Suicide is Painless
“I’m starving,” Rodney complained. “How long can one pizza take?” He angrily punched buttons on the TV remote and stopped flipping channels when he found a rerun of Seinfeld. It was the episode where Kramer tries to operate his own movie phone service. When Kramer got to the line, “Why don’t you just tell me the name of the movie you’ve selected?” I giggled despite being hangry myself.
I looked over at Rodney, for a second expecting to share a moment of laughter, but he was not moved. He’d been home from work for at least an hour, but there he sat. Still in his starched and ironed work clothes; he hadn’t even taken his shoes off yet. “Why don’t you ever laugh at anything?” I blurted. He laughed at that, sort of, and told me that of course he laughed. Then he asked me why I never noticed.
My stomach growled. To distract myself from the discomfort. I made myself busy grabbing paper plates, napkins, and a couple of sodas from the kitchen so that when the pizza finally did arrive, we could just dive right in. “You know what I hate about this condo?” I said, laying the plates and things on the oak dining room table my parents handed down to us. “No one can ever find it! God help us if we ever need the fire department or something.”
I think the city planners or whoever assigned house numbers to Indianapolis land parcels in 1986 skipped the class—preschool I think it’s called— where you learn how to count. Our unit was 6838 Eagle Creek Path. The unit next to us was 6900, and the unit across from us was 6904. Unit 6837 was down the street tucked away in a cul-de-sac. That was definitely not how numbers were supposed to work, and it made it impossible for anyone to find us. If a delivery driver did end up at our front door, the encounter always went the same way.
“Sorry it took so long. The house numbers out here don’t make any sense.”
“Yeah,” I’d say, “the guys numbering these condos must’ve been smoking something really good.”
Or sometimes the drivers would give up before making it to our driveway and call me from halfway down the block. “Uh, yeah, hi. This is your Donato’s driver. I’m standing here in front of 6837, and…where are you exactly?” When that happened, I’d put on my coat and shoes and head outside. I’d walk to the end of the driveway near a row of mailboxes and give an exaggerated wave in the direction of the only car on the block sporting a light-up roof sign.
“See me now?” I’d say into my cell phone.
The car would roll up, and the window would roll down. “Sorry for the wait,” he’d say handing me the box through the open window. I’d tip him a few extra singles for his trouble and walk wistfully back into the house with my sad, cold pizza.
They never read the delivery instructions on the order. And they never called for help at the first sign of trouble. They always thought they could figure it out on their own if they just tried hard enough. But by the time the pizza finally reached us, the cheese had the texture of a vinyl record left too long in the sun and the pepperoni grease had returned to it’s blaze-orange solid form.
That’s exactly what happened the night of February 2, 2006.
I set the cardboard box down on the dining room table. The smell of tomato and garlic raised Rodney from the couch. He grabbed a plate and a couple of slices. “Finally,” he muttered, shooting me a look. He had a way of making me feel like every inconvenience was my fault. If I hadn’t been so hungry myself, I might have pointed out that he was the genius who insisted on buying the place. Instead, I took a huge bite of my pizza. It was, of course, awful.
Rodney’s phone rang mid-chew and he took it off his belt clip to read the caller ID. “It’s Dad.” He flipped open the phone and answered, “Hey, can I call you back in a few minutes? I’m literally just sitting—” He stared down at his plate. Every muscle in his body tensed, constricting his grip on the phone. The hard plastic shell creaked under the pressure.
“What?” Rodney asked. I heard the voice on the other end of the line repeat something, but I couldn’t make out the words. It sounded bad. Rodney didn’t say anything but “OK” for the rest of the short conversation.
Then he flipped the phone closed.
“Mom hung herself.” His voice was flat. His face was blank.
