My counselor gave me “homework,” and it made me more depressed. “Identify one thing that’s worth staying alive to do—something you want to do that you couldn’t do if you killed yourself.”
The answer was painful, so it came easily to me. Thinking painful things is what I do best. It’s a skill that has kept me chronically depressed and suicidal my whole life.
I want to be part of a family.
I cried for a while after I had that thought.
I want to be the father in a family.
I want to be someone’s son, as well as someone’s father.
I want to be part of generations of a family. I want to be in a lineage.
As I sobbed, I visualized the illustrations to the “begats” section of the children’s Old Testament that I’d carried around with me everywhere when I was little. I didn’t have stuffed animals.
My counselor is such a dick.
I would never do that to anyone. The only thing that I feel a little bit proud of is not hurting anyone else if I could help it. I haven’t driven into the highway divide because I can’t guarantee that I wouldn’t cause a pile-up that would kill others. I haven’t hung myself—or slit my wrists, overdosed, or jumped—because I can’t do that to whoever found me. The police, probably. Or my landlord, when my rent didn’t show. But they’re people, too. I couldn’t do that to them.
I even work remotely, tele-commuting, because a depressed office mate is like bad air that everyone else has to breathe.
Forget dating. Even a woman so misguided as to be willing to date a chronic depression case, especially her—I couldn’t do that to her.
So obviously I couldn’t father a child. Chronic depression runs in families. My life isn’t worth living. How can I create another life not worth living?
Does anyone else’s counselor give them homework? I told him it makes me more depressed, and he told me that the process of “working through” the homework was “cathartic,” which could feel painful, but it was pain “on the way” to feeling better.
Depression makes me slow. I couldn’t think of anything to say in response. Even though he obviously doesn’t get it.
The homework he gave me was to consider sperm donation. As a thought experiment.
Somewhere in this country, a child could be playing with mom—or maybe even mom and a non-biological dad—or two moms, or two dads and a surrogate mom—it doesn’t matter, the child is playing—that’s the point, outside, sunshine in Spring, crocuses, singing, horseback-riding, whatever children do to play—my thought experiment is vague on these details—but the point, the point is that the child is uncontaminated by a chronically depressed father! I am incapable of hurting this child—my child—and that thought makes me astonishingly happy.
Liar. I am a liar. Even my thought experiments lie. My genes are corrupt. I am the child of not one, but two, suicides. Both my parents killed themselves. My mother was first, when I was a few months old. Then my father, when I was three. They were so well-matched, my parents. Both children of Holocaust survivors. Both suicides.
Both selfish. They created me. How could they do that to me? I could never do that to anyone.
After that, the ghost showed up. Chronically depressed people aren’t allowed to see ghosts—we just get a new diagnosis called depression with psychotic features, and the “ghost” goes away. But I wasn’t psychotic. I was chronically depressed, now with ghost.
The ghost was ridiculously beautiful, a crystalline shimmer. The morning sunlight shining through its translucent form made it sparkle like a gemstone hologram. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl. It had delicate features, rosebud lips, a cupid’s nose, brown curls tucked under a woolen cap, small hands clutching the side of the tabletop, eyes upturned in a question.
I had the same question.
I was seated at my round kitchen table with a piece of toast in front of me. It was buttered and spread with strawberry jam. The toast was part of the strategy my counselor suggested. I don’t have an appetite. It’s a symptom of chronic depression. My counselor advised small meals of tempting foods. Somewhere I got the idea that buttered toast and jam is delectable.
The question was, am I going to eat that?
I’d been staring at the toast long enough to know the answer.
“No,” I said out loud. The ghost didn’t react. “I’m not going to eat it,” I elaborated. “I will have tea,” I continued. “Tea is comforting.” Throughout this brief exposition, the ghost remained in the same position, with the same expression on its face. It didn’t seem to understand what I was saying. Possibly its ghost ears couldn’t conduct sound.
But its eyes continued to ask, are you going to eat that?
So I made a gesture with my hand, a wave that indicated, all yours. Enjoy.
