By Elizabeth Swanson
Editor’s note: This story contains discussions of suicide.
October 10, 1999
I never read the letter. It might still be with the police, or maybe they destroyed it. I don’t know what happens to suicide notes, I’m sure no one wants to keep them.
That’s creepy. But my mom had said it was bizarre and incoherent and so I never read it. Or maybe she just said that because there were things in it she didn’t want me to read. Probably both.
Anyway, I haven’t been able to write anything since it happened. But I think I’ll go crazy if all of these thoughts keep swirling around in my head without anywhere to put them, so I’m finally breaking down and putting them here. It’s better than seing a psychiatrist. I don’t see how it can be beneficial for people to dredge up their problems week after week. How can you ever move on that way? They didn’t work for him, they won’t work for me.
I’ve always tried to be like Mom, but I think my dad and I are more similar than I wanted to believe. I miss having him here to commiserate over things. Mom is so good, so practically perfect, that sometimes it’s hard to relate to her. He was helpful for that.
Like last night. I’m in so much trouble right now—Mom said she’s “disappointed in me” and that she “doesn’t know me anymore.” She didn’t even yell or anything. I’d rather she yelled so I could be mad at her back. That’s another reason I decided to start writing again. I’m grounded and I don’t have anything to do except brood. I will tell you, having your dad kill himself makes it really easy to be a brooding teenager.
Lots of kids at school think their lives are so messed up because, like, their parents got a divorce, but that’s nothing. I don’t even know if people know or what they think because Mom never wanted to tell anyone. I guess I get it. People don’t realize that being suicidal is like having cancer. Too bad he wasn’t born about 100 years from now when science might’ve actually been able to help.
I’m in trouble because of Amelia. Her parents were out of town. I think they’re in Italy, or at least that’s where her mom is, her dad is with his girlfriend in South Africa or something. The way Amelia was raised, I wouldn’t be surprised if she turns out way more messed up than me. I mean, here’s this girl whose parents died when she was like five in post-communist Russia, and she’s so poor that she and her siblings are literally chasing rats in the street, and then she gets adopted to a family who lives in one of the wealthiest suburbs in America, and her adopted parents give her their credit card to buy jeans that cost like $400, but they’re never actually there to talk to her. She probably has a lot more to work out with a psychiatrist than I do. But the really messed up thing is that sometimes I get jealous of her. How superficial can I be to be jealous of a girl who gets expensive jeans but whose real dad beat her in Russia? I can’t stand myself when I think things like that.
Anyway. Amelia had a party at her parents’ house — with alcohol — even though she was supposed to be staying at our house, but Amelia told my mom that she and I were just going to hang out there for a while, and then Mom came over to pick us up later and found out about the party. I didn’t want to go, I should’ve just stayed home, but of course I went along with it, freaking out inside the whole time. I don’t even like Amelia anymore. We were best friends from the ages of eight to 12, but now she’s becoming friends with the kids who smoke pot during recess and we’re drifting apart.
Teenagers are so stupid. I wish I could skip this step. I never thought I was cut out to be one and I’ve only just started my teenage years. Everyone says this phase doesn’t last long, that middle school and high school don’t matter, but that’s not comforting to me because it’s all I know right now. These are my problems, this is what I’m dealing with, and this is my perspective. Actually, you’d think I would have some perspective because of Dad and everything. I initially thought that would change me, that I wouldn’t care about stupid things, that I’d be happy and grateful for each day. It’s weird how, no matter what happens in your life, you always get caught up in the day to day. Unless you’re a monk or something. But I don’t really revere monks as much anymore because I’m pretty positive that anyone could be calm and happy if they just meditated and drank tea all day, you know? No offense to monks or anything.
It’s not that I can’t appreciate the little things, and that’s probably because Mom has drilled that into us since we were babies: “live in the moment, don’t wait for tomorrow, be happy now, blah blah.” I roll my eyes when she says that, but I’m glad she says it.
