A day in the life of author Linda Collins after the suicide of her teenage daughter
A Monday in September: 7.30am. It’s been six years, five months, seven days and six hours since you took your love away, and if that has echoes of Sinead O’Connor’s song it’s because I’m thinking of suicide and how the Irish singer attempted it, and you did it. ‘You,’ being my daughter, Victoria McLeod, who died aged 17 on the first day of a new school term.
I still find it hard to think that Vic actually died. That’s because the person I thought I knew turns out not to have existed. That person was beautiful, knew she was loved, and had a wicked sense of humour. The real Vic, though, suffered from a chronic lack of self-esteem that caused her to believe life was not worth living. She concealed a death wish going back years, I learnt later from a journal that she kept in her computer. She could not envisage a future.
It’s my day off but even when I’m working – as a copyeditor, from my base in Singapore – life is much the same: missing Victoria, her kindness, wit, and love. However, I’ve found a way to deal with the yearning and regret: by writing books, poems, stories and essays.
And by reaching out to people who reach out to me.
Ever since my memoir about Vic, Loss Adjustment, was published in Singapore a year ago (it’s out this month in New Zealand with Awa Press) strangers track me down to say how my book touched them, and to confess their own losses, suicidal tendencies, or relationship issues. I respond to each one. It gives me purpose. Also, I’m lonely: losing someone to suicide socially isolated me long before Covid. I don’t tell the strangers about the loneliness, though. I sense they want me to be the strong grieving Mum. The reality might depress them.
Today, after feeding Victoria’s two cats, I check my emails and social media. There’s a message from ‘Sophia’ on LinkedIn. Her father died last year and she writes of being “surrounded by so many weeping relatives and friends and yet feeling so alone in one’s grief”.
I’m startled when she mentions, “I started dreaming of him. He was driving his old Toyota, not speaking a word. Then he finally parked under a huge tree.” The thing is that I, too, dream of an old Toyota, a white Corolla coated in dust from stony roads.
Mostly, I’m a passenger, but there’s no driver. It’s always in a remote Kiwi landscape where there are no people. Once, it stalled on a beach up north, then after I got out, shot into gear and roared away into the sand dunes. Another time, it was on a winding road that took me down from the snow-tipped Kakanui Mountains in the South Island to the coast. It pulled up at a paddock where sheep dog trials were taking place. An inner voice told me: You’ve come down too soon from the mountains. When I looked back, I saw melting peaks of grief.
I message Sophia: Was your father’s Toyota white in colour?
11am. Writing helps me create something new from myself. Today, I’m writing a creative non-fiction chapter for a book out in the US next year edited by the world’s leading expert on suicide, Dr David Lester. He asked me to compare Victoria’s journal with that of a 20-year-old young woman he’s written about before. The journals are windows into two eloquent suicidal minds. I’m touched by their insights, and heartbroken how they unburden themselves on the page but never seek help. I’m immersed in Vic’s bleakness – and my blankness. How did I not see how troubled she was? How did I not see that a child is both her beauty and her failings? She is not that imaginary creature, your own personal redemption.
Noon. A woman, Shona, messages me about a theatrical adaptation she is writing of Loss Adjustment. She wants to see a video clip I mentioned of Victoria singing The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. It’s painful to watch. Victoria is often half a beat behind. I see the despair on her face amid the forced jollity of such a stupid song. Shona has a track record that includes cabaret. I wonder how she’s going to adapt Loss Adjustment. I remember watching the TV comedy Kath & Kim with Vic, in which they turned Mrs Dalloway into a musical.
3pm. Tea with poet Cyril Wong. I’ve only met him twice, before Covid. He remains the same boy-man; full-lipped, buzz-cut, huge heart. In conservative Singapore, where anal sex between men is still a criminal act even when consensual, he has been described as Singapore’s first openly gay male poet. Imagine being defined by your sexuality: Singapore’s first openly gay engineer, anyone? Victoria wrote in her journals of her worries about being gay in Singapore – she didn’t know the authorities aren’t bothered by lesbians.
Cyril says hi to the bakery owner, who is around his age – early 40s – and who replies with a sheepish ‘Hello’. They seem to know each other. Cyril’s order of a lemon tart seems slightly emotionally loaded.
It’s a relief to sit with Cyril and to talk about poetry and the meaning of life so casually. The poet is good at this. Picking at crumbs, he asks, “Do you ever get angry?” I do. “There are two people I’d like to kill. If you gave me a gun, I’d do it now,” I say, and start to cry. This is another good thing about Cyril, he treats it as perfectly normal that a person weeps at a café table as the world ambles by. He doesn’t ask who exactly I want to kill, he treats this also as normal. Soon we’re talking about an upcoming writers’ festival, and I laugh as he describes minding a famous English poet who was a total bitch.
4.20pm. Sophia has replied: “The one he actually drove was champagne-coloured, but in my dream it was tinged with yellow, so appeared off-white.” I’m disappointed: the off-white seems a stretch, as if she’s trying to please me. But she also writes that she recognises the road travelled by her dad’s Toyota in her dream: “It was near where our old kampong (village) house used to be. Something about finding shelter and remembering my roots, perhaps?”
True, that. The Toyota in my dreams is always back where I was born, New Zealand. It’s an ordinary old Toyota, because I want to stay the person I was when Vic was alive. Yet, the engine of life propels me forward, even as I sit cross-armed in the seat, a reluctant passenger.
4.30pm. I am to meet ‘Cynthia’, a stranger who happened to be on the same livestreamed Zoom panel as me recently. She wants to buy two copies of my book. Cyril offers to come: “These meetings can go very wrong.” He often has readers wanting to meet and discuss their gayness. “I’ve learnt to conserve my energy,” he advises. “They take so much out of you. Now, only one a week.” The venue is just a short walk away. There’s a masked woman in a frilly blouse at an outside table. Is it her? She recognises me immediately, masked and yet so hopelessly open in other ways. The presence of Cyril throws her. Cynthia does not recognise the famous poet when I make introductions.
She may also have wanted me alone to talk about something personal, the death of a family member. My book frees people that way. It’s always ostensibly my death, my loss. But really, it’s theirs they want to talk about.
To find some depth beyond coffee and cake, I cautiously ask the sweet and winsome Cynthia if she is religious. Yes, Buddhist. So is Cyril, thank god. They talk for ages about meditation and the struggle to be Zen. After she departs with two copies of Loss Adjustment, Cyril comments, “Well, that went better than expected.”
An afternoon has gone by, without me being overwhelmed with yearning for Victoria. Yet she’s still present as emotions, as a person in me and around me though I cannot see her. She’s there, urging me along, my driving force. My Toyota.
Loss Adjustment by Linda Collins (Awa Press, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide.
Where to get help:
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
thelowdown.co.nz – or email email@example.com or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand – 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness – 0800 732 825