The actual taking of the pills was a soggy event because Mrs. Rowe had thrown up, necessitating a second round, and also because she had been crying. The liter bottle of vodka was later found under the bed. Such a waste of good spirits her brother, Theodore, was heard to say at the funeral. There was no suicide note, or any other clue to explain Mrs. Rowe’s actions save the fact that she had been under the care of a psychiatrist, Zoloft and Lunesta for over six years, not to mention the concealed drinking, so the survivors were left to figure the motive out for themselves. Mrs. Rowe’s “veil of sadness,” the term her psychologist used in place of the more clinical “dysthymia,” had likely grown out of her postpartum depression following the birth of her youngest child, Nora. Simply put, Mrs. Rowe could no longer sustain her charade of normalcy. She had planned that morning to be the only one home until mid-afternoon. A determined suicide requires stealth.
The life-ending event began at 2:23 p.m. in the bedroom that Mrs. Rowe shared with her husband, Mr. Rowe. The couple had three ambitious children, Nora, Jack and Sheridan. Nora, the youngest, had been at her best friend’s house for a sleepover, the twelve-year-olds engrossed in a torrid romance that Nora had stolen from her sister’s room. Seventeen-year-old Jack had been running in preparation for a track meet, hopeful that his athletic career would get him into his top college choice. On a whim, he had diverted towards home because he needed water. Sheridan had been driving home tearfully, having just been laid off from her job. Mr. Rowe himself had been headed home but got stuck in traffic: he had begun to feel ill after lunch and suspected his symptoms were consistent with the flu.
The discovery of Mrs. Rowe’s inert body was made by Sheridan at 3:34 p.m. She had burst into her parent’s bedroom in order to share her bad news, her mother being the person she turned to in crisis. First, she smelled the vomit, then she saw the two large open pill bottles on the floor. Her mother was positioned in bed as if she were reading, only she had slumped sideways at the waist, her long hair lying in the foamy pink and blue mass of vomit. She did not appear to be breathing. Her eyes were closed. This collection of alarming sensory details accumulated in the space of a breath like bullet points in Sheridan’s mind until she drew the rational conclusion that there was something very wrong with her mother. She called to her, touched her on the shoulder, then shook her firmly. Mrs. Rowe was hot to the touch and unresponsive. Increasingly frightened, Sheridan then lifted one of her mother’s eyelids to check her pupil and saw that it was constricted, a tiny black hole where her mother was supposed to be. Mrs. Rowe moaned, an unnatural incoherent sound that terrified Sheridan more than anything else. She called 911, shaking and crying so much that the operator had to keep saying You need to calm down. What is the nature of your emergency?
While Sheridan was following the instructions given over the phone, Jack let himself in the front door and went right to the kitchen sink for his drink of water. He had noticed his sister’s car in the driveway and speculated that if she was home during work hours, then it was her time of the month and that would explain her foul mood the night before. Between siblings, there’s very little that remains sacrosanct. He changed his mind about finishing his run because he had an essay due and he was hungry. To his disappointment, there was nothing in the refrigerator that appealed to him, so he went to his mother’s bedroom to see what she intended to do about the problem. Sheridan was in a panic, talking to someone on the phone, and his mother appeared to be sick. He saw the empty pill bottles, smelled the vomit, and identified that Mrs. Rowe had also wet the bed, which at her age was unacceptable. As the crisis became obvious to him as well, he grew very pale and still, as if the whole thing were too big a hurdle for him.
“Call Dad,” Sheridan said to him urgently, then to the dispatcher, “Yes, yes, I’m listening. How soon? Tell them she’s barely breathing—Jack, now!”
Jack did as he was told and dialed his father’s cell phone. He couldn’t seem to come up with a single constructive thought on his own. His skeleton was being indecisive about standing upright, his knees and elbows curiously double-jointed and his heart pounded in his ears. He kept staring at the confetti-like vomit, slowly grasping that the blue and pink throw up was largely his mother’s prescription pills.
“He’s not answering,” he informed Sheridan, but she was still on the phone, looking out the window expectantly and didn’t hear him.
“They’re here! —Yes, I’ll open the front door,” she told the dispatcher and hurried from the room.
Through the window of his parent’s bedroom, Jack could see the boxy red and white ambulance approaching quickly, lights on. Its very presence threatened to change their lives forever, and later, its arrival would be the only thing Jack would remember about that day. Mr. Garvey’s pickup truck swerved to the side of the road and he craned his head out the window as the ambulance pulled into Jack’s driveway. Two medics walked around to the back and opened the double doors, pulling out a gurney, moving deliberately but with urgency. A third man got out of the van with a medical kit. They would be there within a minute. He looked at his mother as a stranger might see her, embarrassed by the strong smell of urine, afraid that she was already too fast asleep. He felt faint and had to bend over with his hands on his knees.
