mess, and smacking their lips over the sweet taste. Everyone was happy, and Al, who would soon be dead, was laughing. Then he went to the garage and turned on the ignition of his car. Later that night his wife, Margaret, discovered his body.

We didn't know that Daddy's depressions were probably caused by his drinking. Al Taylor had apparently been a heavy drinker as well, and suffered from depression like my father. We didn't know then that depression was an illness, like alcoholism. For my father, the nights of inebriation and the days of remorse that followed were his personal battlefield, and he fought like a tiger, like a man possessed, to regain his joyful, optimistic, cheerful moods again. He might have wondered, hearing the story of the suicide of a man who was really a stranger but whose life had already intertwined with people who were now his new friends, whether suicide might be in his own future, as well. It had come too close to his life for him to ignore. He would not live to know how very close.

In years to come, a then perfect stranger's desperate act would reverberate in my imagination. The death of a stranger came to mean more than an afternoon's chilling story. It became the background story to my own, and haunts me to this day, for in later years I would come to know Al Taylor more intimately than would ever seem plausible. His son Peter would become my husband and the father of my son, whose death by his own hand has driven me to this search for answers. His daughter Hadley, barely an acquaintance when I was ten, would become my close, lifetime friend, even after my divorce from her brother. Hadley had been six or so when her father died. At first, she was told he had gone on a trip. Later, when she learned her father had taken his life, she was shocked and bewildered. The true manner of Al Taylor's death had been kept a secret.

When I was in my twenties, my mother-in-law, Margaret, was helping me look through an old box of photographs of Peter. Among the pictures of this handsome man, my husband, as a little boy, we suddenly came to a picture of another handsome, smiling man, standing alone amid flowers with what looked like a pine tree behind him. My mother-in-law muttered an oath and ripped the photograph to shreds. By that time, I had discovered that her husband's suicide was buried along with all discussion of this sad, tragic man. No one in the family spoke of the reasons for his death or discussed what he had been like as a father, what kind of a person he was. I had been exposed to what I would come to know is the normal secrecy that surrounds suicide. It was a terrible secret to know.

In Moby-Dick, Melville wrote:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul …I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball… Time to read Melville's classic again, time to refresh my heart with the whales, the sea, the breadth of inspiration, the obsession of Ahab, the survival story that teaches its own lesson of courage and luck.

I wonder if my father ever knew that Melville's son committed suicide.

Like my father searching for reasons, like Melville with his substitute for pistol and ball, my heart is linked to the call of my own sea, the call to action-antidote to the call of depression, the alternative to suicide.

Excerpted from Sanity and Grace by Judy Collins, Copyright, Putnam Publishing Group, September 2003.