Never did we think my autistic brother, David, would end his own life. We knew he was supremely unhappy but we hardly thought “suicide” was in his vocabulary. Mom and I were shopping for fabric in the small town of Broadaxe, just beyond a stone railway bridge, half an hour away from the house where my widowed mother lived with David and my sister Ellen.
It was a steaming hot day in July, the day before Independence Day. It was also the month when my father died eight years earlier on July 13. Mom had her yahrzeit candle lit in her sunny kitchen with spider plants dangling from the windows. The candle would sputter out after twenty-four hours, just as my dad’s life did on that unforgettable day in 1980. I too got the notice from the funeral home but always ripped it up and threw it in the trash. I couldn’t bear that “Daddy” had left us at age 59 from a brain tumor.
We took Mom’s brown Oldsmobile as it was larger than mine and could hold the bolts of fabric we would choose to reupholster my very long living room couch. It was a sky-blue and like most other items in my house had once belonged to mother. I was fairly penniless but didn’t give a good goddamn. My mom was a generous woman.
Cruising effortlessly, I pulled into the large parking lot as mom had directed me.
“There’s a spot up there,” she pointed. I parked in a spot of my own choosing.
The moment we entered the bright fluorescent-lit fabric store, with homemade quilts lining the walls, we heard the phone ring. For some unknown reason, I thought the call was for us. I looked at my mom, a short plump woman about my size, with a huge mound of brown hair-sprayed tresses in a high bouffant. She was looking around and walking toward the rolls of fabric. This was her favorite fabric store. She was a gifted upholsterer and though she complained about how slow she was, she had refurbished, among dozens of other items, her Grandma Zali’s rocking chair. The wooden rocker must date back to the late 1800s.
We heard the crackle of the P.A. system coming on and then a tapping on the microphone.
“Is Mrs. Greenwold here?” asked the female voice. “Mrs. Bernice Greenwold?”
My immediate thought was of my sister Donna. She was always getting into trouble.
Mom took the phone and listened intently, staring down at the speckled brown linoleum floor. My sister Ellen was on the other end.
“Ellen,” she said in her firm voice, “call the police. The number is right there on the telephone.”
She hung up, thanked the woman and walked quickly toward the door. I followed, looking back longingly at the large wooden cutting tables where the fabric would be stretched and cut to size, knowing that my living room couch might have to wait a day or two before being recovered.
Mom told me what Ellen had said over the phone. It was not good news. I drove as fast as I could.
When we pulled into the drive, I stopped the brown Olds near the walkway into the house. Ellen bounded out the front door. Her pale blond hair was frizzy from the heat and her eyes were wide open with fright.
“Mom,” she said, as we walked into the house and stood inside the plant-filled hallway. I stared at a drooping philodendron.
Ellen’s voice was trembling. “I was downstairs in the kitchen eating some of your chocolate chips when I heard a crash in David’s bedroom. Like a dummy, I just stood there. I didn’t even go in.”
I looked at my mom.
“Then I called him, David, I mean, and he didn’t answer.”
“Finally I went up. His door was locked. That’s when I called you.”
“So,” I said. “The cops came out?”
“Yes, three of them. I recognized two of them from when they carried Daddy downstairs into the family room so he could lie in the hospital bed.”
A red ambulance had also pulled into the driveway, she told us, the same time as the police officers.
She explained they broke into David’s room, she was behind them, watching, and saw David lying on the floor next to his bed.
She saw that our little brother, the youngest of six, was not moving. Dressed in shorts and a striped shirt and barefoot, he was placed on a stretcher and carried out the front door.
Ellen reiterated she had last seen David in the kitchen. She was munching on chocolate chips and putting an English muffin in the toaster-oven when he came in. She looked his way, but, characteristically, he avoided looking at her. He went to the fridge and poured himself a glass of Tropicana orange juice.
“He took it to his bedroom,” she said breathlessly, “and that was the last time I saw him.”
Poor Ellen. She was wringing her hands and then plucking at her hair.
“I’ll never forget the sound of that thud,” she continued. “I hope to God he’s okay.”