As Sheridan watched the ambulance pull up, Mr. Rowe turned onto his street. By then he knew he was coming down with something that would put him in bed for at least a few days: his head had a jackhammer in it, his stomach was about to let go of lunch, and he was sweating profusely. When he saw the ambulance in the driveway, he mistook it for a camping van at first, not expecting a medical crisis at his own house, the large letters spelling A-M-B-U-L-A-N-C-E finally getting his attention. There being no room to get to the garage, he parked on the street, running to the front door just as the paramedics pushed through with the rattling gurney. Sheridan was holding out prescription pill bottles to the senior medic, answering his questions in a fearful, breathy tone. The situation was so surreal that he wondered if he was in the wrong house. He followed the emergency team as they carried the gurney upstairs and down the hallway to his own bedroom. There, the EMTs descended on Mrs. Rowe as her husband absorbed the unnatural angle of his wife’s familiar shape, the emerging gray roots of her hair, even his own pillow still indented from his head. His chest constricted with fear. He recognized her stillness, so similar to his father’s death.
The paramedic in charge asked Mr. Rowe questions—Are you the husband? How old is your wife? How much does she weigh? He wasn’t sure how much she weighed. He watched as the team moved quickly, trying to waken his wife, taking blood pressure and pulse, administering a shot, rechecking, and getting the limpness that was Mrs. Rowe onto the gurney. He had never noticed how small his bedroom was before. It had never been intended for more than two and with the gurney taking up most of the open space, the six standing people were sandwiched together. He felt feverish.
The EMTs made no comment about the vomit or the pee, but they had to shoo Jack out of the way so they could get down the hallway, stressing the urgency of getting Mrs. Rowe to the ER immediately. It had taken all of thirteen minutes from Sheridan’s arrival to the final departure of Mrs. Rowe from the family home.
Sheridan was a linear thinker. She could plainly see that her father was ill and that Jack was in shock, so she took charge in spite of her panic. She checked her mental list: her keys were in her hand, her cell phone in her back pocket, her purse was still by the front door.
“I’ll drive. Let’s go…Jack!” and more gently “Come on, Dad.”
The hospital was 3.6 miles away, ten minutes if the lights cooperated, four and change behind an ambulance with right-of-way. Jack sat in the back chewing on his fingernails; Mr. Rowe concentrated on the rear doors of the ambulance, precariously close to vomiting. Sheridan stayed so close to the van’s bumper that she memorized the license plate number and afterwards ended up using it as her computer password, a morbid reminder of the event, but she was like that. Driving gave her a way of setting her feelings aside; leadership in general was a way of dealing with herself at a later date. Jack’s brain flipped a switch. He started shaking, tears running down his pale cheeks, a young man with residual acne, braces and a curlicue of brown cowlicked hair. He became a manic chatterbox asking for answers neither Mr. Rowe nor Sheridan could give.
The ambulance pulled up to the ER doors, but Sheridan had to park. The lot was crowded. She found a spot about as far away from the entrance as one could get, and they each tumbled out of the car, a family in crisis, their journey a matter of two hundred feet to a place they had no wish to be.
Mr. Rowe took two steps to the bushes, bent over and threw up mostly on his dress shoes, sickness and horror gushing from his insides. Sheridan found a box of tissues in her car and handed them to her father, one by one, until the heaving stopped. Mr. Rowe couldn’t find a place for the soiled tissues, so he shoved them in his pockets saying, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, over and over.
Jack bounced on his toes, his running shorts flapping around his thin legs. An idea occurred to him.
“What about Nora?”
“Where is she?” Sheridan asked, looking at Jack, then her father. Mr. Rowe shook his head. There was a moment of tense silence. Sheridan decided for them. “Let’s just see how Mom is, and then I’ll call her. Are you okay now, Dad?” She held her father’s arm and started pulling him toward the hospital.
Mrs. Rowe was unconscious. If she was capable of thought, she might have wondered why they bothered with her. She was done with this life and had only hoped for better luck in the next one. She had been thinking about this act for over a year, had carefully considered the method and the best time of day to be alone. Mostly, she had become very tired of putting on a happy face, of being in charge, of giving away parts of herself when there wasn’t anything to give. As the ER doctor and nurses worked on her, and if she was conscious at all, Mrs. Rowe might have felt herself slipping away as her blood oxygen levels fell, her heart became dysrhythmic and her organs started shutting down. If she was capable of any thought at all, Mrs. Rowe might have said that all she wanted was not to be disturbed any more.
The doctor called the time of death, 16:21 p.m., and went to inform the family and the chaplain. A nurse turned off the monitors. She looked for a moment at Mrs. Rowe’s face and said a prayer for the family that they had lost such a beautiful woman. Then she notified the morgue for removal of Mrs. Rowe’s body.
