Chapter 2: Why?
The obvious questions all begin with “why”. Why did they do this? Why didn’t I notice something was wrong? Why wasn’t I there for them more? But the harsh reality is that it’s not about you. None of it. So the first thing we learn as we embark on the road to healing is that you have to get over yourself. Get past the sense of ownership, the misplaced sense of responsibility. We especially have to abandon the idea that there was ever anything we could have said or done differently which would have changed the path our loved one ultimately chose.
This is not always an easy thing to do. I, for one, was raised by the Queen of Jewish Guilt. I know she was the Queen because my father professed her sovereignty quite frequently, especially on those occasions when I would relate someone’s failed attempt to guilt me into something.
So as I was saying, my mother was the Queen of Jewish Guilt, and I, being her first born, was the first person, truly her own, she was able to practice on. As a result, I spent my formative years with a self esteem the size and strength of a shriveled pea, and the belief that no matter what happened, it had to be my fault. But also as a result, I grew into adulthood, weathered my share of tough times, made my share of less-than-stellar choices, and built my own strength and character, because I learned too well what it was to be a follower and a doormat, and knew that, no matter what it took, it wasn’t what I wanted to be. Admittedly, it’s also made me insensitive to people who do choose to be doormats, and recognizing that in myself, I’m trying to learn to accept the choices other people make, even the ones I might, from my own experiences, deem rather stupid. I’m beginning to realize, as I smooth out the rough edges, that choices are neither smart nor stupid, but simply the choices we make.
In what seems like a completely backwards way, I appreciate what my mother did for me. It brings to mind the Johnny Cash song, "A Boy Named Sue", about the father who knew he wouldn’t be around to teach his son to stand up for himself, so he named him “Sue”, knowing full well that he’d have to get tough to keep people from walking all over him. My mother showed me weak so that I could learn to be strong. For all of her hard exterior, Mom was a marshmallow inside, and, as I got older, I learned that all I had to do was stand up to her for her to back down, and by then, I had, unfortunately, become so hard that her tears (the tactic she used to get her way when aggression failed) annoyed me rather than moving me, and as a result, I failed to see how broken she really was.
But she also gave me a sense of responsibility which, at innumerable times in my life has been seriously misplaced. It’s kind of an “uber” responsibility which causes me to believe that I am responsible for everything that happens around me. It was years before I realized that I really wasn’t responsible for her suicide, nor for carrying around a load of guilt that Atlas, himself would have been unable to bear! And heaven help me, I have passed that sense on to at least one of my daughters!
In my father’s case, only a small amount of digging turned up the likely answer to why. But more difficult to accept was that he knew what we’d all gone through after my mother’s death. Why would he subject us to it again? How could he be so selfish, so uncaring? And even worse, why would he choose a day which was already painful to almost everyone in the country?
The truth is, as we can’t exactly talk to the person now unless we find someone who has a strong connection to the spirit world, we can’t really get the answers to what motivated them to take the action they did. With dad, family history did give me some insight to at least speculate on his motivation. That insight is what eventually made me realize that he wasn’t being selfish in his own mind, but was giving my sister and me one final gift. Although his mother had died of lung cancer when I was about ten or eleven, we visited her regularly until almost the end when she told my dad not to come any more as she didn’t want him to remember her in her severely weakened state. For the same reason, my sister and I were not allowed into her room during those last months. I believe that those memories scarred my dad and scared him, quite literally, to death. He truly believed that his actions were selfless and caring. As for the date, I believe, now, that it was just a horrible coincidence, nothing more. But I’ve had nine years to do a thorough self-psychoanalysis and have finally realized that it never was about me, except to protect me from having to watch my father die a very painful death.
My mom was an entirely different story, and despite the fact that she’s been gone nearly twenty years, I’m no closer to understanding than I was the day she died. My sister and I used to joke privately that Mom had many faces. She showed her “social face” to anyone she considered outside her immediate family circle, but even the face she showed us hid more than it revealed. We’d catch occasional glimpses of what made her the person she was, but I don’t think anyone ever had a complete picture.