I was taking a walk the other day—it’s the best time of year right now, when the leaves on the trees are changing colors—and my first thought was whether Dad misses seeing that, or if he misses feeling the brisk air when the weather turns cold. Or maybe it’s way better where he is, and he doesn’t miss it at all. Or maybe he has no consciousness. Maybe he’s just nothing. But I don’t want to think that. That’s what scares me most about dying, not having consciousness.
My childhood ended when he died, I’ve decided. That’s the moment, I realized, while sitting on a hard, wooden pew in that little white-shingled country church, listening to some random interim pastor give a generic eulogy about someone he barely knew, that’s the moment I realized everything doesn’t always happen for a reason. Historic moments (funerals, weddings, births, proms, whatever) are never as momentous as you expect them to be. They’re built up in the movies, in songs, in books, but when they happen in real life, they’re anticlimactic. Something goes wrong, or if something doesn’t go wrong, it’s just not as profound a moment as you had expected. Dad died alone and in his office. I wonder if the act of dying felt more mundane than he’d expected. I try not to think about that part, but sometimes I can’t help it.
My uncle said my dad had recently changed his meds. He also said his cancer had returned. I don’t know if they are excuses to make us feel better or if they are true.
I freak out now when the phone rings. I always think someone’s about to deliver horrible news. Mom had called me when I was away on a class trip to Chicago. She said she probably should’ve waited until I came back, but I would’ve been so mad if she had done that. I obviously took the first flight home. I bet everyone on that plane thought I was a crazy suicidal girl or something. My eyes were so red and swollen. I remember what I was wearing, it was a navy and white striped mini dress, my favorite dress, and I’ll never wear it again, nor will I ever get rid of it. I haven’t cut my hair yet, either, and I don’t want to. It’s a morbid thought, or just weird, but I like to think that I have the same hair on my head that I had when he was alive.
I worry about Lily, Claire, and Jack. Jack doesn’t say anything, ever. I know he really looked up to Dad. Claire has this thing where she’s a super hypochondriac and every week she thinks she’s dying of some illness, and if it’s not her, then she thinks it’s one of us. But Lily is so young and she barely got to have any childhood, not just because of him, but because of me and Claire, too. He just tipped her over the edge. She doesn’t find any of the glee or happiness in little kid stuff that she’s supposed to because we’ve set her straight already.
She’s also the most precocious of us all. The other day she came home and said she was going to celebrate Columbus Day at school and make construction-paper boats. So what did we do? We told her she shouldn’t be celebrating Christopher Columbus because he raped and pillaged the Native Americans. Then she goes to school and tells her teacher she’s not participating because he “raped and pillaged the Native Americans.” Word for word. I mean, sure, Christopher Columbus shouldn’t be celebrated in school, but that’s beside the point. She should’ve been able to make some little cardboard boats in peace. She can’t even hang out with any of the kids in her class anymore because they’re all too “young” for her. Poor Mom, she did so well with me and Claire and Jack, and then Dad came and messed that up, and then we all ruined Lily before Mom even had a chance.
At least I have a childhood to look back on. A few days ago, I was looking for something in the basement. It’s a mess, it’s like a time capsule from when we were little. We still haven’t unpacked everything from the old house. All of our books, games, clothes, and dollhouses fill every corner of the basement, and dust and cobwebs are already settling in comfortably on top of them. I started flipping through the books—The Little Prince, Amelia Bedelia, Where the Wild Things Are—and it made me cry. The most cherished items are always the ones from when you were a kid. They’re much more than just a book or a doll or a game, it’s as though they contain a magical quality. They’re brought to life somehow. I don’t know how else to describe it, but they had me as transfixed as I was when I was little.
There was also a manila folder tucked at the end of the bookshelf, and inside was a manuscript held together with a clamp. I had completely forgotten Mom had written a children’s book and wanted to have it published. It was called Magnumopus, and it was a Christmas story. (A play on of the Latin word, magnum opus. That’s where I learned that word, from Mom.) I started reading it, and I could hear her clear, soft voice in my head. She had used me and Claire as her test group. The plot is so simple, poignant, and well written. I think she should try again to have it published, she really is talented.
