In September 2011, Martha began her senior year of high school. It was the last academic year she would ever finish, the start of the last twelve months I would spend with her.
Martha at seventeen with her father in late 2011
We didn’t know that then. Things were relatively peaceful for Martha at the time. It was an unstable peace, but we didn’t know that either. Fall proceeded in quiet fashion, with little said about her mental state in either her diary or mine. She may have had a crush on her male English teacher—another forbidden love—but if so not much came of it. She kept working on her Logia stories, bits of which got into her diary, along with mathematical equations I can’t understand and passages in Spanish I can barely understand. I grew up bilingual in English and Spanish, but have forgotten most of the latter. Martha, who learned Spanish in school, turned out to be the fluent one.
Still an avowed atheist, Martha nevertheless meditated on God. She decided she was like God in having sought to die and rise again, with the difference that she had failed to die, and thus never rose. “So, I can safely say that I as an artist and erstwhile lover need not fear God, for I have known what it feels like to be God. It is thrilling and ecstatic, pathetic and lonely. After I witnessed the failure of my bid for divinity, there was no point in continuing to believe in God.”
That fall, Martha applied to colleges. Her top choices, in order, were Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Columbia. She refused our offers to get her SAT prep classes and outside consultants to help with her application; she did it all on her own. She went on almost no campus visits. Her college application essay was a paean to knowledge structured around an allusion to Heart of Darkness. I don’t remember what intended major she put down; it might have been a double major in English and mathematics, but she was also interested in music and astrophysics. Wanting to be practical and not have our constant money troubles, she also considered finance or business.
We discussed with her whether she should mention her history of mental illness in her applications, and we all decided she shouldn’t. Because of the stigma about mental illness, we felt that mentioning it might cause the schools to reject her. I myself didn’t tell my bosses about my bipolar disorder, though a few friends at work knew.
Martha had reached a kind of happiness—not ecstatic, but pacific. She was turning into what she called a “well-adjusted girl,” though she didn’t care to examine why or how: “Don’t look too closely at the foundations of peace.” She lost interest in visiting Manhattan—“Manhattan holds no special charm for me now”—but she was still proud of being a writer. She considered writing superior to the performing arts. “Writers create from nothing. In this sense they are gods more so than are any other men.” Nevertheless, she wrote, “Everything is bitterness.”
I too felt bitter, mostly about work. ran into financial difficulty and I nearly got laid off, but was instead shuffled to a different department. In January 2012, I landed in another cubicle writing articles for the medical newsmagazines, a job I liked even less than the writing I’d been doing in the medical education division. I was even more isolated in this spot than I had been, and concerned about how long the company could afford to keep me.
I didn’t realize how much more trouble was coming my way. In February, Martha rediscovered Aleksei. In a diary entry of February 1, she addressed him for the first time in months. “I would like to believe my love for you is pure and holy and I would like to cast aside my Nietzschean atheism for something in which I can believe.”
Not surprisingly, Aleksei’s reappearance was soon followed by her first entry with explicitly suicidal thoughts in months. “Writing is only another tourniquet, another lie to comfort the vacuum in my soul. I do not know who or what I love anymore. I want to believe in God, and even more, I want to love you….The solution to my misery is death. The solution and natural end to my love is death. I have fleeting thoughts of killing myself with the methods I once developed.”
I don’t know what methods she meant. After she told her high school counselor that she was thinking of cutting her wrists with an X- knife, Melinda hid the knife so well that we still can’t find it. But there were plenty of ways for an enterprising would-be suicide to kill herself. She sometimes told us of her idea of walking to the Tappan Zee Bridge and jumping off. We couldn’t hide the bridge.
Martha went on: “I would believe in God if only he would kill me now. And tears, tears, and terrible pain! These are the treasures that love gave me, and is still giving me. If I were to be faithful to my God, my lover, myself, I would kill myself. If I were truly faithful, I would have killed myself long ago.”
Love was the greatest threat to her continued existence on earth, and she was trying to fight it. “I am trying to override my lingering feelings of love with fiction, scholarship, and familial affection. The truth is that nothing can save me.” She prayed to God that day, but “religion is only one thing. Love, romantic love, was everything. Why did it have to end?” She wished she could regain her love for Aleksei.
On Valentine’s Day, she addressed Aleksei in Biblical terms: “Like a deer longs for water my soul longs heretically and irrationally for you.” She had been happy for months by denying her love for Aleksei, who didn’t make her happy but sometimes propelled her “into ecstasy.” “You, not contentment or sanity or knowledge, are the love of my life, and it is possible—how I pray that it is possible!—that nothing, not even my own willfulness, can tear you away from me. I prayed for love, and God granted my prayer. We, lonely in life, will be gloriously happy in heaven.” In another passage, she wrote: “I want to believe again. I want to live again. Above all, I want to love again.”
