￼On Father’s Day weekend 2007, when I was nearly eight months pregnant with my son, my father killed himself.
He parked his truck behind the woodpile near my parents’ house, and ran a garden hose from the muffler to the driver’s seat window where he sat for many hours with a perfect view of my mother on the couch — wringing her hands and wondering where he might be — before he finally turned the key in the ignition and poisoned himself with carbon monoxide.
Except it didn’t work. My mother found him the next morning, slumped over & acutely ill, but not dead. She called the ambulance.
When he first arrived at the hospital, he could talk, he could say “I love you.” He could listen to my brother tell him over the phone that he’d just learned his wife was pregnant for the first time. He could smile. He held my pleading gaze. He would not answer questions about what he had done. He struggled to breathe and became increasingly agitated, fighting the nurse as she tried to give him oxygen.
The doctors spoke to us in hushed tones just outside his door: my father needed more intensive care than they could provide, and they were moving him to larger hospital. In the 30 minutes it took to transport him by ambulance, he was intubated and could no longer speak.
Stepping into that ICU room, my father in bed, surrounded by machines — was stepping out of myself. It was a story — a nightmarish story — in a book or a magazine or a movie. It was, I prayed, someone else’s story in someone else’s life.
My mind shifted into survival mode, an altered state, a fight or flight survival response. Detachment swirled in, offering exile, wrapping me in wispy tendrils of space and time, anesthetizing my perception, allowing me to take it all in, there in distant panorama for my obtuse perusal. Seconds move by like minutes, minutes like hours.
There was my father, in a complicated bed, loud with noises like a mechanized bellows, pumping and changing the air in the mattress. A heaving and breathy dragon of a bed. Its occupant shrouded in sheets like furniture left behind in a great castle, covered ceremoniously, reserved for the unlikely return of the perhaps now ruined family that once lived there. Endless crisp sheets with quick hems and soothing cool newness, draped over my father’s body, pouring over his belly and legs, dripping towards the floor, hiding everything in plain sight, tubes and wires and bluish-white powdery skin.
Our family spent 18 days in this ICU. Eighteen days of sitting, of pacing. Eighteen days of phone calls, of whispered conversations, of shaking heads, of powerless anguish. Eighteen days of tests. Eighteen days of decline, of faculties taking leave, one by one. Eighteen days of trying to feel his hand squeeze mine, of trying to trap his scent in my nose, of trying to memorize the feel of his thick, silver hair sliding between my fingers. Eighteen days of begging the doctors to let him die.
Eighteen days of watching my father take his leave in slow-motion suicide.
On the 4th of July, with the support of the excellent physicians and nurses who had come to know us — come to understand who we were before this — we removed care. We unplugged the machines, took out the tubes, inserted an IV drip of high-octane morphine, and waited for him to die. The doctors said it might take a day, maybe days. But it did not. It took just hours. With only my brother in the room at the time, he sucked in one last ravenous gulp of air and was still. Gone again, already gone.
Four years prior to his death, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. For three of those years, he told no one, except my mother. Somehow she kept that secret, somehow I never guessed at it. It was only just before his suicide that I noticed a change. He dropped his foot a little when he walked, his handwriting was shaky.
In the weeks leading up to that ￼Father’s Day, what I noticed most was that he’d became distant and sad. But the idea that he would kill himself never — not for one second — entered my conscious thought.
Well-meaning friends and family said maybe it was a gift, maybe he was trying to spare us the soul-crushing slog of watching him become slowly trapped in his own body. Maybe he took his life, knowing my mother had cancer, so we would only have to care for one parent. Maybe he looked ahead at his inevitable demise and could not bare it, could not allow it.
Maybe. Maybe all of that is true. But what I have felt for most of these years is seething, roiling, bared-tooth anger. Heartache, yes of course. His absence, absolutely. Searing loss, yes. All of that. But anger has been the driving emotion.
Anger at his selfish, stupid, cowardly act. Anger that he could leave and not say a word, not write a note, not a simple “I love you; I’m sorry.” Anger that I carried his unborn grandson, now gestating in an amniotic grief. Anger that they would never meet. Anger at the heartlessness of abandoning my three-year-old daughter who loved her grandfather with a ferocity that might have sustained him had he let it.
Anger that he knew my mother would find him. Anger that his plan was shitty and didn’t work. Anger that Parkinson’s Disease ravaged his mind, drove him to madness, to his truck, to his death. Anger, raw and gnashing. Anger that eclipsed almost everything that came before it.
But that’s not the whole story.
Before the anger, before the bastard beast of suicide and Parkinson’s set a permanent place at my family’s dinner table, my father was a champion dad, a fantastic father. He was the father other kids wished they had. Indeed, he gave our friends his countless hours, and his authentic attention. He took our peers under his wing, guided them, loved them, respected them — right there alongside his own son and daughter — making us all laugh, making us think, making us try and do and go.
He was brilliant and funny, an excellent listener, a curious academic, a world citizen, a blues guitarist, a mover of boulders, a planter of trees, a watcher of how-to videos. Yes, he yelled loudly at me for getting a D in Algebra. Yes, he once violently tore the phone from my hands upon finding me in the closet talking to a friend and binge-eating Pop Tarts. Yes, when we wanted a puppy, he brought home an abandoned and wholly untrainable Irish Setter, who was never not dumb. Yes, he sometimes drank too much and was smug and condescending. Yes, he was mostly a feminist and also, now and again, a world-class misogynist ass. Yes, yes, yes…he was imperfect.
Imperfect, infuriating, and wonderful.
Now, finally, pushing through the heavy fog of angry grief, I see what has always been true of my father. What will always be true of all of us. Of you. Of me. We are gray. We are — none of us — black and white.
As thinkers, we long for clean dichotomies, for simple definitions, clear lines, good and bad, same and other. We watch the news and draw quick conclusions: that person hurt someone, they’re bad; that person did a good deed, they’re good. I wish it was that simple. It’s not. It’s complicated, murky, often beautiful, sometimes disturbingly more dark than light. It’s utterly, perhaps even solely, human.
We have fathers, each of us. Present and absent. Loving and hurtful. Known and unknown. We have one, we know one. They are not tidy, precious Pinterest boards of grill tools, bleached smiles, and monogrammed coffee cups. They, like each of us, are decisions made: words spoken, hugs given, fists thrown, hearts broken, shoes tied, Little League coached, birthdays missed, drunk, sober, well, ill, here, gone.
Whatever it is, however it is, our fathers are their stories. We are their stories.
￼This Father’s Day — this June — thick with green and slick with rain. This June, verdant and teeming. This June, with its memories, tripped like wires. This June, just exactly like each of the last nine Junes. This June — this one — I’m telling the story of how my father killed himself, how he left his family behind split open and reeling, how he made a glib, Hallmark holiday into a tormented metaphor, an ugly tale.
This Father’s Day, I am setting this story free.
And maybe, with anger subsiding, maybe with time, maybe it becomes a story of forgiveness and reclamation. A story of our broken and messy humanity. Of our fallibility. Of our enduring love. This June, this time, this month, maybe it’s not an ending anymore. No, not anymore.
Maybe. Maybe. It’s a start.