Friday, July 22, 2005

Suicide is a Four-letter Word

My father died 17 September, 1973. I was ten days old. He committed suicide.

I don't know who told me my father had killed himself. Someone must have; I'd always known.

I knew a lot of things. I knew he'd died when I was only a few days old. I knew he'd used a gun. I knew my mom left me with my maternal grandparents for a few years.

But there were so many other, clearly more important things I didn't know. "Why?", comes to mind.

I don't suppose I thought of my father that often. Not when I was small.

My childhood, to a point, wasn't one of Norman Rockwell's idylic portraits, but there were happy times. My grandparents adored me. And I loved them.
I must have simply accepted that I didn't have a dad. I wasn't like all the other kids. But then, I'd already known that. I blame it on my brain. The way it works, the cinema-ready dreams I get to watch each night, the dialogues I've 'practiced' through most of my life, the inability to find a place to belong to.

I can't recall the event, or conversation, which prompted this quest; this need to learn about my dad. I'm fairly certain of a hidden curiousity, a mostly unspoken desire to find out where I came from.

What I do remember is how everyone in my life, family and friends, managed to avoid talking about it, about him. It was though I'd never actually had a father. He, simply, did not exist.

My mother never spoke of him. My father's parents, my fraternal grandparents, rarely mentioned him. And then, only if I asked. I existed in this fatherless world, where everyone went about the business of living, not mentioning the man responsible for my presence.

In addition to the few scaps of information I had picked up over the years, I also had a lot of impressions. Or ideas.

I believed mine was an unplanned birth. I believed I wasn't wanted.

My beliefs were confirmed, in my own mind, at least, by my mother's cold and distant nature. I was convinced I was an accident, and she was just putting up with me. Especially after she remarried, and my two half-sisters came into the picture. I saw rare warmth, and yes, even love, given to them, while our relationship was nonexistant at best, tumultous at worst.

I was also under the impression that I was to blame for my father's death.

A remark by my paternal grandmother, spoken so casually, led me to believe I was the cause. The catalyist.

Visiting one afternoon, when I was no more than eight or nine years old, my grandmother related the story leading up to his death: that I had been crying, and my dad said he needed to get away; all the crying was driving him crazy.
And to quote her words, "then he went out and shot himself".

Over the years, I've collected stories, memories, of a man I never had the chance to meet. I'm still trying to put the pieces together, to form a picture of a man who was both 'charasmatic' and a 'misfit'.

There was a day, in grade school, it was most likely the fifth grade; two boys were teasing me. This wasn't new. I can't remember a time from school when I wasn't being harassed, teased, or humiliated. This time, though, they were ripping on my last name. Everyone did. Even our grade school gym teacher made a big production of rattling off a half dozen 'nicknames' formed by my last name.
I'm not sure what came over me this time. I suppose I'd just had enough. Or maybe I was testing the waters, gauging reactions.
I turned to the boys, and said something to the effect of 'how dare you make fun of my dead father's name!'.
The look? Priceless. They were horrified. I think one of them might even have mumbled an apology. The teasing stopped, for a whole day and a half. They just picked one of any number of things to come after me with the next time.

I used to imagine an alternate, fantasy, life for my family: my dad hadn't died, and we'd moved, as a family, to a commune out West.
I was sure it would have happened. I just had this feeling.

I guess, looking back, I thought my mom and I were part of this late-hippie, bohemian, lifestyle. I remember my mom and her friends; their clothes, their attitudes, and I would certainly say they were too-late hippies. And they were too-late hippies in a small, blue-collar town.

My mother and her friend Mary dressed me up as a vampire for Halloween. Years later, I learned they were modeling themselves after Anne Rice's characters; mom was Louie, Mary went as Lestat, and I was Claudia.

I remember the wicker furniture, the incense, the fabulous but now fading from memory art on the walls. I remember a guy named Poppy; he and Mary used to date. One day, we dropped by his house, and he was in the bath...with an inflatable whale and peanut shells floating in the water. I guess no one thought it an inappropriate scene for a five year old.

I also remember dragging a wagon through the snow with mom's friend, and our one-time upstairs neighbor, Cindy, to the brewery down the street. We needed, apparently, more 'Greenies'.

I remember parties. I remember running as fast as my child's legs would allow, doing my best to keep up with Mary, as we ran from Poppy; hiding out in a dive bar, and missing the carnival.

I also remember the drugs.

I don't suppose there were a lot of hard drugs around, but I could be mistaken. But I don't think many seven year olds could add 'expert joint rolling skills' to their CV. My small fingers were adapt at getting just the right amount of pot onto the rolling papers, and forming a pefect joint. It was kind of a joke, but at the same time, some of these people were proud of me.

