It’s second semester senior year and I’m sitting, along with 20 or so other students, in an autobiography writing class. The professor says, “I’d like to read one of your classmates pieces to all of you.” She starts to read, and the first sentence is “Your mother is dead.” It’s mine. I give an uncomfortable smile which probably gives me away, and put my head down to listen to the rest. I’ve written this less than 4 months after my mother committed suicide on New Year’s eve, 1985.
As I’m leaving the class, my professor pulls me aside and suggests that I try to get the piece published in a magazine. I am flattered and stunned beyond belief.
Basic backstory on my mother:
Holocaust survivor, hidden in a private home in Belgium with her mother and younger brother. Later transferred to a convent because she had started to sneak out of the house causing great potential danger to the host family and my grandmother and uncle. 4 older siblings killed in concentration camps, father shot by the Jewish Underground.
Marries a GI to get herself to the states. Ends up in Philly, gets divorced, gives birth to my oldest brother, gets to NYC, dates some high-powered men. She is a stunning woman.
Goes to work as a receptionist at a resort in the Catskills. Meets my father who is the hired nightclub singer. They get married and move to Queens. Pretty quickly have my second brother and 16 months later, my sister.
They all move to Searingtown, Long Island where I am born, eight years after my sister, at a hospital flanked by a Bloomingdale’s and an A&S. My mother had pretty much fallen into upper-middle class Jewish Long Island and she seemingly fit right in. She played canasta and mahjong and tennis at our club almost daily.
That’s her nutshell, just for context.
Beginning when I was nine, my daughter’s age now, my mother had a never ending series of “nervous breakdowns.” She’d be hospitalized for about a week each time. This was explained to me with great honesty and I understood as best as I could. The only time she left me a suicide note she tried to explain that she wanted to be with her brothers and sisters. Somehow, it made sense.
My mother would refuse to take her meds (things like lithium) because she complained of the side effects. This of course just exacerbated the cycle. Now knowing what bipolar episodes are, her life was a series of extreme highs and extreme lows. At thirteen, my parents got divorced, my father moved 3,000 miles away to California, and I was left alone with my bipolar mother. The only saving grace was that my brother lived close enough to be there when things became unbearable. He was, and in so many ways still is, my savior.
Just imagine all of this going on until at 16 she booted me out to LA to my father’s, which in some ways, was a worse environment than being with her. A therapist of mine had the brilliant idea for me to look into boarding schools to rescue me from these two hopeless scenarios and off I went for junior and senior year. College followed (I flew, with a trunk, on a People’s Express flight for $19.) My mother never set foot on either campus.
By my senior year, my mother’s bipolar disorder started to slip into borderline schizophrenia. She would call me to try to convince me that her best friend had turned her family over to the Nazis. She scribbled incoherent notes on the backs of the canvases of her crudely amateurish paintings. I know there was a series of audio cassette rants that my oldest brother swears he has somewhere. At one point she made a breezily delivered passing reference to a suicide pact she had made with a man she was dating.
During the very last phone conversation I had with my mother, she expressed how excited she was that I was coming home for winter break. I told her my plans and when I would be there. I got a ride home from the father of a guy I had a crush on, and I spent the 6-hour trip trying to ascertain whether or not this crush liked me back. They dropped my off at the luxury high-rise I lived in with my mother, and drove away.
I took the elevator up to our apartment and was surprised to find that the door was chained from the inside. I rang the bell over and over and over and got no response. I instantly knew what was behind that door, but I just assumed that my mother would be alone, dead, not at peace, but a tortured soul to the end.
I went to see if her car was in the garage. It was in it’s assigned spot, a Nissan Pulsar, the doors unlocked. Propped up on the stickshift, there was a review from New York magazine of the play ‘Night Mother. The mother/daughter roles are reversed but here is the premise, lifted from the Wikipedia description:
The play opens with Jessie calmly telling Mama that by morning she’ll be dead, as she plans to commit suicide that very evening (she makes this revelation all while nonchalantly organizing household items and preparing to do her mother’s nails). The subsequent dialogue between Jessie and Mama slowly reveals her reasons for her decision, her life with Mama, and how thoroughly she has planned her own death, culminating in a disturbing – yet unavoidable – climax.
There is NO way my mother would have planted a clue like that. I had no doubt in my mind. It wasn’t her style, and quite frankly, she wasn’t all that interested in reviews of the arts and wouldn’t have come across this. So, at that point, I knew she wasn’t alone.
A long series of events ensued, including my frantically trying to get in touch with any family member who would listen to me and guide me in what to do. I ended up at a friend’s about 40 minutes away, making phone calls, trying to track down my siblings who were all on vacation. Somehow, my uncle was contacted, he went over with the police, they broke down the door, and indeed, my mother was dead, lying next to a man, also dead, she barely knew.
By the time I went in the next day, the bodies were gone. The smell was unbearable. There were empty soda bottles everywhere. For some reason there was a man’s belt on the floor. On the mirror, written in lipstick, were the words “I love you Claudine.”