March 1, 1987
My mother killed herself when I was four years old. While I was at preschool, she closed herself in the garage with her car running. My dad was late picking me up, and together we found her. He did his best to shield me from it, but I saw enough that it sticks with me.
My parents were a strange couple. She was tall and lanky, and by comparison he was short and squat. She had a solidly middle-class Jewish upbringing in the suburbs of New York City, while he was born out of wedlock to a mid-west blue-collar mother still in high school. As he was climbing the professional ladder at his architecture firm, she was a nurse stuck trying to fulfill the expectations of her overbearing parents.
Her death has always been a fixture in my life. Its an early trauma that I’ve come to realize has shaped how I think, act, and respond to life. For years if told you my story, You’d say you were sorry not quite knowing what to say and I’d say, “Its alright, it happened. Its a part of me and I don’t dwell on it.” That was never completely true but it’s what I told you.
Another thing people have said: “I don’t know why she did this to herself.” Sometimes they go on to lament her leaving me and my father alone, or an remember about how smart she was. When I heard this I’d always think, “How could you NOT understand why she did this?” Until now, I’ve just chalked it up to people being polite, or empathetic for me. Now, I’m not so sure. I think it’s reasonable to thing that people just really didn’t understand why she did what she did.
I’m closer to an understanding, though. She was depressed. I’ve realized that I’m depressed too. But most people are not depressed. So I, unlike most people, know how thoughts can spiral and fold in on themselves. I can understand how this might have happened to her and how it could have ended like it did.
This isn’t a cry for help, this is just something I’ve learned about myself. My mother’s situation was beyond anything I’ve experienced: she had a child, overbearing parents, a drug abuse problem. I’ve got support from my wife, a parent, friends, and a therapist. Being able to understand her and her actions is one of the few gifts my brain chemistry has afforded me, and for that I’m grateful.
Growing up, I felt some burden of her life un-lived, like I owe something to her. It’s an impossible thing to live up to. Recently, I feel this burden transformed into something more like a continuity. As I learn more about myself, it feels like I’m learning something about her.
I’m 34 years old, the same age she was when she died. It feels right to finally honor her struggle myself.