In the week after my stepfather’s funeral, my mother, brother, and I ate nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches. We had to finish the massive platter of mediocre cheese slices left over from the reception. It was hard not to laugh while choking down my 15th grilled cheese in six days.
When I bring up my stepfather’s suicide, it’s usually to joke about it. My jokes get one of two reactions: vaguely uncomfortable but well-intended sympathy, or (less often) the laughter I’m going for. The awkward sympathy is certainly reasonable, but it’s not what I needed when Chris died a year ago, nor what I need now. In my experience with death, most things were just absurd.
My mother paused at the door of our apartment. She stepped back inside, walked to the Christmas tree, and reached behind it to turn on the lights. “I’ll be back soon. Make sure Hudson’s asleep by nine.” I nodded and watched her close the door behind her.
My stepfather had been missing for two nights, and up until this point my mother hadn’t tried to figure out where he was. Her apathy confused me: “Shouldn’t you be worried about Chris?” She finally must have realized that she should be, and so she decided to file a missing person’s report. She was on her way to the precinct now, leaving me to care for my eight-year-old brother. I don’t blame her for her initial hesitation. At the beginning, I think we were all relieved by the absence of Chris’ overbearing energy in the house.
Now alone, my brother and I shared a tub of Bagel Bites. I called my friend Amory and invited him over to keep me company. “Bring wine if you can.”
After Hudson fell asleep, Amory and I started sleuthing. Amory became engrossed in the case—our amateur detective work probably provided a welcome distraction from his recent college rejection. We called the garage where Chris kept his car, wondering if it was still there. The man on the other end seemed suspicious and quickly hung up. When we found ourselves digging through Chris’ desk drawers, we realized that we had gone a step too far. We stopped meddling.
I don’t remember what time I fell asleep, but I remember waking up on the sofa to my mother standing above me, her short frame looming over the couch. The ceiling light illuminated her head from behind, leaving her face in the shadow. Her head was circled perfectly by that yellow light, and I was reminded of the way Renaissance painters created halos.
“Chris killed himself.”
I could tell that she had been crying. She had cleaned herself up before coming to meet me, but a few missed spots of melted mascara under her eyes gave her away.
My mother shrugged. “Well, you know the saying: ‘too bad, so sad!’”
Suddenly I was winded, less by the news of the death than by my mother’s use of the childish phrase. I started to sob, more out of shock than anything else. Then, still crying, I began to laugh.
“Jesus Christ, Mom!”
She laughed with me. I sat up to face her.
We began to sort through the initial strangeness that comes from learning about someone’s death. “It’s weird how the last time I saw him, I thought he was just going to work,” she said. She referred to him in the present tense, but mostly to say, “Fuck him.” We said every terrible, spiteful thing we could think of without saying “good riddance.”
Later, somewhere between night and morning, I found myself crying again. I forced myself to stop. Why would I cry over the death of someone I’d always disliked?
Too bad, so sad, I wrote in my journal.
Early on Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. I waited for my mother to answer the door. It rang again, more urgently. Stumbling, nearly blind without my contacts, I opened the door to find an impatient UPS delivery person. She handed me a cardboard box.
“Wow, this is a heavy one! I wonder what it is,” I said, trying to make small talk as I squinted and sloppily signed for the package. She gave me a concerned look that I didn’t understand.
Shutting the door, I tossed the box onto the kitchen counter, put in my contacts, and came back to the kitchen to investigate.
Bold, blue stickers on every side of the parcel declared, “CREMATED REMAINS.”
For whatever reason, I felt compelled to peel off one of the stickers and paste it to the back of my phone. I still don’t know why I decided to do that. I might have just thought it looked cool, not quite processing the meaning of displaying my family member’s cremation label.
The absurdity of the situation escalated when my mother came home. She saw the box, laughed at my story of the awkward interaction with the UPS person, and stuffed the parcel into the kitchen cabinet. It—he—still lives there in the corner of our house, with the pots and pans.
A few weeks later, I stood on the upper level of the house where Chris had died. It was an old lodge upstate where we had spent weekends, before I got older and refused to go. The house was darker and dustier than I remembered, and the curtains and furniture had faded over the years. It felt like a tomb. And it was his tomb, really—it was the place he’d bought with the thought that it could somehow make him happy, where he used to try to paint. He’d taken the time to decorate it, all by himself. He’d died alone in a castle of his own conception, a crypt he had spent his life creating.
I looked out through the wide windows into the driveway, waiting to leave. The cab we had called passed the house, and my mother sprinted out after it. The driver didn’t see her. She waved her arms, running down the tree-lined path, and fell to her knees at the road. From far away, I saw that she was crying. It struck me that I hadn’t seen her cry since Chris died.
From that distance, she was no longer my mother—she was a tiny woman with nothing but a thin black sweater between her body and the January cold, on her knees in the dusty pavement at the edge of the road, the edge of this haunted property. (Could a house still be haunted if neither of us believed in ghosts?)
She walked back. I heard the door creak. For a moment we stood in silence in the middle of the tomb.
“Are you sad?” I asked.
“Tragedy is for men. We women survive.”
I turned to his suit jacket, so carefully draped over the back of a wire chair, as if he were sitting down to a meal, his pink tie folded on the table. We left his clothes there—a headstone of his own creation, a static still life to which we never returned.
