The author's parents in 1947.
In the middle of a plate of enchiladas and salad, the phone rings. I sigh — it’s been days since I’ve had the time or appetite to enjoy a meal. My husband, Tom, is busy at the kitchen counter, so I reach for the phone, and my brother says, “They’re both gone.” It’s 2 p.m. on Dec. 18, 1994, and with those three words, I am orphaned.
After several years of suffering physical and mental anguish, my mother could take no more, and my father, who people later said couldn’t bear the thought of life without his bride of 46 years, went along for the final ride, ending both their lives in their garage.
On that day, as Tom and I made the 90-minute drive from our home in Massachusetts to the small farm in Connecticut where I was brought up, I looked to the sky, hoping for some kind of a sign — of peace, or comfort or simply of resolution. In the cloud formation above me I imagined two figures, waving goodbye.
That was the first of many signs I have received over the now 29 years since my mother and father died by suicide at ages 72 and 73, respectively. My view on things in general had always leaned toward “just the facts,” but in the space of 24 hours I began to look beyond the surface and open my eyes to what I could not or would not normally see.
The days that followed were a haze of sorrow-driven activity, but some of what transpired remains clear.
My father had taken care of all final arrangements, leaving detailed instructions on where to go and who to contact. While not highly religious, my parents wanted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, and so my brother, husband and I met with the congregation rabbi the day following the deaths, unaware that suicide was considered taboo in the Jewish religion. As such, my parents could not rest in hallowed burial grounds, something the rabbi made us well aware of moments after we were seated. He then asked point blank, “What was the reason for your parents’ sudden death?” I felt a slight tap on my shoulder and suddenly was aware of a way to place their final wish out of jeopardy. I blurted out “mental illness.”
“Ah,” said the rabbi. “For that reason, burial in our cemetery is granted.”
The next day’s graveside ceremony had me again looking toward the sky, but this time no cloud reached down to comfort me. Instead, the air fell cold on shoulders that were suddenly burdened by a weight that still, after all these years, has lightened, but never completely lifted.
Over the next few months, a redefined “normal” made its way into my life, but with it came a sense of vulnerability that remains hard to shake.
I went back to work within a week. At the time, I was a general assignment newspaper reporter, trained to “get the story, get out, and get writing.” Increasingly, I found myself lingering over interviews with those people who had been brushed or crushed by tragedy: the father of a drowning victim, a beloved high school teacher diagnosed with a brain tumor, the family evicted from their home by a heartless landlord. I somehow found solace in those I came to refer to as “my people” — others who had been hard hit by a catastrophic circumstance.
Soon that desire to cocoon myself in others’ misery morphed into something else: fear. Fear of today. Fear of tomorrow. Fear of anything that might go wrong. If my husband was more than 10 minutes late getting home from work, I imagined he had been in an accident. If our cat had a slight cough, I was convinced it was congestive heart failure. If my brother said he was feeling blue, I worried he would go down the same path our parents did.
The author in 2023.
Oddly enough, I was the only person I didn’t fret over. In fact, I wished something would go wrong with my health or job — it sounds ludicrous, but I convinced myself that a health or employment problem of mine would go toward my family’s tragedy quota and prevent other loved ones from harm. I also believed it might atone for my inability to prevent my parents’ deaths.
I can’t count the number of times I have said, “I should have...” and although my guilt will never completely subside, it has diminished over the past 29 years, replaced by a steadfast awareness of my parents’ continued presence.
Every October, around my father’s birthday, either I or my husband find a new or rusty nail on our front door steps. A coincidence, perhaps, but I look at it as something more. When cleaning out their house, Tom and I had joked about the neat rows of mayonnaise jars that lined a bookcase in my parents’ basement, filled with both new and old nails — a true testament to my father’s frugality! I consider the annual discovery a love letter from my dad.
And each day, before I leave for work, I hold a little fashion show in front of the mirror that used to hang in my parents’ bedroom. My taste in clothing is similar to my mother’s, and I view this daily exercise as an opportunity to connect with the woman who — for all I know — may be gazing back at me through the looking glass.
I have also arrived at the unorthodox notion that my father (whose appetite was legendary among family members!) might take otherworldly enjoyment from the food I prepare during the holidays. For that reason, I always include one or two of his favorite dishes ― not only as a homage to the man who could polish off three of my homemade cinnamon rolls with ease, but also because maybe, just maybe, he can still taste and relish from his perch out there wherever he now is.
Dec. 18, 1994, brought about other, more concrete changes in my life. I have reconnected with relatives, some of whom I had lost contact with for 20 or more years. It’s bittersweet how losing family members can open the doors to the embracing arms of other family members.
And for many years now I have been a volunteer ombudsman at a local nursing facility, working as an advocate for residents. A form of penance for an act I couldn’t prevent? Perhaps, but regardless, for each time I am successful in bringing about a positive change for an elderly individual, I imagine my parents applauding from up above as they watch their now 68-year-old daughter doing a “mitzvah.”
The event that transpired on that cold, clear early winter day in 1994 has changed my life in so many ways — some for the good, others for the not so good.
I’m kinder to others. I cherish the smallest of pleasures. I listen better. I cry more easily. I have trouble sleeping. I can’t bear to be in an idling car. I wear vulnerability like a scent. I too often imagine the worse, for I know the worse can happen... because it did.
But in a world where the worst exists, so too does the best. I’m satisfied with settling for the middle ground.
If you or someone you know needs help, call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org for mental health support. Additionally, you can find local mental health and crisis resources at dontcallthepolice.com. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention.
Sharon Nery is the former editor-in-chief of a business journal and was a reporter for a metropolitan daily newspaper in Massachusetts. She has been a columnist, restaurant and music reviewer, and is presently lead writer for a public relations agency in the greater Boston area. She is a federally certified ombudsman and does per diem work as a resident companion at an assisted living community.