Hesitantly, the ghost advanced, its clutching hands sliding along the tabletop. It maintained eye contact with me until some resolution occurred within its ghostly system, and it climbed rapidly into my lap. It was a child. The ghost of a child. A child who had died. Perhaps the child had died of starvation. The fragile, ghost-child body was emaciated.
And yet, the ghost in my lap had weight. I felt the responsibility of having a child to protect. Feeding a child in my care.
The sensation caused me to swoon. When I returned to full awareness, the beautiful ghost had vanished. So, too, had the buttered toast and jam.
I sat unmoving in front of my computer for the rest of the day.
The next day, I made an extra piece of buttered toast with strawberry jam and put it on its own plate. As a result, two pieces of toast went uneaten.
Slowly, I managed to transfer myself from the chair at the kitchen table to the chair at my work desk. I had two days of productivity to accomplish today.
My counselor has so many good recommendations about how to concentrate. My brain was too thick to summon even one of them.
I might as well have been a bag of sand.
Nightfall released the stupor, as it had the previous day. But tonight I emerged from my inert depth into the practice of ritual—specifically, welcoming the Sabbath Queen with candle-lighting in her honor. Prior to this moment, I had not noticed that it was Friday. Left to myself, I never celebrate Shabbat. Why rest arbitrarily when god tells me to rest? I’ll rest when I feel like it. I don’t believe in a god that let the Holocaust happen. I don’t believe in a god that lets both of a child’s parents kill themselves. I don’t believe in a god that lets people be born with genes that condemn them to a life-sentence of depression. What’s to celebrate?
Now, before me on my desk, were two white candles secured in candlesticks that my father’s mother, Bubbe, used to have. I lived with her after my father’s suicide. After she died, I went to live with maternal grandparents, and after they died, I went to live with foster parents. The candlesticks were shaped like Stars of David and were decorated with turquoise-lavender-and-gold-leaf mosaic. They sparkled, and I remember them—they are among my first memories, from four years old. I never saw the candlesticks—or anything from Bubbe’s house—after she died. But here they were.
I touched them. They were solid. As real as they had been when I was four.
A book of matches lay between the candlesticks.
I won’t light candles for a god I don’t believe in, but a haunting is something to celebrate. I lit a match and touched it to the wick of each candle.
Against my will—well, not exactly—more like, without intending to do so, yes, just automatically, something that happened reflexively, I uttered the first line of the prayer for the candles: “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech ha’olam,” Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Ruler of the universe.
And then the beautiful ghost was in my lap, reaching its little fingers towards the candle-light. Or maybe I was reaching my fingers towards the candle-light, sitting in my grandmother’s lap. Or was it that I was my grandmother, with four year-old me in my lap, reaching towards the candle-light? The formulation didn’t matter: I understood that I was responsible for someone’s spiritual development.
I don’t know how long it was before I notice my arms aching. I came to the realization that I was seated at my desk with my arms outstretched. And I was muttering. “Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu.” Who sanctified us with His commandments and commands us: the sun had set; the Sabbath Queen had arrived; it was time to rest.
I decided I had to snap out of this ghost thing. Things were getting way too spooky.
When I sat down to my computer the next day, I found a message from the beyond. The web browser on my computer screen was open to an unfamiliar page. It was for a science lab near Liberty Square. Chronically depressed men between 18-34 years old, like myself, were sought for an experiment. Subjects must be capable of ejaculating into a cup. The study was testing whether individual sperm, engineered to eliminate a genetic predisposition for depression, could fertilize a human egg and produce a viable embryo.
I twisted in my chair to check behind me and on both sides. I bent down to look under the desk. My eyes rolled up to peer above me. The ghost was not about.
I was gulping breaths of air before I realized what was happening. My chest was tight. I couldn’t get any air into my lungs. My palms and armpits were drenched; sweat dripped off my brow, into my eyes. I fell from the chair. Curled in a ball on the floor, my hands gripped my hair by the roots. My thoughts flooded with the warning that I was about to die.
The possibility of fathering a child without my genetic predisposition for depression had generated a panic attack.
