In the first chapter of my true cancer survival book, “Crossing the Chemo Room,” I tell about the Christmas when I was 4 years old, and my father shot himself in front of me and my mother after he had been drinking.
Twenty years later, my mother died just after Christmas, from an accidental, lethal combination of Valium and wine. My only brother disappeared into the wilderness the next year, never to be found. Suicide can run in families like ripples from a rock thrown into a lake, and it is not easily forgotten.
Although the suicide rate is not highest during the winter holidays, it happens because people can drink too much or take drugs to feel less depressed over lack of family or gifts. If you see someone who is hurting, talk to him. Learn about suicide. Offer help. This Christmas, light a candle against the darkness of suicide.
“Crossing the Chemo Room”
“When my father and my mother forsake me,
Then the LORD will take care of me.”
I always wanted a normal life. You know, the kind with two parents and lots of siblings in a wooden house. You could even add a white picket fence. I would grow up in that same house, near cousins and aunts and uncles, in my secure, familiar American town. I would go to school and church down the street. I would marry the boy next door, have kids, and live near my parents and the rest of our large, happy family.
I always wanted to live in the mountains. Most of my life I have lived in lowlands, deserts, or valleys. But for a short time, when I was nine years old, I lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
My brother Kerry and I would explore upward paths bordered by blackberries and overshadowed by pines. We would find high meadows and streams flowing between gray boulders. Tadpoles swam in still pools carved into the granite. Kerry and I would catch the slippery creatures, admire their small legs, then let them go. We would climb as high as we could, sit on the edge of a cliff, and watch the sunset change distant peaks from misty blue to gold so bright we could hardly look at it.
I wondered how a person could cross the chasm between the clifftop and those peaks.
I cried when we left the mountains. I don’t know why we had to go. I swore to myself that–someday–I would return to the summit–and live there and never leave.
After we left the mountains, my mother told me about my beginnings.
“You were born in a little hospital by a Florida beach. We were living in Sarasota at the time,” she said. “The water tasted terrible, so I brushed my teeth in Coke. At night I could hear lions from the circus, crying.”
My mother never told me how she met my father (I think it was in a bar). She was from an upper-class family, and he from a carnival. She had a college degree; he dropped out of school to work the rides. She rarely drank alcohol; he had been raised on it, like his father and grandfather before him. She was English; he was Irish.
My mother’s parents were university professors and authors in a respectable old North Carolina town. They had a cook and a maid. They lived on a hill in a big, three-storey white house with wrap-around porches. It had a huge backyard filled with walnut trees, a stream, and guest houses. The main house had curved staircases with polished banisters and long, intimidating rooms with slick wooden floors. The furniture was heavy mahogany with lions’ feet. Ebony masks from Africa hung above the mantle. Tall cabinets held glassware like purple salt dishes with tiny spoons.
My mother grew up in that lovely home. She should have had a happy, carefree life. But she was beautiful and talented–two qualities sure to bring about a downfall. Even as a child she was a writer, like her parents and her great-great grandfather from England. She penned plays, poems, and stories on large yellow paper. The local newspaper published some of her articles. She attended the prestigious University of North Carolina, where her father had taught. She studied drama but graduated with a sensible degree in elementary education.
She never bought me coloring books. “Make up your own pictures–and color outside the lines,” she said. She placed her long-fingered hand over mine as I tightly held the pencil that shaped my first letters and words. When I couldn’t sleep, she would stroke my hair and tell me stories until the low sweet sound of her voice faded into dreams.
My hands were like my mothers, with long, graceful fingers. People told me I should play the piano. We never had a piano, but I learned to type on a computer keyboard, the sound of the keys tapping like music.
My grandfather died when my mother was seventeen. My grandmother stayed to help guide my mother’s life. Grammy never approved of my carnival-life, drop-out father.
I never knew my father’s family.
My father was an alcoholic, in and out of hospitals in search of a cure. I lived with him, my mother, and baby brother in a metal-walled trailer in a trailer park. The rooms were small and cluttered. They smelled of bacon grease and whiskey. Once I found a nest of baby mice in my sock drawer–tiny grey bodies with pink feet and ears. I wanted to keep them, but my father took them away.
My father died when I was almost five and my brother Kerry only a baby. My father’s death was a mystery to me. When I was nine, my mother told me he died while cleaning his hunting gun, and it accidentally went off. When I was twelve, she told me he shot himself with a handgun and left a note saying “you’ll be better off without me.” She told me we were at a Christmas party on December 25, at my grandmother’s house. My father stayed home alone in our trailer.
The sheriff found him.
I always imagined this scene at my grandmother’s house: when the phone rang with the news, my mother dropped her wine glass. The glass shattered on the white tile floor, spilling red liquid as my mother’s scream echoed against the crystal chandelier which dangled above her head.
