Thursday, September 13, 2012


Numbers About My Mother

It’s August and it’s San Francisco so it’s cold. While I’m walking home from work there’s a call from a Portland number I don’t recognize. I answer. It’s a friend of my mother’s, phoning to let me know that my mother has tried to kill herself, that she’s at a hospital in an induced coma. I slump onto a cement car stop in a parking lot and listen to the details, dig in my purse for a pen, turn the phone away from the wind, write down the hospital’s name and the room number, watch people walk down Polk Street on their way home or to happy hour, thinking how normal they all look, how careless they act while my mother is in a coma. Her friend says she’s not sure how bad it is. I try to figure out how to phrase my question correctly, politely: “You mean she might die?” but I can’t think of how it’s supposed to be said, how a person asks this of a near-stranger regarding her own mother, so I don’t ask it.

My mother is 57 and I am 32. This isn’t the first time she has tried to kill herself. The other time was when she was 32 and I was seven. Back then, she was a single mother of four kids — my three brothers and me. She’d been married twice, divorced twice. We lived in a little house that my brothers and I came into and went out of with impunity while she slept days, worked at a bar nights. The house had two bedrooms and one attic. One of my brothers was still a baby, not yet two years old. That’s a lot of numbers for one paragraph. Here are some more:

Number of brothers I didn’t get to see anymore when my mother gave up custody of all of us and we went into foster care: two.

Number of families, total, my brother and I lived with before graduating high school: seven.

Number of years old I was when I re-met my mother:  nineteen.

Average number of times my mother and I talk on the phone per week: three. We’re close, like best friends sometimes. We talk about everything, almost. But then. We’ll never be close enough. We don’t talk about the difficult things. We don’t talk about the days when we were a family of five. I don’t ask her what number of times she had to put her signature on what number of lines, what number of forms she had to fill out to let go of all four of her children. One? Five? Twelve? How does that work?  

The mother I know now is a very small, mellow person who wears feather earrings and three or four rings on each hand and gauzy scarves and a denim jacket with a big peace sign on the back, and sometimes when we talk she seems very old and wise, and sometimes she seems very young and simple. Her cell phone ring tone is “All You Need Is Love.”

I don’t call her Mom. I don’t remember what it felt like to call her that. I write it in cards, but when we’re together I can’t think of a comfortable way to address her, so I don’t call her anything.

Although. She is a lot of things. I look just like her, and sometimes when I’m leaving a friend a voicemail or giving a stranger directions on the street, I have to stop, startled for a second, because I’m intonating my words in the exact same way she does.

All these years later, and now she's tried it again. It comes as a shock, because I hadn’t thought ... I don’t know what I hadn’t thought. I try to pinpoint it. I’m still sitting on the car stop in the parking lot, and it seems important to decide, before I get up and continue my walk home and call the hospital, why exactly my mother doing this has come as a shock. I come up with: I guess I just thought she was happy. Well, not in an ecstatic-to-be-living-in-the-world sort of way, but in a regular way — she crochets barefoot sandals, she has a garden — that  just-enough sort of happy that prevents people from wanting to die. That’s the kind of happiness I had been envisioning in my mother’s life, I guess. Tomato-and-corn-garden happy.

The hospital puts me on the line with a doctor who has treated her. The doctor says she’s in serious but stable condition, that they are keeping her in a coma because she fights her breathing tube. She recounts the circumstances that led to her being brought in, because I am her daughter and I am the one who gets to hear these things explained slowly, and with care. She took bottles of pills (two), she drank bottles of wine (two), she texted strange messages, she choked on her vomit, she got some of it into her lungs, and when her friend found her, she was unresponsive.

I call my ex, because I know he’ll go with me. We haven’t seen each other in two months. We take the Greyhound to Portland, riding overnight and half the next day. Number of miles: six hundred and thirty-five. Cramped against our seats, we don’t sleep. We ask each other questions that require inconsequential answers:

Do you like drinking fountains?

Do you hate balloons?

