If you are here for a food article, please skip to the archives. Cake has temporarily left the building to honor the dead.
(On April 3, 2007, my mother discovered my 30 year old sister Emily dead in her apartment. Emily, who had suffered from psycho-affective disorder, a severe form of bi-polar disorder, led a life that few would envy. This entry is about her and our experience in the days following her death)
On the first Tuesday morning of April I was sitting at my desk, readying a case of wine for UPS shipment to NY. Shipping wine is not my job, and I probably should not have been doing it during work, but I could not foresee having any other free time during the week. I went to the mail room and brought the scale back to my desk. I turned to my computer to finish a jokey email to a friend. And then my phone rang. I saw from the number that it was my mother calling, on a new cell phone number that I had given her. I figured she was trying it out to see if it worked.
There was a pause.
And then screaming. "EMILY'S DEAD."
"What? WHAT?!" I grabbed my phone and ran into a semi-private room in the office. "WHAT!" I screamed again.
Wailing: "I'm at Emily's apartment, I came to help her move. She didn't answer the door. She's blue. She's dead."
Emily is my youngest sister. She is 30 years old.
"NO!" I screamed. I started wailing into the phone, hyperventilating. "NO!" I screamed the way I imagine the Greek women of the Iliad would scream after learning the news of their husband's death - a shrill, high pitched keen.
Faces began appearing at the window by the room. People ran over. People ran away. I lay on the floor, sobbing. My boss appeared at the window. And I remember saying loudly, "my sister killed herself" as he escorted me into his office.
I can't remember much about the next 15 minutes. I remember HR coming into my boss' office and telling me to take my time and go home for as long as I needed. My boss agreed. And then booked me on the next flight home, a 2.5 hour flight from where I live. I saw that many people were gathered outside my boss' office, hungry for news or gossip or just lovers of schadenfreude. It didn't matter to me. My sister, who had been ill for the last ten years with "schizo-affective disorder" (read: looks like bipolar, smells like schizophrenia), had taken a fatal overdose of pills and hadn't been discovered for two days, even though she had missed appointments, dinners, and brunch. I assumed it was an overdose at least - she had once tried to kill herself with sleeping pills, but after two days woke up long enough to tell my mother what she had done, and that it hadn't worked. And then she went back to sleep.
Eleven hours later I was at my mom's house. Her eyes were puffy and red. Two of her friends were with her. "Thank you," I told them, hugging each of them. "Thank you for being with her." They left the house.
At first nothing felt different. The house was the same. Emily lived about 20 minutes away, in an apartment, so she had few possessions at my mom's. Then I realized the phone was ringing every 5 minutes, and that none of the calls were from her. Ordinarily she would call my mom up to 6 or 7 times a night when she needed or wanted something. Now those calls were friends and family, calling to find out what had happened.
Emily, it turns out, may not have overdosed. There was a possibility that the mixture of drugs - Abilify, Lithium, Haldol, a tranquilizer or two - may have taken a toll on her and caused her to die from cardiac arrest. She was found in her bed, no note, no empty bottle of pills, nothing that said, "I HAVE INTENTIONALLY KILLED MYSELF." This gave me comfort. Yes, her death was a big accident, I told myself, not something she intended to do. I spent the next two hours, before drifting off to sleep, thinking about different ways her medication could have killed her.
My mother took two tranquilizers and went to bed.
The next morning my best friend arrived, and as it snowed we went through Emily's room on the second floor. The room was mostly empty; she had removed most of her things two years earlier, when she moved out. The rug was stained with cola and coffee, there was cat crap caked on her clothes and on the floor, and garbage hidden behind her dresser and under her bed. Two years and untouched by my mother, untouched by Emily. My friend and I bulldozed through the room, packing up clothes into trash bags and separating her crap into "garbage crap" and "Goodwill crap" piles. I did it without sentiment or thought. It was just something that needed to get done. I wanted to stop my mother from reliving her memories through Emily's long abandoned high school books, old IDs, hippie CDs and jewelry, loose change, photographs, and endless heaps of clothes too old or big or small to wear.
