When I called my mother the evening of Aug. 5, 2013, there was no answer.
When last we spoke, she had said that she wasn't going out much. Concerned, I called the manager of the independent living facility in California to which she moved one year prior at the age of 85, and left a phone message. I asked that someone check on my mother. It wasn't until the next day that someone did. She was found dead. She had taken her own life. I am grateful for that delay in response. Had she been found that evening, she would have been taken to the ER to have her stomach pumped and she would have lived. Her intention was to die, not to continue living.
We know that there is a growing number of elderly individuals (mostly white males) who are killing themselves. We know that there is a growing number of people living into old, old age. We know that care for the elderly is not a priority in our culture and that there are fewer people choosing gerontology as a career. We say to one another that we want to die with dignity and to not end up in a nursing home, but we do not or cannot plan accordingly. Our aging is always far into the future, even as we age.
When my son and I arrived at my mother's facility to empty her apartment, the manager told me not to tell the other residents the real cause of her death. I rebelled against this and made it clear that my mother would have wanted people to know the truth. I was disgusted by an attempt for a cover-up.
The person at the medical examiner's office (suicides are always followed by an autopsy) told me that there is a much higher incidence of suicide among the elderly than is reported. To this very day, over two years later, the only death certificate that I have been issued by the County of San Diego has cause of death as "pending" and the possibility of suicide as "pending investigation."
Why did my mother kill herself? She was not incompetent. She did a thoroughly competent job of putting her affairs in order, including the letters she had written, lines and lines of instructions for me to follow, phone numbers of people like her accountant whom I should call, etc. This was not a rash decision.
Was she depressed? She had been diagnosed with a neuropathy of unknown origin. She had hoped that the weather in San Diego would improve the symptoms of this condition. I knew the origin of her neuropathy to be a genetic defect that runs in our family called Fragile X. She had Fragile X Ataxia and Tremor Syndrome (FXTAS). She would not consider that Fragile X played a role in her health, and she never told her doctors about this reality even though her autistic grandson was diagnosed with Fragile X in 1989.
Psychosis, paranoia and dementia can present along with neuropathy for people with FXTAS. I know that she had tried antidepressants to no avail. FXTAS does not respond to antidepressants.
My mother killed herself because she found her life to be unbearable, and most importantly, she was someone who needed to be in control and to not be needy or vulnerable. As a survivor, I endured a brutal grief that I thought would never let up. I have reached the understanding of no judgment.
The last line of my mother's "goodbye letter" was this: "What I do know is that my mind, as I write this is clear as a bell, as my spirit soars, pulling me towards my home in the universe."