What I remember the most about that day are the white butterflies. From my vantage point twelve stories above where she landed in fetal position, like a baby in a deep sleep, they circled her body, celebrating the first day of summer. It was only after I saw them that I noticed the boys playing football in the middle of the street, their game shadowed by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. They hadn’t seen her free fall onto the ledge, damaging the bushes in front of the building where I had grown up. But a man, standing half a block away, did. He looked up, straight at the bedroom window where she had summoned every last bit of courage and jumped, and where I was now hovering.
I had been getting ready to go out on my first date with Jimmy Hawk, after he got off his shift at Key Food. Jimmy had soft blonde hair, the kind that whispered of fingers running through it. We had flirted for months, down by the park at night, and the chess table at dusk. Only at 15 can you flirt for months on end before chancing the single goodnight kiss that begs to be repeated.
My mother had just gotten out of the hospital two days before. I had become used to the solitude of the apartment in the months she was there, for a gastrointestinal problem that took pounds off her frame and stole her will to live. I had fallen into a comfortable life, commuting to high school in the city, working at the Carvel across from Bloomingdale’s, visiting her in the hospital. At first, I visited her daily. Then came her pleas, slowly at first, then more and more demanding. “Darling, help me. I can’t live like this anymore. Help me kill myself.” I thought that this depression would be short-lived like her other ones, like the breakdown she had when I was ten and cut school by putting the thermometer on the radiator. That was the day she thought it was 1949. This time, I told her what I knew to be true: she would feel better soon. But my assurances failed, and her begging continued.
One day, I wheeled her out to a terrace in the hospital, to get some air, to feel the sun. She wanted me to push her off the ledge. My patience wore thin. I doubted her ability to end her life. I told her to fuck off. That I was tired of her sounding like a broken record. To get a grip. My visits became less frequent. I had finals to study for. I had to work an extra shift, scooping cherry vanilla ice cream for tired shoppers. When I went to the hospital, I would hear her laments made to strangers. An Indian psychiatrist from upstairs. A group of medical interns who surrounded her bed and listened to a senior doctor refer to her simply as “the patient.” She didn’t care about the stripping of her dignity. I was the one enraged at the doctors, the social workers, the hospital administration who wouldn’t tell me what was going on because I was a minor. She was only aware of how tired she was, how alone she felt after my father died.
She came home when the hospital could no longer justify her being there. To a daughter who didn’t understand what had only been discussed from a clinical perspective. To an apartment that had once been a home. She was on more medication than she could keep track of. Anti-psychotics, anti-hallucinogens, anti-inflammatories. They made her tongue swell, provided her with non-stop thirst. Maybe they even eased her physical pain somewhat. None gave her back her life.
The day after she came back, two social workers visited. To make sure she was alright, I suppose, that she knew which medicine was to be taken on an empty stomach, which ones after meals. I left them alone, playing with the alley cat that we had taken in before she had become too sick for me to take care of Tuxedo, we had named him, for his white paws and tummy, laid against a sleek black body. My mother had fallen in love with him. She hadn’t had a pet since she had to leave her own dog with Christian neighbors, at first to move into the ghetto, and later to Auschwitz, where thousands about to go to their deaths were greeted by a sign that read “Arbeit macht frei” (work makes you free). I started to come down the hallway, maybe to get a glass of milk, when her pleas to the social workers stopped me cold. The woman’s voice drifted through the apartment, gently reminding her that she had a beautiful daughter to live for. That’s not enough, I mouthed, seconds before she said it out loud.
The visitors left. That evening, I heard my mother crying. She had tried to get up, to go to the bathroom, she explained. She hadn’t made it. It wasn’t a big deal, it was easy enough to clean. But she refused comforting.
I decided to go out with Jimmy despite what my neighbors thought, and what the braver ones said to my face, about my not being a good daughter. “She’s only been home for two days,” they declared in disgust. How could I have explained that I feared she would never get better, that my life was being sucked out of me, that only a kiss would bring it back? I slipped on a pink and white striped miniskirt, smoothed on make up. She said she would be okay. I needed to believe her.