Mom was born in the Bronx, New York to my grandmother Mildred and my grandfather Sol. While Sol was off fighting in the Korean War, Mildred wrote him a “Dear John” letter and moved with my mother to California to follow Chaim, or Hymen as he was renamed upon arriving at Ellis Island, an extremely handsome Jewish actor. They ultimately married and had my aunt Tammy. Mom always insisted that Tammy replaced her, but until very recently, I assumed that it was merely her perception. Tammy confirmed that, from my grandmother’s point of view, it was the truth. As a young teenager with a new step-father and a baby sister who occupied all of her mother’s time, I can understand how she might have learned to just keep everything to herself, perhaps even in the extreme. Even more so given that, from the stories I overheard, she spent a lot of time living with one of my grandmother’s sisters. I can’t even imagine living as a guest in someone else’s house for most of my teenage years. The sheer volume of teenage angst most young girls build up would drive a normal male right over the edge in a matter of weeks if there was no outlet for it. And adding maternal abandonment, both physical and emotional, to the mix just doesn’t make for a tasty soup!
I remember her telling us that Grandma had once chased her with a pair of scissors (and as she was a tailor, they had to be big suckers!) and about how she thought she was dying when she got her first period because Grandma didn’t see fit to warn her of an affliction visited upon the female of the species. I know that in some cases, she overcompensated with my sister and I as a result. I remember her discussing the facts of life for girls at a very young age, and proudly presenting me with my own little set of Kotex pads and the elastic belt we used to have to wear to keep the things on (in an emergency, two safety pins could be used until you could get to your little belt!) I couldn’t have been more than nine and had several years to go before those items became necessary, but when I did “start”, I was proud of becoming a woman instead of terrified! How could I know how little real joy this lovely event would bring me over the years after it had been presented as such a marvelous rite of passage by my mother?
Then she married my dad who came from a family who was not big on expressing their feelings, and, I believe, the damage was set in stone. Although Mom had lots of women friends over the years, I don’t think she really shared her inner self with any of them. Even the cousins she was closest to, and who knew where she came from didn’t, from what I could see, truly know her, or if they did, they didn’t see fit to enlighten my dad, though they were the first to ask him why he didn’t notice that her mental scale wasn’t quite in balance! Small wonder people always amaze me!
Mom seemed to spend a lot of time trying to prove to herself and those around her that she was as good or better than the cousins she was raised with, and that her daughters were better and more accomplished than her cousin’s children. Although, for a few years, I was close with some of those cousins, after Mom died, the relationships petered out, because we all got busy with our own lives, but even more, as I see it now, because all of the old stories were dragged out and drummed into their heads so they started to believe the misinterpretations of her behavior. Instead of seeing that she was desperate for acceptance and to be something to her cousins, they saw her as always trying to be something better than they were. They never saw that what she really wanted was something they had and she never would; a mother who loved and accepted them and didn’t toss them aside when something better came along. I almost think, in hindsight, that Mom would have been better off with her father. I know, to the day he died, that he loved his daughter and was saddened because my grandmother poisoned Mom’s mind and heart towards her own father. Sadly, I grew up with the same sense of duty, and not a lot of love for the man who was my real grandfather.
Yet, there was always the running joke about a crazy streak running through the women in my mom’s family. In hindsight, which is always 20/20, I find myself wondering how funny the joke really is. My grandmother chased her daughter around the house with a pair of scissors, mom’s cousin had a nervous breakdown when I was young, forcing my cousin to assume the mother role over her two younger sisters at the age of ten, and mom committed suicide. Where is the humor in that? The joke was perpetuated by the husbands of the Koslowski women. Did they know something they weren’t telling us? Could there really be an insanity gene? If so, is it passed on to all of the children or just the daughters, and can it be diluted by the father’s genetics? Oy vey! I could be a carrier!
And if this is true, what of the men who knowingly married these women and procreated? Wouldn’t that make them a little crazy too? Or was the crazy, unpredictability of the women part of their charm, at least when they were younger? Oy veis meir! I could be a double carrier! I wonder what my Biology major daughter would have to say about a double recessive gene and its impact on sanity? In all my studies of Mendel and his peas, I don’t recall the mention of genetics impacting mental stability, or maybe I just tuned out that day because, given my family history, I didn’t really want to know!
I find it very interesting to discover how differently people react to what they perceive as a lack of love and attention. Part of it, I’m sure, has to do with the era in which they were raised. For example, women raised in the nineteen thirties and forties were practically brainwashed into believing that a woman’s path to fulfillment lay in being a perfect wife and mother. Even the pursuit of a college education was considered to be for the sole purpose of finding a mate, and graduation was neither expected or required. Some fit this mold quite well and went on to become perfectly satisfied. But as with any career choice, for many, this role had to be about as comfortable as trying to squeeze into a pair of jeans two sizes too small after a big Italian meal. Something has to give! It’s disconcerting to think that nothing stronger than the slender threads which hold our clothes together contains our sanity.
