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Esther K. Willison

It gets hold of me, I wrote less than a year after her death. Somehow  it creeps up. It comes over me like a wave, seeping into my eyes  first, then like a sheath slips over my head and takes over my body  and fits so tightly I can’t breathe. It lies waiting for me in my car—I  know it’s there the minute I open the door but I get in anyway and  as soon as I begin to steer it comes over my shoulders, into my eyes  and down my back. I can feel it beginning to fold itself around my  forehead, on the sides, then into my eyes.

I had reasons, excuses, justifications—she was immature, she  was taking a long time to grow up, she was a sensitive soul, needed  more support. I was sure. As the years went by and her rage grew  and she needed more help, I gave it gladly, although my own anger  and disappointment began to seep into our relationship. But  when I spoke up, her answers were as though she disappeared and  someone else spoke, “Oh, I should have known I couldn’t count  on you, you’ve never been there for me.” Could it be me? Unsure  of myself, I too was vulnerable. So I remained silent and waited for  the change, waited for my daughter to return. “There’s something  wrong with Andrea,” my partner said. “You don’t have kids,” I  snapped. “How would you know?”

My daughter, Andrea, was a poet. She was insightful and  quick-witted, someone you would remember if you met. The  combination of her attractive, soft appearance and her sharp  intellect was appealing. Andrea was working on her doctoral  dissertation—video interviews with people in all aspects of the  mental health system—when she died. She loved to laugh, and she  believed, ironically, that “the only true power is in connection.”  She’d created a small collection of poems with this title, but it was,  in fact, quite hard for her to keep this connection.
Andrea killed herself on September 7, 1997. She was thirty eight years old. I had written a great deal of fiction over the prior  twenty years and when Andrea died, I swore I would never write  another word. I was sure of it. But the following year I began. The  purpose was to remember the good things, the times we had fun  together. But writing tends to steer its own way and after a few  pages I began to write about all of it.

Andrea was a happy kid. She said so herself. A beautiful child,  a good student, loved by everyone. But when she became an  adolescent, she began to feel isolated, separated from the rest of  the world. By the time she was in high school she had withdrawn  completely, refused to attend school, and had to be tutored at  home.

In college, Andrea continued to have emotional problems,  although she remained a good student, had friends, and was  politically active. When she came out to me as a lesbian, I was  pleased because I am also a lesbian. But the daily chores of life  were too difficult for her. For the next ten years, Andrea tried to  conform to conventional standards—full-time job, relationships— but was unable to. No one knew what to do about it, not myself,  her friends, or her therapists. She entered into the mental health  system and was labeled with borderline personality disorder. She  tried an assortment of drugs; anti-depressants and anti-anxiety  medications. Some worked for a while, some didn’t. She was in  and out of the hospital. That beautiful child had grown into a  frightened and tormented adult.

I lived with Andrea’s suffering for all those years, sometimes  able to help her and sometimes, in her eyes, her deadly enemy. I  knew she was unstable. I knew her thinking could be wild. I’d read  books about mental illness, but nothing prepared me for her death.

This thing that weights my heart has many shapes. First it circled  around me like a vulture, for months, maybe years. Maybe it  smelled my fear, my grasping at reasons why she floundered, why  she raged, why she spit out accusations one day and cried for help  the next. Then one night she called: “My life is in danger. The lady  downstairs is trying to kill me.” We flew to her side and stayed with  her until she finally fell asleep at 1:30 a.m. There was no danger;  but she believed there was. Up until then I had been shut so tight,  with locks turned, bolted and reinforced. I had stuffed the cracks  of doubt with solid steel. But on that night, after I left her side,  my mind exploded open into floods. Torrents of thoughts began  drowning my heart, sinking me under. “There’s something wrong  with Andrea,” I finally said. “We need to get help.”

It has been with me ever since. For a time it was quiet and small  enough that it could fit into my pocket until she tried, the first  time, to kill herself. Then it became unbearable. It was my screams  inverted into my body that I could feel even in the soles of my feet.

Only in speaking out loud to my soul mate was I able to  understand that yes, I could stay alive and yes, I could learn how to  squash it down to size. But always the question stayed with me—if  pain wrapped me so tightly, what about her? Is that why she wanted  to die?