We drove four hours up north for the funeral. When we got to the hotel, on a beautiful spring evening, Claire was so mad because she said the hotel room was a dump and it smelled like smoke, and how could we stay in this kind of place when her dad had just died, and wasn’t there anything better? Then everyone started arguing. I felt like I was in some depressing indie movie. Mom thought it would be nice if all four of us kids said a few kind words about him at the funeral, so after we changed rooms, to another that smelled like smoke, we sat in silence, trying to put words together. (We even sang songs at the funeral, the four of us. Two songs in four-part harmony.)
It’s a good thing we got up and said something about Dad, though, because the pastor kept saying his name wrong, then he said Dad had three children instead of four children. Then he tried to reassure us that God would forgive him for committing suicide. Jack began crying uncontrollably when he got up to read his part. I went up to stand next to him and I wiped the snot from his nose with my hand because I didn’t have a tissue, and can you believe, the whole time I was worried whether people would be grossed out that I did that.
But the kicker, the thing I really can’t get over, is that after the funeral—after the luncheon in the church basement, with ham and rolls and potatoes, where everyone told me to eat, that I’m too thin—after all of that, it was over. We went back home, and our lives continued, and everyone’s lives around us continued. We still haven’t put a tombstone on his grave.
Lily and I put puzzles together pretty much for the next two weeks. Just puzzle after puzzle. That’s literally all we did. I hadn’t done a puzzle since I was about six. I think it was a way for us to stay busy while not having to talk or really do anything at all. You’re just concentrated on finishing that puzzle, you don’t have to think about anything else. And the whole fun thing about it is putting it together. Once you’re finished, well, you just break it apart.
Mom didn’t know what she should do when we got home, she probably thought her kids would go crazy just staying inside doing puzzles, so she made a group appointment for us with a psychiatrist. No one wanted to go. I asked Mom why she thought a psychiatrist would help us now, because all she said after each time Dad went to rehab, was that they were quacks. After all of the money and time and energy spent, she was let down.
I know she was optimistic when they were newlyweds, after she got over the shock of realizing he had a problem. She thought they would work through it together. She didn’t know what they were both in for. He had known, though, because it wasn’t something new that was brought on in adulthood. He had dealt with it from the time he was eight years old, when he looked out the window, staring at the woods in the backyard, a freshly fallen coat of snow on the ground, watching his brothers and sisters sled down the hill. The first thought that entered his mind was that he would have to kill himself one day. I go in waves from being so mad at him to my heart absolutely breaking into pieces thinking about how much he suffered.
I get his hobbies, his passions, his jumping from one thing to the next in order to try to love life. Baseball, photography, hiking, volunteering, religion, motorcycle riding. Each time, he thought this was it. He had a revelation, this new thing was his calling, this is what would make him happy. I know why he read all of those books about the purpose of life, books on joy, on philosophy, on psychology. None of it worked. Not the pills, or the psychoanalysis, not the self-help books or the having kids or the running that’s supposed to raise your endorphins or the meditation or the happiness studies about those who drink coffee and eat dark chocolate and get enough omega three fatty acids, or the journaling or the talking about your feelings or God or Buddha. I just read an article that said there’s a chemical in Diet Coke that can make you more depressed. I don’t know if it’s true, but I wish he hadn’t drunken two liters of Diet Coke per day.
My way of being happy, so far, has been to convince myself of things. I know that I live in my imagination, but that’s because the real world is boring. I’ve gotten pretty good at it, too. Maybe I’m more introverted, but I’m never bored with myself and my books. It’s when I’m with other people that I’m forced into reality and loneliness.
People always place so much emphasis on being social, but how satisfying can it be when everyone around you is just talking about their boyfriends, or their clothes, or who’s having the next party. In all of those instances, anyway, is it so wrong to live in your imagination? If the social interactions you are having aren’t fulfilling?
