Living in fear: The day the music died

I wasn’t yet 10 years old and — in a flash — my childhood was over


BY SUEANN JACKSON-LAND — March 26, 1975 started out like any other day. It was a school day and I was in the 4th grade in Ms. Royer’s class. Ms. Royer looked like a great grandma. She was thin and gray, and secretly, I thought she was a professor instead of a 4th grade teacher.

The school bus pulled up to Oxford Drive and my neighbor Joel and I got off the bus. We were walking together, the same way we did every day. I stopped. Just stopped right in my tracks and I remember saying to Joel that something was wrong. I had a strange sensation like dizziness, but not dizziness; something else, instead. We continued up the road to my house and I unlocked the door and let myself inside.

When my mom was out of the house she would leave a note on the kitchen table to let me know when she’d be home and if there was anything that needed to be done. My parents had stationery that read “From the Desk of Robert C. Jackson or From the Desk of Doris L. Jackson.” Little, infinitesimal details like that linger in my memory and I find odd comfort in the italicized, black print type of “From the Desk of…”.

There was a note on the wooden kitchen table. I can only truly remember one phrase from the note, but it read something like this:

Dear SueAnn,

Be a good girl and keep playing the piano. Please don’t look in the garage.

Love, Mommy

The phrase is “keep playing the piano.” I remember that because that was the essence of my relationship with my mother, or at least what I perceived as my relationship with my mother. Do what is expected of you. Perform. Nothing else. I don’t remember, or maybe I refuse to remember, if the note said “I love you.”

It didn’t occur to me until my mid-30’s that maybe she meant that she was proud of the fact that she took piano lessons with me. Or that we sat at the piano together and played chords and scales. It only occurred to me that I was burdened with being “good” and “sweet” and I was charged with hiding a lie. My childhood was a stage performance.

I don’t know what was going through my mother’s mind when she wrote that note. Maybe she wanted me to look in the garage. I could see from the outside that the windows were steamed up. I could hear the car running in the garage. And I can’t explain why I read the note first and went to the garage second. I know that I thought my birthday present was out there. It was a month before my 10th birthday.

Still, I didn’t go into the garage. I picked up the phone and called my father at People’s pharmacy.

“I’d like to speak to Mr. Jackson, please,” I said, quietly. Calling my father on the phone at the pharmacy always felt like calling the President or something. He was an important man, to me. I waited.

“Pharmacist speaking…” he answered. That’s how my father has always answered the phone at whatever pharmacy he was working at as I grew up. That’s how he still answers the phone. Some things are warm and familiar like teddy bears and mom’s recipes. My warm fuzzy is “pharmacist speaking.”

“Daddy, I don’t know what’s going on, but there’s a note on the table and the car is running in the garage.”

“Do you smell any gas?”

“Nope. I don’t smell anything, but the windows are fogged up.”

“Sue Ann, what does the note say?”

I read it.

“GET OUT OF THE HOUSE, NOW. Don’t go in that garage, get out of the house and wait for me, I’m coming home.”

I kind of figured there was some sort of poisonous gas making its way through the house and that I should run screaming out of that front door. I didn’t. I also thought that maybe there was some sort of surprise in the garage for me. My birthday was coming up, so maybe there was a bike or a toy or something out there. So I stood there for a minute and decided to take a peek into the garage. I walked around the kitchen table and headed to the door.

The first thing I saw was her feet. My mother was always a very “clean” person, very tidy, so she had taken the time to get dressed, fully, and to lay a braided circular carpet underneath her. I could see the bottom of her legs, but the rest of her body was hidden behind the Dodge. I turned around and ran back through the side garage door into the house. I ran out the front door and directly to the neighbor’s house.

“Mr. Books! Mr. Books! My Mom is hurt! She’s laying in the garage…”

Tony Books was our nearest neighbor on the left side of the house. He and his wife had built the house from the ground up; he was a contractor. He had hands like my grandfather Geshan’s. Big hands… confident hands. He grabbed my arms with those hands and instructed me to stay where I was and he would go inside the house.

A couple seconds or minutes later he opened the garage door. I could see him moving quickly and I don’t know when he did it, but he must’ve turned the engine off in the Dodge. I tried so hard to stay put like he told me. I just wanted to make sure she was ok. I walked up to the person I knew as my mother, but she wasn’t there any more. Her eyes were hazel. They were the same shade of green as the ocean at Nags Head, North Carolina. Her eyes were open and she was staring up at the ceiling. Her lips were parted and I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping or awake.

But I knew she wasn’t awake. I knew she was never coming back.

I couldn’t cry. I couldn’t even speak. A couple of minutes went by and Joel’s mother showed up to give my mother CPR. She said that she had a heart beat… but then the heart beat went away. To this day I think it was wishful thinking for all of us. I have seen a body when the soul has left, and my mother’s soul was long gone before I got that garage door open.

My father had to borrow a car to come home because his car was in the shop. He arrived and I want to tell you the person I became at that moment. I looked at him and said, “Daddy… don’t you worry, everything will be okay. I’ll make it okay.”

My childhood was over.

I guess my Dad didn’t want me to see what was going to happen next because he put me in the car that he had brought home and told me to lock the doors. I sat in the car and waited. It wasn’t our car and I didn’t know then, that our car was in the shop and my Dad had to borrow one to get home. I just knew it was a strange car, everything was strange and tilted. I was petrified and I couldn’t cry. The coroner came, and I believe an ambulance came. I have to be honest and say that I don’t remember much other than watching everyone from the car and later, from inside the garage.

The next memory I have is holding my mother’s wedding picture. I was curled up in the front seat of our car and my father was driving. There was a black and white photo of my mother and my Grampy Geshan on her wedding day. It was encased in a bronze frame that looked like it was woven. We were headed to Mahanoy City.

It is now March of 2003… oh my God, it’s March. I should have known. Every single bloody March my life does a tilt-a-whirl. They say beware the ides of March, for me it is the tides. The same tides that are relentless and natural at the same time. I think I’ve finally come to peace with my haunting, with my sorrow. And I’d like to tell you that I’ve become a “well” enough person that it doesn’t hurt anymore. But there are days that it hurts with the same clarity as it did on March 26, 1975. There have been two lucky years that I’ve forgotten that day, on that day. I actually made it into April last year before I realized. For most of my life, I would get through the morning and all hell would break lose before the afternoon; or I’d find myself sobbing… hidden away behind a closed bedroom door from my children. Or I’d be “down” all day and not really understand why; and then, like that same tide, it would come rushing back to me ready to bowl me over and tumble me to the shore.


SueAnn Jackson-Land is a writer living in Sudbury, Ontario. She would like to be a chaplain, but is mostly just grateful to still be breathing, to be given the opportunity to learn, to forgive (and be forgiven) and go on.

This is part 3 of a 4-part series called “Living in Fear”:

Read part 1: Being raised by a mentally ill mom was like walking on eggshell

Part 2: We appeared to be the perfect family

Part 4: Recovery, redemption and realization

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2 Responses to “Living in fear: The day the music died”

  1. SueAnn, I can’t imagine living through what you have been through. Yet, you sound as though you have journeyed through your pain and out into wisdom.

    You are indeed a survivor. You just keep on going, girl. You’re on your way.

  2. Sueann, What a brave soul you are! I am left speechless by your story.
    As an “writer” you must know that I was gripped to the page hanging on your every word…. as your dear friend I was grief stricken with tears stinging the back of my eyes, full of sorrow for the pain and anguish you have endured.

    As you continue on your journey through life always believe in yourself and follow your heart and know that you are admired, love and respected by so many people in your world.

    Huggs.. shel