Esther K. Willison, Nonfiction

It gets hold of me, I wrote less than a year after her death. Somehow it creeps up. It comes over me like a wave, seeping into my eyes first, then like a sheath slips over my head and takes over my body and fits so tightly I can’t breathe. It lies waiting for me in my car—I know it’s there the minute I open the door but I get in anyway and as soon as I begin to steer it comes over my shoulders, into my eyes and down my back. I can feel it beginning to fold itself around my forehead, on the sides, then into my eyes.

I had reasons, excuses, justifications—she was immature, she was taking a long time to grow up, she was a sensitive soul, needed more support. I was sure. As the years went by and her rage grew and she needed more help, I gave it gladly, although my own anger and disappointment began to seep into our relationship. But when I spoke up, her answers were as though she disappeared and someone else spoke, “Oh, I should have known I couldn’t count on you, you’ve never been there for me.” Could it be me? Unsure of myself, I too was vulnerable. So I remained silent and waited for the change, waited for my daughter to return. “There’s something wrong with Andrea,” my partner said. “You don’t have kids,” I snapped. “How would you know?”

My daughter, Andrea, was a poet. She was insightful and quick-witted, someone you would remember if you met. The combination of her attractive, soft appearance and her sharp intellect was appealing. Andrea was working on her doctoral dissertation—video interviews with people in all aspects of the mental health system—when she died. She loved to laugh, and she believed, ironically, that “the only true power is in connection.” She’d created a small collection of poems with this title, but it was, in fact, quite hard for her to keep this connection.

Andrea killed herself on September 7, 1997. She was thirty-eight years old. I had written a great deal of fiction over the prior twenty years and when Andrea died, I swore I would never write another word. I was sure of it. But the following year I began. The purpose was to remember the good things, the times we had fun together. But writing tends to steer its own way and after a few pages I began to write about all of it.

Andrea was a happy kid. She said so herself. A beautiful child, a good student, loved by everyone. But when she became an adolescent, she began to feel isolated, separated from the rest of the world. By the time she was in high school she had withdrawn completely, refused to attend school, and had to be tutored at home.

In college, Andrea continued to have emotional problems, although she remained a good student, had friends, and was politically active. When she came out to me as a lesbian, I was pleased because I am also a lesbian. But the daily chores of life were too difficult for her. For the next ten years, Andrea tried to conform to conventional standards—full-time job, relationships—but was unable to. No one knew what to do about it, not myself, her friends, or her therapists. She entered into the mental health system and was labeled with borderline personality disorder. She tried an assortment of drugs; anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications. Some worked for a while, some didn’t. She was in and out of the hospital. That beautiful child had grown into a frightened and tormented adult.

I lived with Andrea’s suffering for all those years, sometimes able to help her and sometimes, in her eyes, her deadly enemy. I knew she was unstable. I knew her thinking could be wild. I’d read books about mental illness, but nothing prepared me for her death.

This thing that weights my heart has many shapes. First it circled around me like a vulture, for months, maybe years. Maybe it smelled my fear, my grasping at reasons why she floundered, why she raged, why she spit out accusations one day and cried for help the next. Then one night she called: “My life is in danger. The lady downstairs is trying to kill me.” We flew to her side and stayed with her until she finally fell asleep at 1:30 a.m. There was no danger; but she believed there was. Up until then I had been shut so tight, with locks turned, bolted and reinforced. I had stuffed the cracks of doubt with solid steel. But on that night, after I left her side, my mind exploded open into floods. Torrents of thoughts began drowning my heart, sinking me under. “There’s something wrong with Andrea,” I finally said. “We need to get help.”

It has been with me ever since. For a time it was quiet and small enough that it could fit into my pocket until she tried, the first time, to kill herself. Then it became unbearable. It was my screams inverted into my body that I could feel even in the soles of my feet.

Only in speaking out loud to my soul mate was I able to understand that yes, I could stay alive and yes, I could learn how to squash it down to size. But always the question stayed with me—if pain wrapped me so tightly, what about her? Is that why she wanted to die?