Nora had been hysterical when they’d picked her up, a bit more than two hours after her mother died. Mr. Rowe had called ahead to let Mrs. Parrish know what had happened and could she please tell Nora they would be there shortly. He’d also asked the woman not to say anything, that he wanted to tell his daughter himself, but Mrs. Parrish had been crying and naturally Nora wanted to know what was wrong. She’d demanded to go to the hospital to see her mother for herself and only Sheridan had been able to talk her out of it. She explained to Nora that there hadn’t been any time to come and get her, that everything had happened so quickly, that her mother had been asleep and very peaceful, that the doctor had tried everything, yes, even the electric paddles, but Nora didn’t want to hear any of it. Like everyone else in the family, Nora insisted on knowing why? for which there simply was no answer and therefore no consolation.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Jack took off on a run, not able to bear his little sister’s wails. It was either that or kick a door in. It was tricky being seventeen: the need to seek parental solace tangled with the urge to break away. He ran until he thought his chest would crack open, past the old lumber mill and down to the hidden place at the edge of the stream where he’d kissed Janet Tang back in the fall. He sat on a rock, aware of the sour smell of his own sweat, not understanding how his mother could just leave the way she had, with no explanation. She certainly wouldn’t have tolerated that from him. There were rules, after all. Except there was no syllabus for this experience. He called for her in the darkening woods, a bleat that cracked into a falsetto and was swallowed up by the dark green water and the roots of plants that reached deep into the muddy earth.
After Jack left, Mr. Rowe stood at the kitchen sink brushing the vomit off his shoes with a nylon scrub brush he found in the cabinet. He had had to wet the brush because the vomit had hardened as it dried. It seemed that no matter how much he scrubbed the slurry wouldn’t wash off and finally he dumped the ruined shoes in the sink in frustration, covering his face and rocking back and forth on his stockinged feet. He was a silent crier, but not a dry one, and the tears leaked between his fingers and dripped on the shoes, melting the sickness and taking it one drop at a time down into the loneliness of the drain.
At 8:45 p.m., Nora took the Benadryl tablet that Sheridan handed her and wrapped herself in her mother’s bathrobe. She allowed Sheridan to rock her on her lap, feeling her older sister’s soft cheek on the top of her head, her arms wrapped around her body. Nora remembered kissing Mrs. Rowe goodbye that morning. Her mother had held her longer than normal and whispered in her ear, Don’t forget that I love you, before sending her off with her usual smile. Nora kept this tiny secret to herself for many years as it gave her comfort, and anyway she didn’t feel there was enough of it to share with her siblings.
“She’s dead,” said Nora. The word was so ugly that she had to say it. Her breath made hiccupping sounds. She felt turned inside out like a dirty shirt, only washing wouldn’t fix her.
Sheridan couldn’t argue with her over the facts. Sheridan could barely talk without falling apart, and right then, Nora needed the closest thing to her real mother. Gradually, Nora stopped crying and fell asleep, so Sheridan laid her gently down on the bed, tucked the bathrobe around her tightly and pulled the comforter up to her waist. She kissed her lightly on the temple, unthinkingly imitating their mother and similarly tidied Nora’s shoes neatly under the bed. Then she went to her own room and stood at the open window for no particular reason other than she couldn’t bear to look at her parents’ door which was across the hall and she was too distressed to go downstairs and talk to her father.
The evening was not memorable: there was no fiery sunset, no stormy sky. Nature did nothing momentous to commemorate this catastrophic day. Out of habit, she made a list of what she knew in that moment: there was a bloom of dandelions on the lawn; a dog was barking; the Welter’s were having a barbecue; her mother was dead. She stopped after the last item, feeling the word on her tongue as Nora had. She listened for the sounds of her mother moving around the house, talking to a friend on the phone, the way she mispronounced "especially" as "expecially," an idiosyncrasy that she’d learned to tolerate and would have given anything to hear at that moment. She wondered what kind of pain had been so bad that her mother couldn’t confide in her. Sheridan had no idea in the world how she was going to deal with her grief. She needed her mother desperately.
An enormous green katydid sprang onto the windowsill, a foot or so from Sheridan’s hands. She froze, not wanting to disturb it, for it was a handsome creature, bright peridot green with fantastic hinged legs and tightly folded wings. It seemed to be staring at her, as if studying her face. She waited several minutes for the katydid to fly away, but it remained on the windowsill, adjusting its stance occasionally, but still watching her. She carefully reached her fingers toward it, holding her breath, and the creature crept over and touched her with its antennae like a tender caress, and Sheridan cried from the enormous comfort it gave.
