I would venture to guess that very few people have received a phone call at a New Year’s Eve party that begins with the words, “Your mother is dead.” The voice was my father’s calling from California when phone reception was still spotty, 20 years or so before cellphones. Today, these types of calls would be made by my brother, the onus placed on him to deliver all sorts of bad, sometimes good, news. My father informed me that he and my sister would be taking a red eye back to Long Island, my brothers would be coming back from their family vacations, and quite frankly, I remember little else. I was at a party and wanted to get back to it.
Having spent the day before trying to get into her apartment that was chained from the inside, I knew this call would come eventually.
After years of half-hearted suicide attempts there was a great sense of relief. As horrible as that may seem, I know that it is not an uncommon reaction to having experienced years and years of this form of manipulation. It’s exhausting.
I went back to the party and looking back on it, it was sort of an out-of-body experience. I walked around telling everyone that my mother had just been found dead in our apartment. (Clearly, I was a bit shell-shocked despite my seeming non-chalance) I remember my friends fumbling to say something, anything, that would put this in some sort of context. I am certain that they couldn’t make sense of why I didn’t leave the party. In what now seems extremely odd to me, I had sex with my then boyfriend, after midnight, where we slept in what I remember as a closet with a mattress on the floor.
I have zero recollection of how I got from Manhattan to my mother’s apartment. By that point, the yellow police tape was drooping and the first thing I could think of were the across the hall neighbors who had spent years hearing and seeing loud and curious comings and goings, culminating in two dead bodies only feet away. I have since become fairly obsessed with how their bodies were carried out, wheeled on gurneys, down 11 floors in an elevator.
I know this seems like a tired cliché, but I will NEVER, EVER forget the smell that hit me the second I walked into the apartment and I hope and pray that I will never experience it again. Walking into the bedroom where the “incident” took place is the first of what I have been afraid to write about, to tackle and type. I can never undo do it and the quick attempts at trying to piece together what happened, what the sequence of events was. Now I see it all as quick snapshots, shutter clicks, as clear as day: empty and tipped over 2-liter bottles of soda on top of and on the floor near the tv, a man’s belt on the floor, large gray stains on the carpet, some empty pill bottles and “I love you Claudine” written in red lipstick on a large mirror.
The man she was with was somebody’s somebody but to me, he was an absolute zero. A non-person. He belonged to our tennis club, a place where my mother thrived on the tennis court, played cards with her friends, and had her afternoon coffee and danish. He had a daughter my age who was tall and coltish always with a sour look on her face. As a teenager I remember her moving quickly around the pool, but I have zero recollection of her father who somehow came into my mother’s life years later. He was odd looking, his bottom lip positioned in a strange overbite, his pants hiked up way too high on his waist. He stuttered. He was not worthy of my beautiful mother.
On the drive to the funeral my father kept on telling me that it was okay to cry, to “let it out.” I felt nothing until I saw my brother fall to pieces, his face crumbled in sorrow. I was moved when I saw a lovely man who had briefly dated my mother standing far back and away from everyone. He was one of only a handful of people who came. But, I still didn’t cry, and to this day, remember only one time that I have.
It wasn’t until many years later, probably in my early 30s, that I began to think about the other family, the daughter, my age, with the same story. Did she blame my mother? Did she know that they had some sort of suicide pact, something that my mother breezily mentioned to me about six months before they died? I thought of the two of us going on Oprah, re-meeting each other, hugging and crying. Or, we could have gone all Jerry Springer and ended up throwing chairs at each other. Either way, she lived this too, in a different way, having never set foot in the bedroom where it all happened.
About six years ago I mentioned this curiosity to a friend of mine who worked in a specialized library where he had easy access to public records. I gave him the daughter’s name and that same day he had results. He had already made contact with her and asked if it would be okay if I reached out to her. She said she wasn’t ready, or interested, and gave him the number of one of her brothers. She had called him first to ask if it would be okay and he agreed. My friend wanted to make sure I was ready before he gave me the information. This was an enormous can of worms, but, I wrote down the number, closed my office door, and dialed.
The son had very little affect. The conversation was understandably stilted from the start. I explained why it had become important to me to understand what his family had gone through. We filled each other in on many details that neither of us knew. I did not know that there was a note. A letter. That has been the hardest thing to discover. He told me that it was postmarked on December 24th, written by his father. He told me that it said that by the time he got it, he and my mother would be dead.
And that’s as much as I could hear. He said he had the letter somewhere and asked if I wanted a copy of it. I declined and graciously ended the conversation. I managed to leave my office, shaking and sucker-punched and called my brother from the street, needing to unload the knowledge that I shouldn’t have gone seeking in the first place. Instead of giving me closure, it has caused me more horror and pain than I could have ever imagined.
Since then I have looked at the daughter’s Facebook picture. She’s smiling, not sour. I know she likes “American Idol.” I know she’s “in a relationship.” I know she belongs to some healing circles and meditates. I know she has a dog. I’ve also looked at the brother’s picture. He looks like his father. I just discovered we have a mutual friend (in facebook terms though, “friend” is used very loosely).
Interestingly, in the ongoing telling of my mother’s death, I have often neglected to say that it was a double-suicide. Some of my best friends did not know this until recently. Maybe it’s way too dramatic. Maybe it’s not important. Maybe it’s too gruesome. But it’s true. True for me. True for my siblings, and it’s true for an entire other family who I never, until recently, considered.