portion of the artwork for Kim Freeman's nonfiction

Dandelion Seeds
The Legacy of Suicide
Kim Freeman


Two words, Watergate and suicide, became distantly associated in my young brain for no reason other than chance, like how when I see the Amish, I think of Charlie’s Angels because I first learned of the Amish on an episode of that TV show. It is not as though I think of these words, Watergate and suicide, always simultaneously. I’ve learned too much about each of them to maintain that association in the logic of adulthood, but there is something connecting them, and it is faintly magical.

I don’t know when I first heard the word suicide. It’s one of those words, like cancer, you don’t notice until you step on it, a nail suddenly poking through the floor. When I was 21 years old, my mother killed herself. She shut her garage door, climbed inside her car, and turned on the ignition. Since then, it’s been an idea ever present. Most of the time, it’s in the background, a static noise that rises and falls in volume. But sometimes, it’s blaring, drowning out all other sound.

When I was 15, I saw, during a vocal recital, that the concept of suicide upset my mother. I had been taking private voice lessons because I wanted to learn to sing. The recital was a lovely affair, and I do mean lovely, as in things white and pink. There was tea in a pot and punch in a crystal bowl, and there were beautiful Italian cookies and chocolates wrapped in paper, all invitingly arranged on a platter. Parents sat on metal fold-up chairs in our teacher’s living room, which she had transformed into a tiny theater. Our teacher wanted to highlight our elocution as well as our singing voices so we memorized and recited poems, which we were allowed to select. Other students chose poems like “Jabberwocky” or Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnets. I did not. Looking back, I share my mother’s embarrassment over my choice, but at 15, I craved authenticity, and authentic to me at that time meant Sylvia Plath. So I memorized and recited the poem “Tulips,” which is a fairly typical Plath poem, full of anger, hate, nihilism, ironic beauty, and, of course, suicidal pondering. I must have chosen this poem to provoke, to darken the pastels of the event, to show people what psychological pain was, though, at the time, I didn’t suspect why I wanted to do so, that perhaps I was asking for help.

It’s a longish poem, 63 lines, and I got off to a good start: “The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.” Plath then recounts whiteness, its beauty, peace, and dead resignation, claiming, “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.” I strolled through lines about the stupidity of consciousness, the business of nurses, then numbness and needles. I performed, as I was taught, scanning the audience, looking just over people’s heads. Things were going smoothly enough until I saw Mom. I’m not sure which line accosted her. Perhaps when Plath refers to her husband and children’s smiles as “little smiling hooks” that “catch onto [her] skin.” Or maybe when Plath writes that the tulips hurt her, that she can hear the tulips breathing “like an awful baby.” Mom fidgeted with a tissue. She pressed her lips together so tight her mouth disappeared. She would let nothing out. Her eyes were pure anger, like she was slapping me, telling me to shut up. I was knocked breathless by her expression. Suddenly I was a small child again, and she was looming over me with a raised arm. I blanked. I lost a few stanzas, cutting to the last one. I was glad to be done. I’m sure everyone was glad I was done, and that we could now move on to “How Do I Love Thee?”

Now I think my mother’s expression was not so much anger at my behavior but the shock of recognition. Maybe lines such as “I didn’t want any flowers. I only wanted / To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty” were too familiar and tempting. Plath’s description of death is invitingly Zen in its emptiness:

How free it is, you have no idea how free—
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a nametag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

When I think of wanting to die as a desire for peace, I cannot be mad at my mother or feel betrayed by her, at least not completely. I understand the desire for that peace myself, and sometimes crave it, a quiet end to it all, no more wanting, no more not getting, no more success, no more failure, no more depression. It is peace my mother writes she is looking for in the five-page letter she left behind: “I am in such incredible pain inside and can no longer live with it. I must find some peace and since I do not believe in life after death—I believe that death will free me from all feelings.”

My mother wrote her letter on yellow legal-pad paper. She left it neatly arranged on her kitchen counter, along with a new will, the names of people she thought we might need to contact pulled out of her Filofax, and important financial papers, such as her bank and credit card statements. She paid incredible attention to detail in planning her death, as she did in life. Everything always had its place, from the stack of shell-shaped soaps in the guest bath to the rainbow of tear-shaped candles on the mantle and the fan of magazines on the coffee table. In her letter, she recounts her preparations: “ … it was a lot easier doing the details—laundry, house pick-up, will, etc. but this letter is so hard.” In her postscript, she writes that she knows there are some of her things that wouldn’t be appropriate for my brother and me, noting that we didn’t have to keep it all. She thinks maybe her sister might like some of her clothes, but then writes “or maybe—oh I don’t know—it’s not my problem anymore.” She would soon be free from tedium.