I think the first person I turned to for real information about my dad was my mother's childhood friend, Pam. She and Mary had always been 'aunts' to me. They were so very much a part of my life; their faces entwined in my memories. But, after my mom and step-dad went the Conservative, Right-Wing, Christain route, all the old friends faded from our lives.

I can't remember how it came to be, but I asked Pam to meet me for lunch, that I was hoping she could tell me a few things about my father.

It was good to see her. She was always so fun, I had good times with her. One of my favorite childhood pictures is of the two of us, dressed in matching, shiny outfits and berets. One of us in gold, the other silver. We're even affecting the same pose. I love the photo. Last summer, Pam told me she made those outfits.

We met at the only nice restaurant in town, one that was forever closing or changing owners (clearly, the people of my hometown aren't willing to stretch beyond fish fries, spaetzle, and wing dings). I was thrilled to see her, and now I thnk it was as much from learning about my dad as reconnecting with that old life.

Pam didn't seem too comforable talking about my dad. I assured her I not only wanted to know, but that I needed to know. A phrase I've repeated to every friend or family member; the good, the bad and the ugly...I have to hear about him.

She told me my dad had been very good looking; all the girls liked him. And he apparently had a way with the ladies, too. (This has been confirmed by everyone I've talked to.) He was also a bit shy.
I mentioned to Pam that, for unknown reasons, I had begun to see my dad like Jim Morrison. "Yes!" she shouted. "That's not a bad way of describing him".

I learned that my mom's cousin through marriage, a woman who'd been cutting our hair since I was small, had been after my dad. Even after he and my mother were married, and she was pregnant with me. I always felt a little weird around her after hearing that.

I kept asking people, 'what can you tell me about him?'

'Well', they'd say 'what do you want to know?'

'Everything. Anything!'.

One day my mother dropped a bomb. She suggested I get in touch with M; he and my dad had been in a band together.

I was stunned. My father was in a band?

I'd always wondered where my musical talents had come from. Mom certainly didn't have any. You couldn't keep me from singing; I simply had to do it. And not once had my mother said 'oh, your dad loved to sing, too'. I was thrilled she'd given me a lead, but furious with her, as well. All the years I'd struggled, and am still struggling, to find my identity; to figure out exactly who I am, and she couldn't even give me that much?

It took some time to track down M. His number was unlisted, but someone told me he was married to a reporter for one of the local papers. I found out how to reach her, called and left a message. I think we spoke at least once. And finally, I met a man who would become, along with his wife, a very dear friend.

I could tell he was a bit nervous, at that first meeting. I assured him I knew how my dad died. Now, I told him, I wanted to know how he lived.

M didn't give me much, not in the beginning. But over the years, he'd toss out stories, like paper ripped from a notebook. Here. Take this.

Through M, I found other names. I always found the same problems; people were reluctant to talk about my dad. I was never sure what they were afraid of; what I knew, or didn't know? Did they think I'd be hurt? Or were they afraid they'd look bad? These are questions I'm still answering.

Slowly, though, over the last ten or twelve years, I've been able to see a picture taking shape. An idea of the man, the father I never knew.

My uncle Rick has been a wonderful resource. He's been able to fill in some blanks, as well as provide me with a few of my father's belongings...tangible memories, so to speak.

My dad never fit in. He was a hippie, before there were hippies, at least in the areas he lived. I remember someone telling me that my father brought the first copy of Ziggy Stardust to my hometown.
Girls loved him.
He was sent to military school. He had a hard time living in the south, when my grandfather was starting up a branch of Stackpole in Virginia. He would take off, hitchhike to California.
He wore his hair long, when it wasn't a very popular style.
He was also lazy. He just didn't want to go to class. So, he didn't.
He liked to drink, and get high. It was the late sixties and early seventies, so it's not a big surprise.
He hated to work.
He sang in a band.
He and my mom were in love. They wanted to get married, but knew my maternal grandmother would never allow it. So, they tried to get pregnant. Even then, my Grammy didn't relent until two months before my birth.
He wasn't always faithful, and was a bit of a jerk. When my mother was in the hospital, having given birth to me, a friend gave my dad money to buy flowers for her. He used it to buy beer.
He had mood swings, which were all over the place.
Shortly before he killed himself, a close friend used a gun to commit suicide. I think my dad used the same gun.
My dad loved me.

There's still so much I need to learn, to hear. The one question no one seems to have an answer to is, if he was happy, if he had this brand new baby he was so proud of; why did he kill himself?

I've heard a few, mostly similar versions of the events leading to his death.

