Pilgrimage to the Site of My Mother’s Suicide

Mom died in a random parking garage. I didn't know why, but I had to see it.

Pilgrimage to the Site of My Mother’s Suicide

I find myself with five luxurious, uninterrupted hours after I drop my 18-year-old daughter off at a television taping in Van Nuys, my three-year-old son home with my husband over an hour away. I am not used to having so much time to myself; the swath of it stretched before me almost makes me dizzy. I’ve brought my laptop; I want to find a place to sit and write – specifically, to write about my mom, who hanged herself one week after I gave birth to Asher. I know writing is the best chance I have to make any sort of sense out of her suicide – writing has always been the way I’ve been best able to make sense of my life – but it’s been hard to let myself get as close to her death as I know I need to. It’s felt too scary, too raw, too soon. But it also feels urgent to me now. Desperately so. Maybe this extra time will give me the chance to dig deep.

I zero in on a teahouse with great reviews on Yelp, but when I pass the address, I realize the shop’s inside a big mall and I’ve missed the entrance for the parking garage. After I round the corner to find another way inside, I wind up in the lane that pours onto the freeway. Something in me rises up and says, Maybe I’m not supposed to go to the tea place. Maybe I’m supposed to get on the freeway and drive to South Pasadena; maybe I’m supposed to visit Golden Oaks. The thought makes my blood sputter, but it also feels clear and whole and true. Writing can wait. I know exactly where I need to go.

For a while, I had only known my mom had hanged herself in a random parking garage in South Pasadena; I hadn’t known what sort of building the garage had been attached to – medical offices, a restaurant – until I received her death certificate in the mail and plugged the address on the form into Google. It turned out the garage was below a luxury apartment building named Golden Oaks, a name that seemed strangely fitting. My mom had developed a delusional disorder 16 years before her death, and believed my dad was hiding millions of dollars from the family. She had been on an obsessive quest for this treasure over those 16 years, hiring one lawyer after another, driving long distances to confront people she thought were in cahoots with my dad. She had wanted to find something golden; perhaps she saw the name on the building as some sort of sign, the X on her treasure map.

I’ve considered a pilgrimage to Golden Oaks many times – on my way home from readings, on my way to museums; any time, really, I drive near Pasadena – I’ve wanted to see this place where she ended her life to feel more connected with the moment of her death, but it’s never felt like the right moment. Today is different. I don’t have to be anywhere for hours. I am alone. Plus, it’s August 30th, 33 months to the day we got word of her death. This feels significant; 33 was my favorite number for years. As much as I hated 333 Hibbard Road, my family home when I was a teenager, the house where our family started to fall apart, I loved all the 3s. And I’m starting out in Van Nuys, home of the police station that first dealt with my mom’s missing person’s case after she had torn out her IVs and absconded from the hospital she had taken herself to, thinking she was having a heart attack. She ran away when she believed a couple from across the hall was spraying her with poison from their cell phones.

I pull onto the eastbound 101, follow it onto the 134, tap the address for the Golden Oaks Apartments into my phone for directions when traffic comes to a stall.

Can I do this? I keep asking myself. Am I up to this? Nothing in me says No, at least not too loudly, at least not louder than the part that says Yes, so I keep moving forward.

I drive past Suicide Bridge, a gorgeous old span of Beaux Arts arches that curves by the freeway in Pasadena. Its official name is the Colorado Street Bridge, but dozens of people have jumped from it since it was built in 1912 – the majority during the Depression years. A suicide barrier was eventually erected, but the nickname stuck. I wonder how many survivors have journeyed to its concrete pillars, how many have stood under the globe lights, pressed themselves against the railing and imagined their loved ones hurtling themselves over the edge.

I should buy some flowers, I decide. An offering. A bit of beauty to leave behind.

My heart starts to pound as my exit comes into view. I keep my eye out for a florist as I drive down Fair Oaks with no luck; then I see a nursery, a lovely urban jungle, and make a quick left turn. The day is hot, the scent of vegetation thick in the air. I wander amongst the rows of plants, hoping the riot of life will fortify me for where I’m about to go.

Remember this, I tell myself. Remember this green.

