I was spending the afternoon with one of my friends when I noticed a voicemail notification pop up on my phone. The phone hadn’t rung, but I saw it was from my mother. I joked with my friend, “Let me check this; I need to see if my mom took my sister back to the hospital.” Earlier I had explained to her that my mom called me the night before to ask if I knew how Michelle was doing, and I told her she wasn’t doing well; the hospital might be a necessary choice. She told me she thinks Michelle just needs to sleep and eat more. I didn’t argue with her, despite my obvious disagreement.
I played the voicemail, and my mother sounded panicked. She told me she heard a knock at the front door and when she answered it, it was Michelle – who had just been upstairs in her old bedroom- saying that she had fallen from the balcony above the driveway. She told my mother her back hurt. According to the voicemail, I was to get to my parents’ house 15 miles away immediately in order to dog sit while Michelle and My mother were at the E.R. It was lucky my friend was with me because I could catch a ride with her since I don’t have a car of my own. Quickly, we went to my house, and I spent the night on a camping cot in my parents’ living room, calling every few hours for updates on Michelle’s status.
Over the night, we were informed that there was a fracture in my sister’s hip, but no other serious injuries. She would be sore for a while, however, since she had hit the cement driveway on her side. It was more of a concern for me to make sure there was no denial in my family about what my sister had tried to do. In the early 90s, my father’s mother hung herself in her garage and that was kept secret from us for two decades. I doubted my mother and father would want to believe Michelle had attempted to do the same.
The opportunity to level with my mother on the topic of suicide came the following morning before I went to work. She asked me if I had seen the notes Michelle left by her computer in her room. I picked up both short notes: one was addressed to Michelle’s ex-boyfriend, and the other to me. His letter was an apology, and mine explained how she wanted me to have her things. I took the notes and slipped them into my purse before finishing my make-up for work. My mother lingered nearby while I packed my bag.
“So, you know it wasn’t an accident she fell from the balcony, right?” I probed.
“Well… I guess.” My mother wasn’t comfortable, and you could hear it in her hesitant words.
“You can’t accidentally fall from that balcony.”
“I told you Sunday she should go to the hospital, why didn’t you believe me?”
“She wasn’t like this on Sunday!”
That response was the one which infuriated me the most. She didn’t need to go off a balcony on Sunday in order to go to the hospital; it needed to be prevented before she hit the ground. We were lucky she didn’t grab the keys to her car that Monday night, or take out one of our grandpa’s old guns from the closer, or tie a rope around her neck. She would recover from her fall, but what happens next time?
The exchange between my mother and I became heated. I was mad she hadn’t listened to me when I said Michelle was getting really sick. The surreal nature of the night was too much for my compassion to catch up with; I was looking for someone to blame, and my mother was the closest person to me. She was steadfast in her denial that this couldn’t have been prevented. She insisted that there was nothing Michelle had been doing that would suggest suicide. I don’t know why her walls were raised against me. I’m sure she felt hurt – maybe even terrified at having been so close to losing her first-born daughter the night before. She was probably too upset with herself for not being there before it happened and feeling powerless. Neither of us were in the place emotionally to work together in those minutes. There was just too much hurt.
After my day at work ended, I walked around the corner to the hospital where my sister had been admitted the night before. I got my visitor’s badge, and I felt on edge, waiting for the receptionist who might ask what unit my sister was in. I knew her room number, and the letter representing the unit before it was a “P.” I wasn’t sure of the “P” initially, but it became pretty clear once I learned the maternity unit was prefaced by an “M.” I hadn’t visited her the first time she was in the emergency room. Or the second. I think I would have been more nervous had I not still been in a numb, emotional shock. But I finally saw her. Tiny Michelle in a giant bed, being swallowed by a one-size-fits-all hospital gown.
It was a couple weeks later before she was discharged, walking on her own with no wheelchair of walker. I was less romantic in my expectations after this release. I know there is so much work left undone that could have prevented her suicide attempt, but the wheels of her recovery move cripplingly slow. Every time I see my sister now, I remind her (and myself) that it is a marathon to maintain her stability, not a sprint. And there is no room for quitting.