Just when you think you have things exactly where you want them to be. It’s gone. Maybe Memories can bring the odd warm smile, but the reality is very different. Loss isn’t something you get over. It lives with you for the rest of your life. Loss is always hungry. It’s always looking to eat away at you.Unexpected death is another kind of brutal. Every person experiences the pain of living life, and most of us just know that we will come out the other side of some sad, bad or discouraging feeling or occurance. I will never, ever know what my daughter was thinking within those split seconds her brain told her finger to pull the trigger.
There are things I have learned since her death that cause me to suffer the woulda’, coulda’, shoulda’s endemic of suicide survivors. One realization is that a young person can be overwhelmed with too many choices, so more structure can be a comfort. Another thing I learned (sadly from a friend of hers and my friend – I’d thought I could trust) Angela feared her boyfriend and that he’d forced her to play Russian roulette with a gun. I was enraged at learning this story months after her death. And I was sickened that our very close relationship, our many talks never enlightened me. I knew this Rastafarian guy was a shit. Hey, kids often date the antithesis of a parent’s best picks – just because. Once she even kidded that her mother was a feminist so she had to date someone from the opposite extreme - it's what you do. She had assured me she knew he was an ass and she was getting out of the relationship, but didn’t want to antagonize him. I knew he owned a 9mm beretta. I never pictured the gun in my daughter’s hand or used against her.
For 20 long years the one thing I have consistently hated is the reality of that gun. I hate guns. (Even as a child when I learned my grandfather died from a gunshot wound in an accidental hunting accident when my mom was only 3 years old). That method of suicide doesn’t allow for the fleeting hesitation of other means of self destruction. It is too powerfully final. I am grateful the detective did not let me into the room. I pleaded and he convinced me that the one thing he knew after all of his years (he was retiring in a week) was this; I did not want to see and remember my daughter like that. He had a daughter Angela’s age, he said. He was right.
The weeks and months that followed are a blur. Angela’s dad and little brother flew to New York. I wanted Angela cremated and her father wanted her buried in Omaha. We let M decide and she was flown back to Omaha. I stayed at my mom's apartment for a couple of weeks after the funeral to be with him. We walked all over the place and talked and cried. One day we thought we would go to movie and seeing there was a Robin Williams film we agreed it would be good to laugh. Foolish lack of clarity that – as the film was Dead Poet’s Society. When the main character, a troubled boy, shot himself we were inconsolable and stayed in our seats until everyone had filed out of the theater and the credits had rolled. I felt like a hollow shell. Years later at a theater party I attended as a guest I met the actor who played that adolescent boy and I told him that story. I told him I considered him practically family from the emotional bonding with that character. He was warm and gracious with his condolences.
Within the next four months M started high school in Omaha and found himself unable to cope with grieving. His father was unavailable and the therapist his stepmother found had pushed him hard the first month to write a letter to his sister to tell her good bye. He protested he wasn’t ready and it was a bad situation. He stuffed a lot of emotion down inside and started having stomach problems and his own hints at suicide came out in a letter to me. This culminated in his sneaking out of his father’s home in the middle of the September night, calling me from a pay phone and pleading with me to let him come live with me. I told him to go to my mother’s and between us all we made the plan for her to accompany him to the airport to board a flight to New York. It seems so surreal now, but time has blurred the kind of rigidity and control my wasbund and his wife had over my son’s life. M has been with me or close by for the last 20 years and I am grateful.
In 1992, around the anniversary of her death, I organized a gathering of my friends in New York. I was living with M in Philadelphia at the time and we were planning on moving to Arizona in a week’s time, following M’s graduation. After losing Angela, I also lost two jobs. There was a recession and besides I felt I should have family and friends closer to me. But first, I wanted to make leaving the east coast a significant event, because I'd loved my life in New York with Angela and with Matthew. I designed an event, the gathering of friends and the ritual memorial to Angela. Two friends flew in from Colorado, my younger sister and her best friend came from Phoenix, my friend from NY, my friend from Philadelphia and my friend from Ithaca all stayed with me at Jack’s apartment. Jack and Roger friends formerly of Syracuse and Ithaca were my support system night and day following Angel’s death. Roger never left my side and Jack brought provisions constantly. Jack owned a restaurant, Universal Grill, in the West Village where I held a large memorial meal for Angela with all of these friends and some former colleagues from Lee Manners and Associates where we all worked with Angela.
Days before the ceremony I had gathered dirt from 5 parks in Manhattan (Central, Riverside, Washington Square, Tompkins Square and Battery) and mixed this into a large cauldron.All of us in this group had candles and gathered round speaking of our individual memories of Angela. Then we planted nasturtiums in the cauldron. After we were all gone Jack tended the nasturtiums until one day he was able to serve them in special ‘Friendship’ salads in memory of Angela at his restaurant, as I had requested. (Image credit)
Last year M visited Omaha as he does most years. In fact, he made a real breakthrough with his father when we made that cross country trip following his 1992 graduation. He stood up to his father’s criticisms and in fact rebuked him for neglect as a parent. He did this without malice and the two of them have grown closer over the years.
This last visit M and his father decided to visit Angela’s grave and place flowers. I remember the funeral, the grave – yet I never really connected my vibrant daughter with that grave or headstone. I have only been back to Omaha three times in 20 years myself. The first was the post graduation road trip move across the country, on another road trip that same year with a Colorado friend to see my mother and her mother, who had a play opening in Omaha and on a brief stopover 3 years later following my grandmother’s funeral in Iowa. I told my mom then I never wanted to return. The whole city feels toxic to me with the memories of another life another trajectory. There are people there I felt damaged me and my children and I don’t have any regrets for moving on or staying away.
Clarification: M read this and reminded me that he visited Angel's grave with his father and that his father broke down. M held him and comforted him. I am sad that I had blocked the memory of that story, because it is a loving experience. I'm grateful he reminded me. And, I just realized this next day that I think of Angela in NY - not in a grave. That is why I had the memorial with the soil of the parks.