by Jessica Doonan
I clicked ‘play’ on Cocorosie’s first album with the same pause and clenched jaw one physically prepares before playing a song tied to a previous love and loss. It hurts, but it makes you remember, and that gives it purpose. Cocorosie is placed in what I can only assume is a fairly uncrowded musical genre called “freak folk”. Their sound is haunting, with lilt-y ghostly vocals, jagged harmony, and the manipulation of various children’s toys carrying their creepy melodies. MY JAM!
Well let’s get straight to the biscuits, as they say: April. The word alone seems to have been permanently altered in my vocabulary; it carries a frightening weight to it now. April was streaks across my memory, like looking out the windshield while you go through a self-serve car wash. Jagged, horrifying, no beat to follow, no previously tread ground. Without genre. And haunting, yes. April will haunt me from within, as the memories grow teeth rather than fade into the black hole of the past.
It started with a text message, like only a trillion that had been exchanged before between Sierra and I. My office was in a flurry that day – my company was being placed under supervision by the State of Oregon (looong story and I’ll spare you the tedious details). I was sitting in a conference room and managed to sneak a peek at my phone, and there sat a sentence that I didn’t understand how to process at first.
Sierra 4/3/2017 9:11am: Jessica. I got diagnosed with schizophrenia. My life is pretty much over. Like things couldn’t get worse. Ironic AS HELL considering I work with schizophrenic people all day.
Sierra 4/3/2017: 9:18am: I’m beyond terrified. This actually happened a couple weeks ago but I’ve been not telling anyone and trying to come to terms with it not happening.
I always thought that was something that happened in your early 20s, if it was gonna.
But that’s men, I’ve since learned. For women it’s like 25-30.
It feels like a bad dream.
My life is actually over. It’s all downhill from here.
Its funny, the way your mind naturally goes the direction of your strong moral and emotional convictions. Had she been someone else, someone i didn’t love like I did, I would have immediately thought this was the “end” of what we had been – boundless, fearless partners in pursuit of experience that no one else dared to pursue. The traditional post-college future was pretty bleak in our eyes: marry some terrible boyfriend so he can become a terrible husband and we can endure a terrible divorce. Get a job that depletes me of every ounce of wonder and motivation but stick with it because it has a 401k and “ok” benefits. Gaze wistfully at pictures of my younger self, wondering how I ended up old and stagnant. Sierra and I shared the belief that this was the most dishonorable of deaths, to live that average life. And it wasn’t just about freedom, it was about Sierra’s version of freedom. I was enamored with Sierra’s perspective since the first night we sat alone in a Prague nightclub, listening to where she’d been, what she’d done, and most importantly: why.
Sierra didn’t travel for the photo-op. I admired how bravely she explored the world while heeding no Western boogeyman warnings (ie: “Turkey?! I recommend you duck if you hear Allah Akbar” A REAL THING MY DENTIST ACTUALLY SAID TO ME.) While other girls spent a semester in Rome or Paris and proceeded to self-anoint as “world traveler, wanderer, taker of posed pictures alongside local pastries”, Sierra moved to Palestine to teach kids along the West Bank. She called Sweden, South Korea, New Zealand, and her beloved Turkey home in different years. She lived in the art of freedom, she was fearless; she encountered and participated in the world in a way I didn’t know I was dying to do.
We were contradictory in nature. I never stop talking; Sierra, however, jotted everything down in her journal. I worried about capturing all of our travels on my camera; Sierra just lived it. I’m loud and a little obnoxious (depending on the current tally of drinks); Sierra is soft spoken and chooses her words carefully. But we found a counterpoint in the other that day. Something in us fused together. The potent cocktail of our two personalities converging reinforced each party and created an impenetrable bond. That bond had deep roots in me, and was the source of that gut reaction: we’ll figure it out. We’ll just fucking figure it out.
Looking down at that message, my best friend attempting to process and communicate a devastating diagnosis, I felt sick. I felt the way I imagine twins feel when one of them has been hurt or is in danger – sort of a spidey-sense that tethers loved ones. I felt the tether tug at my gut. Not Sierra. Of all of the people, of all of the minds in the world that deserved preservation, Sierra’s mind needed to be in tact. It was too valuable, her perspective too unique. I couldn’t replicate it, no one could. And she was so far away from me in this dire moment. She was in Vermont, I was in Oregon – literally as far as we could be from each other in the states. I couldn’t jump in the car and immediately go be by her side. I couldn’t even think of what to say to comfort her. I’m sorry? It’s going to be ok? What empty, utterly pointless things to say in this situation. Would it be ok? How could either of us know?
Then came the crash. That’s when my world ended.
My memory is in shards of glass. After Sierra’s first message, the next 3 days began their onslaught. My dad went missing. My brother kept calling me. He’s been gone for hours, Jess. No one can find him. A few hours passed. We can’t find dad.
The state of Oregon came into my company. Rather than supervise, they shut us down. My whole life. Years of work. You have to fire half of your staff, Jess. You have to be here for the rest of them. Have to guide the company through the transition. The staff is scared.
Dad is missing. Sierra is on the verge of suicide. Digest, move. Process this. What is your next step?
A day has passed. Dad is still missing. We’ve called every police station and hospital. Missing persons report filed. Dad’s safe has been opened, contents emptied. Where could he be? I can’t help right now, I told my brother. Sierra is sick and my company just got taken over and I have to be here. I have to be everywhere and I have to be the rock for everybody. Sierra please hang in there. Dad, wherever you are, please hang in there.
You know that soft silence that holds the world when there’s a heavy, fluffy snowfall? It acts like soundproofing, all of the ricochets and snaps and rustle are muted by the gentle padding of fresh snow. That’s what it felt like when my brother called me and said, “Jess, I want someone to be there with you. Get someone to be there with you, first,” before he said the part about Dad and a single gunshot wound to the head. The snow fell. There was a sudden onset tinnitus, I think, my ears were ringing so hard. My hands crumpled into a type of palsy. I shuffled to the kitchen bar and managed to pull the cork out of the scotch with my teeth. You’re ok, Jess. I kept saying it over and over. You’re ok. It’s gonna be ok.
Processing grief like that is weird and often feels emotionless. The loss, the emotions themselves, orbited around me but remained independent of my experience. It reminds me of that phrase “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time”. You take it in gulps, but it’s a significant period before you swallow the whole thing. I texted Sierra. I told her. I found it oddly poetic that we’d both been stunned into abject horror by the magnitude of pain the other was in. Both in the span of 3 days. She didn’t know what to say. When she told me of her diagnosis, I’d been similarly gob-smacked. “A sick symmetry” she once said. I begged her not to make me go through losing her too. I couldn’t do both. I could not do both. She said ok.
Everyone’s survival looks a little bit like death sometimes, Charlotte Eriksson once wrote.