Lately when I mention my book on suicide, it seems everyone has experienced a suicide in their own family. I’ve learned not to immediately ask the invasive question of “How did they die?” or the statistical query of “How old were they?” or the prosaic “I’m sorry.” I’m never so rude as to ask, “Do you know why they did it?” because I don’t want to get punched in the face.

Instead I ask, “What did your family say was the cause of their death?”

Last week, I met a young lady (which means I'm old as fuck now because only old men say "young lady") whose cousin had killed himself. She told me in hushed tones that he had accidentally strangled himself while masturbating.  Unfortunately, her Midwestern, Puritan-valued family was more comfortable saying his death was a suicide rather than trying to explain to the neighbors that it was in fact an accidental death by auto-erotic asphyxiation. 

When did sexual pleasure become more taboo than suicide? Probably when the shame of sexual aberration began to outweigh the guilt of not helping your child combat depression.

This conversation triggered a memory, one I was unable to mention in my novel, or maybe I've just buried it.  I, too, have a suicide in my family. Have, present tense and not the past tense "had a suicide in my family".  But we didn't say it was something else. We just didn't talk about it. 

I was ten years old, my brother was in middle school and my cousin David was a cool dude in high school, older and stronger than both of us. I remember how we all looked the same, pale like gefilte fish, handsome Semitic noses and that curly, dark brown hair and bright brown eyes beholden to many Noble prize winners. Basically, too introspective for our own good.

In the hallway of my aunt’s house, there were pictures of children—my father as an asthmatic kid in the Bronx, my grandfather in knickers riding a bicycle, and a grainy, black & white photo of my great grandfather living in the Pale of Settlement wearing a fiddlers cap like Tevye.  At the age of ten with my reflection in the frame’s glass, we all looked exactly the same.

My cousin David, my brother and I were hanging out in the basement of my aunt’s house.  David had his shirt off, and we all were competing like boys do, with push-up. I liked imagining that someday I would have muscles like him, tennis balls for biceps and bouncing pecs.  He taught my brother and I a little stunt by grabbing a pole, I think it was a steel column that kept up the house, and he’d hold his body out like a rigid flag, legs parallel to the ground.  My brother, an all-star wrestler, imitated him immediately, but years would pass before I was strong enough to hold my body off the ground.

This was the summer of 1980, and two of the greatest albums of that decade had just been released:  Queen’s The Game and AC/DC’s Back in Black

David played the records on a turntable and the needle bounced as we pounded our feet to “We Will Rock You”.  We jumped off his bed, strumming tennis rackets to the bass line of “Another One Bites the Dust”. I was terrified during the opening of “Hells Bells”, and when David turned off the lights, I was convinced my initiation into a Satanic Cult had begun.  And I’m pretty sure the smell of skunky weed filled David’s basement bedroom, lined with posters of John Travolta posing, one in a black greasy leather jacket and the other in a white Saturday Night jumpsuit.   

The summer of 1980 was the last time I saw my cousin. A few years later, he hung himself in that basement.  Or that’s how I remember it.  I recall the How and When of his death, but of course not the Why.  By then, I was still a kid and children don’t ask etymological questions about death and certainly wouldn’t understand the real answer. Later, his mother told me he was “sad” or “troubled”, as if a single word could explain taking one’s own life.  I’ve asked her about his suicide over the years, but she looks at me and falls silent.  Because maybe I look just like him.  Or worse yet, I act like him.

All I can wonder is how does a mother manage to cope with the suicide of her son? How do you move on?  Maybe you don’t, maybe you just get stuck in time. Some people make up a story. Others say nothing at all. But to say the words, "he killed himself" is the only way to actually heal.

Somehow, my aunt figured out how to stop blaming herself and began to confront the loss of her son...that is, until she lost her other son in a car accident a few years later. 

And that’s why I call her on every Mother’s Day.

I want to tell her, “It wasn’t all a dream, you had sons that loved you and it’s not your fault that your younger son wasn’t wearing a seat belt” and, “How were you supposed to know that your older son was off his meds and repeatedly practicing self-harm in his bedroom?” and “No, there was nothing you could have done to stop it.”

But instead, I just tell her, “Happy Mother’s Day.” And I hope that’s enough.