Stepping Back from the Ledge
Searching for Answers
I stood and looked down into the canyon, at a spot where millions of years ago, a river cut through stone. Everything about the view is awe-inspiring and impossible, a landscape that seems to defy both physics and description. It is a view in a place that dwarfs you, that magnifies the questions in your mind about your place in the world and about the world itself, and that keeps the answers to itself.
It was April 26, 2016—four years since my mom died. Four years to the day since she stood in this same spot and looked out at this same view. I caught my breath here, and felt dizzy and needed to remind myself to breathe in through my nose and out through my mouth, slower, and again. I could say it out loud now: This is where my mom killed herself. She jumped from the edge of the Grand Canyon. From the edge of the earth.
I had come back to the spot because, finally, I was ready—I wanted to know everything. Like a lot of people who lose someone they love to suicide, I had been shocked. Numb. Now I wanted to understand how this could have happened and what I could have done differently, what we all might have done differently to help her. What could have caused this? Was there a tipping point?
My eyes followed a narrow trail down, cutting through layers of red and purple rock that felt as if it were another planet, until the trail disappeared into a patch of green.
I’d been at this spot before, with my mother. My mom brought me here once when I was a child, and we’d walked along the rocky South Rim. She brought me here again when I was in college, this time for a mother-daughter trip where we exhausted ourselves hiking the 7.1 miles down to the canyon’s floor and slept in a cabin: We spent more time together just the two of us than we ever would again. In between, my mom hiked more than a dozen trails at the canyon, finding a sense of adventure and strength, of peace and spirituality. She had watched the sunrise at Easter Mass here and had sat along the edge at night when the canyon disappears into a hole of black, with only the stars visible. For her, it was a place where she rediscovered herself after her divorce from my father, and later where she went to escape the world.
Now, I didn’t just want to know everything. I needed to know it: the latitude and longitude where she fell, the last words she said to the shuttle bus driver who dropped her at the trail overlook, her mood when she met with her priest just four days prior. He had told me my mom went out of her way to say she was good, but he had sensed she was hiding something. I had tracked all of this down to try to piece it together, my mother’s life.
I read over the last letter she had mailed to my children. I looked for clues inside that little card with a cartoon penguin drawn on the front: She wrote in block printing so my five-year-old daughter, Lucy, could read it easily. My mom wrote of riding the light rail to a Diamondbacks baseball game in Phoenix, of planting a cactus garden, of looking forward to summer in the already hot days of spring in the desert.
I also read and re-read her last words, written in cursive in the tiniest composition book, which she had left in her Jeep, as well as the last text she typed, in which she both celebrated life and apologized for it: “Life. My life has been such a gift. I’m so very sorry to disappoint all of you. In my heart I know this is not right but it’s all I can do. Please pray for my soul.”
I zoomed in on the photo she took with her iPhone from the ledge, the photo looking out to the sunrise that lit the canyon on that morning. I wanted to see if the rocks or shadows would reveal anything new. I re-played our last conversation in my mind, and each one before that, and before that, all of them I could remember. None of them seemed to have given any hints of what was to come. I last heard her voice on Easter, which on that year was also my birthday, talking about my children and chocolate bunnies, the irises blooming in our neighbors’ yard, and when she might be able to visit. The conversation ended like thousands before it. I said, “I love you, Mom,” and she said, “Love you, kiddo.”
I wanted to know every fact, every detail, to see everything she saw, because I didn’t have the one thing I wanted—the why. Now, I wondered why we didn’t see it coming somehow, why we didn’t do more, when it all seemed so clear. Looking back over the years, there were signs of depression and sadness, anxiety and regret, but sometimes we didn’t really see, and we were silent about so many things.
I came back to the canyon for answers, or a deeper understanding of life and my mom, of her secrets and mine. But all I could see were the peaks miles away, the trees greener and prettier than I imagined, tiny dots of figures moving slowly up the switchbacks, and the stillness of the world.
I’d been told that suicide is as common and unknowable as the wind that shaped this rock. It’s unspeakable, bewildering, confounding, devastating, sad. Don’t try to figure it out, I had told myself; stop asking questions, assigning blame, looking. Yet I went on trying. How could I not? Now here I stood, looking, searching, suppressing the urge I had to follow her.
The morning she died, she tried to reach me. I saw “Mom” pop up on my phone shortly after ten a.m. I was at my desk on the nineteenth floor of The Cincinnati Enquirer building, working at a new job as the managing editor of the newsroom. I hadn’t quite settled in to my role yet—there was just one photo of my children on my desk. I sat in the middle of an open office, at a desk between the receptionist and one of the digital news producers, a space where privacy was difficult to find.
I declined the call, and quickly texted: “I love you, Mom. Crazy busy workday. Hard to break away to talk. But know I love you.” I had just walked out of one news meeting and sat down for a minute before the next one, trying to edit a sports story in the time between, while worrying about how my four children were adjusting to their new schools and making friends, and whether my husband had agreed to be home by five-thirty that night to start dinner, or I had. The rest of the day was a blur of talking through ideas with reporters and editors, eating a peanut butter sandwich at my desk, reading columns, and analyzing which stories were doing well online.
On my short drive home that night, I noticed the irises were starting to bloom in our neighborhood and I smiled and stopped the car, hopped out and took a photo of a deep purple iris to text to my mom. It was our favorite flower—hers because of the tenacity irises need to grow in the dry, rocky mountainside where she lived in Phoenix, and mine because when I was a kid, the irises always bloomed in early April, signaling it was almost time for my birthday. As I took the photo, I realized it was me who said I would be home that night, meaning I was already late. I would send the photo later; it could wait.
My parents divorced when I was eleven, and my father moved just a few miles away from us in Phoenix. We had stayed close through weekend visits, Wednesday-night dinners that almost always included a stop at an arcade to play Pac-Man, and softball games where he was my coach. I have my dad’s Mexican American olive skin and his eyes that are so dark they are almost black, his look when I was little of quiet disdain for any number of transgressions that I now share with him when I am angry, and things like his need for buttered popcorn at the movies.
It was about five years after my dad left when my mom and I moved in with her boyfriend; she would marry him three years later. It was then that one of the corrosive secrets of my life and the life of my family began. The sexual abuse I silenced, the dark stealth entry of my stepfather into my room at night, and how I believe my mom never knew. It was the secret I never told her.
Later, when I was an adult, my mom and I lived 3.3 miles away from each other. Sometimes she would stop on her way home from work to see my kids, and we would rub each other’s hands while we sat on the short wood fence separating our yard from the neighbors’ and talk about the day. Later, when she retired from her job as a hospital administrator, she often came by during the day when I was at work and the kids were home with the nanny. She would drive one of my children to play on the slides at the park, and then return to our house to stay late to read books or do puzzles with the family while I made dinner. When I moved from Phoenix to Ohio for a new job and to be closer to my husband’s family, my mom and I talked on the phone every day. She was always up so early that even with the three-hour time difference, I could call her on my drive to work, sometimes describing the curve of the Ohio River as I drove along it, the way you would often see a barge, and how the trees were most beautiful in the winter because you could see their true shapes without the leaves. It felt as if she were a passenger in my car on my way to work, seeing what I saw along with me. We could make each other laugh, and sometimes it seemed that whatever she felt, I did, too.
That night, when I got home to the too expensive house we rented in Ohio, my husband, John, said he needed to talk to me. From his face, I could tell it was important. He said, “Come upstairs, and let’s sit down.”