Generations The Kitchen Drawer: On Black Families and Suicide
What I learned from her was that if you wanted to kill yourself, do it with no one around.
One day, four years ago, I thought about slitting my left wrist with a yellow-handled steak knife from my top kitchen drawer. Three months after the thought, that drawer remained shut. A second drawer, which held all my pot spoons, spatulas, a can opener, and potato masher, was the one I would use. It was accessible and safe.
In retrospect, that was a crazy thought since the sight and smell of blood made me nauseous and I had a low tolerance for pain. I would have probably fainted due to my disorder, neurocardiogenic syncope, a medical term for reduced blood circulation to my brain, which results in a temporary loss of consciousness. An extremely stressful situation like slitting my own wrist would have triggered my syncope because my body can’t handle the mental and physical trauma, so as a defense mechanism, ironically, I faint.
Lying on the floor bleeding to death or writhing in pain until I was comatose weren’t options. I realized killing myself was a bad idea and concluded that I’d just had a slip of the mind, really, so I blew it off and bought clear premium plastic utensils—cheap, store-brand utensils simply would not suffice—to use until I felt emotionally ready to open the top kitchen drawer again.
I didn’t mention what happened to anyone, including my family and especially not my mother. Instead, I diagnosed myself as depressed or as an anxiety sufferer. I had read a lot of articles and had a passing interest in psychology, so I thought my assessment was correct. I’d even dated a crazy psychologist back in the day and learned a few things while editing his dissertation and perusing his books. Eventually, I disregarded my initial diagnosis and confidently came up with another: hard-wired high, a term I had created for my condition. I was always moving, doing, thinking. But not like ADD or ADHD; those types of things needed drugs. Instead, t o help myself, I created a treatment plan, which solely consisted of getting a massage . By a mute.
I made an appointment at a spa and when I arrived and de-robed, I hoped the masseuse would opt to be silent, but that was not the case. She made lots of small talk and finally asked if I was stressed. I thought, Yes, among other things I’m stressed by the fact that you asked me if I’m stressed when I’m trying relax , but I meekly uttered, “A little.”
At some point, I wanted to tell my sister, but deduced that I definitely couldn’t. I’m her older sister and occasionally, she sends me a text or mails a little note card telling me how much she loves and admires me and wants to be like me: a leader, smart, confident, stylish, resilient, and with exceptional credit. In reality, I was weak, fragile, lonely, and dressed haphazardly more often than not. And my credit score had dropped from excellent to barely satisfactory.
I’d forgotten about my “episode” until Robin Williams committed suicide. I remember coming home from work and watching a slew of reports and then crying. Cried until my head hurt and I ran out of a box of Puffs Plus Lotion tissues. The tissues took me back decades to when, as a little girl, I witnessed my grandmother’s suicide attempt.
Selinda, my mother’s mother, whom I called Selsie, almost always had tissues in her pocketbook next to her Salem 100’s cigarettes and a book of matches. I never smoked because of her. Learned early on that smoking made your lungs look like a burnt ham. What I did learn from her, however, was that if you wanted to kill yourself, you should do it with no one around.
My great-grandmother, Selsie’s mother, whom I called Granny, was in her eighties. She and Selsie lived together. When Selsie wasn’t working the second shift as a nurse’s aid at a hospital, she took care of Granny who, for all her agility, had several ailments.
My parents, siblings, and I lived in the same building as Selsie and Granny, so I was allowed to hang out at Selsie and Granny’s apartment often. I was nine years old and loved spending time with them, especially since we would all stay up into the wee hours of the morning, watching F Troop, Star Trek, or M*A*S*H and drinking Folgers coffee with milk and sugar. Selsie would let me soak my saltine crackers in my cup until they became mush and made a mess. She seemed unfazed by it.
We would also amuse ourselves with checkers and card games. After, Selsie would sit on her bed with a comb and a disposable grocery store bag filled with colorful, hard plastic rollers to set her hair. When she was too tired, I’d jump behind her on the bed and set her hair. I don’t think she really liked me setting her hair; she said my hands were too rough, but she never stopped me.
I thought the only job Selsie ever had was as a nurse’s aid. But as an adult, I found out she was once a hairdresser. That made sense. Her hair was always perfectly coiffed. She never wore much makeup, but she looked like a superstar, someone who could sing the blues, but made you feel infinitely better about everything.