“I’m sure he is,” said my mother. “Let’s go.”
As we walked back to the car, I thought briefly about my kids and their whereabouts. Sarah and was thirteen and Daniel, eleven. It was a Friday and Sarah would stay after school at her drama club and get a ride home. Dan would be over his best friend Mark’s with a bunch of their friends. They should both be fine.
We sped down Huntingdon Pike, as the hot July afternoon sun blazed onto our dark car.
“Put the A/C on,” said Ellen, from the back seat.
“You know I don’t like air-conditioning,” I said. “I’m the driver. Open your window.”
They were expecting us in the ER and put us in a small windowless room with a couch and some chairs. A crucifix hung on the wall. Reassuring if you were Catholic, this, after all, was Holy Redeemer Hospital, with an enormous Christ figure on the front lawn. Daddy had loved this particular Christ figure. He was a lover of many things, including certain sculptures of Christ, though he never believed in God. Of the five Greenwold girls – Ruth, Donna, Ellen, Lynn and Amy – only Donna believed there was a God.
A nurse, wearing all white, came in and told us what had happened. David had taken an overdose of medication and was unconscious. The doctors were working on him right now. I could tell by the way she talked that my brother was already dead. I loved him very much but I wished he would die. He had a horrible life. A horrible lonely life. With his autism – we weren’t familiar with that word at the time, but it was clear, in retrospect, he bore that diagnosis – he looked at the ground when he walked, never engaged in eye contact, and rarely spoke. As a kid, he had twirled – “Look,” we used to say in amazement, “David’s twirling.” He worked in a sheltered workshop pouring lugnuts into baggies. I often drove him to work. He sat in the front seat, always tilting his body away from me. How rejected I felt! And how utterly sad.
One day, when Ellen came out of the house to get the mail, someone had written the word “SPAS” on the white mailbox. Had my little brother seen it?
In the tiny room at Holy Redeemer, Mom and Ellen twisted around uncomfortably on the sofa, while I paced back and forth in the hallway. It was quiet. Periodically I’d go back into the room. A huge clock on the wall was ticking ominously.
“I let him die,” said Ellen. “I know that.”
“Be quiet,” said my mother.
My sister also believed she had killed my father. Three police officers had lifted my father, his brain cancer had left him immobile, from his side of the bed he shared with mom, put him in a straight chair, he was skin and bones by then, and carried him down two flights of stairs into the family room. I was there and watched in astonishment as my father clapped his hands and laughed in amusement as they carried him. The tumor had altered his personality. In an unforgettable moment, he had told me to bring over a hammer and knock the tumor out of his brain. He was quite bald now from the radiation and there was nothing more that could be done for him. With a plunk, they laid him down into the rented hospital bed, right next to the stone fireplace, and in front of his bookshelves. He had stamped his books “Ex libris Harold Greenwold.” I had read every one of them over the years, feeling embarrassed that he liked sexy books like “The Dream Merchants” by Harold Robbins.
Two months later he was dead. The whole family was there. Ellen and Mom alternated in turning him over every hour so he wouldn’t get bedsores. My kids, Sarah and Dan, then six and four, were playing upstairs when I met Ellen on the stairway.
“Daddy’s dead,” she whispered. “I killed him. I turned him over and realized he wasn’t moving.”
Quickly I calculated his day of death. July 13, 1974.
“Whatever you do,” I said. “Don’t call an ambulance. There’s nothing more that can be done for Daddy.”
It would be just like Ellen or my mom to try and revive this terminally ill man who had asked me, “How long will this go on?”
And now, Ellen had “killed” David, because she delayed calling the police. I think unconsciously we all wanted David dead except for my mother. She had an unconscionable way of telling him every little thing to do, as if he were a dumb animal who needed constant prodding. It was maddening, but I couldn’t stop her, try as I may.
“David, hold the egg-beater straight, you’re getting egg all over the counter.”
Once, he was weeding the lawn and she yelled at him for pulling out flower stems that couldn’t be distinguished from weeds.
David, I am so sorry. So very sorry.
