Sunday mornings I drive to buy The New York Times. I could subscribe to it online or have it delivered, but I don’t. It’s a habit that goes back to my childhood when my father and I would go out for bagels and lox and the Sunday papers. In those days it was The Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Now I drive to the Ipswich River Store and the bagels have been replaced by a breakfast treat called a clamshell, whole wheat dough baked around a combination of scrambled egg whites and sautéed vegetables.
I’ve always loved the Sunday Times, especially the magazine, which I’d pull out and read first, kind of like eating dessert before dinner, but in the summer of 2007 my relationship with the magazine changed. After that, up until just few months ago, the first thing I would do is flip through the sections, pull out the magazine and set it aside. I’d skim the front page of the paper, read the Sunday Styles, followed by the Book Review, and the Arts and Entertainment section. Then I would finish my coffee and steel myself to face the magazine. I’d open to the inside front cover and my stomach would twist as I wondered, Will it be a single page, or a two page spread this week?
Week after week I confronted ads for luxury apartments for sale at the iconic midcentury modern Manhattan House on East 66th Street. They began running shortly after my uncle, a well known Madison Avenue antiques dealer, jumped to his death from the twenty-second floor of the building, just short of his ninetieth birthday. To say that his suicide was a shock is an understatement. Having to face advertisements for units in that building every Sunday was an ongoing perversity, profit and loss, made more ironic because I spent years designing similar ads for similarly luxurious apartments; some of them listed by the same agents who represented the Manhattan House.
Thankfully, as a result of the revitalized real estate market, the building has sold out and the ads are gone, enabling me to write this. Still the memory lingers. I’d look at the photographs and scrutinize them, trying to picture my elderly uncle climbing up onto the radiator and squeezing out one of the narrow windows, set above a row fixed panes. He was one of the last holdouts in the building, which had already gone condo. He left a will, which excluded my cousins and I from inheriting. I knew that years in advance. He had his reasons. We are all relatively well off. He had friends who weren’t and organizations he wanted to support, he said. That the organizations were the World Wildlife Fund and a Manhattan veterinary hospital came as a surprise. Pet-wise, he never owned one. That he left money to his longtime housekeeper and the home healthcare aide and bequeathed his computer to the doorman who helped him set it up and taught him how to use it, made me think well of him. He used the computer to buy books and videos online, but when I suggested we email each other he dismissed the idea.
Since my uncle’s death I’ve done a lot of thinking about the nature of suicide and in particular how it relates to my family. Some of my most vivid memories are of listening to my mother tell stories about her childhood. How my grandmother would threaten to kill herself by putting her head in the oven whenever she was angry at her or her siblings.
Did she set the seeds for suicide early in her children? She lived to be one hundred and five, still threatening suicide.
After she fell when she was ninety-six and it was clear that she could no longer live alone; she moved into a ritzy nursing home. My mother and uncle took her there. He had her room professionally decorated with the art and antiques she loved. They hired round the clock nurses to keep her company and still she was irate.
“I always expected this of you,” she railed at my mother. “But never of him.”
In our family there was always a hierarchy of love and my mother was at the bottom of the list. The least loved child, although she did the most for my grandmother. Partly because we lived the closest to her. Partly out of guilt for being the one who survived. A brother died of diphtheria before my mother was born and her younger sister was killed in a car crash when they were both young mothers. That tragedy placed my grandmother at the top of a flight of stairs, screaming down at my mother, “I wish it was you in the car, not her, not my Betty.” Another vivid childhood memory.
The day they installed her at the nursing home she threatened to take her life by jumping out the window in her room. As my mother watched in horror, my uncle walked over to the window, opened it and told her to jump. My mother said he was calm at first, seemingly trying to jolly her out of her mood and then he got louder and angrier, screaming at her, “Jump. Go ahead. You’ve been threatening us all these years. Jump!”
At that my grandmother calmly sat down on the bed, as my mother dragged my uncle from the room. Once they were out in the hall the absurdity set in. Her room was on the first floor. Mother said they suddenly saw the humor. There they were, both in their sixties, still letting their mother push their buttons. She laughed so hard she said she peed her pants.
If there was another suicide victim in the family it was my mother. Although she lived into her late seventies, she died, piece by piece, over the years. A botched operation in her late thirties led to the loss of most of her hearing by the time she was fifty. In her early seventies, macular degeneration, robbed her of her eyesight. The last twenty years of her life were sad and lonely and in the end, she committed suicide, too. Death by neglect. Her own. When she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, not surprising because she chain smoked, I discovered she hadn’t been to a doctor in years. I had written off her increasing reclusiveness to her loss of vision and hearing. The truth was that she was sick. She refused all treatment. Told my father to take her clothes home, that she intended to die in a hospital bed, and she did, just a few months after burying her mother. One of my cousins said it felt as though our grandmother had reached up out of her grave and pulled mother in with her. After she died and my father moved to Florida, my uncle was more interested in what the art and antiques he’d acquired for my grandmother and parents over the years would bring at auction than the loss of his mother and sister, which is probably unfair of me. We all needed our distractions. When I suggested that she had killed herself, he laughed at me, and gave me one of his, oh Joan, don’t be ridiculous looks.
My uncle was always quirky. Still elegant the last time I saw him in the months before he jumped. Gay. Closeted. Whether he was out to his numerous disparate groups of friends, I never knew. He must have been. There were men “friends.” One, a Portuguese antiques dealer, lived with him for awhile. He brought him to my parent’s house in Philadelphia for Sunday dinners. I was in college then and my mother kept writing about him. How charming he was. And well to do. Wanting me to meet him when I came home for Christmas vacation because he was single. That my mother could be that dense still astounds me.
