My life has been one great big joke, a dance that’s walked, a song that’s spoke, I laugh so hard I almost choke when I think about myself. – Maya Angelou

N.B.: I started this piece in way back 2004, when I put my mother in a nursing home, working on it for the following 4 years until her death in 2007, and it’s a hot mess, but! here we are, and to quote Cheryl Strayed among others, ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’. Ironically or how perfectly perfect is the fact that I do, now, have an IRA – I inherited it from my dad, my pater

Every time my brother asks me if I’ve made an annual contribution to my IRA, I choke with laughter as well as frustrated anger and incredulity. Who the hell does he think I am, anyway, does he not know me, my life circumstances, at all? Is he clueless, or just sweetly complacent in his own settled, deeply conventional, and financially comfortable life? Have I failed so completely in communicating to my brother the very real challenges, financial and otherwise, I have faced over the last twenty-plus years out in the world on my own? Or, perhaps, it’s a combination of all of the above. 

The first time I heard the term IRA I thought the speaker was talking about the Irish Republican Army and later, once I got they were actually talking banking, I figured it was a kind of savings account established to pay off the IRS or maybe a weird Irish charity, close to my original thought. Yet now when my brother asks me about “my IRA”, I merely smile tightly and say “Of course”. I mean what the what? It easier by far for me to discuss who I’m fucking, but don’t you dare ask me about money, bro. But here’s my real answer: I don’t have an IRA. Why would I have an IRA? Who do you think I am that I would be socking away money in an IRA, whatever the hell IRA really means as I refuse to look it up, or read the fliers at my bank? I don’t plan for the future; I’ve never planned for the future because until relatively recently I didn’t plan on having one. I mean, what’s the point of saving for your retirement or your eightieth birthday (that is the basic idea, right?) if you’re not going to live to have either one, you get my drift? 

So here I am, in my mid-forties, not knowing really how I managed to make it here alive (luck, endurance, humor), completely baffled by tax exemptions, tax shelters, and IRAs, not to mention health insurance, retirement planning, stocks, bonds, and social security issues, all of which I gather are real things, good things? Important, even? Oh, and let’s not forget the most baffling and complicated thing of all: the grim specter of aging itself. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with that one, ever.

I’ve been thinking about killing myself since I was fourteen or to be honest, for as long as I can remember, since early childhood, and while it’s obvious I never did it there were days I came as close to it as a fat man’s right thigh is to his left on a hot, humid day waiting for the subway after a long slow hard climb down multiple flights of steep concrete stairs to a platform that reeks of piss, sweat and rat shit. That close, that rubbed raw, that clammy, and that much in pain, that aware of the edge of the platform. Other days (happier ones?) I merely let the mantra of my childhood roar through my brain as if it were the passing train itself (I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead), and I the fat man watching it go by without leaping in front of it. Its passage, the endless, roaring train, leaves me on the platform wilted, defeated, hopeless in the airless and dripping, stinking heat, alone with my too large, stuffed with emotion, body full of pain (I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead).

And it’s odd but, that thought – like the sound of my own heartbeat it was so familiar a voice in my head, day after day, year after year – no longer even enters my brain. Okay, okay, not nearly as often, as I want us to be honest, for once, with one another, shall we? Not nearly as often. Have I been saved by love, by Jesus, by Gaia? None of the above – and not by therapy or travel or spontaneous combustion, either. Time, persistence, intelligence (keep guns out of the house, don’t go to doctors, thereby restricting access to any prescription drugs), eccentricity (ten years a macrobiotic vegetarian, walking on the shady side of every street in NYC to avoid skin cancer, among other weird-ass choices), exercising daily like a mother-fucker if and only if – it comes and goes in waves – despair hasn’t suceeded in shutting me down, sending me back to bed, and, finally, more than anything a sense of humor, admittedly a very dark sense of humor, has kept me alive. Hallelujah, amen, praise whoever! I do believe that laughter is the cure!

Once (only once? many, many times) when I was very, very deeply into a long period of suicidal ideation – ideation, ideation, what a word – I was asked, “Have you had moments of suicidal ideation?” This was long ago by one of several relatively ineffectual therapists. Suidical ideation? Suicidal ideation? Hello – are you asking me if I have thought of killing myself as well as a way to do it? When have I not is more to the point, and by the way, if that’s what you’re asking, then say so bitch. 

