My wife told me that her version of the story starts here:
We’re sitting in the car, driving to my dad’s house. We’re passing the Walmart and the AC is fighting the Vegas heat, the stifling air quality two days after the Fourth of July. She takes my hand. “I’m sure it’s fine,” she says, then grimaces. This is a validating aha moment for me at the time—she has doubts. Later, she says she regretted the words the moment they were out of her mouth. But what if it’s not fine?
But for me, the story doesn’t start in the car.
As a writer, I like to start in the height of the action—I would open this story with me standing over the body.
But that’s not where my real version of the story starts. The one I tell myself on long walks and long nights like a lullaby.
No; the story starts with Ziva.
Ziva came to me as an awkward looking Dutch Shepherd puppy as I was finishing the fifth grade and embarking on the terrifying journey that is middle school.
She stayed with me through panic attacks and psychosis, self harm and delusion, lost chances and bad breakups, my parents’ divorce and leaving school several times over.
When I’d attempted suicide at seventeen, my best friend’s mom, a psychiatrist, told me I had to hang in there because Ziva would never understand why I left her.
So I hung in there.
Ziva, however, passed in the spring of 2019. I had a lot more, or understood I had a lot more, to hang in there for by then, and hadn’t felt like I’d been just hanging in there for years; no cutting, no attempts. I was in the relationship of my dreams and surrounded by people who loved me.
But one morning, a few months later, Ziva came back to me in a dream.
In the dream, I was in my childhood home. My dad’s house, at the time, in reality. Ziva entered through a burst of white light.
I understood in the dream that she was dead, but in the grips of sleep, believed that she had come back to visit me. She wagged her tail and spun around. I gave her lots of scritches and told her all of the things I could want to say.
But Ziva kept looking back at the white light she’d come from, antsy. Like she was trying to tell me something. Maybe that she had to go again. I let her run back into the light. I woke up.
That morning, it became clear no one had heard from my dad in some time.
That morning, we were in the car. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
That morning, I stood over the body, and wondered if something in me had already known.
I tell myself the story a lot.
Ziva. The messages with my mom. Why were heat sensitive packages piling up propped against Dad’s unopened front door for days? Why had he not put the trash bins down at the curb on trash day? Sitting in the car. Knocking. Using my spare key to open the door. Thinking that I am the only one with a spare key. Mom, now his next door neighbor, was thinking of checking on him when she got back from an errand. I have the key that was hers. Yelling for Dad in a house where I am the only thing living. “Hey, Dad! Anyone home? Daddy!” Walking back out, down the stairs, swearing I will not hand the key to anyone else who’s not a professional.
“It’s not fine,” I tell my then-girlfriend, now-wife through the passenger window of her car. She’s confused, not having gathered from my demeanor that it’s not fine, though I’m not making much sense verbally. “There’s this thing in my dad’s bed. It’s not my dad. But… I think it used to be.”
I had left the door open behind me, the key more about blessing than physical entry. The smell wafts out of the house. She gets it.
Calling my mom. How do I tell her? She is out at lunch with Grandma, on break from considering puppies at an adoption fair. Calling 911. “No rush, I guess.” Enough firefighters for a calendar, who just keep offering me water while I try not to puke on the lawn. Police, and a report hand written at my mom’s kitchen table. What can I say?
I call my best friend in the bathroom. “My dad’s, kinda… dead. I think he’s… been dead, for a while now.”
Grandma tells me, “Oh, Hannah, I just knew something wasn’t right. I just knew it wasn’t right when he didn’t put the trash bins out that week…”
The coroner. “You look really young,” she tells me over and over.
“Twenty-one,” I say, unable to think of anything else.
And a counselor who is so high empathy I think she might now be having a worse day than I am.
“First we have to identify him,” the coroner is explaining to my mom, as we fill in details.
“You can’t just…?”
“It’s not… really… a visual thing.“
“Well, what about fingerprints?” My mom loves crime shows. She knows how they ID a body at various stages.
“This isn’t really…” The coroner is trying to be gentle here. She looks at me, the known witness. “This isn’t really a ‘fingerprints’ kind of situation. Do you maybe know who his dentist was? For the records?“
My mom has a white knuckled grip on my hand. The volunteer counselor looks like she might cry.
