After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew. I am looking for clues, for evidence. Answers. I put on a detective hat so I won’t have to wear my daughter hat, so I can bear combing through her house. I wrap my new baby to my chest with a bolt of green fabric—my baby born exactly one week before my mom’s death—and recommence the dig.
When my sister and I first ventured into our mom’s bedroom the day of her memorial, Elizabeth said the space was a perfect metaphor for our mom—lovely and elegant on the surface, total chaos underneath. In the end, our mom couldn’t hide the disarray; everything had spilled out, spilled over. Papers were strewn on every surface, leaking out from under her brocade-swathed bed. I bent down that day and found an old Mother’s Day card I had written as a teenager, one that gushed about how she was “forever doing things to make me well.” I cringe to see it now.
My sister has just flown home to Toronto; it’s harder to sift through everything without her here. In the first folder I open after she leaves, I discover notes our mom had taken during a workshop on the seasons of grief. A surprised little laugh kicks in my throat; she’s left a guidebook of sorts. The first season, according to her notes, is the “Season of Grieving.” Her notes say “Shock—shipwreck of our soul. Disbelief—Lost. Didn’t know the world anymore. You just don’t fit anyplace. The true ‘you’ is not present.” Okay, I can relate. The baby on my chest is a life vest; without him, I would be sinking.
I read on to see what I have to look forward to. The second season, her notes tell me, is “Season of the Death of the Soul”: “Enter into a landscape for which there are no maps. Walk into the long dark night with no guarantee to find your way out. We must learn to wait without hope. We may hope for the wrong things.” Great. Can’t wait.
Next comes “Third season of mourning”—“We grieve because we have dared to love and we grieve because we dare to love again. Love is the most difficult task of all, but all is a preparation for love. Fear of loss makes loving so difficult. Death is the bride of love.” Death doesn’t seem like a bride to me. Death seems more like a gangster, a gangster of love, and not the Steve Miller, space cowboy kind—this is the ruthless, brutal, kind, the kind with complete disregard for decorum. A bride leaves pastel, sugar-coated almonds on the table; a gangster leaves blood.
In the fourth season, we are supposed to “Open to the larger story that grief can interrupt.” “Creation of a compassionate heart,” her notes say. “Our wounds open us up to others, not only to other people, but to all of creation.” Maybe someday I’ll get there.
I keep digging.
I find a picture of my mom and Eli, the love of her life, her sister Rochelle’s psychiatrist, the married man she loved from the time she was sixteen until he died of cancer ten years later. I’ve never seen him before; she had always described him as dashing, magnetic, but he looks like a bulbous old lech. His arm is around her in the little black and white snapshot tucked into an old address book—she is radiant, so happy; he looks so happy, too, his arm around a beautiful teenage girl, claiming her when she couldn’t claim him, although her oldest sister Sylvia told me she knew about the relationship; she said there was an energy around the two of them when the family went to visit Rochelle in the psychiatric ward.
My mom had told me Eli was the brother of a Supreme Court justice, but when I look up the judge on Wikipedia, I can’t find any mention of a brother named Eli. I do find an article about Eli in the archives of the Chicago Tribune, however—an article that says he had been kidnapped and held for a sizable ransom, that says he had escaped. It appears to have happened the year they met. Is that what made my mom fall in love with him? Is that what led to her obsession with large sums of cash? I find a note about an independent-study high school she briefly attended on Michigan Avenue. I follow a hunch and look up Eli’s old office address. Michigan Avenue, too. Had he arranged for her to go there? Did they sneak off together during lunch breaks?
Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew, Nancy Drew.
Asher has fallen asleep. I unknot the wrap from my body, lay him gently on my mom’s bed. He stirs a moment; I let him nurse for a few sips until he nods off again. The pale green fabric unfurled next to him is super long—at least four yards. It could easily be used as a noose. Asher has never rolled over in his life, but I imagine him rolling across the bed, looping the heavy cotton around his neck. I gather up the wrap and set it on the end table. When I stand, my shirt is plastered to my chest with sweat and milk. I stretch it forward, let the air touch my skin, let the sudden chill push me back to work.
I find a list of my mom’s fears:
Fear of daughters not loving me
Getting old—older looking
I find her copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and open to a page she has marked: “We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them.”
I find a scrap of paper that says “TAP WATER BURNED LIPS 10/17/09” next to a nearly empty glass.
I find a letter dated November 20 to an Oceanside police officer who had apparently visited her house: “I was taken aback by your title but assume you can see I am not a psychotic Oceanside resident,” she had written. Later in the letter, she accused Dad’s “cyber goons” of wiping out her computer and stealing files relating to the documentary she was producing, The Art of Misdiagnosis. I wonder what the officer’s title was, wonder why he hadn’t recognized her as psychotic—according to the letter, he had suggested she get a restraining order against my dad. If that officer had brought her in on an involuntary psychiatric hold, where would she, where would we, be today?
