Remembering My Mother

Remembering My Mother

AdeleHarsMomandMe1962 copy 2By Adele Hars

I remember my mother. She’s in the hardware store. I’m over by the baseball gloves. She is covered in paint, and wears olive green stretch pants and a sleeveless nylon shirt. Her hair is down – about shoulder length, basically straight, a dark dirty blond streaked with off-white latex. She has paint on her face, paint on her clothes, paint on her hands and ankles and tennis sneakers. Her breasts sag and her stomach hangs out. I’m furious. Can’t she clean up when she goes into town? Why would she clean up? She’s just coming in to buy more paint. But I am 12 and very embarrassed.

I remember my mother. She looks beautiful. She’s going to a ball. Her hair is swept back in a French knot, and she’s wearing a summer-sky gown with a sequined waistband. The dress, slim and elegant, is in two layers: an inner one of darker satin, a lighter one of chiffon. The arms are sheer; the cuffs blue-sequined like the waistband. My mother was a model once, and at times like this it shows. She wears pearly blue eye-shadow and bright red lipstick. I can’t remember if she wore earrings. I don’t remember her wearing earrings until I began to hate her.

On the first floor of the state hospital old men and women with straggly hair and bad teeth sway against the walls. Upstairs, people seem a little younger, but they, too, sway. I don’t belong here, says my mother. All my friends here tell me that. I want you to meet them. She shows me her metal-framed bed pushed up against the yellow cement-block wall. I have to get out of there. I sit in the car outside the massive brick building, waiting for my sisters, listening to an organ concerto on the radio. With the windows rolled up, I am insulated.

I try not to remember my mother when we went to court. When I took the stand against her, I don’t think I ever looked at her. Yet I remember that she always wore that tailored deep-blue, wool suit, which made her look elegant, even though it was second-hand.

I remember going through her bottom drawer after my father left. She heard he was going on vacation to Bermuda. If she could go with him, she’d thought, they could work things out. She’d bought a sheer nightgown, some summer-wear, and a pair of slippers with wispy green fuzz. Did she really think he’d take her? What was she thinking as she bought these things? Then I hardened myself. How disgusting, I thought. He’d never take her. What did she ever do to deserve it? He didn’t take her. Nine years later she was all alone. And she killed herself.

She did it in her car, in the garage. She was wearing her pajamas. She didn’t leave a note. It took me a year to convince myself that it wasn’t an accident. That she hadn’t just gone out to warm up the engine before getting dressed on a cold morning. The UPS man found her. He saw exhaust coming out from under the garage door.

I wish I could tell her I’m sorry. I never knew my mother as an adult. I left her when I was a child, when I was just 15. I thought I knew it all.

I remember my mother lying on a sofabed downstairs. She has a candle burning on the table next to her. I’m five years old. I don’t know why she has a candle burning – it’s not really dark out yet. She’s angry with me. Where have I been? There’s been a power failure. She’s been so worried. I can’t understand why. I’m perfectly OK.

I remember my mother at the dining room table. We’ve finished dinner and I’m clearing the table. She and my father are sitting across from each other, drinking instant coffee and talking, as they did every night. She sits slightly sideways, one hand on her coffee cup, one hand on her belly.

My mother’s eyes were gray-blue. Her nose was small, with a tiny scar. Sometimes she would curl her hair, but most of the time it was straight and lank, tucked dirty-blond behind her ears. On the right side of her neck, just above her collarbone, a peach-brown knob of skin. Her shoulders sloped slightly, the dark nipples on her breasts hung low. A raised pink scar on her round belly marked where her appendix had been. She did not shave under her arms, which was especially embarrassing at the beach. The tops of her thumbs were small but bent back hard. She never grew her nails, although the pink part seemed long and ridged. Her legs were pale and also unshaven; her feet small with high arches and pointy toes.

I remember my mother standing on her head. She did her yoga every day, on a padded vinyl mat: white with big, blue flowers. I could never stand on my head like she did, two hands clasped, nesting her head, elbows forming a tripod. Then she would do that lion thing where she’d lie on her stomach, upper torso propped up on straight arms. Her tongue hung out, her eyes rolled back. I hated it when she did that. It was so creepy. Then she’d go into the lotus position. That was fun. I could do it, too.

I remember my mother lying on the bed with the green-checked ice pack pressed against her migraine. Go without me, she told my father. That happened a lot. It made me angry.

I remember my mother in that long white cotton dress with the green ribbons. Drops of blood stain the hips. See what your father does to me? See this? Her teeth have marked his hand. It’s never clear who starts these things.

I’m in the post office. Hello, Adele. She approaches, quiet, pleading, accusing. Hello. Excuse me. Where are you going? I’m leaving. Is your father still seeing that woman? she snarls. Excuse me, I have to go. She follows me to the car. Don’t you know I love you? she says. I can’t tell her I love her, too. I can’t. She’d use it against my father the next time we went to court. I drive off with her hanging onto the car until she can’t and falls away.

My mother speaks in tongues and does “sacred dancing” to Handel’s “Messiah”. She tippy toes around when she dances, bent at the waist, arms extended. She does it for my friends’ mothers. This is very embarrassing. She also speaks in IG, a silly trick where you put “i-g” in every word so it sounds like you’re speaking another language. She teaches me how. Soon the whole fifth grade is speaking IG.

My mother is singing a song to Anne. Anne is jealous because Maria has two songs about her. Eve and I don’t have any songs, either. But my mother sings, “There was a little girl, and her name was Anne Elizabeth. And she was very beautiful. And her mother loved her very much.” Anne is delighted and claps her two-year old hands.

I remember my mother at the pool, Eve in one arm, Anne in the other. She sings Ring-Around-the-Rosy endlessly. Maria splashes by herself on the steps.

I remember fighting with my mother. I throw a blue plastic cup at her. We wrestle. I pin her and scream at her. What were we fighting about?

My mother comes at me. We are in my father’s kitchen. She grabs my hair and bangs my head against the brick floor in front of the fireplace. I am trapped my a chair. I hate her.

It’s 1975. I am 15 years old. I am sitting at my mother’s piano, writing on the inside cover of the hymn book. Dear Mom, I say. Or do I say Mommy? I’m sorry I have to leave, but you make my life too hard. But no matter what happens I’ll never call another woman Mother. I sign it: I love you. Your Daughter, Adele. I close the book and bury it in the piano bench. I go back to my room to finish packing. My father will be waiting for me.

A dozen years go by. My mother is gone. I want to be happy again and have maybe have children of my own someday. I am sitting in Dr. Lake’s office. We’re trying hypnosis. She tells me I’m going to open a door and see a happy scene with my mother. I do. We are sitting on the bed at the house near Boston. It is 1965. I am five years old. We are waiting for a call from my father to tell us it is time to join him in Puerto Rico. My mother asks me how I imagine Puerto Rico will be. I am very excited. I will be riding a green bicycle, I tell her. A two-wheeler, on a sidewalk by the beach. And she’ll be there watching, waving. Watching. Waving.

Adele Hars is an American writer based in France, and the mother of two wonderful teens. She’s published hundreds of articles about technology, but sometimes she writes about other things, too.

Art: Linda Willis



Will He Have My Eyes?

Will He Have My Eyes?

WO Will He Have My Eyes ART

By Kelley Clink

It’s two in the morning. My vision blurs from lack of sleep. The lamp in the corner washes the room in soft, amber light. It shimmers in my son’s wide-open eyes, which gaze up at me. His small, hot hand curls against my chest. We rock in the glider. We rock and rock. He is quiet, full and heavy, warm in my arms.

Is this real? I ask myself. It’s taken so long to get here that I still can’t quite believe it.


I never thought much about having children before I got married. I sort of assumed it was something I’d do, eventually, but I wasn’t one of those women who felt like I was meant to be a mother. I didn’t even particularly like kids. But I loved my husband deeply, and thought it might be kind of fun to make a person with him.

To be fair, I was 21 years old at the time.

About three years into our marriage, when I was 24 and my husband was 26, we started to consider the prospect more seriously. I’d just finished graduate school. There was plenty of time for multiple pregnancies before I turned 30 (my definition of “old” at the time). It all worked out in theory. And that’s all it was: theory. I never once tried to imagine what it would be like to hold my child in my arms. How it would feel to see him smile. It was just the next logical step in a mapped out, middle-class, American adulthood.

