“You want to die,” this is something a friend of mine, who’s also a writer, had once told me in high school after showing him a short I’d written. I had titled it “The Fruits of Sun & Gold” and I didn’t know it was about death, certainly not my death. It was a travelogue in a magical land and written as a gift to a girl for her friendship during my complicated teenhood. The most particular thing about it was my reliance on purple prose and I still think it’s a pretty story, at the very least for its sentiment.
Nevertheless, my friend had told a very ugly truth about me during my teen years, which to this day I see as perplexing. The truth was I wanted to die. Nothing made sense. I existed in a state of isolation and had to hide a loaded gun of a secret. I’m gay in a not very tolerant country, so loose lips (eyes, mannerisms, posture, tastes) could very well sink ships. I had checked all the boxes in the ‘cliché gay’ category, including a verbally abusive father.
Enter suicide. I was never serious about it, nor do I have failed attempts. My mind simply picked it up as an idea, a very powerful idea and thinking about it (fantasizing even) felt dangerous and a bit exhilarating. It’s like playing with fire, but only you couldn’t burn yourself, not physically at the very least. Of course, this was all before I understood what depression is and how it can trigger your brain into thinking in extreme, damaging ways. I couldn’t talk to anyone, because you just don’t, otherwise what would the people think. This still is the status quo here on any sort of emotional problem.
That’s how I got introduced to death as an adolescent, going-on-13 high schooler with a sudden and unwelcome change in schools. Death was on my mind a lot those days and not in a way you could call happy, though for our society death is never really considered fortunate. It was big and angry and always dragged misery and destruction with, so it wasn’t hard for me to equate my life to a state of death.
I don’t remember how I got to read “The Brothers Lionheart” by Astrid Lindgren. I can’t peg a year either. Most of what happens in the book escapes my memory. However, I recall the actual reading experience. My copy came from the library, so it was thick, old and worn. It smelled like a well-loved book and the internal illustrations had accumulated doodles in different colors and intensity. Some were light, almost faded into nothing. Others carved riverbeds of ink deep into the yellow paper.
I loved that book. It told me about a different kind of death. It told me that death could be a beautiful cottage under branches in bloom by a riverside. The death in “The Brothers Lionheart” wasn’t a black, dead end, but a bright beginning. Although Lindgren was literal in her book and wrote about suicide as an escape from pain (something she’s been criticized for), kids are often underestimated as far as their capacity to internalize the big things in life.
What I took from “The Brothers Lionheart” is that in life, pain and heartbreak remain a constant. Then, ‘death’ is when you allow yourself to leave the unhappy things behind and stay well away from their reach. I can’t help myself but compare death to its meaning in the tarot deck – a great change. Death is beautiful in its power to transform and open a new chapter. Death to sadness, dissatisfaction and anger. Understand your past, but learn when to bury it and let it rest in peace.
Chase death and its light at the end of a dark tunnel. It can only lead you to brighter places. That is a powerful lesson to understand as a child and changes the whole perspective on something our society still fears and avoids in general. It’s how I eventually convinced myself that things can only get better. They have, but I needed help along the way seeing that they would.
So, thank you, Astrid Lindgren.