Tuesday, December 9, 2008

After My Mother Killed Herself

On Winter Solstice Eve, 2002, the longest, darkest night, I'd gone to see the movie About Schmidt with Bink and Maura. I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark about 10 p.m. when the phone rang.

It was a conference call from my brother and sister--a first. My sister lives here, my brother on the east coast. Obviously something was wrong. Because I'd just watched a dreadful movie about an old man, I thought our father had had a heart attack.

My brother said, "The coroner called to inform us that our mother has shot herself dead. This is not a joke."

Oh, right. Our mother had talked about suicide for so long, I'd skipped over the obvious. Even though I knew she'd bought a gun that fall. (Not for the first time.)

"Good for her," I said.

Really, she'd wanted to do it since I was fourteen, at least that's when she first told me.

We talked about what we were going to do. Brother and his wife would fly here the next day, and we'd all drive down in two cars; Sister was going to call our father who lived in the same town (our parents had not remained friends after their divorce in 1974). Stuff like that.

I said, "We didn't do anything wrong, you guys."

We hung up.

I immediately called my old traveling pal Allan. We're not very close, at home. But you learn a lot about a person, sharing a Naples hotel room that had a non-working toilet.

"I know your mother did something good with her life," he said on the phone, "because I know you."

Good call.

Then I called Bink. She said she was coming over.

I stood in the middle of the room.
I looked at the liter of duty-free Bushmills Irish whiskey my father had brought me from a trip. It'd been there more than a year and I'd barely touched it. It seemed a good idea to drink some now. Using a glass seemed superfluous.

Bink picked me up and we drove over to Sister's. In high school, I'd seen my dog suffer a glancing blow from a car. Sister's eyes looked like his did before he died.

There wasn't anything to do except confirm plans for tomorrow (pick up Brother and Sister-in-Law, etc.), so Bink drove me home.

I went to bed and lay there.
I got up a few hours later.
I called Oliver's office phone--my former lover who was always saying his kids would be better off if he killed himself--and left a message saying they wouldn't be.

I put on Mozart's Requiem, turned it up loud, and hit "repeat." Oh yeah, I told my house-neighbors, who left me alone. I think it was a Saturday.
I had Bushmills for breakfast.

Bink called. She'd begun to notify people, a brilliant move because I wasn't really tracking.

I told her I was fine and she should come over later. I had to make plans for a memorial Mass at the church where I was working part-time as sacristan. My mother wasn't Catholic or any religion, but I wanted it.

I called the priest I loved, and he said he would be honored to celebrate the Mass. I made plans to meet him at church later. I told him I was fine.

Lots of people started to call.
I loved it that they called, but I felt fine. 
I'm fine, I told them.

I should take a shower and get dressed, I thought.
In the shower I thought, Hey! I should cut off my hair, like the guy in Smoke Signals did when his father died.

I got out of the shower and knelt on the floor with the kitchen scissors, flopped my long hair forward, and lopped chunks off.

Then I got dressed. I decided to rip my black turtleneck over my heart, like in Jewish tradition. I had to make a little cut in the cotton with the scissors to start the tear.
What about this "tearing your face" you read about? I tried it, but my nails weren't really sharp enough.

Sister called. Did I have a certain photo of our mother for her obituary?
I did. I would pack it to bring along.

My apartment is very small, and the photo was on a bottom shelf, behind a dining room table. Holding the bottle of Bushmills, I crawled under the table to get to it. Lying on the floor under the table, holding the photo, whiskey next to me, hair wet, this thought came to me, clearly:
I don't think I am OK.

I called the priest and left a message saying I was not, in fact, fine, and that I would not be coming down but would talk to him later.

I got out beeswax candle ends I'd saved from off the high altar (part of my job as sacristan was tending the candles) and lit them. I closed the curtains.

Barrett showed up. It wasn't in me by then to get up off the bed. She made me toast, which I couldn't swallow, but I liked that she'd made it.

The priest showed up, which surprised me.
"That's good whiskey," he, a recovering alcoholic, said, looking at the bottle next to my bed.
There wasn't anywhere for him to sit so he sat on the bed. He was uncomfortable and I was uncomfortable, but it was comforting that he held my hand for an hour and a half.

