I am the youngest of three and being the only girl, I was very close with my Dad. He loved all of his children equally but with me he allowed himself to be a little sillier or sometimes a little bit stricter or more relaxed - depending on the situation. My family is an ordinary, middle class family who loved each other and loved spending time together. We took vacations, enjoyed dinner together at the table every night and on Sundays we would have a big dinner with my Dad's parents. The house was filled with music, laughter and so much love. Dad and I would spend time working on the yard together and we would listen to our beloved White Sox on the garage radio. We, the family, even went to a couple of Sox games when I was little. Dad and I were also country music fans. While the rest of the family had their rock and pop, Dad and I would listen to our favorites, Waylon and Willie.
He was a professional firefighter and I loved visiting him at the fire station. He would let me play around on the fire trucks and run around in the garage. He was also a functioning alcoholic who quit and became sober when I was 10. I never saw his drinking as a problem; I quite enjoyed fetching his Pabst Blue Ribbon when asked! After he quit, he then became the diet pop Dad who loved sweets and popcorn. He was so goofy and real good at acting like he didn't know what was going on around him but we knew better. He was larger than life and I completely adored him. I hardly saw him sad or depressed. As I got older, I had a few opportunities to see into his soul. When I was 14, he came home from fighting a house fire where the homeowner had perished in it. He told me that day, looking extremely tired and sad, that he hated the smell of burning flesh, that there was nothing like it and he never wished it on another human being to smell that smell. He also felt so bad for the family. I'll never forget the look on his face. When I was 17, his mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack. He had heard the call over the police/fire scanner that he kept near his and my mom's bed. He cried in front of me that night for the first time ever and he didn't understand why the little children still had to go trick or treating. It was Halloween and we buried her on his birthday, November 2nd. I started dating my husband-to-be when I was 16, so my closeness with my Dad started to splinter. He wasn't fond of my spending so much time with this boy and my time at home became less and less. I was a teenager and had teenaged things to do.
He retired from firefighting when I turned 18. My twenties held a lot of ups and downs. He was there for the best days of my life: the day he walked me down the aisle when I was 23 and for the births of my children when I was 26 and 28. But during that time, he and my Mom divorced after 35 years of marriage. Plus, he secretly started drinking again. Also during this time, he had to put his own father in a retirement/nursing home. I never let on that I knew he was drinking and he never told me about it. He would, however, tell me about his winnings at the gambling casino boat that he went to. He told me how lights and sounds would go off when he'd win and it would feel so good and exciting. But he never told me about the times when he lost or how bad his debts were adding up. When I was 30, I found him dead by suicide in his car by carbon monoxide poisoning and I never, ever saw it coming.
That was Wednesday, February 7, 2001. The day that the course of my life was forever changed. My father was a 59 year old physically healthy man who suffered from depression, was an active alcoholic, was deeply in debt and was losing a job that he had for 20 years (since retiring from the fire department). He lived alone and kept in regular contact with me. I spoke with him on the telephone at least once a week and I never got the idea that he was depressed or that he was going to lose my childhood home because of gambling debts. The last conversation I had with him was on Sunday the 4th and we made plans for me to bring my children over to visit the following weekend. I received a phone call from my Dad's boss that Wednesday around 9:00 p.m. and he said he was concerned about my Dad because he was supposed to come back to work that day after taking a couple of days off and hadn't shown up or called in. This man said he went to my Dad's earlier in the day and asked if I would meet him at the house because something didn't seem right.
I left my husband at home with the sleeping children and drove to my Dad's house. It was an ominous drive and I just couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. I prayed on the way - prayed to God that nothing had happened to my Dad. I was shaking with fear and my knees were literally bouncing up to the dashboard. I drove like a maniac and had hoped a policeman would pull me over so I could have him follow me to my Dad's. Somehow, I safely arrived and was greeted by the boss and by the next door neighbor who had a key to get us into the house and we searched it finding nothing. I grabbed the garage door opener, pushed the button and stood inside the back door as I watched it slowly going up, inch by inch showing me the car tires, then the hose attached to the tailpipe and finally my Dad sitting in the driver's seat with his head tilted to the right. I knew he wasn't sleeping and knew better than to run to him. Somehow, deep down, I understood that he had taken his own life. And right along with him, a part of my heart died that night. I started screaming, "Oh my God, my Daddy took his own life! He took his own life!!" My neighbor hugged me and I banged my fists against his chest. I remember calling 911 and my mom, brother and husband. The rest of the night was a flurry of action and movement. I was in a complete state of shock and disbelief and so traumatized by what I had seen. I have no idea how I made it through the weeks that followed.
For the first six months after I found him, I couldn't get the image out of my head and would get physically jarred when I would remember. I had so many emotions happening all at once that would confuse me. One minute I would be angry at him, then I would feel guilt for being angry, then I would feel sad for him, and then scared for him. My heart and chest would pain me. If I laughed, I would immediately feel bad for enjoying a moment. It was difficult that first year to get my bearings and to allow myself to feel those feelings. I would re-create that last week of his life and the events that followed over and over and over. It was extremely important to me that I revisit all things that lead up to him taking his life. To replay each conversation we had had over the previous month just in case I remembered something different. I feared that I would forget the details, which would then lessen my chance to get my answers as to why. He didn't leave a note but I still looked for one - for at least two years after, maybe three, because I just didn't want to miss it if he had. To have him explain it to me rather than me coming up with my own conclusions would have been much better. I've had to adjust to a circumstance that was beyond my control. To accept this new life that was thrust upon me. I've had to resign myself to the fact that he will not be here for me or my family. That he could not see through the dark tunnel that he envisioned no matter how important his family was to him. That he was very depressed and felt that there was only one way out of his pain and suffering. But most importantly, that he loved us all so much and was such a proud man, that he could never ask for help and couldn't be thought of as a burden.
I made it through the first couple of years by going to a support group, reading a lot of books and taking an anti-depressant. I also visited his grave many times a year for the first five years. Having a solid family support system was crucial in my healing process. So many new traditions had to be started - within our own families and within the extended family. I thank God that my brothers, Dan and Tim and I, along with our mother, Jill, remain so very close. I love them so much and I believe the experience only brought us closer. Listening to music helped me through all of the years too, in good moments and bad. It helped me get my anger out and allowed my tears to fall. It could take me away in to my own world but it could also bring me back to reality. Once during the first year, I heard a song by Enya called "Only Time" in a local drugstore and I had to immediately leave because it upset me so much. Today, I can almost listen to it without crying.
This year is the 10th year without him and some days it feels like it and other days it's like it just happened. I sometimes find myself yearning for his big, strong hugs or wish that he was here to give me advice. When a baby is born, when there is a death or when a milestone is reached in the family, I miss him and my emotions get all mixed up with anger and sadness. But most of the time, life just moves on and I am now ready to talk about it and am ready for the next chapter. This is why I took it upon myself to bring the Out of the Darkness Community Walk to my city. I strongly believe in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's mission and want to help them bring awareness to my community. I want to help raise money for their research and education programs to prevent suicide, to advocate for mental health issues and to help other survivors of suicide loss feel a sense of belonging. To let them know that even though our situations are unique, our experiences in the grief process are the same. That we, together as a community, can silence the stigma surrounding depression and suicide.