Sunday, April 14, 2013

Making Plans: A Family History (Part I)

Trigger Warning: Discussion of suicide and self-harm ahead

“I’ve never had a suicide plan,” I chime in amidst the casual chatter between my mom and sisters. I’m met with congratulatory murmurs and “Good for you!”s. They had been talking about the various points in which they had seriously contemplated offing themselves, and how they were going to do it. You know, the type of things you talk about when you get together with your family after a long absence. I must have been in my early to mid twenties at the time I was being praised for my lack of suicide plan. I’m honestly not sure if I could say the same today.


My mom is woken up at 5 every morning by her brain vibrating with thoughts of suicide. Every morning, she spends hours fighting this vibrating brain until it’s late enough that she can start calling people to chat and not kill herself. She says that it seems biological, like clockwork, tingling skin, buzzing brain, kill yourself, kill yourself. She’s over sixty now, and this has been going on for a few years.

In 1954 my mom’s maternal grandmother hung herself. This had untold effects on her mother, Mary Lou, who grew up just Mary but was given a new name by her husband who thought having the same name as the mother of God was blasphemous. Mary Lou/Just Mary wanted to defend her mother when my mom asked about her when she was old enough to understand. Her death had made the front page of the newspaper of her small Missouri town. She had been active in the community, charitable and upright, and the obituary was very respectful.

Mary/Mary Lou, mother of three young children and with a recently dead mother of her own, had a personal talk with her young pastor. Was her mother in hell? There was plenty of evidence in scripture to say so. No, said the pastor. Whether he rationalized this through his own feelings that good albeit troubled Christians shouldn’t face hellfire, or some biblical law that would exempt her due to her mental state, I don’t know. Despite her appearance of charity and righteousness, she had been in and out of mental institutions most of her adult life where she received electroconvulsive therapy. At the time before her death, it had become evident that she was headed for another stay in the institution. She had three children out of the nest, didn’t want to go back to the nuthouse, and opted to take care of things herself.

Many years later, Mary/Mary Lou’s father killed himself too, but for different reasons. He had bad arthritis, needed to go back in for surgery, and was sick of it all. When the rest of the family was at church, he closed himself in the garage and left the car running. He started to write a letter but never finished it.

Mary/Mary Lou’s brother Karl cursed his parents for their inconsideration; they could have done it without anyone knowing, he said. In 2005, Karl died conveniently in his sleep next to the wife afflicted with dementia whom he was tired of caring for, on the night before his daughter came for her weekly visit.


The year my dad turned fifty-eight he was obsessed with death. I was living in Japan at the time, and he spoke wistfully over the phone about his regrets in life, his regrets about us. He would ruminate, his voice heavy with meaning as if he were trying to communicate something for the last time. He listed off the people his age who were dying. This one, fifty-eight just like me, good health then sudden heart attack and no more. This one, in his fifties, even younger than me, dead by brain aneurism. This one killed crossing the street.

His father had killed himself at age fifty-eight. My dad hadn’t known him. Walter was an alcoholic, and had left his family for an exotic dancer shortly after my dad was born. He started a new family with the dancer, refusing all contact with his first family, only conceding $25 a month in child support, which he never ended up paying. My dad was in medical school and his sister in veterinary school by the time Walter offed himself. My grandmother had been struggling to support her children’s education, her story goes, and as a last-ditch effort, reached out to Walter by letter: here’s how you can contribute to the lives that you brought into the world. Years later, we learned from his family that his business was failing by this point. He went out to the concrete poolside of his back yard (he had a pool!), and put a gun to his head.

At fifty-eight, my dad was on the verge of becoming older than the father he never knew. His divorce from my mom had been finalized for over a year, and some of the dust had settled over the family explosion of anger and spite, much directed toward him. Four women, each in unique and maddening ways, had barraged him with how could you do this to us and why did you always do this to us even when you were there and we hate you, we hate that we love you, don’t leave us. Now everything had been said, and it became clear at least to me that he would never understand, that our anger would always be there and would only befuddle him. There was a sort of detente, and our family landscape was an eerily calm wreckage.

Now he was waxing poetic on life and death, and those of us who still spoke to him were worried. I remember calling my sisters and leaving messages on their voicemail: “Hi from Japan! I just wanted to let you know that I talked to Dad and he wouldn’t stop talking about death the whole time. So maybe you should give him a call. Love you!”

Ultimately, I think my dad decided to live, that he had to live. Some of us, even though adults, even though the marital bonds had been broken, might have wound up destitute if he were gone. We’d get another taste of his mortality when he was diagnosed with leukemia within a year or two. It wracked us, even my mom, especially my mom, because even though he was clueless, even though he left us, he was the center of our familial world.

His mother was practically a saint. I won’t write about her now, because there’s too much to say, most of it out the scope of the subject matter. What I will say is that she had a Danish mother named Grace who was smart and ambitious, graduated from high school early with the highest GPA of her class. Her principal personally wrote her a letter to inform her that he would be awarding the title of valedictorian to the student with the second highest GPA, a boy, because she was far too ambitious for a girl. She went to college where she met her future husband, graduated early, married. These are the only stories I have about her besides the one in which, to conform to the fashionable bob of the 1920s, she cut off all her hair that had fallen down her back and made my grandmother cry. Her hair had been so heavy that when she cut it off, her forehead had a permanent wrinkle from no longer being pulled back in a weighty bun.

After this, I heard nothing about her from my grandmother full of stories. Grace existed as the wife of a school administrator and raised three smart girls, one of whom died at twenty. My mom said of her grandmother-in-law that she got educated, got married, and kept a garden. My grandmother told me that her mother had suffered from, as Grace had worded it, a case of the “Danish blues”.

The Danish Blues. It had always evoked images in me of rosy wind-bitten cheeks framed in a fur hat, frosty blue eyes gazing listlessly over the snowy tundra, scanning the landscape for a hint of food, an elk not there.

The Danish Blues is depression. My great-grandmother had it. My dad has it. It comes down both sides of my family.
To be continued