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.

Writing My Mother’s Suicide

Writing about my mother’s suicide in the memoir is, as you might imagine, a deeply emotional task. I can’t say it’s an unwanted to task because at least when I write the sentences I have some control over their content, and suicide, if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter it in life, is a remarkable and merciless reminder that we control very little. Even with our best efforts, we can’t stop someone from ending their life if that is what they want to do.

My mother commited suicide with a well-researched mix of drugs and alcohol on August 12, 1992. I will say nothing more about that in this essay for it is not the salient point of the essay. The salient point is this; my mother, Virginia Kahrmann, was a complete human being who does not deserve to be defined by that admittedly singular moment. Nor does she deserve to be defined by some of her rather harsh and emotionally brutal treatment of me when I grew up. Very few of us, if any, are all one thing. We are amalgams of life experience. My mother was no exception.

Her suicide was the culmination of a life that, for a variety of reasons, some I know, some I don’t, robbed her of her ability to love herself and thus her ability to believe anyone loved her. How do I know this to be true? She told me.

I once told her that her death (no matter how it came about) would be one of the biggest blows I would ever endure in life. She was completely and utterly baffled by this. “Really, Peter? Why?” I was speechless, a rare state for me.

As cruel as she could be to me at times – days after my father died when I was 15 she told me if I hadn’t been such a bastard he might have had enough strength to live – she inflicted far more damage on herself.

Yet, she was far more than the aforementioned. She was brilliant and the best conversationalist I’ve ever known. In the last 10 years of her life we became very close. I’d go to visit her in her Pearl River, New York home mid-morning, and we would talk straight through into the evening, our talks being accompanied by coffee, crackers and cheese, and going out to dinner.

We conferred regularly as we both threw all we had into fighting for the Brady Bill – a bill requiring states to have a waiting period to purchase a handgun until they had an instant check system in place – or when we fought against the death penalty, or the rights of immigrants. She countless volunteer hours to the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) a group she referred to as the best run non-profit in the country, and worked tirelessly to help refugees from Laos find homes.

Her demons killed her love for herself and ultimately guided her into ending her own life. I am asking, hoping, that readers will not allow those demons to blind them to the beautiful person she in so many ways was, and in my heart, still is. If they do, then the demons win again, and winning again is the last thing they deserve.
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GOODBYE SUNDAY: A MOTHER’S SUICIDE

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.”

“When?”

“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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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.