Today we are excited to publish the winner of our 2019 Essay Contest. We received more than 60 submissions and we chose “Dear Maddy” by Jacqueline Doyle. She will receive a $100 cash award donated by an anonymous reader. We also chose a finalist for our contest, “Zucchini Bread,” by Erica Goss. Stay tuned for that essay coming soon. Congratulations to Jacqueline and Erica.
by Jacqueline Doyle
Most letters ask for a reply. Not a suicide note.
The first time I tried to write about your death was at least a decade ago. I awoke one morning dream-logged, filled with words, but when I sat down at my desk they disappeared and I wrote a direct appeal instead. “Talk to me, Maddy. Tell me what it was like. Rise up from the depths of twenty years in all your shadowy splendor. Tell me.”
It was three days before they found your body in the garage. I saw the note you left for your lover, hand-written in your loopy script on a small piece of stationery with Maddy F. pre-printed at the top. You asked him for forgiveness. You asked him to help your children understand. You wrote, “It is best for everyone this way.” How many people read it besides your lover, who’d been dragging his feet about getting married? The police, who still have it in a file somewhere. Family members—your ex-husband and two barely grown children, your two much older sisters, your brother-in-law, and me, your only niece. Nine years between us, more like sisters than aunt and niece. All I could think was, Wait. It is really not best for everyone this way.
I read somewhere that fewer than 20 percent of suicides leave notes behind. Yours was only six sentences. I expected it to explain your death, but it didn’t explain anything.
You were 47. Mercurial, lively, fashionably thin, with streaky blonde hair, a perpetual tan, and the expensive wardrobe of a wealthy New Jersey suburbanite. Cashmere sweaters, silk blouses, wool blazers, leather jackets as soft as butter, designer jeans. You’d be in your seventies now, still laughing, still fashionable, still tan from golfing and playing tennis and lounging by the pool. Still generous with gifts and advice.
You’d been diagnosed as bipolar. You’d stopped taking your medication on the advice of a quack chiropractor. You loved self-help books, easy fixes, chicken soup for a soul that needed more. I was the researcher in the family, a newly minted Ph.D. with a tenure-track job in California by then. I wish I’d researched bipolar mood disorder before you died instead of after. “An illness that is biological in its origins,” Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison writes in An Unquiet Mind, “yet one that feels psychological in the experience of it; an illness that is unique in conferring advantage and pleasure, yet one that brings in its wake almost unendurable suffering and, not infrequently, suicide.” Bipolars are thirty times more likely to commit suicide than the population at large. If I’d known that, would it have changed anything?
You were riding high in the weeks before your death, atmospheric disturbances swirling around you. The headlines were filled with Hurricane Hugo, the largest and most devastating hurricane the U.S. had ever experienced. You were supposed to have back surgery, but you flirted with your doctors, rearranged the furniture in your hospital room, checked yourself out before the operation, made erratic phone calls to your friends, snapped Polaroids of homemade altars. You must have come down with a crash.
It was late September, leaves falling from the trees, skies gray. It must have been cold that day, at least in the subterranean garage. The garage was spotless, like the rest of your house. You closed the garage door, settled into the driver’s seat of your new green Saab, and turned the key in the ignition. Carbon monoxide poisoning would have taken several hours. You would have become nauseous, delirious, experienced hallucinations, flushed pink before you finally passed out.
Was there a moment, too late, when you changed your mind?
The artist in Anderson’s Winesburg,Ohio describes the dark spot among the trees in his painting as “something else, something you don’t see at all.” The artist knows what’s missing even if the viewer doesn’t. “The dark spot by the road that you might not notice at all is, you see, the beginning of everything,” he says, “It is a woman, that’s what it is.”
So much of my writing starts with someone missing. Maybe she’s a blank spot in the background that only I can see. Maybe she’s in the foreground, visible to everyone, and I write around the spot, circling what I’m afraid to look at. Or maybe I try to fill in the blank spot with what’s missing.
Where are you, Maddy? Talk to me now. Visit me in my dreams. Tell me what it was like. You wrote an unanswerable letter to the living. Now I write unanswerable letters to the dead.