So we got used to each other, she and I and it. We even learned to laugh again, and for three years she kept it so far at bay we both forgot it existed. “Mom, I’m not crazy anymore, isn’t it great?” Three years—a miraculous amount of time. Though I kept saying to myself, be wary, it could come back, keep your jacket and gloves on at all times. Yet even then, I trusted. We had chased it away; it was gone forever.

But of course, it wasn’t. It showed up one night when she separated herself from the group of friends at my house, and confided to me, “There’s a problem with Naomi. Have you noticed the way she looks at me?” I stared at her. No, no, I said inside, no, please don’t say that, don’t look like that, don’t.

After she went home, I sat on my bed and stared, feeling its return to my throat. But I wouldn’t let it envelop me, not yet. It got worse for her, and she fought her demons with her small fists. I admired her strength and her endurance. When I allowed myself to peer at her demons I was amazed she could go another day.

When she took her life, she left us a note. “Nothing is your fault,” she wrote to me. “I love you.” Was it not my fault I brought her into this world? Was it not my fault I couldn’t find a cure for her? Was it not my fault she continued to suffer? Did she not once say in her poem, “Mother, you are my railing”? Did she not fall overboard anyway? And where was I when she swam in that cold water to her death? How could she say “Nothing is your fault”?

In the end she forgave us all.

Can I forgive her now, for all my suffering? Can I forgive her for all the suffering before she died and for this long, long journey to God knows where? I can hardly see a bend in the road—it is like a straight infinite line of wailing. Is that the same road she saw? Is that why she ended it?

She started the note, “I am doing this because I have to. The pain is too much.” I know she did her best. I know she was exhausted but I want her back anyway, despite the pain. I want to open her door just as she’s about to grab the razor. But then what?

When she was alive, I kept the pain at a distance. But now I let go. I plunge head first into her pain. Will there really be a time, as the books say, when memories will sustain me? It better come soon or I will let this demon grab me by the neck and be done with it.

Her death left a space, an abyss deeper than my mind could fathom. At first I waited for her to come back. I was waiting to see her on the street, at my door, bundled up, collar up, steam from her mouth in the cold, gloves but no hat. “Hi, Mom.” Those are the words I waited for the first few weeks. “Hi, Mom.” I could hear them so clearly. I could hear her voice—firm, but restrained. Tight, but cheerful. Some hope in the sound of “Hi, Mom.” I heard her voice on the phone, “Hi, Mom?” a question, although she knew it was me. She always knew it was me. I told her I loved her always. Did she know that? “Nothing is your fault,” she wrote in the note. But isn’t it? I let her die. I held her so close the day before she died, her voice in my ear on the phone.

Hi, Mom? I’m still at my friend’s house.

Hi. I’m glad you called. How are you?

Fine. Keeping busy.

What are you doing today?

We’re cleaning my friend’s house. We’re going to play pool tonight.

That’s sounds like fun. Stack ’em up, or whatever one says. (She laughed.) When will you be home tomorrow?

Tomorrow night, about eight. I’ll call you.

Good. Maybe we can meet for lunch on Monday.


I should have entered into her mind in that moment of silence. I should have listened to that silence and heard what she didn’t say. Did she know then there would be no Monday? In that moment I should have gone through the phone, scooped her up, and held her in my arms forever.

When the silence finally ended, we spoke about her relationship with her partner, Pam, that recently ended.

I realize what I’ve lost, Mom. I’ll never have another relationship like that.

Oh, I don’t know about that. You know what they say: people who have loved will love again.

You’re my mother, you have to say that. So I’ll call you when I get home.

Okay, I’ll be here. Happy housecleaning.

Thanks. Do you love me, Mom?

Are you kidding? I not only love you, I’m crazy about you.

I love you too, Mom. Good-bye.

Good-bye, honey.

Two women from her program came to my house. I could see them from the top of the stairs, through the glass door, shifting their feet. I opened the door part way. “We’ve come about your daughter…” I had never met them but the terror in their eyes told. “No, no,” I said, “it’s not true, don’t say it.” I couldn’t stand up. The sounds came out of me—sounds not mine but whose? My head bobbing up and down, looking up at the huge women standing over me in overcoats of death, their silent hands in empty pockets. “Are you sure, are you sure?”

