39th Writing Contest • First Place, Nonfiction
Susan Nathiel of Middlefield, CT has won the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize for “Hearing Silence.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
“The work recounts the aftermath of a tragedy, and examines the questions and culpabilities that survivors are left to unravel.”
By Susan Nathiel
On that hot September day in 1986, when we buried my brother Chris, our parents did not speak to each other. It wasn’t due to grief, or guilt, or blame. It was due to me. They had only seen each other twice since their divorce sixteen years earlier, and there had been little drama. Yet that day, I kept them apart as though they were unstable nuclear elements. I did it without thinking, without a moment’s hesitation. Even now, over twenty years later, I still wonder why I interfered, since you might think any two parents divorced or not, would have a right to speak to each other at their son’s funeral. Of the two questions that have lingered all this time, that’s the one that’s mine alone to answer.
My brother had been uncharacteristically quiet on the question of how we should deal with his death, how we should understand what happened and why. He hadn’t left a note.
• • •
A month before his funeral, my brother was told that unless he agreed to an admission at a psychiatric hospital for impaired physicians, he would be out of a job and might lose his license. In his case, impaired was a euphemism for depression and prescription drug abuse, none of which I knew about at the time.
We had never been very close: Chris was four years older than me, David was in the middle, and I was “Suze,” the little sister. He was the “smart one” who made up in academic achievement what he lacked in adolescent cool. He was a know-it-all who showed only occasional big-brother kindnesses; once, when I was sick for weeks, he came to my bedroom to read me my favorite Cowboy Bob book. I was too young to read it myself and he usually teased me because I carried it with me everywhere, longing to find someone patient enough to read it to me again, despite my knowing every word by heart. This one time, he pulled a chair up close to my bed, and read it to me page by page, letting me gaze at the familiar pictures. It was my fondest memory of him.
As adults, we barely kept in touch even though we presumably had things in common: he had become a psychiatrist and I a family therapist. On a rare visit, I went to see him in Utah a few years before his death. That one time, we actually talked to each other and he told me for the first time about his long struggle with depression. He had gained weight from the medications, and his puffy face was stiff and wooden. His heavy lidded eyes opened into a well of sadness I didn’t want to see; I preferred to believe him when he said he was feeling better.
I knew from my visit that he was regarded as an excellent psychiatrist, even though he was privately picking and choosing his own mix of drugs. Like many doctors he had relied on uppers and downers in med school, but he had kept going long afterwards, and eventually wasn’t able to hide the effects from his colleagues. For a while he was erratically up and down, his mind zooming all over the place like a remote-controlled model airplane with no one at the controls. Then the downs became more pronounced, and when his slow walk became a shuffle, and he fell asleep in meetings every afternoon, he was finally given the ultimatum about his job.
At the San Diego psychiatric hospital, their first plan was to take him off everything to get an idea of his baseline. Chris had protested that the old depression would return if he stopped all his medications, but they also had a plan B: they wanted him to try electroshock therapy.
Electroshock, though, was not a good plan. Our mother had been hospitalized and given shock therapy when we were children and again later, when I was fifteen and Chris away at college. We never mentioned these things, much less discussed them. They were gaps in the narrative of our family life: things we pretended not to notice at the time, then simply omitted from the story later on.
After his death, I came across an autobiography Chris had written for a therapist after his first serious depression, in medical school. He had not forgotten those gaps. He had written:
My life was shattered at the age of six. One of my most vivid memories was that horrible day when my mother became psychotic. She had often been sad before…she used to cry on my shoulder when I barely came up to her waist. In retrospect, I feel that if I had only done or said the right thing perhaps I could have saved my mother. I know these feelings sound ridiculous, and the notion of a six-year-old boy saving his mother from a major psychiatric illness sounds preposterous, but nevertheless that is the way I feel. Somehow I failed her in a very tragic way.
“That is the way I feel,” he had written, in the present tense.
On the day things really got bad, I was supposed to have a report card from first grade signed by my mother and then take it to school. My mother was in a peculiar state in which she was unable to move. She stayed in one position and could not or would not speak to me and could not move… I was terrified and went to school without my report card being signed and was obviously very upset. When I returned from school my mother had been taken away, I later learned, to the psychiatric ward of the general hospital. I also learned later that she had been given electro-shock treatment during the weeks she was away.