There were diaries dating back to Emily's 8th grade year, just after I had finished college. There were cruel denouncements of me our other sister Amanda. Even at age 13, she hated us and cursed our existence. I knew this already, but I didn't think Amanda was ready to read what 13 year old Emily had to say. It was a long time ago, but her words could still hurt. I found it difficult to put the diaries down. There were stories of prank calling her friends, of my mother being a 'bitch', of hookups with boys who just didn't care. There were tales of pot smoking in high school, bar hopping in high school and other things that we always knew she did but she wouldn't quite tell us. She repeatedly called herself ugly.
In about 3 hours we had organized the mess and had dropped off two carloads of crap and filled two trash cans. And this was just her abandoned room. I couldn't imagine what her apartment would look like.
Bodies change when they die. That's what the funeral director told us. Some people want to see the body of their loved one to confirm that yes, this person is really and truly dead. I raised my eyebrows. Did they cut Emily up when they autopsied her? Was she still hard from rigor mortis? Yes she was cut up. And no, we would not want to see her. Death had changed Emily, and we would not like what we saw.
The police detective in charge of Emily's case was equally concerned. Make sure you have someone go into the apartment after they take away the body, he told Peter, a family friend. The body loses its fluids - if her bowels are full they empty, if her bladder is full it empties. There would be bodily fluids on the sheets, a reminder that she had died in bed...that she had lived and died and there was nothing left but excrement and piss.
The detective went back to Emily's apartment and took the sheets away. He told my mother this when she went to pick up Emily's keys from him. For two days, until they determined there was no foul play, Emily's apartment was a crime scene. Now it just contained the belongings of a dead girl who we would never see again.
A week before Emily died, my mother tried to break my sister's lease. Through the hard work of an intermediary, Emily was accepted into special housing for disabled people. Although physically able to work, Emily used her mental illness - and frequent visits to psych wards at local podunk hospitals - as an excuse to stay home. Until six months ago, Emily had a regular job. And then she snapped. Instead of quitting her job, she checked herself into a hospital and had my mother 'quit' for her by proxy. My mother called the boss and told her that Emily would not be back.
Emily's apartment manager informed my mother that yes she could break the lease for $5000 -- approximately 4 months rent. My mother was prepared to pay it. The possibility of the special housing, which would give Emily access to regular mental health in-home visits, offered an opportunity that could help her learn to work with her illness. Emily had gone to - and quit- just about every program she started. She went to a lodge, a day program for mentally ill people, and complained that they were too sick, or were ogling her, or were harassing her, or were unfriendly. She went to group meetings but decided that everyone except her was a mess, or stupid, or useless, or that she was a better counselor than any of the counselors. Nothing was good enough. Maybe finally she had lucked into something good.
So there was reason for optimism. My mother was happy. I spoke to her on Friday and there was a song in her voice, the first time she seemed genuinely excited in months. My mother had become deeply depressed as Emily's illness worsened over the last six months. Next door neighbors who had been disturbing Emily because they had been "going at it" all day long turned out to be phantoms. Emily had caused a scene in the hallway of her building when she began screaming. She was unsafe, she had to get out. She was going to move home, something my mother adamantly refused. My mother had already given up ten years of her life to Emily; there was no way she was going to allow Emily to move home. She had been there for five years already, and had been pushy and demanding and difficult. She would stay up in her room and scream. She would howl for hours. It reminded me of Hitchcock's Rebecca -- the first wife, locked in an attic, wailing.
I didn't go home much during this period. I stopped attending family holidays. My presence and Amanda's presence seemed to bring out the worst in her. Whether real or imagined, Amanda and I...and my mother at times...were the enemies. Even my father, dead since '99, haunted Emily.
We thought the spirit world was giving Emily one more chance with the housing. We were wrong.