So we got used to each other, she and I and it. We even learned  to laugh again, and for three years she kept it so far at bay we both  forgot it existed. “Mom, I’m not crazy anymore, isn’t it great?”  Three years—a miraculous amount of time. Though I kept saying  to myself, be wary, it could come back, keep your jacket and gloves  on at all times. Yet even then, I trusted. We had chased it away; it  was gone forever.

But of course, it wasn’t. It showed up one night when she  separated herself from the group of friends at my house, and  confided to me, “There’s a problem with Naomi. Have you noticed  the way she looks at me?” I stared at her. No, no, I said inside, no,  please don’t say that, don’t look like that, don’t.

After she went home, I sat on my bed and stared, feeling its  return to my throat. But I wouldn’t let it envelop me, not yet. It  got worse for her, and she fought her demons with her small fists.  I admired her strength and her endurance. When I allowed myself

to peer at her demons I was amazed she could go another day.
When she took her life, she left us a note. “Nothing is your  fault,” she wrote to me. “I love you.” Was it not my fault I brought  her into this world? Was it not my fault I couldn’t find a cure for  her? Was it not my fault she continued to suffer? Did she not once  say in her poem, “Mother, you are my railing”? Did she not fall  overboard anyway? And where was I when she swam in that cold  water to her death? How could she say “Nothing is your fault”?

In the end she forgave us all.

Can I forgive her now, for all my suffering? Can I forgive her  for all the suffering before she died and for this long, long journey  to God knows where? I can hardly see a bend in the road—it is like  a straight infinite line of wailing. Is that the same road she saw? Is  that why she ended it?

She started the note, “I am doing this because I have to.  The pain is too much.” I know she did her best. I know she was  exhausted but I want her back anyway, despite the pain. I want to  open her door just as she’s about to grab the razor. But then what?

When she was alive, I kept the pain at a distance. But now I let  go. I plunge head first into her pain. Will there really be a time, as  the books say, when memories will sustain me? It better come soon  or I will let this demon grab me by the neck and be done with it.

Her death left a space, an abyss deeper than my mind could  fathom. At first I waited for her to come back. I was waiting to see  her on the street, at my door, bundled up, collar up, steam from  her mouth in the cold, gloves but no hat. “Hi, Mom.” Those are  the words I waited for the first few weeks. “Hi, Mom.” I could hear  them so clearly. I could hear her voice—firm, but restrained. Tight,  but cheerful. Some hope in the sound of “Hi, Mom.” I heard her  voice on the phone, “Hi, Mom?” a question, although she knew it  was me. She always knew it was me. I told her I loved her always.  Did she know that? “Nothing is your fault,” she wrote in the note.  But isn’t it? I let her die. I held her so close the day before she died,  her voice in my ear on the phone.

Hi, Mom? I’m still at my friend’s house.

Hi. I’m glad you called. How are you?

Fine. Keeping busy.

What are you doing today?

We’re cleaning my friend’s house. We’re going to play pool  tonight.

That’s sounds like fun. Stack ’em up, or whatever one says. (She  laughed.) When will you be home tomorrow?

Tomorrow night, about eight. I’ll call you.

Good. Maybe we can meet for lunch on Monday.


I should have entered into her mind in that moment of silence.  I should have listened to that silence and heard what she didn’t say.  Did she know then there would be no Monday? In that moment  I should have gone through the phone, scooped her up, and held  her in my arms forever.

When the silence finally ended, we spoke about her relationship  with her partner, Pam, that recently ended.

I realize what I’ve lost, Mom. I’ll never have another relationship  like that.

Oh, I don’t know about that. You know what they say: people  who have loved will love again.

You’re my mother, you have to say that. So I’ll call you when  I get home.

Okay, I’ll be here. Happy housecleaning.

Thanks. Do you love me, Mom?

Are you kidding? I not only love you, I’m crazy about you. I love you too, Mom. Good-bye.

Good-bye, honey.

Two women from her program came to my house. I could see  them from the top of the stairs, through the glass door, shifting  their feet. I opened the door part way. “We’ve come about your  daughter…” I had never met them but the terror in their eyes told.  “No, no,” I said, “it’s not true, don’t say it.” I couldn’t stand up. The  sounds came out of me—sounds not mine but whose? My head  bobbing up and down, looking up at the huge women standing over me in overcoats of death, their silent hands in empty pockets.  “Are you sure, are you sure?”

