Let’s Stop Layering Relationships: Thoughts on My Father’s Death by Suicide

A year ago today, on a Wednesday morning, my father took his own life. And everyone was shocked and had questions. One of the most pressing: when I last saw him. The answer to that was the previous Friday. So, within the week.


It was a normal visit. We sat on the overstuffed sofas in the living room, everyone in their usual spots–Greg and I on the loveseat, my stepmother on the sofa, my father in his chair. We talked about my daughters, his granddaughters, their successes. We discussed Greg’s health and the headaches associated with the closure of our family’s newspaper and Dad’s inability to sleep. 

We made small talk in a group for about an hour. Then, Greg and I left.


My dad and I always had a quick moment alone at the end of our visits. My stepmother generally stayed inside while he walked us to the car. Greg would get in the passenger seat, and I would stand out side the car talking with my father as he pulled pine straw from the windshield well and pried gravel from my tires with a car key or credit card. I would give him a big hug, always, and I would usually say I was grateful for something. Then, I would get in the car, roll down the window, and he would stay there, stopped over, his hands on the door frame, talking just a little more. There would be an, “I love you,” sometimes a, “I sure am proud of you,” and that would be that.


When my father died, I was 49 years old, and, as an adult, I had never been out for a meal alone with him. Never dropped by to play a game of Scrabble. Never even walked around the block together. Sure, whenever I called Dad, we had rambling phone calls full of happy laughter. Usually, when I hung up, I would remark, “My dad won’t call, but he certainly wants to talk.”

Still, even these phone conversations were usually held in the presence of others. Kids walking in and out of the kitchen, a spouse beside one of us on the sofa, chiming in from time to time.

And there’s not anything wrong with that.


This is not stone-throwing. It’s not a trip back in time to say, “If I could just remedy this wrong, everything would be better.” But it is a blunt recognition: I had not spent even an hour alone with my father in decades.

Society isn’t set up that way.

That’s not something we think about, is it? We are born into families–sometimes already crowded with siblings. They are always around. We don’t get our parents alone when we are young unless they are intentional about it. Wednesdays, little Johnny goes with Mom to the grocery store and to get ice cream while Susie and Dad watch baseball and eat PB&J at home. Maybe there is an occasional fishing trip, a morning in the deer stand. There may be snatches of time, but there are not whole chunks. There is family time, together, which is laudable, but there needs to be consistent solitary parent-child time as well.

I don’t mean the kind of one-on-one time that you post on Instagram for all your friends to see. A once-a-year Daddy-daughter date night with flowers and makeup and hairdos is not what I am talking about. I am talking about relationship building that says, “I know who you are and I value you apart from your siblings. Apart from your spouse. Apart from your mother or father. I simply value you.”


As children, my brothers and I had a bit of that with Dad. One of us just had to sneak into the kitchen on a night he worked late, and we could sit with him while he ate his supper. (Truly, sometimes, children are not trying to avoid bed so much as they are trying to get a little bit of one-on-one time with Mom or Dad.) Sometimes, if we were lucky, we could sneak into the den and watch a little bit of TV sitting on the chipped leather footstool. We could listen to him laugh at SNL or Carson.

But that was all there was. Tiny little tidbits.


A few days after my father died, I realized American society was like this–my friends don’t see their parents alone, either. Always, there are children, spouses, others.

And if we say to these others, “I want to go see my father alone. Honey, you and the kids stay home,” we may seem rude. There may be tears from our children, who want Grandpa Time. And  certainly, no one wants to say, “Mom, let’s go get coffee and leave Dad at the house.”

We can’t be frank. We choose gentility.


I’m here to say we shouldn’t.


A sister-in-law’s coworker once said, “I love, love, love, my son’s wife. But I sure wish I could see my boy alone.”

That mother couldn’t say that to her son. Because it of how it might seem. Because his new, young wife, might have her heart broken. But, surely, it is an equal heartbreak not to have your adult child to yourself, ever.


My father and I had a moment once. I think we were locked out at my grandparents’ house. Maybe we had met for me to run in and pick up something–I really don’t know. We were on the wide red brick porch beneath the four towering white columns, and he said, “The day you were born . . . I had just never known joy like that, you know? . . .Pure joy.”

His eyes were kind. His smile broad.

(I am almost sure he was picking at pine straw.)

That was it: one moment alone in 25 years. Yes, it was beautiful, and I have it.

It is a place that I can go.

But if your father is alive, you can go to breakfast tomorrow alone with him. You can leave your spouse and your children for two hours. Your dad can leave your mom at home watching Netflix and petting the cat. The deer stand (and even the football game) can wait.

And the two of you can sit Cracker Barrel eating biscuits with butter and blackberry jam. You can drink black coffee.

You can look, together, out the window at the blue sky.

 

 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255. It is available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.