You don’t know what it’s like! You have parents! Your parents are alive, and they love you! (Even as I was shouting and crying, I knew I was making assumptions, but I was probably right. Close enough.)
You have things from your parents! The things you have from your parents maybe even came from your grandparents! Or your grandparents gave you things. (I didn’t say, you have things from your parents and grandparents, and I don’t—but the, “I don’t” part was implied, and even as I was hurling these accusations, I knew I was guilty of lying. I have some things—I have photographs. But that’s all I have.)
Grandparents! You have grandparents! Or you had them. Maybe you inherited something from your grandparents? It doesn’t matter—you are your parents’ heir! You grew up someplace! You had a fixed geographic location that’s your home. You are not responsible for keeping the race in existence! You are not the only carrier of your genes in your family!
How could you understand?
All these phrases and more I used to castigate my counselor. The calmness with which he accepted my abuse enraged me. The “homework” he wanted to give me incensed me further. “Why does ridding your sperm of genes for depression cause you anxiety? Can you come up with a reason?”
As if the roots of my hysteria aren’t already exhumed, gnarled and enormous, exposed in the air while the tree they supply chokes to death.
Why should I care about whoever finds me? That person has never done anything for me. Did they knock on the door to find out why I have not left the house in six days? No. Did they call to check if my voice still worked after it wasn’t used for a week? No. Did they text to inquire casually how things are going? No. Did they share a meal, news item, joke, selfie with me? No. Whoever finds me has done none of those things. I cannot name anyone who has. Why should my care for the world be greater than its care for me? My sentimentality has kept me alive—thanklessly, meaninglessly, painfully alive—for thirty years!
I was really making a mess of choking myself. The intensity of my inner monologue was making it hard to concentrate on cutting off my airway, but I also had no practice. I’d been so busy worrying about whoever was going to find me that I’d never learned how to get the job done well. I was trying to hang myself with my tie—my one tie, the one I use for job interviews, which I wouldn’t have to do anymore—but the measure was off. I couldn’t get the noose to hold and have enough length left to allow a drop that would break my neck. I tied the tie around my neck and impulsively yanked both ends.
Of course, the pain and abrupt deprivation of oxygen—and the gasping sounds and lurching motion I made—were horrifying. But that’s not why I screamed.
Standing almost between where my legs had staggered, hands clutching opposite elbows, peering up at me through curls that had come untucked from its woolen cap, the beautiful ghost was crying.
Its face contorted with a question.
I had the same question.
How could I?
“It’s the only thing they left me,” I muttered, “my DNA. It’s the only thing they left me, my DNA. It’s the only thing they left me, my DNA. It’s the only thing—‘
I sat on the floor, rocking, stumbling through my mantra. It could have been an hour, or a day, that I’d been like that. The mantra was like a comforting lash.
I was disgusted with myself. Bored. Unwashed. I had to pee. At the same time, I was thirsty. My throat hurt. The skin on my neck stung in a ring of bruise and abrasion.
The tie flashed in my peripheral vision. It lay where I’d dropped it.
A tie is such a weak instrument for a hanging.
No. People kill themselves with gestures.
I don’t know what I’m lying about. I’m so used to calling myself a liar—my self-chatter is so negative, as my counselor helpfully pointed out—but what am I lying about? The only inheritance I have is my DNA, and it’s poisonous! That’s not a lie. And the only thing I want is to be free from this poison. That’s not a lie. It’s a condemnable thought. It’s a punishable thought. If I want freedom, there it is: I can die and be free.
What am I lying about? I don’t feel grateful for my inheritance. That’s a thought that dishonors my father and mother and violates the Ten Commandments, but it’s not a lie! My inheritance is a burden. My genes do not make an animal that is fit to live, which is why my life is not worth living—that’s not a lie!
What am I lying about? I admit it—I am not as good as my parents. They completed their suicides. I’ve only thought about it. And made that stupid gesture, that stupid, hateful gesture that couldn’t hurt anyone, but hurt anyway, hurt the ridiculously beautiful, little—I’m unworthy of my parents’ example. I’m not denying it. I’m not lying about it!