Her essential —her devotion to love of Aleksei—was fighting with the façade of normality she had developed. “My very essence is hateful to the well-adjusted girl I have become.” God was rising again, too, pursuing her “with his fathomless love.”
In March, she became interested in a boy at school. I don’t know who the boy was; she didn’t mention him except in her diary. But, she wrote, “What good is a boy his age to me?....The world is spread out before me, and still I am trapped in the awful beauty of my past.”
On March 23, she wrote to Aleksei, “I swore that I would give you up for good, not for some high and noble reason, but because my love for you is utterly incompatible with sociability and reason, and I wanted to be able simply to smile at my friends and family and acquaintances.” If she could just shut down her love long enough—if she buried herself in a wintry tomb and never resurfaced—“then I will be the successful academic or businesswoman or possibly even writer that I aspire to be. The price of life is death.”
Martha was always good at aphorisms, and that last line was particularly ripe with meaning. In her view, having the type of life the world considered successful—as a businesswoman or writer, say—required a kind of death: the death of her love for Aleksei, which represented her true life, her inner life. And it was just as true, in her mind, that a life in which she consummated her love for Aleksei, who was dead, required death—real death, death by suicide. Either way, the price of life was death. In this final phase of her life, she was constantly trying to decide which kind of life to buy at the price of which kind of death.
By the end of March, the colleges to which she had applied wrote back. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, her top three schools, rejected her. The rejections made her miserable. “I plod through the worthless day….The titles of intellectual and moral and artistic greatness will pass me by like so many fireflies that burn and die.” Her fourth choice, Columbia, accepted her, and she resigned herself to go there as if it were a low consolation prize—even though I had gone there and it was an Ivy League school. Still, Martha knew that even if she were going to Harvard she “would still be unhappy. No man nor abstract pursuit can remove the stain of misery from my soul; no love of God or man will make me whole.”
Martha was assigned a room at Columbia on the fourteenth floor of the John Jay dormitory. The elevation of the floor concerned both Melinda and me. Did it really make sense to put a girl with a history of suicidality on such a high floor? Despite our misgivings, we decided not to ask for a transfer to a lower floor. To explain why a transfer was necessary, we would have had to tell Columbia that Martha was mentally ill, and we still felt that might cause the school to discriminate against her—maybe even rescind its acceptance.
By April, Martha’s suicidality had returned in full force, but she told us little or nothing about it. “I have lied for so long that it has become a powerful habit and my standard practice in communication with others and with myself.”
In one of the quirks of Providence, Good Friday that year happened to fall on my daughter’s final birthday. On April 6, 2012, Martha celebrated her eighteenth birthday while the world commemorated the passion of Jesus Christ. The day for officially remembering the world’s most famous death was the last day we had Martha with us to remember her birth.
Of course, I didn’t understand the significance then. But for whatever reason, I chose that day to return from eight years of atheism to the Catholic faith. I didn’t expect to do that. But that day I watched a movie called Soul Surfer, about a surfer girl who loses her left arm to a shark, then rediscovers the meaning of her life through Christianity. The movie was hokey, but it moved me. It occurred to me that to overcome adversity for a good cause is reason for happiness. The surfer girl’s adversity was the loss of her arm; mine was the madness that frequently threw me into depression. If I could overcome that for the sake of my family and others, then maybe I could be happy. It was worth trying to be happy.
It seemed to me that the idea of overcoming adversity for a good cause was basically the cross. The cross that killed Jesus and from which he rose to unending life is the pattern that gives meaning to all the adversities we suffer and from which we struggle to bring good. I wanted to make Jesus’ death and life the pattern of my life again, to draw strength from it the way I had when I was Christian. I wanted to become Christian again.
My return to theism was as pragmatic as my excursion into atheism had been. For a time, beginning in 2004, God didn’t seem useful to me, so I left him. Now it seemed that he was useful again. I remembered that in 2004 I had planned to kill myself by this year, 2012, if I didn’t get any happier. I had thought atheism might make me happier, or at least more free to kill myself. Well, I never got any happier, and I had sworn to Martha I wouldn’t kill myself, so atheism wasn’t working. I had to try something else,
The next day, sitting in a movie theater to watch the 3D version of Titanic, I tried praying to God. He didn’t show himself; the lithium blocked him. Lithium had always muffled my religious perception, while inducing a general flatness of affect. But I remembered there was a way to believe in God without being able to see him: faith. I decided to have faith that he exists, and prayed.
