Sunday, January 10, 2010

West Virginia, Mountain Mama

I flew to West Virginia to stay with my parents for a while after it happened. I couldn’t wait to see Mom and Dad. There were many people here for me in California, but they weren’t experiencing the grief with me like my family is. In West Virginia, I could immerse myself in the memories and the mourning. I wanted to hold on and never let go.

The first night in West Virginia, I read the letter Mike had left for my parents, which was much longer than the one he left for Dolly and me. It didn’t help make any more sense of what happened. It just made me feel sad. He left notes for his neighbors in shaky handwriting, asking them to help my parents, but in those notes he got my parents’ cell phone number wrong. He was either very upset or very intoxicated. As much as I disagree with his decision to end his life, I hope he was at peace with it at the moment—if being at peace is something someone with suicidal depression could experience. I hope he wasn’t scared at the end.

I learned that Mike had planned his suicide for a while. He bought the gun two days before he died, and had gone to the shooting range several times in the prior two weeks to learn how to shoot a gun. He researched suicide and printed out information for my parents. He typed up several letters and a list of people who could help.

My family assigned me the task of settling Mike’s legal and financial affairs. I was grateful for this job because it gave me something to do for my family when I otherwise felt helpless. Each day I went through Mike’s files, made phone calls, sent off copies of his death certificate to creditors, and determined the next steps in winding up his estate. I found myself awake in the middle of the night studying Virginia probate law to determine whether Mike’s suicide note was a legally valid holographic will, how to get someone appointed as administrator if he died intestate, etc., while having flashbacks to my law school Wills and Trusts course.

Most of the time I was all right, explaining to anonymous voices on the other end of the phone why I was calling to close an account. Other times it would get to me. Before I shut off Mike’s cell phone, for example, I looked through his text messages. There was an unsent message in the drafts folder:

“I am so sorry. I love you all.”

I like to think that he knew better than to send it, and that he left it there for us to find.

My family decided to wait until spring to have a memorial for Mike. It was too overwhelming to pull it together before Christmas, and there was no rush since we had his body cremated. We met with a priest and arranged to have a mass said for Mike on January 30, but the funeral mass won’t be until March or April. We went to the funeral home and picked out an urn—a shiny black metal box with gold specks, which he would have liked. We had an obituary put in the local newspaper. We drove to the cemetery to see if there were spaces in the columbarium. All of these events were surreal. Intellectually I know that we did all of these things. But it doesn’t seem like we did, or that should have had to do these things for another 50 years.

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