It’s time that I tell you about my mother. I don’t know why I’ve waited this long. But it has to be because the whole subject brings up my own recurring depression and fears. In light of certain events that have occurred recently, many have confessed their anxiety and depression. I’ve seen many others say they have contemplated suicide as well. As I sit down to write this they have brought me to tears. Or maybe remembering the story I’m about to tell you has done this, since it demonstrates the very complex feelings that I wish I could only begin to understand.
Maybe this story can help you. Please forgive me if I seem to ramble. I don’t normally write this way. My mother would have known how.
Mental illness runs in my family. At least, I think it does. I’m told my grandmother introduced my mother to drug use in her early teens. It’s hard to adjudicate the debates—how much is due to genetics and how much to drug use—but my mother was bipolar. Truth is, from what I’ve observed in other family members and in myself, the same blood runs in my veins. The same proclivity and weakness in my corrupted human nature.
Here’s my proof. When I was a teenager I attempted suicide. I always tell myself I never intended to go through with it. At some point I told my friend Molly about it, and she told our Jr. high school counselor. I sat with him for a few meetings, and Molly was there too. I signed a pact with them that said I wouldn’t kill myself. In fact, from what came to light in all of this, I think one or more of my other friends did the same.
I lost my mother in the most depressing time of my life. I had only been married for about a year and a half, and we found out we were going to have a child. I was making $19,000 a year, and my wife’s income barely supplemented that. I was burned out from working at a hotel, with all its false promises of promotion. I had also been trying for two years to get into graduate school. I was rejected. Not just by the schools; by everyone, it seemed. My job wouldn’t promote me, my academic aspirations felt crushed, I couldn’t provide for my wife, and now I had a child on the way. Was God against me too? Was this all a cosmic joke?
Maybe you don’t know this about bipolar disorder, but it can be like mood swings to the extreme. Extreme euphoria followed by extreme depression, or the reverse. I knew when my mother’s happiness just seemed to be one of those upswings. When I told her she was going to be a grandmother, she screamed so loudly with excitement, tears instantly streaming from her face, that I knew it was real. Real happiness. And it was probably the happiest moment in the final months of her life.
She never met her granddaughter. And she will never meet her grandson. She always wanted to have a football player in the family; she would have laughed when I told her my two-year-old son, to this day, has always been the 99% percentile for height.
Falling Asleep Alone
I still have my mother’s case number: 201-6502. I keep it in my wallet like a stored memory. It is a memory of a beautiful woman who fell asleep in the park and never woke up. Now that woman is a case number.
I know she contemplated suicide, in the very way it happened, and I can tell you why I know this. You may not know this about me, but for a short time I joined my father and played in a Celtic folk rock band. It’s not like I was going to make it big; I was just filling in while they found another drummer. Since we got paid—sometimes a decent sum if it was for a festival—I guess you could say I was a “professional” musician.
Anyway, one of the songs that we played was called “The Butcher Boy.” It’s a story about a woman who meets a boy, a butcher, who gets her pregnant and then leaves her. The woman finds out that the butcher boy now has another woman “on his knee,” and she tragically takes her own life. At least in the version that we played, the song begins, “In Dublin town, where I did dwell.”
My mother took writing very seriously. Really, it was sacred to her. When she wrote she wanted to be lucid, especially when she wrote me letters. Every stroke, and every word, was intentional. She could have been something, and done anything, with her words. But maybe she was too afraid? She never said. When she died I gathered as many of her belongings as I could, and I took her folders containing scraps of paper she had filled with writing. She clearly made one folder herself, out of duct tape, and she titled it “My Expressions.”
During the chaotic week where I was organizing her memorial service, I didn’t have time to read anything in the folder. But I placed it face down on a table where my father and I both realized, at the same time, what she had inserted in the back cover. There, on a black sheet of paper by what seems to have been a gel pen, my mother had carefully written a short version of the lyrics to The Butcher Boy. She had changed the opening line to, “In a park, where I now dwell.” I still don’t know how she knew about the song.