The day after that, Easter Sunday 2012, I went to Mass again for my own spiritual benefit for the first time in eight years. I went with Melinda, not with Martha, because Martha was still an atheist, having followed her father into that belief. Now that I was a Christian, I wondered if she would follow me back into that one. Standing in the kitchen with me, Martha asked me why I went to Mass. I explained that I had become a Catholic again. She looked interested.
As soon as I converted, the religious alignment of the house shifted. Instead of Martha and me as majority atheists against the minority theist Melinda, Melinda and I were now majority theists against the outnumbered atheist Martha. The situation was unstable and didn’t last long. By the end of April, Martha converted back to Christianity. At first, she was going to return to Protestantism, but that didn’t last long either. Soon she was Catholic again and all three of us were going to church together on Sundays.
While Martha was making up her mind about God, I told her that the main thing was that if a being told her to kill herself, that was not the real God, and she should reject him. I called this our a priori rule: before you believe so-and-so is God, you must first believe in the value of life. Without that, any demon can claim to be God and talk you into killing yourself. The real God must be on the side of life; any entity who isn’t is just a pretender. I told her this because I knew she might think Aleksei or some spirit like him was God and follow him into death. “Beyond that,” I told Martha, “it’s up to you to follow God if you hear his call and not follow him if you don’t.”
She did hear God and followed him, and I still think my advice to her about not listening to the call of death was sound. But in the end the call of death proved louder.
God had always been tied up with Aleksei for her. The existence of God was necessary to explain how there could be an afterlife in which a spirit like Aleksei could survive. Yet Aleksei was a rival of God, because she treated Aleksei as the center of her universe, a place God guarded jealously. Paradoxically, then, the return of God enabled Aleksei to grow stronger in her mind, even while he came into conflict with her devotion to God. Making the conflict worse, Melinda and I praised her renewed belief in God, even while we opposed her renewed belief in Aleksei. On April 15, she wrote to Aleksei, “You are too much a part of me for me ever to let you go. It is fear that keeps me from you. I am afraid of losing control again. Also, I am basking in the love and sympathy of my family and my peers, a sympathy that they would surely not extend to you.”
Martha had many conflicts in these last months of her life. She was in conflict about her relationship with her mother. On Melinda’s birthday, April 18, Martha wrote in Spanish about how she regretted the unkind way she treated her mother. “She is always near me, but I am not always able to find in myself the way to treat her sympathetically. I regret my cruelty to her, but this feeling is not strong enough to make me treat her with respect.”
Even so, Melinda and Martha remained close in some ways. From early childhood, Martha had often played a game with her mother called Fashion Show. It involved Martha spreading out all her paper dolls on the playroom carpet and, according to a complex set of rules that only Martha understood, presenting Melinda with a series of matched pairs of dolls in outfits. The selection was vast, because over the years Melinda had bought Martha many books of paper dolls and painstakingly cut out the dolls and costumes. There were movie stars from the 1940s, such as Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth, and the 1950s, such as Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe; ballet stars of the Romantic era; Brenda Starr, Reporter; Barbie and friends; Little House on the Prairie characters; presidents and first ladies. From each pair, Melinda had to select one outfit as the winner, and finally, after a long winnowing process, one and only one outfit would win the game. I occasionally played Fashion Show with Martha, but it was really a game for the two females. They played it into Martha’s last year.
In May, Martha wrote about the conflict between life and death, with life as a lie represented by “God, writing, creativity, glory, art.” “Soon enough I will resume my lie, and for the rest of my life and no longer I will continue to promote it. Death will set me free, whether by annihilation, or damnation, or salvation.” Her world of fiction she regarded as “little more than a safeguard against my id.” She didn’t expect to fall in love again, and even if a man touched her she didn’t think she would believe in his love. “I felt that Aleksei loved me, and that was called a delusion. Why, then, is it taken as axiomatic that there are better fish in the sea….I will give up on love.”
She had courted “countless” boys between elementary school and now, and only two “ever returned the slightest romantic feeling for me….I am a virgin out of bitterness, out of exhaustion, out of hatred, and out of pride….I survived, but it is not a happy ending. You do not have me, and I do not have you. Indeed, all I have earned for my obedience to my friends’ and acquaintances’ and doctors’ and parents’ suggestions is an empty smile and a cheaply reset heart.”
Along with the conflict, Martha had some good times. She and I played Monopoly every weekend. We were both good and about equally matched, so we often alternated wins. We were matched in playing ability, but not in other ways. She always served as banker because she could count money much faster than I could. She also moved our pieces around for both of us because she could do that faster too. I had to count out the spaces for my piece one at a time, whereas she intuited instantly how far to jump ahead.
