Modern society works hard to find ways to talk about subjects that have long been taboo, and that left sufferers isolated and shrouded in shame. Things like mental illness, abortion, addiction and even rape are more and more brought into the light, where they can be understood — not just for their impact on individuals, but on the greater community. Sensitive storytelling has been crucial to that awareness.

And yet pockets of silence remain, and perhaps the deepest and darkest holds untold stories of suicide. That despite a dramatic increase in those deaths. A December 2018 story in Pacific Standard put it bluntly in the opening line: “America is facing a suicide crisis.” The story, by reporter Jared Keller, cited a new survey on mortality and life expectancy by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reported 47,000 Americans took their own lives in 2017 — 2,000 more than the year before, and a 33 percent increase in the suicide rate between 1999 ad 2017:

What’s worse, a broader Associated Press analysis of government records indicates that American suicides are now at their highest point in 50 years. It’s now the second-leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 35.

The piece goes on to cite the 1897 book “Suicide” by Émile Durkheim, which even then pointed to suicide as a “disturbing  indicator of underlying social problems.” It’s not hard to draw the lines between a rise in suicides and a rise in the underlying social problems that plague us — and go unaddressed — today.

Which is why addressing them, through stories, is more important than ever.

And why it is especially noteworthy that a courageous personal story about two social taboos — rape and suicide — by veteran newspaper journalist Laura Trujillo won a 2019 National Headliner Award. The contest judges said this:

This was a bold, meaningful, effective and helpful series about an issue the country continues to struggle with. Laura Trujillo wrote a brave and painful remembrance of her mother’s suicide, as well as her own rape, and USA cushioned the story with those of others, and offered meaningful ways to deal with the issue. Beautifully done.

Trujillo no longer works in the contracting world of newspapers. She now works in PR in the banking industry; she and her husand have four school-aged children. Her award-winning story was coached by narrative writer, teacher and editor Kelley Benham French, and published in USA Today. It was shared by numerous other news organizations, shared around the world via social media and is being expanded into a book.

This past February, Trujillo posted a quick scene-based essay on Facebook called “A Black Scarf.” It was about the continued process of healing grief, but also struck us as a love story. Trujillo gave us permission to include it as part of a Valentine’s Day post on Storyboard. We offer it again here, with our congratulations, and encourage you to read (with appropriate caution) the original piece “Stepping Back From The Edge.”

 

A BLACK SCARF

The bus pulled up in front of my office, and just as I was about to step off, I heard:

“Ma’am.”

I’ve grown accustomed to knowing that is me. I turned around.

“Is that your scarf?”

Laura Trujillo in her mother's scarf

Laura Trujillo in her mother's scarf

I was grumpy. The morning had been a cluster. The bus was 25 minutes late (and I was 15 minutes early because I have anxiety about being late not just for airplanes but any other mode of transportation). It was raining. And my coffee spilled into my purse, coating my wallet, headphones, notes and a sort of large check that I probably shouldn’t be carrying around , in a brown sludge. Calling it coffee is a compliment; it’s really a shake with a splash of coffee to keep me from eating leftover pad Thai or chocolate cake and ice cream for breakfast, which I might be known to do, and mostly it works. But it was thick and a mess.

I looked back. The thin black cotton scarf was alone on the bench.

My eyes watered and I said thank you in a way that wasn’t enough. And I smiled.

It’s not the scarf. It’s rather ordinary, likely from Dillard’s, and has two holes in it. But if you’ve seen me in the fall or winter, I am wearing it, pretty much every day. It is cold in my office and works as a wrap. But the real reason that I wear the scarf: It was my mother’s.

My mom wasn’t a stuff person. She had a lovely house built into the side of the Phoenix Mountain Preserves, filled with plants and books. She spent most of her money on travel — skiing in Austria, scuba diving in Australia, zip lining in Belize, RVing to Alaska. So when she died almost seven years ago, there really wasn’t anything I wanted that would help me remember her. My sister, a lawyer and mom of four, and executor of my mom’s will, did everything. My sister had to go through a life stopped almost mid-sentence: The clothes in the dirty clothes basket, the coffee cup with her lipstick on it on the kitchen counter. She had every awful task — figuring out what to donate, what to toss, and what to store and maybe go through when everything wasn’t so raw.

It made sense and didn’t that my sister did everything. She still lives in Phoenix, is the older responsible sister, pragmatic and smart. From Cincinnati, I let it happen, with excuses and reasons of having a new job and house, of taking care of four children, and later because my husband was on a waiting list for a pancreas transplant, keeping us within an hour radius of our home. But the truth was different: I didn’t want to go back. Not to Phoenix, not to my family, not to my mom’s house.

Some days it was easiest to just pretend my mom hadn’t killed herself and was just on a trip. She often went on the road for months at a time, and even though we talked daily during that time, I would tell myself she would be back soon. It helped me get up in the morning. If I didn’t go back, I could keep lying to myself.

My sister asked me if I wanted anything from my mom’s house.

“The bird painting,” I told her. I was referring to a little batik print of a tiny sparrow nestled in branches in the snow, something my mom bought at an art fair just after she and my dad divorced. The sparrow seemed tiny and needing protection. Somehow I always saw my mom in it, but in the way a teenager would do, I also told her that maybe it would look better in a different frame than the brass one she bought in the ’80s.

My sister sifted through my mom’s house and picked a few things she thought would remind me of our mom: A pair of diamond stud earrings, a silver ring my mom bought when my sister and I took her on a weekend trip to San Francisco for her 60th birthday, cardigans (which I had actually given my mom as presents), notes and cards I had sent my mom over the years, Christmas ornaments. And then she packed a few scarves and a hat, figuring I might actually have use for them in my new hometown. They arrived in a box with my sister’s familiar perfect handwriting in a note she wrote on stationery found in my mom’s desk drawer.

I didn’t look at most of the stuff for a while. I packed it all in a new box, and with it, my mom. I tried both to not think of her, and yet was consumed by her.

Eventually, I pulled out some of the things — those sent by my sister and other things I had packed away, including the puzzle my mom had done with my daughter, Lucy, before we moved so many years ago. Two of the pieces were still attached and I wondered if my mom was the last one to touch them. I found all of the cards and notes she had written to my children and to me since we had moved. The handwriting felt like a connection, but not the photos. Not the stuff.

The next winter, it got cold in Cincinnati and I pulled out the scarf. Somehow this thin piece of cotton felt like a hug (and anyone who knows me knows how much I don’t like hugs). But it was from my mom and I needed it.

I will take the bus tomorrow to see if I can find the man, to try to adequately say thank you. I took $100 from the ATM as a gift of sorts, not because the scarf wasn’t worth it, but his tiny act of kindness — really just simple decency — kept me connected to my mom.

I know I don’t need the scarf to remember her, but it’s nice to feel some days.

 

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