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April 18, 2011 | 1:04 a.m. CST
I tend to liken my mother’s death to that of Sylvia Plath’s. Granted, my mother was not a renowned writer, but she did commit suicide. Like Sylvia Plath, my mother had dealt with depression for most of her life. When she was a senior in college, apparently realizing that she no longer wanted to be a teacher, she had what my father called her first breakdown. She left school with only a few credits needed to graduate.
I was 14 years old when she took her own life, just a few months after she was diagnosed as having manic-depressive disorder. I found her body on the sunny but frigid afternoon of Jan. 3, 2004. Her 6-foot-1-inch form was lying at the bottom of the staircase. Her torso was sprawled across the stairs, her legs across the hallway below them, and her feet were scrunched inward against the coat closet door that would never quite close.
My parents had divorced when I was 13, and my two younger siblings were staying at my father’s apartment for the weekend. I hadn’t wanted to go because I didn’t want to deal with his verbal abuse for another weekend. I was alone in the house, and I had no idea what to do.
“Mom?” I frantically asked, foolishly hoping that she was just resting or playing some kind of a trick on me. But her motionless body didn’t respond. “No, no, no, don’t do this,” I blurted. I didn’t want to touch her.
I knew in my gut that she had taken her own life; just a few weeks ago she’d had herself hospitalized because she feared she was at risk for suicide. When my mother returned home, my aunt had asked me to sporadically check her medication supply, but it had slipped my mind.
My long hair was still wet from my shower, and it flopped against my back as I half ran, half stumbled my way to the tall cherry desk in the next room. I grasped the wireless phone obediently resting in its dock and dialed 9-1-1.
After a few rings, I heard the customary “911, what’s your emergency?”
“I found my mom at the bottom of the stairs,” I breathlessly told the voice on the other end of the line. “I think she killed herself.” The dispatcher asked me for my address, and once I gave it to her she asked me to find out if my mother was breathing. Reluctantly, I walked over to my mother’s body and tried to feel for a pulse on her long, pallid neck.
“I can’t find one,” I said, “but I don’t know if I’m doing it right.”
The voice asked me if I knew CPR. I’d been taught it in a seventh-grade health class, but had never practiced it.
“Not really,” I said, but she asked me to try anyway.
“Make sure she’s flat on the ground, and tilt her head up,” the dispatcher instructed.
I set the phone on the floor and pushed her feet to my left. Her head slipped onto the next stair and I breathed a desperate “no.” I pulled her shoulders down, then went back to her feet, and then repeated the push-and-pull process until she was lying flat on the hardwood floor. Our two dogs — a corgi and a wheaten terrier — rushed over to me to vie for my attention, but I pushed them away.
I knew what was coming next, and I wanted to wait for the EMTs. But with instruction, I tilted her head back, pinched her nose and tried to force air into her mouth. Her breath reeked of vomit and there was dried blood on one corner of her mouth. “Don’t do this, Mom,” I whispered, trembling. “Please, don’t do this.
“It’s not working,” I said to the dispatcher after a few tries. “I think she’s dead.” Even as I said it, I wanted to believe it wasn’t true. In my head, the EMTs would arrive any second and manage to help her regain her breathing.
It seemed to take hours, but after a few more unsuccessful breaths the EMTs finally arrived. I rushed to the door and let them in, spying the fire truck and ambulance crowding our cul-de-sac. The dogs rushed out the door as I jerked it open. I panicked for a moment, but I knew they would come back eventually.
I breathed a relieved sigh as the EMTs took over, and I sat on an armchair near the front door, keeping my eyes away from their efforts. I called my father and told him my mother wasn’t breathing and that the EMTs were trying to revive her. I remember the palpable panic in his voice when he said he’d drive over as quickly as he could.
Unwelcome adrenaline continued to rush through me as I sat in my chair and imagined what would happen once she was revived. She would be rushed to the hospital, and a few hours later my family would crowd around my mother’s hospital bed. She’d tell us she was sorry for taking too many pills. It would be a wake-up call, and she’d effortlessly manage her disorder. At that point, death didn’t seem to be a possibility. I assumed everything would be all right.
When my father arrived we went to the kitchen, away from the people trying to save my mother, and I told him what had happened. Neither of us cried, still hoping she would regain consciousness.
After about half-an-hour, an EMT walked over to my father and me. “We’ve done everything possible,” he said, “but we couldn’t resuscitate her.”
There was a beat of silence as I tried to grapple with the news. “She’s dead?” I asked. It didn’t seem possible. My vision blurred, and I began to cry as I realized that my mother was dead. I was 14 and suddenly without a mother. But even worse, my 12-year-old brother and 9-year-old sister were, too.
I remember glancing at my mother’s body, covered with a bright white sheet, and feeling uncomfortable, even repulsed. There was a dead body in the middle of our house, but it wasn’t my mother.
My father asked me if I wanted to say goodbye. I said no. “Are you sure?” he asked. Again, I refused. I didn’t want to say goodbye to a corpse. I wanted to say goodbye to my mother, and give her one last hug, but that wasn’t possible. He went to say goodbye, and I remained in the kitchen.
The coroner took her body away, and my father drove me to his apartment. During the short drive, disbelief and exhaustion overtook me. I couldn’t believe my mother was gone forever. My father pulled into the garage, and we silently walked into the apartment. He told my siblings to sit on the couch, and he and I joined them.
He told them that I had found our mother, and she wasn’t breathing. And that she was dead. There was an excruciating pause. And suddenly they both began to wail. They cried, and they didn’t stop crying. I didn’t cry with them. And I didn’t cry afterward, for almost four years.
“How did she die?” my brother asked.
“We’re not sure,” my dad lied, possibly to himself as well. I didn’t correct him.
Just before the funeral, my father told me the autopsy report had indicated that my mother had had a heart attack. The logical part of my brain told me that a 46-year-old healthy woman couldn’t possibly suffer a heart attack.
“Are you sure?” I’d asked. I suspected otherwise because her antidepressants had been missing, but my father said her prescription bottle was empty because she’d run out of medication.
I convinced myself that what he said was true. It was much easier to tell my friends and teachers that my mother was gone because of a heart attack. A heart attack wasn’t her fault. A heart attack expunged any feelings of guilt I had about not being able to prevent it. A heart attack meant that I couldn’t be angry with her. A heart attack — even though I suspected it was a lie — was so much easier to deal with. And I wholeheartedly believed it.
About three years later, my father, who had become a meth addict after my mother’s death, told me the truth in a fit of rage. He was upset with me because I hadn’t cleaned the kitchen, and for once I had the nerve to argue back.
“This is why your mother killed herself!” He shouted when I wouldn’t relent.
I didn’t know what to say when he cruelly told me the truth that I had subconsciously known all along. “What?” I asked, trying to force myself not to cry.
“She took enough pills to kill a horse,” he coldly answered, and started to cry in self-pity.
All night, I kept thinking about how foolish I had been. All along, I’d known my mother had killed herself — it was just easier to believe she hadn’t.
Even now, it’s easier to tell people the lie, but I usually choose to share the truth. Suicide is tragic and embarrassing, but my experience with suicide, however unpleasant, has helped define who I am.
My mother was not a renowned writer, but the example she left for me, however scarring, might just have motivated me to become one. Unlike her, I will graduate college, and I will choose to live where she didn’t.