Eight days before my 18th birthday, my father took his own life with a pistol to his head.
I was visiting a friend a few miles away. Around the time
the event occurred, I experienced a sudden mental shock, something like what you feel when you see an oncoming car in your lane. We didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t call, but when I saw my uncle’s car turn into my friend’s driveway, I knew what had happened. My father and I were that close. I walked out, got in the car, and my uncle and I drove in solemn silence the few miles to our house.
By the time we reached home, the casseroles were already flooding
in, dusty pickups crowding the driveway. The ladies of the local Methodist Church were there in force, wielding mops, brooms, and feather dusters. I knew they came out of love, that someone had to do what they were
doing, but I wanted them all to go home.
Someone had brought my mother a glass of iced tea. She sat on the porch, motionless, the glass in her hand, oblivious to anything around her. It was she that found my dad. I gave her a hug; I’m not sure she noticed.
My grandfather was sitting on the front steps talking with some of the men that accompanied the casserole/cleaning women. He didn’t seem very upset. I wanted someone to blame, so I blamed him. It was the first time I saw my mother cry.
The night before, Nana had one of her “dreams,” I was told later. Her “dreams” were always the same. My grandfather Robert would come to her in the dream and say one word, only one – the name of one of her sons. That night it had been my father’s.
It wasn’t until nine years later when I was about to undergo major surgery that I learned my father’s death was suicide. In our family, if we didn’t talk about it, it didn’t exist. But now my mother worried that I needed the facts about my medical history. She had told me it was a heart attack and in fact, had maintained the “heart disease” fiction for years. It turned out that the “heart disease” was mostly caused by Old Grandad and Southern Comfort.
After that I slowly began to lose touch with my father’s memories. It wasn’t a conscious intent. He was my hero, my cheerleader. I adored him. But over the years, I lost his face in the family tableaus. I see us Mother, Grampa and me, seated at the kitchen table with its worn oilcloth covering, its centerpiece of pepper sauce, tobasco, salt and pepper. I see Grampa seated at the head of the table in his caned ladder-back chair. I hear him mumble the blessing, “Heavenly father, we humbly thank thee for these and all thy blessings. Humbly beg for Christ’s sake.” I see us turn our plates over and put our napkins in our laps. But my father is missing.
I see the church pew on Sunday morning – Grampa sits next to the window overlooking the picnic grounds. My mother is in the second row on the other side of the church overlooking the graveyard where she and my father rest side by side now. I see my cousins in the third row, the crying babies in the back pew, the preacher’s wife in the center row in front of the alter with its velveteen kneeler. But my father is missing.
I see the church socials, the barn dances. I am there with my friends. My mother is talking with the community ladies. But my father is missing. He is missing from the Christmas pageant, my high school graduation, holiday dinners, my piano recitals.
A few snippets remain; I hear him telling me he loves me more than all the windows in the Sears Tower. I remember that he always brought me some tiny gift when he came home from work. Every day. A lollypop, a pretty stone, a flower, always something. I couldn’t wait for him to come
I want those memories again. I want to remember all the things people say they loved about him, his humor, his kindness, his creativity. I wish he had stayed to attend my college graduation, to walk me down the aisle, to know his wonderful son-in-law, to meet his grandchildren. I grieve for all the Fathers Days we missed. I wish it had been otherwise. I wish my mother had not been so crushed by the boulders of the fallout, that her dreams for her future had not been so cruelly snatched away from her in midlife.
What I feel isn’t forgiveness, exactly. I don’t know the reasons for his overwhelming despair, the tragic sequence of events that sealed his fate, the twisted thought process that convinced him that this, his final act on earth, was the best, the only thing to do. But I don’t judge him. I want him to know that.
And so this is a requiem for my father. A dirge. A lament for what might have been. A plea for his soul, a prayer for his redemption. A testament of the unconditional love between father and daughter.