When I was thirty-nine, my Aunt Ruth in Connecticut told me (during a long-distance phone call) that my father killed himself during the day that Christmas. My mother and I were home with him in the kitchen. There was no Christmas party at Grammy’s house, no telephone call, no spilled wine. My father killed himself in front of my mother and me.
No wonder I hate guns.
“We were glad he didn’t harm you or your mother,” my aunt’s sensible voice crackled over the telephone. I stared at the white receiver and wondered,
How much did I see that Christmas morning?
When they buried my father, did I watch them cover the casket with the red, suffocating earth? I dream of my father’s burial, of his bones decaying and his voice calling out to me from under the ground.
No wonder I want to be cremated instead of buried.
I never dream of my father’s death. I don’t remember any images from that December 25.
Once I found a photo of my father’s grave. The flat granite stone read “We loved you more than you knew.”
As a child, I prayed for a father.
I have one thing that my father made me: a ceramic alligator with its tail and legs broken off. It sits on my dresser near my perfume bottles. When I see it, glazed and green and fragmented, I think of my father’s life.
Recently, I found out I have an older brother I never knew. He’s a police officer from Chicago who tracked me down. He sent me a simple, handwritten letter. When I stood by my post office box and held it in one hand; when I saw the name “Robert L. Lynch” on the return address, I knew he was my brother. He sent his photographs as e-mail attachments. He looks just like my father.
My father was married before he met my mother. That marriage failed due to alcoholism. My father left his firstborn son, a boy of five years old, to move down South and meet a my mother.
When Bob came out to meet me, I showed him the tiny alligator. We browsed over old photographs of our father, each of us having a few–like a puzzle we put together. We hugged each other and wished we had known each other while growing up.
I could have used a big brother.
After my father’s death, my mother was haunted by memories. She dragged my brother and me across America, never staying long in one place. We moved every year–from Maine to Missouri, from North Dakota to Arizona. She became dependent on alcohol and tranquilizers. She would watch Billy Graham on T.V. and cry. I didn’t understand how the T.V. preacher could do that to her.
My mother taught first grade off and on, but mostly we lived off my father’s social security checks. People at various churches gave us clothing. We rented run-down houses and sometimes slept in our car. To escape, I read book after book–all the children’s classics. Mom gave me only the best.
When I was twelve, she remarried–a man who also had a drinking problem (they met at an AA meeting). The next year we packed up and spent the summer traveling from Arizona to the East coast, living in our car or a canvas tent. In the desert my brother and I staged fights with cactus trees. We drank from a single spicket sticking up from the sand, doused our bodies with soaked facecloths, and used a porta-potty.
The smell of alcohol permeated our bodies when mom and stepdad wore their pajamas all day and collected beer cans in the center of the tent floor. Once the local police arrested them and drove my brother and me to the police station too–in a separate squad car. Humiliated, I overheard one officer murmur, “white trash.”
I held a gold crucifix in my hand, attached to the rosary my mother had given me. The metal almost cut me, but the sunlight glinted off it with a living color that made me stare and stare all the way to the station.
As usual, once released, my parents simply packed up and
moved. My thirteenth summer, we stopped in New Mexico, Texas, Alabama, and Florida. In Florida, we camped by a lake. There, I sat against a tree trunk, the overhead branches trailing around me like a hideaway, and wrote my first epic adventure story (seventeen pages long). It was about a girl who fell into a hole and entered a strange new world. All the books I had read sank into my imagination–especially Alice in Wonderland.
I had great fun with my notebook, creating princes and elves and creatures who lived in slimy cave waters. I especially enjoyed killing off the bad guys (with a mere stroke of my pencil).
Wherever my mother took me, I would find a natural setting to wander in–mostly to escape the chaos of my home. An unexplored path became a lure for me, a challenge, an invitation to adventure.
When I was fourteen and a half, my brother, mother, and I landed in Virginia. My grandmother came to live with us in a big rented house. I entered high school–and discovered the simple gospel message of Christ’s death and resurrection for me. This was different from the Christ I remembered from childhood, distant on the crucifix that hung high above me on a vaulted ceiling. This Jesus wanted to come into my life, to go with me to school where I felt so shy and self-conscious that my hands sweated and my face turned red when anyone talked to me. This Jesus wanted to come home with me to the house where my brother fought me, my grandmother nagged me, and my mother hid her wine bottles in her closet.
I heard His voice, “I stand at the door and knock.”
So I knelt down on the living room floor of the modest house where a minister in tennis shoes and a tee-shirt read the Bible to bewildered teenagers. I prayed in unpolished but honest words for Jesus to come into my life and heart.
He did. I stepped through a door from one dimension to another. Like the Apostle Paul who so dramatically witnessed Christ’s light, my eyes saw, for the first time, a new world. I truly felt as though I had been born again.
I became part of a local church’s youth group. I found other Christian friends at school, and I lost my fear of people. I could actually stand in front of a congregation and speak in spite of my sweaty palms and flushed face.
