My Father’s Death
February 2nd, 2016, my mother calls and asks me who am I with and where am I. She tells me, “Your father killed himself.” There is a pain that surges up my throat and infects my bones, it pours into my heart and I cannot breathe. My boyfriend carries me home. I don’t eat. I cannot eat. The thought of food inside me is repulsive. I sit on the kitchen stool and stare off into empty space unable to see images in front of me. I want to go, I want to be alone. My boyfriend tries to touch me and I fold away under his grasp. I cannot feel until someone touches me but touch hurts again like it did when I was younger. That week I drive to Montana for his funeral. I feel no attachment to the wife and family he became a part of without me. I used to talk to my father every week. I came to understand that he loved me but that he was broken. His childhood was filled with abuse and rage. He never became the father I needed but he became a good man that I respected and loved. I went to Montana to attend his funeral and I was alone. The man I wanted to see was no longer there and I found little to be attached to other than his two dogs that I walked daily in the mountains behind his home. I learned about the last days of his life. His wife gave me his phone to help call his friends. In his phone there was one number that was dialed over and over for the last week, sometimes 4 calls a day. What was my father doing? Who was he calling? I wondered if it all tied into his plan to kill himself, how long did he plan this, when did he know. I wondered if the last time I talked to him, when he repeatedly commented that though he and my mother did not stay together, they made really good children. He then commented, “You got your mom’s artistic talents and you got a sense of humor from me, you got the good parts of us huh?” I said, “Yea yea dad, yup, we did.” never thinking that his comments were anything more than his typical communication style. I called that repeatedly dialed number in his phone and found out it was his insurance company. In the end I discovered which he had changed his life insurance policy that he and my mother paid into. That week, he changed it from my brother and me to his wife’s name. I don’t feel angry that he did this, for no amount of money would have qualified as replacement for his life. Disappointment did not come from the act of not getting any money but rather came from an old wound I had around him never really showing up for me. I had come to love my dad from a distance. A therapist once had me envision putting my dad in a bubble and blowing him away. I had come to a place where he could no longer disappoint me because I came to expect nothing from him and I surely did not expect him to kill himself.
My father was a retired 25-year Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. He had spent most of his career working at the Oak Knoll Navy base attending to the needs of Vietnam Vets. He was an occupational therapist and not only did he run the Occupational Therapy unit at the hospital but he also ran the drug and alcohol rehab programs. My father was well versed in treating PTSD, depression, addictions and suicide ideation. He was a smart man that had an ability to reach people through his sense of humor and empathy. He had a perfectly sick and twisted sense of humor that would reach the hardened souls of men who had been through war and had no tolerance for bullshit. My father also had this giggle of a laugh, a snicker that would make all his words unintelligible, a giggle that would have been fitting for a child caught hiding during a game of hide n seek. After his retirement he continued to work as a therapist. He also became a guardian for several inpatients at the local VA hospital, serving as an advocate and friend to patients that otherwise had no one. My father who worked in mental health, who was loved by his friends, had a wife and step-children, was a man that no one really knew.
That week I spent in Montana for his funeral I walked around the small town that was my father’s home. Everything I did in that town I envisioned a ghost of him there before me. I walked through the automatic grocery store doors and I wondered how many times they opened for him. I would cross streets and wonder how many times did he stop at this very crosswalk to let someone across. I wondered if he touched the same door handle I was touching when I went into the sandwich shop down the street from his home. I came to discover that for many years my father would go down to the local bar and sit at one of the bar stools every evening with the same group of friends. The bartender told me that for many years my father never drank. He would sit there as jolly as the alcoholics, but would drink a soda water instead. I once had a conversation with my father about drinking and he said, “Even though I can stop drinking when I want to, when I do drink, I don’t like the things I do, therefore drinking is a problem. “He also had a long history of gambling and had been part of gambling anonymous for more than 40 years.
