In this second part of the book, Martha is no longer alive. The story is no longer her story but mine: how I survived her death.
Martha's tombstone in Hastings-on-Hudson.
At two in the morning on Tuesday, August 28, 2012, the doorbell woke me. The moment it rang, I knew it had to do with Martha. Melinda and I scrambled out of bed in our pajamas and I got to the door first. Three men in suits stood outside in the dark. The lead one, the one who did all the talking, asked if I was the father of Martha Corey-Ochoa. I said I was. They were New York City police officers, he said.
We all sat down in the living room as if a 2:00 a.m. conference with policemen were the most normal thing in the world. I knew something bad had happened, but I still resisted imagining it was the worst thing. The lead cop said they believed Martha fell or was pushed from her fourteenth-story window at Columbia University and asked me to look at a picture of her to identify her. In the picture her face looked bruised and bent, as if she had been beat up, but it was she, I told him. From the glassy look of her eyes, I suspected she might be dead, but I still kidded myself, thinking she was just injured, that she had somehow survived the fall. Then he said, “I’m so sorry to tell you your daughter passed away tonight.”
It was as if the house had just collapsed around me but somehow I was still sitting there in the rubble, exposed to the open air. Martha was dead. After three years of our fearing her suicide, she had done it. After eighteen years of parenthood, Melinda and I had just become childless.
The three homicide detectives stayed around a while longer. We learned that Martha had fallen out her window around 11:00 p.m., and that they had not found a suicide note. They gave us their business cards, as if we were networking at a conference. Shortly after they left, I got a call from one of the cops, who said he was still trying to figure out whether this had been a suicide, a homicide, or an accident.
“It was a suicide,” I told him.
“How do you know?” he asked.
I told him about Martha’s call at 9:00 p.m. She had talked about having felt suicidal earlier in the day and might have still been feeling that way. As I spoke, I realized how low that made me seem—my daughter had called me feeling suicidal and I had done nothing to try to save her. I wondered if this made me an accomplice to her suicide, whether the cop would arrest me. But he didn’t seem interested in that. He was just glad to be able to put a label on the death.
A little after that, I got a call from a lady at Columbia. She said they wanted to send out an email to what she called “the Columbia community” telling them about Martha’s death, but before that she felt I should notify my older nephew, who was a student at Columbia, so he could hear about it from me first. There were several absurdities about this. First, having just lost my only child, the last thing I gave a damn about was “the Columbia community.” Second, she assumed I was in touch with my nephew, which I had not been since the Nine Year War between my sister and me separated our families in the 1990s. To comply with her wish, which I regarded as a bureaucratic nicety, I would have to call my sister. Speaking with her always made me tense and unhappy, and I didn’t feel it should be imposed on me just hours after I had learned of my daughter’s death. But civilization coasts along on such absurdities.
So, in the middle of the night, I called my sister and told her her only niece had died. Because of the Nine Year War, they had never been close, so I don’t know what she made of it. But she agreed to call my nephew and let him know, and I called the Columbia lady and told her I had done my part.
I realized I was expected back at work in a few hours. I sent an email to my two bosses telling them my daughter had killed herself so I wouldn’t be coming back to work for a while. The email was ironic. The reason I had not come to stay with Martha that night was that I couldn’t figure out who would stay with her in the morning when I went back to work. I had felt so driven by the necessity of going to work that I had let her die instead. As a result, I wouldn’t be going to work. Would that I had sacrificed work for her life instead of the other way around.
Melinda and I slept a little, but not much. Early in the morning we got up and got dressed, and the doorbell rang. Standing out in the bright late August sunlight was one of our neighbors, who had heard or read the news about Martha’s death. Apparently, the story was on radio and TV, and in the New York City tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News. I hadn’t figured on this, but the suicide of a “beautiful and brilliant” Columbia coed on her first day of Orientation was bound to attract interest.