So now this demon has me in its sad measure, no matter where I am or what I do. But I find that I am afraid to let him go. If he were to slither off, maybe during the night when I strain for a dream of my sweet honey to hold her for a moment in sleep, I would grab him. Even if he might slink away to seek out someone freshly struck, even then I would grab him by the toes and yank him back—where are you going, you sonofabitch, I need you to keep her close. Where will I go without you?

On the day Andrea died, I spotted an egret across the Mohawk River, nestled into the branch of a tree. For weeks afterward, I searched for the white bird. Sometimes it was camouflaged against the tall reeds, other times it was hunting for food. Once I caught it balancing motionless on one leg. Suddenly its long neck darted forward to snatch a silver fish out of the water and swallow it as quickly.

But by late October I couldn’t find the egret anywhere. Desperate, I climbed down a steep embankment, grasping on to branches so as not to slip. I worried that the bird was gone forever, but when I turned my head downriver, the egret soared towards me, its tapered wings dipping sideways, and then landed on a dead branch a few yards away. I tiptoed closer and peered through the trees. The egret was preening her feathers, one wing high in the air, her beak lifting and lifting again those white feathers, I held my breath and watched. Then I called to her softly, “Andrea!” And didn’t she turn her head and look at me, that long slender yellow beak and those brilliant circled eyes and those delicate black legs? And those astonishing wings which sailed her up off the branch.

I’ve been watching home movies lately. Andrea was so alive, so vibrant—I couldn’t find a trace of suicide in her. Not in her face, her words, her laugh or her eyes. “What will we think of this ten years from now?” she asked her partner, Pam, at one point in the film. What will we?

When Pam first introduced the camcorder into our midst, we made fun of her, of it. Yet she persisted and look now what treasures we have. Andrea is so animated. I freeze the picture and examine her face—her mouth wide open laughing, eyes crinkled, head thrown back. At the next frame there is a listening expression—head cocked, a slight smile. She’s serious, she’s laughing hysterically, she’s laughing quietly, she’s talking with an Indian accent. “She’s like a stream beginning to bubble,” my other daughter, Judith, said, watching the movies with me. I could stare at Andrea’s face all day and all night.

When Andrea and Pam’s relationship ended, it all fell apart. “I realize what I’ve lost,” she said the day before she died. Could that be the reason Andrea gave up? On that particular Sunday when she came home from her friend’s house, what was in her mind?

I met with that friend and didn’t like her much. Actually I hated her, for not saving Andrea. I cried the whole time we were having lunch, but she barely noticed. She just kept talking. “I told Andrea I’d pay her to help me clean my house but she didn’t do as much as she said she’d do and then she got mad at me when I paid her less than we’d agreed. And I didn’t see why…”

So Andrea came home from this “friend’s” house on that Sunday afternoon. She was alone, without the roommate who had been promised to her by the supportive apartment system, without her job that wouldn’t start for another two weeks. “I don’t know if I can wait two weeks, Mom. I’m always waiting for something.” The next day she would go to her Day Program—a program for alcoholics, which she was not. And she would get out at 2:00 p.m. and have nowhere to go and no one to see. Her thinking was beginning to go askew again. “I have to do this before I forget who I am,” was the last line of the note. She repeated it three times. She came home that Sunday and decided to leave forever. And I didn’t save her.

But she didn’t ask.

I’m looking at a picture of Andrea smiling. It’s only her, though you can see part of Pam’s arm around her, and even a few wisps of Pam’s hair just at the edge of the photo. Pam and Andrea lived together for three years—friends, lovers, students—and broke up a year before Andrea died. I cropped the photo so I could have a picture of Andrea alone. Andrea’s smiling because she’s happy at the moment. Her narrowed eyes disclose her willingness to be captured in her contentment. But there are blemishes in the photo, a scratch on the negative on the right side of her mouth, a few white spots on the side of her cheek where the smile lines end. I want to wipe them off, as if they were toast crumbs or powder from a doughnut. But I can’t. I can’t wipe off the blemishes. I never could. And now they’re gone.

If I give up and say to myself, you’ll never see her again—it’s just too fucking sad. The space she left hasn’t even begun to fold over, if that’s what it does. It’s still gaping and I can stand on the edge and look way down. I walk around it and find something to do until the space narrows into itself. Then I can walk across it, gingerly, but steadily, and carry Andrea with me into some new adventure.

