The diary took me a long time to finish, but I read it all in one sitting. When I was done, I realized I had used almost all of the tabs. Each page was full of my notes, with arrows pointing to the margins where I’d written questions or tried to connect her thoughts.
I came downstairs to my friends. “How did it go?” Michelle asked. She was on the couch, also writing, and Becky was across the room, fiddling with her camera. They both turned to face me.
“It was…” I couldn’t find the right words. They waited for me to finish. “It was a lot.”
“I’m sure it was,” Michelle said.
We decided to take a walk. It was what I needed before trying to tackle anything else. We talked about nothing for a while, but then we circled back to my mom’s diaries.
“They were dated. The first one was from the summer of 1996,” I said. “I thought they started in 1998. That means she was feeling suicidal when I was living in the house. I don’t know if I ever realized that’s where she was emotionally.”
“We have so many other things going on in high school,” Becky said, “and it’s so hard to focus outside of yourself then.”
“I know you’re right,” I said, “but it makes me rethink all of my personal history that I thought was true. All of the things I’ve said for years. I always knew my mom was sick for most of my life and I knew she took a turn for the worse when I was in high school. But I thought the suicidal part didn’t come until the last few months. The first time I really understood that there was even a chance she might kill herself was a phone conversation we had just a few weeks before she died.”
We walked for a while discussing how we think about our own history, and the perspectives that we bring to our understanding of the world. What else might we be missing as we moved through life? And for me, what other parts of my own history were actually different from what I remembered?
“Maybe,” Michelle said, “it’s not really about you missing something in high school. Sure, you may have been distracted with all of the teenage things going on in your life, but maybe the reason you didn’t know the full extent of your mom’s mental state is because she was able to hide it from you then.”
I hadn’t really thought about it this way, but it made sense. I knew my mom was sick, and got worse as my high school years progressed. I also knew there was a point when I understood that things had become dire, but that understanding occurred to me much closer to the time period when she died. I thought about this as we walked through the woods. The tree branches were mostly bare of leaves, and the path around us seemed lifeless. I breathed in the air, cold and fresh, as images of my mom in her last years flooded my mind. Her face was often filled with worry or sadness back then, and yet, my prevailing memory of her face wasn’t that I saw hopelessness in it.
When we got home, I took another look at the diaries. “I think they are out of order,” I told Becky and Michelle. “I need to figure out all of the dates.”
I took out the staple and spread the papers on the floor. Some of the dates had been cut off on the photocopied pages I had, so the order wasn’t obvious. Tomorrow is my birthday, began one copy where I could only read the year, which was 1996. “This was from late October,” I told my friends. “I think we can probably figure out the dates from what she’s saying about the seasons and the weather and stuff like that.”
Becky and Michelle got down on the floor with me, and started going through all of them. Fall 1996? I wrote on one where she referenced first seeing a Christmas display and Late September 1996 on another that noted it was almost time for Homecoming.
Michelle was attempting to put the diary entries from 1998 in order. Many of them were written on wide-ruled paper (in contrast to the college-ruled paper that she’d used in previous entries) and though I couldn’t yet put my finger on it, they felt different. “Why did you circle Tuesday on this one?” she asked.
“I think that was the night she died. We found her on a Wednesday.” Instantly, I flashed back to the scene at my house—the one of her body on the ground outside the garage, my father screaming. I hadn’t even been there, but I’d pieced it together from what he’d told me then. It was the scene that I often replayed in my nightmares, even though I wasn’t sure if it was accurate.
Michelle shuffled the papers a bit, picking up the paper where I’d circled Tuesday. “I’m not sure that’s when this one is from,” Michelle said. “I think this other one is the last one,” she said, gesturing to one dated a few days before she died.
I looked at both of them. The date on the “Tuesday” one was cut off, but it looked like it could have had few possible dates. We put all of them into Google, and found out that yes, July 28th, 1998, had been a Tuesday.
That meant that the entry I thought was her last was actually from a month before she died. Which meant that the last entry was the one that I held in my hands—the one from Sunday, August 22nd, 1998.
I looked at it. The script had changed from the previous entries. It was still my mother’s handwriting, but it was rushed. The perfectly loopy and controlled words had given way to penmanship that was barely legible.
Something terrible is happening, she wrote in the first line. The words continued from there, often with frantic descriptions of her mental state. Still, even in this last letter, I noted how she could lucidly describe what was happening to her. I am trembling and shaking all over and from deep within and I feel like bugs are biting me.
I circled that line. What did that mean? Where was her mind?
I can’t sleep, she wrote. I am too nauseated to get anything down…I’m afraid they’ll put me in the hospital.
It was a different tone than the other letters. There was despair, yes, but there was also something else that I noticed. The first signs were the words, I’m off drugs. Why would she be off her medication? The medication was the key to her health, or at least that’s what she’d always told us. In another part of the diary, she’d kept a note of every single pill she took for almost a year, noting what tiny dosage differences did to her mood and ability to function. To be off of all medication was a drastic move.
Then there were the words near the end of the entry. It is not so much like I am getting more depressed, even though I am, but like I am going crazy. All I can think about is how to kill myself to end this insanity.
I circled those words, and then re-read the entire entry.
I thought back to something my then 16-year-old sister told me a few days after my mom’s funeral. “The night before she died,” my sister said, “she was laughing. We were watching a late night show and it was funny and she was laughing.” I told my sister that seemed weird, and she said back, “I think she knew that everything would be over soon, and that’s why she could laugh.”
My sister was a child then, but I’ve always remembered what she told me because it gave me a bit of peace to think about my mom feeling some comfort at the end.
Now, as I re-read the diary, my mindset changed. She may not have been laughing merely because she was relieved that the end was near. I also think there was something else percolating up inside her, an inheritance from her mother. Maybe it was mania or maybe it was another form of deepening mental illness, but it was clear that by the end, my mom could no longer flee from her family’s legacy.
I only had a little understanding of her struggle at that point, but the weekend had prompted me to think about my mom’s story in a new light. She never wanted to become her mother in so many ways, and she especially didn’t want to fall victim to the same mental illness she knew ran in her family. She’d fought against it for much of her adult life, though there had been a point when she couldn’t do it any more.
She had tried to push away the legacy of mental illness, keep herself alive, and keep our family whole. And she had failed. Still, she had managed to keep herself alive for much longer than I’d known, and she had succeeded in keeping my childhood happier than hers had been.