The doorbell kept ringing, and all day more neighbors and friends dropped by, having heard about Martha’s death from the media or from each other. Reporters rang too, wanting to interview us, but we refused to tell them anything. They camped out in our driveway, taking pictures of our visitors and interviewing as many of them as would talk.
Most of Martha’s classmates had already left Dobbs Ferry for college, so not many of them showed up. But Minoo was younger than Martha, and she and her mother visited that first day. Minoo was religious, so she appreciated it when she asked how I was doing and I said I accepted Martha’s death as the will of God. She said that remark put me on the same plane as the saints. But I hadn’t aimed that high. I just meant that, in my view, everything that happened was the will of God. It didn’t mean I had to love him for it. And I didn’t. I wasn’t thinking much of him at all. I had no words for what I was thinking, because I was heartbroken beyond words.
The presence of all these visitors was comforting, but what they had to say mostly wasn’t. What can you tell a couple of parents who have just lost a child? Nevertheless, they tried, that day and over the next few days. One person said that Martha must have accomplished everything she was supposed to accomplish on earth, so God called her home. This seemed bizarre to me—as if Martha’s eighteen years really had been a sufficient life. Another person said God must have had some secret mission for her in heaven, and that was why he had sent her there. Martha the spy angel.
The pastor at our church called and said one thing that did help: “Don’t blame yourselves!” We were, in fact, blaming ourselves for our failure to save Martha’s life when she called us the night before. His advice didn’t stop us from doing that, but it reminded us that people who have lost someone to suicide always blame themselves.
We had to say goodbye to our visitors that first day because we wanted to get to the morgue to identify Martha’s remains. We drove down to the Medical Examiner’s Office at Thirtieth Street and First Avenue. Typically for New York, they didn’t have the body yet. Then we went to Columbia to visit Martha’s room and look one last time out the window from which she’d jumped. Within view was the emergency entrance to St. Luke’s Hospital, where I could have told her to go the night before and saved her life. Even as I thought that, I knew how futile it was. There is a horrible irreversibility to a death. You can take back other things, but there is no recovering a lost life. Once lost, it is irretrievably lost.
We picked up a few mementoes from Columbia, most importantly Tinkybella, the stuffed dog Martha had carried around since infancy. We brought home the empty suitcases she’d packed just two days earlier, lugging them numbly to our door in the late afternoon sunlight while photographers snapped pictures of us. We arranged to have the rest of Martha’s goods shipped back.
The next day the news broke that Martha had called her parents and told them she was suicidal within hours before she died. “Co-Ed in Last Plea: She Felt ‘Suicidal,’” the New York Post headline declared. The parents had not commented on what they did in response to the co-ed’s plea, but the clear implication was that they did nothing, or not enough. On top of our bereavement and our own sense of guilt, Melinda and I now had to cope with castigation in the media as bad parents who were to blame for their daughter’s death. I didn’t read much of it, but I caught snatches. A photograph of us bringing home Martha’s suitcases appeared online, and a reader commented that her parents seemed to care more about her suitcases than about her. Another reader commented that she would have dropped everything to take care of her child if her child had been suicidal, and that Martha’s parents would now have the rest of their lives to think about how they had failed to do that.
My sister, predictably, asked me about the press reports of our inaction. I defended myself by saying that Martha had been suicidal for years, and that if we dropped everything to care for her each time she said something suicidal we could never have done anything else. “So they took what you said out of context,” said my sister, and I said yes. But my defense wasn’t really true. In the months leading up to Martha’s death, Martha had not been saying suicidal things. Her suicidality on her last night was exceptional. Really, I couldn’t explain or defend why we had done nothing to help her. I doubted, however, that the people castigating us, having never been in the same position, were good judges of what they would have done differently.
