On Sunday, December 2, 2018, my mom hung herself in my family home.
The following is an account of what I know now about her final months.
I woke up abruptly to the sound of my phone vibrating on the nightstand around 9:20 pm. My sister had just texted: Call dad. There were multiple texts, but I don’t remember checking them. At 8:35 pm, my dad left a voicemail, which was common. It seemed strange that my sister would bother to text me about it. I gave myself a minute to wake up and then listened to my dad’s voicemail. I had spoken to my parents about every week or every other week since moving to Connecticut in 2016, most often on Sundays. My mailbox was full of older messages from my dad to “call mom when you can.” Short and to the point, my dad never really liked to talk on the phone.
His voice was shaky and small, “Zach, mom’s gone. She’s gone. Call me back when you get a chance.”
I dropped the phone and nearly fell over. My bed broke my fall. I listened to it again just in case I had misunderstood. …or just give my brain time to fully absorb the message. I called my dad back as quickly as I could, but he didn’t answer. I called my sister.
- “Dude, what is happening? I just called dad, but he didn’t answer.”
She was in tears. “Dad’s talking to the cops, mom’s dead.”
- “She’s what?! What the fuck happened?”
“Here, hold on.” She handed the phone to my dad.
“Hey, Zach. Are you… where are you? Are you sitting down?”
- “I’m home, what the fuck’s going on?” My voice was panicked, urgent.
“Your mom’s dead, Zach. She’s dead. She hanged herself today while I was out today.”
My mom had quit her job in medical records at a local hospital in February of 2018. She was convinced she had seen an abnormality in the file of a child with a rare brain condition that confirmed that Dr. Smith had taken samples without the consent of the parents. She swore she had also overheard a conversation in which the parents of that child had specifically said they did not agree to have their child be a part of scientific research at the hospital. A few months before her last day, she had reported the incident to the ethics committee at the hospital. Supposedly, there was confidential reporting, but somehow the doctor had discovered that it was my mother who had made the initial report. At first, her complaints were of harassment to withdraw the report, annoying and against hospital policy, but nothing too concerning. The persecution quickly grew to a level of serious alarm, and it became simultaneously apparent that it was all an invention.
The first time I heard my mom describe the strange events in her office, I didn’t catch it. The second time I caught it.
Fall 2017 (1 year, 18 days until December 2):
- “Wait… mom, start over… what happened?” I stuttered to get her to stop mid-story.
“Someone was controlling the cursor on my computer remotely. I would move it one way, and it would jerk back the other way.” My mom was prone to hyperbole; sometimes it took a few explanations to understand the appropriate level of concern.
- “And then what happened. What did the cursor do? Did it open anything, copy anything?”
“No, it just wouldn’t let me do my work. Like someone was doing it to mess with me. Probably Dr. Smith.” Dr. Smith was a world-renowned neurosurgeon.
- “Mom, you’ve said before that he doesn’t know how to use the computer record system, how is he hacking your computer, and why does he have the free time to do this?” Dr. Smith was also in his late 60s.
“Well, not him, but someone that works for him.”
- “Mom, the next time this happens, can you take a video or picture with your phone? I want to see what’s happening if I can.”
“No, Zach, I don’t want you to get caught up in this, ok? They don’t know where you live, and it’s better that way.”
- Who the fuck are ‘they?’ I thought to myself. “But you can just text it to me, and that won’t tell anyone anything about where I live. Just take a picture next time. Or a video if you can. A video would be better, and…” She cut me off.
“I don’t want you to worry about it, ok? It’s really ok. I don’t want you to get caught up in this. If I send a video, ‘they’ can trace it.”
- Who the fuck are ‘they.’ “Mom, who are you talking about? Who are ‘they’?” It hit me as soon as I heard myself say it out loud.
“No, Zach. Don’t worry about it. I’m gonna be fine. Here, I’m going to put your dad back on.”
They… ‘They’ were dangerous. …according to my mom. ‘They’ could do anything, knew everything, controlled everything. Not again.
I got off the phone with my sister and immediately called a friend in New Haven for help. Being alone that night would have killed me, too. I was nonfunctional in the hours and days after I spoke to my dad and sister that night. I was very fortunate to have two friends who kept me alive that week.
