Killing Time In Silence
My silence erupted the volcano of your denial. — Jennifer Kindera
On a damp Thursday night in October, when sprinkling rain seemed to saturate everything, my phone rang while I was brushing my teeth. It was late, I had to work the next morning, my neighbor who had been over for dinner, and stayed for conversation, picked up.
It was the police. She came to the bathroom door and said, they are asking for you. Time slowed, as I spit and took the phone.
It was about my Mom. She had taken the gun out from under her pillow, and through a series of events she orchestrated, shot herself in the heart. She was dead.
My mother completed suicide. I couldn’t think beyond the statement of ‘my mother is dead,’ and the complete surreal, unreal, suffocating quagmire of my cyclonic thoughts. Loud and overwhelming, on my knees, I knew this was my fault, I had kept quiet. My silence finally killed her.
The Previous Spring
It was a stunning May that year, spring in the mid-west always tantalizes my senses. I could almost pretend my life had some semblance of normalcy. The smells, new blooms, sun glinting on the lake, all before the full-blown magnitude of summertime hit. Mom had called earlier in the day, wanting me to come over immediately. I left work early, and swung up in the driveway.
Everything in her world always looked so perfect on the outside, the immense houses in the neighborhood, old-growth trees, the esteem of living in an affluent place. She had been increasingly erratic again of late, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I let myself into the house. I could hear her sobbing, and rushed into the front hall. She was laying on the beautiful oriental rug, holding her throat, naked in her pain, keening high-pitched noise coming out of her. I got down on the floor and said, ‘what happened, what’s wrong, what can I do?’
She couldn’t focus on me, she swatted at my face, the bleating sounds harsh in my ears. I managed to get her up and into bed, cool compress for her forehead. She gradually got quieter, and finally fell into a deep sleep. I was almost out the door when I remembered what she had said the week before about Daniel buying her a gun, teaching her to shoot. At the time, I said what on earth do you need a gun for and she said, ‘women get attacked in their homes all the time and I’m not safe, I sleep with it under my pillow.’
I ran back upstairs, and pulled the gun carefully out from under her pillow, and hid it in the guest room.
I did try after the latest May incident to have the conversation with her again. It had been a while since such a severe episode. She had no memory of what happened, said I was making it up, I was blaming her for being a bad mother and always trying to make her look bad. It was my last attempt. I said things like, ‘Mom you need help,’ and ‘what happened that day is not normal,’ and ‘it’s not your fault, sometimes people need outside help to navigate life.’ She couldn’t hear me, couldn’t accept I wasn’t trying to hurt her and stormed off, telling me to get out, slamming the door.
The filmy, flirty summer was upon us, sundress wearing days of oppressive heat. Things had been okay with her for a couple weeks, the bizarre thing about her anger, she would wake up the next day, and not think anything of it. I would still be smarting from her personal attack on me, and she would think there was nothing wrong. Her delusion was impenetrable. I had a rare weekend without my kids, so we made plans for lunch. She talked incessantly about her married boyfriend. She wanted him to leave his wife, she wanted me to say, I think he will. The truth was I didn’t think he would of course, so I just let her ramble on and on, not agreeing or saying anything.
She had a rare moment of clarity, and she stopped talking for a second and then said, ‘I think about him an awful lot.’ I said ‘yes, you do.’ She looked at me and said, ‘if he doesn’t leave her, I can’t go on.’
A deep chill started at the base of my spine, as I internalized her words. I said, ‘what do you mean, what are you talking about, you aren’t talking about suicide?’ Her eyes vacant, she said, ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’
I said, ‘What? Life? Mom, that’s ridiculous. You have so much to live for, this can’t really be what you are thinking!’
The moment evaporated in the blink of her eye. She straightened up her posture and said, ‘no of course not.’
And I let it go. Because I was uncomfortable, because I couldn’t imagine, because I didn’t know what to say, because-because-me, me, me.
I had such an opportunity in that moment, to say: ‘Mom, you need help, let me help you. There are answers out there, we can seek them together. This is not the answer.’
But I didn’t. I was so tired of dealing with narcissistic insanity and undiagnosed mental illness, in codependency. I just wanted some peace.