Four days before my mother found Emily's body, Emily visited her psychopharmacologist. She told him that she had run out of Lithium. She hadn't taken it in four days. Emily's last three hospitalizations occurred after she let her Lithium run out. She no longer had problems paying for Lithium - she was receiving free health insurance from the state and as a member of the lowest income level did not have to pay a penny for her health care, and only a few dollars for medication. She could have asked my mother to pick it up, but she didn't even bother to tell her that she had run out.
Two and a half days before my mother found Emily's body, Emily picked a fight with my mother. After agreeing to a holiday dinner - it would get Emily "outside [her] comfort zone", Emily demanded that my mother take her to dinner. My mother, a diabetic, told Emily that her suggestion, Pizza, would not work - My mother would go to the Thai restaurant, the Japanese restaurant, or the Chinese restaurant, but pizza and diabetes wouldn't work. Instead of talking it out, Emily barked at my mother and stormed off. This routine behavior was expected from Emily. Instead of reasoning it out with my mother, Emily took my mom's preferences as a hostile rejection, and she responded in a way that seemed equal to the offense.
Two nights later, Emily didn't show up for the dinner. My mother assumed, understandably, that Emily was blowing off the evening, as was her habit. Mom didn't realize it, but Emily was already dead.
I'm now an expert in managing death - unfortunately. In the last eight years I've lost three immediate family members - My father, my grandmother, and my sister. I've also lost a close friend, who died suddenly from a stroke. I'm not yet 40, and I feel that for a bourgeois child of privilege, I've lost more than my fair share of family and friends. I'm not sure if each death has made me a little colder, or less sensitive, or more isolated. My first thoughts upon learning of Emily's death were of shame -- would I ever find anyone interested in knowing a 'cursed' person like me? Would I be avoided at work? Would I be seen as bad luck? I didn't think immediately of the events that would necessarily follow - the funeral, the lows, my mother, alone finally. I thought of how others would see me. Would I go on dates and have to explain my situation. My mother asked me, "what should I say when people ask me how many children I have?" I wanted to know what I should say, too. Death makes people uncomfortable. I know this because every time I tell someone that my father has died, they apologize. Please don't apologize. It was a long time ago. Please don't look at me in the eyes with a look of understanding about my sister, my father. You won't see into my soul, I think. Rationally I know that it isn't wrong - connection making, apologies, empathy. But the gesture seems hollow, even when it isn't.
We picked out a pine casket. Emily made no plans for death, so we chose a simple linen shroud for her and a pine box with pine nails. The first casket we picked out couldn't accommodate Emily. "Your sister was a big girl," said the funeral direction, a euphemistic and transparent attempt to deflect our attention away from her weight and ungainly appearance. She was bloated from the twin scourges of years of medication that toyed with her metabolism and a cruel bloating that puffed her up after the last breath had escaped her body.
The coffin would be lowered into the ground in front of our friends, our family, proof that her lifeless body was inside and that she really was gone. "There's no viewing, right?" one of us asked. No, no viewing. Jews don't do that. And no embalming either. Even without the extras, her death would cost twice the price of breaking her lease. We would stand in the cemetery on a cold gray day and a rabbi who never met her would talk about her troubled life. Dropping out of college, her menial jobs, her frequent visits to hospitals. He would probably leave out the part about her visit to the hospital. And then friends would come back to the house.
After my father died, several dozen friends stopped by and paid their condolences. For Emily's funeral, friends were flying in from all over the country to show support for us. The loss of a parent is expected. The loss of a child is tragic.
I found many journals that Emily kept during her illness. They were distinguished from her pre-illness journals in that they were all written in open verse - and all were essentially about the same thing - her hatred of other people, and her rejection of them and herself. I found one journal from 1997, written about six months after her first 'psychotic break', which was uncharacteristically written in prose.
May 15, 1997
I HATE MYSELF AND I WANT TO DIE
I'm on the edge of suicide today. I want my forever today. I don't want to struggle anymore. I'm not strong enough to do this alone. I have no outlet for my pain.
"There's not enough room in this world for my pain."