Then my brother hanged himself, and the map went up in flames.


Matt, my only sibling, was three years younger than I. When we were growing up he was alternately a responsibility, a playmate, and a pain in the ass, and I loved him as if he were a part of me. In a way, he was. He was the only other person on the planet made from the same two people. From the same past.

I was diagnosed with depression at the age of 16. Matt was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 15. We both attempted suicide by overdose as teenagers. We both survived. We both seemed to even out afterwards, thanks to medications and therapy. We both graduated high school with honors and did well in college. Matt was three weeks away from graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers when he died. I’d spoken to him earlier in the week. He’d given no indication that anything was wrong.

The suddenness and violence of his exit gutted me. There was anger, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, sadness, fear, guilt. Usually all at the same time. I folded in on myself. Stopped working. Cut off friends. Rarely left the house. Grief was a tarpit and I was a prehistoric animal. I slowly sank, watched life go by, and waited for the tarpit to magically drain or swallow me whole.

But somehow, at the same time I felt removed from life, I was consumed by a desire to create it. The longing was so deep it was painful—an ache for gain that throbbed alongside my loss.

I wasn’t completely naïve. I knew that a child wouldn’t fill the void left by my brother. I knew that nothing would. And anyway, the desire—deep as it was—was nothing but a blip of an atom in a blackhole of fear.

I was terrified that the same pain that had plagued my brother would descend on me. At the time of Matt’s death I’d been on antidepressants for nearly a decade. They’d helped me—but for a while they’d helped him, too. Who was to say they wouldn’t stop working? What if our genes were a crooked double helix, bent on self-destruction? What if my children were like me?

What if they were like him?

Each night the “what ifs” piled up in the dark around me while I lay awake, my eyes sticky-dry, my husband’s even breathing like water torture.

This went on for years.

In the meantime, of course, friends and family members got pregnant. They had their children. They got pregnant again. Every ultrasound photo on Facebook, every card in the mail with a pair of empty baby shoes, waiting, punched all the air from my lungs.

I was stuck in the tarpit. But even though my life wasn’t moving forward in the way I’d thought it would, the way everyone else’s was, I was busy. I was doing the work of grieving. For me that work took the form of writing a book about Matt. Every day I sifted through the blog posts, emails, and stories he’d left behind. Every day I plunged back into my memory. I filled blank page after blank page, trying to make sense of what had happened to him. It was raw and painful, like digging glass splinters out of my heart with my fingers. Two years passed. Three. Four. I turned the dreaded 30 and then some. Finally I finished the book and came up for air. I was done grieving. The tarpit was gone.

But the fear remained.

What exactly was I afraid of? In the first years after Matt’s death I’d thought it was suicide. I’d worried that it was out there, waiting for me—a land mine wired by genes and grief.

It took years (and several therapists), but eventually I understood that despite our shared histories and DNA, my brother’s life had not been my life, and his death didn’t have to be my death.

Once I finished grieving Matt, and trusted my desire to live, I began to see that the fear was rooted in something else. Something deeper. I wasn’t so much afraid of death as I was afraid of love.

Here’s the thing: to open yourself to love, you have to be willing to accept loss. Gut-wrenching, bone-crushing, soul-obliterating loss. After my brother died my mom said things like, “I’d do it all over again, even if I knew how it would turn out. I wouldn’t trade a single second.” Deep in the tarpit, struggling to keep from going completely under, I hadn’t understood. If I had the choice, I’d thought, I would rather have been an only child. Even years later, after I had grieved my brother, after I had accepted his death, the mere possibility of experiencing that kind of pain again tightened my throat.

The heart, though metaphorical, is like any other muscle. Once wounded, it takes time to heal. Once healed, it takes time to rehabilitate.

My heart took her time.

It happened slowly, so slowly, each day a single grain of sand dropping from one side of an hourglass to the other: fear giving way to desire. Other things happened in the meantime. Life. I danced with my friends. I sang karaoke (badly). I saw oceans and countries that my brother would never see. But I began to realize that I carried him with me everywhere I went—knowing him, being a sister to him, had made me who I was, and his death had brought me more than grief. I cried for the years I’d lost, I cried for the uncertainty of it all, but eventually I looked back at the ashes of the map and realized that Matt had given me the gift of deliberateness. I was no longer making choices based on expectations. I was approaching life with open eyes. He’d also given me compassion: for myself and my depression, as well as for others. I was approaching life with a scarred, but open, heart. I realized I would have been a sister to him all over again, even if I knew how it was going to turn out.

Ten years, five months, and seven days after my brother died, my son was born.


My son’s eyelids flutter closed. Gradually I slow the glider to a stop, carry him across the room, and lay him gently in his crib.

I see my brother in his face. I see myself, too. But I also see his father, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Most of the time I don’t see anyone but my son. Just him.

I don’t know who my son will be, what kind of challenges he will face. I do know that he will hear stories about his Uncle Matt’s kindness and humor, his intelligence and passion. He will know that Matt’s illness was a part of who he was, but only part. He will know that my illness is a part of who I am, too. My son will learn that life is hard and beautiful. That love and grief are two sides of the same coin.

I worried for years that my children would be like my brother and me. I want to say that I don’t anymore, but I can’t. No matter the wisdom or joy that has come from my experience, I don’t want my son to suffer. Still, whether or not it involves mental illness, I know he will. He has to. That’s life. I suppose the best thing I can do, the only thing I can do, is to let it happen. To stand by his side, hold his hand when he will let me, and trust that our hearts will heal.

Author’s Note: Next month we will celebrate my son’s first birthday. Parenthood has conjured a host of new fears in addition to the old, but each one is matched by an equal measure of joy. My husband and I hope to be lucky enough to add more children to our family in the near future.

Kelley Clink is a suicide prevention and mental health advocate, and author of the memoir A Different Kind of Same. She lives near Chicago with her husband and son. You can find out more about her at

BOOKSPARKS SPEAKS OUT: Join Kelley Clink on World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. For all sales made on Kelley’s book, A Different Kind of Same on September 10, Kelley will donate 30% of proceeds to the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. Learn more on how to get involved here.



I Believed the Lie

I Believed the Lie

By Jenna Hatfield


In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence.


As night descended, my thoughts also turned toward the dark. There, alone in the bedroom I shared with my husband, I stumbled down a path on which I almost got lost.

I thought of the night my oldest son entered this world. How I rocked him in the chair with tears streaming down my face, overcome with guilt and fear; panicked about finally being given a child to parent.

I thought about the time I left him in his crib to cry. I walked outside and sat in the blooming lilies and cried tears of desperation.

Flashes of all the ways I failed him kept popping into mind, slow at first and then fast and furious. The time I smacked his mouth for biting. The time I yelled so loud he ran all the way to his bedroom as fast as his toddler legs could carry him; I found him buried under his blankets, crying and red-faced. Any and every harsh word, disconnected moment, aggravated feeling, and frustrated outburst—they swirled around me, taunting.

And then the timeline opened up to include his younger brother and all the ways I failed him as well.

Like the time I stepped on his hand in our living room while dancing through the diaper laundry and strewn toys; why didn’t I just clean up first? Another check in the box for reasons I couldn’t be a good wife, a good mother, a good anything.

Of course, they’re older now, not just babies, so the progression of wrongs kept growing, kept building upon the last. The words I’ve used when I thought they weren’t in ear shot or forgotten they were in the car or just plain old didn’t care. The times I’ve told them to shut up or asked them simply to go away. The times I’ve been too busy to play LEGO or read through a book or draw a picture or simply be their mother, present and willing to do any and everything with them.

I stacked the grievances higher and higher.

And then my daughter sat down in my brain, and said, “Oh no, don’t you forget about me.”

As if she needed to remind me of all the ways I’ve failed her. I carry those closest; I use them against myself on a daily basis, not just in moments of mental health crisis. I blame myself for each and every one of her struggles, her anger, her questions, her fear. I tell myself if I had been the mother I needed to be at the time she needed me to be, things would be different for her.

All my fault. All my fault. All my fault.