When she returned home, it seemed as if she was no longer my mother. I am unable to express how important this occurrence is in my life. It is difficult for you or anyone to imagine the impact on a small child of seeing his mother in such a bizarre state, then having her taken away for a lengthy period of time with no understanding of what the problem was. I recall…feeling it might have been better for her to die, to disappear forever, than come back seemingly a different person.
In the hospital, as Chris came off all the medications, the old depression was indeed still there. That meant the ECT part of the plan loomed. Then, ten days into his stay, he received a letter from his wife Dianne, saying she was taking the kids up to Carson City, Nevada, for a couple of weeks to stay with her mother. She assured him that they’d be back, but just needed a break before school started. Chris’s eleven-year-old stepson, Chuck, had been deeply affected by the hospitalization; Chris and Dianne’s daughter Heather, only four, seemed happy enough, but stuck by her mother’s side a little too much. Dianne also wrote a letter to Chris’s psychiatrist, saying she was worried about Chris’s reaction, and asking that they keep a close watch on him for a while.
It’s still a mystery how he was able to get a one-hour pass to go into town only days after that letter, when he was considered a possible risk to himself. Maybe he was persuasive. Maybe somebody didn’t read the precautions in his chart. Maybe they thought he was better. At any rate, he exited the hospital with the pass, his wallet, and a plan of his own.
First, he went to the nearest airport, where he bought a ticket and flew to Salt Lake City. Then he rented a car and drove to the outskirts of Orem, the small town where he and his family had lived for several years. At the K-Mart in a shopping mall he used his MasterCard to buy a garment bag, a box of shells and a 12-gauge shotgun. They sold firearms over the counter in Utah then, no questions asked. Then he drove to a motel and checked in, using his real name. I wondered later what they would have thought of him, a tall middle-aged fellow, soft-spoken, with old acne scars and thick glasses. He would have been polite but probably insistent about wanting a quiet room, away from others. He would have seemed like any overnight guest, carrying the garment bag over his shoulder, walking away down the hall, disappearing into the elevator.
In the room he waited, evidently for a couple of hours. For what? For whom? If he was waiting for someone to try to find him, he had no way of knowing that the hospital hadn’t even noticed his absence yet. Or perhaps it just took time to get up his nerve.
In this particular room there was a narrow entry hall just a few feet long and about three feet wide, that opened into the bedroom area on one side and the bathroom on the other. Despite the day of travel, and the waiting, he hadn’t washed his hands; the towels and washcloths were all in place, folded over in neat motel triangles.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Chris sat sideways in that narrow hallway. It was the only place in the room he could brace his back against one wall and the butt of the loaded shotgun against the other. Then he put the muzzle of the shotgun in his mouth. It must have had that sour, tangy cold taste of metal. He was tall and had long arms, so he was able to push the trigger with his thumb. The gun was inexpensive, and when they found him the next morning, the wooden stock had cracked in firing.
Because his room was at the end of a long, otherwise vacant hallway, nobody heard the sound and his body wasn’t found until morning. The motel manager called the police, who notified Dianne. There was no note, an odd omission. The autopsy report showed no trace of drugs or alcohol. He had been cold sober and wide awake, with no apparent wish to say good-bye or to explain himself in any way.
• • •
My father, in Missouri, called me in Connecticut and my middle brother Dave, now the oldest, in Pennsylvania. It was assumed that I would deal with my mother in D.C. She had lived there since the divorce, while my father had remarried and moved away. At seventy-six, my mother’s memory was failing, although she still managed on her own in her small apartment. I knew I had to tell her in person, but I wasn’t sure how she would react or whether she would be up to traveling to Nevada for the funeral.
I didn’t want to tell her about Chris the same way my father had told me. On an unremarkable Saturday morning, I had been in the upstairs bedroom of my house when the phone rang, and I had answered it without a thought. I was surprised to hear my father’s voice; he usually called on a Sunday afternoon. He told me without preamble that Chris had shot himself and was dead. I sat down on the bed abruptly, as though I’d been pushed. I dimly remember screaming and then crying, and not being able to stop. The phone was still in my hand and I could hear that his voice was droning on. I managed to say, “I’ll call you back.” When I called him back half an hour later everything was in place again, the wound sutured over. My crying had stopped. Not that I had stopped it, it just went away somewhere. We discussed travel plans and hotel reservations. Hovering above this strange conversation, like a floating figure in a Chagal painting, was my brother.
