No, that’s not right; it was last week. Or was it last year? Actually, it was three months ago, according to an ‘In Memoriam’ card that sits on my desk. A watercolor she did of birds and flowers is on the cover, and inside she smiles in her wedding dress across from the printed words that record the date of her death and the ceremony to celebrate her life.
My mind has trouble fixing on dates lately. Often my days are a blur, and when my husband comes home from work and asks me what I did today, sometimes I struggle to recall and recount.
I cried a lot. I looked at pictures of her when she was a baby. Of her on her wedding day. Or with her nieces and nephew, proud to be an aunt yet broken-hearted because she was unable to have the little ones she so longed to give birth to.
What else did I do? I tried to work, really I did. I got some bills paid, but I had to call and beg forgiveness and removal of late fees because I had again lost track of time. It’s amazing how sympathetic a customer service rep can be when you tell them you’re dealing with the suicide of your child.
And I talked to her, spoke the words into thin air that I wished I could have told her while she was alive. And I prayed and asked God – no, I begged – that He would make sure she knew.
My therapist tells me that begging God and bargaining with your higher power (even if you’re not really a spiritual person) is a hallmark of early grieving. We so want to believe that there is something that we can do or say that will change things, restore that life, even if all that remains is ashes and dust in the wind. It can’t be final; there must be a way to re-write how this story ends.
But not in this life.
Maybe this is all a terrifying nightmare I am struggling to awaken from. Maybe Sheldon Cooper IS right, and there alternate dimensions or parallel universes, and I got stuck in the wrong one. I just have to find my way back to the one where she smiles and laughs and paints and sings and puts her arms around those she loves.
And maybe, just maybe, we can fix what got broken.
Because you see, our relationship was broken. We were estranged, and we had been for a number of years. Mistakes. Anger. Disappointment. Assumptions. Pride. Arrogance. Surely there is a way to go back and erase all that and make it right. She had indicated a desire to reconcile at some point when the pain and hurt had eased. So God, can I have a do-over? I promise I’ll do better this time.
Not surprisingly, this is an eerie throwback to the past. Thirty years ago my baby brother crawled into a hot bath, slit his wrists, and drifted off to sleep he would not awaken from. He was somewhat of a recluse and no one would miss him right away. They told us he had probably been dead for four days by the time someone complained about the odor from his apartment and the manager used his spare key. They fixed the date of his death as Fathers’ Day. He had made his final statement.
My father’s response was to erase evidence of his existence. His photos came down off the walls. Some were thrown out, others were put away in the back of a drawer. There was no obituary, no notice in the church bulletin, no funeral – just a private prayer in the pastor’s study with the immediate family. I was pregnant with our second child when I was selected as the one to go clean out his apartment and retrieve his belongings. I have no idea what happened to them. For years we were not allowed to mention his name. I have no idea what they did with his body if he was buried or cremated. There is no headstone I know of, no place I can point to, and say his ashes were scattered here. Back then suicide came with an awful stigma as if somehow the family was contaminated. Or maybe responsible.
I am thankful that things have changed, that a conversation on mental health issues isn’t confined to hushed whispers. I am glad there are suicide hotlines and counselors, and whenever I see a semi-colon tattoo I give a silent prayer of thanks that at least one life whose end was being contemplated goes on.
But I have also come to the conclusion that for some, mental health struggles are akin to fatal illnesses, ones for which no cures exist. Perhaps there are traumas to the soul that are like that. A fatal blow to the psyche, if you will.
I believe it was like that for her. She had attempted to end her life multiple times, each time coming back from the brink seemingly stronger and more stable. She had plans, goals, intentions. And then an unexpected blow, an emotional hit too hard, and suddenly taking another breath was more than she could face. And so she took her last. She had felt for a long time that how her life went was controlled by others; how it ended would be her choice.
The EMTs found her not long after her heart stopped, and with their efforts were able to restore its beat as well as her breath. Ah, there is hope still! That awful phone call I got from my son did not mean it was over. Surely if they were hooking up all those machines and doing all those tests there was still a flicker of life there. There must be!
For four days those machines whirled and beeped. Her chest moved up and down from the rhythmic pumping of the life support equipment. At times her body trembled and we sure she was struggling to wake up. The doctors encouraged those at her bedside to speak to her because those in comas can still hear. But later they told us those movements were involuntary seizures because the brain was no longer controlling the body.
She wouldn’t have heard us, because she had been gone for four days. Those paramedics didn’t restore her life, just her breath, and her heartbeat. Tests indicated no brain function, and in fact, showed the deterioration that sets in upon death. And so the awful decision was made to turn things off. I begged my son to wait until her father and I could get there to say our good-byes. He urged me not to, telling me I would not want to remember her like that. Telling me how difficult it was for him to even make his feet move into her room as he made the daily pilgrimages to the hospital. He’s a good son; he understands duty, family obligation, love. And in his love and care for me, he was telling me what in my heart I knew was true. Remember her as she was, Mom, not this. She’s not here anyway. This isn’t her; it’s just the shell they’ve kept pumping things through.
And so we weren’t there when the switches were turned off and they waited for the body to be still, for the machines to show no activity. It is a cruel trick of nature (or perhaps it’s just the awful power of technology) for a body to continue to live long after its brain has ceased to function. Sometimes I cry simply for the agony those who loved her were put through for those four days as they waited for the inevitable.
Sometimes the thought creeps into my brain that we should have gone to the hospital and not waited for the memorial. If only she had heard my voice then perhaps she would have struggled to come out of that awful darkness. The doctors don’t know everything, right? And there are miracles that happen, right? I feel like I am caught up in a dreadful maze. On the one hand, she’s gone because I wasn’t there. On another hand, she’s gone because I couldn’t protect her from the awful things she endured. And still another thought – it WAS my fault.
And yet, I know it wasn’t, or at least at times, I tell myself that. I agree with my counselor, she was the one to make her own choices. We cannot change what has happened to us, but we are the ones in charge of what happens as a result. That sounds good, that sounds logical, but there is a part of me that has no time for logic, just tears and sorrow, and an awful emptiness.
It’s been three months. Or three years. Or three minutes. I doubt it will make a difference because no matter how much time goes by, she will still be gone. Time does not heal all wounds, but it does teach you how to cope with them if that is what you choose.
Today I choose to remember my beautiful, vibrant daughter, so full of life and yet so full of a broken spirit. And so I go through those pictures again, triggering the memories in which she still lives on. And she will – in my heart, broken yet still beating. I look at the photo with the sunlight streaming through the beautiful woods where her ashes were scattered in the spot her beloved grandparents were laid to rest. And I have the thought that when the resurrection comes, she will be called back to life beside them. The thought comforts me.
And tomorrow? Tomorrow will be whatever it will be. Today I am longing for heaven, thinking of new life. And asking God for the strength to get me through this one. Just for today. Because that’s as far as I can go. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “Tomorrow is another day.” Hopefully a better one.
Katie Schweiss is a writer by education and preference, but in this case for therapeutic reasons. Writing about her family – gone but not forgotten – is one of her passions. You can read more about them (and her) on her blog, “A Child of the East Side.”