He left, and Bink arrived. Deb too, who was unsure if she should come in.
Yes. Come in. Be uncomfortable.

What helped: physical things.

Annette brought a wrapped present--a reindeer pin with bouncy springs for antlers. That sounds wrong, doesn't it? But it was great. Laura climbed onto the bed and lay down next to me, which was perfect. Kate G. brought me some of her anti-anxiety medication. I didn't want any (whiskey sufficed), but the gesture touched me. Bink trimmed up my hair, which ended up looking kind of cute.

People kept calling. Cathy said, "I would do anything for you." Joe said, "We're all thinking of you." It was good, like putting a blanket on someone in shock.

It got dark.
It was solstice.

Brother and Sister-in-Law had arrived in town. Time to go to Sister's for dinner. SJG had made chicken soup. Eating was a foreign concept, so I didn't.

We were like three zombies and their keepers. I have no idea what we said. I know I declared that I would not stay in our father's house, and everyone said I couldn't stay alone, but Bink was coming too, so that was all right.
My father made arrangements for us to stay at a B&B nearby.
He was great.
The whole badly splintered family was kind to each other. [For several weeks, which is a lot.]

We three siblings agreed this was the worst day of our lives.

I went home and lay on the bed some more.

The next day was the second-worst day of our lives.

When we got into town, we met with Lance, the cut-rate undertaker our father had dug up. He looked like a benign Jabba the Hut in a stretched-out, stained cardigan.
I'd briefly studied mortuary science, so it was interesting to watch him work. He didn't inspire confidence.
Sister-in-Law, a businesswoman, asked him to read back the pertinent numbers. He'd written down our mother's social security number wrong.

There was a pile up of dead folks needing cremating before Christmas, Lance told us, so his usual place was booked. We could drive out to Cowsville to a defunct funeral home he knew of the next day, and use their retort oven.

We went to our mother's apartment.
She'd been dead about a week before Sheila, the neighbor in the rooming house who'd kept her eye out for our mother, finally called the police.

Sister had been talking to the coroner, who advised that if the place smelled bad--it might smell sweetish, like creamed corn, he said--it helped to heat coffee grounds in a frying pan.
The police had left the window cracked and the body'd been gone by then 48 hours, and it didn't smell. They'd thrown the mattress out too, so really it was OK. No mess, either.

My mother loved the right tool for the right job--our kitchen when I was a kid was full of copper-bottomed double-boilers, quail tongs, and other implements she'd gone to great trouble to find, in those pre-Internet days.

She'd taken care with her suicide implements too. She'd used a hollow-tipped bullet in a handgun. The kind that mushroom on contact, so the bullet hadn't even exited her brain. Death would have been instantaneous.

Sister asked the coroner, "Would you say our mother did a good job?" 
He replied, "She did a very good job."
Our mother would have puffed up with pride, hearing that.

There were lots of details to attend to in a short time: writing the obituary, faxing the photo, choosing the coffin (an "alternate container," I think it's called--basically a refrigerator box); not to mention legal stuff. 

Brother is a lawyer, so he carried file folders around, full of papers. The bank wrote us out a check on the spot for four thousand dollars. I didn't know they could do that, but our mother stayed on top of financial details, though she couldn't even wash her hair toward the end, she was so down.

Sister liked the coroner and the police, so she took care of the morgue side of things--police photos, claiming the gun, etc. I was in my high church days, so I oversaw, besides the funeral back home, a sort of send-off at the crematorium.

Where we drove the next day, somewhere out in the country.
The winter fields were beautiful, brown hillocks with furrows of snow.

A "For Sale" sign graced the colonial-style funeral home. But Lance was there, waiting in a big garage by the retort, with our mother in her box. Pale winter sun came in through an attached greenhouse on one end.

Bink and I had bought a pot of orchids in bloom. Pale purple cymbidium, my mother had grown them when I was little. We set them on the box, along with some altar candle ends I lit.

We'd brought things to send into the fire with our mother's body: dried French lavender, buckeyes from Missouri. We children each cut a lock of our hair. Our father added an origami crane from Manzanar.