As I look back on the social lives of my parents and those of my friends, alcohol was a major component of every social gathering, evening meal and end of the work day. It makes me wonder if this was their way of coping with the unhappiness and lack of fulfillment found in their daily lives. And in seeking this solace in a bottle, many ended up drinking themselves to death, either slowly so as to go unrecognized as suicide, or more quickly so there could be no doubt. The only difference here is that the families of those who did it slowly didn’t have to add the suicide stigma to their grieving process. I don’t mean to minimize the slow death by alcohol, here, but despite the issues associated with an alcohol related death, it is still far more accepted in polite society than an out and out suicide, especially when cause of death is something else like a heart attack or diabetes. The cause may still be alcohol induced suicide, but the death certificate will reflect something which friends and family are more comfortable with and for which they can offer sincere condolences without qualification. Yet the immediate family knows the truth because they had no choice but to watch as someone they loved simply gave up and drank away their pain, both real and imagined.
But that still leaves the question unanswered, and in the meantime, has added even more “whys” to the list. Why was this family member so weak as to choose to end their life rather than find a way to fix what was wrong? Why did their own history make them weak? Why couldn’t they see how devastating their choice would be for those they left behind? But the most important why is still: Why do we who are left behind take it so personally? Why is it so hard to accept the fact that, just as we are entitled to make our own choices in life, and for some of us, fought long and hard with our parents to do so, it truly is each person’s choice to end their own life if they believe it is necessary. That’s it. It’s simply a choice, no right, no wrong.
We make choices every day, every hour, maybe even every minute. Do I want to get up now or hit the snooze one more time? Do I want oatmeal for breakfast or a cookie? And as we make those choices, we rethink them and don’t always follow through on the first choice, or even the hundred and first choice we make. If I eat the cookie will I regret it later? Maybe I’ll go with the oatmeal after all. Wouldn’t a suicide victim do the same thing? And if they are like my mom and it was clearly premeditated, how many times did they choose and re-choose before actually committing the act? And for those who choose an act which takes a little while to yield the desired results, is it possible that they are still going back and forth between choices as the life seeps out of them?
Choice makes us individual. Loss of choice, over the years has been cataclysmic when taken on a large scale. There are endless books dedicated to stories of men who took the right to make choices away from large groups of people only to suffer the consequences of their actions at some point in time. From the Romans and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews to our own persecution of blacks, people get tired of being held back, and eventually they join together and take action, often blindly and violently as a reflection of their soul-deep anger.
If a person feels that they are tired of the human form they are in and want to move on, how can we, who are not living their life, judge their choice as right or wrong? I am not an advocate for suicide, just an advocate for understanding and healing. As such, I believe that part of that healing has to include removing not only the self-recriminations for not being able to stop the act, but the anger and the blame heaped upon the loved one who saw no other choice.
To take it a step further, I believe that as Spiritual Beings, we choose when and where we will return to the mortal plane, who our next set of parents will be, and even, in part, the lessons we will need to learn in a given lifetime. And just as we choose when to come back, we also choose when to leave and return to the sea of spiritual beings. At the point when we choose to leave, we have accomplished what we set out to learn in this turn of the wheel. Although it may seem that a life was cut short too soon, that we left the stage of life in the middle of our song, we truly have done what we came here to do, otherwise, we’d have found a way to stay until the job was done and all of the necessary lessons were learned. Why some of us leave slowly and painfully while others go out in a blaze of glory is just another aspect of the lessons we came here to learn. And in accepting this, I am learning to find peace with my parents’ deaths, despite the fact that those deaths seemed to me so wrong for so long.
(end of Chapter 2)
I welcome your feedback as this is definitely a work in progress which has been put on the back burner, and simmered far longer than I'd intended.
My gratitudes tonight are:
1. I am grateful that I am beginning to gather my thoughts so I can complete my book.
2. I am grateful for busy, productive days which leave me energized and satisfied.
3. I am grateful that I am falling back in like with my day job and seeing how it can help me prepare for and realize my dreams.
4. I am grateful for waking in the morning all snuggled up with my cats...me skritching, them purring. It means waking with a smile on my face which is a perfect way to start the day!
5. I am grateful for all of the good habits I've been forming, and look forward to many more.
Love and light.