As I moved through the train station to make the trip to D.C. to tell my mother, everyone’s voice sounded tinny. Unable to read my book, I stared out the window. Once at my mother’s apartment I found that I understood my father’s dilemma: there is no way to lead up to this kind of news. Within a few minutes of my arrival, I just told her that Chris had died. She seemed to take it in, then asked, “Did he kill himself?” She seemed mostly curious about that one thing. To spare her, I had decided to hold that part back, but when she asked this uncanny question I realized I was actually sparing myself. It was too much for me, but somehow, she knew. I avoided a straight answer, saying instead, “We don’t know the cause of death yet.” She cried, briefly, then stopped. She said she wanted to go to the funeral.
I helped her decide what to pack, what to discard from the fridge. At the front desk she told them to hold her mail. At the airport she asked me again how he died, if we knew the cause of death yet. And then again later, when the plane touched down. I was jolted both times, but stuck to the non-answer until we actually arrived at the house in Carson City, where Dianne and the kids were. As I was getting Mom settled in the guest room, she asked me again.
“You were right,” I said. “He did kill himself. That’s how he died.”
“How?” she asked, just gathering the facts.
“He shot himself.” I wondered if it was a mean way to say it, so bluntly like that. He died of a gunshot wound to the head? Does that soften it? She paused, but only for a few moments.
“At least he was decisive,” she said. That was all. A cop told me the same thing a few weeks later, that this is the least ambivalent way to commit suicide. It is not a cry for help.
I woke up on the day of the funeral in a state of exhaustion and intense anxiety. My whole body wasn’t just on edge, this was the full red alert, man your battle stations. I felt unfamiliar with myself. I could almost feel my brain frantically reorganizing, trying to make a space large enough to receive this new event. This act of my brother’s was like a boomerang, a shuddering backward surge of destructive power, a whiplash event that undid all that had come before.
This violent act of my mild-mannered brother threw everything back into question, re-opened every closed door. Remember that Thomas Wolfe book, You Can’t Go Home Again? I think it should actually be, You Can’t Leave Home, Ever. Because this wasn’t just about his depression, or his job, or even his wife and kids.It was about all of us. But what my father had not said, what I had not asked, what my mother had not asked, was the question everyone asks about a suicide: why?
It had occupied my entire mind from the time I had hung up the phone with my father. For anyone on the receiving end of a suicide, especially a violent one, it’s the inescapable question. The death is there, but the “why” blunts the impact for a while. It’s the leaf on every tree, the word in every mouth, every story in every newspaper.
Because I couldn’t think about Chris’s suicide for long, I focused on how we would manage the funeral and its aftermath. When my brothers and I were children, my father came up with an ingenious plan: he showed us a silver dollar and explained very solemnly that it was a “peace medal” and that whoever fought the least, or diplomatically persuaded the others not to fight, would win the medal for the following week. I was the only one who ever won it, and I slept with it under my pillow week after week for a few months until he retired it for lack of competition. In any situation involving the family, my natural inclination was to anticipate all the things that could possibly go wrong and try to prevent them. Today, my mother was one of those things that could go wrong.
Nowadays, she seemed like a sweet little old lady. With her wispy white hair, tentative shy smile and soft voice, she was apparently harmless. But she could still gather her will, pull the bow taut and release an arrow, without ever opening her eyes or seeing that she had hit her target. The most dramatic time she had done that was when she decided to divorce my father, shortly before their thirty-year anniversary.
The visible tip of their marital iceberg was his mostly benevolent dictatorship, and her passive evasion and resistance. He was the irresistible force, she the immovable object. Their power struggle was expressed not in loud arguments, or even angry words, but in a fault line running through every sentence and every reply, every dinner table conversation, every decision made. Still none of us saw it coming when, without warning, she simply had the locks changed one day when my father was at work. When he came home to their Washington D.C. apartment near Rock Creek Park, she refused to let him in, or even to talk to him through the door. He stood there in the hallway, dumbfounded, for a long time before walking away.
She was right that he tried to control her, but it hadn’t started out that way. She had married a sweet, awkward young man who fell in love with her because she was so smart, so kind and patient. He imagined the perfect family, so different from his own: they would have three children and live happily ever after. He even named their first child Christopher Robin, after the children’s book – how sweet, people thought, not registering the undercurrent of impossible expectation.
