Suicide and The Things We Carry
A Meditation on the Loss of A Father
I am constantly thinking about the things we carry. I originally got this idea from Tim O’Brien’s collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, called “The Things They Carried.” In the book he writes about some of the things the characters carried:
On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds and ends. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins for silence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene. Lee Strunk carried his slingshot; ammo, he claimed, would never be a problem. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&Ms candy. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the star light scope, which weighed 6.3 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriends panty hose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. They all carried ghosts.
While we may not have never been to Vietnam we all carry things: both the tangible and the intangible. For some of us our loads are more noticeable than others. Some of the things we carry are given to us, placed upon us, sometimes even dumped on us. These are the things we don’t have any control over. They are, to put it in fatalistic terms, the “cards you’ve been dealt.”
I think about people with disabilities, or people who have been abused, people who have been bullied or grew up poor, underprivileged, and disenfranchised because of race, education, geography, etc. There are things that we carry that our parents or other family members gave us. Things we’d never choose to carry on our own, like mental illness, an alcoholic father, or abuse from a family member. But we carry them nonetheless and often their weight become so burdensome that it almost leaves us completely bent over.
There are other things that we carry that stem more from our own choices: whether to we should stay involved in certain relationships; or simple choices about how we respond to someone; whether we are generous with our resources; and how we raise our children. These are things that can become burdensome later on in life. It’s important to remember that the line between these two kinds of weights we carry is intangible, almost imperceptible. We may or may not be our own best judge when it comes to untangling the nature of the things we carry. And yet, we can come to a place where we accept the weight as part of our human condition.
My step father committed suicide in 2003. For as long as I knew him, he carried a lot of weight. One of his main childhood memories that he would share with us, while we were growing up, was one where his father would wake him up at 4am to work in the family-owned donut shop. He recollected on more than one occasion what it was like to be in elementary school and wake up that early to work before he was bused off to school. And when he was done with school, he’d return to the shop working until it was dinner time. There was a five gallon bucket at the cash register for him to stand on so he could see over the counter and help the customers. These were not fond memories of fishing with dad down by the river that kids dream of having. I know he held onto a lot of pain from those years, and felt the distance of his own father who was more like an employer than nurturer.
My own childhood — I have 5 younger siblings I grew up with — was marked by my step-dad’s growing depression and unhappiness. While he still worked at the “shop” when were kids, he pretty much hated it. The sound of the gravel crunching in the driveway under the tires of his Oldsmobile station-wagon meant dad was home from work and that was our queue to run for cover, because we knew that not even God himself could cheer him up after a day’s work.
And then he got into a terrible car accident. A cement truck ran a stoplight and plowed into the driver’s side door of his car. The injuries from the accident rendered him unable to work. After a huge lawsuit and lots of rigmarole he ended up basically retired from work around the age of 35—the age I am about to turn this fall. He received a small social security check and the lawsuit money. The eight of us lived off that meager SSI check every month. The lawsuit he spent mostly on woodworking tools and guns — lots and lots of guns.
In the time after his accident my step-dad slipped further and further into depression. He began to isolate himself by “working” long hours down in the basement where he learned how to woodwork, listened to short-wave radio, and worked on his guns. This all compounded on itself as the more time he spent isolated in the basement, the more paranoid of government take over and complex conspiracy theories he became.
Things really went downhill when he asked my brothers and I to go out to the back yard, one summer when I still lived at home, to dig a hole. “What’s the hole for?” I asked naively. He showed us a tightly packed 5 gallon bucket that was sealed to make it waterproof. It was packed full of guns and ammunition. We did as we were told but that did it for me. That point left a mark on the growing distance between my step-dad and myself. I could tell he was unwell and needed help. But this was getting very serious. I felt like I really didn’t understand him anymore. Shortly after that I moved away to college.
My wife and I moved to California at the end of summer in 2003. There was part of me that was running from the weight I carried. Little did I know that I was about to be hit with the heaviest load of my life. After moving I talked less and less to dad. It was too difficult to weed through the depression and paranoia over the phone. His isolation was getting worse and it seemed like he was spiraling out of control. But what could I do? I lived 3,200 miles away and felt deeply disconnected from him in so many ways. Henri Nouwen, an author and mystic, says that people who commit suicide come to a point where they believe that there is no one left to wake up for, that they’ve lost all reason to live, and any hope for getting through to tomorrow. I can see that this is exactly where he found himself at the age of 47.
We got the call a week before Thanksgiving just a couple months after we moved to California. He turned on the generator he bought for the Y2K scare and let it run, while he sat on the couch alone in the living and waited for it all to end.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight (Tim O’Brien).
Recovering from the death of a parent is very hard, maybe even impossible. Recovering from suicide adds a whole new layer because there is all that guilt and anger and all those unanswered questions that seem to have nowhere to go. I noticed only a few months ago that I was still carrying around the weight of his death and I was having a hard time shaking it. The weight came in the form of my own anger and hurt and the negative emotions attached to those feelings. What I realized I was doing, at a subconscious level, was redirecting my anger towards his memories. I was filtering out any positive memory, any possible connection that was joyful and focusing solely on the negative.By the time I realized what I was doing, almost ten years later, it is near impossible to sit and reminisce around happy thoughts. I truly have to work to remember the good times. And yet, I know that this is my memory clouded by years of fighting against the weight of his suicide.
Along with this insight came the obvious remedy: I don’t have to dwell on the negative emotions and memories. I get to choose which memories of I have, which ones I recall, and which ones I choose to lay aside. I get to choose which emotions I associate with him and his life. I can find ways to accept and receive the past without being angry at him anymore. I am still unhappy — even alarmed—by some of the choices he made in his life, but I have enough distance now that I can accept those choices as part of our story and the much longer story of his own narrative. This all led to my realization that I had things I was carrying that I had no choice over and that were weighing me down; I could choose to reframe my memories from fighting against it to receiving it; and I have been able to come to a place where I am working to recall the positive moments, memories and emotions of my step-dad.
We all carry things. Some of them are unwanted. Some of them we’re not even sure how they got there. Some things I believe we can get rid of, we can unload some of the weight. Some of these things, like a suicide, will be with us forever. The impact is itself a strange kind of presence. I believe that we can learn how to carry the gravity of these intangibles, receiving them and moving through them rather than constantly fighting against them. We can learn to work with and around our ghosts. Because we all carry ghosts and sometimes they carry us.