I first read my mom’s suicide note at 36 when I was baking chocolate chip protein pancakes for my daughter.
It was hard to read – literally. It had been written on a hotel notepad 31 years ago and photographed as evidence after its discovery. The photos remained in a binder until the case was closed, when the note was converted to microfiche. But I recently submitted a freedom of information request to the police department for the investigation file into my mother’s death. Then the note was printed on white paper and given to me.
At the kitchen counter, I turned to flip the pancakes and then leafed through the file, reading the story of the housekeeper who had found my mother’s body, the interviews the police had conducted with my family, the coroner’s report . My daughter played with Lego bricks at the kitchen table. I had planned to wait until she got to school to read the report, but the compulsion to learn of my mother’s death after all these years proved an overwhelming pull.
My mother died when I was 5 years old and my sister 2 years old. I was told at the time that my mother had a “brain disease”. I guess that was how a professional advised my father to explain mental illness to a child as young as me. I remember being in kindergarten with the school social worker and draw a pink, blobby brain shape with a graphite gray spot on it.
My father was not, is not shy about his love for my mother. Every birthday, he writes a column — poems, song lyrics, lyrics — about how much he misses her and how proud she would be of us. When I was younger, these columns were published in the local newspaper. In recent years, they have turned into moving Facebook posts with photos of the grandchildren she will never meet.
As children, my father often took us to the cemetery to “visit” my mother. My sister and I took turns choosing the flowers we placed in the overturned urn on his headstone and snuggled up to a small beige teddy bear he told us belonged to him. The side of my mother’s closet remained full of her clothes for decades, and memories of her still remain in my father’s house. We talked about the loss, but we never really talked about the woman, her life and her death beyond the superficial.
At some point in my childhood, I had to muster up the courage to ask more questions about him, even though I can’t remember a specific conversation. It was then that I learned that my mother had committed suicide in a hotel near our home. No further details were provided, and perhaps that’s why, in the decades that followed, I never asked questions again. What more did I need to know, and what would it be for?
As a young child, I was often angry that I didn’t have my mom as a “room mom” or to celebrate Mother’s Day with. I was resentful when the teachers assumed that it was a mother who cooked my lunches and signed my permits. But growing up, I got good grades and received college scholarships, and met and married an amazing partner. It didn’t seem to matter that I didn’t have a mother – uuntil I become one myself.
My daughter was born healthy, beautiful and colicky. She cried almost constantly for almost six months. Nothing I did seemed to help her – breastfeeding, babywearing, multiple visits to the pediatrician. I spent days and nights listening to his incessant and compromising screams. The screams built up in my psyche as proof that I didn’t deserve to be a mother, that I would never be good enough. I started having fleeting thoughts of leaving like my mother had. I would also have liked her to be there to help me and reassure me.
I survived those first months, when I didn’t dream of starting a new life, by writing to my daughter. I wrote love messages on the covers of the books I ordered for each party and piled up in her room. I was writing cards and letters, crying over them while she was crying in the background. I have written to my daughter over and over again about how special she is, the joy she brings to our family, my hopes and dreams for her future.
I sealed the notes to my daughter in envelopes and stacked them in a pink safe I ordered for this purpose. If it turned out that I couldn’t stay, at least my daughter would have tangible proof that her mother loved her.
Eventually, the crying subsided – and with it, my thoughts of leaving.
As my daughter grew, I was impressed by her empathy, compassion, and creativity while feeling unworthy of the privilege of being her mother. I frantically tried to solve this problem; I enrolled her in a private school, I fed her fruits and vegetables, I minimized screen time. We moved to a bigger house, bought him a scooter with light-up wheels, adopted a guinea pig. Checking all the boxes, I kept the feeling of inadequacy at bay for a while.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we went through the same shock and upheaval as many families around the world. For my daughter, the stress was perhaps compounded by my job as a nurse in the emergency department and my husband in law enforcement. Again, nothing I did or tried could fix how she felt.
In desperation, I resumed writing. I signed up for a writing workshop and wrote a 78,717-word novel about a woman whose mother died and who is trying to raise her daughter through difficult times. After months of revising the draft, trying to write the happy ending I wanted for my characters — and for me and my daughter — I gave up. There were too many holes in the story, and the biggest one was the protagonist’s relationship with her dead mother, that is, my relationship with mine. I ended up confronting myself with the fact that to write the end, I needed to go back to my beginnings, to my relationship with my mother. It might be wise to untangle our history.
I started my journey by obtaining the inquest file on my mother’s death and the court records. Looking back, it seems telling that I would rather go through a police file than have an honest conversation with my family about who my mother was.
When I finally read my mother’s suicide note for the first time, five words jumped out at me.
“I was a horrible mother.”
I surprised myself by feeling not shocked or sad, but relieved by his words. “I’m a horrible mother” had been the refrain in my mind for the 9 years of my daughter’s life. Thirty-one years after my mother’s death, here is physical evidence of the thread that has bound us through the decades.
It wasn’t until months later that I noticed additional text at the bottom, almost indistinguishable. I had to refer to the typed rendering in the police report. It was transcribed with my initials, then my sister’s, then “I love you and I’ve done the best things for you”.
Her last words were to tell us that she loved us and was trying to do us good. I find that a bit comforting. But having now known my daughter twice as long as my mother knew me, those words on that piece of paper, and the intent, do not make up for my loss.
Although my heart aches for my mother and how sick she must have been, her actions sent shockwaves of trauma with intergenerational consequences. Their impact on me may be part of the reason why my daughter feels the wounds of the world so deeply.
But the moral of my mother’s story seems to be simple: my presence means more than perfection to my child. I hope the more courageous I am to ask the hard questions, speak and write honestly, the more my daughter and I can undo the legacy of “the horrible mother”, break the cycle and create a better future.
If you or someone you know needs help, dial 988 or call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also get help by text message by visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
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