Mom, do you want me to call them?
No, that’s okay. Let them enjoy their Thanksgiving. Call them tomorrow if you want to.
That was how my mother and I decided to handle the news that Thursday morning. I waited until the day after Thanksgiving, and then called my godparents to let them know that my brother had died. I write this some thirty years later, and it is still difficult to piece together the emotions and the timeline. There is no right or wrong way to share the news of a loved one’s passing; under any circumstances it is difficult; but when it is from suicide, one is dumbfounded and finds little comfort in what appears to forever remain unexplainable.
I grew up around first generation born Americans; the old country’s manner was still very much the watermark for who, what, when, where and why they thought and lived as they did. Having little more than traditions to fall back on, some made the changes more easily; others never adapted. Still others didn’t care or subconsciously decided nothing was that important to stop them from their immediate week’s business schedule. Sometimes one was lucky and received an explanation or, at the very least, a mantra of sorts to help understand the world around us:
Life is for the living, Annette.
This expression was often recited to me from our silver-haired, next door neighbor, who was like a father to all of us. He had watched our family go through an emotional roller coaster from the time my brother first became ill. Many years before, I had run next door crying, telling him Daddy needed help; Only Bro didn’t want to go back to the hospital and was running away! Our fatherly neighbor chased my brother down the street, managing to catch him fairly quickly, though it seemed a much longer drama at the time. Our neighbor talked him into walking back to the house, and then rode with him and Daddy on the return trip to the state hospital.
Daddy was also more aware than Mom just how great a toll the past seventeen years had taken on their only son. Near or far, we had all felt my brother’s ups and downs this past year. Even a trip to Disneyland earlier that summer had given the folks only a very brief respite from their son’s recurring illness. Daddy remained passionate; for the most part, he trusted his own instincts, but didn’t hesitate to listen for guidance from the professionals. Neither of the folks was prepared for anything like their son’s mental breakdown or its long-term ramifications. Much of what Dad heard and observed over the initial months and early years he kept from Mom; he managed to hide certain details for long periods of time. Ultimately, he couldn’t protect her or any of us siblings. Nor could we as a family ease my brother’s anguish, no matter how much we remained involved over the ensuing years.
I was one hundred and eighty miles away from the home base; I might as well have been on another planet. I had just finished setting up the buffet table for my in-laws and our cousins. We would be about sixteen tomorrow, give or take a few little critters. I had picked up the paper and just read about a plane crash that had killed over one hundred people. I remember thinking what a sad Thanksgiving holiday it would be for all the families affected by that crash; then the phone rang.
Once Big Sis and I finished talking, there was nothing for me to do but to maintain my end of the family unit. The youngest sister was on her way down for the holiday. She had yet to hear, so would walk in Wednesday evening and learn then that our brother was gone. Big Sis would stay until the youngest arrived; then leave to return home to her own family and her own kitchen.
Mom was cooking Thanksgiving dinner; my brother’s widow and their two beautiful daughters would still be there, just as they always were each Thanksgiving with Mom and Daddy. This would be as nice a family dinner as anyone could hope for under the circumstances.
As my mother had chosen to do that Thanksgiving Day, I too chose the familiar; I cooked my planned meal, made sure everyone at my home had enough to eat, and continued any familiar rituals available to me for Thanksgiving’s sake…there would be plenty of time to grieve later. Neither Mom nor I could afford to fall apart; we had loved ones to serve and leftovers to put away.