In the middle of a plate of enchiladas and salad, the phone rang. I sighed—it had been days since I had the time or appetite to enjoy food. My husband, Tom, was busy at the kitchen table, so I reached for the phone, and my brother said, “They’re both gone.” It’s 2pm on December 18, 1994, and with those three words, I am an orphan.
After several years of physical and mental anguish, my mother couldn’t take it anymore, and my father, who people later said couldn’t bear the thought of living without his bride for 46 years, went on the final journey, ending both of them. live in their garage.
That day, as Tom and I made the 90-minute drive from our home in Massachusetts to the small farm in Connecticut where I grew up, I looked up at the sky, hoping for some kind of sign — of peace, or comfort. or just a resolution. In the cloud formation above me, I imagined two figures waving.
It was the first of many signs I received in the 29 years since my mother and father died by suicide at the ages of 72 and 73, respectively. My view of things in general has always been skewed toward “facts,” but within 24 hours I began to look beyond the surface and open my eyes to what I couldn’t or wasn’t used to seeing.
The following days were a haze of grief-driven activity, but some of what happened remained clear.
My father had taken care of all the final arrangements, leaving detailed instructions about where to go and who to contact. Although not particularly religious, my parents wanted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, so my brother, husband, and I met with the congregation’s rabbi the day after the death, not realizing that suicide is considered taboo in Judaism. Therefore, my parents were unable to rest in the holy burial ground, something the rabbi was well aware of moments after we sat down. He then asked directly, “What was the reason for your parents’ sudden death?” I felt a slight tap on my shoulder and suddenly realized the way to make their last wish come true out of danger. I exclaimed “mental illness”.
“Ah,” said the rabbi. “Therefore, burial in our cemetery is granted.”
The funeral the next day made me look up at the sky again, but this time there were no clouds descending to cheer me up. Instead, the air felt cold on shoulders suddenly burdened by a burden that, after all these years, still felt light, but never completely lifted.
Over the next few months, a redefined “normal” began to creep into my life, but with it came a sense of vulnerability that is still hard to shake.
I was back at work within a week. At the time, I was a general assignment newspaper reporter, trained to “get the story, get out, and start writing.” Increasingly, I found myself constantly conducting interviews with people who had been struck or affected by tragedy: the father of a drowning victim, a beloved high school teacher diagnosed with a brain tumor, a family thrown out of their home by an unjust landlord. feeling. Somehow, I found solace in the people I call “my people” – namely the people affected by the disaster.
Soon the desire to hide in the suffering of others turns into something else: fear. Dreading this day. Afraid of tomorrow. Fear of something that might go wrong. If my husband is more than 10 minutes late coming home from work, I imagine he’s had an accident. If our cat has a mild cough, I believe it is congestive heart failure. If my sister says she feels sad, I worry that she will experience the same thing our parents did.
Surprisingly, I was the only person I didn’t worry about. In fact, I hoped something would go wrong with my health or work – it sounds ridiculous, but I convinced myself that my health or work problems would fill my family tragedy quota and prevent other loved ones from harm. I also believe this might make up for my inability to prevent my parents’ deaths.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “I should have…” and while my guilt will never completely go away, it has diminished over the past 29 years, replaced by an unwavering awareness of my parents’ constant presence. .
Every October, around my father’s birthday, my husband or I find new or rusty nails on the steps in front of our door. A coincidence, perhaps, but I see it as something more. While cleaning out their house, Tom and I joked about the neat rows of mayonnaise jars lining the bookshelves in my parents’ basement, filled with nails new and old—a true testament to my father’s thrift! I consider the annual discovery a love letter from my father.
And every day, before going to work, I held a small fashion show in front of the mirror that used to hang in my parents’ bedroom. My taste in clothing is similar to my mother’s, and I view this daily practice as an opportunity to connect with a woman who—for all I know—might be looking at me through glasses.
I also came up with the unorthodox idea that my father (whose appetite was legendary among the family!) might enjoy otherworldly pleasures from the food I prepared during the holidays. For that reason, I always include one or two of his favorite dishes ― not only as a tribute to the man who can finish three of my homemade cinnamon rolls with ease, but also because maybe, just maybe, he can still taste and enjoy them. from his perch wherever he is now.
December 18, 1994, brought another, more obvious change to my life. I have reconnected with relatives, some of whom I had lost contact with for 20 years or more. It’s sad how the loss of a family member can open the door to the embrace of another family member.
And for years I have been a volunteer ombudsman at a local nursing facility, working as an advocate for residents. A form of penance for actions I couldn’t prevent? Maybe, but regardless, every time I succeed in bringing positive change to the elderly, I imagine my parents applauding from above as they watch their now 68-year-old daughter perform her “mitzvah.”
The events that occurred at the start of the cold, sunny winter of 1994 changed my life in many ways – some for the good, some for the not so good.
I am kinder to others. I appreciate the smallest pleasures. I listen better. I cry more easily. I have trouble sleeping. I can’t stand being in a car idling. I wear vulnerability like a scent. I too often imagine worse things, because I know worse things could happen… because they do.
But in a world where there are worst things, there are also best things. I’m content with taking the middle path.
Sharon Nery is a former editor-in-chief of a business journal and reporter for a metropolitan daily newspaper in Massachusetts. He has been a columnist, restaurant and music reviewer, and is currently a lead writer for a public relations agency in the Boston area. He is a federally certified ombudsman and works a day job as a resident companion at an assisted living community.
Help and support:
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.Samaritans offers a listening service open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI – this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).CALM ( Campaign Against Living Miserably) offers a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a web chat service. The Mix is a free support service for people under 25 years old. Call 0808 808 4994 or email email@example.comRethink Mental Illness offers practical help via an advice line which can be contacted on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More information can be found at rethink.org.