A million thoughts ran through my mind as I waited for the life or death verdict at Holy Redeemer. Then came the rapid sound of feet walking purposefully down the hallway. Feet. Plural. The white-robed doctor walked in this time with the nurse. Their faces told the story. My little brother was dead. He was twenty-seven years old. We were all invited into the small room to say our last goodbyes.
His face was yellow. Like wax. Wearing a blue hospital gown, David, who was born when I was fifteen years old and Mom was forty, stared straight at the ceiling, eyes closed. Blackheads were waiting to be popped on his forehead and on his chin. Blackheads amidst the light stubble on his face. He was indeed a man. He used Clearasil every day. He did back exercises on a daily basis for his scoliosis. He was as regimented and disciplined as my late father had been.
The doctor asked mom about organ donations. We were pretty much aghast at this, but then we understood. David was no more, his organs remained alive and could be used to save people who were near death. Mom made the decisions. Take his corneas and take his skin for fire victims, but leave the organs intact. Little did we know that exactly thirty-one years later, my daughter Sarah, then six, would donate her left kidney to me, when I lost kidney function from taking the bipolar drug lithium for sixteen years.
The funeral was held in Cleveland, our ancestral home. After we’d gotten home, I was at Mom’s house when the door bell chimed. I answered it and invited the police officer inside the hallway. Mom came to the door, but we never asked him to come inside and sit at the comfortable kitchen table with long benches.
“Suicide,” was his conclusion. David had taken 60 pills of his antidepressant Elavil, downing it with his favorite drink, Tropicana orange juice, poured from the carton in the fridge.
Mom would have none of it. “It was an accident,” she argued with the man. “He didn’t know what he was doing. He’s not quite right in the head and must have forgotten that he’d already taken the pills.”
And forgotten and forgotten and forgotten twenty times over.
I had a different philosophy. I was proud of my little brother. He was in misery, so for the first time in all his years he took charge of his life. I hope he enjoyed the last few moments of his existence, knowing he would soon be free as the white clouds meandering across the sky.
David had an interior life. He shared it with no one. Not one single person knew my brother. Can you imagine living for twenty-seven years entombed in loneliness?
There was one other occasion he freed himself from the tyranny of my mother and the limitations of his mind. And make no mistake about it, our David knew he was different. Mom had bought him a beautiful blue Schwinn bicycle which sat in the bike rack in the oily-smelling garage with grease pockmarks on the cement. We learned that in the middle of the night, David would ride his bicycle far from home, down some dimly lit streets, steering perhaps by the stars and enjoying the breeze on his thick brown hair and across his face, while the moonbeams shone down on him, caressing and loving my little brother. We learned of his spectacular derring-do when he was delivered home one night at three in the morning by the police. Mother was appalled. I was thrilled. And glad I wasn’t home to hear her chastise her sheltered son.
Mom is now ninety-two years old. Her hair-sprayed brown bouffant is now thin white hair that falls without enthusiasm to her shoulders. Her bossiness and sense of humor are intact. Her bad legs have her staying in the bed she once shared with my dad. Over the white headboard hangs a huge print of Monet’s poppy fields. She’s an art lover. She had given David art lessons and music lessons with Mrs. Jane Tamaccio, who loved our David like one of her own. She was a pioneer in the treatment of the developmentally disabled. We had no idea until we read it in her obituary.
I visit Mom once a week. She’s downsizing her six-bedroom house in case she dies. Our visits convene at the long Shaker-style table in the kitchen, where she sits at the end amidst the papers she is trying to throw away. It is a farce. The woman can’t part with a thing.
Spider plants still dangle at the sunny window. She laboriously waters them, shuffling over on her “bad” legs.
She sits at the head of the table, noshing on Nestle chocolate chips from the yellow package that rustles when she dips her tiny arthritic fingers inside and pops them joyfully into her mouth.
One day, as we sat at the table, she surprised me.
“I want you to have this,” Mom said.
She pushed a soft green photo album over to me.
“David’s photo album,” I said in a whisper.
“Yes. I want you to have it, Ruth.”