 

2.

I first became aware of the word Watergate one afternoon, during the height of the hearings in 1973. Mom and I were driving north from downtown San Diego on Highway 163, a route that takes you under Cabrillo Bridge, which is more popularly called “Suicide Bridge.” As we approached, we saw a man standing on its edge. Traffic stopped, giving us a view of the bridge above and the man in white, clinging to the outside of the rail. I was too far away to see much more. My mother reacted quickly, pulling my head into her lap, blindfolding me with the dashboard.

My mother whispered “damn,” a red-flag word she said only when something got broken, or when someone, often I, had pissed her off. A pissed-off mother was volatile. I was rarely sure what stirred her anger, only that I often attracted it. But she let me rest quietly in her lap. I could relax. I was not in trouble. Mom was in protective mode, although I wasn’t sure what she was protecting me from. Years later, I wondered, Was she shielding me from witnessing this man’s suicide or her reaction to it? Did this man waiting at the edge of the bridge that day suggest something to her, a dark mushrooming idea? Was it raw and familiar or was it something horribly foreign?

From my mother’s lap, the palms seemed taller, climbing into the sky, hiding downtown, the Hotel Cortez, and the zoo that I knew was just beyond the trees. The astringent citrus of eucalyptus worked its way through the vents. There was nothing to do but wait and watch—or, in my case, watch my mother watch. I could see the soft underside of her chin and her clenched jaw, her nostrils, the black line of her fake eyelashes, and the faintly cinnamon halo the sun cast over her dark brown hair. She looked larger than usual. I could have reached up and pinched her nose, though I never would have dared.

Mom said it was going to be fine. She explained that they had a trampoline spread across the highway. It was more likely a Browder Life Safety Net, which were still used by some departments until the 1980s, but trampoline was the word she said. I remember the weight of her arm around my waist. She looked down at me and smiled, a small, tight smile, the kind I knew was a lie. Her eyes were dark brown, darker than her hair, so dark that I couldn’t see into them. She proudly called them ebony eyes, as if the Bob Welch song were about her. They hid a lot. I smiled back. I was not scared because I didn’t understand what was going on.

I thought trampolines were only for amusement parks and the lucky, spoiled children who lived a few doors down. I wasn’t allowed to play on them. Too dangerous, Mom said. I hadn’t known trampolines could serve a practical purpose.

She reached over me to turn up the radio. She looked back up at the bridge. These motions let me know that I was to be quiet. So I was forced to listen to the news, one of those unfathomable boredoms of adulthood. A nasally voice tunneled through the car speakers reporting the Watergate hearings. Trapped, I had nothing to do but consider the Watergate Hotel. I thought it must have been something magnificent, an undersea resort, where fantastic sea creatures spent their hard-earned vacations.

Water then Gate. Blues. Greens. Aqua. Violet. In. Out. Before. Behind. I saw some wet, wet world. It was as though liquid could harden itself into iron but retain its changeability, its flux. Nixon was a gatekeeper with broken tape, and I understood how tape wouldn’t work underwater. Deep throat was a big, barnacled fish with an enormous gullet, the kind that I would later read Elizabeth Bishop describe in her famous poem “The Fish.” Somehow the creatures could all breathe and guns could smoke under water. I can’t remember the specifics of the story, or stories, I constructed, but I remember the feeling of that world, inviting as the bubbling, briny sea that Angela Lansbury and her wards ride into, on a bed, in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

The traffic started to move. It was anti-climactic. I might have imagined that the man from the bridge did jump, and the trampoline caught him. He floated down, bounced, laughed, and bounced again, as I might if I were allowed to play on trampolines. From that height he could have gotten a lot of momentum. Mom gave me a loving squeeze, then let me rise. We drove by a few men in uniform, whether firemen or policemen, I’m not sure. Their backs were to me. I still don’t know what happened. Were they blocking people from seeing this man, trying to give him the privacy he had denied himself? Did they pull him from the top of the bridge? Did he jump and get caught, or did he chicken out and ease himself back on to the solid ground of Laurel Street?

