“Your father put a gun to his head tonight.”
Twenty-three years ago, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what I wanted with my life. After graduation, I had moved to KC at my oldest cousin’s invitation to work and save some money before I started college. I decided to take a year off before I was going to start at Northwest Missouri and work towards a teaching degree. (I believe they call that time a “gap year”now.) To make money, I was working as a CNA at the nursing home my cousin worked at, working the 11pm to 7am shift.
The shift started out typically enough. I got my cart and was filling the ice bucket for the evening fresh ice water pass when I looked down the hall and saw my cousin standing at the desk. It wasn’t unusual for her to stop by on her nights off because she was bored and would often come to visit. A nurse at the desk pointed down the hall, and my cousin made her way to me. She did not smile.
“I need to talk to you.”She said, and motioned for me to follow her. We ended up in the large shower room. It was then that she said those words.
“You’re father put a gun to his head tonight.”
Out of all the ways she could have given me the news, twenty-three years later, I still wonder what on earth possessed her to say it that way. Bold. Harsh. Real.
My world started spinning. I felt like a giant hole had appeared, and was pulling me inside. My eyes locked with my cousin’s, looking for any type of anchor to keep from being sucked into despair.
None of it made any sense to me, and yet all the pieces fit into place.
My relationship with my father had been tenuous since I had moved out earlier in the summer. We lived in a minute town, the kind you read about where people go and they never leave. But I wanted more in life than what that town could offer me. Someplace bigger. A fresh start where I wasn’t known as the daughter of the town drunk. A place of opportunity. My cousin offered that, and I eagerly took her up on it. My father, on the other hand, saw no merits of my move, and looked at it as the ultimate act of betrayal. He refused to speak to me again after that. When I would call home, I would speak to my brothers, and even my father’s girlfriend at the time. During those calls, my father would suddenly have something to do away from the phone. I never gave up, though.
The silent treatment ended in mid-November when my step-Grandpa passed. Not a bio-dad to my father, but treated my father a lot better than his own dad ever did. (My bio-grandfather was a colossal dick.) Dad finally started talking to me again, mostly about Grandpa Verle. For the week or so that followed, we talked almost every night. He almost always was drunk. He hated his job, working at some factory that made campers or something. He was having problems with his girlfriend. He was bickering with his own brothers and sisters. Truth be told, there were some who were pretty toxic to be around. I tried to be encouraging, as much as an 18-year-old can be.
The last time I spoke with him was twenty-three years ago, today. He called to tell me that his girlfriend took her kids and moved out earlier that evening. He asked me if I had seen or heard anything about another woman he used to date. I said I hadn’t, but I would see if she still lived in our old hometown. That seemed to cheer him up. We talked about him and my brothers moving back to Missouri. I don’t remember what else we talked about, but I do remember the last words I said.
“Don’t do anything stupid.”
A few hours later, he did just that.
To this day, I still don’t have the full details, but what I know is this: After his girlfriend left, my father proceeded to go on a drunken bender. Around 9pm or so, he started playing with one of his guns and going on one of drunken, paranoid rants. This was not unusual for him, I remember him doing it when I was very young and we still lived in Colorado. My brothers and I eventually learned to steer clear of him when he was in one of these moods. In the living room, where the event took place, were my father and my two younger brothers. One was 14, and the other one had just turned 16 that same day. My father said something, to which only my brothers know and will not tell me, and then he shot himself with a .22, behind the right ear.
My youngest brother fell apart. My other brother went to his father and elevated his head while yelling at the youngest to call 911. Shortly after the call, the sheriff’s deputy, who lived just down the road, ran into the house with her gun drawn. Apparently, they thought something very different happened. After she ascertained what had really occurred, EMS arrived. My father was rushed to the nearest hospital, and then life-flighted to a Wichita trauma center where he was placed on life-support.
At the time, my father was not married. Nor did he have an appointed DPOA. Because of that, all medical decisions were then the responsibility of his oldest, living kin. Me.
I don’t remember much about the drive to Wichita, other than it was just me and my cousin. I remember crying when I saw my brothers sleeping in the waiting room because they had grown a bit since I last saw them. I remember the doctor and one of the nurses sitting with me in a conference room and telling me that tests concluded that my father had no brain activity and that he would not recover. I remember talking to my brothers about what the doctor said, and I remember that an 18-year-old, a 16-year-old, and a 14-year-old decided that our father would have never wanted to live on life support and that we should let him go. I remember how vile my aunt was to me when I told her of our decision. I remember that aunt giving me the bag full of personal effects he had on him, but not before taking all the money out of his wallet before she did. I remember telling the nurse of our decision. I remember the family that chose to stay, standing around his bed in the ICU as the staff turned off the respirator. I remember holding his hand. I remember he lived on his own for just over an hour before his heart stopped beating. I remember my eyes being unable to produce any more tears because I had cried so much. I remember telling my aunt that I was taking my brothers home with me and she threatened to call the police for kidnapping if I did. I remember inviting her to do so because I knew the law would be on my side.
I don’t remember the drive home. I don’t remember the events leading up to the funeral.
We opted for a graveside service. He was buried in jeans and button-down “cowboy shirt”. His usual fashion choice when “dressing up”was required. Old friends came from hours away to pay their respects. A Nazarene minister gave the sermon, but I couldn’t tell you a word of what he said. I remember his three children sitting in the in the chairs in front of the simple, wooden casket, hands of the family behind us resting on our shoulders. I remember that none of his children cried, while the rest of the family sobbed.
