In November of 1989, my father committed suicide. It was years before I could dredge up an “and that’s good because….” about Daddy’s choice.
I won’t go into the grim details. What I will share is this:
My former husband and I had recently moved from Delaware to the Chicago suburbs. East coast friends Sally and Frank were planning a Thanksgiving visit. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing them and sharing our Thanksgiving holiday. I had just carried in a mountain of groceries when I got the phone call. The caller? My mother’s close friend Grace.
I distinctly remember that moment. The grocery bags piled on the counter, waiting to be unpacked. It was an unusually bright day, sunlight streaming in the kitchen windows. A ringing phone was odd. We knew few people. At that time the phone was a land-line on our white built-in kitchen desk. Even today, with crystal clarity, I can visualize the random papers on the desk, my blue date book, kids crayoned artwork strewn across the surface.
Grace imparted the horrifying facts and my life was forever changed. Yet, I wasn’t wholly surprised at the news.
The summer before our move I dreamt mother was calling me, begging for help. She was sobbing, pleading and repeating, “Please, someone help me. Someone, anyone…I need help.” The following day I phoned her and shared my odd dream experience. She began to cry, saying, “Thank God. I have been praying somebody would hear me. I am terrified.”
Daddy had forbidden her to tell anyone what was happening to him. In a whisper, she spilled her fears. He had been behaving weirdly. Pacing, muttering obsessive thoughts, voicing suicidal ideas. Mother was frightened and unsure where to turn.
My father was clearly losing his mind, a mind he was very proud of. During World War II when he applied for Navy service his IQ was tested. He was told his was among the highest the Navy had ever measured. The prospective loss of his brain horrified him.
She and I took my reluctant father to the family doctor, Perry Mitchell. He suggested a psychiatrist. At first, Daddy stubbornly refused to go. In the 70’s he had told me “admitting to mental health issues is too much to live down” citing the Thomas Eagleton scandal. Missouri U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton had been hospitalized on three occasions for depression and had undergone electroshock therapy. He was presidential candidate George McGovern’s running mate. The revelation of Eagleton’s mental health embarrassment destroyed McGovern’s chance of election. This had convinced my father one never reveals such issues. Finally, we prevailed and Daddy saw the doctor.
Shortly after that doctor’s visit, my little family moved from our home near mother to the Chicago suburbs.
My parents continued to seek treatment. Tests were run. Ultimately hospitalization was recommended.
In September of 1989, my father was committed to a Wilmington, Delaware psychiatric hospital. I flew home. Mother and I visited him daily. On the community, room wall hung a large white board. On it was drawn a big pyramid. The names of the patients were written with the “healthiest*” patients names on the bottom of the pyramid. The “strangest/most flawed*” (my words, not theirs*) were at the top. My intelligent father was at the apex of that grim triangle.
One young man wandered the halls, greasy lank hair in his vacant eyes. He tried to hand a filthy comb to everyone he passed. That young man’s name was on the lowest level. Daddy was humiliated.
Following his hospitalization mother brought him home. He paced the circle of their first floor all day, every day. Through the kitchen, into the dining room, living room, family room and back to the kitchen. Each trip through the kitchen he would bend over the sink and drink from the faucet. Then he’d be back to pacing.
The day he died he left a rambling, illegible suicide note. It was scribbled in pencil on a piece of aqua blue construction paper.
Following his death, it was concluded he’d likely been ill with mad cow disease aka Creutzfeldt-Jacob. He was diagnosed by his symptoms which included seizures, dementia, radical personality changes, paranoia, and hallucinations. A definitive diagnosis would have required brain biopsy, but that wasn’t possible.
My poor mother was so broken by his death, but she was stoic and kept her head up. Suicide is a shameful death. Following a suicide, individuals avoid the mourner. They avert their eyes, stammer uncomfortably, and give a wide birth. Mother felt isolated by her shame.
Fast forward four years and I had my own suicidal episode. Clinical Depression She came to the mid-west to take care of our kids while my husband worked. They visited my locked-down, dismal hospital. That poor woman….I cannot imagine her terrible fear that I might make the same gruesome decision.
Now I’m coming to the “this is good because….” part of my Dad’s death.
Even at my lowest point, I remembered the horror of losing a loved one to suicide. The depth of my sorrow is forever etched into my heart. I simply could not, would not inflict the same trauma on my kids. Due to my father’s illness and fatal final action, Matthew and Maureen didn’t lose their mother when they were thirteen and ten.
Daddy, I love you. Someday, hopefully, none too soon, I’ll see you on the other side.