It was the first time he'd gone out since my birth. He was hanging out on the Diamond (actually, a triangular shaped piece of land in the center of town) with some friends. He had a gun. A friend had the gun. He was playing around. He pulled the trigger. Did he pull the trigger? My mother swears the guy who was with him won't talk to her about it, never has. She's convinced he may have had something to do with my dad's death. Not deliberately. The friend might have pulled the trigger, in jest. Another person mentioned the gun in question had a hair-trigger. Or that the gun stuck. Pull the trigger, nothing happens. Pull again, and get two shots.

But it still doesn't give me the 'why'.

Over the years, I realized my father wasn't a great man. I don't think my life, and that of my mother's, would have been that much better had he lived. I don't think he was equipped to handle the responsibilty of a wife and child. We may have ended up poorer as a family than just the two of us. Would we have been happy, I ask myself.
I honestly don't know

But I do think some things, some aspect of our lives would have different.

I don't think my mother would have been so remote, so unaccessible. I don't think she would have thrown herself into an almost cult-like branch of Christainity. I don't think I would have been suicidal, myself, during my teenage years.

Then again, I could be wrong.

I've made excuses, countless excuses, over the years. Excuses for my father, excuses for my mother. Life was too hard for my dad. My mom was so young, and faced with tragedy.

I gave them permission to not be there, to not show love.

But I'm older now. I have a child of my own. And, I, too, have faced tragedies. Not knowing my father, having his life shrouded in such mystery. The turbulent, I'd-rather-die-than-continue-living-like-this adolescence. A mother who didn't tell me she loved me until I reached my early twenties. A lack of identity, of self, that effected everything in my life. Losing my beloved Grandpa, eight months before my wedding. I have not been immune to pain, to sorrow.

But I look at my son, and think; 'I'm going to make sure he knows he's loved. He will never doubt his place in the world. He will always know he has someone to turn to'.

I made allowances for my mother; she wasn't raised in a loving environment. She had it rough.

Today I say, bullshit.

She could have made that conscious decision to change. She could have said to herself, 'I'm going to be different than my own mother'.

And my dad? I don't know why he killed himself. I may never know. I do know this. I'm angry. I'm angry at him for dying. For leaving us. Because death, as hard on people as it is, can be dealt with. Natural death is the easier way, but still tough. Disease is hard. Murder, that's painful, but at least there's someone to blame.

But suicide? Who can you rail against, who can you scream at, who hears your cries and sobs? There's no one left.

You can feel anger towards the people who didn't realize, didn't know, didn't help or stop them. But in reality, who are you really angry with? The one who's killed themself.

My father committed suicide. He left my mother, an almost-sixteen year old widow. And a ten day old baby girl. To never have those special, can't be replaced by uncles or friends moments; those father-daughter memories. I was robbed.

People who've been untouched by suicide are unaware just how long-reaching the event can be. How many lives are effected. Family and friends; they're left to wonder. Why? Could I have done something?

Suicide is also that thing, that action, no one wants to talk about. For most people, suicide is a four-letter word.

My life has been defined, shaped, by my father's suicide. First by his death, then the search for his identity, followed by a quest for my own.

Idle Chatter:
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Absolutely outstanding writing. I was moved to tears.
Beautifully written, Stephanie...a lot of things I knew, at least vaguely. I too, was moved to tears.
Thank you, both.

It was both hard, and blindingly easy, to write.

I'd just finished Anna Cypra Oliver's book 'Assembling My Father: A Daughter's Detective Story', and never before had a book spoken to me, moved me, the way this did. It was like reading a slightly different version of my own life, and it was disturbing, and fascinating, all at once.

I stayed up till five in the morning to finish the book, got ready for bed...then realized, suddenly, that I needed to write. So many feelings were bubbling inside, I had to get them out. I don't think I've ever so desperately needed to put words to paper before.

I was surprised with what I had, in the end. And not sure I wanted to share it with anyone...I know my Mom would be PO'd if she read it. Good thing she doesn't really pay any attention to me or my life them, huh?

This has been kicking around for a couple of weeks, until I finally felt comfortable posting it. Those pictures of my dad are two of only five or six I have...
My father's step-dad committed suicide (with a gun, in the family car, sitting in the driveway...my Dad was the one who found him) when my Dad was 18. He always blamed himself...always thought he was more than a little responsible.

He never talked about it. What I know of the kind of man Shelby was (alchoholic and abusive) has come in bits and pieces from others.

I spent most of my life wondering why Dad was the way he was and it was only recently that I understood the connection between Shelby's death and my father's life.

Good luck in your quest to find answers and peace.
Caoimhe, thank you.


I think that was the point that my heart lept out of my chest and I 1000% agreed and understood that feeling.

Not the same situation, of course, but messy and tangled and full of excuses...describes my life with my mother as well.

Powerful. Thank you for sharing.
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