The last time i saw my father he was standing beneath the rafters from which he’d later hang. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in September, it was the last day of summer. He was working in the garage. I remember lumber laid across wooden work horses, and an electric saw; he was building something. The picture painted in my memory places the four of us standing portrait-like looking in on his work. Mom has my little brother in one arm as she holds my hand with the other and on the other side of Mom, my sister stands: her tiny hands clutching something, a doll or a pair of flippers maybe.
“Honey are you sure you don’t want to come?”
He smiles, “No, you guys go ahead without me, I have work to do.”
* * *
We got home and the garage door was closed. We were herded inside by my mother who set the pool bag down by the door and the keys on the kitchen counter as she absent-mindedly picked up a note from the kitchen table. She gently shook as she held the phone to her ear. Almost before she could hang up the phone, our next door neighbor thundered through the door. He caught her before she hit the floor and guided her into a chair at the kitchen table. She was trying not to cry, I wanted to give her my bear. We were taken next door to play with our neighbors kids while necessary services were called. I remember the lights of the ambulance exploding like fireworks on the 4th of July.
* * *
I can’t tell you how much of this story is true. This is the observance of a three year old filtered through nineteen years of deafening silence. These are the things I can tell you with absolute certainty: It was September, we went to the pool, he hanged himself, we ended up next door. Everything else is some dreamlike mixture of tattered memories and different sized pieces of truth carefully extracted from my mothers mind by myself at various ages and woven into a patchwork. It’s one of those family stories we all know but never discuss. It’s hard enough to accept it, it seems cruel to twist the knife.
This experience, this single day is so much a part of us yet it is understood that we never talk about it. I remember when I still didn’t quite understand the full weight of the topic and the torrents of tears it could draw from my mother, and I asked about it. I couldn’t understand how one would go about choking themselves, I used to picture his hands around his neck until he passed quietly but I was beginning to grow out of this idea. And I get it, I understand why she put it gently when I was little, Dad “choked himself” instead of “hanged himself.” But then came the reckoning. I was twelve.
“Hey sweetheart, how was school?”
“Fine, can I ask you about something?”
She immediately sensed that something was wrong, that way in which only mothers can, and her expression turned to concern.
“Come here, John, what’s bothering you?”
“Well, it’s about Dad.”
She has this special voice she uses, even to this day, when she talks about him. It’s not condescending, it’s just that sort of voice you use when talking to a small child, the voice that is surely sweet and calming and dances to your ears assuring you that everything is alright.
“What do you want to know, honey?”
“Well… okay, so Dad choked himself, right?”
“…um, well yes, sweetheart.”
“But how? I mean isn’t it hard? To hold your hands there the whole time. Like, how didn’t he let go before he died?”
The look on my mother’s face, as she slowly realized the long-term consequences gentle words can have, was almost unbearable. The tears began slowly and then picked up speed. She hugged me tight and we just sat there in near silence for a few minutes. Then she began to explain.
“Oh sweetie… John… he didn’t use his hands.”
“Wait, so what did he use?”
I felt terrible for doing this to her but I was so confused about it all. I had to figure this out.
“…he used… a rope.”
Now it was my turn. She watched as the realization put itself together in my head. She saw the conflicting emotions in my eyes, she saw the anger meet disbelief and then denial, then she saw me finally paint the image in my mind: a noose around his neck and his limp body gently swaying beneath the rafters. Horror. She couldn’t control herself now, she was balling and just kept saying “I’m so sorry” as she tried to hug the pain away.
So even though my father passed away when I was three, he didn’t hang himself until I was twelve. The worst part is that I can’t even be angry with him for doing it. He suffered from manic depression. Unlike depression which is brought on by traumatic events, manic depression can cause fits of severe depression out of nowhere for no apparent reason. You can have the most wonderful life in the world and have every reason to be happy but if you suffer from manic depression you might very well end up with a noose around your neck or buck-shot through the back of your skull. It’s a hellish disorder when it goes untreated.
* * *
This isn’t a story of loss, at least not for me. My mother lost something that day, her husband and her best friend. My sister may have lost her father that day, I’m not sure though, i’ve never asked. What I mean to say is that I’m not sure if she really understood that he was her father yet, she was still very young at five years old and I don’t when the real father-daughter relationship fully develops. As for my brother and me, we simply lost the potential of having a father. I was so young that I can’t even remember him. This day is my earliest memory so, in effect, this was the first day of my life. I’ve never known things to be any other way.
Sometimes I go and visit him. I rub my hands over the cold brass plaque that’s fastened to a polished slab of granite and I sit next to him in the neatly kept grass. We talk sometimes, I tell him about school and what my plans are for the near future, but mostly we just sit in silence. He understands why it’s hard for me to cry sometimes, we never really got a chance to know each other.