Dark purple grapes drip from an arbor; I make sure nobody’s watching, then pick one and pop it into my mouth as I walk, the bitterness of its skin giving way to a flood of sweet. Remember this, too, I tell myself.

I finally find the section with roses, my eye trained for yellow, my mom’s favorite. I spy a bush full of sunny fist-sized blossoms, but when I try to pick it up, the large plastic pot won’t move – the roots have anchored themselves into the soil below. A couple of rows down, I find a smaller bush with one perfect yellow rose rising from it like a torch. I picture clipping that rose and leaving it on the floor of the Golden Oaks parking garage, planting the bush at home later as a living memorial for my mom. Then I remember my lousy track record with plants; I know watching this one die will fill me with guilt. I decide to leave a note with the pot and hope some resident will find it and choose to care for it.

The tag lashed to the bush says these roses are heirloom – a word that somehow feels appropriate – but it also says they are magenta, not yellow. I wonder aloud if the roses will somehow deepen into red as they grow, but the guy at the counter takes a look and says, “This is wrong.” He strokes his lip in thought. “I don’t think they’re Julia Childs,” he says, and I have a sudden memory of my mom doing her Julia Child impersonation. “Skim the scum,” she would trill, her favorite line from “The French Chef,” taken from an episode where Julia makes chicken stock. The man walks across the room, grabs a book of yellow rose varietals, and brings it back to the counter. I crane my head to read all the names beneath bright photos of roses as he flips through the pages, saying, “Not this, not this, not this” – names like Buttercream and Michelangelo and Easy Going. I find myself hoping the rose I picked will have one of the names related to gold – Gold Medal, Midas Touch, even Ch-Ching – so it will resonate with Golden Oaks, with my mom’s quest for gold, but the guy isn’t aware of my desire for narrative cohesion. “Sun Flare,” he says, tapping the page. “I think it’s Sun Flare.”

The Sun Flare sits on the seat next to me in the car, the single rose bobbing like it’s listening to music, or maybe davening in Jewish prayer. I cut though a residential area filled with storybook houses, and turn right onto El Centro, the street listed on the death certificate. My own center is buzzing. Can I do this? I can do this. Can I do this? I drive past a park with a Mediterranean-style recreation center across the street from an old school district building with an arched walkway. The neighborhood is tree-lined, friendly looking, and this gives me some comfort. The road is closed up ahead, though, right where the address should be, and I feel a surge of panic, imagining a police blockade. Did they block off the street when they took my mom’s body away? Has it been closed all this time? It takes me a moment to realize there’s a farmers’ market behind the barricades. A farmers’ market directly in front of Golden Oaks. I can’t help but smile; I was expecting to confront my mom’s death here in a somber, private way, no one around to intrude on my important moment, but life greets me here in abundance. Heaps of fruit gleam inside the bustling stalls. I park across the street and scoop the Sun Flare from the passenger seat. I’m a little shaky, but also strangely calm underneath, the sort of calm that washes through me when I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.

A flower stand is set right in front of the entrance to the building; I could have bought a bouquet for my mom on site. My heart sinks a bit to see that behind the buckets of gladiolas and Gerber daisies, Golden Oaks is not as luxurious as I had imagined. It has more of a Residence Inn vibe than any sort of Ritz-Carlton poshness. The walls are painted a brownish stucco, the fencing a stark white metal. The dated sign at the corner says “Welcome Home,” words that echo inside my ribcage, horrible and sweet. The sign also reminds me Golden Oaks is a senior living community, a fact I had somehow forgotten. I wonder if my dad would ever consider living here, if it would help him feel closer to my mom. He’s often said that he never wants to go anywhere near Los Angeles again, but recently decided to “get over himself” so he could consider going to my cousin’s upcoming wedding in Pasadena, not far from here.

I lug the Sun Flare around the entire block-long perimeter of the building, squeezing through the barricades that cut off access to the alley where bakery stand workers smoke on their break, before I find the entrance to the parking garage. The long sliding gate is locked. I tug at its white metal bars but it only moves a smidgen, clanging against its frame. How did my mom get inside? I look down the ramp into the dim garage. The last place my mom ever walked. Was she running, frantic, as she made her descent? Did she know what she was about to do?

