September 2nd is approaching; the anniversary of my father’s suicide.
It’s been nineteen years—yes, nineteen— and I still never know how that day will arrive. Some years the sorrow of loss starts gathering early. It might appear days, even weeks, beforehand, and is persistent like the dense fog that clings to these late August mornings—heavy and opaque.
Other years the date, though permanently circled on the calendar in invisible red ink, passes undetected by my emotional radar and I awake on September 3rd surprised by a guilt-tinged realization that I didn’t think of September 2nd at all. But those years are rare.
But today, August 21st, marks a different anniversary from that same year that I rarely talk about. It’s the anniversary of the day my father wrote his suicide notes.
He had written four of them, one for three of his four adult children and one for his still-fairly-newlywed bride. I can still see the three white envelopes laid out on the kitchen table beside two freshly picked green peppers and the next day’s grocery list. By the time my husband and I arrived my father’s new
wife, widow, had already opened, read, and hidden hers deep in her purse and heart. It never occurred to us that they would be considered Evidence. On September 2nd, the night my father killed himself, the police took them all.
For that reason and others, it would be months later when I finally unfolded the sheet of ordinary blue-lined notebook paper that he had addressed to me. I was instantly assaulted by a string of numbers clearly printed in his handwriting in the upper right corner of the page: 8-21-99. I remember first feeling pissed off and then confused. He had known then? Twelve days before? Something inside me shattered, again. And shatters still, every time I think of it or imagine him seated at his kitchen table, pen in hand, on August 21st.
Unlike September 2nd which was so blatantly traumatic, I can’t tell you a single concrete thing about August 21st except that it was another ordinary day. Another day when my father wagered a bad bet against himself in his long lonely search for mental relief. It was another day, I now understand, that my father did not kill himself, as were the following eleven.
For a time after reading that letter he left for me, I believed August 21st was the day he ran out of hope. But it wasn’t. The moment he truly surrendered came late in the afternoon those twelve days later.
There may not have been anything else I or anyone could have said or done during those twelve lost days that would have changed the outcome for our family. But when you know you’re in those days—and the truth is we had an inkling that we were—more persistent discussions about mental wellness must take place, privately and publicly. A person’s afflicted mind must be made as culturally embraceable as a failing heart, or cancered breast. Patients and their families must have space available in our society to openly convalesce while undergoing whatever the appropriate treatment is: counseling, medication, or a combination of the two. Chocolate cake. Reiki. Voodoo. Whatever it takes. We need to remove the stigma and the shameful label of mental illness and instead stay focused on a person’s mental health.
We need that. My father needed that.
Call me naïve but I can’t help feeling that even on the very morning that was to become my father’s last, there were still strands of hope. He had picked vegetables from the garden and made a shopping list of things he was out of and needed to pick up the following day: milk, mouthwash, mayonnaise. On the morning of September 2nd my dad still had tomorrow. That little grocery list pointed to it. By late that afternoon, tomorrow had once again vanished into the bleak shadows of despair. Those letters were retrieved from wherever they were hiding—maybe in a drawer slipped between undershirts, or in the glove compartment of his truck. They were placed on the table alongside that now invisible grocery list, that fading sign of hope. And this is where I want my thoughts to warp time so I can scream to him “No! Those letters don’t count! They’ve expired! Passed their sell-by date! They’re from how you felt on August 21st! That’s not how you feel now! Today you have a tomorrow! Look! Milk! Mouthwash! Mayonnaise!”
But I know that’s not how it works.
So I honor my father’s absence on two days every year.
And I will always regret not having one more chance to ask, “What do you need? Besides milk, mouthwash and mayonnaise, what else have you really run out of?” And then together go get him some of that, whatever it was.
I know my family is not unique in dealing with this very damaging situation. I honor everyone who has had to deal with the loss and heartache of losing someone to suicide. Please feel free to share your experiences.