He awoke in a black room, not knowing where he was or why he had woken up so suddenly.
His mind accelerated, making order of the maze of events, working backward to the phone call he received less than 24 hours ago. His breath caught in his throat and his stomach ached with dread.
He then remembered with terrible clarity where he was and why.
My Grandma Esther had sister named Betty. Being the much older sister, Grandma loved Betty as her own child and for all intents and purposes, raised her.
As a young woman, Aunt Betty married a man named Bob, and they settled in the Detroit area not far from my grandparents. Grandma Esther had since married and was raising two sons-- my Dad and his brother Bill.
Betty and my father weren’t far apart in age, and Dad was very close to Betty and Bob. After my parents met and became a serious item, the first family members to whom he introduced Mom were Betty and Bob.
I’ve asked my parents about Betty and what she was like as a person, as I barely remember her. I still have a stuffed animal that she gave me, which I loved. I remember Betty and Bob had clover in their front yard. I remember playing touch football with my cousin in their lawn. Most of all, I remember Betty being very sweet. Mom and Dad both describe her as very shy, sweet, soft-spoken. Betty and Bob shared many interests, most of all hunting, camping, and fishing together. Overall, Betty led a traditional life in that she was a wife, mother and homemaker.
As the years went on, Betty and Bob had a baby boy, and my parents had us three girls. About the time I was entering school, Bob was offered a good job in Indiana and much to Betty’s consternation, they moved away from Detroit, buying a house in Indiana. Betty’s family being her world, the move away from her sister and her family in Detroit was, in my parents’ view, the beginning of the end for her.
Mom and Dad have both told me that during our final trip to see Betty, Bob and my cousin, they didn’t notice a difference in Betty’s demeanor. She was as kind and sweet as she had always been. However, she was hiding a sadness that hounded her.
A few months following this visit, my uncle and cousin went to church. Betty normally accompanied them, but she begged off that day. After the service, Bob and my cousin came home, where Bob found Betty dead in the bedroom. She had shot herself with a .22.
The next day, we all drove to Indiana. I remember only snippets of that trip. We girls stayed at the neighbors’ house—the twins, Melody and Harmony (I kid you not)—which was exciting to The Redhead, The Brunette and me because the twins had canopy beds in which to sleep. The rest of my family stayed at Betty and Bob’s. I remember how sad everyone was, particularly my Grandmother. I remember being led up to Aunt Betty’s coffin by Uncle Bob’s sister (who was married to a mobster and had, according to another aunt, a ring with a diamond in it “as big as your fist”). She told me to touch Aunt Betty to say goodbye, and not to be afraid to do this. I did touch Betty’s hand and remember thinking that it did not feel like her skin, which I knew was soft and warm.
Over the years, Betty’s life and death have churned around in my mind, because I hate there isn’t an answer as to why she killed herself. I try to imagine the depths of agony that a person must be experiencing to commit suicide, how trapped a person in a situation must feel, that the only answer, the only relief from the poisonous, creeping, unrelenting thoughts, is death. The duplicity of her life strikes me-- this soft-spoken, feminine, thoughtful, sweet woman-- harbored another woman inside, a person who ended her life with such violence and finality.
Years later, I asked my father if Betty had left a suicide note and he said yes, but he had not read it. He said that Grandma had it, but oddly, he didn’t find the note among Grandma’s things after she died. I asked Mom if she knew the contents of the note, and she said no, but she did tell me that after Betty died, my father stopped speaking to Uncle Bob, as Dad thought that Betty had killed herself not only as a result of moving from her family in Michigan, but also because he thought Bob was having an affair. This idea does make a certain kind of sense, knowing the things that Betty held close to her heart. Actually, Bob did get married quite soon after Betty’s death, but this doesn’t prove anything.
I have a picture of my family taken on the day of Betty’s funeral. We are standing on the front porch of Betty’s house. My sisters, my cousin and I are in the center of this group of sixteen people. My sisters and I wear sweaters, tartan skirts and half-smiles, and our knee socks are pulled up over our skinny little legs. My cousin wears a black suit, probably bought for the occasion. His face is without expression. Grandma and Grandpa flank us girls, and Grandma’s arm encircles my right shoulder. My parents, my aunt and uncle, Bob’s sister and her husband, the mobster, are all there. The pain on Grandma’s and Dad’s face is plain, and his hand grips my sister’s shoulder.
Although he was wide awake, his wife slept deeply in the bed next to him. He felt the hair rise all over his body, as if a low electrical current was coursing through him. He knew someone else was in the room with them.
He saw a faint glow in the vanity area where Betty had died. In the gloom, a form took shape and it moved to the bedside where Dad lay. “Betty?” whispered Dad, as she leaned over to peer at him, staring, with no expression on her face. Silence, then she faded away.
Dad said years later, “I think she was saying goodbye."