Six months after my mom’s suicide, there is still a 12-pound lasagna she made in my freezer, and I can’t will myself to defrost it or throw it away.
“In case you have guests,” my mother had said, hoisting the slab of meat, noodles and cheese from her refrigerator bag into my freezer.
I took this to mean, you should have more friends over.
Now that she’s gone, I realize my translation was wrong. She was saying, I wish I had more friends to feed because I feel alone.
She’d had plenty of friends once, plenty of dinner parties, but that all ended years ago. Her friends had fallen from her favor over bizarre arguments of which I’d only hear the murky details, or they'd been driven away by my mom’s general operating procedures: a consistent pattern of destruction to herself and others.
Some background: My dad divorced her when I was four. She tried to stab him with a kitchen knife. Her best friend became estranged and embittered around the time I graduated college. Their plan to manage an artisan cheese business went wildly astray. Her second husband, my sister’s dad, left when I was 25. She spent most of their 15-year marriage disparaging him. I don’t know how he lasted as long as he did. Actually, I do. He was well fed.
As much as she was stubborn, deceitful and conniving, my mom was equally passionate, charming and generous. I can hear her humming Dave Brubeck while dancing with the watering hose in the backyard. I can see her leaning over a simmering pot of chili, stirring it with one hand, and helping me finish my math homework with the other. Even now, I can recall from memory the taste of her tiramisu, the dessert she made for my surprise 21st birthday party, an event she organized and executed flawlessly.
The garden and the kitchen were her sanctuary, but they were also her dominion over which to rule. She could exert her wishes over ingredients that had no words or free will. Her cakes were never dry or burned. Plants grew exactly the way she planted them. People, on the other hand, she could not control. My mother treated anyone disagreeing with her or disobeying her wishes like an enemy combatant, especially her loved ones. This didn’t make sense to me until I realized my mom was suffering from a mental illness called borderline personality disorder (BPD).
According to the Mayo Clinic website, this is a common personality disorder, with roughly 3 million reported cases a year. The National Institute for Mental Health estimates the number of BPD cases in the U.S. at roughly 1 percent of the population. “Their emotions are like exposed nerve endings,” says Dr. Helen Grusd, past president of the L.A. County Psychological Association, and a forensic and clinical psychologist for more than 30 years. “Those with BPD have a distinctively polarized view of relationships, idealizing themselves and others, but one mistake, and the person is totally devalued,” Grusd says. Living with a person with BPD is, in Dr. Grusd’s words, “like living with Mount Vesuvius always on the verge of erupting.”
There is mounting research that those with BPD lack brain chemical functions related to empathy, the ability to relate and understand the feelings of someone else. In a study last September cited in the online psychiatric journal Helio, researchers found those diagnosed with BPD “had reduced activity in brain regions that support empathy,” suggesting “that people with more [borderline personality disorder] traits have a more difficult time understanding and/or predicting how others feel.” Those with BPD are capable, according to Grusd, “of being empathetic one minute, but threatening and verbally abusive the next.” Demonstrations of kindness and love must compete with their day-to-day feelings of “chronic emptiness, rage, and fear of abandonment.” BPD takes one’s need to be right to a toxic, and oftentimes—as in my mom’s case—lethal level. “Rates of suicide with BPD are around 10 percent. It’s pretty high.”
Snapshots of my upbringing don’t look much different from plain old questionable parenting. For example, if I forgot to call my mom upon arriving somewhere to let her know I was safe, she’d threaten to call the police or highway patrol, and a few times she did. As a result, I became obsessively punctual and overly attentive. If I shared an accomplishment of mine with her, she would be overjoyed momentarily, but would also tell me how she would have done it better. I became keenly observant of her methods, never questioned her authority, and strived to be the best at everything, because anything less was a massive disappointment in her eyes. Any disagreement, big or small, merited a strong reproach; it could trigger her to throw something, to storm off screaming, to drink even more than she normally did.
In college, I finally grew brave enough to tell her she had a drinking problem, but after three pointless attempts at an intervention, my efforts seemed futile. Her reality, no matter how factually incorrect or emotionally unjust, was all she could see. I resigned to spend my life proving that I was not her. I’d place a mental checkmark in the not-my-mom box when I hit a milestone. Attain a college degree. Check that box! Still speaking to my dad after age 21. Check! Not addicted to alcohol or painkillers. Check. In retrospect, being on constant red alert for mom-like tendencies was concerning, but something more insidious was happening to me. The worse my mom’s situation became, the more I felt responsible for her, the more I felt ashamed that I couldn’t solve her problems.
Four years ago, my younger sister stopped speaking to my mother altogether. I understood. I might have done the same had my first 18 years been exclusively under my mother’s roof. Growing up, I at least lived at my father’s house half the time. I had time away from my mom that my sister never had. When she closed off communication with my mom, I became the last relative to stay at close range.
This meant accepting her lasagnas, quiches and homegrown vegetables, managing her DUIs, her unpaid bills, her storage unit filled with canned goods and cookbooks. When she asked me to forge her doctor’s signature on a prescription pad she’d swindled from the office, I declined with my best friend in the room for both moral support and protection if she acted out. When she called the reverend two weeks before my wedding to ask him not to marry me, she told him I was too afraid to back out. This was, of course, a complete fabrication. Years before, she’d lost another dear friend in a similar clandestine maneuver when she disapproved of the fiancé. Over time, the wasteland of ruined friendships, marriages and business ventures grew as plentifully as the tomatoes in her garden, rose as reliably as her sourdough starter.