By September 2018, my mom refused to leave the house, so my dad had been separately running errands for both of them at various times throughout the day. At the same time, he was unwilling to leave her alone for more than three hours. She had been panicked and hallucinating for months, and my dad knew her mental health was declining fast. On that particular Sunday, my dad was gone longer than usual and my mom knew he would be. The ceiling in a section of the kitchen had been ripped out for renovations and the house’s hundred-year-old wooden frame remained exposed for months. My dad returned home around 5 pm that evening to find both the front and back doors deadbolted from the inside, and my mother’s lifeless body out of reach. He was too late, anyway; she had timed it so that he wouldn’t have any hope to save her. He immediately called 911 and my sister. He sat on the porch of his house for the last time that evening. He was there alone for nearly an hour before my sister arrived, and they waited together for another hour for the coroner.
Spring 2001 (17 years, 199 days until December 2):
- “Mom, what are we looking for?”
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I’m sure it’s in here.”
I was holding a screwdriver and my mom was holding her jaw. It had been mysteriously vibrating all morning. Her best explanation by 11-am was that my father had drilled into her tooth while she was asleep and implanted a tracking device. My father, who had a habit of injuring himself doing building repairs, apparently had used a dental drill to put a hole in my mother’s tooth… while she slept… without waking her up…
I was 17 at the time; I wasn’t 100 % sure, but the idea of a 3mm tracking device that could be purchased on the commercial market by people like my dad, by someone who hated computers, seemed dubious. She was convinced that the relay antenna was in the unused electrical wall socket in her bedroom. My mom insisted that I take the screw plate off the wall and look. It turned out to be a very empty box.
“He must have known I was going to look. ‘They’ must have heard me and told him to take it out this morning.” She was talking, but not to me. I screwed the faceplate back over the socket, stood up, and walked out of the room.
It was not the first time she had believed my dad was spying on her.
Reflecting back on my junior year of high school, I’m not sure why I believed that this would be an isolated incident. I didn’t know enough of what she was suffering through at that point. All I understood was that ‘they’ could apparently see and track everything she did using widely available espionage technology. ‘They’ had come back and did not care that I misunderstood; ‘they’ were happy to surprise us all. My sister is six years my junior, but she still has vivid memories of that year; she was barely twelve. When I heard my mom using that same forced, neutral voice, I knew we were in for a bad time. We even talked about confronting her in the beginning, but it took a turn in the spring of 2018. All technology needed to be cut out; anything with a digital signal, anything wireless, anything that could be intercepted. I had continued to press my mom to take pictures, but she soon traded in her smartphone for a flip phone, so “they” couldn’t hack her phone. The only working internet source in the house, at that point, was my father’s smartphone, which was turned to airplane mode each night. I stopped texting them, as my mom warned it was the easiest thing to hack, and was under strict warnings from her not to talk about ‘sensitive’ information on the phone. I could never keep track of it anyway.
Summer 2018 (153 days until December 2):
- “Hey, Dad, what’s up?” It was Tuesday. My dad rarely called on a Tuesday.
“Nothing, just calling to see how you’re doing.”
I was working at a summer camp, I had plenty to tell my dad about, things that I would not have mentioned had he not called, but he had never called me to ask about a job in the middle of the week with no agenda. It wasn’t familiar. By the time I’d gotten through the stories, I’d probably been on the phone with my dad for fifteen minutes, unusual for a call with only my dad. I assumed my mom was home as well, so I asked to talk to her.
“Mom’s in California for a little while.” My mom never traveled without my dad.
- “Wait, what? California?! What’s she doing in California?”
“She’s visiting some old friends. Do you remember those lawyers who lived down on Rhode Island Avenue? They live out there somewhere. Somewhere that starts with an M, I don’t remember.”
- “Monterey.” These people are not her friends. They are not her enemies, but they were not her friends. She has not mentioned them in 30 years.
“Yeah, that sounds right.”
- “It’s Monterey, why is she visiting them?”
“She thought they could help her with Dr. Smith.”
- “Ok, whatever, perfect timing. Dad, mom is not doing well. We need to do something.”
“What are we gonna do?” He was calm. “She won’t listen to you, and she’ll think you’re one of them, that ‘they’ got to you. Did you talk to your sister?”
- “Probably, fine, oh well. Yes, dad; she agrees with me. We thought we could talk to her psychiatrist directly, so mom wouldn’t know. My doctor says he doesn’t have to acknowledge that mom is his patient or respond, but if he sees that we’re worried, he might…”
“No, no. No. She’s been seeing him for years. He’s not going to listen to you.”
- “I just need you to tell me the name on her prescription bottle and I can probably find his email address or one for the office.”
“No, we’re not doing that.”