After the coroner leaves, my mom examines a picture she took of my dad in his youth, in a collage frame in her room. He is victorious, standing on a rock at the end of a long hike, arms thrown to the sky. Yosemite at sunset is the backdrop, their favorite beautiful place, the place they met, lived, worked, and fell in love.
“Cheers,” my mom says to the sky, to the picture of Dad, holding up her gluten free beer. Some of Ziva’s toys still line her floor.
I think parts of the story have been compromised by time—my private game of telephone. Other parts, by flashbacks, by nightmares, by hallucinations—all blurring the narrative.
Sometimes I try to change it. I don’t start with Ziva. I go back to the day my father almost certainly actually died. Ten days earlier. We’re sitting on his couch. I’m in the neighborhood to bring in Mom’s mail and check on a few plants while she’s on a trip with Grandma, pick up a few items I left when I moved out.
I visit with Dad. We sit on his couch. He says he has a headache. We talk about anything. He says he doesn’t think that anyone really kills themselves. Evolution wouldn’t allow it. Depression is what kills them. The parasite that pulls the trigger—that’s not you.
But that adds up to the beginning of a very different story.
My father didn’t kill himself. I shook the pill bottles on his nightstand, all as full as they come. I looked for a note and found nothing. I found his guns stowed safely in his closet.
No, my father had a heart attack.
And I cannot quite bring myself to tell the story that’s not so neat, that has false leads. I always come back to starting with Ziva, with the narratively neat omen.
But that’s not how life works.
In one of my writing projects, a character with PTSD seeks and gets a chance to watch video footage of one of the most traumatic events in her life.
It’s re-traumatizing to watch, but she’s obsessed with what details the following flashbacks, nightmares, time, retellings, and additional trauma have blurred.
When asked if seeing the “truth” made her feel better, she says it’s complicated.
I understand that. The sequence is definitely something born of my own emotions.
I wonder what I would do if I had the same opportunity.
Really, I know I could never resist. I know it would be traumatizing all over again. I know my final answer would be it’s complicated.
I have three basic PTSD nightmare templates that seem to cycle on a loop, though inconsistently.
In one, we’re moving, or buying a rental property. In any case, we’re touring a house, sometimes empty, sometimes model home. Either way, there’s always a bed in one room with a corpse in it. And it’s never addressed in the dream, really. A sigh of, “We’d have to get a biohazard team in again… the ozone machine…” as if we’re fixing a plumbing issue.
In another, someone dies, and it’s dramatic but often off screen. It’s emotion based, a montage of the trauma, grief, and logistics to follow. Pro se probate court and handling of possessions, telling people, paperwork, and the talking, talking, talking. I’ve been through the process enough. Dad. Later, Grandma, too, lies, lays, all too still in her bedroom, but it’s been minutes, not days, and family talks around her.
In the most common dream, though, I’m talking to my dad. Sometimes someone else, but most often him. Sometimes he prods me to remember something. Sometimes, it hits me all on its own. “You’re dead,” I’ll remember, often aloud, in the dream. And he’ll immediately decay, turning into the ten day old version of his corpse.
I can run down the templates easily. I’ve done it so often, my best friend had a nightmare identical to the third version, though they never met my father, dead or alive, just heard about a hundred versions of this dream. They woke from it once in the way I’ve woken from it a hundred times: bolting upright, in a cold sweat, panting, shaking, and desperately trying to scream.
Narrative therapy is supposed to address these stories we tell ourselves. And stories can be therapeutic. After that long, awful day, nausea fading to the realization I’d had only a smoothie that morning, when offered any choice I wanted—“You found your father’s ten day old corpse today. You can pick the restaurant.”—I chose Panera, because that’s where I used to go every Tuesday, for the local National Novel Writing Month meetup, to talk and write and eat and get lost in stories like the rest of the week hadn’t happened, which always made it feel safe.
And by editing those stories, we edit our outlook.
There’s a lot of potential I see here, as a mentally ill writer.
Change the narrator—cue empathy.
Change where it begins—add context.
Change the focus—change the moral of the story.
Change where it “ends”—add hope.
Changing your fate is a common theme in fiction.
I don’t feel like the story I tell myself really has an ending. It fades into other thoughts at various points. Probably for the best.
But soon enough, I always find myself back at the beginning: with Ziva.