The first day of summer always holds the promise of freedom. From school. From long dark nights. Carefree evenings spent hanging out under the stars, wondering what to do. Teenagers are as bored in New York as they are in other parts of the world, only somehow it seemed a crime to be living in the ultimate urban experience with no more excitement than a joint and the occasional game of pool. I went to her room, with the intention of standing on her bed so I could see how I looked. There were two elliptical mirrors on the wall, five feet long and golden-framed. Between the mirrors was a poster of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that freaked me out every time I saw it, because no matter where in the room you stood, his eyes always seemed to be upon you. I never understood how my parents, self-proclaimed agnostics with a love for shrimp and lobster sauce, could sleep and read and make love under the Rebbe’s watchful eye.
Instead, I caught my mother sitting on the window’s ledge, her legs dangling on the inside, her torso twisted toward the expressway, staring out. Her expression was peaceful. I asked her not how she had climbed up there, past the nightstand and the air conditioner, with her rheumatism. I asked her why. To get some air, she replied, as I helped her down, and closed the window a touch. We sat on the bed, with its flat wooden boards under the mattress, and for the first time in months, she smiled. She was once a beautiful woman. Her olive complexion and black curly hair made her eyes seem even more blue than they were. I often wondered what her eyes had seen, but it was easier for my friends to ask. I protected her as I imagined she had once protected me, long before that day, when I was still a kid.
She asked me for a favor. I braced myself, and was relieved when it was only to call the social worker, about one medicine or another. Should she take it with a glass of milk or with water? She stroked my hand. The number was in the kitchen. I walked down the same hallway where I had eavesdropped the day before, headed to the phone, and spoke quickly. I returned to an empty room, to a window opened wide. The sun hadn’t yet set. I knew that there was no place for her to go, but I couldn’t believe. Pausing by the twin mirrors, I asked my reflection what to do. I took myself to the window, and saw the butterflies, heard kids’ feet pounding the pavement, trying to catch a ball.
From the window, I grabbed the phone, dialed 911. The only thing I remember about that conversation was the lame assurance on the other end, that my mother would be alright. “Lady,” I said, “we live on the twelfth floor. She’s dead.” Somehow, I remained with her on the phone, until the squad cars arrived below. I hadn’t blown my hair yet. I ran down the 12 flights without shoes. The cement walls of the staircase offered me no strength. The cops knew who I was when I got there. A crowd had already formed, the way that they always do when there’s something out of the ordinary to check out. I wanted to see her, to see if she was still lying in fetal position, or if she had turned over to the other side. An officer told me not to look, but I walked towards her. I found myself looking into the eyes of Robby Reeman, a boy I hung out with occasionally on Dead Man’s Hill, where I had smoked my first joint and drank beer in a clubhouse the generation before mine built as a refuge from invasive families. And just as strongly as I had felt a pull toward her, I was repelled away. I’ll never know what the other side of her body looked like, those last moments. All I remember is the appearance of a long-awaited slumber, a final stillness.
Friends arrived and whisked me to the side of the building, as the ambulance took my mother away. Someone asked me if I wanted to get high. Another asked if she could be buried in a Jewish cemetery, given that suicide is a sin.
The Orthodox rabbi of the Conservative synagogue where I went on holidays, whose only acquiescence to the less religious nature of his congregation was permission for men and women to sit together, must have been called by a neighbor. He told me that in the Hebrew Scriptures, suicide comes up twice. The first incident takes place after Samson is captured, his eyes poked out, and he is moved to a prison in Gaza. He prays to be made strong one last time, and performs the first suicide mission mentioned in the Bible. At a celebration packed with 3,000 Philistines, he pushes the columns holding up the roof with all his might, collapsing the temple and killing himself and all those inside. The second time, it is no less than a king who takes his own life. After fierce battle in which three of his sons are killed. King Saul takes out his own sword, sticks the blade in his stomach, and falls upon it, rather than be captured by the Philistines. In neither instance, the rabbi insisted, does the Torah pass judgement, choosing instead to simply relate historical events.