I don’t know what to do, myself. I consider leaving the Sun Flare next to the gate, whispering a blessing through the bars, but this doesn’t feel like enough. I find myself on auto-pilot, walking back to the front of the building, traveling up the half-circle driveway that reminds me of the curved driveway in front of my childhood apartment building, the driveway where my sister and I performed “Annie” on roller skates for our neighbors. I never imagined I would go into the building itself, but here I am. The glass door says “Push,” but when I do, nothing happens. I peer inside; the place looks dishearteningly institutional, but there’s a nice sitting room across the foyer, filled with model-home-style furniture my mom would like.

“Want me to punch in the code?” an older woman sitting on a bench by the entrance asks.

“That would be great, thank you,” I tell her; she smiles and heads to the keypad. I probably look like I’m here to visit my grandmother, give her some roses for her balcony; for a split second, I let myself believe that’s what I’m about to do, even though I haven’t had a grandparent since I was six.

I thank the woman again as the door unlocks and wonder if she knows about my mom. How would her expression change if she knew who I was, why I was there?

The entrance is a big open foyer, like something in a hospital or office building. A white board on the wall advertises the movie they’re showing to residents that night: “The Perfect Family.” A hard little laugh explodes in my chest.

I turn the corner and enter the open door of the office. A woman is sitting at a desk by the window, the only source of light in the dim room. I have no idea what to say.

“I’m here for sort of a strange reason,” I begin as I walk toward her, and then I start to cry. I hadn’t known the tears were coming, but of course they were there, waiting for the right moment. The woman stands up from her desk. She is Asian, middle-aged, a bit tired-looking, washed out like her gray t-shirt.

“My mother took her own life in this building almost three years ago,” I say.

“I wasn’t here,” she says curtly, and I immediately wish I hadn’t come inside, hadn’t said a thing. Then her face softens; she says, “I was on vacation in Chicago” and something in me softens, too. Chicago, where my mom was born. Where I was born. “I got a call from police; they told me a resident hanged herself.”

“She wasn’t a resident,” I say, but of course she knows this. She comes up to me and gives me a hug, a slightly stiff hug, like the kind my mom would often give me. It feels both wonderful and frustrating all at once – like my mom’s hugs.

She laughs nervously as she pulls away, then says, “I got your e-mail.”

I had sent an e-mail over a year ago through the Golden Oaks website, introducing myself and asking how my mom’s death had affected the community. No one ever wrote back.

“You’re a writer, right, and you live in Riverside?” I nod, feeling strangely exposed.

“I didn’t know what to tell you,” she says. “The residents here were scared. They thought she was homeless. They didn’t feel safe.” I am suddenly hungry to hear her story. Every nerve in my body is primed for it. I have been so stuck in my own version of my mom’s death; the prospect of hearing another angle opens new space inside me.

“But I tell them no, she was an elegant lady, with a scarf, and a family.” She sweeps her hand down her body, as if showing off a magnificent shawl. “And they tell me their hearts hurt for her. For you.”

I nod, tears streaming down my face. Nodding seems to be all I can do.

“I light a candle for her there,” she says. “For her peace.”

“Wow,” I say, still nodding, my hand now on my chest. “Thank you.”

“The landlords, they’re Chinese,” she says, and I wonder if her family is Chinese, as well. “They brought in a Buddhist master. I don’t believe it, but they wanted him to clear the space.”

All of this, the candle, the Buddhist master, feels like food, the way my body is taking it in. I can almost feel my blood-sugar spike. I need this. I need this story.

“He told them the light led her here,” she says. “Not like lights, but light.” She makes another gesture, like she’s pulling taffy out to her sides, and I somehow know just what she means. I’m not sure I believe it, either, but who knows? Who knows how my mom ended up in this place?

I realize my arms have started to ache from the heft of the Sun Flare. “I brought these flowers.” I hoist them a bit higher, biceps straining. “I don’t know what to do with them. They were my mom’s favorite.”

