I was 12 years old when my mom and dad both committed suicide. My dad died first, in March 2003, and my mom in October. Both of my parents suffered from mental illness: My father had deep depression, hypochondria, and anxiety, and my mother also had her fair share of struggles.
Before that, though, they were great parents. The dad I knew for almost all of my life was animated and cheerful; he was bursting at the seams with adventure and excitement. My childhood soundtrack was the drums, didgeridoo, and other instruments he’d play around the house. He loved spending time with me and my mom; we even called our own little family the Three Musketeers.
My parents shared hobbies like gardening — they managed to turn our barren Arizona backyard into a lush landscape of green grass, palm trees, vibrant hibiscus flowers, and even a few banana plants.
But when I was 10, something changed; either that, or I just started to pick up on more of my dad’s anxieties and concerns. Until then, he had loved cooking and enjoyed the process of making and eating food, but when his depression became more and more severe, he became rail thin. Then the music he created started to take on a much sadder tone than usual; he had previously been very talkative, but I noticed he became more and more quiet and withdrawn, and he’d often spend days in bed.
My dad also became convinced he had an intense pain whenever he would pee, despite the countless doctors who told him he was OK and all of the MRIs and CT scans that failed to detect any abnormalities. He thought he was sick until he actually did become sick, and then he lost the desire to exist.
When my dad died, I was having a sleepover at my grandma’s house and we received a frantic voicemail from my mom. She screamed that he was missing, and so was his shotgun. I was whisked away to my aunt’s house while my grandparents and mom searched for him. The next morning I asked my mom if they found him, to which she replied, “Your daddy is dead.”
The best word to describe my mom before my dad’s suicide is effervescent, even when my dad started to get sick. But in the months that followed his death, my mother told me she didn’t want to be a mom anymore. Our refrigerator, which was normally filled to the brim with goodies that my father had cooked, was now bare, only holding prunes and Mountain Dew. Her diet consisted of laxatives, and, as I would later learn, meth.
My mom had become a shell of her former self, a beautiful, vibrant woman who exuded joy and warmth. On the morning she died, she came out of her room to make breakfast for the two of us — it was a Monday but it was also Columbus Day, so I didn’t have to rush off to school — and she told me she loved me. That was the last time I ever saw her alive. Not even a few hours later on that same morning, I heard my mom’s new boyfriend, whom she had been spending a lot of time with, screaming from her bedroom: “Kathy? Wake up!”
Ignoring the barriers and space I normally kept from her and her boyfriend, I barged inside to find her gasping for breath and called 911, but it was too late. My mother — my sweet, smart, hilarious mom — had died from a heart attack caused by a methamphetamine overdose.
In the years after they passed, I was often told that it’s OK for me to feel anger toward my parents for their decisions. For a long time I did. I was very angry, until I came to the realization that even the most happy, loving, and carefree people could potentially be fighting an invisible battle every day of their lives. I know that my parents loved me with all their hearts, and it was not the most autonomous, healthy versions of themselves who chose to end their own lives. They were sick; just because you couldn’t see their illnesses physically doesn’t mean they weren’t suffering.
It’s been a decade since my parents died. It’s difficult enough mourning my parents’ deaths and going through adolescence and now adulthood without my mom or dad, but on top of the sadness I already feel I also have to fight against other peoples’ judgment about suicide. Justifying my need and desire to cope with this tremendous loss of life because my parents committed suicide is a task unto itself.
Most people in my life or who are familiar with my situation think they’re entitled to an opinion about my parents’ deaths because it was “their choice” to end their own lives. There’s so much shame attached to my parents’ deaths because of a lack of understanding about mental illness that sometimes it feels like I’m not allowed to be sad like people who have lost their parents to other diseases.
If my parents died of nearly any other cause within months of each other before I hit puberty, most people would see it as a complete and utter tragedy; they’d readily accept their deaths as worthy of mourning. Instead, I’m often discouraged from talking about my parents and their passing. A lot of my family members — including my maternal grandparents — pretend like neither of my parents ever existed in the first place. There aren’t any photos of my mom or dad in their homes; they never say their names or bring them up in conversations. Their way of grappling with the depressing reality of their deaths is by not acknowledging them at all.
But I don’t want to forget them; I don’t want to pretend like my parents never existed because they died a death that isn’t as socially acceptable as others. They did exist, and their existence was important because they created me. They were responsible for my being, and I love them because unconditional love doesn’t always mean loving and caring about someone in picture-perfect circumstances. Life is messy, human beings are flawed, but we can love them anyway. We do love them anyway. I do not want my parents to be remembered for the illnesses that eventually took their lives. I want them to be remembered for the creative, loving, and special people they were, the same creativity, love, and specialness that still runs through my veins.
So every year on Oct. 1 I celebrate my dad’s birthday with my other grandma, his mother. My grandma buys white roses and lights a white Jewish memorial candle, and we bask in the positive memories and happy moments we shared together. We laugh about how seriously he took his detailed replica miniature ships that he’d build. We talk about the times he played Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” on the piano, intently stroking each ivory key, while my mother danced along with me in her arms.
My parents are more than just people who ended their own lives; they’re also the people who gave me a magical childhood until they got sick. They’re the people who loved me, who gave me life, and who had no control over the illnesses that took over their bodies.
My grandma and I also celebrate his birthday by releasing white and gray balloons — my dad’s favorite colors — into the Arizona sky; she even draws smiley faces on them before we set them free. We watch them fly up, up, and away until we can’t see them anymore and they get lost in the clouds, trees, and a world beyond the one we know. Maybe one of these days they’ll even reach him.