Every Tuesday I travel two freeways, in no rush, to attend a support group for survivors of suicide. On the drive I listen to podcasts about cataclysms. In the aftermath of my mother's death, I'm newly passionate about outer space rocks. Interstellar objects with orbits that intersect our own. An event at the end of the last ice age, when our planet was bombarded by fragments of a giant comet. The likelihood in our lifetime of another strike. Secretly I long for the absurdity of an apocalyptic death.
At home, I devour books and internet articles that cite little-known science. My wife is sick of my theories. She rolls her eyes when I drink too much and corner partygoers to regurgitate the evidence of impact: the sudden disappearance of the Clovis people; the extinction, almost overnight, of mammoths, mastodons, sabertooth cats; a black mat of soot, carbon spherules, and nano diamonds blanketing the Earth; a thousand year winter; my mom murdering my mom.
Before someone you love commits suicide, you don't believe it's real. Not as an option for someone you love. But then it happens. The impossible becomes plausible. Simply by proximity, your own risk increases. Now you realize how close it was all along. Now you can imagine anyone choosing it. In the past, I wasn't a person with speculations of apocalypse, the submergence of Atlantis, or other oddball apocrypha.
This week, the podcast discusses a megalithic site in Turkey, recently unearthed and rewriting the timeline of human history. The site's stone monuments are thousands of years older than archaeologists believed possible. Carvings on the stones depict zodiacal animals that suggest the night sky, as well as the trajectory of the Taurid meteor stream. Our planet tumbles into the Taurids twice yearly. From the stream came the Ice Age comet. A fragment struck Siberia in 1908 and flattened a forest. Lately, we've been lucky. All we've seen are shooting stars. But the stone carvings are a warning: our luck won't last, the apocalypse will return.
If this is the case, I want to know more than the inevitability of return. I want to be prepared for the apocalyptic event, but I also want the relief of knowing it will, with certainty, be apocalyptic.
My mom's suicide was not a natural disaster. Not an act of God. It was human-made, years in the making. Yet I want to believe her death was predestined. A certainty. That, in the end, I had no control over her choice to cut her wrists, run to the window, jump.
But there's a twist. I'm afraid my lack of control was a choice, a failure of will or love. I fear my failure is what killed her. The fear, the guilt inside it, keeps me connected to my mom. It includes me in her decision to die. I don't feel as helpless if I tell myself I played a part in the process.
So although I say, I need to feel like I had no control; I also need to feel like I had some control.
This week, I thought I might skip group. Almost nine months have passed since my mom's death and lately I've been feeling more normal. Of course, this makes me feel terrible in a new way. I feel guilty for trying to move on with my life, guilty for forgetting. She is falling further away from me, falling through her window and the morning, falling through the holes in my memory. Against my will, I am letting it happen. The forgetting is accelerating. Each week it picks up speed on the drive to the support group.
But I'm still here, showing up. I pull into the hospital parking garage and feel certain, relieved, not because of the group I'll soon join, but because of the memory: catastrophe and care. My mom was a nurse and then she was a patient. Hospitals help me feel close to her. This hospital in particular, on a hill in a satellite city, has a pull. She was in and out of the psych ward here for years.
I take the ticket. The toll arm goes up. I put the ticket in my pocket and drive down the structure's levels designated by drawings of animals, like cave paintings—zebras, pandas, tigers—to help locate your car, should you forget. I park and walk up stairs through the stratum of animals.
I follow footprints. Someone wounded has left a trail of blood from the parking lot, through the courtyard, past the gift shop and greeter's desk.
"How are you?" the greeter says.
I'm grateful she remembers me. The woman's dentures make her smile incredible. She has long, dry hair, like my mother's.
I slow my stride.
"I'm okay," I say, and touch the desk. "How are you?"
"That's good," she says.
She looks at the door.
I walk away, feeling stupid and needy. The greeter's job is to greet people; she was doing her job when she greeted me.
"I'm an Aries," my mom said once, in the foyer of her psychiatrist's office. She gazed up at the mural of zodiac stars. Her hair fell in a braid to the elastic of her sweatpants. "That means I'm stubborn headed."
"Let's go," I said. "We still have to stop by the pharmacy."
At the end of a long hospital hallway perfumed with hand sanitizer, I come to a room with a sign that reads: Beyond Loss. Each week, I feel reluctant to enter the room. I'm not sure I want to get beyond. I want to stay in my loss. I want to believe I am beyond recovery, changed beyond recognition. This was my mother's story.
During her stays in the psych ward, she received rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. The shock treatment caused her teeth to shatter. The seizures aged her decades in days. But she lost years of memory, and for a little while, she was happy. It was when she remembered that the trouble returned. She always remembered, always returned to her childhood.
In group, I've learned it's not uncommon to fear forgetting. Pain, like guilt, is how we stay connected to the people we love.
In an early session, I said, "My sadness feels luxurious."
Someone in the seat beside me whispered, "Yess."
Some weeks, the group is crowded with people crammed into the dozen chairs pushed against the walls. Other weeks, I'm alone. It's confusing. I wonder, Where is everyone? What's wrong with me that I'm still here? But I know that sooner or later someone new will join. I dread their arrival, the revelation of loss, but perversely, I look forward to their appearance. The newness of their pain, its unutterableness, gets me closer to my own pain. It helps me remember.