After she got sick the first time, a couple of years into the marriage, he was completely out of his depth, with no one to advise him. After the next episode, the one Chris had written about, there were by then three children to look after, and he fell into his “doctor” role, making all the decisions and trying to manage her life, and also pretending everything was perfectly normal and unremarkable. Where was the help for him? It was 1950: no respectable family would admit to having a mentally ill member.
When I visited her some months after this separation, I sensed that in her mind, he was still there – just out in the hallway, waiting for her to make up her mind about what she wanted. She knew that she had locked him out, but never seemed to register that he would take that as a rejection, that he would, in the year afterwards, move toward an actual divorce. She seemed not to put the pieces together. For her, the marriage was on hold while she was mulling over how it felt to live without his oversight. She only reluctantly signed the divorce papers when Dave and I pressured her a year later, out of pity for our father. He had been rendered powerless in the face of her decision to lock him out, and equally powerless in the face of her curious indifference to finishing what she had started. She finally signed the papers, saying she still wasn’t sure about it.
After the divorce, she made a small, manageable life for herself and asked me occasionally how my father was doing. She had a kind of nostalgic fondness for him, as though he was an old friend she’d lost touch with. My father remarried, but confided to me that he never would have chosen to leave my mother, that he still worried about her.
The day of the funeral, late summer in Nevada, was mercilessly hot and flat. Some of us had been to the funeral home in the morning and were exhausted already. Around noon, we all changed from our wilted clothes into black suits and dresses. Heather was with a neighbor. Chuck complained over and over about his uncomfortable new suit, his first ever, but he got no response from his mother. Dianne’s eyes were completely expressionless, fixed somewhere out on the horizon. There wasn’t anything left to her.
The funeral home had sent a limousine to the house, and the four of us rode silently to the hotel where my father and his wife waited outside. They got in, sitting as far away as possible. My father directed a firm “hello” toward us, then turned away resolutely: there would be no further conversation.
There were no hugs, there was no crying together. We were each floating in a bubble of private shock. Walking into the funeral home, I delayed a bit so that my father would be far ahead of us. My mother, though, tried to catch up to him, clearly wanting to say something. I managed to get between them and cut off her access.
Why? Because any normal reaction to the reality of where we were and what we were doing would have been against the rules. We had been given the message so many times, growing up: do not react to things that are upsetting, or overwhelming, or even catastrophic. We had not shown any reaction when Mother went downtown in her nightgown and was brought back by the police. Nor when she acted so bizarre in the stationery store that she went back to the hospital for the third time, had more ECT, and didn’t recognize us when we went to visit. We appeared not to notice that every afternoon when she drove to pick us up after school, the 15-mile-an-hour crawl of the Oldsmobile meant that she had started drinking around noon.
My brother Dave was sometimes the whistle blower when we were kids, and he paid the price. We always had dinner together, proving that we were a normal and functional family. But this one time, David, just turned 14, dared to notice and comment on our mother’s semi- incoherent paranoid, alcohol-fueled ramblings. My father backhanded him, then lifted him bodily out of his chair, and hit him again as he fell sideways onto the floor. After a few more punches, he dragged him across the living room into his bedroom and slammed the door, leaving a frozen silence as the rest of us sat stunned, forks in our hands. My father sat down at the dinner table, breathing hard, looked around and said, “What were we talking about when we were so rudely interrupted?” My mother, looking straight ahead, started to eat the bite of food she had been holding in mid-air. Chris was lost in his own world; we didn’t even exchange a glance. I took a few more bites, too, and let five minutes pass before asking to be excused, so that god forbid it wouldn’t look like a comment on the insanity that had just transpired and then been silently and forcefully disavowed. I had learned the lesson: we do not acknowledge what we cannot face.
Once the funeral was underway, and the minister was beginning the eulogy, I wondered if he would say it was suicide, not just the untimely death of this forty-six-year-old husband and father. He did. But as he started going off on a religious tangent, my mind began to wander.
I thought of Chris, lying in the closed coffin with what was left of his head wrapped in about 30 layers of gauze. I had insisted that those of us who wanted to, could see him one last time, on the morning of the funeral. The director had hung back discretely while we had filed into a side room to Chris’s open casket. I recognized my brother by his hands folded on his chest, even though when I touched them they were stone cold and stone hard. I wouldn’t have said I knew his hands all that well, but it turns out I did. I remembered them from when he held the Cowboy Bob book and read to me. Chuck and I stood close beside Chris looking down at his body; Chuck was carrying a folded note, slipped it in quickly, and pulled his hand back out of the coffin. I took his hand again as he reached out for mine, both of us trembling and cold.
