A Hole in the Heart: Trying to Find my Father After Suicide
On the evening of March 29, 2011, my father shot himself in the chest under a bridge along a stretch of water known as Paradise Cut. He was found lying on his right side, wearing dark jeans and a black sweatshirt. He had taken off his wedding ring and placed it in his pocket, along with a crisp white handkerchief, a black plastic comb, and a pocketknife, like the belongings of a Boy Scout with dark intentions.
We didn’t find him, my mother and me, but we were nearby when he was found. Three of his friends had spent the afternoon and early evening driving through my hometown looking for him. When they were alerted that he might be near my grandfather’s ranch, they drove as fast as they could and began to search for his car. My mother and I drove there too, ignoring the recommendations of the police. And when we saw my father’s friend, parked on the side of the road, just a few hundred yards from the entrance to the ranch, he told us that the police were at the scene and that we should go home and wait. And so we did. We waited, hands held together tightly on my parents’ plaid couch until the lights of the police car came across the front window like a ghost. And they told us, and they handed us a Ziploc bag with a few of his belongings: the comb, the crisp white handkerchief, the pocketknife, and his wedding ring, stained with blood.
I don’t know how he spent that day. His employees say he left the office around two o’clock in the afternoon. He just stood up and walked out the door. He wasn’t carrying the gun, which suggests that he had already stowed it in the back of his truck. He was prepared, like a good Boy Scout. From then until ten o’clock that night (the coroner’s estimated time of death) remains a mystery. There was the beige leather rifle case, flung behind the door of his office. There was the half-empty box of bullets in his bottom drawer. There was a call to an unlisted number from his cell phone, moments after he walked out, which we were never able to trace. There was dark mud on the undercarriage of his usually immaculate truck, and there were forty missed calls and twenty-six voice mails on his cell phone from friends, colleagues, my mother and me — each message more frantic, desperate, hollowly hopeful. I listened to those messages that night, after the police came, and wondered if he had thought, even once, to answer a call. Thought to grab hold of the line of communication thrown to him, and if maybe that reaching would have changed the course of his life, and ours.
My father ended his life with his father’s twenty-eight-inch twelve-gauge rifle. Two shots were fired. The police believe the first was a practice shot, just to make sure the damn thing worked. The other was his final one. Why he chose that dark stretch of underpass is also a mystery. It was almost a mile past the ranch and carried no sentimental meaning as far as we know. It is where an irrigation ditch, full in the winter and dry in the summer, runs below the highway. It is not beautiful or serene. It does not seem to be a place where one would choose to take a final breath. But it is a spot that I have to drive right over every time I visit my hometown and my mother. Coming and going. Did he want it that way? To live in eternity under a bridge, calling out to his daughter as she drives East and then West?
I have secretly visited the underbelly of that bridge, alone and with unbearable sorrow, more times than I care to admit. I have listened to the cars on the nearby highway — the soundtrack of my father’s death. I have watched small pieces of debris float along the waterway, among the reeds, and have wondered why my father chose this place, of all places on Earth, to be his last. Was there beauty in this place? Was there poetry? Maybe it was just the name itself, Paradise Cut, that called to him in the night. Maybe his headlights shone on those words in the dark and he thought, “Finally, I can rest there.”
I’ve never thought I could have saved my dad. I don’t think one phone call or one hug or one more minute of support could have prevented his end. This was a decision he made long before we knew about any of his trouble. I don’t believe my father was altruistic in his death, either. He wasn’t saving the family, or ending his life so ours could go on. He just wanted out. Out of a life that was too complicated and dark to exist in anymore.
My dad was a difficult man to know. Difficult to put your finger on. And I think he liked it that way. He was always on the edges of things. If the family was gathered around the kitchen table, he’d be in the living room. If we were laughing in the family room, he’d be folding laundry in the garage. My father needed his distance, and he protected it fiercely. He was absent even when he was present. And yet I thought I had at least some ways to bridge that distance. I thought our shared love of the Three Stooges and Doctor Who, or the fact that he always offered me a pair of his flannel pajamas when I visited home, were enough to sustain a relationship. I mourn this, too. I lost my father, and I lost the hope that maybe someday he wouldn’t need the distance anymore. That he might even reach for me instead.
I loved him in spite of everything I knew about him. I loved him blindly; he was my father, and that is what you do. You love your parents, flaws and all, and you hope for a day when that complicated love becomes softer, rounder. Until it’s just love, plain and simple. And yet now, in my darkest moments of grief, the same refrain repeats in my head. The little voice, sometimes big, that says, “My father would rather be dead than be my father.” And even with the years of therapy and the steady support of friends and family, I hear that refrain every day. And how do you love someone who would rather be dead than love you back? I know there was more to his death than that. I’ve read the emails and the letters and the credit card statements, the unmistakable truths about my father, and yet it remains. The ultimate unrequited love.
According to the coroner’s report, my father’s heart was not damaged at all by the gunshot aimed at it. In a strange twist of fate, his intended target stopped beating without any direct contact with the bullet. I think of this more often than perhaps I should. I wonder if my father’s heart was too strong, if it somehow defied his intentions. Or could my father’s aim have been true? Had he felt, at the last moment, that he wanted to keep his heart as it was? This detail haunts me if for no other reason than the fact that while my father’s heart remained intact, the same cannot be said about my own.
When my grandmother passed away in 2006, from complications after a massive stroke, that loss was the greatest of my life so far. She was my confidante, my comfort, and her passing was incomprehensible. And yet, once the initial shock and desperation surrounding her death had softened, with it came an indescribable presence. She is with me. When I hear Patsy Cline or smell Yardley’s English Lavender, she is as close to me as she ever was. And whether or not I believe in the limitations of a heaven or a hell, I do know that she is out there in the landscape of the sky, large and effective and ever-present.
With my father, that feeling, that presence, is missing. He continues to be an absence. A gap. An empty space where someone used to be. It is quiet and devoid of warmth. I long to feel him in the sky or in a song. But even now, almost eight years later, I wait for that touch, for that contact. For now, my father is a collection of objects. He is saddle oxfords and crisply ironed shirts and Old Spice aftershave. He is the smell of grease on a wheel and the thick layer of dust on his office desk. I hope to infuse these items with life someday. I hope that my grief and anger and devastation can imbue these objects with breath and feeling. I wish I could say that I dream about him and find a closeness in the subconscious. But the only dream I’ve had about him in all this time is one in which he wanders through my backyard with a hole in his heart, through which I can see the stars.