Despite our longtime vegetarianism, we asked the cab driver to take us to his favorite nearby steakhouse. We wound up at an empty roadside restaurant and split a 16-ounce hunk of meat.
On the first snow day of the new year I sat at my desk with my ink and needle, poking the small bone on my left wrist. Slowly, the number appeared on my skin: 968.
It’s my mother’s birth month and year. Why I chose something so abstract to symbolize her, I can’t say. I had already decided that “too bad, so sad,” would be too morbid—instead I opted for something that no one would be able to immediately decipher, something that could be my own.
The stick-and-poke became a kind of talisman, something to touch and meditate on when I needed to access the power and anger that my mother had mastered. It was an amulet, an icon of her and the way she used her aggression for the sake of self-preservation after Chris’s death. I saw it constantly—I used her virulence constantly.
I came to the dinner table to find my brother at the head, crying quietly. My mother was sitting to his right, and I sat beside her. She clanged the tongs against her plate as she served herself arugula. Hudson cried, “I love you, Mom.” She salted her plate so vigorously that stray grains flew all the way across the table.
“I’m going to stop making dinner. Who am I making dinner for.”
“I love your dinner, Mommy,” said my brother.
“Who am I doing this for,” said my mother.
She drowned her salad in dressing.
“Daddy is eating your dinner in heaven.”
“I’m making you ramen tomorrow,” she said, maybe to Hudson, maybe to Chris. She acknowledged me for the first time since I’d sat down and told me that I could leave if I wanted to. I told her I was fine, I didn’t mind.
She spilled the wine and it flowed across the table, reaching every empty seat. She might as well have stabbed someone for all the red there was. Hudson cried louder—and then my mother, her hands folded neatly behind her plate, said, almost inaudibly, “It’s okay, it’s just that things are different now.”
When Chris was alive, dinner had to be on the table at six o’clock each evening. The rule was never declared directly, and if my mother failed to serve the food on time there was no consequence. But we all had a general understanding that this ritual needed to be completed.
There always had to be three parts to the meal: a main dish of meat (that my mom and I would skip), a starchy side, and a vegetable. We—my mother, brother, myself, and Chris—would gather at six to serve ourselves each item and eat while we made tense, smiling small talk. Chris would say his day was good. I would say my day was good.
Every night after dinner, religiously, until I finished middle school, Chris and I would sit on the sofa together. With a comfortable space between us, we would watch one episode of “The Simpsons.” This was the closest I ever got to him—three feet and a simple shared experience. For my emotionally stunted childhood self, this closeness was extreme. Years of sitting next to him during one of my favorite parts of each day eventually made for some strange semblance of a warm relationship.
Several years after the end of the daily “Simpsons” ritual, and almost a year after Chris’ death, I got a tattoo of an undead, grinning Bart Simpson—it was $13 as part of a sale, and I laughed when I saw it on the sheet of model tattoos. On the way home, I joked to a friend that it was my macabre homage to the late Chris, and to that long-gone space of tenderness.
A year later, I am distant enough from the experience to wonder whether my mother’s and my manic humor was a constructive mechanism to process the suicide.
The jokes served as a kind of balm, a source of palliative denial that allowed us to pretend that we weren’t in any pain. Of course we were sad, somewhere within ourselves, but humor allowed us to avoid acknowledging it.
At the same time, though, our jokes gave us a means of talking about the death. Both my mother and I are emotionally guarded people who don’t easily admit to suffering. As she said, “We women survive.” Through humor, we could communicate our feelings and acknowledge the reality of the death without the pain of vulnerability.
Our long-standing inside jokes were also a source of bonding. After a long day of enduring endless, uncomfortable sympathy, we could come home and laugh together. We were always eager to share whatever grim comedy the day brought us. “My teacher yelled at me about a late assignment but then I told her about Chris and she just went stark pale! Looks like I can hand it in whenever I want to.” She would smirk and tell me about how her boss insisted that she take a few days off from work. “An extra week of paid vacation! I’m going to the spa tomorrow.”
Months later, back at home for break, I noticed a photo hanging on the living room wall that I didn’t remember seeing before. In the photo, I’m a small child, I’m walking towards the photographer, not smiling, my neatly curled hair and pink satin dress wet.
I remember the moment the photo was taken—I was five, and I had been out in the misty twilit courtyard after my mother’s second wedding. I had been standing alone in the same place for 20 minutes, quickly dampened by the drizzle. On the ground before me was a bird, recently dead, oily black feathers still intact. I couldn’t figure out how it had died, so I kept staring. I wasn’t alarmed or disturbed, only curious.
After a while, Chris, only recently my stepfather, came looking for me. He gasped at the bird and grabbed my small shoulder, ushering me back into the candlelit ballroom where the wedding reception had just begun. “Death is a part of life,” he said, “but there are other things we have to do.”
I wonder if he remembered that.
Back at the wedding venue, the photographer took photos of the family, of the couple, and of me, hair still wet from the rain. I thought of the body, the first of more to come.
Even in that photo, five years old and fresh from my first brush with death, I don’t look upset, exactly. If anything, my little face looks peeved, lips pursed and eyes a bit narrowed. Maybe I was mad about being torn from the bird, this object of my intense fascination. Maybe I was annoyed that Chris was so dismissive of my reaction. I’m relieved that my mother wasn’t the same way—that, when Chris’ time came, I had someone who would stare and laugh at the absurdity with me.