Friday, May 13, 2011

A Song for a Suicide

Well I seem to be doing a lot of counting these days.  Yesterday marked 20 months of being a mother.  Today marks the first anniversary of my sister’s death.  Her suicide on a mild May night knocked the wind out of my family.   And as I wake up this morning in Nantucket, and my brother wakes up in Holyoke, and as our mother wakes up today on Roosevelt Island, not far from where my sister tried to get to a better place by jumping from her roof in Brooklyn, we will all be reminded of where she ended up: broken, crushed, and gone forever on the ground of a neighbor’s garden. 

My mother got the call around 10 p.m.  Because she didn’t want her two remaining children to lose the night’s sleep, and in order to delay, as any mother would, our eventual and inevitable heartache, she waited until 7 a.m. to call us.  She did call our stepdad, Lowell, and his girlfriend Gail, with whom she is close, so she was not entirely alone, but it still pains me to think of her on that fateful night in the partial light of the city darkness as the grim and painful reality of a child’s abrupt death bore down on her psyche, and as she tried to replay the events of the previous five weeks to make some kind of impossible sense of this final event in her first child’s life.  I want to reach through her solitude right now and rub her back, and remind her how much I love her, and what a wonderful mother she is.  Most of all I want to tell her that it’s not her fault.  This last piece is the hardest, because the feelings of guilt grip us all.   We tried to save her.  But did we do enough?   Or did we do the wrong things?

We will never feel that we did enough, and that will be our cross to bear for the rest of our lives.  That is the sad truth of it.  Therapies may help alleviate the guilt, but we will never truly be free of it. 

On the night she died, my mother had spoken to a Brooklyn hospital and asked them to send over their ambulatory service to see if they could talk my sister into recommitting herself.   Based on her posts on Facebook, and on her sudden proliferation of Facebook “notes” it was clear that she was having suicidal thoughts, as well as hallucinatory experiences.  She had left my mother a voicemail message the week before, to discuss the idea of taking her to dinner for Mother’s Day, but then she never called her or answered the phone when my mother called her.  The not calling was something she had done a lot of throughout her life, but not on the heels of losing her job, getting arrested at her office, and spending two weeks in a city psyche ward. 

After two weeks of refusing any medication, the hospital released my sister.  My mother had had some role in this.  She didn’t want Gaby to end up virtually lobotomized by substandard state level care.  She thought if she could get her out of there she had some chance of getting her into a private hospital.  But Gaby actually did a terrifyingly good job of convincing her own mother and the hospital staff that she was in fact quite sane.   She pulled out a name in a phone book and set up an appointment at an outpatient clinic to satisfy the psychiatrist assigned to her, but she had no intention of showing up for it.  Once she was out on her own, she was out on her own, a forty-seven year old woman with a will of her own, and there wasn’t a hell of a lot anybody could do about it.   You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.   You can’t talk to a person who won’t listen, who most of the time won’t even pick up the phone. 

Throughout her life, whenever Gaby had hit her “rough patches” and shown signs of trouble, she had eluded us by creating a tremendous distance between herself and us—us being anybody at that moment who was onto the fact that things were not too hunky-dory in Gaby Land.  In a way, each time she did that, she committed virtual suicide.  That was how helpless we would feel each time she would cut us off.  Then, over time, she would eventually reemerge, in her stiff way that we had become accustomed to, acting as if there had not been a whiff of trouble.  Soon the whiff was indiscernible.  We’d all forget about it, or agree to ignore it.  It was a silent agreement we made with Gaby to keep in her good stead… to keep her with us. 

And life would go on.  Such is the way the current moves in a family that comes to rely on denial to stay afloat.  Until the crack in the riverbed gapes open and all the water is sucked under.          

As a teenager, Gaby had been a top student and athlete.  Her moves on the uneven parallel bars were fearsome.  She made it look so easy, her toned body whitened by the resin powder that would help her feel less of a burn as she slid over the wood bars, reaching and pulling herself up over the higher bar, tucking herself in pikes and flips as she lowered herself back down.  Her self-control was marvelous.  The whole gym would fall silent, save for the squeaking of her skin on the wood, that little song of friction that held her back to the earth. 

She had been brilliant, had her pick of colleges, and chose Harvard.  She returned home at Christmas torn at the seams, and didn’t return.  She survived a drunk driving wreck, and a major episode of depression, and managed to get her life back on track and become a homeowner and rise to the top of her field in antivirus security.  She took in stray cats.  She loved children, had been a doting aunt to my brother’s stepson, and loved the son of another man as if he was her own.  She would have gotten such a kick out of her nephew Cayce.  She had been so excited when he was on his way into the world. 

When I had first learned of my pregnancy, I had been anxious about telling my sister.  She had no children of her own, and I was afraid she would be envious.  In fact, she met my news with such warmth and joy.  A new chapter was writing itself in our relationship.  For a little while, I had the nurturing soul sister I had always longed for.

But I think the reality of Cayce’s arrival into the world was in fact hard for my sister to take.  When he was born, she didn’t call me.  I looked up her Facebook page and saw her status update on the day Cayce was born.  The tone and wording struck me as odd.  Far from celebratory.  She spoke of my c-section, and how that had not been what I had wanted.  But then she wrote, once the baby was born, “She got what she wanted.”

I sensed bitterness, more than joy.  I had been home with him for three weeks when I finally called her.  I told her I wanted her to meet the baby.  She said that she wanted to wait until he was a little older, because newborns weren’t “really that cute.”  She never said, “I’m so happy for you.”  She only said, “I’m sorry the birth didn’t go the way you had wanted.”  I told her that I didn’t care about any of that now that I had this healthy, beautiful bundle of joy in my arms.

The many pictures I emailed and posted on Facebook were met with silence.   Finally I emailed her and told her that her silence made me feel sad.  She wrote back asking what kind of a response did I want?  She didn’t think they warranted a response, since my photo emails had no text.    I wrote back saying, oh, any response that was genuine would do.  To which she replied, “I know you know I think he’s beautiful.”     

It still makes me so sad to think that my joy in some way heightened my sister’s pain over not having her own child.  Certainly I had been well on my own way to becoming a bitter woman who would regret being childless.  But I would like to believe that, had she stuck around just a wee bit longer, Cayce would have proved to be a force that would hold our family together, rather than tear it apart. 

For who could look long into this child’s loving eyes and not be made whole again?  In the light of this little boy’s eyes, we can begin to forgive ourselves, and remember our goodness, and our fierce capacity to love and be loved.

We love you still, Gaby.  We love you still.


Island Girl said...

Sending you a big hug!

Amber @ Au Coeur said...

Rachel, this is an incredibly brave and well-written post. It's an incredibly hard thing to have to experience and deal with. I hope that your sister found peace.

Rachel Dowling said...

This was originally posted yesterday, May 12, the first anniversary of my sister's death. Blogger was having maintenance issues, deleted it, and I have just reposted it. Please feel free to comment. And thank you to those who left comments already. I'm sorry they were lost.

Carol Pillion said...

You have done an lovely job of writing about your sister. So sorry she wasn't able to be around to enjoy your awesome son. Hope she will always be kept alive in your memories of the good times in the past.

Rachel Dowling said...

Thank you, Carol. She will indeed live on in our memories! Thanks for reading.