I hurt the little ghost. I’m not pretending I didn’t.
Now I got up. Why? I can’t really say. I was angry. But why get up? The only person to be angry with was myself. For years, my internal monologue has been excruciating, toxic, ghastly, intolerable—but this? Taunting me with lies? I am not a liar! On top of everything else, my internal monologue is calling me names I haven’t earned? When there are so many perfectly good insults that I abundantly merit?
Then I remembered that I was lying. My DNA is not the only thing they left me. I have photographs.
Who does that? Who sends a child into the world with nothing but malfunctioning DNA and photographs?
My rage was so dangerous that I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t feel anything. I was literally beside myself and could see my chest heaving. My carotid arteries throbbed visibly, violently in my neck. My pupils were dilated. My body threw itself into the bookshelf and then jerked backwards, overturning the structure onto my head.
That bumped me back into myself.
The clatter and thudding of the tumbling books took a surprisingly long time to settle. I hadn’t realized how much my bookshelf needed to be dusted. A storm of coughing erupted and subsided. Buried amidst the broken spines, torn covers, and mauled pages, I watched an indignant spider hurry away from the apocalypse that had evicted it from its web. What a headache I had!
After a time, I realized that the danger had passed. I wasn’t going to destroy the photographs.
Feebly, I dragged myself out of the book pile. My hands were scratched and bruised, and my guts felt pummeled. Disinterestedly, I observed that standing up made me too dizzy to notice that every part of me hurt.
The photographs were in a brown envelope in my sock drawer. Every bedroom in every grandparents’ house, foster home, dormitory, facility, apartment where I had ever stayed afforded me a sock drawer. A sock drawer was a constant. The photographs always went in the sock drawer.
There weren’t many. My parents on their wedding day under the chuppah. My mother graduating from college. My father at his bar mitzvah. My grandmother holding my mother when she was a baby. Then there was the pair of pictures. One was a color picture of the Holocaust survivors on my father’s side, my father’s father and his four siblings. They were seated, geriatric, unsmiling and unstylish, holding a framed black-and-white photograph from their childhood featuring all the siblings that there had been. You can barely see the black-and-white photograph they are holding.
But the second picture of the pair was the black-and-white photograph that they held, showing all six siblings as children. They looked typically mid-20th century European. My grandfather was the fourth of six. The oldest five had survived.
My eyes always automatically went to the youngest, who was probably four or five years old when the picture was taken. I couldn’t tell if the littlest one was a boy or a girl. The picture was taken outside, and it must have been cold. The child wore a dark overcoat, knee socks, leather booties, and a woolen cap from which its curls spilled. Its cheeks were plump, and its eyes were penetrating. The question they asked scorched through the two dimensions of the photograph and the passage of some eight decades.
I slept long and soundly. I didn’t count hours, but I woke up feeling rested, which never happens. I brushed my teeth, showered, found some antibiotic ointment and band-aids for my scratches, and dressed so I looked passably respectable. I considered putting on the tie—I was going to an interview, in a sense. But I threw the tie in the garbage can. A button-down shirt would be enough.
I ate a piece of buttered toast spread with strawberry jam, and I drank a cup of tea.
I printed out the web page.
What can you do so that I can live, my grandfather’s youngest sibling asked me.
I folded the print out and put it in my pocket. I checked that I had my wallet and keys.
This time you and I don’t have the same question, I replied. Is it ok for me to try to get rid of our family genes?
I opened my apartment door and stepped into the hall. I walked down the stairs to the building’s entryway to the street.
It’s the same question, my grandfather’s youngest sibling promised.
In the bright sunshine, the ghost walked beside me to the science lab near Liberty Square.
Maya Alexandri is the author of The Plague Cycle (Spuyten Duyvil 2018), a short story collection, and The Celebration Husband (TSL Publications 2015), a novel. Her short stories have been published in The Forge, Coe Review, The Stockholm Review of Books, and many others. Her story, “Ann Noni Mini,” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart Prize. Maya has lived in China, India, and Kenya, and she has worked as an actor, lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and emergency medical technician. She is currently a medical student at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell and a 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.