Friday, February 13, 2009

Eight Years

This post is not cheery, and it concerns the 8th anniversary of my father's suicide on February 13, 2001. It is an essay I feel compelled to write, but I understand if you don't want to read it.

I was sitting in the Juris Publici (law school student newspaper of which I was editor-in-chief) office when I received the instant message to report to the Dean's Office. I had finished all my classes in the morning, and had contemplated going home for an afternoon nap, but decided not to do that. It's unusual to be summoned to the Dean's office, so I immediately thought I was in trouble. Was I being accused of cheating? Had I turned in anything that could remotely cause a professor to think I might have cheated? I couldn't think of anything as I made my way to the Dean's office.

When I got there, I was directed into the Dean of Student Life's office, and she asked me to shut the door. Another bad sign. What is going on? I thought. The Dean told me that my mother was on the phone and would like to speak to me.

That's when I knew. I knew in my heart why my mother was calling. She was going to tell me that my father had done it. He had committed suicide.

My father had been spiralling down for months. It started in May 2000 when a relationship he was in suddenly ended. He seemed OK at first, but he began to brood more and more. The woman was named Sophia and she worked with him at IBM. In early July, she annouced she was engaged to another man. Turns out that while she was with my dad, she was also seeing an old high school flame on the side who lived in Indiana. That's when the bottom fell out for him.

Having suffered through serious depression myself, I knew the symptoms and signs. When he came to visit me in early September 2000, it was obvious to me that he was NOT in good shape at all. I took matters into my own hands and wrote his therapist. I knew her name, and my mom got me her address. I mailed her a letter telling her my concerns and observations. Turns out that my dad's shrink (he was on anti-depressants at this time) also became concerned and contacted his therapist within a day of my letter reaching her. The one-two punch was alarming enough that she had him come in, and he started more intensive therapy.

I remember wondering if he'd be angry with me, but he wasn't. He knew why I had written the letter, and he seemed relieved and grateful that I had. He kept having anxiety attacks though, especially when he would run into Sophia. His friends were a lifeline in trying to keep them apart as much as possible.

Things continued along, and Christmas break came. I was in Lexington and staying with my dad who had an extra bedroom in his apartment. What I observed there really alarmed me. My dad, the ultimate pack rat, had done some spring cleaning in the middle of December. He threw out a bunch of things, and he had everything else sorted and labeled. Growing up, my dad hated cleaning out the garage, and he certainly never did it after the divorce in 1998. He had a brick from his childhood home in Nashville that is now underneath an airport runway that he was giving back to his parents. I found a copy of the book "Final Exit" which was the notorious "how to" manual for euthanasia.

My dad also gave strange Christmas gifts that year. Along with the brick from his childhood home that he gave to his parents, he gave me a framed picture of himself. Christmas night, as we were getting ready to go to bed, my grandma said, "You think your dad will be alright, don't you?" I don't know why, but something told me to spill my guts on my concerns and observations. My mom joined in the conversation, as did my grandpa. My dad had retired an hour or so earlier. We talked for a good hour about our observations of him, conversations he had had with each of us. My father was very smart...he gave each of us a piece of the puzzle. It wasn't until we compared notes that a picture began to form.

My grandfather was suspicious that my dad wanted to reclaim his Glock that he'd given to them for safekeeping when the serious depression started in the summer. My grandfather went to the hiding place, and the Glock was gone. He confronted my dad, and I'll never know what was said, but my dad turned over the gun, and my grandfather cried. My grandfather never cries, but we didn't see all that. We just knew my dad was acting strange.

A day later, my dad admitted to me what he had been planning. He confessed to me, my mom, his therapist, and his friends. He had been planning on killing himself just after the New Year, Jan. 3 to be exact. At this point, I had a very open and frank discussion with my dad. I begged him not to hurt himself, hold him how much I loved him and needed him in my life even if I was about to graduate from law school. I got to say all the things in my heart that a lot of people leave unsaid until it's too late. In that respect, I have no regrets.

My dad underwent intensive therapy. I tried to talk him into going into a mental health facility just until his mood stabilized, but he refused. He was convinced that if he ever went into a hospital, he'd never get out. I tried to assure him that would not be the case, but he wouldn't be budged. Things seemed to be looking up for him. Since mid-January, his mood had noticeably improved. I thought, along with everyone else, that he had turned a corner.

It was not to be. The mood improvement was a result of his final decision to die. This is common in suicides. Once the person commits to death, he/she knows their pain is about to end, so that makes them happy. My father's pain is something I hope I never feel. I know I was close in 1998, and my dad said to me that if he had known how bad it was for me then, he would have been by my side. I hope my example of beating back depression would show him that he too could win. But his despair was to a point that my example was no comfort.

I took the phone and sat in the Dean's offered chair. My mother told me that my father had died that morning. She was trying like hell not to cry, but I could hear the torment in her voice. It was 11:30am. I responded, "He killed himself, didn't he?" She said he had. She then told me that a plane ticket had been purchased for me to come home, and that the Dean agreed to take me home, help me pack, and get me to the airport.

From that point, things were a whirlwind. The Dean had sent someone to the Juris Publici office to pack up my books and computer. She told me that my car would be safe in the law school parking lot and not to worry about a thing regarding my classes and such. She said I could have as much time as I needed, and just to keep in touch. I was in emotional shock at this point. I went with the flow. I knew I had to get home to Lexington, KY.