I find a red clothbound journal with a handwritten title page inside, “A Wife (in name only) by Arlene Baylen-Brandeis,” followed by a few poems, like “invisible mom”:
walks past me
to lavish love and
don’t you know?
i’m the one
Most of the journal is blank, but waves of guilt waft toward me from every page. I feel even more guilty when I realize I want to correct her misspellings, change “whose” to “who’s,” add some punctuation. You criticize me even when I’m dead, I can hear her say.
I find a shopping list with the word “Life” on it. She meant the cereal, a staple in her house, but the word looks so poignant, her desire for Life. The last word she ever said to me.
I find a letter she had written but never sent to me and Elizabeth in 2005, when she thought she was dying of heart valve disease. Part of it says “I think I have slightly more than a year to live. Oct ’06, is the time I will pass into the next phase. Celebrate my life. I did it my way, and have no regrets. I hope the two of you and Dad also have no regrets.” It closes with “I know you’ll both keep my memory alive with your precious children. I will be a good spirit for all of you.” I find myself wishing that this was her real last letter, her true final words. I wish I could imagine her as a good spirit.
I also find a hand-written will from her own mother inside a brittle envelope. In it, she bequeaths the family house on Mozart St. to my mom, Rochelle, and Don, “as you need a Home + you three are all ill + have to shift for yourselves.” I wonder what illness she was referring to regarding my mom. Rochelle and their brother, Don, were both mentally ill. Did she know my mom was, as well, or was this related to the rheumatic fever—or at least what was called rheumatic fever—that plagued my mom when she was young? My grandmother also wrote that she hoped her seven other children would understand and that there should be “know hard feelings.” I keep looking at that phrase, which repeats three times in the will, same spelling—“know hard feelings.” That’s what I want to let myself do now—know hard feelings. Face them and know them head on. Something that’s never been easy for me.
And maybe it is my desire to know hard feelings that leads me to open the brown paper bag from the coroner’s office—the large grocery sack folded over and stapled shut like a school lunch for a giant—that contains the clothes my mom was wearing when she killed herself. I’ve felt so removed from the physicality of her death. Every night, just as I’m about to fall asleep, images barge into my head of her hanging herself—the wrap, the drop; sounds barge into my head, too, the different gasps and gurgles that might have issued from her throat, but these are phantom imaginings, not the visceral reality of her suicide. I appreciate how everyone wanted to protect me in my postpartum state, but part of me wishes I could have seen her body in the mortuary, wishes I could have gone to the coroner’s office to retrieve her things. This I can do, right here, right now. I can touch the clothes my mother died in.
Everything is bunched up inside the bag as if it had been ripped off her body without any care, and this makes it worse, knowing her body was treated roughly, no tenderness in the undressing.
My hands shake as I pull out one item after another:
- A black, white, and gray bouclé jacket with large black buttons.
- The red ribbed short-sleeved turtleneck she wore in her senior modeling photo, wrenched inside out.
- Black Chico’s pants, also inside out, smelling of urine.
- White panties, inside out, too, smelling even more strongly of urine. I learn later that when someone hangs, their bladder lets loose.
- Tan and brown tiger-striped bra; this touches me, somehow, this touch of wildness she carried beneath her clothes.
- Ryka sneakers, white with silver trim, the lining bunched up inside as if her feet had been yanked out, smelling of sweat.
- Elizabeth’s tan and black batik scarf, the one our mom had draped on her head the last night we saw her. Is this what she used to take her life?
I touch each piece of clothing gently and weep, laying them out on the floor around me the way I would lay out baby clothes when I was pregnant, imagining the life that was going to fill them; now, though, I imagine my mom’s life ebbing away inside the fabric. I try to sense any lingering traces of her aliveness here—perhaps a lingering trace of Joy, her signature fragrance—but all I smell is her death. I hadn’t known to prepare myself for this, the smell of her death. The smell reminds me of when a baby raccoon had died under my house many years ago; it took a while to find the source, and the stench kept getting stronger and stronger. But that was a dead animal, I tell myself, until I realize that’s exactly what she was, too; in the hours between her death and the time she was found, she had already started to decay. I quickly stuff everything back into the bag, stomach heaving, the smell of her body burned into my brain.
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.
Excerpted from The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide by Gayle Brandeis (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Read Kelly Thompson’s interview with Gayle Brandeis about The Art of Misdiagnosis here.