After the funeral, we went to his house, packed up what we could, and drove back to KC.
Then, life went on.
I never did go to college to be a teacher. After my Dad died, something inside me just sort of went sideways. Eventually, I made it through nursing school and now I take care of cancer patients. During nursing school, I was assigned a patient who, after making a lifetime of bad choices, decided to kill himself with an electric carving knife. He was unsuccessful and landed in the ICU where I was doing my clinicals. The man’s daughter, a wide-eyed, 18-year-old blond, had been called. In that moment, in caring for him, and watching her without getting swamped in my old grief, I felt like things had come full circle, and I knew that nursing was right thing for me to do at the time. Like a calling.
My brothers and I never talked about that day. Years later, I found out that my vile aunt went to the Kansas Bureau of Investigations reported that she was certain one my brothers pulled the trigger that night; there was no way her brother would have done that to himself. (If she had known him as well as I did, she would have known this to be patently false.) I also learned that as a result, my brothers were interrogated by the KBI to the point my youngest brother mentally broke. The investigation ruled the accusations were unfounded, and only succeeded to inflict further scarring upon two teenage boys. I never spoke to my vile aunt again, and when I saw her recently, her mind was too far gone to even recognize me. At that point, I let my anger go because unleashing it, or keeping it bottled, would have both been pointless.
There are certain universal truths about suicide that people don’t understand unless they have been exposed to it. One being that suicide only transfers the pain of the one person who died, to the rest of the living. Another truth is that it stays with you always. Here it is, twenty-three years later, and I still have moments where the grief is fresh as a new cut.
I once read an article from a woman whose father killed himself. She likened life to being a can of white paint, and that all our experiences are like little drops of color sprinkled in. Yellow for the times you are happy. Blue for the times you are sad. Green for those times you are most at peace. Suicide comes along and tosses a big blob of red right into the can, and if you mix the paint, you soon have a can of mauve colored paint. That is what suicide does. It taints everything, and you are constantly being reminded of it. I know I was and still am. It was there when I graduated college. When I got married. When I gave birth to my little girl. When she first smiled. Or said her first word. Or took her first step. It’s in the sadness I feel when I know that my father should have been there for those things. It’s in the anger that I feel that he made the horrible choice that surrendered being part of those things. It’s in the guilt I felt when I thought of my brothers having to witness that alone, and see them struggle because of it. Or the guilt that I felt when I wondered if things would have been different had I not left him after I graduated high school.
Things are a lot better now. I saw a therapist at the encouragement of my husband. Up until that point, I never talked about what happened. Only a few people in my closest circle knew. Talking about it hurt too much, and in some weird way, I felt like it was a secret to be kept. A source of shame. That I could bear it alone without crumbling was something I was oddly proud of.
Yesterday, I was watching a documentary about a UFC fighter named Cat Zingano. The story goes into how her estranged husband killed himself. She later fights Ronda Rousey, who is also the child of a parent suicide, and she wants to talk to her mom, to know how she got through it. What did she do to help her daughter get through it? It got me thinking. What would have been useful to me when it happened? What things did I need to hear to help me move on?
I wish someone would have told me that it wasn’t my fault. That was probably the most important. I remember for a long time after, I kept thinking if I would have been there, I could have stopped it. Or I should have picked up on it that last time I talked to him. I should have done something.
I wish someone would have told me that I didn’t “allow this to happen”. You can’t control what another person does. If they truly want to harm themselves, it’s going to happen. You might be lucky and intervene at the right time once, but if they mean to do it, they will try again. And they will be smarter about covering their tracks. The signs are never there if you are not looking for them. Hindsight is not the same as foresight.
I wish someone would have told me that it was okay to grieve for him, and given me a safe space to do so. He was my dad, after all. And no matter what kind of a life he lived, or mistakes he made, at the end of the day, he was my dad. The loss was just as acute as anyone who would have lost their parent by natural causes. Crying doesn’t make you weak, and it doesn’t make you less of a person. Showing vulnerability is not something to be ashamed of.
I wish someone would have told me that I made the right choice. I could logically explain to myself that it was, but in the back of my brain, I wondered “what if…” It wasn’t until I finished nursing school and worked in the field a while before I truly understood what everything meant.
I wish someone would have told me that by him doing what he did, it didn’t mean that he loved me any less. My father did love his kids. The problem was that he didn’t love himself.
And finally, I wish someone would have told me that just because this awful thing happened to me, didn’t mean I was a broken person. This permeated any and all relationships I had. My self-worth took a major hit, and the caliber of the guys I dated reflected that. It made me aloof. Unapproachable. I also didn’t care for myself as much as I should have because I didn’t feel I was worth the effort.
So, here we are now. Twenty-three years later. Like I said, things are better now. I’ve certainly changed a lot. Friends often say I am more at peace. Less angry. More hopeful. I have my own little family, and in its own way, rights the wrongs of my childhood. How much of this will I tell my daughter? I suppose if the information is relevant, I will tell her. But I will also tell her of the good person her Grandpa was before his demons became too much for him to bear.
There is no use in keeping my father’s suicide a secret any longer. They say the truth shall set you free, and they are right. Putting it out into the universe frees up more space in my life for things that are good. Remembering the good stuff he did when he was alive is far more worthy of remembrance than how he died.