But, of course I didn’t say that, instead I lied through my teeth, parsing the word she used, breaking it down, always the language teacher’s daughter. Ideation, ideation – idea and creation. But the answer is no, it’s no – which lie may explain why she, and a flock of other therapists, were so ineffectual. Jesus H. Christ – do you really expect me to honestly tell you that? Admit that out loud, like a bubble of dialogue in the air we both breathe? No. Not gonna happen. Ask me about my sex life instead, okay? Another disaster but hell yeah, a lot more interesting. And I can make jokes about that. Easy peasy. Let’s keep it light. Ask me about money, and we can talk in generalities, as in I have none, which you know because I am only here by the grace of the sliding scale, and your status as a cheap-ass trainee therapist. But that’s it. Admit I am suicidal, on a daily basis? Never. That’s not how I get through. 

Humor. Humor is how I survive. And so, there I was, not for the first time by far, in a deep, deep funk, deep funk, Barry White’s basso profundo couldn’t be more funky than I was that particular day into night, alone in my apartment (when have I not been alone, hello!?). I was hitting myself (I don’t recommend this, not very fun, or particularly effective) crying, sobbing unable to stop, crying jag is the term, I believe, hitting bottom again, again, again, finding new places to dig and this hole I’d found was so deep and I was so committed to it (also not recommended, though in general I do believe commitment to one’s goals is a good thing), digging as far as the darkness inside and all around me would allow – but no drugs or alcohol in me, I swear, because in my personal very screwy belief system, suicide is a chicken shit way out, a mistake, and a bad, wrong choice if you’re high or drunk or strung out. Conversely, committing self-murder is a brave, very brave, and even noble choice if, if, you’re dry, un-high and simply, understandably, natually at your real true honest to goodness organically achieved and completely drug or substance-free end of the fucking rope. Forgetting, conveniently, that brain chemistry, emotions, and thoughts are in themselves a kind of drug. Whatever. So there I was hitting the bottom of the half-empty (always half-empty, never half full) barrel, scraping it with my fingernails while the central theme of my life yet again kept me pressed under the dirty bilge water of my own desire for self-destruction for the umpteenth time: “You are not wanted here. Nobody wants you; you are not loved. You will never be loved or experience love. You will always, always be alone. Life is pain, life has always been pain. How much longer can you do this? How much longer should you do this? Why are you doing this? Wouldn’t it be better, much better, to end this unbearable pain?” 

And in that room that night where I was hitting myself and crying and trying very hard to resist banging my head against the wall (I didn’t want to disturb the neighbors) trying to figure out how I would kill myself this time (pills, when I was a kid, my mother’s shelf full of them: Fiorinal, Demerol, Percocet, Valium, Darvon, Tylenol with codeine) and wanting very much to do it right, get it done, which meant slashing my wrists in the tub while running water helped draw the blood out and down the drain, except I couldn’t get past what a waste of water that would be, because it could be, probably is, from my childhood home in the Catskills. And I can’t wake the neighbors by shooting msyelf with a gun I don’t even own! I can’t be a bother – to EMS or EMTs, the cops, whoever might respond, because that’s thoughtless, a problem (more of one than I am already!), as well as a waste of resources not to mention of space (unloved, unlovable!). Jesus H. Christ no wonder I wanted to off myself! But then in the midst of beating myself and crying and generally wailing (quietly, quietly, remember the neighbors!) I found myself on the floor of my bedroom, with a heavy electrical cord in my hand. This, this will work! I can tie this strong cord around my neck and leverage myself into a strangulation configuration with the iron rail of my bedstead and somehow – wait – what does this cord go to anyway, this oddly heavy cord?? Is this to my lamp, because I don’t remember it being this heavy? It’s not an extension cord is it? I followed it with my eyes, and then my hands, as it was very dark, 3a.m., to its conclusion. Aha! My vibrator. My vibrator. Even I, at my very worst and lowest, couldn’t kill myself with the cord of my vibrator. My vibrator. I laughed so hard I stopped – I finally, actually stopped – crying. And so, once again, I was saved by laughter.

