Whenever I tell someone that I heard my father kill himself when I was six, I laugh. I assume it is my nervous reaction to remain distanced from the event and the emotion that goes along with it because I don’t ever really feel nervous when I tell people about hearing my father kill himself.
I think what I feel is the anticipation of their reactions because no one expects to be told that I was 11 days away from my seventh birthday and taking a bath when my father shot himself in our living room.
The night my father died, my mother had picked my sister and me up from school and brought us to the McDonald’s at the nearby mall where we got Happy Meals with Legos. On our way there, I had asked my mother if she and my father were going to get a divorce and she told me yes. None of us knew that we’d return home to find a sobbing, broken man sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor with the phone cradled in his lap, surrounded by odds and ends from my mother’s phone book.
It’s not remotely funny that my heart broke irreparably that night. To avoid the onslaught of tears that could drown a small village I have developed a sick sense of humor about my dead father but really, I’m still broken.
The indelible scar left on my soul is so sensitive that at 35 years old, I have to remind my six-year-old self that not all people leave when given the most love they have ever known. As many people have told me through the years, the day I was born was the happiest day of my father’s life. Nothing had brought his own wounded soul as much joy as having his own little person to love and adore and return the favor forever.
My father grew up as the youngest of four boys. His own mother died when he was three and his father remarried the 1950s version of the wicked stepmother who “disliked him the least.” He was raised primarily by his two aunts and only ever wanted the love of his father who was more interested in making money than raising four boys.
Sadly, my father felt signs of mental illness (which also ran in his family) and did not exist in a time and space when it was okay to discuss one’s feelings or take medication to regulate the chemical imbalances in his body. At the time, he was diagnosed as manic depressive and thought to also have borderline personality disorder.
As my grandfather once told my father after he admitted he was not feeling well, “If you go to a doctor, you will disgrace this family and you will never get work again.” Despite my father’s attempts to get help, he could never quite commit fully to any treatment or hospitalization, and the loss of his own mother haunted him until the day he died.
The distance between my father, in black, and his father, in front, is telling.
My parents met when my mother was in nursing school. Their relationship was torrid at best, enduring many break-ups, fights, both verbal and physical, and several affairs on my father’s part. My mother loved my father and tried her best to help and support him but in the end, could not make him want to help himself.
He had a world of stigmas hanging over his head and often threatened to commit suicide. He owned a gun that when hidden from him for his and everyone else’s protection, he would threaten to use it if he found it before it was returned to him. It was like living in a bouncy house; one minute up, the next minute down, a continuous ocean of emotion that was extremely overwhelming for a child.
Oftentimes I felt it was my responsibility to take care of him so he would know that he was loved, even if he didn’t feel it from those he should. Given how he expressed that all his love came from me, it is no wonder I felt that responsibility. One day when he told me that no one loved him, I asked him about the three obvious people who must:
“What about your father, Grandpa?”
“What about Mummy?”
“Nope. She doesn’t love me.”
“What about God? God loves everyone.”
“God doesn’t love me. Nobody loves me. Nobody but you.”
As my mother turned off the car in our driveway, she instructed that my sister and I go straight to our room, play with our Legos, and not even acknowledge my father. It was a difficult task because he was the person I loved the most and vice versa. To go the entire day without seeing him and know I was to avoid him was difficult.
We assumed he would be in the living room watching TV so we never expected to find him like we did, sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor, sobbing, with the contents of my mother’s phone book all around him, blocking the route to our bedroom. I distinctly remember seeing the plastic maroon membership card to my after school program laying on the floor.
“That’s where it was,” I thought, because I had recently misplaced it.
“He must have called there looking for me,” was my deduction as he sobbed and said, “Oh baby, come give me a kiss. Come give Daddy a hug. I thought I lost you. I couldn’t find you anywhere and I thought I lost you.” I hugged him and kissed him and did as I had been told previously and moved into my bedroom to play with my sister and our Legos.
My father did not take my mother’s decision for divorce well at all. That, on top of a recent arrest for reckless driving that would have resulted in fines and fees my parents could not afford, pushed him over the edge of his already suffocating despair. As we bathed, he came to the bathroom door and told my mother, “Tell my girls I love them.”
Since he had threatened so many times, my mother assumed it another one of his stunts and paid him no mind. Within minutes, the 6:45 fire house horn sounded and a loud pop came from the living room.
“What was that noise?” I asked my mother, who had been sitting on the edge of the tub.
“I don’t know, but stay here.” Upon inspection she found my father had shot himself in the head. She got us out of the tub, dressed, and to the downstairs neighbors quickly, with strict instructions to keep us away from the front of the house.
Two days later we returned home to be told that my father was in heaven, with his mother. It wasn’t until the following summer that I learned he had chosen to die.
I didn’t want to believe it because it was unfathomable to me that my father would ever willingly leave me. I had been accusing my mother of killing him, not knowing how he had died, just that he was dead, and she felt the time had arrived for me to know the truth. My recollection of hearing him shoot himself came later in life at a time when all memories of my father and my life with him flooded back.
In the end, it is not the fact that I heard my father shoot himself to death that is hardest, but the devastation of that six-year-old girl who lives inside me and worshipped her father. Despite being what shaped me and created a loving, compassionate person, my heart still hurts. No amount of therapy will ever heal that scar or remove the pain of losing my father so young.
To admit that I am greatly affected by this feels good even if it is not how some people in my life think I should exist. For them, tucking the feelings away and going through life keeping my therapy enclosed in the doctor’s office is a much more progressive way to live. Clearly, I disagree.