We spoke with Martha’s psychiatrist, Dr. Abrams, and he mainly stressed that there was no way he could have predicted Martha’s suicide. She was doing so well, he said—we had thought so, and so had he. I recognized an attempt to avoid a malpractice lawsuit when I heard it. Everyone scrambles to get free of the burden of guilt when there’s a suicide. Maybe it’s because the one person who’s really to blame, the committer of the suicide, is inaccessible, making the arm of responsibility flail about trying to hit someone else.
Even so, guilt was not my strongest feeling at the time. It was more an utter devastation, as if I had ceased to exist but was somehow still walking. I did only one press interview at the time, with the Journal News, and in it I was quoted as saying, “I feel like she was my life and, without her, my life seems to be gone.” This was how I felt. I no longer had a life, but incredibly, even indecently, I still lived.
We paid another visit to the Medical Examiner’s Office, and this time Martha’s body was present. They didn’t require us to identify it—they let us identify her from a photo instead—but we asked to see it, and they gave us permission. A machine raised Martha’s body into view through a window. She was covered in a white sheet, her face pale, her hair tied back with a rubber band. The rubber band told me she was dead; she was much too careful about her appearance to have used such a cheap item to tie back her hair in life. I sobbed at the sight of her.
At home, I spoke by phone with the medical examiner, and he told me that Martha was unlikely to have suffered much when she died. Her heart was torn to pieces when she crashed into the earth. She died, literally, of a broken heart.
Friday night, August 31, we held Martha’s wake at a funeral home in Dobbs Ferry. Martha was laid out in a black dress in her coffin, her face made up to make it appear less dead. When I saw her, I sobbed as I had at the morgue and threw myself on her body, hugging and kissing her. I knew I would never be able to touch her again. But there is something creepy about hugging a corpse, so I let her go.
A long line of people filed in, and we hugged or shook hands with each one. Many friends and acquaintances from Dobbs Ferry and the other Rivertowns were there, along with a lot of my coworkers from MediStory. Sarah came to the wake, and so did Stevie; in fact, Sarah drove Stevie, putting both of my MediStory love interests in the same car. Despite my grief, I was still obsessed enough with Stevie that I thought Martha’s suicide was just the thing to strengthen our relationship. With Martha’s dead body in the room, I studied the pleasing contours of Stevie’s face, her dark skin, her lush lips. I was amazed at how lust can persist in the darkest depths of mourning.
Several of my elected officials attended the wake. So did the two Barnard counselors whom Martha had flagged down on her last day of life, which is how I found out about their efforts to help her that day.
The next day, Saturday, September 1, was Martha’s funeral, held in the Irvington church where we had just gone to our last Mass with Martha the previous Sunday. My father flew up from Florida for the occasion, and Martha’s godparents, who were old friends of Melinda, flew in from Chicago. My friend Eddie drove in from Washington, DC. The church was packed, but I hardly registered who else was there. Melinda and I gave eulogies. I alluded to Martha’s self-image as a supernova that briefly flares brighter than anything else in the sky, then goes black. I also mentioned my dying mother’s words on seeing Martha in her hospital room: “What a beautiful girl!”
Six male friends of ours served as the pallbearers who carried Martha’s coffin out of the church. The funeral director drove us to Mount Hope Cemetery in Hastings, and many others followed in their cars. A gravesite ceremony was held at the plot we had picked out for Martha that week, a plot big enough to contain Melinda and me too when the time comes. Stevie wasn’t there but Sarah stood near me, and her beauty and concern comforted me. Martha’s coffin stood on a platform, ready to be buried. The area where she was to be buried was a new stretch of ground, as yet barren of tombstones.
After the ceremony, we held a funeral luncheon at the Dobbs Diner, the diner in Dobbs Ferry where we had often had dinner with Martha. I sat with Sarah and another woman, an old friend named Beth, and we talked about things that had nothing to do with Martha. It gladdened me a little to be with friends, but I never forgot why they were there. The specter of death hung over every laugh and courtesy.
When all the ceremonies were over, Melinda and I went home. At last we were alone, just my wife and I, without Martha.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.
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