In her note Andrea wrote: “I am doing this because I have to. The pain is too much…I have to do this now…” The last thing she wrote before she went into the bathroom, ran the tub water and began to undress. She must have undressed quickly—the pile of clothing in the corner suggests that—and stepped into the tub. I think her head was facing the left wall but I don’t know that for sure, I just know it from feel. And the razor must have been lying on the side of the tub. I wonder if she sat there for a while before she picked it up. I doubt it. She was ready. “I have to do this now.”

The note lay on the table even after she was gone, with her handwriting and her letters. The jacket with the hood that I’d given her lay over the back of the chair she’d been sitting in. Her sneakers on the floor by the chair. The cat walking around the apartment, or sleeping on her bed, or eating out of one of the four bowls she set out, not knowing how long it would be. Never thinking we were already trying to save her by phone, already suspecting the worst although never in a million years really believing it. How often Judith and I had joked: She’s not answering the phone. Ah, yes, it’s the lying-dead-on-the-floor syndrome. Okay, I’ll go over there and call you.

This time it was the same. Only not quite. She had called me twice, two days in a row. She had told her sister, “You’ll never know how much I love you.” That was different, so we moved. But not fast enough.

It all comes back to me like a whirlpool I’m sucked back into again and again. No matter where I start out I end up swirled inside the day she died. One of these days I’ll have to clamber up the side and swim to shore.

A few weeks after she died I had lunch with Andrea’s father, Malcolm. Malcolm the unemotional, Malcolm the unapproachable. We met in a cramped, dingy lunch store near his house. As usual he was late, his one consistent trait. The worn brown tables and chairs wobbled. Malcolm and I hunched over a tiny square table against the wall. It was cold along the floor and I wiggled my toes to keep warm.

We talked about Andrea, repeating ourselves over and over. Usually Malcolm jumped up after being with you for a while; now he couldn’t stop talking, but we didn’t cry.

When we walked to his house after lunch, the sun had come out and it was warmer. We sat in his backyard, on a small terrace. Malcolm brought out some things he had taken from Andrea’s apartment and spread them out on top of a round metal table: an empty saltshaker, pens and pencils, one glove, the cat dish, a pack of chewing gum. I didn’t want any of it but I thanked him for offering them. The last object was a small plastic bag with a cigarette inside it. Andrea had started smoking again less than a year before she died.

“I took this butt from the apartment. I don’t know if it’s hers. What do you think?” He held up the bag.

“She smoked Virginia Slims.”

“This is a Winston,” he said. “It’s probably not hers.”

“I think I have two cigarette butts of hers in the ashtray in my car,” I said. “I could give you one.”

“Could you? Could you really? I’d appreciate that.”

I walked across the street to my car. I opened the ashtray and took out one of Andrea’s cigarette butts. I saw her sitting in the passenger seat, her delicate face turned toward me.

“Why can’t I smoke in the car?”

“Oh, alright, but at least open the window a little.” Her dark eyes smiled at me; she put the cigarette in her mouth.

I returned to the house and handed the cigarette butt to Malcolm.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I still have one left.” I looked at his eyes. Wild. “Sometimes when I’m driving I take the butt out of the ashtray and put it between my lips.”

“Of course you do,” he said, leaning towards me. The deep furrows of his seventy years faded and I saw again the smooth, high cheekbones of our courtship. “Of course.”

Malcolm emptied the plastic bag of the other cigarette. He turned the bag inside out and shook it out. Then he turned it back and placed Andrea’s cigarette butt inside the bag. He sealed the top. Holy shit, I thought, he’s as crazy as I am. It was a surprising comfort.

I left shortly after that. He walked me to my car and we hugged a long time, so long and so hard I thought maybe we would gradually fall softly to the ground and hold onto each other forever. As I drove home, one of Andrea’s poems filtered through my head. Come to me, come to me, she wrote. Rocks, seaweed, empty crab shells / bottle with a ship inside / I will toss you all into the sky / and you will / arch in a rainbow / allowing me to cross to the other side / where life begins.

No, I would never see her again. But I would always hear her.