On Labor Day, the Monday after Martha’s funeral, an Indian priest from our parish, Father Jim, came to our house to console us. We must have looked like we needed it, because he stayed two and a half hours. It was all part of settling into our new status of mourners of a lost child.
The Intrepid museum, around which I often moped about Martha on lunch hours at work
Father Jim sat on our tropical flower sofa with us and said Martha’s death was part of the plan of God. I appreciated his kindly intention, but this phrase grated. I could accept Martha’s death as the will of God, but a plan suggests something humanly intelligible, which Martha’s death was not. What kind of plan involves killing children?
I told him I feared that Martha was in hell, because traditionally in Catholicism that’s where suicides go, as punishment for having chosen to reject God’s gift of life. He said she wasn’t in hell because her sickness killed her, not her choice. I was doubtful about this, because I thought she had made some kind of choice, or else it wouldn’t have been suicide. And being mentally ill myself, I knew that mental illness didn’t rob me of my responsibility for my decisions. But when a priest is trying to comfort you, you feel some obligation to comfort him by at least seeming to accept his authority.
Father Jim said Martha was in heaven, because she was basically good, and any little blemishes of sin that might have kept her from God were washed away by the private Mass that Father Jim said for her the morning after her death, as soon as he heard about it. So she had skipped past purgatory, where she would have had to wait if any guilt of sin were stuck to her, and was safe with God. And no one who reaches the presence of God, he said, wants to come back to Earth.
If that last statement was true, I envied Martha. I too wished to be in the presence of God and reunited with my daughter. I wondered why we had to put up with Earth at all, dismal as it is compared to heaven.
We asked Father Jim to hear our confessions, and he did. I told him of my guilt for Martha’s death, and he said that Melinda and I did everything we could to save her. I wondered how he knew that, not having been there to see. I suggested I had been ignorant, careless, lazy, and vain and thereby contributed to her death. He dismissed all that and said we did what we could with what we knew.
Anyway, he absolved me. For my penance, which he said was “not really a penance,” I had to think about families that never had children, or lost a child at a very young age, before they had time to enjoy them, or whose children turned out to be very difficult. After our confessions, he blessed our house, sprinkling it with holy water. He recommended we get some religious pictures and hang them up—Mary, perhaps, and the sacred heart of Jesus. But Melinda and I have never gone in for traditional religious art, so our walls remain secular.
Media attention died down after the funeral, but we kept getting calls and visits from people all week. Friends and neighbors brought dinner every night so Melinda wouldn’t have to cook. By the end of the week, the number of visitors had dwindled except for the nightly visit from whoever was assigned to cook dinner for us. I would have cancelled even that, but Melinda didn’t want to cook and I didn’t want to cook in her place, so I suffered it for a few more weeks, until she had had enough of other people’s food.
There were a few more formalities to take care of. I received Martha’s death certificate, which listed her time of death as 11:18 p.m. and her cause of death as “Blunt Impact Injuries Of Head, Torso And Extremities.” I promptly lost the document, and had to order another one years later so I could finally close her college savings account. We picked out her monument, the tombstone for our family plot. All told, what with funeral home, cemetery, luncheon, monument, it cost us about $19,000 to bury Martha.
That Friday we visited Martha’s grave for the first time. I threw myself on the fresh dirt, sobbing. I hugged the earth as though I could reach my arms through it and hug her where she lay underneath. I picked up a little blue rock that seemed engraved with a faint panther, brought it home and put it by my computer. I toyed with it there, as if it gave me contact with Martha. I still have it.
In the outside world the school buses were carrying little children home from school again. Other people’s children surrounded me. The world was returning to normal, but there was no Martha, and Melinda and I were still deep in grief.
Martha dominated every minute. I spent hours lying in bed in the dark, half awake or fully awake, trying to escape the grief, trying to engage with it. Martha had left the house barren, my heart broken, and the future desolate. When I napped, I dreamt of her, dreamt I had to communicate something about her to other people—what, I wasn’t sure.
To say I missed her was an understatement. To say I mourned her was too polite. To really express it I would have to invent a new curse word. None of the existing ones would do, but it would need cursing power to capture the rawness and indecency of what I felt. You could say that in dying, Martha me.
Ironically, with Martha’s death I rediscovered cursing. For eighteen years I gave it up so as not to set Martha a bad example. Now, what was the fucking point?
Martha had left a shelf of diaries that I had never opened, but now they were fair game. I read Martha’s diary entries from June to August, learned about how she saw God and normal life encroaching on her forbidden love for Aleksei. She had talked about things like that when she was alive, but it was more vivid reading it in words she had written only for her and Aleksei’s eyes. It seemed to me that in jumping out the window she had struck a blow for her, Aleksei, love, and the beauty of death as against God, normality, and the ugliness of life. Father Jim was wrong; it wasn’t a sickness that killed her, it was her choice. If anyone deserved hell for suicide, it was Martha. She earned it. Yet I hoped God looked past her apparent rebellion against him and saw instead the deep intention in her act: to die for love at its most meaningful and real.