Because Selsie came home so late, I was often unsupervised even though Granny was present. At some point, I was supervising Granny. She had a home health aide who left at approximately 7 p.m., so by default I became Granny’s little helper. I gave her medicine. Made sure she ate all her food. Put a Polident tablet in a mason jar of water so she could spit out her dentures in it.
The three of us often didn’t fall asleep until around 2 a.m. Selsie didn’t get much rest. She had to wake me up by 7 a.m. and take me back to my parents’ apartment so I could get ready for school. Sometimes, despite how late it was, she would also check my homework to ensure my answers were correct. Then she had to care for Granny by herself until the home health aide came back around 1 p.m. She always worked. And worked hard, especially at the hospital where she had to do grunt work like give enemas, change soiled adult diapers, and rotate wide-eyed, comatose patients’ bodies to prevent them from getting bedsores. Doctors and patients alike loved her and whispered that she was better than some of the nurses.
Despite the task, she never complained. According to my memory, she lived her personal life in martyr-like way too. Selsie never went on vacation. Or on a date. Or to a social event. Or got tipsy and sang loudly. Or anything fun, unless it was a family activity.
But, she taught me how to ride a bike, roller skate, and press-and-curl my hair with irons on the stove. Selsie taught me how to write script. Tutored me in long division. Ordered Patsy Cline and Nat King Cole records and sold World’s Finest fundraiser chocolate candy bars on my school’s behalf just so I could earn an official sticker—the same one she could have purchased at a craft shop. Made me love to read. Years later we would have our own book club, voraciously reading historical romance novels, which she ordered through a catalog.
Selsie taught me how to be strong. Sometimes she worked a double shift—from 3 p.m. to 7 a.m. the next day. She came home, took a power nap, attended to her mother, showered, ate, and went right back to work again.
Selsie was militant about paying bills on time. Prided herself on ten- and twenty-dollar minimum payments every month and neatly filed all her bills and important documents like pay stubs, prescriptions, and life insurance papers in a linen closet; the shelves made for easy storage. There weren’t many bills because she was always mindful about how much she spent. But, that handful—a Diner’s Club card, which she pointed out “required excellent credit,” a Sears card, and a MasterCard—had years of monthly statements attached to each. And they were still in the original mailing envelopes, opened of course, and annotated in beautiful, calligraphic-like handwriting with Paid and the date.
Things were well, or so I thought. Again, she didn’t complain often and especially not much about her finances. But she was distressed about money. Sort of. Annually, she griped about her rent going up and the cost of her shared taxi ride from work being increased by a dollar. She worked hard, but didn’t earn much; one of her decades-old pay stubs showed that her weekly take-home earnings with overtime was $147. For my grandmother, every dollar always counted. But that was all I heard. To this day, I can’t think of any major financial issues she had. Perhaps, in her mind she was drowning in debt and decided to do something about it.
One summer evening, I heard Selsie and Granny in the kitchen talking. Their voices became louder, which was peculiar, but not enough to draw me away from watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial again. But, when Granny yelled, “Help!” I knew something was amiss. I raced to the kitchen and found her and Selsie struggling with what we called “the big butcher knife,” but in actuality was a large cook’s knife. Selsie was about 5’7” and plus-sized. Granny was plus-sized too, but she was only 5’2” and over eighty years old, so there shouldn’t have been much of a fight. But there was. Granny had tried to convince Selsie not to commit suicide and was trying to wrestle the knife from Selsie. Granny was strong, but her age made it a difficult fight.
Granny ordered me to run across the hall to a neighbor’s apartment. I flew out the door to the neighbor’s and rang her bell furiously. “Come quick! Please!” I screamed once the door opened. “It’s my grandmother.” She ran over, with me on her heels. In my brief absence, Granny had cut her own hand during the struggle, but managed to grab one of Selsie’s hands, which was just enough time for the neighbor to step in.
I stood in the kitchen doorway and watched the scene play out. Everyone was yelling and crying loudly. I stood there transfixed, tears streaming down my face, wondering what and why this very bad thing was happening. I was hyper-conscious. I noticed the faux brick backsplash was peeling. In the melee, the glass kettle had broken, shards of glass were littered on the stove, and a small puddle of water slowly leaked from one burner to the next. The kitchen drawer was open. The broom was on the floor. The windows needed to be washed. Granny’s long, neat braid was unraveling, just like everything else. But it was the overhead light that stood out the most. It was too bright.