Did she mean to do it? You know as well as I do that depression and suicide are not that simple. The answer is “yes and no.” Yes, because my mother’s version of The Butcher Boy foretold the way she died. No, because of what I’m about to tell you.
I went to the police station to discuss my mother’s last hours. My aunt was with me. Case number in hand, and with proof I was Skylar McManus, the next of kin to Alice Dalee Hamilton, we went back with the officer to discuss the case. He offered to show me all of the photographs for the case, and after I swallowed my initial bit of fear, I said yes. I’m glad that I did.
The suicide note always comes first. She left it on the table so her boyfriend could find it. It didn’t make any sense, and she surely wasn’t in her right mind. Most of it was illegible; not how my mother wrote anything. All I remember is that she said she was going to go to the park and “fall asleep forever.”
Did she mean to do it? She wrote the note, didn’t she? She knew where she was going. And I was told she took every pill in the house too. I never ordered the official death certificate or her toxicology report; I already knew it was suicide.
Next come the photographs of the scene. First from far off: Clearly she was on the very edge of the park, and could easily be found had he gone looking for her. Perpendicular to a tree. Easy to spot. In fact, the coroner ruled that she died sometime in the early morning, rather than late at night when she ingested the lethal dose. What this means is that she could still be alive if somebody had done something—anything.
Somebody from one of the homes facing the park saw her lying there, and called the police some hour or two before her official time of death. Thinking it was just one member of the local homeless population, the police didn’t investigate. The home owner left it at that as well. Once you make the call, it’s no longer your problem. And if it’s just some bum, why would the police bother?
Now the close-ups. It didn’t hit me until afterwards, but she died with a bag of chips next to her. Tell me something: Does somebody who intends to die by suicide bring a snack? I’ll tell you what I believe: She chose to do what she did, but she didn’t intend the consequence. She chose that because she was at an emotional and rational low, as her illegible scrawl shows. But one who intends suicide doesn’t bring snacks. When I got her clothes I found candy in her pocket too.
The depression, the suicidal feelings, and everything else that you and I have felt, are complicated. Yes, I have a degree in philosophy, and I believe in the law of non-contradiction. But you can’t convince me that we don’t have a paradox here, thanks to the incomprehensible depths of the human mind. She both did and didn’t mean to commit suicide. And I have no idea how that’s possible.
That’s okay. We’ll probably never know, but our rational nature drives us to ask why anyway.
I told you that my mother never met her granddaughter. Actually, it’s more sad than that: She died a month before my daughter was born. A month. Recently my daughter, who is almost five now, asked me who my mommy is. I told her my mommy’s name was Alice, and told her that she died.
“She dy-did?” my daughter asked. “Yes baby, and your hair and eyes are so pretty, just like hers.”
“But how did she dy-did?”
One day I’ll tell her the rest of the story. She’s too little to understand now. But the only way I know how to answer that innocent question right now is, “Because her heart hurt really bad.” Somehow the rest of the story has to take into account the final line of The Butcher Boy that my mother wrote in all capitals: “I DIED OF LOVE.”
That’s just the thing about many suicide notes, and about suicidal feelings: Even when suicidal people feel so lonely, at the very depths of depression, moments or days away from taking their own lives, they intentionally reach out to others. Most of them do this. In their loneliness they don’t wish to be alone. When they die, they want you to know you are with them. Just as striking, though they may hate themselves and what they are feeling even as they prepare to leave this life, they often reach out to tell somebody that they love them.
I’m telling you all of this so that you know that you’re loved, and that you’re not alone. But now I have to ask you the question: Are you considering suicide? It’s complicated, just like my mother’s story. But all you have to say is “yes” or “no.” If you answer “yes,” please talk to somebody, even if it isn’t me.
Let’s find a solution for this fight. Together.