Girls always liked me more after they met my mom. She always dyed her brown hair auburn, and for some reason, people thought she was a natural redhead. Like the rest of the family, she couldn’t sing, and like most of the family, she sang anyway. She could put on her business clothes and take a family on a tour of their next home, then change into an apron and some comfortable walking shoes to pour coffee and serve Sunday brunch at the café. She was a social butterfly who married a caterpillar, but she had more than enough charm for the both of them. She loved to smile and laugh, and make everyone else smile and laugh, and then one night, she parked her car in a garage and ran the engine until the exhaust poisoned her.
I spent years blaming myself for not seeing the signs. What kind of son doesn’t notice that his own mother wants to end her life? I poured over my memories like a football coach studying reels of his defeats. What did I miss? How could I have saved her? I owed her $50 when she died; if I would have paid her instead of buying a video game, would she still be alive today?
It has been a decade now. I have no kids, no wife, and I am hopelessly unable to cry at funerals. But I have finally found my answer: my mom didn’t give any signs. She didn’t detach from the world or fall into a depression; her calendar was filled with dinner dates and family functions for weeks after her death. My mother didn’t wilt like a flower in autumn. She danced in a parade that ended in oblivion.
The official cause of her death is carbon monoxide poisoning. I learned that term when I was nine years old, after I asked what illness grandma died from. In that same conversation, I learned that Aunt Kay dying during childbirth meant that she hung herself from the rafters in the same garage where grandma died.
My childhood home was filled with shrines to suicide. Grandma was a gambler, and ended her life after her habits cost the family the house. If Aunt Kay ever hurt another living thing, I am unaware of it. To hear my family tell it, she lived a blameless existence until she committed the only sin the church deems unforgivable. Now there is a third shrine; an urn filled with ashes which used to be my mother, and a picture of the woman the ashes used to be. It was her realtor’s photo, and it used to be all over business cards. Now it is needled in ink in my little brother’s forearm.
It happened less than a month after I came home from basic training. Aunt Joan came into my room, and woke me up saying, “Mom didn’t come home last night.”
It was so out of the blue that I couldn’t even begin to comprehend what that might mean, but I was dressed and in her van within minutes. A car accident was the only thing that made any sense. We followed the highway between our house and the realty office, and my eyes stayed fixed on the ditches and the red and gold leaves falling from trees.
When we reached her office, Dad was there, and nobody was doing any work. There were no answers. I thought maybe someone kidnapped her, but couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to hurt my mom.
Then a co-worker searched her desk, and found a letter addressed to the family. She said she loved us all so much, and she was proud of my brother and me. She told us to never blame ourselves for what was happening. Her closing line read like a knife to my gut.
“May God have mercy on my soul.”
We had a note, but even with the police involved, it took twenty-four days to find a body. My family insisted on treating it as a missing person case. We had to find her. She was going to come home. We plastered missing person posters all over town, and called every person we could think of who might know where she was. Every night, I called my mom’s voicemail to tell her how much I love her and beg her to come home. I forced myself to believe her note meant something other than suicide. Maybe she just needed to get away for a little while. Maybe she ran off with someone. I didn’t care; I just wanted her to be alive.
The grief-limbo was unbearable, and as the days turned to weeks, I started hating myself, because deep down I would have preferred learning she was dead over going another day without knowing.
Then a realtor opened the garage door of a house she was preparing to show, and found my mother’s corpse in the front seat of her car. At that moment, I went from being the son of a missing woman to a suicide survivor.
I used to think being a suicide survivor meant having a rope burn on the throat or tissue damage on the wrist, but the scars I bear are on the soul. I am always harried by thoughts of death and dying, and its shadow watches over me like the parent I once had. It sounds so cliché to say I have a hole in my heart, but that is how it feels. I can laugh and smile and feel genuine happiness, but never for long. For the past ten years, my body has synthesized joy like liquor in the blood, and there is always a hangover.
