Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is novel about a young woman who must deal with the aftermath of both her parent's divorce and the suicide of her brother. The story is narrated by eighteen year old Alexis (Lex) Riggs who lives with her mother in Raymond, Nebraska. Her family has collapsed with the divorce of her parents after her father moved out four years ago and the recent suicide of her younger brother Tyler. Lex's narrative alternates between the present and diary entries. Although the journal entries parallel some of the events in the present they also fill in the details of how Ty came to commit suicide.

Lex begins the diary entries on February 5 at the request of her therapist Dave. It has been 7 weeks since the death of  Ty and Dave wants her to write about when he was happy rather than how his life ended. Lex's journal entries cover a wide range of events, filling in the missing details and providing the backstory.  The journal entries reveal that Tyler tried to kill himself two years earlier by taking an overdose of Advil, the day after their parent's divorce was finalized. When their dad finally shows up at the hospital, Ty begs his father to come home. Significantly, their father did not respond at all to Ty's request. After the suicide attempt Ty saw a therapist and went on antidepressants and his life seemed to turn around. In the two years after Ty's suicide attempt, their father remarried and their mom became a licensed nurse. Ty joined the basketball team and became popular in high school, while Lex achieved a high SAT score and began to consider applying to Ivy League colleges including MIT.

Other entries detail Lex's relationship with a fellow classmate, Steven, a boy much like Lex, who loves physics. Steven convinces her to date him as an experiment to see if there is chemistry between them. At the same time, Ty begins dating a cheerleader, Ashley, taking her to prom. However, Ty and Ashley's relationship ends in early December and Ty begins acting out, punching one of his friends in the face, breaking his jaw.  Journal entries also talk about when Tyler was born, what happened when their dad left their family "on a Tuesday morning in July", Ty's preoccupation with dying which began with the death of a girl from their church, Lex's break up with Steven and the details of Ty's last day. Lex's last entry is March 31 which she writes about December 20 from her perspective. For Lex and Steven it was their six month anniversary but it was also the day Ty killed himself.

In the present, Lex's mother is not coping well post divorce. She tells Lex that she senses Ty's presence in the house because she can smell his cologne. Later that night Lex also smells Ty's cologne and thinks she sees him standing by his bedroom door. Shocked Lex throws her phone at the image which vanishes. Lex is left with a cracked phone that thankfully still retains his last ever text to her. When she goes to see her therapist Dave, Lex decides not to tell him about the vision because she fears he will offer her medication, but she does tell him that she's stopped being involved with her friends. She suspects her friend Jill Beaker just wants her to cry on her shoulder so she can feel good about being her best friend who helped her. She's broken up with her boyfriend Steven, and her other friend Eleanor (El) is studiously avoiding  her. Dave considers this to be a very sad situation and encourages her to reach out to her friends who are trying to help her.

One night after returning home from dinner with her father, Lex again sees a vision of Ty, this time in the mirror, standing behind her. Terrified she runs out of the house but later on returns and discovers a letter addressed to Ashley in Ty's room. Lex is fairly certain that the "Ashley" Ty took to prom is a cheerleader known as Ashley Davenport. When she scouts out Ashley, she is certain she is not the right girl because she has copper red hair. At this time Lex runs into an old friend of Ty's, Damian Whittaker who used to be part of a trio that also consisted of Ty and Patrick Murphy.Ty, Damian and Patrick were very close friends but gradually drifted apart in high school.

Lex makes the first of several discoveries about some photographs in their home; a picture of Ty and his father (pre-Megan) is missing from its frame in the hallway. Her mother also tells her that her father's graduation picture is missing from its frame in the stairwell. Between the visions of Ty and the missing pictures, Lex wonders if Ty's spirit is still around and wants something. Inexplicably, her best friend from elementary school whom she hasn't been with in years, Sadie McIntyre, appears on her doorstep, inviting her out for a frozen juice. It's February and although it's freezing out, Lex agrees. Sadie's reason for reconnecting with Lex is that she saw her running from home and she now questions Lex as to what happened. Lex decides to confide in Sadie about seeing Tyler and it turns out Sadie has an interest in mediums and spirits. She also tells Sadie about the letter to Ashley and Sadie is able to confirm through social media that it is in fact Ashley Davenport.

At an appointment with her therapist, Lex attempts to get out of the journaling but Dave suggests that she choose a recipient for the journal- someone she is writing to, not someone she would actually give the journal to. After another appointment when her trusty little car nicknamed the Lemon won't start, Lex refuses to call her dad and instead calls Steven whom she broke up with months earlier. In response to Steven's question as to why she didn't call her dad, Lex tells him, "If my dad hadn't left us, Ty would still be alive." When Steven tries to help Lex, she pushes him away, refusing to consider Steven's offer to talk.

Life continues on for Lex and those around her; a fact brought home by her acceptance to MIT on March 3. However, Lex feels ambivalent and so she doesn't tell her parents, her therapist or her friends. She finally tells her mother when she comes home and discovers her mother an emotional wreck after a friend tried to get her to pack up Ty's room. But the joy of Lex's acceptance is destroyed by her mother's belief that her own life is over. As they are putting Ty's room back together, Lex and her mother look over the collage that Ty put together in the days before he died. Missing from the collage is a picture of Ty and his father, which her mother feels should have been in the collage but deliberately was not. Lex's mother tells her that her father was devastated when he saw there was no picture of himself in the collage. Lex notices that there is a picture of Ashley and Ty, suggesting that Ty wasn't mad at Ashley. Although she almost shreds the letter, Lex does end up giving Ashley Tyler's letter when she realizes that Ashley is basically a good person and that Ty broke up with her.

