Gravity shifted: a woman on her father’s suicide

Almost 2 years ago, my very dear friend Catherine lost her father to suicide. Ever since then she has been adjusting to her new normal with a quiet strength that has left me in awe. Recently she reached out with some reflections and insights she’s gained in the months since his passing, and has kindly consented to me sharing her story here. I hope you find her grace in the face of trauma as inspiring as I do, and perhaps some of you can find solace in knowing you are not alone. Thank you, Catherine Wehrey-Miller, for your courage and generosity.

My life ended on Wednesday, August 22, 2018 at approximately 8 PM.

At that moment, I was born as a version of my prior self, forever living in a world where I now say, “My father put a gun in his mouth and ended his life.”

One of my first reactions was hating him for making this part of MY story, part of who I would be, forever a person whose father killed himself. I fought my new life and my new narrative for so long. I wasn’t ready for my former life to be over and my new one to begin. I survived trauma in the past and never felt as I did at that moment; I previously went to therapy, learned from my trauma, and moved on. But the suicide of a parent is different. It is described as “a personal and interpersonal disaster.”1 The word “disaster” is a strong one. It conjures up images of earthquakes and fires, chaos, destruction, and ruins.

Now, almost two years later, I know that my father’s suicide fundamentally changed me. My center of gravity shifted in a big way. What I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t. My whole life now feels like one confusing reality of “did that really happen?” I will be forever asking, “Why?” “Why did he do this?” And who was he, really? Did I ever really know him? 

I can’t watch a suicide by gunshot on TV or in a movie anymore. I have to look away. It’s unfortunate that it took this experience for me to realize that far too many suicides are shown in the media. They hurtle me back to that moment when my mother called me and said, “He’s dead. He shot himself.” 

I now have an utter loathing for anyone who carries a gun or believes in his or her inalienable right to own one. My depressed and disturbed father walked himself into a store and bought one. He kept it in the glove compartment of his car, took it out to the desert and just… spent time with it. Like bonding with a dear friend. And I never knew.

I’m suddenly more preoccupied with death and have an intense need to identify what happened to my father after his heart stopped beating. I want to know if he suddenly became nothing, a complete ceasing of his mind, body, and soul. Did he wake up in another place, a lit world where that light engenders an astounding happiness that we cannot even begin to fathom?

I’ve retreated into myself because no one close to me has lost a parent to suicide. My shell is my usual friendly, contented self… and I am content with most things. I have a wonderful husband and friends, a roof over my head, and a paycheck that allows me to travel. 

But underneath, I am an intrinsically different person. I am a human being no longer standing upright, but forever slightly lop-sided, slightly off balance. I view people differently, tolerate less bullshit, and find it difficult to forgive and forget. My frequent anger and frustration have developed into something not wholly like everyone else’s. It’s more introspective and has a certain degree of beauty, because it’s filled with a love towards my father that can’t go anywhere. My love is trapped inside me where it fuses with anger and grief to produce something new that will never quite be familiar to me.

With this second life comes the necessity to familiarize myself with the unfamiliar, find balance in my off-balanced reality, and engineer something brand new from the ruins of a disaster. Dad, whoever you were, wherever you are, I hope you’ll be proud.

1 Shneidman, E.S. Foreword. In: Survivors of Suicide (Cain, A., editor. , ed.). Springfield, Ill.: Charles C Thomas, 1972.

Essay and graphic courtesy of Catherine Wehrey-Miller. You can follow her journey at Memories of Dad.

Everything I Never Told You

ng_everything_coverIn Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, the story of the Lee family unfolds like the petals of a flower.  Lydia is dead, that we know, and the story of her family, their grief, and their undoing unfurls slowly, with pathos and grit alike.  Chapters from Lydia’s own childhood, her parents as young people, her siblings and their own lives — all of these are twined inexorably together, as all families’ are.  Ng pulls together the experience of being an outsider deftly with a multi-layered coming-of-age story that resonated with me deeply.  There was not a single character I wasn’t rooting for by the end.

We all have inner lives, and we all carry wounds that make us fragile, even if they are invisible to the naked eye.  The saga of the Lee family brings that home with quiet power, drawing us through a gripping page-turner of a story that sears, comforts, and ultimately shows how even the darkest hours can led us to a semblance of redemption.  Highly recommend.

 

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The Last Romantics

“We believe in love because we want to believe in it.  Because really what else is there, amid all our glorious follies and urges and weaknesses and stumbles?  The magic, the hope, the gorgeous idea of it.”

–Tara Conklin, The Last Romantics

last_romatics_cover

This past weekend I devoured the new novel The Last Romantics from Friday night until late Sunday.  Quite frankly, I didn’t want to put it down.  Tara Conklin does a masterful job of drawing us into the lives of four siblings, weaving a story I found both arresting and vividly meaningful.

Spanning from their childhood in the early 1980s through to a slightly dystopian 2079, the Skinner siblings deal with the sudden death of their father, their mother’s depression that follows they call only “the Pause,” and the lives they lead in the years that follow.  Conklin deftly explores what love means, and loyalty — how family ties bind and break, pull and twist us into the people we become.  Romantic love is peppered into the narrative, but the overarching theme is familial love, how it shapes us, and the heaviness and the light which it carries.

Conklin’s writing reminds me of Barbara Kingsolver by way of Lauren Groff, yet with her own voice and style that make for a deeply engaging novel, one that resonated with me long after I turned the last page.  A rich, rewarding read.

 

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Thankful

Pieces
Kristina Akers, Pieces

On this odd in-between day between Thanksgiving with friends and Thanksgiving with family, I am simply grateful.  Grateful for good friends and warm hearts, for my loving family and sweet furry companions, and for my own little spark of optimism that helps me get through the days that seem too hard.  In my heart, I am taking a moment to be still and give thanks.