I saw my grandmother crumble. Her shoulders slumped in defeat and tears streamed down her face. Selsie said she was sorry, so very sorry, like in that very moment she realized she had done this really awful thing. To herself. To everyone who loved her. Her voice was full of regret, but my great-grandmother hugged her tightly. Cried with her. Told her everything was okay. Everything would work out. Made her promise not to do something like that. Ever.
The neighbor held the knife, and I stood there, my eyes drawn to the bloody gash on Granny’s hand. She’s going to die , I thought. Eventually the neighbor noticed me and gently shoved me out of the kitchen, then the door. She told me to go wait at her place. Someone called my mother and she went to Selsie’s apartment. Presumably, she talked to everyone then finally came to the neighbor’s place to take me home. That night, and for quite some time, I was forbidden from hanging out at Selsie’s apartment.
No one in my family ever discussed Selsie’s attempt to slit her wrist. Not even my first cousin, who was like a sister to Selsie. One time, a few years later, my mother commented to no one in particular, though I was the only person present: “I don’t know what was wrong with your grandmother that day. It still doesn’t make sense why she wanted to kill herself. If it was related to bills, she didn’t have to worry because no one goes to jail for missing one credit card payment.” And that was it. Never mentioned again. Like it never happened.
But, it did, and years later as an adult, I found the courage to ask my mother about it. We were dining at high-end restaurant that I’d intentionally selected since she liked those kinds of places. If I was going to get any answers, I had to ensure she was comfortable and enjoying a good plate of food. When she was halfway through her meal, I casually started talking about Selsie. My mother tensed slightly as she always did when anyone talked about her mother; it’s still hard for her to process that she died years ago, not of suicide but of cancer, in her sixties. But, I was prepared for my mother’s reaction and forged ahead, eventually inquiring about the suicide incident.
My mother chuckled. Sliced into her braised short ribs, chewed slowly, swallowed, and continued to chuckle until it turned into a hearty laugh.
I sat there and watched her slice and chew again. I wondered if she was having some sort of nervous breakdown then questioned myself, my stupidity for bringing up a subject that was too painful for her. I berated myself for bringing my mother to a restaurant where she would have to use a knife—one of the things we would have to discuss to address the suicide attempt. My dinner plans were well-intentioned, but as I peered at my mother, I realized it was a callous idea. It was obvious that my mother had repressed the memory, and now that we were on the road to discussing it, she was trying to smother her pain with laughter. How brave , I thought.
“Are you alright?” my mother started.
“What? Of course. Why do you ask?” I replied.
“Where on earth did you get that story about Selsie and suicide?”
“I was at her apartment when it happened. It was me, Granny, and Selsie.”
My mother stared at me intently for a moment then resumed eating. I stared back. Didn’t she have anything else to say? I wondered. The subject was already on the table, so there was no turning back. I told my mother everything I had seen and remembered from that dreadful day.
After patiently listening, my mother finally stopped eating, set her utensils down, sighed, and said, “That simply isn’t true. My mother would have never done something crazy like that. She was a strong Black woman. She had to pack up and leave her country, come here, and start from scratch. She worked hard and was dedicated to her family. She loved life and her family too much to have ever done something like that.”
Aghast, I said, “I was there. I remember all of it. How could you say that?”
I don’t think my mother knew how much I saw and understood. By the time she had arrived, I was safely tucked away from the scene and I doubt Selsie or Granny had ever gone over every grave detail with my mother. But still, something had to have been said—if not by Selsie or Granny then surely their neighbor.
“If that were true, which it isn’t, I would know.”
“But you weren’t even there. I mean, you came after everything happened.” I was starting to sound whiny, unconsciously resorting to a pleading tone.
“Please don’t tell anyone any stories like that.”
For the next two minutes, we were both silent. My mother had resumed eating and was alternately sipping white wine like all was well in the world. It wasn’t. I tried again.
“Maybe you don’t remember. It was a long time ago,” I said.
Nothing. My mother said nothing. Sensing my frustration, she finally conceded with, “Do you want to talk to Cousin Betty? Maybe she remembers.”
Cousin Betty was our family’s matriarch and close in age to my grandmother. When my grandmother died, she became like a grandmother to me.