I wasn’t terribly fond of Ruth. I mean, as mother-in-laws go, she was fine. But we weren’t what you’d call close. When Rodney and I were first dating, I presumed Ruth and I had trouble warming up to each other because she and Ed lived eleven hours away in Myrtle Beach. It’s hard to get to know someone you never see, right? But when she told us she and Ed weren’t coming to our wedding in 2004 (we had a modest ceremony and reception a few months after we eloped) the distance between the two of us became insurmountable. It had nothing to do with where either of us lived.
“What mother doesn’t come to her own son’s wedding?” I asked Rodney one day. “What father doesn’t move heaven and earth to make sure his wife is sitting in the front row?” I wasn’t mad, I was baffled. I pressed him for details. “What exactly did she say?” Rodney explained she was self-conscious about her psoriasis, as if that made all the sense in the world. “And that means your dad can’t come either?” I asked. “Christ that’s weird.”
But back to February 2, 2006. As soon as those words—mom hung herself—crossed Rodney’s lips, I burst into tears. Sorrow consumed me so wholly and with such intensity that I began to shake and my lips turned purple. It should have been empathy for Rodney’s loss that broke my heart. It wasn’t. I studied Rodney. He was holding himself together really well, looking at me like my inability to contain my emotions was the real tragedy. It was a little scary, truth be told. But I convinced myself that he’d crack when reality finally sunk in.
I didn’t stop crying until the next morning when Rodney and I met his sister Jennifer and brother-in-law Michael at the airport. I was dehydrated from sobbing all night, hungry because we’d abandoned the pizza on the dining room table after the phone call, and exhausted from getting no sleep. The four of us waited in silence to board a plane to South Carolina. I watched a man in a wrinkled suit shout into his Bluetooth headset while a pre-recorded message about loading and unloading zones played too loudly over the public address.
I wondered if the man in the suit had ever thought about killing himself.
Ed’s neighbor picked us up at Myrtle Beach International in Ruth’s van. Seeing the beige Grand Caravan pull up to the curb without Ruth inside, Jennifer said, “This is surreal.”
The house was abuzz with people I’d never seen before, mostly Ruth’s friends from church. Well, they could have been friends with Ed too, but I’d always just assumed he didn’t have any. The women swarmed around Ed, a gruff man with thinning brown hair that was going gray, a large red nose, and a beer belly. He was sitting at the kitchen table, head bowed and resting in his left hand.
A plump woman in her mid-fifties had positioned herself between the living room and kitchen and was deftly directing people carrying deli trays, vegetable trays, dessert platters, and loaves of bread. “Those should go in the fridge for now,” she said to a young woman balancing a plate of fresh fruit in one hand and leading a kindergartner forward with the other. The woman in charge turned to the four of us. Resting a hand on my shoulder and bending slightly to look me in the eye she asked, “Can I help you find something?”
“Uh, we’re the kids?” I pointed to Rodney and Jennifer. “I mean, these are Ruth’s children. And this is Michael, Jennifer’s husband. I’m Emily.”
“Oh!” her eyes widened, and her jaw fell as understanding washed over her face in a wave. She pulled me in, hugging me tightly. The first hug I’d witnessed or taken part in since the news. Yeah, I thought to myself, hugging. That’s what normal people do when someone dies.
“I’m so sorry honey.” She squeezed a little tighter for a second. She was warm and her embrace was a salve. She smelled like vanilla sugar, like the inside of the cookie jar at my grandma’s house. I inhaled the comfort deeply—like a junkie unsure when or where I’d find my next fix.
The woman let go of me and moved down the line to squeeze the others.
“Mabel?” I interrupted her as she threw her arms around a visibly uncomfortable Rodney.
“She’s in the back room, dear.”
I slipped away from the crowd to check on Ruth’s mom.
A few months earlier, the elderly Mabel and her second husband James (her first husband had shot himself decades ago) had moved to Myrtle Beach to live with Ruth and Ed. James passed away shortly after their relocation to the East Coast. So Mabel had her own room on the first floor of Ruth and Ed’s four-bedroom cottage style home. Modestly furnished with two twin beds, two nightstands, and a small TV, the room was sparsely decorated in neutral colors. As if everyone knew it wouldn’t be occupied long. There was a faded La-Z-Boy by the window. Mabel was sitting quietly in the chair. The door was open, so I knocked on the door frame.