I can paint a beautiful scene in my head of any scenario, whether I’m shopping with Mom or taking a walk by the lake. But if I’m away from my books and my writing and in the real world for too long—say, sitting in the lunchroom cafeteria—my resolve dissipates. I’m really impressionable, too, and that’s why I’m trying to read uplifting books now instead of ones about glamorous, fatalistic heroines like my old go-tos, The Beautiful and Damned, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Franny & Zooey. I don’t learn from those troubled characters, I want to be them. Take Franny Glass and her whole Jesus prayer. What do you think I did when I read that? I immediately went to see whether it was a real book, The Way of a Pilgrim, and then bought it and read it. I mean, that’s when Franny was having a nervous breakdown. I don’t know if my personality is just susceptible to these kinds of heroines, or if they seem to coerce me to their side, but either way, I am aware that I am very impressionable, and that’s why I’m reading more uplifting books like this new one, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, about a French girl also named Paloma (!) who wants to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. I swear it’s not as depressing as it sounds.
I think some adults use kids to be happy. Maybe some have kids because they’re bored, because they believe they should, because it’s the next step, because they think it will heal a relationship, because it gives them a purpose. Maybe other people have kids to relive their childhood. I think it’s the latter case with Mom.
I get Mom and Dad now. I understand why he was so attracted to her. (Aside from her obvious physical gorgeousness.) She was so joyful, exuberant, and he so desperately wanted to be. Mom isn’t like any other adult I know. She might be 42, but her porcelain skin, full cheeks, and huge brown eyes made her seem younger than most 25-year-olds, and when she’s 65 years old you’ll be able to say the same thing because it’s not just her physical appearance that gives her this eternal childlike quality, it’s her personality, too, her curiosity about people, her vivacity, her excitement for everything, whether going for a walk around the neighborhood, playing a game of Scrabble on the living room floor, sitting around the kitchen talking with us kids—she always considers our opinions as though we’re adults, which is probably why we’re all so precocious—or “gallivanting,” which makes an adventure of even the most boring errands.
She has a, let’s say, singular set of rules. One of the main rules is that you can’t tell anyone to stop singing or playing the piano, no matter the time of day. Claire gets so mad when Lily is pounding on the piano keys when she’s trying to do homework and Mom won’t do anything about it. Sometimes we’ll come downstairs in the morning to a word written on the chalkboard in the kitchen, the only clue to its definition a sentence written below it, the first of us to guess correctly gets to buy a book. Another rule is that as long as you are doing something constructive—writing, painting, reading, playing outside, having an interesting conversation—there’s no bedtime. If you’re watching TV, on the other hand, or, worse, you’re bored (that itself is a forbidden word) it’s time for bed. We’re the only kids in the neighborhood having nighttime bike rides at 11 pm in the summer, with Mom leading the way. That’s the thing—maybe the only thing—about having Mom for a mom. She’s so worried one of us will inherit his depression that she’s constantly making sure we’re happy, happy, happy, all of the time.
When I am feeling sad or nostalgic, I like to think about the night before we got the piano. It’s weird to think there was a time in my life before the Baldwin. And yet I remember the night before that mahogany upright piano arrived, how excited my mom was. “Now girls,” she had said. She was laying between me and Claire, our beds pushed together in our room. Sometimes we’d push them together so we could play games before bed. One of our favorites was the question game. It was simple: one person got to ask someone else any question of their choosing, and then they answered it and thought of a new question to ask another person. (Questions consisted of: what is your favorite food? If you could only listen to one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?) Other times we pushed our beds together for a special occasion.
That one night, before the piano arrived, was a special occasion. “The only rule of the piano is that you have to wash your hands before playing it,” she said.
After it arrived, she would sometimes softly play songs to lull us to sleep while we were upstairs in bed. Other times, when we were singing, she’d make a game of that,too. “Close your eyes,” she’d say. Then we knew she was going to pick a song, play the first note, and see if we could guess what it was.
I know these were the same years we couldn’t find Dad sometimes because—it’s still hard to write it—he was out drinking or doing drugs. The next mornings, he would cry and willingly go back to a treatment center for months. I know there was one time when I heard him making funny snorting noises in the bathroom. I know I leaned my ear up to the door, trying to figure out what it was. I know when he came out he seemed different. I know, factually, all of this happened. I also know there is much more that I don’t know. But no matter what the reality was, Mom crafted for us a carefree, joyful world filled with piano and songs and games and stories. Until Dad died and now we can no longer pretend.