Lex's high school is rocked by another suicide, that of Patrick Murphy, a close friend of Ty's, who jumped in front of a train. Lex and her mother attend the funeral which brings back memories of Ty's funeral. At the wake, Lex notices the two collages similar to Ty's collage and when Stairway to Heaven is played, she realizes that like Ty, Patrick planned his suicide down to the simplest details. When Lex returns home she slips out to the backyard fort she and Ty shared as kids and finds the missing picture of her brother with their dad that was meant for the collage. She feels that despite the anger Ty felt towards their dad leaving, he would now want her to place the picture in the frame and tell their dad. But Lex has no intention of doing this because she cannot forgive her father for leaving and believes he is responsible for Ty's death. Instead she begins to focus on saving Damian Whittaker, the last remaining friend of Ty's group, whom she is convinced will try to commit suicide. Can Lex save Damian and learn to forgive herself and her father for all that has happened?

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is rich in themes of forgiveness, acceptance and guilt. It also presents, quite vividly, the effects of divorce on teenage children.

Lex's family has been struggling to come to terms with the breakup of their family.  When their father left, Lex was 15 and Ty was 13. The night he left, Ty and Lex go to the baseball field and smash all their father's bottles of cologne with a baseball bat. They vow never to forgive their father for what he has done. The day after the divorce is finalized Ty attempts to kill himself by overdosing and when his father finally shows up at the hospital, he begs his dad to come home. Their mother has also not done well, although she has managed to become a nurse. She self-medicates with alcohol and prescription drugs. Lex believes this inability to deal with the marriage breakup might have hurt Ty. "...But I wish that Mom was stronger. That she didn't cry. That she hadn't been so devastated when Dad left. That she'd done that woman-scorned thing and piled up his stuff in the yard and burned it all. Maybe, I think, if she hadn't been so weak, then Ty could have let go of the rage he felt whenever he saw her hurting like that. He could have moved on. And then maybe he would never have made that first attempt with the Advil. And maybe it would have occurred to him to fight back when life got tough."

As time passes and Lex continues her journal,  she comes to  realize in hindsight that Ty was seriously at risk for suicide; he had already attempted suicide once, he came from a broken home, he was male and he had recently suffered a breakup - all factors that contribute significantly to suicide.

The journal helps Lex begin to piece together how she feels and to understand what happened to her, to Ty and to her family. She is able to face her guilt and forgive herself - a big step towards healing.

In her narrative, Lex hints at the tremendous guilt that is eating away at her. In her journal she writes that when Ty was in hospital after his first suicide attempt, Lex visited him and made him promise that "if you ever feel like that again, like you want to --....But if you do, you have to tell me. Call me, text me, wake me up at three a.m., I don't care. I want to know about it. I'm here for you."  But she now feels that "In the end, I shouldn't have concerned myself with whether he'd keep his promise. I should have thought about whether I'd keep mine." Lex didn't keep her promise because that night when Ty called her she was making out with Steven and although she saw the text she ignored it. Later on at Patrick's funeral, the guilt over what happened resurfaces with the memories of Ty's funeral. She declined to speak at her brother's funeral. "I didn't speak, either, either. Mom asked me to, but I was afraid that if I got up in front of everybody I would tell them about the promise I had made to Ty, that I would be there for him when he needed me, when he called. The promise I had broken.
Then it would have been me on trial."

By the time she writes her final entry in the journal months later, Lex has come to realize some truths about what happened to Ty; that only Ty could save himself- he had to make the choice to live. She tells Damian when she intervenes in what she thinks might be another suicide attempt that she knows Ty wasn't calling her for help, but to say goodbye.  Her misplaced guilt results in her breaking up with Steven after Ty's death even though she loves him dearly.Lex feels Steven deserves the truth and she hopes he will forgive her.

Lex is also the one who moves both her parents forward. First she tells her mother, after their trip to Graceland that her life is not over and that she can be happy again. Secondly she decides to give her father the picture Ty never placed in the collage of himself and his dad. This takes a great deal of courage because Lex has to go to her father and Megan's home, something she promised herself she would never do. These are some of their unwritten rules.  "I don't call Dad at home. If I did that, it'd be like me saying it's okay, what he did. Like I'm accepting his new life, the one he built without us." She also lies to her father telling him that the picture was not deliberately omitted from the collage by Ty but possibly fell out and that Ty had forgiven his father for leaving. Her therapist tells Lex that this is a very positive sign for her, that she is moving towards acceptance of the divorce and her father's remarriage - both of which are realities to be faced.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye brings into focus two issues many young people today must face - that of suicide and divorce. Through her characters, Hand recognizes how difficult it is for teens to cope with these situations, acknowledging the pain and suffering young people encounter when a family breaks up but also recognizing that healing, forgiveness and acceptance are possible and necessary if life is to go on.  She also integrates some information regarding risk for suicide into the novel and also refers to the stigma attached to suicide when Lex notes that all of Ty's belongings were quickly brought to his house, that his name was stricken from the roster and that his school records were "expunged", "as if they could erase his existence altogether."

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is well written and deeply moving. Young readers will identify with Lex's realistic voice and her struggle to come to terms with her guilt as a suicide survivor and the anger she feels towards her parents. The author writes that she lost her younger brother to suicide in 1999 but that the novel is not autobiographical. Nevertheless, Cynthia Hand's personal experience with suicide has allowed her to write a novel that will touch many readers exactly in they way they need, whether it be to help understand, or to help heal.

Book Details:
The Last Time We Say Goodbye by Cynthia Hand
New York: HarperTeen    2015
386 pp.

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