I have gone four years now without a drink. Even with all that sober time, I still occasionally have dreams where there is booze in front of me. I know I’m not supposed to touch it, but am always helpless to stop my dream-hand from raising the glass to my lips. Sometimes it isn’t a shot glass, but a gun. I always wake up before the trigger is pulled, but am just as powerless to stop my fingers from curling around the pistol grip.
When I awake from a relapse dream, I feel a sense of relief in knowing my sobriety is in my hands, but when my suicide dreams are interrupted, all I feel is a question mark. I wonder if one day my nervous system will be hijacked by genetics, or my combat PTSD, or the family curse, or statistics, or grief, or fate, or whatever it is that keeps killing off my family, and I will have no control over my index finger as it squeezes the trigger.
My fear fills me with a sense of urgency in everything I do; I rarely put off a task until the next day. People call it a Type-A personality, and say I am driven. That is true, but what drives me is a lingering uncertainty that there will be a tomorrow. It can make waking up in the morning a blessing, but it has turned many nights into a curse.
If you are reading this, know that I love life. I love it in a way that only someone who has lost it can. I am capable of joy, and when I feel it, I wish to share it with anyone who wants it. But there is sorrow, and it is great. Some nights it is all I can do to endure until dawn. I do not belong in a padded room, and I am safe having laces in my shoes. This story is not a cry for help.
But it is a cry.
When I was in eighth grade, my mom grounded me for a whole month after she found out I threw away my report card before she could read it. I was furious, and in true thirteen year old fashion, I resolved to not talk to her for the entire month.
She put up with my silent treatment for a couple days, then when we were eating dinner, she set the salt shaker right next to her plate after she was done with it.
“Pass the salt, please,” I said in as flat of a tone as I could.
When the salt didn’t suddenly appear on my side of the table, I looked up at my mom to treat her like she was the one being rude. She met my attempt at a glare by puffing out her cheeks as hard as she could, and cocking her head to the side.
She caught me completely off-guard, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. As she passed me the salt, she said, “How about you try doing that a little more?”
I never thought a memory of her smiling and laughing could bring me pain, but if she could have learned to cry, she might still be smiling and laughing today. What scares me the most is that her ever-smiling mask has become my inheritance. My psychologist labeled it humor as a maladaptive coping mechanism; I call it putting on my best face. By any name, it is what has been passed down. But just as despair drove my mother to her untimely death, desperation to avoid the family curse has driven me to forego my inheritance.
Three shrines to suicide is an awful legacy to be left with. The only thing uglier is the knowledge that there is always room for more. I hate that I come from a family where it is a battle to choose to live. It would be inhumane for me, and my little brother Jordan, and my aunt Joan to pass this on to our children, so it falls to us to create a new legacy.
The shrines we leave will be tombstones with ninety years between the dates, and obituaries which cite natural causes; they’ll be old men sitting in rocking chairs talking about boring crap like the weather. It will be a family curse which skips a generation …and another… and another… and another… until there are little Van Dykes running around who have never heard of a shrine to suicide.
We’ll build this legacy upon a foundation of choices, the first of which will be to let go of regret. I can’t blame myself for what happened. Her life was not my responsibility, and her death was not my fault. I can spend the rest of my life second-guessing every decision I made ten years ago, or I can choose to do something different today.
This is not a dream, and my actions are mine to control. My hand is fully capable of ending my existence, but it will reach out instead. Lips that have been trained to smile through anything will break the silence. The curse is deadly real, but I am not powerless. If I must make a choice, then goddammit, I choose life!
I hope I haven’t made my mother’s smile seem like a curse. Her smile was a blessing that she gave to anyone fortunate enough to have known her. Some nights when I dream, she smiles at me, and the nightmares don’t feel quite so terrible. I believe that somewhere on the other side of things, she’s smiling down on me right now, cheering for me as I put my life back together. I don’t know how many tears I shed in writing it, but this story is my way of smiling back.
More in the Paul Van Dyke Micro-Collection:
Shrines to My Legacy
Front page image by Vince Connare.