These failures, however real or imagined, trite or life-altering, remained the only thing on which I could focus that night. I couldn’t see the good. I couldn’t remember all the ways in which I have loved, supported, nurtured, cared for, and lifted up each of my three children. I simply saw the ways in which I have harmed, failed, neglected, abandoned, broken, or hurt the three most beautiful beings in my life.

“Who does those things? Who says the things that you’ve said? A bad mother,” the voice taunted. I believed it, to the core of my being. I knew, without a doubt, that no other mother on the face of this planet made the same mistakes, said the same things, or acted in the same ways.

“They’d be better off without you.”

And I agreed.

In that moment, in the dark of that darkest night, I agreed. My children would be better off without my presence. My sons would thrive easier without me. My daughter could then look at what I’d done in the end and realize, yes, she was better off with her adoptive mom. They’d all look back and think, “We really dodged a bullet there.”

I didn’t come to the decision to end my life based on the oft-claimed selfish desire to end my pain. No, I believed I deserved the pain. But I felt my children deserved more—more without me holding them down or back. I listened to the dark lie of depression and believed every nuance and syllable. I couldn’t see beyond my fear that I was hurting my children simply by existing.

I followed the instructions the lie laid out. I did what the lie told me would be the only way my kids would ever be okay.

When I woke in the hospital the next morning, the lie still whispered in my ear.

“Oh good, you can’t do anything right. Just another way you’ve failed your children.”

I spent the entire day still listening to the whispers, the hateful speech directed at me from within my own brain. It wasn’t until the next day when my husband brought cards from our sons, cards their little hands wrote with crayons on green paper, that my heart finally understood the lie in my brain. It was in that moment that my heart shouted back.

“This mother is more than your lie. She is needed, wanted, and loved. Go away.”

It’s been six months, and the lie of depression still whispers on occasion, but never with the same menacing fervor. I still struggle with guilt and feelings of worthlessness, but I know my children are better off with me, not without. I know they need me, here—even when I’m having a bad day or struggling with anxiety and depression or just plain old exhausted from the day-to-day business of living.

With a change of medication and some deeper, harder work in therapy, I’m able to hush the lying voice if only to make it to the next day. I don’t know when—if ever—I’ll wake in the morning to find the lie of depression gone for good, but I know that every day I wake to the sound of, “Mommy, can I have breakfast,” is another day I have to try, to be their mother, to love them like no one else can or ever will.

If you’re struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1 (800) 273-8255. You are not alone.

Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at

Photo: Tim Mossholder

If We Had Not Heard

If We Had Not Heard


By Mary DeVries

If we had not heard the thud of her body falling on the floor, she would be dead. If she had locked the door and we had had to spend precious time breaking it down, she would be dead. If her meltdown an hour earlier hadn’t spurred me to move from the living room to the office to email the head of special education at her high school, we would not have heard the thud of my 16-year-old daughter’s body hitting the floor. But we did.

When her Dad heard the thud, he asked me in a slightly alarmed voice, “Was that you?” I said no, and we ran up the five stairs to her bedroom. It was dark, but when we turned on the light we saw her lying in a fetal position on the floor. Her face was turning blue. She was barely breathing and not responsive. I started to scream her name, “Mariah! Mariah!” I touched her unconscious face and brushed my hand over her forehead, but I quickly recoiled as she was starting to turn blue. I was afraid that it might already be too late.

We didn’t know if she had taken drugs or if she had had a seizure or even a stroke. I watched her face getting bluer, and every second she seemed less alive. I screamed at my husband to call the police. He ran to get the phone but came back with his voice frantic. “I can’t find the damned phone!” I ran to find it, and when I reached the police they kept asking me inane questions like, “Does she have a history of drug use? Could she be pregnant?” I kept screaming, “She’s turning blue! She’s barely breathing! We need help!”

By then had it been sixty seconds? Ninety seconds? The blue around her mouth was turning so dark it looked almost black. I didn’t know what to do other than scream into the phone as though the urgency of my voice would bring the paramedics sooner. I screamed at my husband to start CPR and ran to the front door to wave down the paramedics when they arrived.

As my husband pushed with both hands against Mariah’s chest, one of her hands rose up slightly towards her neck. He pushed aside the high neck of her red flannel pajamas, the ones with the reindeer that we had given her two Christmases earlier when we thought that love was enough. Only then did he see the two bright multi-colored extra-wide shoe laces pulled so tightly around her neck that she seemed minutes away from death. He released the hold of the shoelaces and within seconds she was breathing again. A minute later the police arrived followed by the paramedics. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. This was not a drug reaction. This was not a seizure. My daughter had come very close to killing herself.

Her small bedroom was crowded now with six paramedics and police officers, and a few of them asked to speak with me in the kitchen. They asked me questions in a calm tone of voice—as though I was sane—as though a mother could find her daughter almost dead and realize that she tried to kill herself and still have a coherent conversation. I could only stammer. I could hear the paramedics in the background talking loudly as if their gruff voices could rouse Mariah from the trauma. Why weren’t they rushing her to the hospital?

My mind was locked in protest. How was it possible that my daughter hated her life enough to want to end it? How did we get here? It had been almost seventeen years since her birth mother had handed her to my husband and me in the delivery room. My ten-year-old stepdaughter had witnessed the birth, and the doctor had let her cut the cord. What had gone so terribly wrong in the time since the cord to her birth mother’s body had been severed that she would use another cord to try to end her life?

In the week that Mariah was hospitalized after her suicide attempt, I found myself imagining the pain she must have felt to be able to pull those shoelaces that tight. How could all that had gone on in our family—all the singing and musicals and dance and drama and dogs and puppies and birds and nature trips and basketball and kayaking and traveling and adoption support and having a church and a godmother and a big sister and eating together at almost every meal—how could all of that have ended up like this? Even weighing the frustration and anger that too often came her way because of her troubles in school, it should not have come to this.

Mariah’s junior year had begun with hope, but by the second week of school she was starting to skip classes. After doing poorly in a general education school in ninth grade, we had moved her to a special education program in a larger school for her sophomore year. That year, she began to skip classes and hang out with a group of homeless kids who inhabited the park across from the high school. They were called Juggalos, a cultish group with an affinity for the rap group Insane Clown Posse. I never figured it out. I never wanted to. All I knew was that my daughter, a student with learning disabilities and ADD, who was impulsive, volatile and emotionally immature was hitting the skids. The high school campus was too porous and the pull towards the homeless gypsies too strong to keep her in class. Her special education case manager tried, her therapist tried, her psychiatrist tried, we all tried.

My anxiety grew so high and her hostility hit me with such brute force that sometimes I couldn’t stop myself from fighting back. After one fight, she ran away and stayed out all night with the Juggalos in an abandoned building. When she returned to school the next day, her case manager called me. “She looks so bad. I can’t let her go to class. She needs a shower and a change of clothes.” The previous night had been hell for me, not knowing if she was shooting up or being raped. After having begged her not to do this to herself or to us, I was not ready to greet her with anything but resentment. I choked on my tears and told the case manager, “She can’t come home. Make her shower at school.”

We were desperately looking forward to summer. We knew that when we got her away from school and back into nature she could find her soul again, and she did. We went on a camping trip and she made friends in the lusciously warm swimming hole. That was followed by a role in a summer theater production and an internship where she watched dogs give birth and helped take care of newborn puppies. She was in heaven and all was right with the world.

But then came September and school and she started skipping classes again. We never thought that she was so fragile, so injured by her past school failures, so wounded by the brew of adoption and identity issues, so frayed by our continuing attempts to keep her in school, that she would ever consider suicide as a way out.

When I arrived home on the night of the suicide attempt, I could see from my husband’s face that there had been a problem. After two weeks trying to keep her in class, he came home to a message from a teacher saying she had walked out of class again. My husband never raised his voice with her, but he had sternly let her know that he didn’t want to come home to a new problem every day.

My husband and I went together to her room and found her crying. “School sucks, I suck, I hate my life!” We tried to help her to look at the good things in her life and told her that school was something she just had to get through in order to get to the next place. After an hour of trying to soothe her and her calming down some, we left the room having no thought that this meltdown was different than any of the others. But it was different. She wasn’t acting hateful toward us, she was directing her hate toward herself. Perhaps I should have said, “You’re too upset to sleep, let’s have some warm milk and toast and watch TV together. Maybe you don’t have to go to school tomorrow.” I should have, but I didn’t.