Once I was little and I wanted a pet so badly, and Mom would never let us have anything because “I gave you siblings instead,” and Dad told me he would help me catch a frog in the creek behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I don’t really have anything to add to that except I like that memory even though we never ended up catching anything. It reminds me of the times when he was just my dad, before all of my memories of him were clouded with what happened later.
He could tell a joke too, always got the punchline just right. At dinner one night, one of the last dinners with us all together, he had us falling out of our chairs. I don’t even remember what the story was about. I just remember laughing the hardest I’ve ever laughed. And the time he lost 20 pounds in like three weeks, and I asked him how he did that, and he said, “well, I just stopped eating two king-sized Twix bars every night.” That still makes me laugh so much.
I sometimes wake up in fear, wondering what awful thing will happen that I’m ignorant of on this particular morning. It’s so sad to think of myself on April 10. I ripped out all of the pages in my journal before this entry. I don’t like to look at pictures or anything that reminds me of April 10, because it was the last day of my old life. That was the me whose father hadn’t killed himself and I can barely remember what that girl was like. But I’m also starting to learn how you deal with tragedy, and it’s that you don’t, really. You never truly come to terms with anything horrible that’s happened to you, you just live with it. I think that in a year or two, after I’m done using him as a scapegoat, I will try to not think about this anymore, because I don’t think focusing on it helps at all. Maybe I’ll give myself a deadline. I can think about this as much as I want until, let’s see, one year from today, and then next year on this day, I will be done.
October 11, 1999 (morning)
I had a dream last night, one I’ve been having a lot. Dad is there, but he’s kind of blurry and I can never communicate with him. Either he can’t hear me or I’m trying to talk but my voice won’t make sounds. Last night was the latter. Then I always wonder why I haven’t seen him in so long and think I’m a shitty daughter for not seeing him.
I woke up with fresh grief. I wondered what I was doing the exact second it happened, miles and miles away. I hoped I wasn’t laughing or having fun. I can’t bear to think that.
October 11, 1999 (afternoon)
I was out a few hours ago getting some stuff at the grocery store with Mom. She’s not too mad—“disappointed”—anymore. It’s so funny, it’s always hard for her to ground us because she wants to hang out with us all of the time. We had a really good talk, we talked about Dad for the first time since he died. I told her about my dream, and I told her I never wanted to bring it up because I didn’t want to make anyone else sad. But we realized we are probably all thinking about it on some level, and so we should talk about it when we want to. I also told her I didn’t drink anything at Amelia’s party, and she believed me.
After that, two really cool things happened. First, when we were driving to the grocery store, we saw a family crossing in the middle of the street, so we stopped. The mom was leading in front, there was a kid maybe my age right behind her, and then several steps behind them was a little girl, maybe seven? She was so cute, a little pudgy, round face, olive skin, dark eyes, and two long braids in her hair, and Mom and I just kept looking at her from the car because she was so cute. She was dawdling in the back, in her own little world. Her mom told her to hurry up. Then she just starts skipping. Not little skips, but like big, jumping skips, and she’s smiling from ear to ear. Everyone around her starts noticing that she’s skipping and smiling, and we all start smiling. Just picture all of these apathetic, robotic adults, trying to get somewhere, accomplish a series of menial tasks, then as if on cue, one by one, each face breaks into a big grin. (Grown-ups! They are human after all!)
The second thing is that I think I have a new friend. She’s older—probably in her 40s or 50s—but she looks pretty young for her age. I’m going to try to write down what she said word for word as best as I can remember it because I think it’s one of those moments that may have just changed my life a little bit and I never want to forget how I feel right now, which is just kind of pure joy and happiness in humanity. My new friend, Gillian, is so light-hearted and such a wanderlust that she makes everything seem okay. Maybe she’s the heroine I need.
We were at the grocery store, and I didn’t feel like walking down the aisles with Mom so I sat at one of those patio furniture displays to read my book. Then this woman comes up to me and she just gets so excited about my book. (It was The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the one I was talking about earlier that has the girl in it named Paloma.) She just starts talking to me as though we’ve known each other for years, so much so that at first I thought maybe I didn’t recognize her? But I didn’t know her; she just has this open, unaffected air that I hardly see in anyone.