By 9:45, the river had provided more mosquitoes than insight, so Jack made his way home, coming across his father in the kitchen. The shoes in the sink were confusing, but he didn’t bother asking about them. His father rose from the table and embraced his son, surprised that they were now the same height. When Mr. Rowe asked how he was, Jack said Really, Dad? About the same as you I guess. Mr. Rowe nodded seriously, hiding the rejection by patting Jack on the back. The boy went upstairs to shower, not bothering Sheridan as her door was closed. He scrubbed the snot and dirt and stink off his body, bewildered by his anger and hurt, yet traumatized to the point where he couldn’t cry anymore. When he had dried off, he sat on his bed with the damp towel around his waist and called Janet Tang. She listened and wept for him until he could fall asleep.
Mr. Rowe couldn’t bear to go upstairs. His jaw was dark with stubble, his hair disheveled, his breath rank, and he had quite definitely come down with the flu. He sat in one of the chairs at the breakfast table, writing a list of what needed to be done. So far, he had “funeral home” and “death certificates.” The words stared back at him like an indictment, so he looked away at the magnetized items on the refrigerator: Jack’s graduation announcement, Nora’s school picture, a holiday card and the itinerary for an upcoming Hawaiian vacation, multiple family photos with their arms around each other and always with Mrs. Rowe in the middle. He studied the visual display, mystified by his failure.
Just as Sheridan, Jack and Mr. Rowe had been drawn back home within minutes of each other— Nora the afterthought —so their bright universe blew apart that night. Their grief required time, they had to get acquainted with their anger and loneliness, for each one of them had had a unique relationship with Mrs. Rowe. Collectively, they were the collateral damage unique to suicides; individually, they were isolated by shock. Sheridan would have shared her feelings if she had been asked directly, but she had convinced everyone in her life that she was self-sufficient, so no one bothered. Jack had wanted that hug from his father, but lately it had been easier to convince his parents that the house would be a calmer place once he left for college and he couldn’t backtrack now. Nora dreamt of looking out the back window of the school bus watching her mother getting smaller and smaller as she said Don’t forget that I love you. Even in her dream, it seemed like a lie.
Mr. Rowe wasn’t in the habit of being his children’s confidant. That had been Mrs. Rowe’s privilege. If it would have helped, he would have admitted to them that his own father had not died of a heart attack as he’d always told them, but of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He could then have pointed to himself as a survivor. Of course, he would have omitted the fact that he had been a witness to the “accident” as his mother insisted on calling it. The sound of the gunshot still haunts me, he wanted to tell them. It would have explained his aversion to fireworks and construction zones. However, Mrs. Rowe was the only soul to whom he had ever told the whole truth, and he now knew that he had been insufficient for her too.
He was dizzy with the need for sleep, but his bedroom was not an option. The couch or the guest room? As he struggled with the question, he started to put away the cold, congealed pizza that he had ordered hours earlier, Jack’s idea, only nobody had been able to eat much. There was one slice missing along with several chunks as if the pizza had been torn apart in haste, without thought or care. Was that where he had made his mistake? Caring for her more than he cared for himself? Believing her when she said she was getting the help she needed from her psychologist? Telling himself it was her private business when he should have known she needed…something? His stomach twisted in revulsion at the shriveled mushrooms and curled bits of ham, the red sauce that oozed onto the brown cardboard. The meal looked like a dead animal to him, and he threw it out, mashing the whole box down deep into the kitchen garbage in fury.
He stripped off his suit, shirt and tie, throwing them in the laundry room, the vomit-soaked tissues still packed in the pockets of his pants. Then he lay down on the living room sofa in his underwear, covering himself with a blanket from the guest room, a soup pot on the floor nearby in case he had to throw up again. His GI tract had slowed its chemistry experiment and his head wasn’t pounding so badly, so all things considered, he might be recovered enough by the time the children woke up to put on a good face and do whatever needed to be done. He imagined the people he would have to call, such as Mrs. Rowe’s brother, Theodore. I have some unhappy news. Your sister passed away yesterday. Thought you should know. He started formulating a list of names in his head, putting them into order of priority. The house creaked like a reminder that he needed to check on his children. He could hear someone stirring upstairs, a toilet flushing, footsteps in the hallway, a door closing. Sheridan’s radio was on, the quiet sounds of music he supposed was popular. Normal sounds in any house and yet they filled him with fear. He doubted his ability to help his children through the days ahead. He thought about the cost of a child’s trust and the role of adults, the desperation of suicide and the darkness Mrs. Rowe must have been suffering with. He drifted off, a tenuous sleep at best. His legs twitched restlessly and he sweat feverishly on Mrs. Rowe’s best decorative pillow, although it no longer mattered.
In the chill of the morgue, Mrs. Rowe was dreamless, breathless, and without any sensation of cold. Her countenance had no expression of any kind, and it is safe to say that she felt neither regret, nor sorrow, nor peace. That was her legacy to her children, her husband, her relatives and her friends: all the people who cared about her and would have done whatever was humanly possible to save her from her own destruction. Even if all that had been left was a broken shell, they would have protected her. They would have protected her.