To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to face my mom’s diary. What was it going to tell me about who she had been? How might it change the memories I had of her? Was it even right to read someone else’s diary, even if she had left it for us to find?
I knew I couldn’t do it at home. For some reason, I wanted to be away both from my kids and from my dad. It wasn’t just about the constant interruptions that happened at home, but rather more that I needed a clear head. Becky and Michelle offered to go away with me for the weekend to a place where I could read and think. We chose a farmhouse in the woods.
Once we were settled in the farmhouse, I went upstairs and sat at a desk next to a large window. The late morning sunshine streamed onto the surface as I pulled out the pages of paper inside the thick envelope I’d kept hidden for a number of days.
I turned to the diary. My mother’s penmanship was beautiful, a small, perfect type of cursive that made the pages seem more formal than a typical personal diary. “There are no words to adequately describe the degree of despair I feel,” the first words said. I’d remembered something like this, but to read it again for the first time in two decades made me pause. I sat back in my chair, and looked at the pages in front of me.
Then I looked at the date in the upper-left-hand corner.
Wait, I thought. That’s got to be wrong. This is a diary from right before she died in August of 1998.
I started to turn the pages. 1996. 1996. 1996. More than half of the diary was from that year.
I was still at home then. I was in my last year of high school. I knew she was sick, and I knew that it was around the time that my mom had gone in and out of the hospital a few times. I knew she stayed in bed most days and that I was starting to spend more time at friends’ houses than I was at home. I knew it was not a good year.
But my mom’s illness was not the only focus of my life that year. Furthermore, many of my friends’ lives weren’t perfect either. The boyfriend I had the year prior had dropped out of high school and my best friend’s mom died by suicide so she lived just with her father who had a brain injury from being trapped underground at the local paper mill. My mom stayed in bed, but no one ever pointed that out. Maybe they didn’t know.
I never talked about my mom’s illness with my friends. They pretended along with me that things were fine though they must have known that things were off in our house. I was embarrassed that my mom acted the way that she did and I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just “get better.” Still, we were teenagers, and so when we were together we focused on the dramas of our own lives over others, especially our parents.
For much of high school, I was often able to avoid my house when the mood there was bleak. I could usually tell within a few seconds how my mom was feeling, just by observing the level of disorganization of the house, or the stillness of the air. If things seemed off, I could feel a tiny flip in my chest, a signal to me that maybe my mom needed just a bit more time alone. I never thought much about it, but on those days, I’d go spend time with another friend at another house, or retreat back to the high school or simply watch TV alone downstairs. But as I approached the end of high school, my mom got sicker, and it was harder for me to avoid being around her when she was really sick. Still, I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I spent more time on the phone with my friends. My family shared our landline phone, but it had a really long cord, so I’d wrap it around the kitchen door, down the hall and into the bathroom, where I could gossip with friends about all the things that weren’t too serious in our lives.
After I read a few entries, I sat back in my chair and stared out the window. It was going to be difficult to get through the entire thing without feeling overwhelmed. I went to my bag and pulled out some sticky tabs that I used to mark up student papers. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “if I can mark up this paper, maybe I can understand it.”
I looked at the first few entries. What was I seeing? It felt like one sentence of despair after another. Please God….medication stopped working….how can they understand…..Tom and the girls….I can’t go on living…. I took out my pen and the sticky tabs and re-read the first page.
I labeled suicidal thoughts with a yellow tab. There was a lot of yellow, and it started right there on the first page. I don’t think I should be here by myself, she wrote that summer of 1996 when I was seventeen. I tagged it yellow, and marked the others on that page where she talked about the idea of suicide. She didn’t actually use the word “suicide” right away, but the tone was there.
Pink tabs were next. I used them to mark when she wrote about me, my sister and my father. She was particularly concerned about the effect her depression was having on us. I don’t want to hurt my darling girls, she wrote over and over again. I paused there and actually said out loud, “Well, you did,” and then I felt a pang of guilt that somehow I had hurt her by saying this. Returning to the business in front of me, I marked it and the others like it with pink tabs.
I used the blue tabs to label discussions about her treatment. There were plenty, many of them quite clinical, about the best way forward and the right levels of drugs that could keep her stable. These tabs seemed to be the easiest ones to use, as they felt more like I was marking up a medical chart of sorts.
I used the last tabs, the purple ones, to mark when she looked outside of herself—to God, usually, but sometimes to the wider world—and asked for help. Many times, she wrote something like, Have you any mercy left for me, God? Those tabs seemed the most full of despair, because they marked the hopelessness that was more and more apparent as the diary progressed. As I stared at the purple tabs, I briefly thought about the times in recent months when I had actively bargained with a higher power to make my pain stop, or at least to help me move forward through it.
The tabs slowed me down and let me read her diary with a more clinical eye. I was trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle, trying to figure out what had happened, and why it had happened. I was jarred by many of the things she wrote, but being able to label them helped me to have some distance from the writing. So much of the information in it was new to me—things I swear I never knew, like the many entries from 1996, two years before her death—that I kept thinking back to that moment when we found the diary, and trying to remember how much of it I read.
It had been summer and the light was strong through the windows of my parents’ bedroom. I’d held the diary in my hands, thumbing through the pages. I was alone, though I could hear the movement of people downstairs, which was comforting. Outside, the Oregon summer made the green trees and grass glow, and I looked out to see a bright blue sky, which didn’t seem right. The paper of her diary was thin, and I held it delicately, worried that I might somehow damage this last piece of my mom.
And then—nothing. Or at least nothing remained in my mind. Even though that time period was so vivid in my mind, I couldn’t see much of that scene past the initial moment when I’d held her diary in my hands. Maybe I had read it all, and then forgotten it. But that seemed unlikely.