But I had my doubts that God was that good or wise, or if he even existed. I had only been back in the faith for five months, and now it was being shaken to its core. I wanted to say God’s will be done, wanted to say with Father Jim that Martha’s death was part of his plan. But I didn’t understand the plan, and efforts to hypothesize about it were ludicrous. I wanted to believe Martha was safe in heaven with God and that I would see her there again someday. But maybe he was a dirty son of a bitch who had cast her into purgatory or hell. Or maybe he didn’t exist and she had simply been annihilated.
It could be there was no God, but I wasn’t acting that way. I was still going to church, praying to and for Martha, offering up my sufferings in union with Christ’s for the repose of her soul. I was acting like a person of faith. But deep down I had no idea what I believed.
I couldn’t even understand the grief I felt. I was beginning to see it as a sign of love. Because I loved Martha, it was natural I should grieve for her. It would be unnatural if I didn’t. But I didn’t dwell on what I loved about Martha; I dwelt mainly on her death. So did Melinda, who kept asking, “Why did Martha kill herself?” Then we’d go over it again, analyzing Martha’s last twenty-four hours, trying to make sense of how and why she died, trying to distinguish her responsibility from ours from no one’s.
Above all, grief was the insistent message to myself that Martha was dead. That fact kept sinking in, pounding against the ingrained habit of thinking of her as alive. Over and over, I kept relearning that Martha was dead; I was childless; the population of the house was two, not three; Martha was not coming home; every artifact of hers in the house was a vestige, not her property. I would grow old but there would never be a biological grandchild to brighten my old age, nor a biological child to bury me. Martha’s absence was startling and vulgar. I would never talk with her again, see her, hug her, hear her voice. Already her voice was getting vaguer, harder to reconstruct.
The more I realized this, the more I felt like there was a hole inside me, a hole in the world, where Martha used to be. I felt empty and void of meaning. I felt cursed beyond hope. Everywhere I looked was cursed.
I recalled the ending of the Ray Bradbury story “Rocket Man,” where the family of a dead astronaut can never look at the sun again because his ship had fallen into the sun. If Martha had died by a knife, I would never look at knives again. If she’d died by a gun, I would never look at guns. But she died by the earth, and I could never again look at the earth.
On Monday, September 10, two weeks after Martha’s death, Melinda and I returned to work. I was ready to go back because I was bored and miserable at home, suffering pointlessly with nothing to do. At least at work people would expect things of me, and that might distract me from my grief.
The first day I ran into Stevie, and we chatted, and she suggested we have lunch soon. It was what I used to call an A day before Martha’s death changed the world. I was still attracted to Stevie, but now it was mainly for her eggs. Looking at her beautiful young body with the gold cross around her neck, I thought I could impregnate her and raise up a child to replace Martha, as I couldn’t with Melinda.
For a while, I kept Martha’s picture on my cubicle wall. Then I took it down and stuck it in a drawer because it was too distracting. To get my work done, I had to minimize thinking about her. I tried to restrict it to what I called a “Martha moping hour” at lunchtime, when I let myself feel her loss. I walked around Hell’s Kitchen, under the shadow of the Intrepid battleship museum, mourning my daughter. Even so, while at my desk I would periodically open the drawer just to see her sad, wild eyes stare up at me.
At my lunch with Stevie that Wednesday, she let me unload about my grief. My obsession with her was gone; I regarded her more as a friend. She reminded me pleasantly of Martha. She made me think about a world in which there could be a dark-haired young beauty who didn’t throw herself fourteen stories to the street.
On Saturday, September 15, Melinda and I visited Martha’s grave, on which I laid red roses. It was the high point of my week. I kissed the earth where I imagined her feet were. I prayed to God and to her.
By that day, my first post-Martha religious views had taken shape. I wobbled between atheism and Christianity, but basically considered myself a Christian. I believed God killed Martha by permitting her to choose death, but I didn’t know why and didn’t expect to find out, at least on Earth. I knew people would try to excuse God by saying Martha caused her own death, not God. But I rejected a God so weak he was unable to govern the universe when human free will intervened, because such a God would not be providential, could not be prayed to reliably, and therefore could not be God. I accepted that despite his killing of my daughter, he was good.
To accept this, I needed faith, more faith than I had ever had, faith proportionate to the challenge Martha’s death posed. Faith was a gift and I believed God was giving it to me, but if I needed more I needed to pray for it, because I could not get it on my own power.
I wanted to believe in God because that was the only way I could believe Martha was happy and that I could see her again, and that there was some reason for her death. Atheism could not give me all this, though atheism had its own draw. It could relieve me of the burden of having to love a God who would kill my only child, and could give me permission to kill myself to relieve my grief.