I got up off that floor and sat on the side of my bed, laughing so hard, laughing more and more, escaping – evicting – my despair as, for a moment, I imagined the pot-bellied cop or wasted, wired EMT picking the cord up and away from my neck, following it to the same conclusion: laughter, incredulity, sharing it with the rest of the crew to general hilarity, a lightening of whatever mood my corpse had crushed. And of course it would have come on somewhere within my death throes – slightly thrumming still, bbbzzzzzzzzzzzz, bbbzzzzzzzzz, sending my final Con Ed bill sky high – another thing for my dad to freak out over, covering his actual emotion, ‘Goddamned kid can’t even shut the appliances off; doesn’t she know this is why we’re dependent on foreign oil?!’ 

I crouch and cower, still, in the shadow of the preoccupations my parents, depression-era babies, shoved at me, preoccupations tightly wound together with the baby-boomer’s so-called sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s: don’t you forget to turn off the lights in a room when you leave it and don’t you dare screw around like those awful kids a generation older than yourself. Fuck all you baby-boomers anyway, the selfish generation, we younger tween gens follow in your entrails, we wade through the shit you leave behind, you self-absorbed, narcissistic assholes, waiting with anticipatory glee for the day when you are all incapacitated, drooling, demented, wallowing in your own excrement in a nursing home where the orderlies (social security and Medicaid were killed by the excesses of your generation, thanks!!) are paid very little and therefore do very little. Oh and by the way, you raised your kids to be selfish spoilt little shits, just like your goddamned selves; they never visit.

Why do I say such things? Why do I think such things? I am such a bad person (I once would have thought); I should kill myself (I once would have concluded). Simply debating myself over life and death, playing whack-a-mole with my mantra, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, I wish I were dead, debating every single day between good (deserves to live) and bad (evil bad sinful hell-bound no reason to live) me, was exhausting, and death was where I would find rest, blessed rest. 

In grade school I stepped on every crack, every day on the way home and yet still, there she’d be – mother – waiting to mete out tonight’s cruelties or, schizophrenic, momentary fondness, depending on her mood and in what way she imagined daddy had betrayed or ignored her and favored me that day, that week, me being the chosen extension and reflection of his wrongs, and her competition for his affection. Why did she have to pick me, why say he loves me more than you, mother, and has from the moment I was born, why make me your rival and enemy, why me? Why do you tell me I will one day sleep with my own father when I am just nine and ten and twelve years old, taking your place in the ‘marriage bed’? Why? Stupid unanswerable questions – but perhaps just as simple as the mountain being climbed: because it’s there, asshole, thus, because you were there. And although a piece of my unformed child’s brain knows it’s not me, the real me deep down inside, who she designates as her cross to bear, the ruination of her life, the mistake, the unwanted child, still, I live through it and yes, I take it personally as in I take it into my person. I take it into my person. And for this and for other reasons I begin to want to die – to make her better, to make it better. I am four, five and six years old and I fear my mother and her hatred of me. I crave her love. I crave her approval, the imprimatur of her positive attention, giving me permission to write my story in something other than my own blood, draining away. 

I fantasize winning a prize big enough to win her over, to transform her view of me to that of my older sister, golden child (married to the Doctor’s son), or older brother, the son and heir (the one with the IRAs, the stocks and bonds), or younger sister, the baby, the pet, the savior (thank you Jay-sus, no more kids after that one, just a yes, please, free me now, free at last, blessed hysterectomy). I fantasize multiple scenarios and various schemes in which magically my secret and secretly damaged self will be transformed into loveable, undamaged, pure. Loved. Wanted. 

But. In all my years of excellence in school, in sports, in band, chorus, drama club, Honor Society, Cheerleading, audio visual club – you name it – all that excellence, an excellence she found baffling, I could never do it, never win her love, her approval. And there were things that happened, to me, as a child – not your fault mother, but I feared that if I said anything, showed any vulnerability – no. I can’t. Secrets. Toxicity. More to hide, more to hate. 

Turns out she knew, at least about some of it. Sexual abuse at the hospital by person or persons unknown, when I was there alone, eighteen months old, sick with pneumonia. My mother was home recovering from her hysterectomy, with a 6 week-old baby, as well as her 4 and 5 year old children to look after. My dad was working seven days a week, but came to spend the nights in the hospital with me, but not the days, not the evenings. They had a woman, a nurse’s aide, helping at our house on Main Steet, Nancy A., who stayed with my mom overnight, and during the day, but she had a young family, too. The family doctor had always been worried about me, he said, the summer after my mother died, because even as young as I was, even though they all believed I was too young to remember the act, the acts, my mother seemed to believe it was my fault. Mom. Some random person (staff? fellow patient?) inserting self or sticking things (a constant nightmare of my childhood, reliving what was unpronouncable) into her 18-month old’s vagina. 