It's difficult to remember my mom before her descent into illness. All my memories center on the spiral of her last years. If my mom had died a normal natural death, maybe it would be different. As it is, I feel divorced from happy memories of a loving mother.
My parents never married, and my mom's world revolved around me. She had eight sisters, so I have a lot of relations by blood, but you wouldn't know it. They say crisis is supposed to pull families together, but in my experience, this is a myth.
My only source for memories of my mom before her illness come from her journals. Since her death, I store them in boxes in my living room, unread. My wife wants the mess gone, but she's patient. Her mom died of cancer three years ago, and she seems to understand why I'm afraid to search the journals for answers.
I'm afraid there are no answers, that none are coming, and I will live and die never knowing exactly why my mom killed my mom. Or, perhaps, I'm afraid the answer is me.
The journal I fear most is the last my mom kept: a marbled composition book, 9 3/4" x 7 1/2", wide ruled; Rachelle, scribbled on the cover in ballpoint; over her name, a smudge of rust-colored blood.
"I'm not against suicide. More people should try it," I wrote in my own journal, around the time I dropped out of high school. I was a simpleminded teen and suicide had slowly, subtly, become a possibility. It was a hum I couldn't get out of my head. Looking back, I don't think I wanted to die. I was doing a lot of LSD at the time and the ideas came on strongest when I was coming down. In the journal, I wrote about standing at the edge of a sea cliff. Wind picking up. Whitewater breaking on rocks. Tide dropping.
My mother snooped. Maybe I left the journal out for her to read. She sat on my bed. Shared her own private fantasies of suicide. All her life, she said. Had them even now and the only thing keeping her alive was me. If I died she would have no reason to go on living.
After that, suicide seemed less romantic.
Before entering group, I jot my name on the sign-in sheet and grab a complimentary bottle of water. The room is windowless as ever, more boxes of tissue than people. I say hello to who I remember, everyone by now. In the center of the small room is a table of grief leaflets, a stamp to validate parking, and a glass jar of worry stones.
I pick a stone, and a Mary Oliver poem printed on yellow paper:
Tell me, what else should I have done? / Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?
Despite not finishing high school, I somehow have two masters' degrees. The diplomas were a feat my mom was proud of, like they were something I accomplished because of and not despite her.
A book I kept from art school, After the End: Representations of Post-apocalypse, says there are three distinct shapes to apocalypse.
First, the apocalypse embodies the end of the world. What this will look like depends on who you ask. Most prophesies agree the final end offers opportunities for redemption, salvation, and rebirth.
"Welcome everyone," says the group moderator. "Let's begin by checking-in with our body. Breathe into the parts that hurt."
I close my eyes and breathe. I listen to the people around me, breathing.
The apocalypse that Christians envision is four horsemen and a mountain of fire thrown from heaven that turns the sea to blood. Hindus foresee one rider with a flaming sword on a white horse. Ancient Egyptians didn't necessarily believe the world was predestined to end, but if it did, the primal waters of the universe would rise up to reclaim us all. What I'm getting at is, we all have our own suicide dream.
I no longer hear anyone breathing. I open my eyes.
"Let's introduce ourselves," the moderator says.
We go around the room, but names barely register. What gets remembered is who was lost: sons, fathers, sisters, wives. So far, I'm the only one whose mom killed herself. I guess that makes me think I'm special.
"I'm Jon," I say, and my thumb rubs the worry stone. It is soft, round. "My mother's name was Rachelle. She died in January, the week of my birthday, when she jumped from a window."
People in group blame themselves for missing the warning signs—chronic pain, drug abuse, job loss. Only after do they see the clues. Play detective. Even the language of "committing suicide" implies a crime. We search for motives, the elusive why of a murder mystery. The death is a homicide solved, and unsolvable.
Now, the people in group see signs everywhere. Hints that their loved ones no longer suffer. A red-tailed hawk between city skyscrapers, a salary bump, a slant of sun through window glass. I want a sign. I would pay anything to know she's at peace, but would I even pay attention if she was trying to reach me? Or would I ignore her like I often did.
The second iteration of the apocalypse is an event that marks the end of something, a way of life or thinking, a historical divide that separates what came before from what came after.
The bombing of Hiroshima. The Holocaust. The asteroid that ended the dinosaurs, its impact equal to 10 billion Hiroshimas. The comet that cratered at the end of the last Ice Age, supposedly chronicled in the Turkish stones, its impact equal to 47 million Hiroshimas.
The word comet is from the Greek kometes, meaning long hair. In prehistory, you could make a wish on a comet, but more so they announced misfortune. Stories older than gods tell of epochs when humans endured fires flung from heaven. Conflagrations from the sky meant to punish. Myths meant as warnings. Imagine, as ancient cultures did, the head of a woman with long flowing hair, streaking through the sky.
I was a child when my mom began to tell me about the abuse. She meant the stories as warnings. For me, they became our family's mythology. She had sacrificed herself to her father so her sisters could survive. My mom never stopped talking about it, the abuse, sacrifice, and survival. Like it was a mystery she couldn't solve.
