Today My Mother’s Birthday

Today would have been my mother Virginia’s 88th birthday; she was born July 7, 1924.

My mother died August 12, 1992. She committed suicide. After her death people who’d known her since I was a baby told me she’d been talking about suicide since the 1960s. Well after I reached adulthood and after a nearly 10-year gap in our relationship, she talked about it to me too, referencing a condition called restless legs syndrome as her primary reason for considering the option.

We agreed that ending one’s life is a choice each person has the right to make. Then and now, however, I voiced the belief that suicide was like many of life’s choices. The choice could be made for healthy or unhealthy reasons. If someone is terminally ill and chooses to end their lives peacefully rather than run out the clock by availing themselves of every damned piece of medical technology and pharmaceutical option out there, I support them.

This was not the case with my mother. She was not terminally ill. She was, I now believe, deeply depressed.

My mother did not believe anyone loved her. She was wrong in this, many did, not least of all me. Nevertheless, she believed no one loved her and, as inaccurate as her belief was, it was hard-wired into her thinking and feeling and, in the end, it led her to end her life with a hefty mix of alcohol and codeine. Moments after her graveside service came to an end  my legs buckled under me so severely I would have collapsed to the ground had my wife and someone else not caught me in time; such is the power of pulverizing heartbreak and agonizing emotional pain.

Not long after her death I realized I too was trying to die by consuming enormous amounts of alcohol and pot while at the same time taking prescription medications intended to help me manage the brain damage I’d sustained when I was held up and shot in the head in 1984, an event that left the bullet lodged in the frontal lobe of my brain. That I am alive to write these words to you, my reader, is nothing short of a miracle. Consider the fact that at the end of my drinking I was consuming 12 to 14 gin and tonics (in tall glasses) every night, smoking pot all the time, taking meds, and doing two to three nebulizer treatments daily to keep my lungs open so I could keep smoking pot.

This July 12, five days from now, I will be sober 10 years. I do not think it happenstance that my sober date is so close to her birthday.

My mother was my friend. I’d go to see her, usually arriving midday and we would talk all day long. Sometimes we’d go out to dinner, but always our time together was spent in conversation. They were the best conversations of my life. I miss her terribly, well beyond the reach of words.

According to my mother’s minister, a truly remarkable woman named Laurie Ferguson, I was my mother’s lifeline and had I’d not been part of her life she would have ended it a lot sooner. I wish I’d been a stronger lifeline.


On this day my mother ended her life in 1992.

What do I say? I watch the words hit the page this morning and I know if I charted the distance between them and the pulverizing impact of her suicide it would take more than a millennium to cross the divide.

The facts of it all sit like dusty stones – cold, and hauntingly still. It was the second time in the span of a year that she talked of ending her life. We had intervened the first time, and, for the moment, succeeded, at what I wonder. It only delayed the inevitable and in the days after her death, I would learn from her oldest friends that she had been talking about suicide since I was a boy. What had it been like for my father? I can’t imagine.

She called me Sunday August 9 to tell me she had decided to end her life. I was house-sitting for a friend. She would not say when. We talked for a short while; inside my body my organs were disintegrating. I asked if I could call her back. She said yes. I asked if I could come see her. She said no.

I gathered my thoughts, located the number of her minister, a remarkable woman named Laurie Ferguson, and her therapist, Fred Drobin, a not-so-remarkable man (I would later learn) whose cowardice would get the better of him. I called both left them messages telling them my mother was talking about suicide again.

I called my mother back and we talked for seventeen minutes. She told me she would was planning on seeing Fred Drobin that Monday, my “little man” she called him, and she would be seeing Laurie Ferguson on Wednesday, the 12th. I thought she was saying goodbye to people and thought we had a few days to work out an intervention. I was wrong.

Fred Drobin called me at home Monday night. “Your mother came to see me today, Peter, and told me she wanted to commit suicide. What do you think we should do?”

I was stunned, here he was, a therapist, and he was asking me what we should do. I asked if he didn’t think we should maybe sign her into a hospital to get her some treatment and he said he wasn’t sure. Then I said something I will, for the rest of my life, wish I could take back. “Well, she’ll be seeing Laurie on Wednesday and maybe Laurie will have some ideas.” He agreed.

My mother’s meeting with Laurie Ferguson Wednesday was not what I thought it would be. I was alone in a newspaper office around noon that day when I got a call from Detective Ray Liberati from the Orangetown Police Department in Pearl River, New York. Ray was a good friend of mine for many years and he knew my mother. I said, “It’s good to hear from you, Ray. My Mom’s been talking about ending her life and it’s like we’re all sitting around waiting for it to happen.” There was a pause, and then Ray said, “It did, Peter. I just left the house. I heard the call and hauled ass over there. No one called you?”

My mother had asked Laurie Ferguson to meet her at her house that Wednesday. Not to talk, but to find her body, which is exactly what happened. Laurie, suspecting something was up, brought two family members. They found my mother dead in her bed. In front of her was a bulletin board with family pictures so my mother could look at them as she died. I doubt her view was what she had hoped for. She was found in her own vomit and died from a pulmonary edema. In other words, she drowned in her own body fluids. She used a mix of pills and booze.

Days later, I sat down with Laurie Ferguson and we talked about all that happened. If there is a God, he was having a great day when he created Laurie. Not so Fred Drobin. I left him several messages and waited. Finally, two or three days after the suicide, he called me at home one evening.

“I just wanted to talk about what happened, Fred. I keep thinking there was something we could have done.”

“You need to move on, Peter. I really can’t help you. I have to go, my dinner’s getting cold.” And he hung up. Had he been in the same room with me at that moment I would have put him through the wall. He did not come to her memorial service. Like I said: cowardice.

The only remedy I know for dealing with the suicide of a loved one is acceptance. And let me warn you, watch out for judgment. It will poison you and poison the memory of your loved one. Remember, your loved one was and is more than their suicide. Don’t let the memory of their ending stop you from remembering their all.

Yeah, you may have those dusty stones too. But remember, they live in stillness, they’re not coming at you.

Last thought, tell people that you love that you love them. I don’t think there is any such thing as saying I love you too many times.



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.”

“Good-bye, Mom.”

“Good-bye, 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.