Twenty years ago this month, my pen began inking what my voice could not yet articulate. Four years into my own grief of losing my cousin, I wrote the following as an in-class writing assignment for Adv. English Composition. With a few edits, my English prof held me after class to say she thought this piece just may be publishable. Little did she know how fragile I felt even penning the content.
Somehow, I honestly don’t recall now at all how, one of my counseling professors gave me a critical read after which he also suggested publication. He also recommended I read A Grief Observed by CS Lewis. Once purchased, I devoured his honest, immediate ailments of grief. Yet, Lewis’ vulnerability stirred courage within me. I don’t have to wait until I feel strong enough. In fact, the strength of the writing may come only in my weakness.
“He Stopped Laughing”
I sat alone on the fading brown and orange sofa as the film projector portrayed Sunday afternoon of many years earlier. I chased him behind one side of the brand new brown and orange sofa; we emerged on the opposite side. Grinning and giggling, we ran around our grandparents’ living room again and again. As the film cycle-clicked into darkness and the projector clicked off, the silence screamed.
His brother and I sat on the chilled floor of his dimly lit, abandoned room. We sifted through remnants of his possessions… Searching for… peace for our own souls. Quietly, we intruded into his belongings. His brother uncovered a tidy stack of Sports Illustrated magazines featuring the trials and triumphs of the Denver Broncos and the University of Nebraska Cornhusker’s football teams. As he flipped the pages, he voiced, barely above a whisper, “Remember how we use to fight about football?”
Rummaging through his top desk drawer, I discovered a stack of photographs. Slowly, I turned toward the lamp and placed one behind the others to see each photograph. His strained family portrait taken three years earlier introduced the stack, followed by my school pictures from the past four years along with two of my dance team shots. A couple friends school photos. And one snapshot, he captured in Seattle just as a lowering draw bridge silhouetted in the dusking sun, completed the stack.
On top of his desk, his brother noticed a stack of perfectly clipped Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Scanning them, he read them slowly to me. Quietly, we snickered together. Calvin and Hobbes framed his humor and his brilliance within its simplicity; and somehow, despite the heaving unknowns, we experienced a transfer of humor and brilliance. An unconscious weight… we carry.
A couple decades before, two young brothers married to two young sisters in a small country church planted on the prairie in Wyoming. A couple years later, he- Carlton Jamison Plinsky- was born to one couple. Seven weeks later, I was born to the other couple. Since our families lived so close, we grew up nearly inseparable. Great-Grandma Ruth (Great-Grandparents Grieve (part 1)) often chanted her revised version of the “Jack & Jill” nursery rhyme. “Jamie and Heidi went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Jamie fell down and broke his crown. And Heidi came tumbling after…” Jamie sat on her right knee while I sat on her left as she told us story after story with her ageless grin. “Jamie gets so tickled!” she’d say time and time again. I can still hear his laugh echo in the confines of my mind.
We shared family; we shared memories. We shared humor, as well as questions, as we grew older. Our extended family’s structured strictness often stirred us to question. While we recognized the necessity of guidance, we often discussed our opinions of what we perceived as harsh rules. We wondered. We may have mocked. Mainly, we navigated our childhood together.
We no longer make memories, share humor or questions.
My Dad quietly told me the news. Dropping to my knees, I sobbed hysterically. Time froze. Sleep evaded me. Shock overtook me. Thus, I wrestled to rein in every pelting thought until we arrived at his home pulsing with people, but lifeless without him.
The Sheriff’s Report read, “On January 18, 1992 at approximately 7 p.m. 17 year-old Carlton Plinsky committed suicide while visiting the lodge with a youth group. Authorities say Plinsky hung himself with a cord taken from his duffel bag. He tied the cord to the ladder of the bunk bed…”
Just two months earlier, at Thanksgiving 1991, he and I spent hours watching football, sharing thoughts, and exchanging questions. Although his gaze -distant and sad-, his stance appeared more confident and his demeanor more peaceful. Our family, our holiday, our lives sighed “normal.” My parents and I took him to the airport. As he walked slowly down the terminal ramp, my Dad yelled some crazy (maybe even bordering on coarse) joke. Jamie turned his head over his left shoulder and LAUGHED. I saw him laugh. I heard him laugh. But, sometime between Thanksgiving and January 18, he stopped laughing.
Written by H. L. Plinsky ~ January 24, 1996