I read something from the Bible. Everyone else said formal good-byes. I didn't have anything to say, so I walked up to the head of the cardboard box. It bulged a little, and I could see the black plastic body bag inside. The coroner had talked Sister out of looking at the body, but she had insisted on looking at least at the hands. They were our mother's hands. Our mother had played the piano.
The sun was warm on my shoulders, where I bent over to hold her.

Then we were done.
I was so relieved, I was almost giddy.

That night I was more violently sick than I've ever been in my life.

Sister, Brother, and I still had to clean out our dead mother's apartment. It was small, but it was full.
She'd crammed her bathroom cupboards with expensive soaps and lotions. Back issues of the New Yorker filled her bathtub.

We rented a little truck. Brother took a Persian carpet and a salt shaker shaped like a hen. "Miss Jones," my mother had called her.
Sister took the Limoges china and the pale green Manolo Blahnik shoes.
I took the writing desk Cousin Fern had bought in Damascus in 1919, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, rosewood, and camel bone. I took back the 2003 calendar I'd sent.

We drove carloads to the Saint Vincent de Paul thrift store. But what do you do with the half-used tube of toothpaste?

The nice neighbor brought us pots of coffee.

After, I wandered through my mother's neighborhood, where I'd grown up. I ended up at a beach where we used to swim. The frozen surface of the lake reflected the late afternoon sky, grey and pink.
A flock of Canada geese came in for a landing. When they hit the ice, they slid all over the place.
I laughed. I got up, and walked on.

For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:

"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.


Jennifer said...

I didn't know it was on Solstice, and yet when else could it have been, really. I suppose it's always the darkest day of the year when something like that happens. I don't have anything I can say, really, but I did want you to know that I read this carefully and it felt oddly like a gift. To us or yourself, I don't know which.

I'm struck by the crane from Manzanar. How did your father get a crane from there? I've never been there, but Dan studied the newspapers from the camp and went there, so I've seen his pictures and the ones from Ansel Adams' book: so bleak and bare, and the beautiful mountains so very far away. It's a place that seems to embody grieving for me.

Rudyinparis said...

It is a gift. Ever since I found out about your mother's death, I have wanted to read this.

I was struck by the Manzanar reference as well.

fresca said...

J & R: I'm glad you two see it that way. You know I've been fretting about why I write, and then I go and write this... both for myself because after six years I finally can, but also for other people who didn't know me, or not well, at the time. I don't like to talk about this much (you can imagine), but it's such a big part of my life, I want people to know it...
...and I know some people want to know it too. And, after all, lots of people go through something like this.

Glad too that Manzanar popped out. I will ask my father how he got a paper crane when he went there, which is not a usual feature (I think maybe some group had made and left them?).
But anyway, my mother was always caught up by the Holocaust (similar thing)--like many suicidal people, she identified with being victimized by meaningless extreme suffering.

deanna said...

There really aren't words, but you are amazing. These stark details, because you did awaken, they're all part of what you have to give. I agree, it's quite a gift.

momo said...

I've been thinking about your story for the last two days. It's hard to wrap my mind around the pain, but not my heart.

fresca said...

Re; The Manzanar Crane,
my father writes:
"when i was at manzanar, there were a number of items around the graves...e.g. a baseball cap; coins in markers (i put a coin in myself.), pebbles/stones etc.

somewhere in the camp was the origami piece. it may have blown from one of the graves. i do not know.

in any event it was at the camp site, and i assume that someone had brought it as a memento for a relative. nothing else makes sense.
you know they have annual pilgrimages to manzanar. lots of people from los angeles. i suspect that was the source of the crane."

Manfred Allseasons said...

This is a powerful piece of writing.

Do you know Larkins 'This Be The Verse'?

fresca said...

M: Good match!