“Carolyn, dear, just stop.”
“I’m going to call her myself and ask.”
That tickled my mother too. “Well, you have her number. Call her. She’ll agree with me.”
It turned out that Cousin Betty had selective memory loss too. She didn’t recall Selsie’s suicide attempt, laughed me off, and called me crazy when I brought it up.
“Your grandmother was too loved and cherished to have done something like that. Even if she did, she would have told me.”
I know this happened. There was one other person, Camilla Sinclair, my grandmother’s neighbor, who could have validated my claim. I believed Camilla was in her seventies by now, and if my cursory Google, WhitePages.com, and other searches by name and state were correct, she could be one of the four people I found. As soon as I paid $14.95 for each, I would have the addresses and possibly some phone numbers in hand. I wanted to call or ring the doorbell at one of the addresses and see Camilla again to talk to her about the evening my grandmother tried to kill herself. The memory had been consciously swirling around in my head for the last few months, but unconsciously shaping my beliefs and actions throughout my adulthood. I hoped to contact her soon, but I needed to recoup my courage. I spent it all talking to my mother and cousin.
Months later, I discovered, it was too late. I was too late. When I casually mentioned trying to find Camilla, my other sister Kimberly said her friend Amber, who lived in the same neighborhood as my family and Camilla growing up, and still lives there two decades later, said Camilla “had died four or five years ago.” When I asked what afflicted Camilla, my sister didn’t know and I didn’t bother to press her about the cause.
My search had officially become a dead end.
Regardless of what my grandmother’s neighbor may have said, I’ll never know exactly why Selsie thought suicide was a good idea. Like my mother, I don’t think it was because of finances, but I just can’t think of why she wanted to die.
When I looked at my hand holding the steak knife and imagined slitting my wrist, I thought of my grandmother. Thought of how much pain she must have been in to think ending her life would make everything better. I could only surmise that she was depressed or anxious or something akin to what I thought afflicted me, even if it was fleeting. Selsie had almost let irrelevant things overwhelm her. Nothing could have been worth more than her life and love.
I definitely had more debt than Selsie ever had, but I wasn’t drowning in it. I had some retirement savings, which conceivably, I could have cashed out, paid off all my credit card bills, and still had a little left over. After all, if I lived, I had the rest of my life to rebuild my nest egg. No, finances weren’t my issues. I was tired. I was emotionally fatigued. Almost broken. Lost, even. I didn’t have a job, but that wasn’t a surprise. Jobs and I didn’t always get along since I was a free spirit.
The thought of being tethered to a desk every day for a day job was imprisoning. I’m sure memories of all my previously failed relationships were a part of my angst coupled with all the things I had not yet achieved like finishing my master’s degree or getting a PhD and writing a book and learning to swim better and painting again and learning to cook family recipes like cassava cake, stew chicken, curry goat, and peas and rice with coconut milk. Or that I hated, truly hated, being single again because I had envisioned that I would have been married with kids already and in some beautiful house and hosting cookouts in the summer in the backyard. Or that I had to have another tooth extracted; the last time I did, I fainted in the dental chair. Twice. The neurocardiogenic syncope thing kicked in.
Indeed, that day, life had become just too unbearable. I didn’t really want to slit my wrist; I just didn’t want to hurt anymore. Somehow, though, I managed to toss the knife in the kitchen drawer and slammed it shut. I’d love to say that I had this great epiphany that everything was going to be okay, but I didn’t. That knife went back in the drawer because I was afraid and mad that I had let things and people who didn’t matter, matter. The truth was, it was a combination of fatigue and over-thinking my perceived failures instead of celebrating my successes that had momentarily overwhelmed me. Maybe I had learned that from Selsie too.
When I think about the day Selsie could have died, I also remember one thing from the eight years I spent at an overpriced, prim parochial school. My fourth grade teacher had said, “Suicide is a sin. If you kill yourself, you’ll exist somewhere between heaven and hell and that’s even worse.” I never wanted to find out if she was right and was sure glad Selsie didn’t either. Because of how my mother had reacted to her mother’s suicide attempt, I would never, ever tell her about my temptation. I also intended to never think about it again, but remembered it all in a flash when I heard Robin Williams had taken his own life. That very night I opened the kitchen drawer, pulled out my biggest and sharpest knife, and prepared dinner.