I had to be as good as possible in the time I had left so that I would have a chance of reaching heaven and seeing Martha again. I had no more interest in earthly life. I would tolerate whatever was left of it for the sake of seeing Martha in heaven. That was my goal now.
I wasn’t making a good start. In the shower on Monday morning, September 17, I told God out loud: “You are a monster. You kill children for pleasure. You killed my child. I do not worship you. I do not honor you. I despise you. The only reason I accept your will is that I have no choice, and the only reason I do your will is in the hope that one day you will let me into heaven and I can see my Martha again. If you sent her to hell then send me there too, as long as I can see her.”
A few days later, I tried praying to God, “Thank you for killing my daughter for the good of the universe.” Because after all, that was what I proposed—that God, who only does things for ultimate good, thought Martha’s untimely death would advance ultimate good. It made no sense and was unsatisfying. But somehow I had to get in good with God, so that I could get to heaven and see Martha again.
On Tuesday, September 18, Melinda and I took a day off from work to try to recover the last of Martha’s property. The police had kept some of it as evidence, and a couple of friends drove us around police stations and courts from lower Manhattan to Westchester to the Upper West Side tracking it down. Finally, at the Twenty-Sixth Precinct on West 126th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, we recovered a bag of Martha’s property, including her laptop, purse, iPod, and the prescription drugs she’d been taking.
We tried to recover what Martha was last wearing. For some reason, we weren’t allowed to, but we at least learned what it was: a bloodied bra and panties and a black shawl. Martha had gone out the window in her underwear. This was surprising, because Martha had been very modest, never even walking around the house in her underwear. That she would voluntarily go to her death that way suggested she was in an even more bizarre state of mind than suicide by itself implied. The black shawl was also puzzling, because Martha didn’t own a shawl; perhaps it had been one of her black scarves. Black was the color she had worn for years in mourning for Aleksei. We wondered if in Martha’s last moments she was preparing herself for sexual union with her ghost lover. Perhaps he had even been calling to her from out the window.
I hoped that Martha’s laptop would contain a suicide note that the police had missed, but it didn’t. There was a shortcut with the evocative label “Forgive me,” but I still don’t know if that had to do with her suicide. Of more definite value were all the writings Martha had amassed on the laptop, but I was not yet in a state of mind to read them.
Even as I combed through Martha’s recovered property, she was getting away from me. Memories of her, still fresh in recent days, were beginning to become lacquered, embossed with mnemonic varnish. The particulars were starting to merge into generalities. Memories didn’t come spontaneously into mind from the place they were originally stored; rather I was remembering remembering. Before a month had passed since her death, I was thinking of writing a memoir about Martha’s life and death. I thought I might call it God Killed My Daughter, or I Had a Daughter Once. You know your memories are in trouble when you start wanting to write a memoir.
With the lacquering of memory came the dulling of grief. It was still there, but muter, more numb, less sharp. Grief is a wound, and though it would take years to close up completely, it started to heal quickly. I didn’t welcome the healing. I wanted the raw pain, because that was how I could hold onto Martha. Without the pain I would lose her to history.
Yet ultimately, I couldn’t stop myself from healing. It was my body’s way of putting myself in a healthy relation to the dead. As Martha would have said, life was Big Brother, and my body compelled me to love Big Brother.
Even as I wanted the pain, I also wanted to alleviate it. I thought of going to Hawaii or Miami for Christmas. I thought of buying a dog or adopting a child. I considered doing in vitro fertilization of a surrogate mother, or even better, old-fashioned fertilization of Stevie. But I wondered if I should inflict onto the world another one of my sperm, with its propensity to generate mental illness and suicidality.
Besides, Martha had been the perfect child—perfect for me. Not only smart, beautiful, and kind, but strange, insane, utterly successful in carrying out the one plan that had mattered to her, suicide. She was my baby, through and through. No one else could ever match her. There was no need for a second child to try to rival her.
Martha was dead, but we kept trying to resurrect her. At her grave one day I sat on the ground, stroking the sprouting grass like hair and talking with her. Martha didn’t talk back, but she did talk back to Melinda later that day. In the bathroom crying, Melinda asked, “Where are you, Martha?” She heard Martha answer, “I’m here, Mom, I’ll watch over you.” Melinda believed this was a real communication from Martha. I was skeptical, not only because Martha was dead, but because in her last years Martha never addressed us as Mom and Dad. She didn’t name us at all when addressing us; she just called us “you.”
Ever since I had been diagnosed bipolar, I had kept a chart of my moods on a scale I invented that went from 0 (abject depression with suicide attempt) to 8 (normal contentment) to 16 (raving mania). During most of the days since Martha’s death, I had been at 1, 2, or 3, but by late September I was a 5—still depressed, but better. I no longer moped much at Martha moping hour. I thought perhaps grief was something that would take another month or two to get through. I didn’t realize it would get much worse before it got sustainably better.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.