I need to leave. I don't belong here. I just can't live in my world alone anymore. It doesn't work. I can't express in worlds how much pain I feel. All the meds in the world can't help them go away. They consume me. I remember when I was little I had an outfit with white sheep on it and one black sheep and I always remember connecting - feeling like I was the black sheep I have never in my life felt needed by anyone.
I am a super thinker - I have too many thoughts for my own good. It's like I developed my thinking abilities to overcompensate for the excess of emotions. It started in high school & continued up through freshman year of college. I am a sensitive person. With my history of the outside world hurting me.
1. Sisters manipulating me
4. School People
Sensitivity + outside world = overcompensated thinking
Too many overpowering emotions plus I never learned how to define them forced me to rationalize my emotions. And then push them to the unconscious.
On the morning of the funeral, Amanda, mom and I thought about what we were going to say. We already knew we needed to address Emily's illness - Emily was sick, and sickness is how she defined her life, and how she justified her actions and how she allowed herself to be unemployed. Amanda made notes on her computer, focusing on Emily's life before age 20 -- the happy years, as we saw it. Even though Emily's journals after 1996 focused on the negative aspects of her childhood and could only be described at 'revisionist history', as we saw it from the outside, she had a good life with my parents. She was treated well, even spoiled. She got everything she ever wanted. She was allowed to do things that Amanda and I were prohibited from doing - regular weekend trips to New York with her high school friends, where they bar hopped from underage-friendly spot to underage-friendly spot, without a lick of adult supervision. She kept journals about hooking up with boys, getting into fights with her friends, and smoking pot. By the time she was in college, she was smoking pot on a daily basis - a classic 'wake and bake' formula for getting through her college years. Later she would claim that the pot smoking calmed her racing thoughts. Maybe she was self-medicating. She was definitely trying to make her pain, awkwardness, and self-loathing go away. None of that would make it into the eulogy.
We drove to the cemetery. My friend Ed flew in from Chicago for the day to be with us and provide support. He drove my mother's car and escorted us to the grave site. The rabbi was there, as were my friends, Amanda's friends, and my Mom's friends. Emily did not have a single friend show up.
Her friends had melted away.
The rabbi spoke in generalities. Emily was a good person, who loved music.
In her files from her hospitalization at McLean, one of the doctors wrote that one of her roommates complained because she spent six hours standing at the window and singing to the street.
The rabbi said that she was a gymnast.
True. She was when she was 9.
The rabbi continued with prayers. The Hebrew seemed especially meaningful - she had been the only one of us to be Bat Mitzvah'd and the only one of us with a spiritual life of any kind. I had no idea what we were saying. Amen. Amen. I could say that with confidence. Amen, please let her rest.
And then Amanda stood up and addressed the gathered. Immediately she mentioned the illness, how Emily's life could be divided into before and after, and how she would focus on the before. She painted a picture of a lively, if bratty younger sister who was unselfconscious and uncomplicated. And then she talked about the last 10 years, Emily's struggle, her pain, her increasingly confused mental state, her abusiveness. I could hear people behind me, crying. I clasped my mothers hand. I wanted to turn around and see who was crying. I could hear people sobbing, loudly.
Dave Matthews was inside Emily's head. This is what she told the doctor at college after my mother finally her out of jail on a dark night in October 1996. She had been arrested for trespassing and disturbing the peace. She was 20, and her delusion came in the form of Dave Matthew's voice, a voice that told her that he loved her, and that he was Buddha and she was Jesus. He was going to marry her. She left the door of her apartment open so that he could come in when he arrived. Her roommate found the door unlocked - a risk in the dangerous neighborhood where they lived. After disappearing for two days - she claimed she abandoned her car and walked along the tarmac at the local airport, before heading downtown to a Hyatt hotel, eating breakfast, and running out on the bill - she went from room to room at the local Holiday Inn looking for Dave Matthews. She knocked on every door.