When I followed the bloody footprints into the hospital, I wondered if I was hallucinating. Could others see the signs? Or were they visible to me alone? The blood, so similar to my mom's, dripped into the toilet where she opened her arteries, leading to the window from which she leapt.
"My mom was lucky to survive the first attempt," I say in group.
It started with the fire. Loaded on oxy, she nodded off in bed smoking cigarettes. Everything burned. I was 25. Suddenly, my mom was homeless.
I went to her family for help. At a bay club, yachts on water, lemon wedges in iced tea, my aunt said, "It's time you grow up and take care of your mother." I sent my mom to stay with her best friend, two states north. On the phone, my mom begged to live with me and my girlfriend in our studio apartment.
"I'll sleep on the couch," she said.
"No," I said.
The emergency room called. The nurses said my mom had lost more blood than anyone they had ever seen. Only the cold air clotted her wrists and neck. The doctors said she barely beat the odds.
Over the years, there were so many beginning-of-the-ends. But I know now, the surest sign someone will succeed at committing suicide is a previous attempt.
The social worker at the hospital meant well when she asked my mom: "What are your plans when you get discharged?"
But the question was like asking a newborn what it proposed to do with its one precious life.
My mom's eyes searched the hospital room, searched my face.
I smiled. A smile that wasn't a smile.
"I don't know," my mom said, at last. "I hadn't planned to be alive."
Once she had decided to die, it was as if it had already happened. What was left for her in rebirth, after the end? Paradise? No. Only more catastrophes: another apartment fire; more oxy; more emergency rooms; boyfriends who stole her ATM pin; psych ward stays and electroshock treatments.
And even so, time passed and I forgot. My mom's suicide attempt seemed less and less serious.
She tried to remind me. During arguments, as I drove her to-or-from doctor's appointments, she would say, "Don't you understand, I want to die."
I didn't hide the signs of my resentment. "You're manipulating me."
"You make me want to die," she'd say.
"You expect me to sacrifice myself."
"No!" she'd say.
I had begun to feel that maybe my mom should kill herself. Anything would be better than this. How she hid from the world was cowardly and I didn't want it to rub off on me. I was a man, newly married, trying to make my way in the world, trying to be courageous and untraumatized. Instead, I was my mother's nurse. I did everything I could to keep her alive. Didn't I? I moved her to an assisted living I couldn't afford with round-the-clock nurses. A room with a view, on the sixth floor. IKEA bedroom furniture I assembled.
I reconstruct the days and weeks before her suicide, try to understand why she did what she did. I search for signs I didn't see. Decisions. Things I should, or should not, have said.
I open the final journal.
Her writing is difficult to read, jotted in a manic but meticulous nurse's shorthand, composed using symbols.
January 5, 11:09 am:
"I thought even God had abandoned me," she wrote of her failed attempt to die. "I'd tried so hard to be good all my life + so many bad things happened to me, that I just didn't want to go thru any more bad stuff + I wanted to be with God, in heaven, where I could watch over the ♂ ♀ I loved, cuz I didn't feel anyone loved me anymore, so why should I stay here? God would understand...I don't want to be a bother anymore to Jon and Allie. OK need to stop. Late for bingo."
January 5, 2:10 pm:
"Won 2 games; Thank you, God!"
Group is over and I drop the rock in the jar. I search my pockets but can't locate my parking ticket. Instead, I stamp the Mary Oliver poem. I walk through the hospital, the greeter gone, the bloody footprints wiped clean.
Outside, it's night and the blind sky is empty. Stained by city lights, the stars could all be falling and I wouldn't notice.
I start my car. The podcast comes on. They talk of a recent near miss with a rock from out of nowhere, without warning, that came within a whisper—45,000 miles—nearly the odometer reading on my car. A city-killer. Part of me is sorry it missed. More are imminent. Potential collisions in 2029, 2036, 2068.
I accelerate up from the underground. I hand the poem to the parking attendant. The man looks at the stamp. I wait for him to read it.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
But he doesn't. The arm goes up. I drive through.
The third type of apocalypse is revelation. An unveiling, a discovery unearthed: embedded in the sediment—nanodiamonds, shock quartz—under the asphalt of the parking lot where she landed; the last words of her journal, written on January 7th, hours before she died:
"Put tissue paper in ears."
Apocalyptic events bring to light the true nature of what has ended. After, we see, we feel, we sense with clarity what or who was lost.
So here are the things I want to say in group but cannot, or should not:
It took guts for my mom to kill herself. Part of me is proud that she took control of her life in death. And in a sense, her death has freed me. Maybe she wanted this for me. Maybe she killed herself to care for me. A sacrifice of love.
I'd like to think so. But more so, I see her afraid, bloody, crawling half-in-half-out of the window, hair in her eyes as the wind picks up and she looks down at the parking lot. A black abyss of asphalt. The pleas of the nurses below, distant as a past life.
Life as I knew it is over, and somehow I am still alive. And so the end is never the end.
I will never get over it. I will get over it. I will fall toward that love.