I talked to my dad every day for the two weeks that my mom was in California. My mom even called once while she was out west. I missed that call too, so she left a message. She claimed her reception was terrible in Monterey, and that if I tried to call, she wouldn’t be able to answer. I assumed it was her flip phone that was causing the problems and thought nothing of it. She sounded cheerful and relaxed for the first time in a while. It almost convinced me that something had changed in her head.
Winter 2019 (33 days after December 2):
- “Dad, did you know? I mean, did you have any idea?” My dad shook his head, but then shifted his weight and look at the ground.
“Zach, do you remember last summer when mom was in California.”
“Mom wasn’t visiting her friends. Well, she was… she tried to visit them, but she basically knocked on their door, unannounced, in the middle of dinner, maybe with guests, it wasn’t clear, and just started pleading for help, so they called the cops. Anyway, they called to tell me what happened after the cops took mom to the hospital.” He stopped.
- “Who, the lawyers?”
- “Ok, so what happened?” I was not prepared for his answer.
“Well, she shows up, right, bangs on their door, waits… And when they answer, she just started yelling about Dr. Smith. He’s following her; he’s hired people to steal our information through the wireless network; whatever she said. They said they didn’t recognize her, she didn’t identify herself, and so they just called the cops. They must have kept her talking or something because if she thought they had gotten to them too, she would have disappeared.”
- “What do you mean “she would have disappeared?” Dad, this is exactly why we wanted to talk to her doctor last summer. She wasn’t taking the right medicine.”
My dad looked up from the floor.
“She would have just done this sooner, Zach. If she thought they had gotten to you or the doctor she would have done this then. When she left for California, she said she wasn’t coming back. She was going to disappear like your uncle did.”
- “Dad, he had paranoid schizophrenia and thought his boss was following him around the country. We still don’t know where he is.”
He looked at me. It was one of those moments when you can tell someone needs you to get the hint, so they won’t be forced to say the punchline. I got it. Yeah, I got it.
- “Dad, I knew mom wasn’t being followed, I just didn’t know she was suicidal. I told you nothing was happening, she was imagining it. I tried to get you to send me pictures. She just kept telling me not to worry about it. Wait.” I interrupted myself. “If she wasn’t going to come back, why did she?”
“She was in a mental hospital in California. Her friends didn’t press charges, so they took her to a psych hospital, and they must have given her some medicine that helped. I talked to her every day. She seemed better, said she wanted to come home, but still went to North Carolina.”
- “That’s why she called me! She called me that one time and told me her reception was really bad. The medicine must have made her think to go to Anne’s, for some reason, and then come home.” I knew the reason. She was saying goodbye to her oldest friend. She stayed in Raleigh for three weeks.
“She didn’t have a charger for her phone, so she could only use the hospital phones. But she didn’t want you to see the number, so one of the nurses charged her phone for her one day.”
- “Wait, so if mom was taking the right medicine, why did she do this?”
“She stopped taking it when she left the hospital.”
- “Goddammit! We were going to try, Dad!” I could feel the hurt rising in my chest, unfairly angled toward my father at that moment.
He looked at me calmly and said, “Zach, you didn’t live with her through this, ok. I did. There was nothing we could have done by the time you and Clare had that idea. We would have just lost her sooner.”
My friend took me to Rudy’s that night; it was about 11-pm when we arrived. I drank quickly and told her the story and anyone within earshot, and she listened just trying to be supportive and understand the bizarre story of my family. That was the last time I closed out a bar. I know I made it home safely that night, but I don’t remember how. I don’t remember much of that week until my friend from California arrived on Wednesday evening to help me drive from Connecticut to Maryland. We drove a slow route and didn’t get to Maryland until 11-pm. I drove to pick-up my friend in White Plains and into Pennsylvania. For the second half of the drive, I asked my friend to take over. I didn’t think I would be able to control the vehicle once we reached the Baltimore suburbs. As we crossed the Mason-Dixon line, I had flashbacks to the Saturday after thanksgiving just twelve days prior. On a lazy afternoon with my parents, my mom suggested we watch a movie, not an uncommon occurrence after having the cable, internet, and telephone line disconnected. At the time, I didn’t think twice about the idea. The choice itself was not even particularly out of character: The Conspirator, a historical fiction about the mother of John Wilkes Booth. (It didn’t raise suspicion; I was oblivious.) My parents often watched television and films about the American Civil War. I watched it from start to finish and had no way to interpret that message. In the final scene, Mary Surratt stands atop gallows in defiance of the US government, with a noose around her neck. She is hanged for keeping secret the whereabouts of her son.
That was the last time I saw my mother alive.