So now this demon has me in its sad measure, no matter where  I am or what I do. But I find that I am afraid to let him go. If  he were to slither off, maybe during the night when I strain for  a dream of my sweet honey to hold her for a moment in sleep, I  would grab him. Even if he might slink away to seek out someone  freshly struck, even then I would grab him by the toes and yank  him back—where are you going, you sonofabitch, I need you to  keep her close. Where will I go without you?
On the day Andrea died, I spotted an egret across the Mohawk  River, nestled into the branch of a tree. For weeks afterward, I  searched for the white bird. Sometimes it was camouflaged against  the tall reeds, other times it was hunting for food. Once I caught  it balancing motionless on one leg. Suddenly its long neck darted  forward to snatch a silver fish out of the water and swallow it as  quickly.

But by late October I couldn’t find the egret anywhere.  Desperate, I climbed down a steep embankment, grasping on to  branches so as not to slip. I worried that the bird was gone forever,  but when I turned my head downriver, the egret soared towards  me, its tapered wings dipping sideways, and then landed on a dead  branch a few yards away. I tiptoed closer and peered through the  trees. The egret was preening her feathers, one wing high in the  air, her beak lifting and lifting again those white feathers, I held  my breath and watched. Then I called to her softly, “Andrea!” And  didn’t she turn her head and look at me, that long slender yellow  beak and those brilliant circled eyes and those delicate black legs?  And those astonishing wings which sailed her up off the branch.

I’ve been watching home movies lately. Andrea was so alive, so  vibrant—I couldn’t find a trace of suicide in her. Not in her face,  her words, her laugh or her eyes. “What will we think of this ten  years from now?” she asked her partner, Pam, at one point in the  film. What will we?  When Pam first introduced the camcorder into our midst, we  made fun of her, of it. Yet she persisted and look now what treasures  we have. Andrea is so animated. I freeze the picture and examine  her face—her mouth wide open laughing, eyes crinkled, head  thrown back. At the next frame there is a listening expression— head cocked, a slight smile. She’s serious, she’s laughing hysterically,  she’s laughing quietly, she’s talking with an Indian accent. “She’s  like a stream beginning to bubble,” my other daughter, Judith, said,  watching the movies with me. I could stare at Andrea’s face all day  and all night.

When Andrea and Pam’s relationship ended, it all fell apart. “I  realize what I’ve lost,” she said the day before she died. Could that  be the reason Andrea gave up? On that particular Sunday when she  came home from her friend’s house, what was in her mind?

I met with that friend and didn’t like her much. Actually I hated  her, for not saving Andrea. I cried the whole time we were having  lunch, but she barely noticed. She just kept talking. “I told Andrea  I’d pay her to help me clean my house but she didn’t do as much as  she said she’d do and then she got mad at me when I paid her less  than we’d agreed. And I didn’t see why…”

So Andrea came home from this “friend’s” house on that Sunday  afternoon. She was alone, without the roommate who had been  promised to her by the supportive apartment system, without her  job that wouldn’t start for another two weeks. “I don’t know if I can  wait two weeks, Mom. I’m always waiting for something.” The next  day she would go to her Day Program—a program for alcoholics,  which she was not. And she would get out at 2:00 p.m. and have  nowhere to go and no one to see. Her thinking was beginning to go  askew again. “I have to do this before I forget who I am,” was the  last line of the note. She repeated it three times. She came home  that Sunday and decided to leave forever. And I didn’t save her.

But she didn’t ask.

I’m looking at a picture of Andrea smiling. It’s only her, though  you can see part of Pam’s arm around her, and even a few wisps of Pam’s hair just at the edge of the photo. Pam and Andrea lived  together for three years—friends, lovers, students—and broke up  a year before Andrea died. I cropped the photo so I could have  a picture of Andrea alone. Andrea’s smiling because she’s happy  at the moment. Her narrowed eyes disclose her willingness to be  captured in her contentment. But there are blemishes in the photo,  a scratch on the negative on the right side of her mouth, a few  white spots on the side of her cheek where the smile lines end.  I want to wipe them off, as if they were toast crumbs or powder  from a doughnut. But I can’t. I can’t wipe off the blemishes. I  never could. And now they’re gone.

If I give up and say to myself, you’ll never see her again—it’s just  too fucking sad. The space she left hasn’t even begun to fold over,  if that’s what it does. It’s still gaping and I can stand on the edge  and look way down. I walk around it and find something to do until  the space narrows into itself. Then I can walk across it, gingerly,  but steadily, and carry Andrea with me into some new adventure.

