This is an excerpt from my new book, “Falling Into The Abyss”, which will be released next month. This is my personal story, a short autobiography, which recalls traumatic events from my life that have led me to where I am today. This details the tragedy of my father’s suicide and the years that followed, while digging into my past and my childhood for answers. It’s a compelling story of finding your way back from the deepest griefs.
Dad had been missing for four days. His body had been hanging from a tree until it had decomposed and fallen to the ground below. It was my understanding that his head was detached from his body. The Florida heat and bugs had made him nothing more than rotting, bug infested flesh that was falling from bones that had been nibbled at by wild animals in the region. This was no longer our father. This was something that used to be a home to his soul and nothing more.
The coroner told us, “Don’t let your son see his father like this. It will give him nightmares the rest of his life.” We agreed and my mother gave the go ahead for the body to be moved to where it would be cremated. My brother never really forgave either one of us for that decision I don’t think? It’s sad that he held my mother responsible for a lot of things, including my father committing suicide in the first place. All along, she tried to protect him and in the end, he was just simply awful to her.
The events that followed were very surreal and I only vaguely remember the days that immediately followed the finding of his body. I know that the funeral for my dad was tiny. There were less than a dozen people there. His own family didn’t come. Two of my mother’s brothers were there and so was her little sister. I was bitterly disappointed that a man who was fifty-eight years old and had touched the lives of so many people only had a handful of people show-up to say good-bye to him.
I had to go pick-up the flowers. My brothers and I were supposed to split this. They both stiffed me. I grumbled to my mother about it because it was so typical and because I was also worried about paying my rent with all this time off work I was taking. I wasn’t going to receive any bereavement pay because my company didn’t offer it.
My mom’s sister, my Aunt Jenny, insisted on giving me money for them. I remember how I felt then. I had rent to pay and it was due in a week. I couldn’t afford the $300 for the wreaths and such. I was relieved that she gave me the money back but I also felt like a heel. It was one more thing that added to the grief and the stress.
Eventually came the day that we had to go collect Dad’s possessions from the sheriff’s department. Mom and I went together. I remember walking back to the window that we were directed to. Everyone seemed to keep looking at us and I felt that they knew who we were. I felt like they felt some sort of sympathy that they couldn’t express. It came out as an awkward silence.
The man behind a window pulled out an envelope. In it were my father’s wallet, his wedding ring, his keys to his car, and his watch. It was the watch I had given him just the year before for Christmas. He’d loved that watch. He always wore it. This thought made me smile.
My mother opened his wallet and began to look through it. I’m not sure why exactly, other than it was probably some connection to him that she felt. She turned it over in her hands, rubbed it and opened it. In a way, it was almost as if she was trying to conjure his spirit from it, as one would call a genie from a bottle.
She pulled out a photo and she gasped, “My God, … you always thought your father didn’t care but look.” In her hand was a photo of the three of us kids, from many years in the past, and on the back of the photo were our names and our dates of birth, in his handwriting. Again, it made me smile, but it was bittersweet. My father had never been the kind of guy to look at you and tell you he loved you. He showed it all the time, but he never ever just came out and said it.
Growing up, he’d been the guy who would cut you a hockey stick out of a sheet of plywood and sand it and paint it, just so you could go out back and play with some other kids and knock around something that we had used as a makeshift puck. He never missed a ball game while I was growing up. He never missed a birthday or an important event ever. Now I was coming to terms with the fact that he would be at nothing else for the rest of my life. It hit me like a rock landing in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know why my mother said I thought that he didn’t care. I knew he cared. I didn’t know why he had never protected me from her, but I knew he cared.
A deputy who had worked the investigation came up and tried to be comforting. I really cannot say enough nice things about the Marion County sheriff’s department during this time. They treated us like human beings and not just a case they worked. Another deputy walked-up behind him and she said, “Well, at least you have the note he left.”
“Note? There’s a note??” My mother’s face looked shocked and hopeful. She seemed so excited.