I don’t remember the paramedics leaving the house with her on the stretcher. I just remember my husband and I following right behind the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the same hospital where she was born. We could see her body in the ambulance, and she looked like a wounded animal. I kept trying to convince myself that this was not just a bad movie by repeating, “I am driving behind this ambulance because my daughter just tried to kill herself.”

We stood close around her in the emergency room. Her face was marked with little black dots that had something to do with the trauma. The circle around her neck was swollen and red. She was dazed and shocked and had no idea what had happened. In the middle of the night, I went home to sleep. My husband stayed with her until the ambulance took her to a locked psychiatric unit where she stayed for two weeks followed by three weeks in a day treatment program.

My grief and shock was so strong it felt as though there had been a death. At times when she was in the hospital, I felt like I was talking to someone who had tried to murder my daughter. The problem was that she was one and the same person. I was agitated, anxious and terrorized about our future. The voices in my head were screaming, “How could you have pulled those shoelaces so tight? Your body didn’t want to stop breathing! Why couldn’t you remember any of the thousands of good moments in your life?”

But no matter how painful it gets, life has a way of moving on. We have turned a thousand corners since that night. After dozens of meetings with her therapist, a new family therapist, a psychiatrist, the school, the county mental health team, new home-schooling tutors and talks with legal advocates, we are now in the aftermath of a serious suicide attempt.

And where am I now? Sometimes depleted, occasionally overwhelmed, frequently anxious, but picking up the pieces. Should we have done things differently? Of course! We should never have accepted the school district’s limitations and paid to have her in a special education school. We should have been less frustrated with her and understood much more about how ADD affected her behavior. If we knew then what we know now, I would have moved to a much smaller community away from our sometimes harsh urban environment, but…..

In my heart of hearts, which is not always easy to find, I can see the daughter who I prayed for, the daughter who has such enthusiasm for life, the one who makes friends easily, who loves singing and acting and animals, as well as the daughter who is willful and resilient and beautiful. At those times I know that we will get through this. I try not to entertain too many thoughts about what it all means for the future. For now, I mostly put one foot in front of the other and only occasionally pull over on the side of the road to cry.

Author’s Note: This essay was written shortly after my daughter’s suicide attempt more than three years ago. The intervening years have been a roller coaster of additional psychiatric hospitalizations, many medication trials, involvement with the criminal justice system and a year of residential treatment where she was able to complete high school. She returned home after treatment to a supportive therapist, a job and our full support, but within months she was back on the streets. Years of anxiety and grief has taken its toll, but we always find our way back to our love for each other and our daughter. After many gains and losses, Mariah is now 20 years old and has a part-time job that she loves.

Mary DeVries is an author and social justice activist who lives in California.



Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning

Nearly Drowning ART 2

By Vera Giles

I sat next to the learner’s pool, opposite my instructor for Overcoming Your Fear of Water.

I was 40, married, the mother of an almost-two-year-old boy. A few months earlier, I’d been laid off from my job and couldn’t seem to make myself look for a new one—but for some reason, I was also afraid to be a stay-at-home mother. Instead, Sammy went to an excellent day care, which we could afford thanks to my programmer husband, Aaron. I felt like the world’s worst mother.

I had tried several times in the past to learn how to swim. Now, I thought, since the rest of my life seemed stuck, maybe I could at least learn this one thing.

The instructor, a small, muscular woman, spoke with a friendly German accent. “Tell me why you’re here today.”

I wanted to tell her that when I was six, my mother took me by the hand and walked me into the ocean and kept walking until my aunt stopped her. That my mother was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Instead I said:  “I’m afraid of the water, but I want to learn.”

“Our goal is for you to stay centered in your body. You can’t learn if you are afraid. Are you ready to begin?”

We walked to the edge of the pool.

I shivered in my new black bathing suit. It was morning and the room was cold. Small waves caused by other swimmers slapped the sides of the pool, a metallic sound with a deeper note of water sloshing in and out of the overflow vents. The instructor smiled. “Shall we go in?”

Gray daylight poured through the large side windows. The room smelled clean and wet. Accent plants softened its sharp lines. “I guess so,” I said. Was it really this simple? No fanfare? But it felt right.

“Here,” she said, extending a hand. I held it and felt small and safe. Everything about this woman told me she was there to take care of me. “Let’s walk down the steps, one by one.”

I stepped down and submerged my feet in the water. We stopped. “Remember,” she said, “we’ll go as fast as you are comfortable. You can’t learn if you are not fully present in your body—all the way down to your feet. How are you feeling?”

I felt excited and calm at the same time. Could I feel my feet? Yes, they were cooler than the rest of me, firmly planted on the tiles. My hand was in her warm, sure grip.

“Yeah, I feel good,” I said, wanting to go on but self-conscious about seeming to rush. “Let’s go deeper.”

Down we went, step by step, until the water was at our waists. There were my feet. I still felt them. We walked further into the pool.

A rising anxiety finally surfaced, and I spoke. “I can’t hold your hand,” I said. I knew immediately this was a trigger, the memory of holding my mother’s hand, of being forced to go deeper and deeper into the water that day.

She looked surprised. She thought for a second, then crooked her arm. “Can you hold my elbow? Would that work?”

It felt odd, but I no longer felt coerced or restrained. I relaxed. “Yes, that will work.”

Like blind people walking somewhere new, we continued, navigating through my phobia. I let the water reach the middle of my chest—felt it move my body. I kept checking in with my feet. After a while, my instructor said, “You’ve made amazing progress. Look how far you’ve come! It’s time to get out now. Shall we?” She held out her hand.

This time I took her hand and we began walking to the stairs.

Something broke open in my chest. My eyes stung, and a warm feeling spread through my body. A mother was taking me back to shore, holding my hand to keep me safe.

I wanted to cry. For the first time, some little part of me felt secure instead of scared. I was going to be OK.

The next day, I remembered more of what had happened in the ocean.


I was six. My mother and I were visiting my Aunt Anni in Israel.

I loved Mama and she loved me. We understood each other. We shared secrets and told each other how we really felt. Some days she was very sad and everything seemed to go away. She just sat there and I felt very alone. But then she came back and she started to smile at me and laugh at my little jokes and I knew again that she loved me. I was very good at taking care of her.

Mama was the most beautiful mother in the world. Everybody said so. Her long blonde hair and beautiful dresses and lovely laugh charmed everyone.

Her older sister Anni was loving and distracted, her dreamy voice low from cigarettes. She smelled like perfume and tobacco and the oil paints she used in her studio. Blonde and the same height as my mother, she looked like Mama’s twin. Anni and Mama laughed a lot and shared makeup and jewelry. I loved Anni, too. She was gentle and safe and acted like I was a wise and wonderful person.

It was sunny and warm with cool breezes near the shore, so we were at the beach. I was playing at the edge of the surf, trying to step into the foam as it dissolved, wanting to feel the bubbles on my feet.

Then I felt Mama standing behind me, staring out to sea. She walked next to me, took my hand, and kept walking into the ocean. I didn’t want to leave the surf, but I was used to doing what she wanted.

At first it was fun, bobbing around as we got deeper, but I didn’t like how hard she was holding my hand and I started to pull away. She wouldn’t let go.

I was mad now. I started whining. She wouldn’t let go.

I got scared. The water was pretty high now. She wouldn’t let go.

She kept walking. It got deeper. I was screaming and panicking now. Some part of me was so terrified that something clicked in my head and I started feeling far away.

Water got in my mouth. I swallowed some. I couldn’t keep my head above water or my feet on the ocean floor. She wouldn’t let go.

I kicked and flailed and screamed, breathing in water and choking and swallowing water and drowning. She held my hand and her arm was stiff against her side and as I floated in the water I kicked her leg, hard, and it felt rubbery and she didn’t react and that scared me even more and I was drowning and I couldn’t breathe and this was way worse than asthma and I started to float high above my own head and watch myself drown, just my head, the crown barely breaking the surface as the water around was choppy with my struggles.

My mother stood there, holding my hand in a death grip, her arms at her sides. The water was at her chin. She was staring out at the horizon, completely gone.