When it is time

img_0002This past weekend was one of the hardest of my life.  We put our dog Oliver to sleep yesterday, my sweet boy.  He was 17 years old.  As much as I agonized over when, I know now it was the right time.  He always hated being picked up, but on Sunday morning he didn’t mind at all, just trusted us as I lifted him and sat him on my lap in the car.  Lots of pets and kisses.  It was quick and painless, and I think he knew he was loved and cared for, right up to the end.  I had tears running down my cheeks all morning, and we sobbed there in the room after.  Pulled it together enough to head home, and then I cried again at home as soon as I saw his empty bed.  I miss him, but I am at peace and I hope he is too. Peaceful and happy, and no longer a prisoner of his aging little body.

I didn’t realize quite how much medication had become Oliver’s new normal until I cleaned everything out this weekend.  Our pantry feels remarkably uncluttered in comparison.  The cat’s kibble is in the second food container, now that his reviled prescription kidney food is gone.  Likewise the kitchen floor feels oddly empty, with only one pair of dog dishes and the extra rug out of the center of the room. We’re going to be getting used to being a family of eight paws instead of twelve over the coming days and weeks.  It simultaneously feels like a sad emptiness and a weight lifted — not fussing over medication schedules and attempts at feeding him, not listening for any signs of distress or vomiting from him in the night.  I miss him already.  In the meantime, life winds on, and we hold our memories close.  Almost fifteen and half years of love.  Until we meet again, my bear, my dear sweet Oliver.

Trauma and aid

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I am full of anger and despair today, moved to tears by the inhumane policies that are tearing children from their parent sat the U.S. border.  Men and women are fleeing fatally dangerous gang violence in their home countries to seek asylum in our country, braving dangerous journeys that seem better that sure death or sexual slavery.  And yet, they are unknowingly walking into more cruelty, and it is breaking my heart.  These families do not have up-to-the-minute news coverage to know what is awaiting them.  They do not know that their children will be wrenched from them and left in “detention centers” where they will be refused even the most basic of human comfort.  They only know they will die if they stay in their home country.

Entering at the legal ports of entry is becoming difficult or impossible. U.S. border protection agents are physically preventing families from entering the country. They’re telling people at the borders that there is no room. “They are systematically violating U.S. and international law by blocking immigrants at international ports of entry on the southern border from entering the country so they can claim asylum,” writes Texas-based immigration writer Debbie Nathan.

Plus, it’s important to note that agents are also separating some families at the legal ports of entry. “They are turning people away at the bridges, they are holding people indefinitely in prisons, they are neglecting medical needs, and yes, they are even separating parents and children at the ports (especially dads and their kids),” says Allegra Love, director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

via Cup of Jo

People cannot seek asylum if they are prevented from entering through legal points of entry.  The argument that these families are “illegals” only serves to dehumanize them enough that this cruelty seems justifiable.  But these are human beings — with dreams and rights and families.  Crossing the border illegally is a misdemeanor, so unless you think petty theft or jaywalking also warrant confiscation of one’s children and what amounts to a death sentence, I’d urge you to think again. There is no law that requires families to be separated.  This is a Trump administration policy.

Here are some ways to help.  These families need aid, they need hope, and they need justice.

Donate or volunteer with RAICES

Support kids at the border with ActBlue

Support the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights as they champion unaccompanied immigrant children

Find a demonstration or protest near you with Families Belong Together

photo via John Moore

Back home

My dad is back home after dealing with some medical issues, and I wanted to make his apartment a bit cheerier as well as better equipped to handle his mobility accommodations.  Enter: the budget-friendly apartment refresh!  I thought an upholstered headboard would be more comfortable than his old wood one, for starters.  A new bedside lamp made things feel cozy, as did a bit of (faux) greenery and a tasseled throw for the bed.  I also added a sweet macrame basket — it was just right to wrangle coils of oxygen tubing, and the soft cotton won’t scratch or snag the tubes like wicker could.  A new lower media console helped to open up the space and make it feel bigger.  And lastly, I hung up a cork board to help him corral doctor appointment reminders, stray sheets of stamps, and important phone numbers.  My dad seemed happy with his fresh space, and I was incredibly gratified that I could help with his transition back home.  Success!

headboard  striped lamp  macrame basket  media stand  faux succulent  tasseled throw  cork board

Grateful

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My mom, my grandfather, and me, 1983

stretching in the feeble new sunlight

of a fresh dawn

hazy-bright with fledgling possibilities

to be coaxed into being

gently, hopefully

cradled and sheltered

are new chances

 

While I decided long ago that having children was not for me, I will always be awed and grateful for my mom and all she does.  Not only is she one of the most selfless women I know, but it takes a special kind of bravery to reinvent oneself, to work on one’s flaws, and to examine one’s life and say, “I want something better.”  I wrote this poem for my mother a while ago and wanted to share it here, in the spirit of spring and of celebrating nurturing women everywhere.

 

father/time

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Daddy and me, 1982

father/time

so passes

the golden autumn

of this world

into a dark/light place

made of lengthening shadows

and warm tender moments alike.

poignant relief marks the passing

of each second and season,

pearls on a string slipping away

through fingers

roughened by time,

all the more cherished

for that which has gnarled them.

fear not,

though a shadow passes over your eyes

at the thought

of things unknown.

in the end,

you are loved.

–Charla M. DelaCuadra

 

One of the difficulties in getting older is watching your parents age.  It is bittersweet, getting to know your parents better as adults and as people, while also watching the twilight years of someone you love.  I wrote this poem with my dad in mind, who is in his eighties and is having some health issues.  While we all struggle with things like money, our houses or vacation time, or our goals both long-term and fleeting — I think in the end, we all just want to be loved.