I kept quiet.
End of steamy July, and she’s angry with me again. I’m not sure what I did this time. I’ve always dissociated when I spend time with her, more intensely lately, on the phone or in person. I had started letting her calls roll to voice mail, she calls every night at 6pm to spend hours on the phone, rehashing everything her boyfriend said, and did. The last voice mail she left, screaming at me, how ungrateful I was, that I needed to listen to her, snapped something inside of me. My stomach in knots, I called her back and raged through my first boundary. I told her I would spend time with her, she could see the kids, but I was done listening about her boyfriend. Done. I was scared to death, shaking and sweating, as I said the words. She called me names, and hung up on me.
This was the last time I spoke with her.
As the summer faded into the bright autumn colors, I left her some messages, thought about going over to her house, but denial is a funny thing. When you are in it, you can have no idea you are there. I was frankly glad for the break from her, and didn’t try very hard to get in contact.
When that rainy, October night came, and I sat shivering in the chill, my pajama bottoms and sweatshirt soaked because I didn’t think to bring an umbrella to my Mother’s suicide, I thought about how hard I hadn’t tried to get her evaluated. I know now, nothing short of hog-tying her to the roof of the car would have done it.
But somewhere along the way, I had given up on her. She wouldn’t let anyone in. She couldn’t come out. It was a lose-lose for everyone involved.
She meticulously planned her final exit. She was completely made up, nails manicured, lipstick perfect, not a smudge out of place. Her blouse had a high neck to hide any blood spatters. She wrote my name and number on a post-it note, placed it next to a copy of her will and insurance papers, by the salt and pepper shakers on the breakfast table. She called 911 and said, ‘there’s been a shooting,’ set the phone down and went out to the garage. Placing a tarp on the floor, she then kissed her beloved sports car, the lipstick imprint noticeable on the dark color. She pulled out the gun, aimed it at her heart and that was it. That was it. The police arrived within minutes, called me soon after, and those moments changed me in ways, to this day, I don’t fully comprehend. My PTSD was back in full-fledged force. It felt like I hadn’t done any internal work at all, grief being a nasty bastard which infiltrated around my healing edges, consuming me whole.
The shame enveloped me, became me, was all-encompassing. I knew she was sick. I knew she had a gun. I knew she was thinking of killing herself. In my arrogance, I thought she was too arrogant to go through with it, and I didn’t want to face any of it.
I knew. I kept quiet.
Rippling waves of aftershocks continue for years after a suicide. I blamed and shamed myself for a long time, falling down into the bottom of a wine bottle, not coming out until I landed in rehab over two years later. I did what she was so good at doing, kept up appearances, worked, took care of my kids, but I was a shell of my former self. I drank to change the way I felt, to bury my shame over not saving my mother, hiding deep pain of never being enough for her. I drank to drown myself, because I couldn’t get past not doing more to get her the help she needed, no matter if she was angry.
It has taken years of working with a therapist and more stints of EMDR, to reduce my PTSD symptoms again. To work through the shame, and guilt of letting her down. Of staying silent.
Today, what I know to be true, is that I couldn’t have saved her. I couldn’t have re-written her narrative. She made choices, all the way along, just as I did. It is not a level-playing field with undiagnosed mental illness. I am no one special in her journey, but someone exceptional in mine. I am not alone, running anymore, punishing me. I am empowered today, in a way I never thought possible and I speak my truth, no matter what. I am a mama, woman, survivor rejoicing, redhead glancing, listening to the world with eyes that have scraped the ground.
And lived to look up again.
I am a smattering of rebellion yet, but survivor of the currents that shift and moan. Beyond control, I live with the biting kaleidoscope of remembrances every day. No one has walked in my shoes, stumbling forward, yet there are those who wear sandals of the same hue. Who share the darkness, and energies of panic, experienced pain. Yet beyond the shattering honesty of past traumas there lives a graceful strength, if we keep going, learn how to hold space for ourselves and others. I have lived through shame and grief, silence and shattered hearts. I wish I had spoken up more. I know now I wasn’t capable, had been trauma-bonded from years of abuse, unable to push my head above water. With the caring and guidance of others way wiser than me, today I can see my truth.
And speak it.