Courtesy of The New York Times | By Gail Eisenberg | Posted 08.25.2017 | Published 09.16.2017
Visceral congestion, pending chemical examination.
Decades later, those five words on a mustard-yellow death certificate were the only explanation I’d had for my mother’s demise in May of 1980, when I was 14. The question remained: Had my mother killed herself? Without proof, I would allow myself to waver. I convinced myself that uncertainty was better than having to say goodbye. But about 10 years ago, as I approached 40 — the age Mom was when she died — I needed resolution. I was determined to ground myself in facts. I dialed New York City’s chief medical examiner to request a copy of her autopsy report.
Within two weeks, I held the legal-size pages folded tightly in thirds. As I read, I imagined my mother’s toe-tagged body draped in a crisp white sheet as it slid out from the metal chamber, the glint of the scalpel, the snap of latex gloves. The pages of the report included terms I didn’t understand, quantities I couldn’t comprehend, body parts I didn’t know existed. My mother described à la carte.
Then: Final cause of death: Acute propoxyphene and diazepam toxicity. Suicide.
My list of socially marginalized affiliations grew — motherless, gay, only child, suicide survivor. I thanked God I wasn’t left-handed. I felt sad, yet satisfied. Until I saw something on the document I’d somehow missed:
Notes found at scene to be brought to mortuary.
“Did Mom kill herself?” I’d asked my father many times over the years, wondering if he’d protected me from the truth at 14, hoping he’d tell me at 40.
“I don’t think Mama meant to do it that day,” he’d reply. “All the medications she was on caught up to her.”Her unfortunately named shrink, Dr. Dye, had dispensed the psychotropics of the time, the
Her unfortunately named shrink, Dr. Dye, had dispensed the psychotropics of the time, the pill for every ill: Thorazine, the antipsychotic; Nardil, the antidepressant; Lithium, the mood stabilizer; Valium, the sedative. And she had had shock therapy; there was a lot going on in her head.
Still, I needed to know what happened, and I repeatedly asked my dad whether there was a note.
“Your mother wrote a lot of notes,” he always said.She did. There were “Drink your V-8!” messages left in my brown bag lunches and “Gail looks like a fresh devil! (ha-ha)” on the backs of photographs. There were letters about what we’d do together one day, words that gave me hope. But what kind of note awaited me? I contacted the medical examiner’s office again. Six months passed before I received an answer.
She did. There were “Drink your V-8!” messages left in my brown bag lunches and “Gail looks like a fresh devil! (ha-ha)” on the backs of photographs. There were letters about what we’d do together one day, words that gave me hope. But what kind of note awaited me? I contacted the medical examiner’s office again. Six months passed before I received an answer.
“Ms. Eisenberg,” the man said, “I’m calling to let you know that the suicide note is ready for pick up.”
I’m calling to let you know your dog is groomed, and ready for pick up.
I’m calling to let you know your picture is framed, and ready for pick up.
Your dry cleaning is done, and ready for pick up.
The odds were against it: A majority of those who commit suicide do not leave a note. Still, I knew how much she’d yearned for a chance to explain herself to the son she felt she had abandoned when she’d given him up for adoption in the 1950s. I hoped she wanted to leave me a note as much as I needed to find one.
The last time I saw my mother alive, she stood before me in our apartment in Rockaway Beach, Queens, with her wrists wrapped tightly in white bandages. In full makeup and a teased strawberry-blond wig, she looked like Charo. I worried she’d succeed at what she’d twice attempted and continued to threaten. It haunted me. I cared, I loved her, I wanted her to live, to get better, to be happy. But I was also embarrassed by her and sick of her.
“Go ahead and do it already,” I yelled.
At least, that’s the way I remember it. We were fighting, and I left the apartment. For decades, I’d wondered how my mother died and whether, by daring her, I was an accomplice in her death.
Anticipation gave way to amazement when I saw my mother’s familiar handwriting — the triple-underlined words, errant dashes and exclamations, a circled phrase and an equal sign — her death sentences.
My Angel, I tried so hard not to do this.
Those words assured me of my mother’s love. Mom had forgiven me. And now I was free to forgive myself.