When I was ten, I tried to kill myself by door. We had just moved from a brick house on a leafy tree-lined street in suburban Chicago to a stuccoed apartment complex in downtown Phoenix where the metal railings of the stairs to the second floor resounded when we walked up the concrete steps. I had left behind my first true best friend. I was having trouble adjusting to my new school. The new kids were a lot rougher than the ones that I was used to. The boys and girls didn’t flirt by chasing each other around the playground; instead they arranged ceremonies and got married and divorced. I was out of my league just about everywhere I turned.
It was a weekend evening when I stormed into my room and slammed the door behind me. I would like to say that my mom was being too fussy, or that my dad had no time for me, but I don’t remember what provoked the great, big thought, “I’ll make them miss me.”
The entrance to my room was a 3 x 3 foot foyer made with the space left over from another bedroom’s closet. I moved my wooden child’s desk into that niche and left a good gap between it and the door. I set the matching chair, on its knees, on top of the desk, wedged perfectly between the door and my neck. I planned to take advantage of that geometry — the gap between the door and the desk and the lack of gap between the door, the chair, my neck, and the wall — well, I figured any serious effort to enter would strangle me, an angry parent barging in could snap my neck. My contraption ready, I reignited the fight where we had left off, taunting my parents to come get me.
Years later I had a ten-year-old daughter of my own. One night after I had put her and her younger sister to bed, my eldest called me back into their room. I moved quietly past her sister, tangled in lovies, already sleeping and I sat on the edge of the bed where my daughter laid on her back, eyes alert. I stroked her hair where it fell from her forehead and I asked, “what’s up?”
“How do people kill themselves?”
My mind raced back to a dusty memory of the door. At your age, they might try… I thought, but I said, “Why do you want to know?”
“Because I want to die.”
I froze for a long moment, staring at this girl, my sweet girl — an avid reader of Harry Potter, a strategic player of soccer, a drawer of intricate pictures, a leader in her pack of playmates. The faint hall light from behind my back cast a shadow on her face. My heart quickened but I slowed my breath. I chose to remain calm. I hoped my daughter wouldn’t notice how much she had upset me. I said. “You know, you can’t take dying back. Once it is done, it is done. And I would miss you too much to help you do it.”
Our conversation stalled. My daughter curled up on her side. I stayed to pat her back. There had been no recent dramatic changes in her life. What had I missed? I worried that I had transmitted despair to her genetically. I watched her as she settled into sleep.
Back when I was the child, my parents did not come to my call. I could hear the dishes clink in the sink, the sound of All in the Family come on the tv. I stopped pleading my case. I stopped hurling insults. I decided that my parents didn’t care and that I was foolish to want their attention so desperately. I slipped my neck out from where it had been pinned by the chair. I put away my desk and left my room. I took my place by the tv. My parents made salted popcorn for us to eat.
Today I am staggered by the grief that I was prepared to hand my parents with my desk set and door. And I groan over the baggage that I brought to my own daughter’s confession.
By the morning after, I had rallied. I didn’t let my daughter’s comments slide. I schemed to reinvigorate her life. I planned more her-focused activities. I sat down to draw with her. I scheduled the playdates that I had been putting off. We baked muffins together for the first time in two years. I lived up to the fact that my kids get more out of me when something is wrong than when things are going along swimmingly.
My daughter thrived in the aftermath.
It took me three weeks to think to ask my daughter why she had said what she said. And she replied without hesitation, “Dumbledore said it, Mom. You know, ‘After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.’”
Leslie Frank writes creative nonfiction from a Seattle suburb where she lives with her husband, three kids, and two pets.