Mom and I didn’t talk about it on the way home. We didn’t talk about it over dinner. We never talked about it at all. For years my memories of the incident consisted mostly of a vast trampoline and a fantastic underwater hotel. The memory of the man on the bridge was largely forgotten until years later when I found myself searching through my medicine cabinet for something lethal enough to end my own life. After that came the questions. Did he ever try again? Did he talk about it with anyone? Did he get help and live an OK life? Even more I wondered what went through my mom’s mind. Was there envy? Was an idea born, one that hovered and set lightly, a dandelion seed, in my mother’s brain?

I wish Mom and I had talked about it. In my teens I began my struggle with the appeal of suicide, a struggle that’s continued off and on throughout my life. Following her example, I didn’t talk about it with anyone.

 

3.

I saw the actual Watergate Hotel when I moved to Washington D.C. for my first job teaching literature and writing. With its curves and glass, this Watergate is impressive, but not as amazing as what I’d imagined as a child. It looks dated, the modernists’ dream of the future, now stained with history.

We encourage magical thinking in children—we want them to believe in Santa and the Easter bunny, in SpongeBob—perhaps he’s been to Watergate? My mother went through elaborate machinations to create my belief in Santa. I’d help her set out Christmas cookies, eggnog, and carrot and celery sticks for the reindeer. In the morning, the cookies would be nibbled and only a drop of eggnog would remain in the glass. Santa had been there. I was disappointed when I saw the boxes from Toys“R”Us. Why did Santa need to shop?

As I grew older, Mom began to see it as her parental duty to disillusion me. When I dreamed of having waist-long hair, she would remind me that it would never happen. My hair was too thin, too curly, and too fragile. She was right. My hair has never grown past my shoulders. I remember a Maxwell House commercial in which a woman sips her coffee, the mug steaming in the cool morning air, on the deck of a house that reaches out over a still lake, reflecting the fiery oranges, reds, and yellows of peak autumn. I said, “Wow. Dreamhouse.” Mom said, “Doubt you’ll ever live in such a house. Be careful of what you dream about.”

Now, as a college teacher, I see students who want to act or sing or play guitar, but who are majoring in business or criminal justice or biology or pharmacy. These students have been encouraged by their parents—those same parents who once helped them write to Santa—to focus on practical, secure, money-making careers. I am sure this is done with the best intentions. The beautiful, expansive world of childhood, one without limits, invites growth and creativity. But as we go out to face the world alone, we need to know the dangers of falling. By the time we are in college, most of us believe in reality completely.

 

4.

As an adult who functions in world of solid reality, I know there is no connection between the words Watergate and suicide. But, for me, there is a connection between my nostalgia for imagination and my thoughts of suicide. The loss of idealism and the dull pain of everyday reality are hard to accept. There are, I know very well, other factors, including biological and genetic aspects, that lead to depression and suicide. Half of the people I know are or have been on some sort of antidepressant, myself included. Still, I suspect our cultural expectations, which shift radically from childhood to adulthood, come into play.

Perhaps it was an inability to let go of idealism that brought that man to the edge of Suicide Bridge, and, on a wider and wilder tangent, that brings me to write this essay. It’s not so simple, of course, as saying I had been thinking of suicide but decided to write an essay instead, but I suspect there are similarities between suicide and memoir. Both offer a means of trying to take control of what we can’t fully control, the end of our lives or the shape of the events within them. They are both about plot. They are both about some negotiation between the self and this world, between imagination, idealism, and reality, boundaries as fragile and fluid as gates constructed out of water.

I’m not sure of the exact moment I conceived of this essay, but I began it as I approached 40, and I think it’s a way of making sense of similar mid-life disappointments that plagued my mother and perhaps the man on the bridge. Failed relationships. Stalled careers. My mother killed herself the night before her 43rd birthday in April. Yes, the cruelest month. She was going through her second divorce. She was working nights as a phlebotomist, rather than working as an interior designer, which is what she wanted to do. She’d planned to go to her 25th high school reunion that summer. She was nervous about appearing as a twice-divorced failure. She blames the end of her second marriage for her suicide: “I can not seem to accept my break up with [him] and I don’t want to live without him. I know that is crazy—it is because of him that I have deteriorated. Anyway, he has a new girlfriend—I found out today [and] that has sent me over the edge.” The phrase is, of course, a cliché, but appropriate. She had decided to jump. The pain was so big I doubt she could see outside of herself. Mom describes the pain as “a large pressure around [her] heart … [her] stomach … in [her] throat.” It’s a feeling I’ve known, too. For me, it is more of a dullness so dull it hurts. Your eyes are heavy and everything is tinged with darkness. It’s hard to move, hard to lift your arms.

