By Patty Fisher
Posted: 01/23/2010 07:15:00 PM PST
Updated: 01/23/2010 10:05:39 PM PST
When her only son was killed by a drunken driver, Mary Ann Parker decided her life was over, too.
She bought a double cemetery plot in Palo Alto, wrote an epitaph for herself and had it etched on one side of the granite headstone they would share.
It read: “She died of a broken heart.”
In November, three years after her son’s death, she killed herself.
John Peckham was a handsome, brilliant 31-year-old biomedical engineer and a talented, competitive bicyclist. He was out on a noontime training ride in the Palo Alto hills on Sept. 8, 2006. A homeless meth addict, Chevelle Bailey, plowed into Peckham at what might have been 80 mph. One chilling detail I’ll never forget is that after the car stopped, Bailey climbed out, popped the tab on a 24-ounce Coors and chugged it.
What happened to Mary Ann Parker was less public but just as devastating. Jim Bronson, a grief counselor at Kara, a Palo Alto grief support agency, told me it’s quite common for grieving parents to contemplate suicide. “But 95 percent of people who experience a loss eventually find a way to cope,” he said, “and get the help they need and go on.”
Mary Ann Parker’s story haunted me. I decided to find the people whose lives she touched, and I quickly felt the conflicting emotions of sadness and anger as they talked about her death. I thought about the burden suicide survivors carry and decided theirs were tragic stories of another kind, stories also worth telling.
One point on which everyone agrees: Mary Ann Parker’s son was her life. That’s one reason why she couldn’t recover from his death. John’s father left them when John was a baby. She raised him alone until he was 11, when she married Jack Parker, a tavern owner and antiques dealer in St. Louis.
“John was her shining star,” Jack told me. “In her opinion, he was her single accomplishment in life.”
In John’s memory
When John died, Mary Ann poured her energy into making sure his star continued to shine. She put photographs of John on her front lawn in St. Louis. She used his $500,000 life insurance policy to endow a scholarship at the University of California-Davis, his alma mater, and donated to several charities in his name. She sponsored an annual John Peckham Memorial bike ride, which ended near the scene of the accident.
She also reached out to people in her son’s cycling club. When Ashleigh Jackson, a young woman in John’s cycling club, was hit by a car on Highway 9 last year and severely injured, Mary Ann called to encourage her to get back on her bike.
“She said that I really couldn’t let it stop me from living my life,” said Jackson, who is back riding and is pregnant with her first child.
Meanwhile, an odd assortment of people who grew close to Mary Ann after John’s death were regularly reaching out to her, trying to keep that epitaph from coming true.
Among them were the prosecutor who put her son’s killer away, the cemetery employee who helped her pick out the grave site, and one of John’s friends, who helped her close up his Mountain View condo. She touched all of their lives with her intelligence, honesty and generosity. But they also absorbed her unrelenting pain. In phone calls, text messages and e-mailed photos, they tried in vain to offer her hope, even as they watched grief drag her deeper into depression.
On Nov. 18, 2009, at age 65, she shot herself. They were shocked and saddened. But they were not surprised.
“My gut feeling was that it was inevitable,” said Karin Jeffrey, John’s close friend. “The only thing Mary Ann wanted was her son back, and none of us could do that for her.”
Photos of flowers
Jim Ziegler, a counselor at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto, has worked with many people who’ve lost children. But something about Parker moved him to go beyond professional courtesy to help her. Each week she ordered flowers from St. Louis for John’s grave, and Ziegler would often send her photos of the flowers in place.
“I wanted her to see the grave looking nice,” he said.
Jeffrey, a cyclist who met John while teaching a spinning class, remembers Mary Ann calling from John’s silent condo, asking if she would help her pack his stuff.
“I was the only one of John’s friends she knew,” she said.
The two women went through his books, clothes, bike equipment. After that, they talked frequently on the phone. Jeffrey listened to her cry, tried to make her laugh. She referred her to therapists. “She just seemed to reject any kind of help,” she said.
Yet Jeffrey stayed close.
“I felt if I could help Mary Ann survive the tragedy and get to the point where she wanted to live, that was something I could do for John because I knew the very last thing he would have wanted was for his mom to kill herself.”
Another person who became her friend was Jay Boyarsky, the supervising deputy district attorney who prosecuted Bailey. Mary Ann, a registered nurse, offered Boyarsky advice and comfort when he was going through his own medical crisis. She delighted in photos and stories of his small children, while noting with bitterness that she would never have grandkids of her own.
Hanging on to anger
On Nov. 18, Boyarsky sent her a cell phone photo of his son, Abraham, taking his first steps.
“Thanks Jay! So cute. Love, M.A. :-))” she texted back.
A few hours later she shot herself, leaving him sad and a bit resentful.
“This is a story about a survivor of a crime who ultimately did not survive,” he said. “A lot of us were worried about her the first year of her loss. We sort of hoped that she was out of the woods. But I guess she felt that in order to truly remember her son’s death, she had to hang on to the anger.”
Bronson, the grief counselor, stressed that when people talk about suicide, they need professional help.
“Our society is so focused on being strong that individuals find it hard to seek help,” he said. But a grieving person who won’t get help forces friends into a frustrating, helpless position.
Jack Parker said his wife talked constantly of suicide. She tried therapy but wouldn’t stick with it. More than once she apologized to him for what he knew she was thinking.
“It’s not that I don’t love you,” he says she would tell him. “It just isn’t enough.”
After thinking about it long and hard, Parker believes Mary Ann really did die of a broken heart.
“I believe she had a terminal illness,” he said. “It’s not like an aneurysm waiting to pop in your brain, or a terminal case of cancer where they close you up and treat you with painkillers. But it’s real. The pain of the heart is as real as the pain of the body.”
Ziegler, whom Mary Ann always called Cemetery Guy, wept when he read her obituary.
“She was one of a kind,” he said. “I guess I wanted to rewrite the epitaph on that monument. But it was totally futile. She just couldn’t get over the hump.”