Anni came and got me. She put my arms around her neck and walked back to the beach, as I coughed and hung there limply. I started to shake as she bundled me in a towel and tried to get me dry and warm even though it was a lovely day and the water had been perfect.

I fell asleep, from shock.


I was able to come to that swim class because Sammy was in day care—even though I hadn’t had a job for six months and should have been taking care of him myself. I felt like a terrible mother.

My friends, my family, and my husband all told me I was doing a great job with Sammy. I was not an alcoholic (like my mother and father). I did not abuse Valium (like my mother). I was not depressed (like my mother and father). I was not mentally ill (like my mother).

I did not commit suicide (like my mother).

She was 38 and a half when she killed herself. Coincidentally, when Sammy was born, I was 38 and a half.

Despite years of therapy, I was still terrified that I would repeat her mistakes. I might hurt Sammy. I might even kill him. This was crazy. Why did I feel this way?

When I was laid off six months earlier, I had been back from maternity leave exactly one year. I was 39 and Sammy was 16 months old.

“At least you’ll get to spend more time with Sammy,” my coworkers said.


When I was away from Sammy, I wished for more time than the squeezed hours I had with him. I craved him like a drug. I wanted to be there every morning when I got him, giggling and kicking with delight, out of his crib. I wanted to read him bedtime stories and sing him songs every night. I delighted in his expressive face, when he grinned or rolled his eyes or scrunched his nose with mischief. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from his rosy, round cheeks, his enormous brown eyes, and his dirty blond hair. He was perfect.

But I couldn’t stand to spend more hours with him.

“Didn’t maternity leave just fly by?” the same coworkers had asked me a year earlier. My reply—”No, my God, every day was an eternity”—killed their sympathetic smiles. Apparently I wasn’t supposed to discuss what it was like to enslave my brain to someone else’s needs. With Sammy, I was no longer a mind—I was torn and aching breasts, tired arms, a hoarse voice, sore legs. I was chained to his schedule: hovering over him when he was awake; wishing he was old enough to play with toys or even just focus on my face; returning home every three hours to keep the agony of breastfeeding to myself; constantly caught up on the laundry because I was so bored and lonely during his short naps.

By the time I was laid off, Sammy was older, but I still felt like I was failing. Each time he was home all day, I had to get him out of the house or he would drive me crazy and I would begin snarling at him. The kid never sat down. He started walking at eleven months and never stopped. So we would go somewhere we could walk, and walk, and walk. When he napped (thank God he napped), I fell into a stupefied sleep as well. On days when I was alone with him, I choked on my own panic. You can’t leave me, I would think as Aaron walked out the door. I’m an only child. You’re an oldest brother. You’re the one who knows what to do with babies.

There were so many fears. Was Sammy eating enough? He’d been born five and a half weeks early. Every milliliter of milk we got into him was hard-won. Now his toddler schedule of three meals and two snacks a day was grueling. How could I offer him different foods and balanced meals each time? I was a bad mother if I didn’t.

Was he sleeping enough? Everyone knows kids never sleep when you want them to. (Never mind that my child is in fact the most reliable sleeper in the world. Don’t hate me—I have no idea how this happened.) What if he suddenly stopped sleeping well? How could I keep nap and bedtime sacred?

Every mother has these fears, my friends told me when I wailed to them. But the stakes felt impossibly high. What was normal? I once had a mother who let us run out of food and kept me awake at night to talk about her problems. All my fears and worries told me that I was a bad mother like she was.

So many parents said that Mother Love made having kids worth it—but they were wrong. When I first experienced those primal, almost preverbal, feelings—Love. Hold. Mine. Protect. Fight! MINE!—I fell off the platform of sanity I had worked so long to build, into a wild, angry ocean. Even as I craved my son, my fears of all I was doing wrong with him triggered my Mother Love to protect him from the biggest threat: me. I knew I would somehow hurt him. With my inability to care for or feed him properly, I might even kill him. I had to leave him to the experts.

Day care was a better parent than I was. Day care fed him without angst. Day care had playmates he could socialize with, and teachers who were more patient and better trained than I was. Day care had structure and rules and activities, and didn’t get anxious about doing things wrong or rotating the toys or cleaning up messy art projects. Day care hadn’t lost a mother to mental illness and suicide, and didn’t have an ex-alcoholic father who lived mostly in his head. Day care didn’t take years to learn to get along with its stepmother, or spend years in therapy to keep its issues from contaminating the kids. Day care was calm and kind and good and never, ever depressed.

More than anything, I was afraid to lose day care. Because if I lost day care, I would have to be a full-time stay-at-home mom. And then I would have to face the reasons I knew—with a cold, insane clarity—that I couldn’t be a good mother.


I was 41. My husband, Sammy, and I were visiting with my cousins from my mother’s side of the family in a rented house on the New Jersey seashore. Over several days, I got the courage to tell them the story of Mama nearly drowning me—and they believed me. Some of them remembered her. All of them knew how private their parents were about the past. They knew that Mama could have done this, and that Anni could have hidden how serious it was. Some of them were not surprised.

One afternoon, most of us went to the beach while Aaron stayed behind. We got to the ocean and Sammy, now a tall, adventurous three-year-old, wanted to go in. With me. He wanted me to hold his hand.

I still didn’t know how to swim.

I still didn’t feel like a great mother.

I still didn’t have a paying job. Instead, I had started writing a memoir.

And yet I was getting somewhere. The day before I had stood waist-deep in the ocean, talking to my oldest cousin Andreas about our family and my mother’s childhood. Andreas was at ease in the water. In the middle of the conversation he watched me bobbing with a smile on my face as a rogue wave reached my chest. He said, “You’re doing quite well for someone who has good reason to be afraid of the water.”

Now here we were on the beach, Sammy and I. The sun warmed our backs and the seagulls coasted right and left above us. The surf pushed and pulled, repelling and coaxing.

“I wanna go in da ocean. C’we go in, Mommy? C’you hold my hand?”

How could I let Sammy trust me? Had my mother been so far gone that she didn’t know she was holding my hand in the water, so desperate to kill herself that she almost took me with her? The same thing could be inside me, waiting to destroy us both.

How could she try again and again to leave me—succeeding in her third suicide attempt after I turned eight—when I had loved her so much?

Or maybe I did understand. Maybe I was doing the same thing to my son by running away from him to protect him from myself—putting him in day care, telling myself that Aaron was the one who was good at raising babies.

I looked into Sammy’s wide brown eyes and chose. I chose life.

“OK, Bud. Hold my hand and don’t go in too deep, OK?”


We walked toward the waves, wobbled a little on the shells. Sammy squealed in delight when the surf tickled his feet.

Despite my fears, I smiled back. I could do this. I could hold his hand. I could keep him safe.

I could be his mother.

Author’s Note: I still have moments when it’s hard to stay engaged with my son and to have faith in my ability to mother him. But over time I am noticing little ways that our relationship is growing stronger: more hugs, more play together, even more confidence in the face of his ordinary rebellions. I am struck by how resilient he is, and by those little moments of wisdom that pop out in the middle of being an ordinary loud, funny, defiant preschooler.

I’m accepting that the important thing as a mom is not to get it right the first time, but to learn from my scars and mistakes. It’s when I recognize that I’m going off track that the healing can begin.

Vera Shanti Giles lives with her husband and three-year-old son in the Puget Sound region of Washington state. She is writing a memoir, Crazy Sane Mama, about overcoming the ordinary and extraordinary anxieties of motherhood—resulting from her mother’s mental illness and suicide—to raise her son with joy and humor.

Honoring Our Children’s Desires

Honoring Our Children’s Desires

WO The Gift ArtBy Dianna Bonny

Roughly four hours after my husband’s death, I’m sitting in the county coroner’s office in a small, nondescript room. A friend and my 16-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son are next to me and across the table is the coroner, who happens to be a young, attractive woman. I am having difficulty reconciling her appearance with the words coming out of her mouth because her beauty is in stark contrast to my preconceived notion of a Coroner’s appearance. She is explaining how my husband died.

Looking back, I don’t know why her looks mattered at all; perhaps my mind was more comfortable processing this trivial information than the devastation I faced. I even blurted out my thoughts, asking how she happened to choose this profession. She chuckled and said she would rather be dealing with people here in this condition than on the other end, before they got here. “It’s a crazy world out there,” she said, shaking her head.