Church became a refuge from my family. Perhaps I overdid it with Bible studies and choir rehearsals. One afternoon when I was sixteen, my mother sat on the car’s hood to keep me from leaving her.
“l’ve got to go to church,” I told her. She had been drinking and was still in her short pink nightgown (the one with see-through material over a satiny lining).
“Stay with me,” she pleaded.
I hardened my heart and started the car’s engine. She climbed off the hood and returned to her bedroom.
My brother didn’t go to youth groups. He was too busy becoming a “juvenile delinquent,” as my grandmother called him. When he was twelve and I sixteen, he wanted to play board games like Stratego with me. I was, of course, too busy with important things. When he drifted away from me and into car stealing and drugs, I wished I had sat down and played Stratego.
When I was seventeen, I volunteered as a counselor for a Billy Graham crusade. My mother attended and walked down the aisle during Graham’s invitation, the familiar “Just As I Am” hymn sung round her by thousands of voices. I stood up front with the other counselors and watched her kneel by the podium, weeping.
After her public decision for Christ, my mother stopped drinking, and she took fewer pills. Still, as soon as I turned eighteen, I left for a New York Christian college where I stayed only one semester because my meager scholarship and government aid were not enough to pay for a private college. I cleaned people’s houses on the weekends, but even then I did not have enough.
So I came to California, to my first full-time job and first marriage. At the age of nineteen, I married a navy pilot named Jeff Smith, whom I had met in Virginia. We had two children, Kristen and Ryan, seventeen months apart. Shortly after Ryan’s birth, Jeff was transferred to Florida.
My brother Kerry remained in Virginia to torment my mother and grandmother for awhile (they all shared the same small, rented house). Then he hitchhiked to Vancouver, Canada. Not long after he left, Grammy suffered a stroke and ended up paralyzed in the hospital (“Don’t let me live like that,” she had often pleaded with us).
A friend of my mother prayed with Grammy despite Grammy’s lifelong protests that she didn’t want a Christian visiting her if she lay dying (she was a dedicated agnostic). Nevertheless, Grammy seemed to repeat the prayer with her eyes, and she squeezed the Christian lady’s hand before slipping away.
My mother wrote this information in a letter. She wrote often, called me on the phone, and visited me twice on the far side of the continent before she died when I was twenty-four. Suddenly, alone in her bedroom three thousand miles from me and further from Kerry, her spirit left her body.
I picture her in that small bedroom that she rented. Her closet was packed full of clothes (“I’m a clothes’ horse,” she used to say, buying new outfits on credit when she couldn’t afford them). One gold-embroidered dress she used for dining out and dancing (I remember so many restaurants and truck stops as a child–but very few home-cooked meals). Also in the closet rested a huge sea trunk that my great-grandmother Julia brought over when she emigrated from England in the late 19th century. In it hid yellowed photographs and faded letters written by my great, great aunt Kate who lived in India.
My mother, in her pink nightie, lay on the twin bed. Her arm was spread out, hand reaching for the telephone which sat undisturbed on the cluttered nightstand. The detectives found her and took off her gold engagement ring (she was planning to marry a retired navy Captain). It was January, two days after my brother’s twentieth birthday. Outside, snow fell against shiny green holly leaves and red berries.
I didn’t see my mother’s body, but I do remember the simple funeral with my brother, my first husband, and a few friends–and my mother’s ashes in a gold-toned ceramic urn. We buried her in North Carolina–on top of my father, on a snowy hillside, under a heavy-laden pine.
The last time I saw my brother Kerry, he was in Maximum Security at a Montana mental facility. He looked as I remembered him six years earlier at my mother’s funeral, his blonde hair long and his beard stubbly. He told me he wasn’t crazy, that he made up the visions to keep out of prison. I brought him a Bible. He prayed with me on his solitary bed in the claustrophobic cell with a toilet in the corner. When I stood to leave, a guard opened the barred door for me. I walked outside the high-walled complex. January air wiped away my tears. In the distance, patches of snow lay beneath twisted oak trees, and fields spread out toward mountains under a wide open sky.
A few months later, Kerry was released. He disappeared not long after that, leaving his personal belongings with a former roommate who later sent me the stuff in a beat-up cardboard box. I found Kerry’s I.D. card, his social security card, the letters I had written him, and an old silk scarf my mother used to wear on her hair. He also left a photo of her at Roanoke Island. She was twenty, in a two-piece black bathing suit, looking like a Hollywood beauty. Her blonde hair curled around her oval face, her blue eyes glinted beneath long lashes, her straight white teeth shined inside a perfect smile.
Perhaps Kerry died while hitchhiking, stabbed at the side of a road, another John Doe, the scene most feared by my mother.
As you can see, I had the perfect childhood for a writer.
And, surely, God, I thought, after so much early tragedy, I can expect a normal life–maybe even in the mountains.
Read the rest of “Crossing the Chemo Room” here.