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By Jessica Garrett
My Mother on the beach in San Diego
On August 30, 2008 I remember where in my apartment I was standing when the phone rang. It was a Saturday so I was wandering around my apartment doing laundry and watching TV online, like ya do. When my phone buzzed I recognized the number, felt a pain in my stomach, and then let it go to voicemail. When the message icon popped up I tentatively called my voicemail.
“Hi, Jessie. It’s Shirley. Call me just as soon as you can.”
I knew right then. I know that sounds cliché and absurd but I did. I know that I knew, because when I dialed back the number of my mother’s best friend all she had to say was this:
“Well, Jessie, she finally did it.”
“Shirley,” I asked. “is she dead?”
I dropped to the floor by the washing machine. So dramatique, I know (I’m a trained actor, what can I say?), but at the time my knees genuinely buckled and I could no longer stand. Shirley is and was the kindest woman I know, and she said just the right thing.
“I want you to call a friend and tell her to come over. Then hold your kitty in your lap until she gets there.”
I did exactly what Shirley said. I called a friend who called a few others in our tight-knit group. We watched Michelle Obama’s speech from the Democratic Convention while I handed another friend my credit card so he could deal with my plane ticket.
“Just buy one for tomorrow, it doesn’t matter,” I said.
And he did.
Looking back on that day invariably makes me cry. It’s a reflex. The same as when baby clasps your finger. It just happens. The thing is, I think my mom’s suicide may have been right for her.
A rare moment where I look like Jackie. Me, (right) with my cousin Loralie, who is my mother’s spitting image.
Jackie Garrett was born Jacqueline Murphy in 1941 outside of Chicago. Raised Irish Catholic, she had strict parents and several siblings. She was the runt of the family, the youngest of the girls and the smallest. She moved around as a young adult.
She had some controversial love affairs, many of which are still a mystery to me. She met my Dad through a friend in the 70s in Albuquerque. My Dad was working his internship as a Nephrologist and they were both involved with other people when they met. They married in 1978 in their apartment, the guest was their dog, Cleo.
Notes from my father to my mother when I was little express his concern for her physical and mental health. “Keep taking your meds, Love,” they urge. “I know it’s tough, but Jess and I love you,” etcetera. She went in and out of hospitals while I was little, but as the only child of an older mother, none of this seemed that abnormal until I was older, and well after my parents’ divorce.
My mother had breast cancer in the mid-90s. She had a mastectomy and was one of the first people in Colorado to receive a Saline transplant, as apposed to Silicone. It failed. Her left breast was a mess, and caused her great pain the rest of her life. He had depression, anxiety, ADHD, brain damage from a car accident 20 years prior, early onset Dementia, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and an eating disorder. None of the above ailments were even recognized as such until she’d had them all for at least a decade.
Physically, she wilted. She hovered around 110 pounds, and when she put on prescribed weight, it only sat around her middle, providing no muscle. She was unable to lift over 5 pounds and had a pill regimen the likes of which I’ve never seen. She was not a big drinker, but failed to recognize (or didn’t care) that mixing her habitual glass or two of dry Chardonnay with her boatload of medications was detrimental to her already failing mind.
She was told by numerous doctors after being diagnosed with new diseases, “You have a 40% chance of survival” or “You need to take the necessary steps to get your affairs in order.” But she always made it out of the dangerous treatment or surgery alive, though more exhausted and worse-for-wear.
Days before Christmas in 2005, she somehow overdosed (whether it was accidental or intentional is still unclear to me) on prescribed medication and slipped into a coma. She woke up on January 3, 2006. If you ever slip onto a coma and then wake up 11 days later, try not to do it over New Years, it adds a lot of extra confusion when nurses say things like, “You slept for a whole year, Mrs. Garrett."
She didn’t remember much at first when she woke up. The first thing she said to me was “Get me my socks. I want a cigarette and I want to go to the zoo.” It was sort of an odd thing to say, but not really if you knew Jackie.
After “The Coma,” as we affectionately referred to it, she had a bit of a renaissance. She relearned how to walk and swallow and was very conversational and funnier than ever. I was living in Chicago at the time and our visits were still strained, but we were connecting more. She was in Assisted Living, which pissed her off to no end, but she got her own apartment and still got to drive her car, both of which were very important to her.
I take a small pouch of my mother’s ashes on all my travels. She is scattered in Denver; her hometown of Highland Park, IL; in the Pacific off the coast of California; Ireland; the Tennessee River Valley; Istanbul; Manhattan; Chicago; and at my theatre here in Baltimore. Pictured at the London Bridge.
In the Summer of 2008, my friend was getting married in Colorado so I went home to Denver. I stayed in the Assisted Living Facility with my mother and we had a great time. We went to her favorite restaurant, we had steak, she drank Chardonnay, and we talked about everything. We even told each other that neither of us ever wanted to be on life support, and she told me she was not afraid of death.
After I returned home to Baltimore, I got a call that she’d slit her wrists and was institutionalized. She was now considered a liability to the Assisted Living home, between her suicide attempt and the fact that she continuously smoked in her bed. I flew back to Denver. It took me two days to muster the courage to see her in the hospital. She looked so small. Her wrists were bandaged and she was so sad. I was angry. I regret that now, but in all honesty I was.
“I have to ask you something and I want you to be honest,” I said. “Do you want to die?”
My mother said to me, “Yes. No. I don’t know”.
That was the last day I saw her, and as I walked to the hospital parking lot, I knew it would be.
Two weeks later she overdosed at a halfway house. She was 66, I was 25. She left me a note. It’s a beautiful, tortured two pages in her loopy script and signature sky blue Uniball ink on sheets of her precious yellow legal paper. She signs the note that she will see me on the other side. I think she wrote that because I needed it.
I love my mother deeply, and I miss her each day, some days each hour. I have unanswered questions. I am angry (“You couldn’t have waited for grandchildren? Or for me to make enough money to take care of you? I have screamed at nothing, at no one). That said, as these years go by, I begin to understand her more. She honestly and truly felt that she was trapped. She was in physical agony with the knowledge that her mind was wasting away and she could not bear another minute of it.
She killed herself in 2008, but I think she would have done it a lot sooner, were it not for her unabashed love for me. Me. No matter how deep my anger and guilt (oh God, the heart wrenching guilt), I have that knowledge: someone stayed alive for me.
And I am the luckier for it, because when she told me in our last phone conversation that she was “Sorry for being a bad mom,” I said without a second thought and in all honesty that she was wrong. For 25 years, she was the greatest mom on Earth.
Jackie and I Ross Castle, Ireland- 2009.