When my mother told me, “You never really become an adult until your parents die,” I dismissed her assessment. I was in my midtwenties. I had a job, an apartment, a car. I was an adult. But it turned out she had a reason for wanting me to think about her death. For the next 20 years, she was to maintain one unwavering goal: to commit suicide at age 70.
She told me about her plan one cloudy afternoon. I sat on the floor of my apartment, shaking in alarm, as she informed me that she preferred to emphasize life’s “quality over its quantity.” She said she would eat wisely, exercise daily, and take her blood-pressure medication regularly, all to maintain good health and good spirits until the moment she took her own life. And after advising me of her plan, she refused to say anything more about it. “Tina, don’t get upset. You don’t have to worry about it now. The time when all this is going to happen is so far away. Let’s just forget I even told you.”
I tried to talk her out of it, my heart tearing inside my chest. I pleaded. I argued. I cried. But forget it? On the contrary, I spent the next few years of my life with part of my mind always focused sharply on my mother. Yet she wouldn’t budge. “I have always been scared of death,” she explained. “But now that I’ve decided I’m not going to leave that final event to chance, I feel much better. I can be in control of it, and this gives me a kind of inner peace nothing else can.”
I, conversely, had no peace.
I suffered years of anticipatory grief, mostly in isolation. Alone in bed from midnight to dawn, I turned back and forth under the covers to move myself physically out of the way of the thoughts following me like balloons on a string. I’m going to lose my mother. She’s the person I love the most in this world, and she’s going to kill herself. There’s nothing I can do about it.
The topic was too bizarre, too unbelievable, for me to bring up with friends. And my mother would not tolerate discussion of her ideas very often. If I mentioned it more than once or twice a year, or if I became emotional, she distanced herself from me. Ultimately, her need for control extended far beyond her desire to control her death. A kind, caring woman in many respects, she closed down at the hint of emotional upheaval. So if people didn’t do what she wanted or expected of them, at some point she simply shut them out. I had seen her do this with others; I feared it could happen with me.
Not being able to bear the thought of living without my mother before her death, I learned to hold my tongue, to toe the line, even to support her in her decision. But this kind of complicity had a price attached. Eventually, I could no longer differentiate my thoughts about this terrifying plan from hers. She has the right to do this. She’s making a rational decision. I’m glad I know. And my emotional reaction? What emotional reaction? I’m fine with this.
I eventually told some friends, but somehow, in my telling, I made it clear I would tolerate no disagreement. They were not to question my mother’s decision, only to support me. Otherwise, I knew my emotions would take over. Which meant standing up to my mother. Which meant losing her. So I only invited those into my confidence who would tread very gingerly around the elephant in the room. Some unidentified trauma had shaped my mother into someone needing to avoid emotional turmoil at all costs, and I now repeated that pattern. It rendered me incapable of scrutinizing my situation, of drawing connections between the past and the present. So I proceeded with blinders on.
The years we had left together eventually dwindled to months. As the date she’d chosen grew closer, I explored, just a bit, my absolute terror of losing her. And she opened up, just a bit, to hearing about my pain. But the rhythm we’d established could not be broken at the end. If anything, the approach of the conclusion made it more necessary for both of us to cling to the familiar, to believe everything we’d built, to embrace each other desperately.
My mother had claimed I would be free when she died, that I would grow and mature. But after it happened—and she did carry out her plan, although not as originally intended—I only felt weighed down by her heavy legacy. Months and years passed, and I still couldn’t bear people questioning her actions. I protected her from others’ judgment because she could no longer defend herself. Or so I told myself.
I now understand that I simply repeated the patterns my mother had modeled for me. These patterns felt very familiar, very secure. But without my mother’s presence to remind me that in expressing myself I risked losing what I loved most, I began to see the situation more clearly. I began to see a way out.
“I have always been scared of death,” my mother explained. “But now that I’ve decided I’m not going to leave that final event to chance, I feel much better. I can be in control of it.”
For me, truly becoming an adult meant not tying the story of my life completely to my family history. Instead, it involved expressing the unique, inner voice that filled me from the inside out. And when I finally listened, my voice said: write. I began with what compelled me, the tale of my last years with my mother. But going from not telling anyone about her plans to telling everyone frightened me. I knew I had to let each reader take her or his own meaning from the events, but I wasn’t always ready for the outcome. An editor called after reading a draft and asked, “How are you going to represent your mother’s sadistic streak?” Sadistic? “Well, what else would you call telling her loving daughter of her intentions so long in advance? She could have given you a year’s warning. Why did she need to give you 20?”
I felt blood pounding in my ears. Every atom of my being rebelled against his provocative questioning of my mother. But why had I removed the family blinders, I asked myself, if I did not want to look at the full spectrum of possibilities? So I looked, and in doing so, I revealed myself.