The First Day
An excerpt of the memoir "Sushi Tuesdays" by Charlotte Maya.
By Charlotte Maya '90
Chapter 3: The First Day of the Rest of Our Lives
When you multiply a family of four by one suicide, the ensuing calculus of grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws requires an abacus, a consanguinity chart, and several religious texts. Add friends, neighbors, colleagues, community connections, and well-intentioned onlookers, and then it becomes downright unruly.
It was amazing to me how people I didn't know well—or at all—stepped up to help. Some had a unique skill or special access. Others had shared experiences, useful perspectives, or simply a broken heart. Every one possessed their own quality of light that they shined in my world. These lovely people made cameo appearances and long-term commitments to the well-being of my sons and me in ways I could never have imagined. I am profoundly grateful. I won’t name each individually—not because they aren’t desperately dear to me—but because there were so many. In the interest of clarity, therefore, I will call them collectively the Janes.
I would not have known just how many modest and simple acts can have a significant impact in the healing journey had I not been aided and abetted by the Janes. Entrepreneur Jane sent a crew from her housecleaning business to my home for weeks. Sister Jane, an actual nun, prayed for me years before I met her in person. Jane the Artist painted with Danny and Jason in her art studio, giving them a safe place to explore their grief with palette and brushes, and Jane with her Mountain Home introduced the boys to skiing. I do not forget their kindnesses. But I get ahead of myself.
I didn’t even know where to begin that next morning. It was Sunday and too early for phone calls.
I recalled that on a recent walk, Jane the Journalist mentioned that her father had killed himself on an Easter Sunday when she was young. I couldn’t remember how the subject of suicide came up. She was so gentle and grounded that this bit of her personal history surprised me; now it seemed a sad serendipity.
I sat down at the computer to tap out the first of many emails. The Green Goblins soccer game seemed forever ago.
Subject: call me
Hi Ben and Linda ~
Please call me.
When the phone rang shortly thereafter, it was Linda. “Is everything OK?”
Of course, she suspected that it wasn’t. There would be no easy way to say what had to be said.
I took a deep breath. “Sam died yesterday.”
“What? What happened?”
I did not employ the euphemism “passed away.” Such expressions attempted to soften the blow of death, but they confused the children, as though their father had absentmindedly toddled off someplace.
I told Linda that Sam had killed himself.
She was dumbfounded.
I told the truth. Suicide.
It was so hard to say the word out loud that I paused and took a slight breath before uttering it. “Sam died by suicide. He jumped from the top of a parking structure across the street from his office. I don’t know why. I took the boys on a hike, and when I got home there were two policemen and a priest in my driveway.”
As I flipped through my address book, thinking of people I needed to call—classmates of Sam, the boys’ teachers, their pediatrician, Sam’s assistant—I realized that it was not too early to call Rob and Caroline on the East Coast. They were friends of Sam’s from high school who then lived in Virginia. Caroline answered on the first ring.
I repeated what little I knew, in snippets and phrases, not believing the words I heard myself say, “Sam died yesterday.”
Gentle and earthy, Caroline calmed me even from across the country. She and Rob immediately made plans to fly out with their three children, even though we hadn’t set a date for the funeral.
La Cañada is a suburban city of about twenty thousand people; it’s part of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, about twelve miles north of downtown. I had lived here for most of my life. I had attended a local church and graduated from the public high school. I left to go to college and returned after I was married. I couldn’t go to the post office or the park without seeing someone I knew. People had seen the police car parked in front of my house for hours. I couldn’t have kept my husband’s suicide a secret if I had tried.
We didn’t send group emojis then. Texting was cumbersome and required tapping the numbers on the keypad—once, twice, even four times—to get to the corresponding letter of the alphabet. Instead, we called and emailed and whispered in grocery market aisles, “Did you hear?”
I made more phone calls: “I can’t believe it, either. It doesn’t make any sense. We’re heartbroken. Feel free to tell anyone you think might want to know.”
Women appeared on my doorstep—first Linda, then a neighbor, and a few Janes. I handed Linda my address book, and she started making phone calls. She called my college roommate, who contacted all my other college friends, and so it went, like a PTA-orchestrated phone tree disseminating emergency instructions. One Jane showed up with her hair still dripping from the shower. She was stunned, grief-stricken, and I was grateful to see my own shock reflected in her eyes, raising the same question…. Sam?
A blur of people gathered in my home, some in tears, others stoic. They dropped everything to rush to my side. I sat on the floor of my living room, surrounded by people. So many people showed up that I stopped closing the front door. It didn’t occur to me to turn anyone away. My pain was too raw to hide, as was theirs. We found solace in each other.
I cannot remember where the boys were or what they were doing. I remember a series of hugs. I remember numbness in my hands and legs. People showed up with cookies, coffee cakes, sandwiches, and bright fresh apples. The mere sight of food made me physically ill. I was too nauseated to eat, but the children would need to be fed and my visitors might need snacks.
The Janes began to mobilize, ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. But in that moment, there was nothing to be done. It was Sunday, so next steps would wait. I secretly hoped that there was a way, somehow, to turn back the clock.
In the meantime, we sat together.
At some point, somebody wondered aloud whether I had a therapist. I did. Dr. Newland was a registered nurse and local therapist who specialized in children on the autism spectrum. Sam and I had consulted with her to help us navigate parenting Danny. We didn’t understand why a kid who was obviously bright hated school so vehemently; he managed through the school day but then exploded at home. She encouraged us to have him tested for learning differences and to implement an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) at school, which seemed to help. We had stopped seeing her as part of our cost-cutting measures.
Naturally, she didn’t answer her phone on the weekend. Her prerecorded greeting instructed callers to hang up and dial 911 in the case of an emergency, but nobody could fix my emergency. I left a message. I would not remember what I had said, but Dr. Newland told me she would never forget: “Please call me. Something terrible has happened.”
Night was black as heavy silk. I was exhausted, and still sleep would not relieve the monotony of wishing that Sam had not done what he had done. The day was filled with death’s aftershocks and life’s child-rearing; as the solitary hours pressed on, I had time to think. Sam had survived so much: debilitating back pain from the time he was a young teenager, his parents’ bankruptcy, his own mid-career direction change. I lay in bed, flanked by my young sons, watching their little chests expand with each gentle breath. I thought about the young princes William and Harry trudging behind Princess Diana’s casket. Danny and Jason were half their ages.
Even when I closed my eyes, I didn’t drift into sleep. I was stuck in perpetuity, longing for what I couldn’t have.
At some point, I gave up and extricated myself slowly from the bed, careful not to disturb my children. They needed sleep more than I did, and I was grateful that they were resting. I didn’t know what time it was. It didn’t matter. I had always liked walking around my own house at night with the lights off. It was comforting to me, quietly navigating the contours of my home in the safety of the dark, like those sweet and secret moments mid-pregnancy when I felt my baby moving and stretching safely, a quiet awareness that something special was happening. But the darkness that followed my husband’s death was cold, and the silence alarming; it was not a place I wanted to inhabit, or even step into alone.
I headed to my desktop computer, where there was an email message from my college roommate Bess encouraging me to call her any time. Seriously, she wrote. Nothing is ever too late or too early.
I closed my eyes and rested my head against my hand. Knowing she was there was hugely comforting, but I didn’t call. Not yet. I didn't want to risk waking anybody up—not the boys, not my parents sleeping on a borrowed air mattress in the living room, and not even Parker, whose softly thumping tail betrayed the fact that he was keeping track of my movements.
Excerpted from Sushi Tuesdays: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Family Resilience by Charlotte Maya (c) 2023 Published by Post Hill Press Used with permission.