Peanut butter and honey or jam and cream cheese?

At the hospital, my mother is smaller than she is in real life, because she can’t move and her eyes are closed. The tube down her throat, breathing for her, is larger than I’d imagined those tubes should be. I take one of her hands, but there are people in the room I’ve never met, so I don’t talk to her and I don’t cry.

My ex and I leave, find a hotel. We put our bags on the floor and take off each other’s clothes, and it’s a good thing to have him here, this person I know much better than anyone, and he knows me and doesn’t think it’s strange that I didn’t cry while I watched my mother’s lungs being jogged up and down by a machine. We should be naked together while it’s still light out because there’s nothing else I can think of that we should do or have to do.

We go back and forth to the hospital on the MAX train, and the number of days my mother stays unconscious is three, and then I get a call that she’s awake. I'm nervous on the train. “What will I say to her?” I ask my ex.

“You’ll know when you get there,” he says. “You don’t have to decide now.”

In truth, I don’t remember what I said, and I think there’s a reason for this: whatever it was, it didn’t really mean anything.

I’m sure something meant something. Maybe the bottle of apple cider-scented lotion I brought for her, or how from her bed she held up a teddy bear I’d given her a million years ago, just holding it up to show me, not saying anything. Or how she yelled at the nurse who was remaking her bed that she liked the pillows (there were four) the way they were before, and that it would be impossible, now, to recreate their former positions. Or how her boyfriend took a brush and ran it down gently through her oily hair, and I watched him and wondered if he was as angry at her as I was, knowing you could be this tender to someone and at the same time want to scream into their faces until they ... what? Undid every time they’d ever left you or tried to leave you? And so that’s why we were tender, because what was the point of being anything else?

I kept thinking about how small my mother looked in her hospital bed. Impossibly so. When I was small, she liked fairies. She had a beautifully illustrated book of fairies in flight and in their tiny homes and nude among thatches of grass, and I remember looking at them and thinking of them as distinctly hers, not as mine, in the way a child can selfishly claim what’s around them. These strange pictures represented her secrets, and I remember them still. Does anyone else?

Since she’d woken up, everyone who came to visit my mother spoke to her like she was a five-year-old, and this, finally, was what made me cry. In the hall, I sobbed into my ex’s neck that everyone was using small words and hushed voices, that no one was saying anything that made any sense, mostly they were just asking her what she’d eaten for lunch, what kinds of foods they could go out and find and bring back for her. Like: suicide attempts! Maybe they make people have the strangest cravings! Anything. Sweet and sour pork? Watermelon? Mocha-chocolate-chip ice cream?

I wanted to clap my hands like a teacher signaling the end of recess and say to my mother, “Okay, what happened? Why did you do this? Start from the beginning,” but I knew I wouldn’t. I was a good daughter, I think, a daughter taking the train every day to visit her mother in the hospital, offering polite chit-chat to those stationed in her room at all hours to make sure she didn’t again try to harm herself. She did say sorry one time. She did say it and cry until I thought her face could break apart, and I held her hand and said, “It’s okay.  It will be okay,” and she went to sleep.

On the way back home, I tried to tell my ex about the way my words sometimes come out sounding exactly like my mother's, and he asked me why it worried me so much. I didn’t have an answer ready. Because for as long as I live I may keep becoming my mother? And is this a good thing? A bad thing? And am I really becoming her, or do I just see myself through a lens of her? If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life, what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words? And where do they go when we’re not thinking of them, when we’ve moved away too many times and somehow they’re no longer there at all?

When we got back home to San Francisco, my ex and I grew distant again, and now we don’t speak. That’s the strange thing. I met him four years ago, and I know him better than I know my mother, I’m sure I do, but boyfriends we learn we can let go of. We let go of them, sometimes, with a stomach twisting sense of loss that even can border on pleasure.

Now when I wonder if my mother is happy, I think it’s probably not something I'll ever be able to quantify in terms of what she’s growing in the garden, or by thinking of a book or a teddy bear or a bottle of lotion. I want to start looking more closely at her face and listening more carefully to her words. Yesterday on the phone she was laughing. I don’t remember why, but we were both laughing so much.