It took a long time for someone else to point out that my mom might have an actual disease instead of what I referred to as her homemade recipe for crazy. I was 30, married, in therapy, and my psychologist gave me a copy of Stop Walking on Eggshells, a book about borderline personality disorder. The book outlined in startling detail every dark shade of my mom’s psyche: Intense fear of abandonment, explosive anger, extreme idealization and devaluation of others and of the self, impulsive behavior, substance abuse, self-harm.
At the time, the research and advice from the book provided me with answers. Its author, Paul Mason, writes, “the sacrifices that people make to satisfy the borderlines they care about can be very costly. And the concessions may never be enough. Before long, more proof of love is needed and another bargain must be struck.” Children of BPD parents routinely become overly sensitive to the moods and needs of others, overbearing, quick to wound, overly critical of themselves. Did I possess these traits? Check.
For me, the tools I’d developed to deal with my mom cost me the ability to navigate conflict in a healthy way, to stand up for myself, to allow someone else to take care of me when I needed it. Educating myself about her struggles, working with a therapist, and becoming aware of her effect on my behavior set me on a path to build the much-needed emotional resources I lacked. I learned to take responsibility for what was in my control and let go of what wasn’t. It was not my job to fix everything.
For the first time, my mother made sense to me. And understanding her, having empathy, was something I could give her more fully, even if she didn’t have much to give in return. It allowed me to see the intellectual strengths, the silly quirks and the creativity she gave me, not just my shortcomings, and rediscover gratitude for the sum total of her influence. It allowed me to see the whole her, and the whole me.
That was several years ago, and now she’s gone. Even with this self-awareness and insight, I’m left feeling lost again, and with more questions than answers. Was there anything more I could have done for her? Did anything I do matter? Did I enable her to cause more damage? I’d spent years, after all, trying to help, to get her into AA, give her enough money to stay afloat after her bankruptcy, take her to various doctors for the endless slew of medical ailments she developed or psychosomatically manufactured. The dialogue in my head reminds me of the unending analysis surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, measuring damages, the bailout, whom to blame, whether we did too much, not enough. My mother’s death is like this, a shattering moment in my historical timeline that can never be undone, but can be forever deconstructed and reinterpreted in my mind as I look into the past, or when new information emerges.
I delivered the news of my mom’s death to an old friend of hers, someone who’d known my mother in her late teens. They’d lost touch many years ago, but she was one of the few close friends with whom my mother parted company on good terms. Her reaction was striking. She said she was saddened, but not surprised. “Even then, your mom seemed troubled, off. She didn’t react to other people very well, to conflict, but she was a great friend.”
A week before her death, my mom and I assembled a small Weber Grill she brought me as a gift. Let me rephrase: My mom bought me a grill, probably with money I had given her to make rent that month, and then she assembled it herself because she said I was doing it wrong. She was quite a master craftsman and tinkerer, in and out of the kitchen, as long as all of the items succumbed to her personal system of logic. She didn’t see reason to change course if her direction conflicted with the instruction manual, or, say, the natural laws of physics.
“You never really need these,” she said, tossing some screws aside. I’d learned to stay quiet unless she posed an imminent danger to myself or to others. Being non-reactive, depriving her of fodder to fuel an emotional eruption was a handy technique I’d learned to keep us both on good behavior, but fear and worry still churned inside me no matter how calm I appeared on the surface.
When I look back on that day, this is what I see: the years of trying eventually gave way to the years of accepting that she was never going to get better. She was not only unwilling, but also unable. I was able to find moments of joy with my mom, to give her what I could rather than giving in to her mania, to fill some of that loneliness with a daughter’s love. It was hard work much of the time, but I came to believe that her work, the work of living with an untreated mental illness for 60 years, was much harder.
On a warm August day just after noon, I got a call from the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department. That morning, she had driven to her favorite place in the world, a beach in Montecito, close to the former estate of her idol, Julia Child. I’ll never know for sure, but I’d guess she walked along the sand as the sun rose, listening to the waves and the intermittent whistle sounding from the coastline Amtrak trains; and then she stepped in front of one.
I couldn’t eat the rest of the day. Walking into my house that night, I wasn’t sure what to do, or even who I would be in this new world where I was not fearing the call I already received, worrying what havoc she was causing. I was released by one kind of sorrow in that moment. Then, I spotted the last three tomatoes she’d given me, small and solitary, ripening in a large white pottery bowl. My mother was the only person I knew to pronounce the word, “to-mah-toes” instead of “to-may-toes” and to correct anyone who pronounced it otherwise. I would never hear that word her way again. And I was overtaken by another kind of sorrow. The sadness that I would never again see the person I had spent most of my life trying not to become, and without whom I would not be who I am.
I wasn’t the least bit hungry, but I put a pot of water on the stove for pasta and cried while I sliced up the tomatoes. I mixed them delicately with basil, olive oil and sea salt, and I ate them for her, digesting my loss.
Several days after the call, her suicide note arrived in the mail. It said:
I love you always and forever. I’ll be the angel in the sky listening and granting wishes.
That same day my sister sent me a picture of the largest squash I’d ever seen. Before going to work, she’d had a casual discussion about making vegetable lasagna, and hours later a co-worker happened to offer up this green giant, literally the size of a caveman’s club. My sister’s next message was no surprise.
Mom is speaking to us through zucchini.
There was a levity to this moment, an enchantment specific to grief.
“I can finally talk to mom again,” my sister says.
“It’s easier now that she can’t talk back,” I say.
Then came the laughter. Then came the tears.
The Weber Grill she gave me, and built for me, sits on my patio in the place where I took the last picture of her. It works like a dream. I’ve held onto the extra screws she didn’t use as if they were good luck charms.
As for the mysterious zucchini, my sister made that veggie lasagna, but that’s not all. She made zucchini bread and zucchini fritters and still had more left over. It was just too much; we didn’t know what to do with it all.