Back in Boston, we had no idea where she was. We didn't know she was delusional, we didn't know if she had been abducted. Slowly details came out. How Emily was acting weird. How Emily said she was going to start a cult and would her friends join her? She had written out Dave Matthews lyrics all over the house, and told her friends that his photo spoke to her. What she didn't tell them - and what we only found out later - is that her psychosis began with a realization. In a flash of light in the liminal period between wakefulness and sleep, she realized that she had been sexually abused. She had been graphically, hysterically, serially sexually abused.
By my father.
Back up a moment. There are a few things about my father that anyone who met him noticed. The first thing was that he could barely walk. After suffering from tuberculosis in his hip in the 1950s, he had received an early artificial hip that left him with one leg longer than the other. He never bothered to fix it as he was terrified of hospitals, having spent years of his life in one during his teens.
The other thing about my father was that he was physically unable to lift his bags. He traveled for his work, and always seemed to have someone carting around his bags for him. He was a physically weak man, despite his sizable girth.
And yet Emily claimed that for years he had put pills in her milk before bed - never mind that she didn't drink milk - and carried her to the basement. This was a physical impossibility for my father. Additionally, I was always the last one awake in my house - I knew what was going on at all hours, as I was studying all the time during my last few years of high school. He never came upstairs where we slept - the last time he did, I was probably 9 or 10 years old.
So her claim was a delusion too - one that would come back again and again every time she became psychotic. Her records from her hospitalizations and from her half-way houses and day programs all verify that only when she was experiencing her illness did she make this claim. Yet my father was destroyed by her pronouncement of his evil. My father was difficult, yes, but he was not a child sexual abuser. He withered in the days, months and years that followed, always trying to make things better for Emily. But only as he lay dying in a hospital bed, unable to speak, did she apologize to him. Her meds must have been working. She apologized for lying. She knew, when she was clear, that it was a story. Maybe it helped her rationalize her illness? Maybe it helped her justify her shame? I never knew.
Emily's apartment was big for a person with no income. Although only two rooms with a bathroom and a kitchenette, at nearly $1200 per month, it seemed excessive. Everything in the apartment was new - a new desk, new chairs, new sofa, new bed, new rugs, new wall art, and a new password-protected computer. There were bags of new things - she had been shopping at Ikea and at the Container Store in preparation for her move. New clothes hung in the closet, price tags still attached. She had been manic in the days preceding her death - she had racked up nearly $13,000 in credit card debt. Yet she was collecting food stamps and had applied for SSI - social security for people with disabilities who are unable to work.
The bathroom was blocked by a cat litter box. Emily had two cats - taken away by animal control after my mother found her body - and they had been fending for themselves in the days following Emily's death. My mother said the cats had been feeding freely from a bag of food. Their litter box hadn't been cleaned in well over a week. We moved it and its offending odor to the back porch.
There were no notes, no signs, no recent journals that could give us insight into what happened. Her pillows still had the indent of her head. "She looked like a parody of herself when I found her," my mother whispered. "Her lips were blue and her fingers were blue and her eyes were blue and closed." She paused. "She was bloated. I thought she was wearing purple lipstick at first. I will never get that image out of my head."
We still do not know how Emily died. The medical examiner told us it will take at least 12 weeks to get results from the fluid and tissue samples.
In her autopsy, nothing was out of place. Her organs looked good. They could tell us nothing.
We comfort ourselves now with uncertainty. Maybe she didn't kill herself, we tell ourselves. Maybe it was just an unfortunate side effect that no one could foresee.
Did we kill her? When Emily was little, maybe three or four, we used to tell her that we were calling the funny farm to take her away. One of us would shriek like a siren, and we would get on the phone and ask them to stop by our house and pick Emily up. She would scream and cry and tell on us. But she did end up in the funny farm. And I wonder, if we hadn't made the suggestion to her all those years ago, would we be where we are today?
You can make donations in Emily's name to:
MGH BIPOLAR CLINIC AND RESEARCH PROGRAM
c/o MGH DEVELOPMENT OFFICE
100 CHARLES RIVER PLAZA
BOSTON, MA 02114