Melissa Chandler lives and writes in San Francisco.

50 Comments / Post A Comment


Powerful. Thank you.


absolutely gorgeous@l


So so beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing.


This was heart wrenching and beautifully written. I loved the laughing at the end in particular.


I feel like I got punched in the chest. Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Wow, so beautiful and so gut-wrenching. Moms...they're really hard. And daughters...they're hard, too. Thanks so much for sharing something so devastating.

lasso tabasco

This is beautiful and reminds me so much of my own relationship with my mother. Thank you for writing this.


This is really beautiful. Thanks for sharing.


Aaaaaaand I'm crying at work. Wow. This was just...wow.


@BeebsLaRue I creyed A+++ would reblob again.


Ugh, this made me feel all the things.


You are a beautiful writer and a wonderful daughter.

Reginal T. Squirge

The picture is the saddest part.

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

Mothers and daughters have the thickest, most-nuanced and emotionally heavy relationships. You captured this well. I hope she's better, and I hope you are OK.


@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose I couldn't have said it any better. This was a beautiful and thoughtful piece that really gets you down in the gut where all things mom-related get you.

the roughest toughest frail

Oh my. This was truly beautiful and heartbreaking. Thank you.


This hit close to home, maybe a little too much so. The second to last time he visited, my dad told me that if it weren't for my brother and I he would kill himself, but we don't have to worry, because we're here so he won't.

(The last time he visited he seemed happier, freer, less angry. He said it was vitamin B injections. My brother and his band played their first paying gig and we all cheered. Maybe things are okay.)

sudden but inevitable betrayal

@frigwiggin What an awful burden to carry, all three of you. :( *hugs* if you want them.


@frigwiggin It's hard isn't it when your parent isn't really the parent isn't it? You seem to have a good spirit about all of it.


Great essay. Feel the same way sometimes, and wonder, will I turn into my mother?
I don't think so, though. I love her for who she is, but I am learning from her and not going to repeat the same mistakes. That took me many years to get together in my mind, so I am not saying this as advice.
I have a friend whose family looks so good together, like they never fight, they go to neat places, they eat great food, they love each other's company. Sometimes I can't stand to read about their trips and look at their pictures because I just feel so jealous. But then, I try to snap myself back into a clearer headspace and realize that my life can be whatever I want it to be. Though I do wish my friends would stop finding jobs in faraway places!
Thanks for the great essay and the opportunity to reflect, Melissa. Your essay made a lot of us reflect on our relationships with our parents.

Annie Murphy@facebook

You're a wonderful writer, that was incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing!


I like stories like these, more real than posts about the Golden Girls. I have a wrenching non-relationship with my mother, so thank you. I couldn't cry, but I came close many times, and for that, thank you.


Moving and beautiful and everything everyone else has already said.


You are an excellent writer. Thank you for sharing.

Ee Gads

I'm going to say this: I hope you rewrite this. You know you will rewrite this. As you grow up, not that you're not old enough or anything, but you will rewrite this part of your life over and over. You will first edit words then phrases, then whole paragraphs. I hope in the re-tellings the laughter and sorrow come to a better balance for you and your mom.


Very well-written and moving.


Thank you for this. And I'm terribly sorry for what happened to you and your brothers.


I'm a mother trying so hard not to have a wrenching non-relationship with my boys. Thank you for this. (and btw, this is my first comment in thehairpin. yay! )


This was so, so well written. Thanks for writing this.


This is beautiful. Never stop writing. Thank you so much.


Depression and mothers are difficult beasts, and this is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have ever read.


You're a gifted writer. That was beautifully written.

Deanna Destroi

This was amazing. It made me cry at work and then call my mom.


My God, this was beautiful.

I'm so sorry that you had to deal with your mom's attempted suicide. As a child of a parent who succeeded in killing himself, I am honestly flummoxed when I think of how I would have dealt with it if he had tried and not succeeded.