Martha always liked us each to have one of her stuffed animals as a good luck charm for Monopoly, and that summer I had Lion Around, a stuffed lion with a Columbia T-shirt, as my good luck charm. In a long series of games, I won every weekend, and attributed it to the influence of Lion Around, or as I called him, Lucky Lion. Then Melinda washed Lion Around and his straight mane turned curly and puffy. The next time we played, on Martha’s last day at home before she started at Columbia, I lost, and attributed it to the Samson-like destruction of his hair.
Martha rarely did chores until near the end of her life, when she took out the garbage and made the beds regularly, on her own initiative. It was another sign to us that she might be maturing into a new phase of responsibility and normality, and that the bad days were in the past.
Then the internship thing happened. Martha had to do an internship to graduate from high school, and she decided to intern at my office for a few weeks. But on her third day she quit. She opted to write a paper in lieu of an internship. I was angrier at her than I had ever been because I had vouched for her at work, telling everyone what a great job she’d do. I was sick and tired of her dropping out of things, of her being too crazy to keep her commitments. I longed for a normal daughter. Yet in a way I was glad she’d developed such good survival instincts. She did what was necessary to survive, to protect herself from stress.
I didn’t tell her how angry I was, but she picked it up from my icy manner, and after a couple of days she called me at work to tell me she couldn’t stand it. Through all the worst days of her madness, I had always been warm and loving to her, and she couldn’t bear my being cold to her now. I realized how cruel and stupid I was being and stopped. For the rest of her life—which was not long—I was kind to her.
That summer, I embarked on a new extramarital obsession, this time with a woman named Stevie who, at twenty-six, was about half my age of fifty-one. She was an editor who worked at my company, a creative writing major from Miami with long dark hair and a small, skinny, chesty body. She wore a gold cross around her neck that looked good against her cocoa skin. Our relationship started on June 5, at a happy hour after work, when she darted at me as I tried to leave and told me how sorry she was she hadn’t had a chance to talk with me. I took this as an opening and, the next day, invited her to have lunch with me that afternoon. That created a bond similar to the one I’d had with Sarah, of semiregular lunches and flirty conversations at work, in which we were ostensibly just friends but I passionately desired her.
Of the three amours I’d had in Martha’s lifetime—Mary Ann, Sarah, and Stevie—the one with Stevie was the most crassly sexual in nature. I didn’t feel she was a soulmate like Mary Ann, or a fellow traveler in literature and madness like Sarah. I just thought she was really hot and wanted to go to bed with her.
By now it was clear I had gotten in the habit of having some “other woman” to focus my desires on and keep me interested in life when it otherwise seemed dull. This strategy had worked with Mary Ann and Sarah, and now it worked with Stevie. I didn’t actually have sex with any of these women, and didn’t need to, so long as I could fantasize about it.
In the case of Mary Ann, I had felt my love for Melinda in powerful tension with my ardor for the other woman. But with Sarah and Stevie I didn’t think of Melinda that much. She seemed relatively pale and bland to me compared to the color and vividness the other woman could give me. Like Martha, I was disrespecting Melinda in my thoughts and behavior, but I had not even Martha’s capacity to feel guilty for my disrespect. I believed that as long as I didn’t have physical sex with these women, I wasn’t unfaithful to my wife. I no longer think that, but it is amazing how one can rationalize when there is a pleasure to be had.
June 14 was the night of Martha’s prom. She didn’t have a date, but people were allowed to go stag, and Martha, in a bright red dress, attended with some friends. Before the prom the friends did a makeover on Martha. I thought the makeup was too heavy, but Martha seemed to glow in the excitement of being fussed over.
That night at the prom she did a slow dance with a boy. The next day in her diary, she wrote, “Thank you for dancing with me.” She noted that in all her years of high school she never came so physically close to a boy. Since summer 2010 she had nearly forgotten Ying but “I have never been able to purge my heart of Aleksei’s memory. He has given me periodic bliss and nearly constant torment.” But Aleksei never physically touched her. Even so, “he stayed the best option for my lonely and passionate heart.”
Later that night, she wrote her valedictory speech. She delivered her speech shortly thereafter, in a white cap and gown at a graduation ceremony on the sunlit grass in Waterfront Park by the Hudson River. It was a glorious day, a happy day. Despite all the obstacles, Martha graduated at the top of her class. Her speech, about agape, unselfish love, was optimistic and learned, designed for public consumption, though with a dark underside that she knew only I would grasp. She and Melinda and I ate dinner afterward at a waterfront restaurant with her Aunt Helen. More than ever, it felt like the bad days were behind us and Martha’s future was bright.
She had less than three months to live.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.