Back at my apartment, I threw a few things together that I knew I would need. A suit, regular clothes, etc. I kept trying to call S and tell him what happened. He was very difficult to reach, but I finally did reach him and told him what happened. He didn't have much to offer in the way of comfort, and I am not sure why I thought he would. Little did I know he was on the verge of divorce, so he had his own troubles to deal with.

Turns out that my dad had talked with my mom about what he wanted her to do should something happen to him. He wanted her to drive to Richmond, VA personally and tell me. That was ridiculous. But with my history of depression, she was afraid that this news of my father's suicide would send me into some kind of tailspin and that I'd end up offing myself in response. I understand that worry, but it wasn't realistic. Especially then. Once you've experienced the suicide of a loved one, that option is forever off the table for you, because you know all too well the emotional devastation it causes. No matter much pain you are in, you could never do that to your loved ones. It's a scar that never goes away, and you have no right to inflict it on others, especially those you claim to love.

The next couple of weeks were a blur of activity. As the sole heir, I had to make a lot of decisions, and I followed my dad's wishes as closely as I could. He wrote a total of 9 suicide letters addressed to various people. Mine was a co-letter with my grandparents. Of course, the police had to read all the notes in their investigation. He even had left a note in Sophia's office. One of the small comforts I have is that Sophia had a lengthy interview with the police at IBM. I hope she was humiliated by that. I also made it known she was not welcome at the funeral or the visitation. If she showed up, I would not be responsible for what I'd do. She was smart, and acquiesced to my wishes.

My dad really planned out his suicide well. He spent the night before writing the notes on his computer. From the time/date stamps, we could tell what order he wrote the letters in and what time. He was drinking screwdrivers, although we didn't know that until a blood screen was done. We thought it was OJ, because my dad was not a drinker, but my mom remembered that screwdrivers were his favorite. He burned a funeral CD for us to use at his services, fully labeled and everything. His notes explained everything and left instructions about his funeral. He put on a John Denver CD on repeat, went to the bathroom one last time, and crawled into bed. At this point, he took a handful of the anxiety pills he'd been hording for the last six-seven months to make him go to sleep. He had several blankets on the bed to keep his body warm. It was about 5:30am at this point, and he called his friend Michelle to tell her what he had done and to call the police. He did this knowing that she came in later in the morning due to getting her kids off to school. He also had a lunch date in case Michelle didn't come to work for some reason. Between the two of them, he knew his body wouldn't sit for long. Then, following the instructions of Chapter 13 from "Final Exit", he put on an allergy mask and secured two trash bags over his head with heavy duty rubber bands. The allergy mask is to prevent the bags from being sucked into the mouth. The body's response to suffocation is to claw that the mouth to get air. The mask would prevent this reflex, and the drugs would heavily sedate him, further lessing the impulse to get air. According to the book, this method takes 30 minutes to work. That means my dad died a little after 6am on February 13, 2001.

Today is the 8th anniversary of his suicide. The world has changed so much in that time, and even I am a very different person. I miss him every day, but time has healed. For a few years after his suicide, I used to brood over it from Christmas until the anniversary. The last 2-3 years, I only became melancholy and brooding for a few weeks in late January until the anniversary. Last year, I only started thinking about it the day of. Perhaps that was due to the excitement of the Presidential Primary in Georgia. But this year has been different. Since just after New Year's Day, I have been on an emotional roller coaster, usually feeling fine when I'm at work or out with friends, doing something. It's coming home where I have descended into a dark place. I think about death a lot, especially his. I've even thought that I couldn't half-way blame him for thinking the way he did. That kind of thinking has scared me, because I know what it's like to be left behind. As a result, while I can understand WHY he did it, I have a hard time thinking that I could ever actually do it. Then I am home alone, just me and my dogs, and I feel quite lonely. He must have felt that way too. But I know that as of today, this mood shall pass. It always has. The anniversary is kind of rough, but I think it always will be.

In the years since, another friend of mine committed suicide suddenly and violently. He not only cut his throat, but he hung himself too. I was fortunate that I was not asked to help pack up his place after the funeral. We largely kept the circumstances a secret out of respect for the family. Plus, he left no clues as to why. No note, no diary, nothing. He seemed fine until his body was discovered. Another dear friend lost her father this past October. He shot himself in the head in his car. I know what kind of pain my friend is going through. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. In some ways, I'm lucky. I know why my father killed himself. I have the comfort of knowing I did and said everything I possibly could to convince him to LIVE. Most survivors don't have that comfort. They haunted by "what if" questions, even though those questions are pointless. Someone who is determined to die will find the means to accomplish the task, no matter what we do.

Hopefully, no more of my friends will ever know what surviving suicide is like. But if you ever do, know that it does get better. We did everything we knew to save my dad from himself, but it wasn't enough. Ultimately, he had a choice to make, and he made it. It was the wrong choice, but a person determined to die will find a way.

Tonight, I have some dear friends who are going out to dinner with me for the sole purpose of giving me something else to think about, new memories to make. I am grateful to them for their love and friendship. Eight years seems like a lifetime ago in some ways, but in others, it's hard to believe he's been gone that long.

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