This, obviously, was Gillian. She was middle aged, but she didn’t have a wrinkle on her face, just freckles, and almond shaped eyes that made her look maybe she’s half Asian? Maybe your personality really does inform how old you look, I don’t know. She wore no makeup, from what I could tell, and was wearing a blue Kroger polo shirt. This is how our conversation went:
“Ahh that’s one of my favorite books!” Gillian said.
I look up. “Oh, really? Yeah I’m about halfway through and I really like it,” I said.
“I read it at least once a year and I always get the same feeling from it. It makes me happy to be myself, especially because I think I’m so not like everyone else, especially in this town.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t ask me how I got here.”
(I didn’t, but she went on.)
“I have felt displaced my entire life,” Gillian said, “but I have learned to own it, in a way. That book has helped me. I’ve never been able to decide what I want to do or be, and I’ve held so many jobs, and done so many things, but nothing has really ever stuck. I was under the impression, for many years, that your life didn’t really begin until you had a steady career, got married, bought a house, and had kids. But I haven’t even been able to check off that first box, no less any of the other ones that follow it. But then, one day, just after I had quit my job as a motorcycle training instructor, I realized if I keep waiting to hit those milestones, my life would just pass me by. I’ll never conform anyway, so may as well save myself the trouble and just do my own thing. I’ve always wondered how people do that, take one job and stick with it forever.
“Like this job here at the grocery store, it hasn’t really been what they told me it would be. I wanted to spice it up a bit, you know? Introduce new desserts, and dishes, and start a gourmet cheese section. I love cheese, and I know so much about it. I said all of that in my interview, and everyone seemed enthusiastic about it, but nothing has happened yet. I keep bringing it up, and they keep putting it off, telling me reasons why we can’t do this and that, and so now I’m just ringing up groceries. I like talking to people, so that’s okay, but they said I could be the cheese specialist and I’m not at all. So I have to find something else.
“Before this, I was a mailman — well — a mail woman, and I thought it would be fun. I thought I’d get to know each of the houses I delivered mail to, really get to know the people in the neighborhood, and drink lemonade on the porch with them, and get chased away by their dogs and stuff. But as it turns out, the mail bags are so heavy, and it rains so often, and the town where I worked is really hilly, and I just couldn’t traipse up and down those hills with all of that mail on my back. Especially in the rain. And no one’s at home anyway, or if they are, they don’t care to talk to the mail woman anymore. I didn’t even talk to one person in six weeks. So I quit.
“And before that, I was a food stylist, but there weren’t enough jobs for it where I was, and I didn’t want to move back to New York, so I had to stop doing that.”
I asked her what a food stylist was, and she said she made close-up pictures of food look good for photo shoots, like a hamburger or whatever.
“I actually went to culinary school in France, at Le Corden Bleu, and there was this one guy who I was in competition with for the top spot, and he hated me, always tried to sabotage me in every way, and then afterward, he wrote a book about it. Maybe you’ve heard of it, it’s called Baked. I’m one of the characters, and he paints me in the nastiest light. It’s really awful. Then there was another time, when I was sailing halfway around the world, I met another guy, he was a journalist, in Africa, and I ended up as a character in one of his books, too. He liked me though, in that book I seem like a good person. How many books have you been in?”
We ended up talking the whole time Mom was shopping. Gillian said she read somewhere that having friends who aren’t your age help you to see the world more clearly. I don’t know how I make her see the world more clearly, but I can see how that could be true for me. I don’t want to turn out to be one of those depressed adults who use their problems to excuse them from participating in the world. It’s such a cop out. (And I am not talking about my dad, I am talking about me, potentially, in 20 years.) I think I am starting to understand, really understand, more of what Mom meant by looking for the little things, the moments, because that’s all that life really is. I mean, I hope that this changes me, I hope I can remember how I feel right now. At least in this moment I feel really good, and that counts for something, I think.
Elizabeth Swanson is a writer living in Detroit, MI. She was previously an editor at Conde Nast Publications in New York City. Read more of her work here: https://elizswanson.contently.com/.