The suicides I find most frightening are the writers and their inheritors. Ernest Hemingway did as his father did, and then his granddaughter Margaux followed suit. And Spaulding Gray, whose mother chose the same method as my mother did, jumped off a ferry into Long Island Sound. Since I’ve begun this essay, Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, also killed himself. I’m not suggesting that suicidal inclinations are only genetic, merely that suicide somehow seems a more real, perhaps viable, option once someone so close to you has done it. Linda Gray Sexton, daughter of Anne Sexton, who committed suicide not long after Plath, responded to the death of Nicholas Hughes in her opinion piece in The New York Times, “A Tortured Inheritance,” noting similar concerns about family legacy, describing her struggles with suicide. She, too, like Plath, has tried to kill herself three times. She writes, “But even if there isn’t an absolute genetic component, there certainly is an emotional one. When I turned 45, the age at which my mother killed herself, I too began to be drawn to suicide as a way to escape pain. This was my inheritance. My guess is that I wasn’t alone: hundreds of thousands die by suicide each year. And hundreds of thousands of families are damaged by that loss.”

Like many teenagers, I thought of suicide. The suicidal thoughts faded as I went through college. However, David Foster Wallace’s suicide, when he was 46, set me off on a fresh round of depression. How could so talented and successful a person be suicidally depressed? I entered my 40s with trepidation. Disappointment loomed like rotten weather forecasts. I’d fallen off the tenure track, landing on the less prestigious lecturer line. Like my mom’s, my marriage had fallen apart. These disappointments brought me to the afternoon I found myself rummaging through the medicine cabinet, household drawers, the kitchen. I, thankfully, didn’t have a garage. I knew I could never do something violent like shoot myself or slice my wrists, though I thought about it seriously. What stopped me then was partly the mess of it—as Dorothy Parker sarcastically recounts in “Résumé,” one “might as well live.”

I didn’t go farther that afternoon. I couldn’t find a method. Probably some part of me didn’t really want to, but the appeal of suicide still loomed when depression would slow me to near paralysis. I feared my 43rd birthday because I worried I would be a repeat. I’ve passed it now, and I feel hesitantly triumphant. I can sense that numbness on a horizon behind me, a town I’ve moved on from and don’t want to return to. Still, the feeling rests at the edge of my awareness, like emotions from dreams do upon wakening. It’s there in the rearview mirror.

On a recent trip to San Diego, I visited Suicide Bridge. I wanted to see the scene from the view of the man in white. Like something out of an Edward Gorey cartoon, this bridge has always seemed out of place in San Diego. Although it’s white, it looks Gothic even when washed in sunshine. It might stretch over a foggy corner of Victorian London rather than California State Route 163. The bridge brings out something tragic. From its opening in 1915 until the 1950s, 40 people are said to have leapt to their deaths. Officials added wrought-iron railings in 1950s, making it look only more Gothic. The railings may have hindered some: the number since the ’50s is rumored to be around 10, though more likely the construction in 1967 of the Coronado Bridge a few miles away drew suicides from Cabrillo. (More than 200 people have jumped to their death from the Coronado.) Still, it has kept its nickname.