I took the photo album home, home to the yellow house my mom had bought me and where Sarah and Dan had lived as teenagers until they went to college and later, created homes and families of their own.
Clasping the photo album with both hands, caressing it as I walked in the door of my yellow house, I sat with it on my red living room couch, as if it were a Christmas gift I was forbidden to open. Walking into the kitchen, I put a glass under the water dispenser of the fridge and imagined that instead of cold water it was the Tropicana orange juice David had loved. As a young child, before he stopped speaking at age seven, he called orange juice “gree.” He also called me “Ree-row” a nickname that has stuck to this day in our family.
Sipping on the cold water – deep emotions make me thirsty – I walked downstairs into the pink-carpeted lower level of my house and removed a framed picture of David from the book shelf, where I’d hidden it. I walked back upstairs to the living room and placed it prominently on a coffee table, next to a photo of my son Dan, his wife Nicole, and their baby Grace Catherine with the face of a merry leprechaun.
There sat David in his rightful place. A part of the family he so loved. In the black and white photo, he sat on mom’s back porch, wearing the green striped Izod shirt he had picked out himself – he loved stripes just as I do – shorts which showed his muscular calves like Dad’s and his four sisters – and his large black Nikon camera he used with perfection.
Nothing escaped David’s eye. He began with Polaroids. Dad had given him the original Polaroid camera where you peeled off the photo after sixty seconds and then rolled on an antiseptic-smelling layer of gel that preserved the colors. With his nimble fingers that learned to play the piano from Mrs. Jane Tamaccio, he would mount each photo in an ever-increasing number of photo albums.
Alone now unto death in my three-bedroom house, David’s photos currently sleep with me on what I call “the husband’s side of the bed.” He is lonesome no more. Beside him is a huge pile of books, a green tube of body lotion, a lavender-colored handkerchief I fashioned out of an old blouse, and the television remote that gets buried in my white down comforter and the furry tiger blanket on top, which once covered my father while he lay dying.
David spoke with his camera. Every family event was recorded. It took me several months to summon the courage to open the album. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked myself. Once inside I eagerly, hungrily, viewed life as best I could from David’s point of view. There were so many Davids inside the man. Yet, his blue Schwinn bike, the spinet piano on which he played Mozart sonatas, and his colorful sheet music are nowhere to be found. Nor can we find the deep red and purple Persian carpet in his bedroom where he did his back exercises for his scoliosis and where he dropped after the overdose. He was a lover of beauty. I have inherited the colorful ceramic bird house he made at school, thanks to Mom. It sits on my living room window sill. Sunshine bathes everything during the day and when the stars polka-dot the sky at night, an eerie whiteness shines on every meaningful item in the recessed window sill – Valentine red daises from my boyfriend, my sister Donna’s clay vases and bowls, a small royal-blue ceramic ashtray my mother parted with – all surrounding David’s bird house.
In a calendar, I found a photo of a wise old owl and taped it onto the entrance way of David’s gold, orange, lime-green and red bird house. It shines in the sunlight. And glows in the moon light.
It wasn’t until my mid-sixties that I began to polish my finger nails. Red, pink, silver, lavender, green and yellow.
“What do you think, Davy, my boy?” I ask when I see him in the photo. I speak to him frequently. And imagine he answers me. But never in words.
Dad’s favorite expression was, “Life is a mystery.”
I feel your presence, David Richard Greenwold, buried four-hundred thirty miles away at Zion Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. We are together again when I open your soft green photo album. There is your neat left-handed scrawl labeling every single picture with the exact date it was taken: Gramma Lily in Miami – Uncle Marvin and Aunt Selma visiting – my son Danny in his fireman’s hat. It is good to be together again. Ruth and David. David and Ruth. Like in the Bible. Until the end of our days.
About the Author
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Award for Creative Nonfiction, has been published in Haggard and Halloo, Creative Nonfiction and her work will soon appear in Raphael’s Village and Metazen. She lives in Willow Grove, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. A mental health advocate, she runs New Directionss Support Group for people with mood disorders and their loved ones www.newdirectionssupport.org. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com