I never wanted Sam’s death to define me or his children or to define Sam himself. This is sort of a challenge because the last impression he left us with was rather a shock. Believe me, suicide is not the way you want to become your town’s local sensation.
While we as a culture have made significant inroads in the area of mental health, death by suicide continues to carry with it a significant stigma. From the outside, suicide looks more like a choice than an illness. It is very hard to reconcile the matter of Sam’s death with the manner of his life.
As I was preparing the eulogy for Sam’s funeral, my youngest son said, “Mommy, it would take a whole year to say all the good things about Daddy.” Indeed. It would take much longer for us to accept the fact of his suicide as a part of the package.
I married Sam because he saw me truly as I am and loved me anyway – warts and all, as they say. I was safe with him, and I grew into myself in the shelter of his love. This was his gift to me for almost 17 years. It was inconceivable that he was dead at age 41, let alone by his own hand. Sometimes I wondered whether I had really known him at all.
As usual, I turn to my dogs for inspiration, levity and acceptance. We have a little dog, a black and tan Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, with a pedigree a page long. He has a small white patch on his chin and another patch of white on his chest. It looks like he has spilled milk down his front, and he is too cute for words. Unfortunately for his breeding career, according to “breed standards,” these white patches, along with a nose that is just a tad too long, disqualify him from competition. The breeder dubbed him “pet quality,” which has since become my favorite euphemism for a doggy stigma.
He is, in fact, the ideal family pet. His little tail wags from the moment he wakes up until the moment he wiggles under the covers down at my feet. He is always happy to see us, and he is a complete joy. We call him “love in a dog shape.” His faults have not rendered him less lovable.
Our local catholic church has started hosting a weekly adoration. On Tuesdays. Not that anybody asked me, but adoration is most definitely a Sushi-Tuesday sanctioned activity. For those unfamiliar with this ritual, here are the essentials: a priest places the sacramental bread on the altar, and people sit around reverently. That’s all. Anyone can participate. You don’t have to lose ten pounds or get a job. You don’t have to dress up or wear mascara, or take a shower. You don’t even have to be catholic. You just have to show up. Slowing down helps. Adoration is simply about presence. It is as if Jesus says, “Just be here and sit with me.”
My Lenten practice this year has been to spend an hour in adoration each Tuesday. As I have mentioned, sitting still is not generally my strong suit, but I have managed to keep my weekly vigil nonetheless. Not surprisingly, I have found great joy in committing the time to silence, contemplation and community. And something else has happened in the process. Each week, as I sit still for a while adoring the gentle presence, I start to get the impression that Jesus might be adoring me too. Completely as I am. There is no flaw so egregious as to disqualify us from being loved by the divine.
The experience reminds me of Sam. This man with a gentle spirit was a kind father and husband, a T-ball coach, a concerned community member. Only a few weeks before his death, while walking his sons to elementary school, he noticed a van making an illegal U-turn. The driver was unaware that he was perilously close to hitting two eleven-year-olds on their bicycles in the crosswalk, also en route to school. Unaware, that is, until Sam stepped into the crosswalk between the kids and the van, shouting at the driver. Many times we wished that he had died that way – a hero’s death – instead of by his own design. These moments make his death that much harder to understand.
Our gift to him has been – through the course of our healing work – to see him as he was, the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and even the manner of his death, and to love and honor him still. How important for his children – and in fact, all of us – to be exceptional and unique and flawed. And loved through all of it. Adored, even.
None of which is to condone suicide. On the contrary, it is the biggest mistake of Sam’s life. Time and again, we have longed to delete that last little line of his biography. But over time, we have accepted that one word in particular. Suicide. And in the process we have learned that this last word does not invalidate any of the goodness, integrity and vitality that filled the preceding 41 years of his life. The boys and I have found our way to love Sam completely for who he was, even including how he died.
As I write, my “pet quality” Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is in his usual spot, asleep at my feet. The breed is known for their sweet temperament. They are affectionate, playful and gentle. All true. This companion dog is my black and tan shadow. He is the best fetcher I have ever had, and if he is awake, his tail is wagging.
As with most purebreds, the Cavaliers suffer from a specific health challenge; most will die from heart failure. Also true for mine. I knew when we got this dog that he had a relatively short life expectancy, about 8 to 10 years. He’s 8 years old now and has a significant heart murmur. He is on three different heart medications, and the combination seems to give him the most terrible gas. It’s not always sweetness and light being the dog’s favorite, as I sit here typing in the gas cloud. It makes me so sad that the dog who is all heart may very well die from heart failure. It seems completely unfair.
Sometimes I think of Sam’s suicide as a kind of heart failure. If I had suspected he might have died prematurely from a valve failure I would have married him anyway. If you had told me he was going to kill himself, I wouldn’t have believed you. And while “suicide” is harder to say out loud than “heart attack,” I don’t have any regrets. At the end of it all, there is no easy way.
In the meantime, the best we can do is to live with joy and love and laughter, which is why I chose this ridiculously adorable dog to begin with. The heartbreak and tears will come as well. My Cavalier coughs and wheezes and wags. His favorite exercise is to jump on the table searching for scraps the second that we get up from dinner. I imagine someday he will have his doggy heart attack while gorging himself on a forbidden treat. It wouldn’t be the worst way to go.
And we will love him still.
Wishing you light and strength. And an adorable “pet quality” dog.