AUTHOR’S NOTE: AS I WORK ON MY MEMOIR I WILL, FROM TIME TO TIME, PUT SOME IF IT, IN-PROGRESS, ON THE BLOG. THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO READ IT.
My mother called me shortly after 9 a.m. that Sunday morning to tell me she would end her life within the week. She was 68.
My mother said she suffered from arthritis and a mysterious condition, never fully identified, that gave her leg pain. She said no one in the medical, homeopathic and psychotherapy communities had been able to help with either condition.
The result of her pain (or the cause, I’ll never know) was a well-developed addiction to painkillers.
That Sunday morning she told me she could bear the pain no longer and the time for her death was at hand.
“I’m looking forward to the next scenery,” she said.
“Can I come see you?” I asked. My hands were trembling.
“No, Peter, that would be too much for me.”
“I don’t know, but soon. Within a week.”
“Mom, I need to get myself together, can I call you back today, please?”
“Yes,” she said. “But not for too long, I want to make it brief. I can’t deal with other people’s emotions now.”
Over the last three years of her life my mother had developed an ever-increasing reliance on the possibility of suicide. Something she could control. And in my view, her fear of losing control played a major role in her decision to leave this world.
She seemed unable to understand – or simply could not believe – that all emotions, including anger and sadness, were a normal part of the human experience. Months before her death, this disabled understanding of the human experience made a wrenching appearance when she told me she did not believe anyone loved her.
One year before her death, when her damaged self-image led her to cliff’s edge, I intervened by reaching out to her psychotherapist, Fred Drobin, and her minister, Laurie Ferguson, a remarkable and loving woman. While our intervention was successful, it was met with displays of rage and puffed-up indignation. For weeks she would rocket the phone back into its cradle the moment she heard my voice on the line. When she finally did talk to me again, she accused me of betraying her by bringing about the intervention.
When I called her back that Sunday, I asked if she was going to tell Fred Drobin about her decision at their Monday session. I felt if she intended on telling a mental health professional, a trained mind, committed to her well-being, would come onto the scene. She said yes, she would tell him.
I asked her what her happiest memory was. “When the two of us went on tour with Joffrey in Tacoma and Seattle,” she said, without hesitating.
I began to weep. Inside I knew she was going. And then, thinking of the others in the family who had died, I said, “Mom, would you do me a favor?”
“If you see Daddy, you know, if people are discernible, and you see him and Mommom and Poppop and Grandma and Grandpa, would you please tell them that I love them and I’m really trying to do the best I can?”
“Of course I will, Peter.”
“I’ve tried to be a good son to you these last years, Mom.”
“And you have been, Peter.”
“Mom, do you have any advise for me in life?”
And she paused, thinking, and said, “Yes. Be kind.”
She then told me she had a Wednesday afternoon appointment with her minister, Laurie Ferguson. To me, this meant she was going to tell Laurie of her decision. She was making her goodbye rounds. I believed this gave me until Wednesday to decide whether or not intervention was the best choice. The Sunday afternoon conversation, our last, ended this way:
“I love you, Mom.”
“Thank you, Peter.”
I hung up and fell to the floor, sobbed, and tried and failed to remember the last time she told me she loved me.
That evening I placed a call to her psychotherapist, Fred Drobin, and left a message asking him to call me. He returned my call Monday afternoon and told me my mother had again threatened suicide.
I asked if he thought we should let her go. He said he didn’t know and suggested I call him at home that evening. I did. We spoke for 10 minutes or so before he ended the conversation.
“My dinner’s getting cold,” he explained.
On Tuesday I placed a called to Ray Liberati, a detective in the Orangetown Police Department. The Orangetown PD covered the area where my mother lived and I had known Ray since I was a boy. Ray Liberati was a good cop and a good man. I left a message for him. He knew my mother and had helped her out on more than one occasion.
The following day, Wednesday, August 12, Ray Liberati called me. It was sometime after 2 p.m. and I was so relieved to hear his voice.
“It’s good to hear from you,” I said. “My mother is talking about ending her life again and it feels like everyone is standing around waiting for it to happen.”
There was a brief pause.
“Peter, it did,” he said. “I was just at the house. I heard the call over the radio and went right over. You didn’t know?”
“It did what?”
“She’s gone, Peter. She died. Her minister found her, that’s the way she had it set up. Peter, I’m so sorry.”
The Wednesday appointment my mother said would be used to tell her minister of her decision had, in fact, been her the way she wanted her death discovered.
I arrived at my mother’s home less than an hour after her body had been removed. The police were gone. Laurie and some family members were there. Faces were pale, sweaty. The air did not move. At one point I wanted to throw everyone out and fling myself onto the bed where her life had ended and allow the little boy inside me to dream of holding my mother one last time.
My mother designed her suicide with great thought and care. She was found in bed with the suicide manual “Final Exit” tucked under one arm. She wore a nightgown and her Timex watch. She had surrounded herself with pictures of family and friends. I suppose she wanted to gaze at us while the drugs slowly sucked the life from her eyes.
Above her bed hung a large collage of Ballet pictures. Ballet was the greatest love of her life. Her definition of heaven, to dance throughout eternity with Fred Astaire, was a well-known piece of family lore. When I was a boy one of the only times she would let me stay up past my bed was to watch Fred Astaire’s movies over and over again. We both loved the dance and we both lived Fred Astaire moves. When I was in my early teens, I danced a lead role for the Joffrey Ballet Company.
Dance was the one arena in which the two of us could connect safely with each other when I was a child. It was there that she could allow herself to experience me and not be threatened by my intensity. And it was there, in the world of dance, that I was able to safely experience her, without have to her usual onslaught of Peter you’re-too-intense messages and because of this are mentally ill messages. Throughout my childhood I learned to believe that the words intense or melodramatic described horrible emotional deformities that were to be, if not avoided, hidden. The intense drama of her thoroughly choreographed death scene seems tragically ironic to me now.
Weeks later I would be the one to remove the last box of belongings from her home. Before I left that day, I went into the bedroom and sat on the floor and wrote in my journal – and wept.
There was, as I wrote, the bizarre belief in a mother’s omnipotence that perhaps rests in all sons, perceiving her, mother, as the strongest of them all, somehow believing that if she could choose to leave the world, then maybe, just maybe, she could choose to come back.
The movements of the mind in the wake of a mother’s suicide are movements to be allowed, not judged.
Recently I was going through her old record collection. There were the many albums of classical music we listened to as a family.
And then I saw it. An album cover I’d never seen before. It was a collection of songs sung by Fred Astaire. And there, at the bottom, in a handwritten script with a movement as exquisite as his dancing, it read, “For Virginia Kahrmann, Fred Astaire.”
I am sure she is a wonderful partner.