My first trip home from college was for Thanksgiving 1983. My flight from Minneapolis to Houston on the very busy day before was cancelled due to snow, so my arrival was delayed until the holiday itself. I was greeted by my father at the airport and we chit chatted about my trip while we waited for my luggage. There was no clue that life as I knew it was about to change forever.
In the car my father announced that my mother had cancer. The diagnosis was Hodgkins disease and she would be going through radiation treatment. Cancer wasn’t talked about much at that time and even though I was assured this was a treatable kind, the “c” word brought very dark thoughts to my mind.
The ride home took about 50 minutes and I was only beginning to absorb this information when we arrived home. Mom was sitting in the living room in a chair wearing a long, loose dress and holding a pillow to her stomach. Right before my finals at school my parents did tell me she was having her spleen removed due to an infection or something. Their explanation didn’t seem completely right from my limited knowledge of diseases but I went with it. Now it made sense.
I really don’t remember anything my mom and I said to each other. I don’t remember taking the picture (above) of us ready to go to turkey dinner. What I do remember is soon after arriving being told by my mother to take a shower and get dressed to leave for the Finklesteins in an hour.
The whole dinner was a blur. I couldn’t understand how they could throw this news at me and then expect me to have a fun Thanksgiving dinner with 20 people. I couldn’t understand why my mom, with this scary diagnosis and still in pain from surgery, would want to go to Thanksgiving dinner. When I am distressed I shut down. I isolate. I wanted to be in my room.
Her goal, I would learn more than 30 years later when I finally asked my father about it, was to keep things as normal as possible – for her and for us. I understand appreciate that was her intention but my coping mechanisms at the time were not that mature. Even now I’m still working on honing them.
My interpretation of the messages I got were:
- School is top priority and mom’s illness will distract you so we won’t talk about it.
- Act like everything is ok and keep moving forward no matter what.
I was incapable of not being distracted but didn’t have the courage to break through my parent’s unspoken ban about speaking of the cancer beyond the basic medical factual updates. I don’t know how good I was at acting like everything was ok then, but over the years any skills I had have deteriorated significantly.
That day set the stage for the handling of the events to come when just over a year later my mother killed herself and the family went silent about it – and her – for the next 30 years. The day after her funeral my father dropped me back at my dorm room with instructions to get back to normal and move forward. That was impossible for me and I soon dropped out of school.
While I was able to forge a career in tv production, live independently and support myself, I still feel 19 emotionally and have not grown into a “normal” adult life. I am not married. I have no children. I do not own anything of significance except my 18-year-old Toyota Rav 4. I am currently dog and housesitting for a living while working on The Silent Goldensdocumentary about the damage silence after suicide does to the people left behind and what is said when that silence is broken. I love it, but it’s not a life-long career for me.
My life has improved leaps and bounds since I started talking about my mom’s death and I hope the doc encourages others to speak. It truly is a part of healing. Filming starts in January and I feel like I’m ready to get moving and start growing. For me the doc is the first of many projects I have in mind to bring awareness to the silent suffering of suicide loss survivors and the mission to normalize conversations about suicide in our culture.
This Thanksgiving I am grateful to my family for agreeing to talk to me about my mom – especially for doing it on camera. I am grateful to all those who have supported this project financially and emotionally since I began it. I am grateful to all the loss survivors I’ve met for sharing their stories, offering me comfort and showing me how my story helps them. I am grateful to my mom for the 19 years I had with her and for leaving me a story to tell. I wish it was a better, happier story covering a much longer span of time, but it’s a story that has given me a clear purpose and path for my life that honors my mother’s passion for helping others.
Fundraising for The Silent Goldenscontinues! We’re just $25,000 from our end of year goal for our filming budget. Please help us with a tax-deductible donation, add your voice to a good cause. Memorial donations honoring those lost to suicide are encouraged!