In our family, my parents never discussed or suggested his sexual orientation. It wasn’t until my cousins and I were adults that we talked about what we all saw so clearly and accepted from the time we were very young. And we admired him fiercely and feared him. He was the measure against which our good looks, intelligence and accomplishments, or lack of, were weighed. He was famous. His apartment in the Manhattan House was photographed for Architectural Digest by Horst. How could we ever compete with that? We knew him. And knew nothing about him. His executor, a longtime interior decorator friend, didn’t know many of the people to whom my uncle made bequests of art and antiques. He also didn’t know that shortly before 9/11 he’d been treated for colon cancer and wore a colostomy bag. None of us knew that. He complained to me of bone spurs in his feet, said that was why he started having a home healthcare aide come in a couple of days a week. When the executor called to give me that news he preceded the conversation with, “You might want to be sitting down when I tell you this. I am.”
After that bit of news, that my uncle committed suicide was less of a shock than the way he killed himself. He was meticulous. Still tall, not stooped or shuffling the last time I saw him. Still full of wry cutting humor that could make me feel bright and beautiful or leave me cringing, wanting to crawl out the door. Plunging from a window twenty-two stories down, into a public courtyard, to make such a mess, was too odd and undignified. Definitely not his style. But then who knows what goes on in the aging brain? That both the housekeeper and the aide where in the apartment was even odder. That morning he complained about how one of the living room curtains was hung. After the housekeeper fussed with it, he still wasn’t satisfied. He told her to open the window and sent her into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea. He ordered the aide into one of the bedrooms to fetch something. They came back to find the living room empty, his shoes neatly aligned in front of the radiator under the open window. They tried to convince themselves that he had attempted to readjust the curtain himself and had fallen out of the window, which was, of course, impossible. The window was too small to fall out of without deliberately lifting one leg out followed by the rest of his body.
In the weeks that followed my lawyer daughter reviewed the will and declared it ironclad. I didn’t want money. I wanted answers. I could understand if he’d hoarded pills or stuck his head in the oven. But splattering himself in a courtyard frequented by people he knew? Never.
What I eventually learned is this. All suicides are investigated by the NYPD. The detective was full of facts. Suicide by the elderly is really quite common, mostly by people who are ill or alone or out of money or hope. Very unusual on the Upper East Side, especially when there are other people present. But then there were the facts that came out in more detail. That morning my uncle asked his housekeeper to bring him a photo from when he was in the navy, a formal portrait taken by the celebrity photographer, Fabian Bachrach, in the 1940s. I have a copy of it. My uncle is in a seaman’s uniform, crisp white trousers, sailor shirt and hat. He is darkly handsome. The photo was found torn up, the pieces scattered on the floor and sofa.
It still sounded fishy to me. Was there a conspiracy? The real estate developers wanted him to buy or get out. Did the housekeeper and the aide know they stood to inherit? Did someone “help” him out the window? The plot of a cheesy Law & Order episode formed in my distraught mind. I imagined the developer, conferring with the housekeeper, the aide, and the doorman, all dressed in their uniforms, plotting my uncle’s demise, carrying him, struggling, to the window. Lifting him. Hurling him. Head first. When I spilled my spiraling theories, the detective listened thoughtfully. There was a pause in which I could feel him weighing what to say next. I like to think he wanted to allay my fears but he may just have wanted to get rid of me. “I assure you,” he said. “Our investigation was thorough. We followed the paper trail.”
In the preceding weeks my uncle had put all of his affairs in order. He rewrote his will to include a couple of other bequests, and to admonish everyone not to celebrate his death in any way: no religious service, no memorial dinner or luncheon. He specified that his name was not to be used as provenance for anything of his that went to auction. His bills were paid. And there was something else, the most telling of all that almost always takes place in what the detective referred to as “these situations.” A few days before he jumped, he cancelled all of his newspaper and magazine subscriptions, including The New York Times.
There’s been a lot of buzz about Zeke Emanuel’s article in The Atlantic in which he professes not want to live past seventy-five. At fifty-seven he has eighteen years left, which probably sound’s like a long time to him before he stops taking any kind of steps to prolong his life, if he actually follows through.
At sixty-nine I keep thinking about all the things I still want to write. I want to travel. I want to see my grandchildren grow into adulthood. If I follow my mother, that gives me just seven more years. Just one more year than Dr. Emanuel says ends the kind of life he wants to lead. If I follow my uncle, I’ll have twenty. And if I live as long as my grandmother, thirty-six.
The last time my cousin and I visited my uncle we teased him when he complained about getting old.
“Better get used to it,” we said. “Nana lived to be a hundred and five.”
That, I’ve come to believe, is what scared him to death. …..
Do I want to live to be that old? I don’t think so, but if I make it to ninety-nine I may think differently, six more years doesn’t sound like a very long time and it may seem even shorter when you’re ninety-nine.
I’d like to believe that my family history is more cautionary than instructional, but if life conspires to make me decide to pick my time to go, it certainly won’t be by jumping out a window, which was so inconsiderate and much too messy. But maybe that was the point. Maybe my uncle’s last act was do something so out of character that those of us who knew him a little are left wondering if we ever knew him at all.
Joan Wilking’s short fiction has been published in The Atlantic, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Barcelona Review, Other Voices, The Mississippi Review, Ascent, The MacGuffin, Hobart, The Huffington Post, The Santa Fe Writer’s Project Journal and many other literary magazines and anthologies online and in print. She has been a finalist more times than she cares to admit in Glimmertrain’s various contests. Her story, Deer Season, was an award winning finalist for the 2010 Nelson Algren Short Story Competition of the Chicago Tribune. Her story, What Blixie Bimber Taught the Potato Face Blind Man is in the current issue of Ascent. Joan’s essay, Too Soon, is in the May 2014 issue of Brevity.