We had gotten off to a rough start a few hours earlier when I called desperately trying to find out if my husband was here. I was refused information because the office believed they had already spoken with me. It turned out I had been impersonated by my husband’s mistress and, as a result, I had to prove I was me. This was difficult given the circumstances and my state of mind: only a few moments earlier, a police officer had pulled out of my driveway after confirming the news that my husband had taken his life.

I clearly remember the sense of yelling at the Coroner on the phone. It harkened from a primal place. I was outraged by  this humiliating and preposterous situation, but I do not know the exact words I said.

The coroner greeted us when we arrived, effusive and gushing apologies for the mix up. My head began spinning as she methodically explained the details of my husband’s death. She was nearby working the scene of another death when she received the call so she was at our condo within fifteen minutes. Neighbors had heard the shot fired, so there was no disputing the exact time. She explained the state my husband was in when she found him, as well as her estimation of what happened.

Sitting across from her, I tried to stay present, but my mind wandered along like a curious child as she spoke, evoking vivid images of every detail she mentioned. My husband in his robe, lifeless on the deck of our condominium. The dining table, strewn with papers and bottles. Drops of blood on the white deck.

I was fixated on the neighbors who heard the shot. “Who were they?” I kept asking, but she didn’t have that information.

Slowly, she segued into the business matters of suicide, explaining that although she knew the cause of death, an autopsy had to be performed and a report filed with the county. She handed me brochures for support groups, burial and cremation options and, finally, directions for obtaining the death certificate.

“Do you have any questions?” she asked when she was finished. I had a million questions but I remained silent, knowing she wouldn’t be able to answer the one I desperately wanted to ask. A question that sparked fierce anger in me, making me want to lash out and break things and rant: “Why did he do this to his children?” I shook my head, and then she asked to speak to me privately.

My friend and children stepped outside the room and the coroner leaned in and looked into my eyes to share some of her personal wisdom about the journey I was now on.

“I wish I could tell you differently, but death by suicide can be very difficult for families. It tends to bring out the worst in people. Be gentle with yourself and let me know if I can help,” she said, holding my hand.

Her expression conveyed a compassion that made me profoundly sad for myself, and even more so for my children. I listened to the gentle whisper of her voice and couldn’t help but feel I was being indoctrinated into a secret society that I wanted no part of. She had relevant insight into what we were facing and shared one thing that was particularly enlightening: her encouragement to honor my children’s desire to see the body, if they so wished. One of my children had asked to see him as soon as we arrived, but the coroner had gently explained that it was impossible, due to procedure. I was taken aback by the idea, even somewhat repulsed, but let it sink in as a possibility.

I’d like to think that I would have considered this possibility regardless of her suggestion, but given the various forces that came into play in the post-suicide aftermath, I’m not sure I would have had the presence of mind to follow my instincts and intuition. I am forever thankful for her permission to do what was best for my family.

She explained that in a death by suicide, children often have difficulty believing that their loved one is actually dead. It doesn’t make any rational sense that someone who cared about them would actually choose to leave them behind, so they become lost in a maze of denial and disbelief. Seeing the body offers a concrete and definitive end they can grasp so the work toward healing can begin.

I mustered up the courage to ask my children if they wanted to see their father and four days later we stood in the waiting room of the crematorium. I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing so I went in first, on my own. I wanted to protect them and remember feeling I should bear the brunt of this experience; I did not want them to be further traumatized.

The room was a lonely, empty space that swallowed my courage. I sat in the back for a few moments gathering my thoughts and then approached his body with trepidation, half expecting him to come to life in the casket. Since the night in the coroner’s office, my anger had become diluted by sadness and confusion. There was no sign of my rage; rather I was a humbled and frightened mother in search of answers. I stood quietly next to my husband’s body, staring at the silent shell of a man who had once vividly occupied and dominated a quarter century of my life.

I spoke to him, naively asking for answers. “Why?” I said, over and over, willing him to respond. I didn’t understand then how perilous asking that question could be, nor did I grasp the fact that I was standing on the threshold of a very lonely journey that would yield very few concrete answers.

It became apparent to me that I hadn’t fully accepted the fact he was dead. His choice was so foreign to me that it didn’t, and couldn’t, feel real in my world. I understood what the coroner meant when she said that children often live in a state of suspended denial. I was in that state too.

I returned to the waiting room and my children and I seemed to take steps toward accepting their father was not coming back. I walked back into the room with them and  let them take in the scene before them without comment. There was nervous laughter and one of them agreed that he did not look like himself. Thankfully, it was a quick reconciliation with the truth and we were on our way home soon after.

Later, as we drove home up the freeway, I had the sensation of floating, as though there was no safe place to land in my life. Gazing out the window, I couldn’t fathom how everything had changed so radically and irrevocably in just a matter of days. My mind circled endlessly around the thought that I was now a widow and the mother of three children who’d lost a father to suicide. What would become of us?

Mercifully, my mind landed on the most hopeful thing it could find that day, the simple gem offered by the coroner that night, to honor my children’s desires on this journey. I began cultivating and polishing this notion  and it has continued to shimmer brilliantly throughout our journey, like a lighthouse on the shore during the bleakest of nights.

Dianna Bonny was inspired to create a better legacy for her children after her family’s life was derailed when her husband took his life. She is an advocate for those who, like herself, are navigating the silent aftermath of suicide. You can learn more about her work at

Grandma’s Secret

Grandma’s Secret

mother and children making cookiesby Kate Washington

When she was three, my daughter Lucy was interested in many things: fairies, swimming, “Call Me Maybe,” ice cream, the alphabet, families, death. The last two interests led her to asking questions about my mother, who died when Lucy was a baby.

“Mama,” she said, “Who is your mama?” She asked this fairly often, since learning that Grandpa is my father but his wife is not my mother. My mother was missing.

“My mama was Maga,” I said, using the name Lucy’s older sister Nora invented when she couldn’t pronounce Grandma. “You’ve seen pictures.”

“Your mama is dead?”


“Why is she dead?”

I sighed. “She was sick and her body couldn’t keep working and she died,” I answered, leaving out the fact that my mother’s death was a suicide, by an overdose of antidepressants and blood-pressure medication.

“Because she needed more air in her body?”

“Yes, kind of.”

“Because she drowned in the deep ocean?”

“No, Maga didn’t drown.”

“Because she was eaten by sharks?”

“No, she wasn’t eaten by sharks.”

I think about an alternate reality in which my mother was eaten by sharks. Let’s just say it would not have been very likely to happen. My mother wasn’t the adventure-sports type; she did aerobics. She got seasick easily and didn’t like getting her hair wet in the pool, so it’s hard to picture a shark-infested venue that would have appealed to her. But, for a moment, I imagine my quiet, stay-at-home mother skimming the waves on a catamaran or yacht with wind-filled sails, scuba diving or snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, surfing off of Santa Cruz, or diving in a shark cage and attracting the attention of a rogue Great White.

It’s not a very pleasant scenario. The shark’s muscled gleam thrashing in the water, its gaping prehistoric maws, those many layers of razor-sharp teeth clamping down. That shit must hurt. The last five or ten or twenty minutes of a life that ends in getting eaten by a shark must really, truly be terrible. But the time leading up to it? That sounds pretty awesome, actually, full of the freedom of the waves and the smell of salt air and brilliant sunshine on tanned skin and the lithe loose feeling of a body moving in the water. If my mom had been living a salty oceanic life, surfing a sunny blue wave or sailing the high seas, surely she would not have suffered the kind of gray dark depression that led her to wish to die peacefully, in her bed, after a hopeless muddy season of misery.

My mother was never one to surf a wave, to glide easily over a crash and break of current and foam. She lived in the wave, wiped out hard; her moods crested and crashed and she was pounded into the sand and finally it got to be enough. She didn’t need a shark to eat her alive; her moods did that for her.

I couldn’t give Lucy that answer, not then. I couldn’t, at first, bring myself to tell her that her grandma had taken medicine that killed her. Someday, I thought, I would tell both my girls about that, but I couldn’t find the words that day.