My father understood mental illness so well because that was his story. He struggled with his own PTSD, depression, addictions and suicide ideation. That week in Montana when I had conversations with his friends who would repeat, “Of all the people in the world, I never would have imagined your dad taking his life,” or “I don’t understand why he would do this, do you think he was sick and didn’t tell anyone? “I learned that my father took a traveling job in California a few weeks before his suicide. He arrived to the job only to leave the next day paranoid that someone was following him. I also came to find out that my father was home with his wife for two weeks before he died and none of his friends knew, all thinking he was still working in California. It was completely out of character for my father to have any paranoia, thinking that someone was following him. I question if he was having memory loss and knew it. My father was one of those tough guys who would say “I will never go into a nursing home, no one is wiping my ass, I’ll take myself out into the hills and kill myself first.” Was he someone who just honored what so many say they would do? Was he declining in a way that we all fear at the end of life?
What many do not know about my father is that though he may have been the man who actually did what we all say we will do if life showed a trajectory of mental decline, what many don’t know is my father was sexually abused from age 7-10. The adult son of a local pastor molested him in his town where he grew up. What is also not known to most is that my father grew up in a house where his mother would have psychotic breaks, pull a knife on her husband and threaten to kill my fathers dad. My father grew up with a mother who had no ability to see him as a loving little boy who had needs outside of herself, who had no ability to protect him or identify that he was troubled. My father was alone in the world when an adult man abused his body and took from him trust and filled him with shame and silence. This shame and silence damaged the man my father
could have become. Instead he became angry and depressed and had been hospitalized two times during my childhood for depression and suicide ideation. This boy, my father, whose childhood included rape, became a father who was abusive and angry, who lashed out irrationally at those he loved. He became a man who held all that pain inside until the day he killed himself. So do I think he was having mental decline during the weeks before he killed himself? Maybe, but there is a bigger wound here to look at, a bigger culprit, a bigger violation that is so damaging to the spirit that it can affect a person from the age 7 all the way to age 70. This type of violation on a child is violent and damages a person in insurmountable ways. I feel my father only endured life because he had a passion to help others. I think this may have been his way of helping himself at times however never having to truly look at all the pain he had inside. He went from being an abused little boy to an abuser and now he had to face that. I think it was too much for him. It is important I declare that my father never sexually abused me or anyone, he was angry, he was at times physically and verbally abusive to me however I always knew that he really loved me. He had moments of being proud of me. I even have memories of us camping, just the two of us sleeping head to head in our sleeping bags. I am still filled with memories of my father’s humor, his jokes and that laugh of his like a little kid. He was not all bad; he was just wounded and unhealed. He was 70 and I wonder did he really have more time to try and heal or was he just too tired and was ready to let go and is that ok?
So how do I regret my father’s suicide? I try to step into his world and imagine what he was feeling. How do I resent him for taking his life when his life had so much hidden pain in it? How do I say that what he did was wrong when it is clearly what he wanted to do? How do I come to say what I think I am supposed to say such as “His suicide was selfish, “and “He didn’t really want to die,” when he did it, when he took his life with a gun into his mouth, when he woke up one morning, wrote a suicide letter to his wife, stuffed it into his recliner then drove 4 miles away and shot himself in the head while sitting in his car. How do I say this was wrong when this was his decision?
I don’t know and some of my family members have been angry with me for not feeling as they do, not accusing my father of being selfish, of not really wanting to go, of making a stupid mistake. It is not the act of what he did but rather all the events that led up to it that I come to find peace with his choice. The day my father was raped, that man stole my father’s life and the day my father took his life was the day my father finally had peace. That is how I accept his suicide.
I have missed my father and most of my sadness comes from thinking about his pain and how I will never see him again. One day about a month after my father’s death I had a dream. I dreamt that he came to me and said to me “I will visit you,” then he stepped back a space and disappeared. The pace of my heart woke from that dream and shot me up to a sitting position in bed where I sat and tried to catch my breath. I felt fear, aloneness and sadness and thought about those same feelings in my father. I got up and went to my studio and at two in the morning I made a painting in a panicked mode. I threw paint and tossed tubes around the studio. I cried into that painting while I smeared my hands into the textures and pushed and squeezed colors from tubes. All the while I thought of my father, his pain, his life, his ending his life. I moved the paint until I got all the feelings out of me. I told my father who was not there, that I loved him and that I know he loved me, and then I went back to bed.