Thursday, September 10, 2009

Unsent Letters

Sonnet: Unsent Letters
In Memory of Jantha Rachel Siegel, 1949-1984

I have a whole black notebook full of these
Letters addressed to absent friends and lovers;
Unsent letters. In them one discovers
Traces of them and me, the hidden keys
To the past. And some are to her as well--
I cannot say why they were never mailed;
I only know how shamefully I failed
That bitter lovely girl at the gates of hell.

This one is the last. I will write no more
Unsent letters to her or anyone…
Here are my last pathetic words to her, unread.
Would they have kept the demon from her door?
Would they have kept her longer in the sun?
I wrote them three days after she was dead.

I wrote this sonnet in memory of my sister Jantha a couple of weeks after her death in 1984. I was originally planning to post it later on as the introduction to a longer piece about my sister’s tragic life and death. She died in her apartment in Jerusalem of an overdose of Valium and other drugs, about a month and a half short of her 35th birthday. It’s an open question whether it was an accidental overdose or not, and I still prefer to keep it that way. There is no question that she was suicidal. I can still remember her desperate transatlantic calls and how helpless they made us feel—my cousin Alice and my husband and me--because we were half a world away and couldn’t do anything for her, no matter how desperately we wanted to help her. But no suicide note was ever found, and it wasn’t like Jantha not to deliver her final parting shot to the world if she really intended to take her own life. About the only thing I can say with absolute certainty is that she wasn’t trying very hard to stay alive.

I decided to post this memorial sonnet today instead of waiting to use it later to remind myself why I’ve been laying myself on the line in such a personal way here. I did this because of a comment from my friend Lynne after my first blog post. Lynne actually posted her comment on September 6th, but I didn’t realize it was there until yesterday (September 9th). She told me about a young girl--a friend of a neighbor’s daughter--who took her own life at the age of fourteen. Yet another young and beautiful and gifted misfit, another victim of the world’s misunderstanding and cruelty.

"From all appearances, a lovely, talented child who should have been popular and well-liked, but the popular people shunned her and made her their object of ridicule."

It’s impossible for me not to relate to that, considering my own miserable childhood and adolescence. For Jantha the burden was somewhat different but ultimately heavier than mine, and in the end it crushed her completely. She wasn’t quite as obviously weird as I was, and so managed to escape being bullied and taunted as far as I know. It also helped that she was beautiful, with her clear, catlike green eyes and wonderful thick chestnut hair. She had a striking, classically Hebrew kind of beauty that I envied intensely. I always felt so mousy and washed-out compared with her. And yet she told me she didn’t feel beautiful and had never felt beautiful. She only believed it because people kept telling her she was beautiful, so she had to take their word for it.

And she was as gifted as she was beautiful. She had an IQ of 154, and she skipped a grade—I’m pretty sure it was the 5th grade, although I really don’t remember. From then on she was a year younger than her classmates. And she was at least as good a writer as I am, if not better. But years after the fact, I realize that she hit the trifecta: ADD + anxiety + depression, and very likely borderline personality disorder on top of all that. With me it's "only" ADD + anxiety (panic disorder), which hasn't bothered me all that much since I went through menopause.

So that’s why I’m blogging and why I’m making it so personal. I hope others will see themselves and/or their loved ones reflected in me, and that something I say here will help them find a way out of the labyrinth I know so well. I wish I could have said or done something to help that fourteen-year old girl Lynne told me about, even though I didn’t hear about her until after her death. And if not her, then maybe the next one, or the next one…or the one after that. Sadly, it isn’t an uncommon story by a long way, even now that so much more is known about ADD/ADHD and its co-morbid or complicating conditions than when Jantha and I were growing up. The fact that such tragedies are so common only makes them more tragic, not less. Every time I hear a story like that I’m outraged all over again at the appalling waste of life and possibility.

I’m not sure why I chose the sonnet form for Jantha’s elegy when I usually write free verse or prose. It seems strange that I imposed such a strict discipline of meter and rhyme on myself at a time of fresh grief. It could be that the first couple of lines came to me that way, so I had to be consistent and follow the form all the way through. But it seems very appropriate somehow. To me the sonnet form is a kind of funeral urn, a fitting and beautiful marble container for my grief and regret.