As a teenager I began to hate my mother as much as I hated myself, always, always, however, with my eye on her, waiting for some sign that I was really ok, that this had just been a test of my resolve, and of my character. She always said suffering was good for the soul, my tarnished Catholic soul. Maybe she was just playing with me.

Here is my IRA, brother, on this page. Here I will deposit my truths and record my losses, which are many. Here too I will record a number of gains, among them the saving of my own life. Because you told me I was worthless, mother, and a mistake, I made mistakes, accepted less than I was worth. Because you told me I would never marry, mother, I didn’t, although I could have, many times. Defiance works in weird ways, when you are as twisted as I made myself for you, as I made myself to hide myself, who I was, from you, from others, from myself. Because you told me I would never have a child, I didn’t, yet more than you saying that, I am okay with childlessness because I knew I didn’t want to do to a child what you did to me. I would not bring life forth while I was white knuckling my own. Because you told me I would never find a man who would love me, that I was wrong and bad and flawed – too strong for a man, too smart for a man, not beautiful like my sisters, too much, too much, too much, and all of it bad – I avoided intimacy and craved affirmation of all that was worthless in me, that which you called out, you, who knew me better than anyone else. Or so I used to believe. 

Mother, mater, madre, maw, momma, mammacita. And more, those things large and small that happened to me that I never shared while you were alive, afraid it would only confirm and affirm what you thought about me, said about me, dirty bad horrid unnatural girl, my father’s second wife, his future lover. 

Patrominy is what we inherit, including our names, from our fathers. Matrimony is marriage, the act of, the celebration of. How rich! I reclaim and define matrimony anew, as that which we inherit from our mothers, including the eggs all women, all girls, are born with; me a potential life as an egg inside her, and as a baby, she inside my grandmother. How crazy is that? Then my eggs, in me, when she gave me life. Her brilliance, her darkness, all mine, until I decide, I parse and choose, I let it go.

I saved and saved and saved images of my childhood and of you, mother, and of you, father, and of my siblings, and the things you said and I made myself survive on humor and the slim hope that one day it (me? life?) would get better and y’know what? It did. You slowly lost your mind, momster, and you lost your power, and I got clear, stronger, better; you lost your mind mother, and then you died, you died, and my life got a lot better. No self-death, no suicide, no train running me over – just you, made into ash, six feet under. I struggle with forgiving you every day. I struggle with forgiving myself for wasting so much of my life, and for denying myself love and the possibility of a family of my own for all these years, terrified someone would see in me what you saw, terrified I’d do to an innocent child what was done to me. Not just by you, but. By you, too, mother.

I struggle too with forgiving my brother for not having a clue about my life and me and what a world of difference there was in the way in which we were raised. He is a good man, I know this, and he won’t know what I won’t tell him. Will I tell him? All of it? Including the things, the events, the deaths in life, I haven’t even admitted to myself? How lucky he was, being born a boy. Yes, we all have our struggles, men and boys, women and girls, but some are challenged it seems merely by the choice of which well-lit, broad, and tree-lined street to walk down, while others are faced with having to walk down what turns out to be a very dark, narrow, and unsafe street, alone. No one ever said life was fair. 

Dear brother, I thought about killing myself every day from the time I was fourteen (and earlier, much earlier, truthful, now, at last – from the time I was 6 and 7 and 8) until I was almost forty, and I struggle to let it go and have faith that all will be well and all will be very well. And it is a struggle, not every day, not all days, not even most days – nowadays. But there are times I have to hide and work hard to stay in the moment, letting go of the past, being thankful right here and now, even if I’ve lost sight of what there is to be thankful for, right here and now. 

Surviving. I am grateful I survived my own idea creation, my ideation, of self-murder. I have saved myself, at least, even if I have no IRA, no savings, no 401k, no children of my own, no husband or ex-husband, no other long time up close (God no!) witness to the person that is me. I do have hope. I am being truthful, now, which means I may just finally move on, grow, surrender to curiousity and possibility. Let the past go. It’s over. Mother is dead. Anything is possible. Anything. Life itself. Love. Who knows? 

Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.”- Carl Jung 

copyright Marjorie Miller 2007