Monday, July 16, 2018

Voices of Experience: Dead Serious

A tell in poker is a change in a player's behavior or demeanor that is claimed by some to give clues to that player's assessment of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player's tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable.  ~ Wikipedia

Linda I. Meyers was 28 and the mother of three young boys when her mother, after a lifetime of threats, took her own life. Staggered by conflicting feelings of relief and remorse, she believed that the best way to give meaning to her mother's death was to make changes in her own life. Bolstered by the women's movement of the 70's, Linda left her marriage, went to college and received her Psy.D., raised a family, and established a fulfilling career. In her book The Tell: A Memoir, she shares stories from a colorful life ~ touched by tragedy and rich with humor. In this poignant excerpt, she describes her reactions in the aftermath of her mother's death by suicide.

I did not cry at my mother’s funeral. I convinced myself that someone else was in the coffin, a distant relative, a peripheral acquaintance, someone who had been very sick for a long time, and wasn’t it a relief that she was finally out of her misery? I sat in the pew, looked up at the stained-glass window, and thought of nothing. No tears. No expression. Numb like a corpse. You have a cold heart, said a familiar voice inside my head.

My mother-in-law came over to me in the vestibule of the funeral home.

“Linda, don’t worry,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper, “I’ve told everyone that your mother had a heart attack.”

“Well, then you’re going to look like a liar,” I said, “because I intend to tell everyone the truth.”

She looked at me as if I were crazy. I didn’t care. I’d had it with secrets.

My mother had fiercely warned me from as far back as I could remember, that whatever went on inside the house was to stay inside the house. I was to pretend we had a happy home. I went through childhood terrified, never quite sure what I should or shouldn’t say.

Well now the word was out, and she’d given the family’s secrets away, not me. I was finally free to speak the truth to anyone who asked. If they didn’t ask, I found a way to slip it into the conversation.

“Oh, how old is Eric now? Really? Four already? Geez, time goes fast. Did you know that my mother killed herself?”

Or “Sally, I saw Norman the other day; did he tell you that my mother killed herself?”

I was particularly excited to run into someone I didn’t know so I could tell it fresh.

“So nice to meet you. You may have heard that my mother killed herself.”

“Oh, my God,” they would mutter. “I’m so sorry. How awful for you.”

The brazen would ask for details: “I hope you don’t mind my asking, but how did she do it?”

“Pills,” I’d answer.

“What a shock! Who found her? Did you find her?”

I didn’t mind them asking. The more they wanted to know, the more I could go over it. I didn’t have to embellish the story, because it was gruesome in its own right. Their shock reflected my own. There was something in the telling and retelling that helped make it real.

A month after the funeral, Howard and I went to the movies to see I Never Sang for My Father, the story of a man whose mother dies, leaving him to care for a father he hated. The film opened with black letters on a white screen that read, Death ends a life. But it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor’s mind, toward some resolution, which it may never find.

Oh my God, I thought, I’m condemned. It will never be over. She will haunt me till the day I die. I will never find peace.

The movie ended, the dam broke, and I began to sob. I couldn’t get out of my seat. Howard was embarrassed.

“Shush,” he said. “People are looking at you like you’re crazy.”

Crazy? I’m not crazy. My mother was crazy. I’m not my mother,” I sobbed. “I am not my mother,” I pleaded.

“Let’s just go,” he said.

On December 18, 1971, at 5:00 p.m.—one year to the hour of her last phone call—I went to the kitchen, and stood before the yahrzeit memorial candle. The kids were with Howard. I had the house to myself. I resisted reciting the mourners’ Kaddish: “Yit’gadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba.” I didn’t understand the words, but I understood that the purpose of the Kaddish was to honor her life and ease her way out of purgatory into heaven. I took issue with the Jewish law that denies mourning rites for suicides. I imagined the vast beyond to be impossible to navigate, even given a proper death. I lit the candle, finished the prayer, and began to talk to her as if she could hear me. I wanted her to know that by changing my life, I’d hoped to give meaning to her death.

“I’ve been busy since you left. It’s only been a year, but I’ve moved to New Jersey, started college, and separated from Howard. The kids and I are on our own now, Ma, and it’s good. It’s good to be free.”

What I didn’t say was how stupid I thought it was to kill herself over a man, and how angry I was that she left me.

I moved the candle to the corner of the counter, and shut the light. These candles were ensconced in thick glass, protecting the flame from going out during the twenty-four hours of remembrance.

Around 2:00 in the morning I awoke, flooded with memories of our last phone call. Once again I questioned my decision to get off the line and call the police. What if I’d stayed on the phone? Could I have talked her out of it? How many pills had she taken before she called? Was it enough to kill her? Did she know at that time that the deed was done?

I felt an urgent need to go downstairs and look at the candle. The house was cold. I was naked. When I got to the kitchen, I was relieved to see the candle still burning, but as I stood there staring, it flickered and died.

There was no draft in the room. No open window. No explanation.

Just another way to say goodbye.

© 2018 by Linda I. Meyers

About the Author: Linda I. Meyers, Psy.D. is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in New York City and Princeton, NJ, who has been published in professional and academic journals. Two chapters from her debut memoir, The Tell: A Memoir were published in 2016 – “The Flowers,” a top five finalist in Alligator Juniper’s annual contest in creative nonfiction, and “The Spring Line” in Post Road. She lives in New York City and writes in a little town in upstate New York. Visit Linda's Facebook page or contact her directly via her contact form.

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