“Yes,” the deputy went on, “he left a note. No one told you?” The deputy seemed genuinely shocked and concerned.
“My God! NO!” Tears started to form in my mother’s eyes.
The kind deputy told us to wait where we were. A few minutes later, the female deputy came back. The male deputy walked with her. In her hand she held a paper. She had made a copy of the suicide note and she handed to to my mother. She caught Mom’s hand and squeezed it as she released the note to her. I’m sure she must have realized what this mean to us. These were his last words to us and while they didn’t explain much, those words gave my mother so much comfort and for that I was very thankful.
We poured over it. It was short. It didn’t really make any sense other than to show he wasn’t in the soundest frame of mind when he wrote it. He also stated that he would miss us and loved us all. I’d never heard or even seen these words written from my father, in his own handwriting, in my entire life. Still, I did not cry.
Mom made copies for all of us. My copy is folded and lying in the bottom of a jewelry box to this day. Every now and then I will pull it out and look at it. It helps me feel close to him and to remember his handwriting. There is something in seeing his handwriting that gives me a little bit of comfort from time to time. It is like I still hold a piece of him.
Finally, the last business was that I had to drive my father’s car home, following my mother. It was the longest drive of my entire life. Mind you, I’d driven all over the country already. I’d driven from Florida to Illinois a dozen times and sometimes straight through. Yet this drive, alone with the ghost of my deceased father, was the longest drive of my life. I laughed, I yelled, I asked him “why?” and I sincerely wanted answers. None came.
At the funeral, my brothers both wept. I saw my younger brother’s shoulders heave. My older brother has always been a weeper and he had tears streaming down his face the whole time.
My mother was seated right next to me. I was the only one of her children who sat next to her. I remember thinking that was strange. Why me?
Nearing the end of the small, graveside service there was a twenty-one gun salute and then we had to endure Taps. This had come at the insistence of my younger brother. Being in the marines and my father having been in the army all those many years ago made this meaningful to him.
Never mind that my father was drafted and never had one nice thing to say about being in the Army. He hated it and could hardly wait to be discharged. I remember him talking about it from time to time. He’d been drafted as a young man who had been married already for a few years and taking off to basic training hadn’t been his idea of what he wanted to do with his life.
It was Taps that finally caused silent tears to stream down my cheeks. Still, I never openly wept. There was never any shoulder heaving, nose blowing, sobbing that seemed ready to come out of me. Perhaps I was still in shock or perhaps it was just that I had made a lifetime of holding things in and stuffing things down a little deeper? I just was shoving this all down into the abyss that I didn’t realize I was tethered to. The more weight I shoved down there, the further it drug me down with it.
Four days from the time I had first been told about my father’s death, I was back at work. I tied my tie and put on my vest as if it was any other day and off to work I went. I had a job to do and I was ready to get back to life as usual, and so I tried. I was now driving my father’s car. My mom sold it to me for a few hundred dollars. Leave it to her to make me pay for it. She would, just a few short months later, give my younger brother her Lincoln when she got the insurance money from Dad’s death. She bought herself a different vehicle and started spending that money as fast as she could.
I was finally back at my place and staying in my own bed again, leaving my mother to her lonely house. The first night that I was back in my own bed, the strangest thing happened to me. I had a dream that I was sitting on the branch of the tree that my father hung himself from. I was sitting there, swinging my legs. I was trying to talk him out of doing what he was doing.
He never looked at me. He just continued with his work of tying the rope over the tree limb. He ran the rope under the car and anchored it on the front axle of the car. The other end, he had already carefully tied a noose that had a perfect not. I knew this instinctively because my father was a master at tying knots. He taught me to tie a knot and to this day, people who knew him and see me tie a knot will comment that I must have learned that from my father. I’m sure that they mean nothing by it, but it stings a little.
As I begged him not to do what he was doing, he put the rope around his neck and he jumped. I awoke with a start. I was sweaty, had tears running down my face and I was deeply disturbed. I’ll never forget this dream as long as I shall live.