“Hi, hon.” She offered me a weak smile and smoothed the blanket on her lap with arthritic fingers. Mabel was a slender woman in her early eighties. Her sweet, grandmotherly features were topped with a dollop of silvery hair. Her bun reminded me of the Pentecostal women I’d see at the grocery store back home in Indiana, but I was pretty sure Mabel was Methodist. She looked good, considering. Her skin was smooth and plump, and her gray eyes were warm and vibrant. Not red and sunken like I had expected.
“How are you? Are you OK? Can I get you anything?” I asked, motioning to the empty glass sitting on the nightstand.
“Maybe a glass of water.”
“Nothing to eat?” I prodded.
She shook her head no. I returned from the kitchen with a glass of tap water and small plate of fruit and cheese for myself. Pointing a thumb toward the kitchen I said, “The women from the church are saying goodbye. I heard them in the kitchen just now. We’re going to the coroner’s as soon as everyone leaves.” Rodney and Jennifer had decided they needed some closure, and services wouldn’t be for a few days because the local funeral home had to prepare and ship the body. Ruth would be returning back home to Indiana. “Are you coming with us?”
“Oh no,” Mabel said. Her gaze dropped to her knees. “I’m going to wait here for Cora Mae. She’s on her way from Kentucky.” Mabel pointed toward a suitcase on the other side of the bed.
“Oh,” I muttered. “Oh! You’re going to live with your sister then?” It took me a moment to understand what she was implying.
Mabel nodded and picked up her glass to take a drink. She used two hands to hold it, because her crippled fingers wouldn’t bend around the cup.
The chatter picked up out in the living room as the screen door screeched open and closed repeatedly. The church ladies were leaving. Ed walked past Mabel’s bedroom, and I overheard him say to Michael, “That woman hasn’t done a goddamn thing for herself since she got here. She won’t even pour her own cup of coffee!”
Christ, I thought, I guess the church ladies tucked Mabel back here for safe keeping.
In the minivan on the way to the morgue, Ed placed the blame for Ruth’s death squarely on Mabel’s frail shoulders. “Your daughter doesn’t come downstairs all day and you don’t once think to check on her?” his voice boomed in the close quarters of the vehicle. Ed had found Ruth’s body the evening before, when he came home from work. The house was quiet and dinner was noticeably not waiting for him, so he went upstairs to see what was wrong. When Ruth wouldn’t open the door, he beat it down.
It made sense that Ed was angry and looking for somewhere to place the blame, but the tragedy was hardly the fault of an eighty-two year old woman who couldn’t climb the stairs. In the back seat of the van, I sat quietly, pulling my arms and legs in closer to my body. I pressed my palms together and squeezed my folded hands between my knees, making a little more room for Ed’s rage. Ridiculously, I hoped that if I made my body small enough, he’d shut up.
Outside the morgue, Ed lit up a cigarette and gestured for us to go on ahead. He wasn’t going in. He’d already confronted that reality and there wasn’t any reason to make himself do it again. Rodney, Jennifer, Michael and I went inside. We said our quiet goodbyes to Ruth, not daring to hover too close to her too still body. The fluorescent bulbs hummed overhead, their light joining forces with the mint green tiles to cast an unnatural glow over the room. It was chilly, even though we still had our coats, hats, and scarves on.
Jennifer was first to break the silence. “Why would she…” Instead of finishing the thought, she sniffled and dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex. We were in there for two minutes tops, but it felt like eons. Sure that we weren’t just living in a nightmare, we shuffled toward to the door.
“You guys go ahead,” Rodney said. “I need a minute.”
It wasn’t long, just a few minutes maybe, when Rodney joined us in the parking lot. “I couldn’t cry,” he whispered to me as the others climbed back into the van.
“That’s alright,” I said. “Not everyone does. Grief is weird.”