I spent that night at a friend’s house, with whom I had my first sleepover at the age of six, not knowing whether my mother’s body would be released for a funeral the next day, or if we would have to wait until after the Jewish Sabbath. New York State law requires autopsies to be performed on all suicide and homicide victims, and since my mother hadn’t left a note, the police didn’t immediately make a determination as to what—or whom—had killed her. I was questioned by two round-bellied detectives, who provided me with all the cigarettes I could suck down. It was the only solace they could provide, and this was not the time to be stingy, or debate the legalities of a 15-year-old’s nicotine addiction. My friend’s mom, ever practical, gave me a Valium. I sensed I was falling into a pit, that I would travel through the Underworld and perhaps poke my head out like a groundhog in early February.
We buried her the next morning, on a Friday. Many people showed, but they were mainly there for me. Former teachers and classmates, friends and neighbors. She had no other relatives. In the midst of my Valium hangover, this funeral seemed so much easier than my father’s two years before. He had died without warning, of a diabetes-induced heart failure. At his funeral, held on April Fools’ Day, a bitter cold wind skirted the headstones at the cemetery. The pallbearers lost balance and, for a moment, I thought my dad would take a flying leap out of the unadorned pine coffin. When they lowered him into the ground, I turned to my mother, and said, not without a hint of malice, “I always thought that you would go first.” She nodded her head. He was supposedly the strong one, the caregiver. His sudden death taught me what to expect at hers. Her funeral, and the mourning period that followed, were like a remix of an old song.
I sat shiva by myself at my apartment, enjoying recaptured moments of solitude, since there was no one left to mourn her. From that point on, I was basically on my own. I asked prospective visitors to bring cigarettes; there was more than enough food. People came and went. I couldn’t sleep more than an hour a night, but I was never really fully awake either. At my tenth year high school reunion, a good friend recalled how her father had insisted he come with her to pay his respects. He sat with me for a long time, saying little. Two years later, in another way, under different circumstances, he too would die by his own hand. My father’s relatives, who had kept a respectable distance from my own crazy family, suddenly invaded my apartment, asking for reimbursements for taxi rides to Queens, trying to take control of the situation by searching walk-in closets for important documents. I tried to convince them, now my legal guardians, to sign emancipation papers. To leave me alone. And always there were the whispers that I shouldn’t have left her alone.
My mother’s name was Edith, the name that the ancient rabbis had bestowed upon Lot’s wife, yet another unnamed woman in the Torah. It means “the one who looks back.” In the traditional interpretation, Edith is turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying the angels’ command to not look behind them, nor stop on the plain, as they escaped to the high country. In a feminist reinterpretation, Ellen Frankel gives voice to Edith’s reasons for looking back: “I looked back to all that I had left behind—my other daughter’s grave, my friends and relatives, my home with its cherished mementos, my childhood—and I wept. And so hot was the desert sun and the brimstone torching Sodom that my flowing tears dried instantly, turning me into a pillar of salt.”
It seemed an ironic twist of fate that my mother, my own Edith, could do nothing but look back. And yet, she had named me Yael, a constant reminder of where I come from, perhaps a premonition of who I was to be. Yael means gazelle, an antelope noted for graceful movements and lustrous eyes. Yet its secondary Hebrew meaning derives from the root “to go up, to rise.” In the Book of Judges, Yael, a non-Jewish descendent of Moses’ father-in-law, rose up and boldly slew an enemy of the Israelites, for which she is memorialized in poetic battle song. Perhaps, I was the one meant to rise up from my mother’s pain, as the white butterflies had on that day.
Yael Flusberg is a Washington, D.C.-based writer and activist. She can be reached at Yael36@aol.com.