When most people see the name Madoff, as I did this morning on the cover of today’s New York Times, they think of fraud and deception, perhaps psychopath comes to mind, the mind then flashing to aging widows cheated out of their retirement savings or wealthy families suddenly bereft of most of their wealth. You think, liar, cheater, mastermind of deceit. Sure, I think of all this too. But, since December, first I think of a man, not much older than me, alone in his living room in the middle of the night. I see him struggling—with a stool or chair, with a belt, with rope. I see him struggling with the murky black muck of his mind. I see him hanging from the ceiling. A man with two young children and a wife. I think of depression. I think of desperation, dire straits, hopelessness. I think of the two-year-old sleeping in the other room, a four-year-old with her mom down in Florida, but then I think again of the man alone with himself.
On December 11th of last year, Mark Madoff, Bernie Madoff’s eldest son, hung himself at home in his apartment in lower Manhattan. More than thirty thousand people kill themselves each year in the United States. For each suicide, between twelve and twenty-five more make an attempt. But these are just numbers, and they are abstract for most of us. I know that not everyone gets teary-eyed reading about Mark Madoff. He is either no one to most of us, or he is Bernie Madoff’s son.
Depression is an isolating condition. When a person needs others most—as succor and support, as a reminder of what is valuable in him/herself—the depressed individual is most likely to retreat, or even to obfuscate, hide in pleasantries or details, hide from himself, hide herself from the attention of family and friends. We see this in Mark Madoff’s case too.
Maybe Mark Madoff’s wife could have delayed that trip to Florida, maybe his brother could have called him more, could have visited, maybe Mark’s friends could have probed more deeply: how was he doing? The pressure, the shame, was it too much? Maybe Mark would not have died that weekend. Maybe he would have lived, a shift in mood, a chance kindness, lifting him away from the intense desperation that drives a person to end his or her own life. The act may seem impulsive, but it has been considered, considered again, left behind, only to erupt—the living-self dissuading the desperate-self, one winning, one losing, on each day, in each instance.
Suicide is never the fault of the ones who missed some clue, who avoided some phone call, who couldn’t be there at that precisely significant moment. After all, each moment—every moment—is significant. And yet suicide is preventable, depression is treatable. This is the conundrum of suicide—something could have been done; nothing could have been done—and it is the burden received by family and friends left behind, sad and angry. Not just angry at the world, but at the lost loved one. How could he? The answer constantly shifting, a prism or crystal that refracts light in different directions, different hues, according to how and when you regard it. It is painful to regard—the question, the death. It reminds us of mortality, of sadness and helplessness—our own helplessness in the face of loss, the suicide’s in the face of emotional pain and a darkness in the soul.
This was not the post I planned for today. Seeing the name Madoff again on the cover of the Times brought to the forefront of my mind what burbles beneath. I think of Mark Madoff every week or so since his suicide on December 11th. There are thousands of others I might have spent my thoughts on during that time, a few that I did. But there he was, his story splashed across the front of the paper near year’s end, and so he stands in for so many other stories that I don’t know, that go unheard, but are deeply felt by those close to the person who has ended her own life. Of course, in all of this, I am thinking of my own father too.
It’s been more than sixteen years now since he shot himself. I can’t imagine what my life would be like had he lived. In fact, I think I have grown in ways I would not wish to relinquish. We learn; we move on. But I carry his story, his pain, in a pouch inside me. Sometimes that pouch leaks; sometimes I open it up intentionally, needing to peek inside. Memory is painful. But memory is power too.
We can’t know everyone’s story. We wouldn’t be able to bear the weight of them even. But from each loss we learn not only more about the sadness in life—sadness that may be pulsing within those we know and care about—but also we learn of what we most cherish, what pleasure comes from being alive.
Here are the cookies I baked with my sons on Valentine’s Day. The boys aren’t in the picture—but they are right here.
~ See also “The legacy of suicide—Mark Madoff redux.” ~