Every year two dates on the calendar hold special meaning for me, two days that changed me forever—April 12 and 13. I was only 20 years old, a junior at the University of Vermont, and on the morning of April 13, I called home.
I needed to borrow my mom’s credit card to sign up for a graduate-school entrance-exam prep course. I got a busy signal. I hung up. Called back a little later. Still busy.
Maybe Mom was talking to a patient. She was a busy woman. A single mother, she’d put herself through college and med school while raising the three of us kids, and now she was an MD, a psychiatrist.
Finally I got through. An unfamiliar male voice answered. Immediately I sensed that something was wrong. “I’m looking for my mom,” I said.
“Who’s calling?” he asked.
I was living in an apartment off campus. I leaned against the kitchen counter, holding the phone to my ear. Not a cordless phone but an old one plugged into the wall. I couldn’t move and still stay on the line.
Now I know why people ask, “Are you sitting down?” when they deliver bad news. You feel like you’re going to collapse, the blood rushing out of you. You want to sink into the floor and disappear.
All I could do was lean hard against that kitchen counter. I said who I was. The man was a police officer. We had a short conversation, but the bottom line was that my mom was dead. She’d killed herself.
Some shocks in life are just too big to absorb all at once. I hung up and my mind began to spin. I was like Mom in so many ways, a type A personality, the perfect student, a hard worker, an organizer. So even at this horrible moment I started cataloguing all the things that had to get done. It was the only way I could cope.
I need to call my brother and sister. I’ve got to tell my professors I’m going to be away. I’ll have to borrow $500 from someone to pay for a plane ticket. Mom lived in Bethesda, Maryland; I was in Burlington, Vermont.
I drove to my sorority house, where my closest friends lived, but that’s all I remember of that night. I don’t remember booking the ticket, don’t remember falling asleep, don’t remember going to the airport the next day. I was functioning in a complete fog.
Back home in Maryland I quickly found myself on the phone, talking to a funeral home, ordering a coffin, arranging for a service, handling the details carefully and efficiently, like Mom would have.
All the while I asked myself, Why? After all the hard work, the years of struggle, of scrimping and saving, after finally achieving her goal, why had Mom fallen into despair? She’d become all she’d ever dreamed of being and yet somehow that wasn’t enough.
The death certificate confirmed that my mom had actually died on April 12, the day before I had tried to call her. I found comfort in how many people came to the funeral, people who loved my family deeply. But I didn’t find resolution. I knew that those two days, April 12 and 13, would never be the same.
I returned to college and continued on as the good student Mom had prepared me to be. I went to graduate school, entered the workforce. Unlike her, I chose the world of business and worked in strategy, finance and consulting for big corporations.
As the hurt of Mom’s death faded over the years, happy memories flooded back. I remembered the strawberry-jam taco she made me because I didn’t like taco meat.
I recalled the Christmas when I was five and she invited my girlfriends from kindergarten over for hot cocoa and homemade cookies, and how every Christmas after that, my mom, my sister and I would bake for weeks, buying in bulk, making gift packets, bringing joy to others on a bargain-basement budget.
In time I came to understand that Mom probably suffered from depression. Yet that was the adult me looking back, not the child who had been raised by this wonderful, creative, quirky woman. The smell of White Linen perfume, the sight of L’Oréal lipstick in her color, “A la Mauve,” even seeing a roll of paper towels, would take me back.
Paper towels? That’s because Mom would never buy them, insisting on using cloth towels. “We don’t want them to cut down any more trees than they have to,” she said. “Only for paper for books and magazines.”
With age I grew in my faith, leaning on it the way I had leaned on that kitchen counter when I first got the bad news. I found help in Bible passages, like Paul saying, “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” Mom belonged to God, I had no doubt of that. But the pain would come every year on April 12 and 13.
For four years, in my thirties, I was based in Paris. How I wished Mom could have visited me there and met the wonderful man I fell in love with, Philippe. We got married in 2003. We were blessed with four daughters in quick succession (today we have a nine-year-old, an eight-year-old and twin seven-year-olds).
I then became a very busy—no surprise—stay-at-home mom. With only one income now, I was determined to do everything I could to manage our budget.
At local moms’ groups and civic organizations, I shared my strategies with other mothers. How to save on everything from diapers to electricity to how a few great tips could cut your supermarket bills.
It was a video I made about how my family saved $1,000 a year by making our own yogurt that brought me to the attention of Food Network.
I suppose it was my big break, but I have to tell you, I didn’t make that video to become famous. The concept of making yogurt at home had become so popular among my friends that I simply wanted to be able to share it with even more people.
Today I’m a TV host and writer. I’m grateful to have the platform to talk food, family and faith—and suicide prevention.
Twenty-five years ago, there were people who thought my siblings and I might want to keep our mother’s suicide a secret. They meant well, I’m sure, but secrecy can only make the stigma of suicide and mental illness worse.
More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffer from a treatable mental illness or disorder. Mom became a doctor to reach out to such people. It is our heartbreak that she was not able to help herself.
Now, on April 12 and 13, I honor my mom by creating something new—a way of bringing some positive meaning and memories to these two days. I might bake cookies for someone or do a random act of kindness. One year I spoke at a suicide-prevention fund-raiser.
And in 2004 those two days changed my life in a most special way. I’ll never forget looking at the coveted two lines on the pregnancy test for the first time and making the appointment with my doctor. I felt certain he would tell me what I already knew in my heart. And he did: I had conceived sometime between April 12 and 13, an answered prayer wrapped in a miracle.
Mom would be proud to know that I am an advocate for suicide awareness and support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. People tell me about loved ones who have died by suicide. I respond to their letters and add them to a list of people I pray for.
We may have this great loss, but we can always reach out to each other in love, understanding and compassion.
- If you think someone is considering suicide, there are steps you can take. Intervention saves lives. Here’s how to help:
- Talk to the person. Ask questions. Listen. By giving someone an opportunity to share their feelings, you can begin to alleviate their pain.
- If someone tells you they have a plan to kill themselves, do not leave them alone. Take them to a clinic or emergency room, or call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
- If you are in crisis, call the lifeline and talk to a counselor (it’s confidential and free).
- If a person is struggling, help them to maintain connections with family, friends and the wider community. Isolation can be a prelude to self-harm.
- For more information, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s website, afsp.org.
Listen as Melissa shares some of her favorite kitchen tips in our exclusive video.