Your paragraph about how you feel tenderness toward your mother because you can't let yourself feel rage resonated with me. At least (at least? Jesus...the ways your perspective changes when you experience a suicide) I got to feel that rage. It was okay to be angry at a father who left his four daughters - left without even leaving an intelligible note - because he was gone forever and Anger is part of the Stages of Grief™. I can't even imagine how you must have felt (still feel?), and I hope you're able to talk to someone or find a way to healthily process that Gordian knot of emotion.


@wee_ramekin PS I didn't realize you were the same person from the comment above that. I'm so sorry about your dad. Thanks for the understanding words. You are strong and wise, and they mean a lot.


Melissa, I just went to your author link and looked at the other pieces that you've written for the 'Pin, and I want you to know that, without exception, each of your articles have a place among those sparkly few that, for me, rise above the rest of the brilliant writing on this site. I didn't even realize that the same person had written them until now. Your authorial voice is so good, and the subjects you choose to tackle are gut-wrenching and tender. Thanks so much for continuing to contribute here.


@wee_ramekin Thank you for such kind words! It was difficult to write and submit, but I'm so glad I did.
Thanks, everyone else, as well for beautiful thoughts re: this piece and everything else discussed in here.

Jumping JoJoSoPhat

You basically captured perfectly the abject weirdness of dealing with the after affects of a failed suicide. My friend tried to commit suicide. Me and others visited him every day. And we would all talk about everything BUT what the fuck happened. I wanted to yell at him and shake him and slap the shit out of him but no one said anything about it. We were visiting him for a reason but no one discussed the why we were visiting him. It was strange and maddening and extremely sad.


Thank you so much for sharing this. I just wish there had been some type of warning before hand (of course I am only kidding but maybe not really). You handled this with grace and strength. I had such eerily similar circumstances with my own mother, but I had to finally break ties with her and the rest of my family because it was just too painful. You are a brave and beautiful person. And keep sharing, it helps all of us that just can't.

Stephanie Burgis@twitter

This is so beautiful and wrenching. Thank you so much for sharing it.


How sad and how lovely. I just read this two days after the seventh anniversary of the suicide of a friend, and, ugh, the feelings. Mixed anger and tenderness indeed.
My heart goes out to you. Thanks for sharing, for your beautifully written version of an awful experience.


The love and connection expressed in your story is profoundly moving. And for the "ex," how lovely and kind of you to just be there, and to remind Melissa that she would know what to say.


Grieving the loss of a mother who is still alive is so painful, and seemingly never-ending. I was an adult when I began to face that - I cannot imagine the processing starting as a child. I've had similar phone calls on Polk St. and my heart goes out to you.


You're lucky. My mother killed herself when I was 33. I have no answers; I do not understand. It wasn't a part of a pattern. It wasn't a cry for help. The last thing she ever said to me was "I can't talk to you right now".

isotope girl

I too have experienced parental suicide attempts. My father tried to kill himself three times in one week four years ago. The second attempt was serious and hospitalized him. I dropped everything (as did my three other siblings and mother) to fly home and be by his side only to have him attempt a third time while I was watching him the day after he was released from the hospital. One of my most heartbreaking moments in life was having to tell my mother he did it again.
You so perfectly expressed the mixed emotions of relief, love, and rage that a child feels to a parent who chooses not to stay in this world, to ignore their pleas of “we love you, stay here with us”. The first thing my father said when his breathing tube was removed was "I wanted to die" and "why am I still here". I am the only one who heard or understood him and I still have not been able to talk to him about it or any other aspect of the experience. I underwent several years of therapy but I see, in one of my siblings especially, the lingering effects this trauma had, especially at his tender and vulnerable age of 17.
Much love and healing to you and anyone else out there trying to recover from this terrible experience. It changed my life forever in good ways and bad ripping apart the foundation of my life but I've rebuilt it stone by stone with a hopefully much stronger foundation and knowledge of myself.


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