“Leave them here.” She gestures to an area by her desk. “I can plant them in the courtyard.” Suddenly the fact that I ended up at a nursery makes perfect sense. We wouldn’t have been able to plant a bouquet. I gently lower the pot to the floor, and my arms feel instantly light, as if they are going to float right out of their sockets.

“Can I see it?” I ask, and she leads me through the sitting room, with its leather chairs and abstract art, out to a small courtyard with a fountain. The sky is gray, humid; it presses against my skin as if it wants to help hold me up. The iron patio furniture is covered with burnt-orange colored cushions, one of my mom’s favorite colors – the color she chose for my childhood couch, the color she chose for the stairway carpet in Winnetka, the color she often wore. A few planters contain geraniums and sage. No roses, but the Sun Flare will feel right at home.

“Are we standing over the garage?” I ask, my body filled with a sudden charge.

She nods. “Do you want to go down there?”

“No,” shoots out of my mouth before I have a chance to think. I realize I don’t need to see where she died. Being right here, feeling the space vibrating under my feet is enough. Knowing her favorite flower will bloom above it is enough.

When we walk back to the office, I notice a large flat screen on the wall by the door, filled with a grid of images from twelve different security cameras. Two shots of the garage are in the bottom row, grainy and gray. The woman sees where I’m looking.

“She came down here,” she says, pointing to the ramp. “She came in right after a car came out.”

So that’s how she got past the locked gate. I hold my breath. “That was around 4:30, 4:50,” she says. “The sanitation guy found her around 7:30 the next morning.” I find myself grateful it wasn’t an elderly resident, although I’m sure it was traumatic for the worker. I wonder whom he’s told the story to, how the image still haunts him.

“She looks calm in the video,” she tells me, her voice kind. “I hope that helps. She was walking very calm, like she lived here. Like she knew exactly where she was going.”

“That does help,” I say, a new sense of peace flooding through me. “I’m glad she looked calm.”

“Calm and elegant,” she says. “She walked straight to the room and closed the door behind her.” She makes a gesture as if she is closing double doors with both hands, but there is just a single door on the screen. It is white, and it glows, a luminous rectangle in a sea of gray. The light that led her here.

As soon as I step outside, it starts to rain, a soft, warm drizzle on my arms and face.

I had thought visiting Golden Oaks would bring me to my knees. I thought I would be wrecked by it; I thought I would be weeping so hard, I wouldn’t be able to see the road as I drove away. I never imagined I would leave feeling so light, so clear, rain delicious on my skin.

The farmers’ market is starting to close; people are packing up their stalls, putting peaches and hummus and honey into big plastic bins. I find myself heading straight for the Homeboy Bakery booth, find myself gravitating toward a loaf of yeasted pumpkin-pecan bread. I purchase it, then go to the next stall over and buy a pint of fresh pomegranate-orange juice.

The rain is really starting to come down, so I race to the car with my small bounty. I sit in the driver’s seat for a while, water seeping into my shirt, realizing that I can see the gate to the garage from where I’m parked. I open the bag of bread and take out a slice. The top is sticky with brown sugar glaze, the bread itself – the same color as the patio chairs in the courtyard – sweet and satisfying. I open the juice, take a big swig and wonder if anything has ever tasted so good. Later, when I tell Michael about the day, he’ll say, “It sounds like communion, the bread and juice.” This doesn’t occur to me in any conscious way at the time, but I feel it, feel a sense of communion as I chew and sip and swallow and stare at the white metal gate, my mother’s last passage.

My sister-in-law Magdalene recently said, “She was an operatic person. It was an operatic way to go.” I hadn’t been able to take those words in fully at the time, but now I feel that aria, that crescendo. I feel the strange majesty of the act, which both startles and comforts me.

The Mayans believed suicide by hanging was an honorable way to die. The goddess Ixtab would accompany the hanged, along with warriors who died in battle and women who died in childbirth, to paradise, where she would serve them food beneath the leafy shade of the World Tree. I wonder what she fed them; bread and juice, perhaps. I raise my plastic bottle in the direction of the gate before I pull away from the curb, leaving part of my mother behind at Golden Oaks, flaring like the sun.

* * *

Excerpted from The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide by Gayle Brandeis (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.