Nora, who was four when my mother died, had also asked how it had happened when I told her of her beloved grandmother’s death. I was in shock then, the morning after the police found my mother’s body, and I simply said that Maga’s body was sick and stopped working.

Since then, I’ve known I would wait to tell my girls the whole truth. But the time had come, after Lucy’s questions started, I began to wonder if my feeling that a small child can’t handle this information wasn’t merely a product of my own preconceptions about suicide; kids don’t know there’s a stigma attached to it, after all.

I thought that death, the bare fact of it, was hard enough for a kid to understand; further explaining that someone might want to die, and discussing mental illness, felt like too much. But I believe in telling the truth to my kids, hard as it might be. Time, and therapy, had helped me to face up to the facts of my mother’s death and come to a fuller, less guilty understanding of it. I worried that as my kids grew—Nora was seven by then—they were apt to overhear, and possibly misconstrue, adult conversations. I didn’t want them to overhear whispers and conclude either that their grandmother had done something to be ashamed of rather than to grieve, or that we don’t talk about mental illness or acknowledge its reality.

Explaining, however, is easier said than done. As Lucy’s line of questioning shows, death makes sense to children only in the most extreme terms: If a person is eaten by sharks, ripped to shreds by a toothy prehistoric fish, even a three-year-old can understand that that person is not going to come back ready to play some more. Regular, ordinary death, the kind that happens every day, doesn’t make sense: how could a person lie down in their bed one night and then just not be the next morning? The body hasn’t disappeared, but something has ineffably changed. Plenty of grown-ups struggle with that notion too, so explaining it to a kid is extra difficult. Layer on the idea that a person would choose to make that happen, and the explanation borders on unbelievable.

Especially if it’s your grandma. My mother loved Nora so much that her adoration sometimes seemed excessive. Every time she saw her, she wanted to be baking cookies or trick-or-treating or doing something extra-special. As a result, we have lots and lots of pictures of my mother doing grandmotherly things with Nora. There are only two pictures of her with Lucy, though: by the time Lucy was born, my mother was deep in her final illness, manic and difficult, and we weren’t spending a lot of time together.

The warm, cuddly cultural space occupied by the notion of a cookie-baking grandmother is about as far from the idea of suicide as one could imagine. Grandmas are supposed to stick around being sweet throughout one’s childhood, right? Sometimes, on top of all the other feelings I have about my mom’s death, I feel angry that my kids have been cheated out of something special, the chance to have a close relationship with a local grandmother. I never expected to live in the same city as my mother; my husband happened to get a tenure-track job in the city my mother moved to after I left my hometown. It felt like a bit of strange serendipity, when we might have moved anywhere. In reality, though, our relationship was not easy or smooth, so my idyllic vision of three generations peacefully baking together is really a wistful one, but still, I wish my children could have had that.

Now, however, she isn’t here, and my children deserved to know why. My mother’s suicide is part of their medical history, much as it’s part of my own. Suicides often run in families. The thought of my girls, my happy, sunny, beautiful daughters, ending their lives terrifies me so much I can hardly bear to write the words. Fear of that possibility kept me from being more honest with them.

Lucy is now five. Several months ago, she asked again how her grandmother died, and I took a deep breath. “She took too much of her medicine,” I said. “And even though medicine can help you, too much medicine can make your body sick and can make you die.”

Lucy looked at me, unfazed, and came back with a five-year-old’s most frequent question: “Why?”

“She took too much medicine on purpose,” I answered. “She had a sickness in her mind that made her very sad and she couldn’t get better.”

Lucy just nodded; I asked if she had any more questions, and she said no. A few follow-ups have popped up, but for the most part she has taken the information in stride. (I’ve also given a similar, though slightly more in-depth, explanation to her older sister.) Occasionally, if a discussion of medicine or doctors comes up, she will matter-of-factly mention that Maga died from taking too much of her medicine. Overall, I have found that telling my girls the truth has been a relief.

I don’t think answering their questions—which will inevitably get thornier as they grow older and gain more understanding—will ever be easy. But by having a fully honest conversation, I hope I’m taking the terror out of the facts of my mother’s death. The fact of her suicide and its roots in her depression won’t be shameful secrets but just the truth. And both my daughters and I can, I hope, come to a fuller understanding that the sharks that ate my mother were all in her mind.

Kate Washington is a writer based in Sacramento, California. Her work has appeared in such publications as The Washington Post, Yoga Journal, Sunset, and the Bellingham Review, and she is a contributing writer at Sactown Magazine. She is a co-founder of Roan Press, a small nonprofit literary press.

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The End of All Things

The End of All Things

By Catherine W. Crawford

iStock_000021904999SmallI find myself lately wandering through the past. Sorting through layers of my life like an archaeologist, careful to brush gently so as not to damage what remains.

A six-bedroom house has many corners. We were once practically a town unto ourselves. Our doors never locked, our lights perpetually ablaze to ward off sadness and accommodate insomnia. It seems like a ghost town now. I look for tumbleweed. The two oldest kids live a thousand miles away. The extended family who shared our lives have moved on, grateful to be beyond the reach of the co-dependence that bound us.  My husband Quinn, the central feature of the home, the elephant in every room, took his own life almost five years ago. The three young people still living at home maintain an uneasy alliance, each waiting to fall out of the nest and, gathering strength and a small amount of savings, flies away. The empty spaces have, like a dig, begun to give up their secrets; photos, notebooks, and revelations have surfaced.  Some of these finds are mundane, some earth-shaking, and all leave me in wonder.

I have found my sociology notes, and copies of the tests that might have helped my younger daughter get a grade higher than a C last semester. I tore the house apart looking for them and here they are, right next to my desk.

I have found my phone charger, from three phones ago.

I have found many photographs.

In one, I am surrounded by pumpkins and kids, an autumn day eighteen years ago. My Autumn Self was always a happy one, endlessly optimistic, energetic, and creative. I have no doubt the woman in the photo thought her worst days were behind her. Losing a child, job changes, health issues, strange days when her husband was confused and erratic, early courtship days when people seemed conspired against them as a couple. What would we do differently if we could see what form our futures would take?

Another picture of all of us, smiles tired and wary, an evening birthday party about eight years ago. A stolen moment with cake and presents.

A photo I’ve never seen before. My eldest child, thin and tense, the way brides-to-be are, surrounded by her bridesmaids, bathed in sunshine at a bridal luncheon. Most of the photos seem to be taken in the fall, my hopeful time of the year. Too often, loving a person with a mood disorder means you cycle right along with them, and my husband’s cycles became ours.

I have found pictures of Quinn too, and they strike me in an odd way. I can tell his mood, what the day had entailed, what had not yet happened. It is always surprising to find photos of a man who hated to be photographed. He once (once? Maybe twenty times) told me how, as a ten year old, he ripped up every photo he could find of himself, systematically leafing through every album, destroying himself. I had always pictured this scene after a punishment from his mother, one laced with the poisonous guilt and deep shame she wielded so well.  No wonder. No wonder. I grieve for the little boy who hated himself so much.

I married, at far too young an age, a man who was brilliant, angry, damaged. I thought the force of my joy could fix him. I thought children were sure to help. Although he said he wanted none, I ignored that statement, certain it was a wish to remain young. I had never been consistent taking a pill. I was just as inconsistent with The Pill. However, I barely thought about the adults my babies would become, the father I’d be giving them.

As the children grew, I wound the cocoon around us. The key was to keep the love coming—and keep the world away. I never knew the manipulation I was under, never knew the cocoon was his to weave, not mine.

I stayed home with my babies; I nursed them and homeschooled them. Through it all, Quinn encouraged me. My days were poured into the little ones. But the unwritten law was that all attention shifted to Quinn at the end of every day—and all weekend long. Even now, my memories of those days are rosy-hued and I miss them. Nowhere in these memories do I find me. I told my homeschooling friends my husband was very supportive. Very supportive.

I had no concept of mental illness, of bipolar disorder, of the long tentacles of shame and depression. My own upbringing had been gentle, structured, purposeful, with a sense of security so integral to my life, that I did not see my husband had none of his own. His narcissism was a thing of survival. He was a funny Pied Piper when his mood was high, organizing contests, making up rhymes and songs, dispensing tickles and compliments, and pocket money.  And if they were naughty within earshot of Daddy, they were subjected to long shaming lectures; Quinn accused them of attitudes and even looks they could not have understood. There were tears, and shouting, and the next day a toy. A television, a bicycle, a puppy, the post-punishment gifts were ridiculous.