"This Be The Verse"
Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...I wasn't gonna e-respond about this post, but talk with you some time instead. But now, with manfred's response and your sharing of the Larkin poem, and the generosity of spirit in your sharing that sustains us:
as all art does, your post makes me think and feel all things more intensely and clearly--either more immediately, or over mulling time. What your posting and the Larkin poem made me remember was an interaction I had with my favorite female Greek-Aussie cousin-in-law through my first marriage, at her father's funeral in Tassie back in '87/'88 (?). { I have such a hard time remembering when the hell things happened down under because: of the seeming absence of seasonal landmarks, I wasn't journaling, and the brain-drugged state of pregnancy, early motherhood, lactation and the general high levels of cortisol induced by Greek--(or any other ethnicity!)--in-law-ship. This cousin, as an outspoken feminist and science career-oriented older teen, was the "black-ewe" of her nuclear and extended family, as were her father and his marital family, for some family secret reason or another. Her papa, "Thio Theo", had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, probably a result of years spent in the dry-cleaning business, and had had a horrifically painful last few months of his life. Anyway, D. had come up to get some respite from family angst and a hug or two from us at the gravesite. She said something to me about the lack of love and support she was feeling for herself and her father from her nuclear and larger family groups, even at this event. And I responded in empathy with something to the effect of, "yeah, we're born into families, in which we are sometimes raised, and their aim is to try to get us to be anyone but our true selves and that is carried on down the generations. Families are seldom about unconditional love." Actually, I said it way more concisely and elegantly--(sans rhyming!), but I really can't recall the words; just the scenario. There was an Anglo-Aussie woman of Thio Theo's generation standing nearby, waiting to give condolences, who heard what i said, took offense and began her defense of family to D., who I looked at apologetically. D. hugged me and thanked me for "understanding her".

At my own mother's way too early funeral--(early april, 1993), I had no ally, except for Jim, who was busy, being the buffer zone between me and my dysfunctional and abusive micronuclear family remnants and attending to our young daughters needs in ways I couldn't at the time. The poem i wrote and read at the funeral has the crane, her totem bird in it, because it was the bird i saw flying up in the Amish farm fields throught the dirty train window on the way to the East coast to her funeral. I believed it was her totem, cuz i knew of her love for those birds from her deep love of a cloissonne vase her younger brother gave her from a trip to Japan. My mom and her family were interred in Shanghai when the Japanese occupied during WWII, and my mom had scoliosis...so the crane theme resonates strongly. Years later, I selected the novella, Manzanar, for Avra from a Scholastic book order form, which is how I came to learn about the place. Last week we had our high schoolers at St. Joe's read a radio play version of "American Past-time" and watched/discussed the movie in class. Guerrilla geography is everywhere.
Thank you for all your gifts and I'm so glad you're here to share with in the land of the frozen living. your mom did powerful magic then and now!

Swimmingly, through gelid streams and flowing rivers and roaring cascades and tumbling waves! LOVE and Warmth!


p.s. wv="wrider" as in Whale rider!?

fresca said...

I'm really glad you wrote, Stef.
I'd forgotten the role the crane played, though I do remember your wonderful poem... Things run into things...

Families do the best they can, but expecting family members to "see" us--or us to see them--is perhaps asking a bit much.

There's a lot to be said for the role of distance in maintaining loving family relationships.
As my father said once (not to me), "Just because I love you doesn't mean I want to see you."
There's a more compassionate Buddhist-y way to say that, but there's a wisdom in figuring out the proper balance in these matters.

Nancy said...

Fresca, this is beautiful and loving, of yourself and your mother. Thank you for sharing.

Lori said...

I stumbled onto your site, in search of tu tu cookies. I know nothing about you and I read this. I was riveted by every word. You wrote this so well. It was like watching a movie. I get to leave, but I am changed now. Of course you live the movie. For that part of the movie, I am sorry.

As a Mother, there are days when I hate myself, hate the words I choose or the actions I take. I am not a bad mother but I am a REAL perfectionist. There are days when I want to run away because it's the hardest job I have ever had. It is the most rewarding too.

I had a cousin who shot herself when she was fifteen. Not a Holiday goes by that I don't wish she was here. I think of her often and especially when I hear something like this.

I hope peace and grace surrounds you today and always.

fresca said...

I really appreciate that you took time to write, Lori: thank you.

Being a mother is a heroic undertaking, I can tell, even though I've never tried it. (Babysitting was enough of a heroic undertaking for me!)
There's no way to get it perfect--just like life in general--we just have to keep going on with faith in invisible goodness.

Sometimes cookies help. : )