I Am Vertical
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‘I will become nutrients in the earth, how Sylvia Plath wanted to be recognized by nature, immortal and daring, and useful in a way she thought she couldn’t be in life’.
My late daughter, Victoria McLeod, wrote this in her journal a month before taking her life at 17. A fugue-like longing had taken hold; as Plath writes in the poem "I am Vertical", she would ‘rather be horizontal’. Victoria died six years ago, and I miss her most hours of every day. Anniversaries arrive with relentless regularity, taking me further away from her. Today is another - World Suicide Prevention Day. Yet for once it is not another dreaded marker of passing time. Instead, it marks a year of action in raising mental-health awareness, and Victoria making her own way in the world in the form of a book. A year ago, Ethos Books stamped its imprint on the need for alternative futures for marginalised young people, by publishing a grieving mother’s heartfelt cry – Loss Adjustment.
Since then, my literary memoir has helped open up conversations on the taboo subject of suicide. By turning tragedy into testimony, others were freed to bear witness, express their fears, sorrow and anguish, and to engage with life’s unbound possibility.
As the year unfolded, bereaved parents including myself co-founded the PleaseStay movement, advocating for suicide prevention. We shared our experience of death and complicated grief with the Ministry of Education and the Institute of Mental Health, among others. Attempting suicide was decriminalised; people can seek help without fear of prosecution. Ahead of speaking in Parliament for a national suicide prevention strategy, Nominated MP Anthea Ong messaged thanking me for writing LA. More mental-health panels for the LGBT community sprang up. Reviewers from QLRS to book-loving Instagrammers praised LA. Strangers told me it changed their life or made them have necessary, difficult conversations with their kids. Judges for Book of the Year gave LA a special mention for ‘bravely breaking the silence on suicide’. A New Zealand edition of LA is being published next month. The publisher, Awa Press, contacted me last week to say that NZ’s Director of the Suicide Prevention Office at the Ministry of Health has offered to do all she can to support me and the book.
LA also enabled me to evolve as a writer, and I have been awarded a scholarship to undertake a Poetry MA at the University of East Anglia.
Today’s WSPD is special in another way. PleaseStay required a photo of Victoria’s footwear for a video artwork for its website launch. I searched for Vic’s favourite black Converse sneakers, which I’d kept although she had instructed, ‘My clothes and shoes go directly to people who could never afford them.’ I couldn’t find the sneakers, but discovered a yellow papier-mâché mould of Vic's left foot, done for a school art project.
The exact dimensions of her living foot rested in my hand; a soul’s sole.
On this ‘shoe’, Victoria had painted symbols: a rainbow, roses, red hearts, the peace sign, butterflies, and tiny blue birds in mid-flight. Dare I think, had she already known the spiritual significance of kingfishers?
Today, I hope that no human feels they can only rise in the world according to educational qualification and occupation; that they can soar, while staying true to their kindness, sensitivity and imagination.
(From September 10, 2020)