In her note Andrea wrote: “I am doing this because I have to.  The pain is too much…I have to do this now…” The last thing  she wrote before she went into the bathroom, ran the tub water  and began to undress. She must have undressed quickly—the pile  of clothing in the corner suggests that—and stepped into the tub.  I think her head was facing the left wall but I don’t know that for  sure, I just know it from feel. And the razor must have been lying  on the side of the tub. I wonder if she sat there for a while before  she picked it up. I doubt it. She was ready. “I have to do this now.”

The note lay on the table even after she was gone, with her  handwriting and her letters. The jacket with the hood that I’d given  her lay over the back of the chair she’d been sitting in. Her sneakers  on the floor by the chair. The cat walking around the apartment, or  sleeping on her bed, or eating out of one of the four bowls she set  out, not knowing how long it would be. Never thinking we were  already trying to save her by phone, already suspecting the worst  although never in a million years really believing it. How often  Judith and I had joked: She’s not answering the phone. Ah, yes, it’s the lying-dead-on-the-floor syndrome. Okay, I’ll go over there and  call you.

This time it was the same. Only not quite. She had called me  twice, two days in a row. She had told her sister, “You’ll never know  how much I love you.” That was different, so we moved. But not  fast enough.

It all comes back to me like a whirlpool I’m sucked back into  again and again. No matter where I start out I end up swirled inside  the day she died. One of these days I’ll have to clamber up the side  and swim to shore.

A few weeks after she died I had lunch with Andrea’s father,  Malcolm. Malcolm the unemotional, Malcolm the unapproachable.  We met in a cramped, dingy lunch store near his house. As usual  he was late, his one consistent trait. The worn brown tables and  chairs wobbled. Malcolm and I hunched over a tiny square table  against the wall. It was cold along the floor and I wiggled my toes  to keep warm.

We talked about Andrea, repeating ourselves over and over.  Usually Malcolm jumped up after being with you for a while; now  he couldn’t stop talking, but we didn’t cry.

When we walked to his house after lunch, the sun had come  out and it was warmer. We sat in his backyard, on a small terrace.  Malcolm brought out some things he had taken from Andrea’s  apartment and spread them out on top of a round metal table:  an empty saltshaker, pens and pencils, one glove, the cat dish, a  pack of chewing gum. I didn’t want any of it but I thanked him  for offering them. The last object was a small plastic bag with a  cigarette inside it. Andrea had started smoking again less than a  year before she died.

“I took this butt from the apartment. I don’t know if it’s hers.  What do you think?” He held up the bag.

“She smoked Virginia Slims.”

“This is a Winston,” he said. “It’s probably not hers.” “I think I have two cigarette butts of hers in the ashtray in my  car,” I said. “I could give you one.”
“Could you? Could you really? I’d appreciate that.”
I walked across the street to my car. I opened the ashtray and  took out one of Andrea’s cigarette butts. I saw her sitting in the  passenger seat, her delicate face turned toward me. “Why can’t I smoke in the car?”

“Oh, alright, but at least open the window a little.” Her dark  eyes smiled at me; she put the cigarette in her mouth. I returned to the house and handed the cigarette butt to  Malcolm.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I still have one left.” I looked at his eyes.  Wild. “Sometimes when I’m driving I take the butt out of the  ashtray and put it between my lips.”

“Of course you do,” he said, leaning towards me. The deep  furrows of his seventy years faded and I saw again the smooth,  high cheekbones of our courtship. “Of course.”

Malcolm emptied the plastic bag of the other cigarette. He  turned the bag inside out and shook it out. Then he turned it back  and placed Andrea’s cigarette butt inside the bag. He sealed the top.  Holy shit, I thought, he’s as crazy as I am. It was a surprising comfort.

I left shortly after that. He walked me to my car and we hugged a  long time, so long and so hard I thought maybe we would gradually  fall softly to the ground and hold onto each other forever. As I  drove home, one of Andrea’s poems filtered through my head.  Come to me, come to me, she wrote. Rocks, seaweed, empty crab shells bottle with a ship inside / I will toss you all into the sky / and you will / arch  in a rainbow / allowing me to cross to the other side / where life begins. 

No, I would never see her again. But I would always hear her.