The day I visited was a clear, sunny December day in the upper 70s. I parked my car and headed over to Laurel Street, the street that becomes Cabrillo Bridge. I stopped on the sidewalk in the center of the bridge, where I could watch the highway traffic below. A light breeze carried the scent of eucalyptus. I noticed that there is now a dog park down the hill on one side of the bridge. There is perhaps nothing so alive as dogs chasing Frisbees or balls or each other. The full run to a quick stop, pivoting and circling, catching, chasing, desiring over and over. If the park had been there in the early 1970s, I wonder if the man on the bridge might have reconsidered. How could one jump while watching such joy? The wrought-iron railing only covers the part of the bridge that is directly over the highway. It looks tacked on and surprisingly frail. I thought how easily I could climb my way around it, and, with just a little maneuvering, hang my body out over the edge. I could look down at the cars beneath me. I imagined Mom looking up at me, watching. Waiting. My stomach singeing with acid, the wind rough on my skin, the watery rush of traffic below, the eucalyptus filling my nose, my eyes dry and stinging as I let go of the railing and give into that heaviness, that final gravity, the speed of the fall, the suspension of time, the crack of my body as it hits and breaks open. The blank emptiness. The peace.

Then I stopped my reverie. I felt the sun warm my face and my feet firm on the sidewalk. I looked down at the dog park. I knew I didn’t want to jump, so I walked off the bridge and back to my car.

A few things, I think, keep my heaviness at bay. One is my understanding of the dangers of idealism. I try to save my idealism for the page, where I can still sit with the creatures undersea. I also try to temper my expectations in order to shield myself from disappointments, to lessen their blow. I try to remember a larger Buddhist or yogic Self, though I’m not always successful.

I’ve also realized that as the romantic world of childhood shrinks, it brings an awareness of others, of responsibility, and the effect we have on the world. The childhood state of innocence, in which we can believe in Santa and SpongeBob, is also, if we are to agree with St. Augustine, a state of selfishness. Maybe innocence shares with romanticism an eclipsing of reality, puts the material world in the shadow of the imagination and ideology. So we are back to ego and even politics. The selfishness of Nixon and CREEP, Sylvia Plath, the man on the bridge, and my mother might stem from a refusal to give up on the ideal or the imaginary. In effect it might be a refusal to give up on something like Santa.

Suicide is paradoxically selfless and selfish. Although it’s about the erasure of self, giving into that desire is greedy, like not sharing. We all matter more than we want to. We all owe the world a little something. And to not give it, to withdraw it, is egotistical, perhaps criminal or sinful, regardless of any religious belief. Plath, herself, of course, famously tried suicide numerous times, and succeeded finally by gassing herself with the oven. First, she opened the windows in the rest of her flat and sealed the kitchen tight, so that her children, Nick and Frieda, would be “all right.” She also left them with bread and milk. But when one thinks of what could have happened—that the flat full of methane gas could have ignited and killed not only her children but also everyone in her building—the myopic selfishness of her actions is hard to forgive. It’s a selfishness, and a blamelessness, foreshadowed in those lines from “Tulips”: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.” Fortunately, her children were found by the nurse who arrived later that morning, though the nurse had to recruit a construction worker to help her break into the apartment. Her neighbor below was found unconsciousness from breathing the gas. He survived. However, Nick, of course, has now taken his own life. We affect others we’re not even aware of, and we affect them, as well as the ones close to us, in ways we can’t anticipate. The effects linger. Dandelion seeds.

Mom knew she was being selfish. She writes, “I just wish I could be there to see marriages and grandchildren and all, but my own personal need for peace became too strong.” I can’t help but think she could have been there for my marriage and my divorce, too. She made the choice not to. The last words of her postscript are “be kind to each other.” I wish she could have been more kind to all of us. I wish she had realized that she mattered. Ultimately, it’s this mattering that keeps me from the edge. I understand that killing myself kills a part of others, too. One of my best friends has joked that if I ever do kill myself, she will find her way into the afterlife, though she doesn’t believe in one, and she’ll kill me all over again. I try to remember that when I feel the numbness rising.



Kim Freeman’s Comments

This essay took many years for me to write, and it went through many iterations. A core concern for me when writing nonfiction is to make sure it’s larger than me, so originally I included a lot more general history. The essay was also partly inspired by David Foster Wallace’s suicide—and, in fact, in one earlier version I even attempted to imitate his style by including a ton of lengthy footnotes about things like the most popular forms of suicide, famous literary suicides, and the history of Cabrillo Bridge. However, I came to understand that much of that history was a distraction. One early reader noted that there wasn’t enough of me in it. Because the subject matter is painful and personal, I think these earlier and more intellectual versions were ways of keeping that pain at a distance. I hope that this final version is more intimate. I’d also like to thank the editors at FRiGG for helping me get this final version into shape.


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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 49 | Spring/Summer 2017