Eventually, after the funeral, the burial, the church reception, we all went back to the house. Despite the heat, someone suggested sitting on the back porch to talk and I signaled that I would get Mother out of the way. I took her back into her room on the other side of the house; by then she was tired, confused and disoriented. She agreed to take a nap, lying down on top of the faded chenille bedspread, curled on her side with a little pillow, looking both childlike and old. I was relieved, thinking I wouldn’t need to worry about her for a while.
Half an hour later, as the rest of us were talking about the funeral, and what Dianne and the kids would do now, I looked up and saw a tiny white-haired figure blinking groggily in the bright sunlight, just outside the back door. It was Mother. She got her bearings and started in my father’s direction, walking across the dry grass, shading her eyes with her hand. I saw the way she held her head up high, focused on him, staring at him, willing him to stay where he was. She, whose hesitant, tentative walk had maddened me with impatience a thousand times, was moving with force and determination. She, the embodiment of ambiguity and passivity, had come to one of her rare and unequivocal conclusions and was going to declare it. He was no match for her, he with his authoritative voice and his implacable logic, his imposing height and his stiff bristle-brush hair. In the most important things, he never had been.
Everyone stopped talking. I knocked my plastic chair over backwards as I jumped up to intercept her. Because she was physically frail and half-blinded by the sun, I was able to steer her back into the house. Turning her away from her target, I frantically willed her to become the little old lady she had been just half an hour before. Soon enough she lost focus and became that little old lady, harmless and forgetful; even her walk changed. Holding her arm, I could feel her slow down as she reclaimed her timidity. When I came back to the porch later, my father and stepmother had left. The next morning, when I drove them to the airport, none of us mentioned my mother.
• • •
As a family, we treated my brother’s death as just another event to get through, and move on from. But his suicide was like a depth charge, first dropping quietly below the surface, then exploding, its sound muffled deep underwater. Afterwards, the debris floated to the surface. It could have been coincidence, but within months, my mother’s forgetfulness forced her into a nursing home; shortly thereafter my father was diagnosed with cancer. Dave retreated into his own world, rarely responding to my infrequent letters or calls.
• • •
This account began as a kind of confession of my guilt at preventing my parents from having something that was rightfully theirs. As it turned out, the day of Chris’s funeral was in fact their last chance to speak. I’ve faulted myself for blindly following the rules I had learned long ago, doing what I had blamed my parents for doing: simply disavowing the reality in front of us, and forcing silence where there should be acknowledgement. And yet I couldn’t remember making any decision; I had simply acted. Why?
In revisiting that moment, I am back there in the plastic porch chair, leaning into the conversation, suddenly seeing my mother standing in the sun. I see her pushing open the door, and I see her walking, and now I remember knowing instantly that nothing good was going to come of it.
She would have blamed him for something, and it probably would have had some truth in it; she was not a stupid woman. It wouldn’t have been anything that brought them together even for a moment – like “Where did we go wrong?” It would have been a whiplash of accusation: “This is your fault.” And he wouldn’t have said anything at all, because the hot dry Nevada air would have buzzed with the memory of her insanity, her shock therapy, her hospitalizations, all of the arrows of blame aimed squarely at her.
There would have been no epiphany, no new insight, no forgiveness for mistakes made, perhaps not even a tear shed for my brother. My instincts were right, then: stopping her at that moment protected us all. Not by denying what had happened, but by accepting it.
The last “why” has lingered for years, too. Chris ended his life with no explanation, no apology, and no blame. He is not going to come back and tell us, “This is why I did it.” If he had written a note, we would have ignored everything he left out. If we’d had one reason to latch onto, we could have pretended it wasn’t all those other things we were afraid it was. If we are ever going to hear him, then we just have to hear his silence, in which all whys are possible and none of them, in the end, matter.
Susan Nathiel grew up in Oklahoma with a scientist father who wrote textbooks and a mentally ill mother who wrote poetry. Thanks to them, she became both a psychotherapist and a writer, publishing Daughters of Madness and Sons of Madness.
She lives in rural Connecticut with her family, who yield the front porch swing to her when she’s writing.
"Hearing Silence" © Susan Nathiel 2014