These gifts left the children confused but grateful that Daddy was no longer mad.

I can recall, with very little effort, the feeling of overwhelming relief when his rage was over, and all was temporarily ok again, as if the sun had come out and we were redeemed.

*   *   *

My hand traces the drywall that was pierced by shotgun spray a few months before he died.  Examining the gun he forced me to buy for him, he accidentally discharged a shot in the house, which miraculously hurt no one.  The wall was patched but the inside of the closet was not repaired.  The holes lie just below some words an angry child once scrawled on the wall after a punishment. The words say, “Dad is an asshole.”

I have found his well-worn Zippo lighter. The sound it makes upon opening it, or rather the absence of that sound, was the first clue I had that he was dead. I hadn’t heard the sound in the hours before he died that night. I remember telling the 911 operator this fact.

I have found the journal he gave me for Christmas, 1981—the year the Mighty Quinn descended upon my life. We were soon engaged to the horror of my parents and siblings—and in a strange way, to my own relief. I would no longer have to see my mother’s face tighten as she heard Quinn’s car sweep up the driveway to take me away. I would no longer have to endure my father’s gentle, old-fashioned comments about character, and temperament, and the nature of a successful courtship. Or the lectures about how my education, my dreams and my goals, also mattered. Quinn and I would be away. Our grand story would continue, this time with new china and pretty towels, and a new name.

I hold the journal in hand, the pretty flowered cover now faded. On a romantic whim, I had dedicated the journal to Quinn, “the god of my idolatry” (I tended to speak in Shakespearean terms at age nineteen and sometimes quoted Elizabeth Barrett Browning). The first few pages are filled with gushing, overwrought nightly declarations of love. But as journals often do, it diminished into once-or-twice-weekly entries about my day. Quinn would ask how the journal was coming, and I would hurriedly write something heartfelt. After reading these entries, he would spend the evening pouting that my sentiments were “shallow” and “like something you would write in a letter to your sister.”  My next entries would then gush about our “love” and the people who were thwarting that love around us.

In those pages I feel his manipulation, and my own desperate attempts to find a reason for it.  I grieve that I only see it now.

I have been called “brave” by those who have known the outer edges of my life, but not the inner madness. I have been called “smart” as long as I can remember, but how smart was I not to see what I helped to construct? A brave woman gets a madman to a doctor. A smart woman does not buy a depressed person a gun.

He is gone now, that brilliant abusive boy, killed by his own hand with a gun he coerced me to buy, ostensibly, to protect us. Left in his wake are those five children, grown now, eager to flee this house, eager to try to escape memories of his illnesses, the chronic pain he suffered from a car accident, his despair at losing his job, his descent into a delusional world he insisted we share.

I have rearranged many of the photos on the walls, trying to incorporate those golden autumn days. I have loaded up the car with things that no longer fit into our lives. I am having more trouble finding a place for the memories, and where to put the girl who wrote the journal.

I have wrapped the journal carefully in tissue paper, unwrapped it, wrapped it again. I have flirted with the idea of burning it and just as quickly decided against it. I have held the journal to my nose, trying to detect the odor of Old Spice and Marlboros.

I have closed the nearest closet, and thrown away the sociology notes. One of the empty bedrooms will be reclaimed and a daybed and desk should just about fit. The artifacts will be cataloged, studied, dispensed with, put to rest. Here, at the end of all things, it is good to open my hands and let go.

Catherine W. Crawford, a Northern Illinois resident, wrote her first parenting piece when her first child was three. She is now a grandmother and finds that parenting never ceases to inspire and reward her.

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Baby Watch the Suicide

Baby Watch the Suicide

 By Jordan Langley

Baby Watch Suicide PhotoI kick the headstone. Then I’m dizzy. The leaves sway with me, the forest outlines the pocked, trim grounds of the cemetery. I’m anemic, my urine a dark brown tested at the obstetrician’s office. The water I drink is never enough. The vitamin D from the sun can only help me, says the doctor when she measures my belly. Dry and bulbous.

These woods are a protected nature reserve. A black bear could charge me. A two-for-one. Deer graze here at night, I’m told. Dinner on top of a grave.

The baby had a grandfather and then lost him. He shot himself in a parking lot and the world was surprised. And then the world forgot. Bus routes continued, salon appointments kept. This doesn’t happen to everyone. Such a thing, this poor baby. To have a past before birth. But me, I’m still in a cycle. Round and round my thoughts travel. Every day and every night. He knew he was due to be a grandfather. I’m on bed rest.

The first day, I experience zero morning sickness, which I had in abundance before. If I cared about my well-being when I learned of my father’s passing, I’d be curious about the effect shock has on my body. The surge lasts only a day.

My father and I had many days together. I was the first-born and I believe he’d wanted a boy from the way we watched football on the sofa and how he coached me to shake off a softball hit to the mouth. I’d be whatever he wanted me to be, so beholden was I to his white-toothed smile.

He was most captivating at dinner, when he told stories about growing up on the streets, darting around train tracks, and living across the street from his Catholic school where even on days off the paddle-wielding nuns barked orders from the chapel door. My father sparked for me, a love of the spoken story and a voracious reading and writing habit.

I strangle the urge to cry. It’ll make the baby sad, they said. And don’t put your hands above your head, you’ll miscarry, they said.

Not medical professionals. People.

Still, my belly heaves up several inches when I sob, breathing in, and then jiggles and lowers when I breathe out. Tears release brain-calming chemicals, says my therapist. I see her for over a year and cry about the same thing every time.

The funeral is Catholic and we ask the priest if they “do” suicides. He says yes. They didn’t use to. They wouldn’t have, in my father’s neighborhood in South Side Chicago. Old school. It’s open casket, oh God, who decided that? The songs and speeches are quick and numbing. When my brother’s friend, whom I haven’t seen in years, pays his respects, I retch.

My father’s family leaves too early after the salted ham sandwiches and macaroni salad. I haven’t seen them in person since. My father, a bridge, and now the track broken. Everyone does tequila shots that night, the best agave, and my mouth waters for it.

My mother is a victim, she says. She never saw it coming. I say you can’t live in the same house as someone and not notice they’re struggling.

My husband holds me because there is nothing else logical to do. He’s defensive someone put his child in jeopardy.

My brother found him. The youngest. Another baby. My father hadn’t counted on family, let alone his child, finding his body.  The best laid plans.

I head back to work and hear questions like, why did he do it? How? Hunger for the grisly details. Everyone’s a crime scene investigator. I say I just want to move forward. That’s what I say.

I visit the grave every weekend and lie sideways on the fledgling grass, or sit on a bench with a different dead person’s name engraved on it. I cuss out my father and cry. I tell him I love him. I scream the stupid question everyone asks me, as if I fucking know. Why? My baby watches me from the inside. A man visits the cemetery the same time as me and he stands above his particular grave. I’m careful when he’s there because I don’t want him to hear me talk to the ground, the bones or a spirit. Once, when he leaves, I walk to where he stands and it’s a woman’s headstone. There’s an empty plot beside her.

My father escaped. The note said I’m tired. I’m tired too. The months pass, but I can’t get past my first true love leaving me. We’ve found out it’s a boy and he leans so low on my cervix that I’m dilated three centimeters for months. He’s a bowling ball ready to drop.

I’m asked if we’ll name our son after my father. No.

Is he a sad baby? My son is pulled from my body seven months after the loss and laid on my chest. The lights bright. He lifts his head up and his blue eyes, which will never change color, look at me. Like a friend, a contemporary. I see our years together, the putrid smells, late-night nursing, finger games in my lap, the deathtrap tricycle he loves, grade school, the soccer games, endless distractions.

In the hospital bed, I see his newborn hand shaking on mine, the white down on his head. The eau de parfum his skin naturally gives off. And he knew me. He knew about everything and he cried.

Jordan Langley is a writer who’s essays have appeared in Richmond Family Magazine and on the website Hello Grief. She lives in North Chesterfield, Virginia with her husband and two sons.