I Want You to Know

Here’s what I want you to know about my husband’s suicide:

I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I can read some of the signs differently, but at the time I did not know he was so close to the edge.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his parents’ fault, or his kids’ fault, or his cousins’, or his sister’s or his friends’ fault. It wasn’t his doctor’s fault, or his boss’s fault or any of his colleagues’ or clients’. It wasn’t entirely Sam’s fault. It just was, and I cannot explain the why of it any more than anyone can explain why some people develop cancer or multiple sclerosis and others don’t.

It wasn’t for lack of love. His death is not a reflection on our capacity to love him. Or his capacity to love us.

Sam was not bi-polar. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. He was not in any sort of treatment or taking any medications. He had a prescription for Vicodin for his back pain after multiple surgeries, but he refused to take it.

I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived. Whether our marriage would have remained intact, whether he would have been hit by the proverbial bus or an actual one, whether he would have survived another back surgery, whether we would have gone to family camp for another twenty years, whether we would have moved to Colorado or Canada, whether circumstances might have pushed the boundaries of our patience in ways we hadn’t yet been tested, or whether we would have lived happily ever after until death did us part when we were in our 90’s surrounded by our children and grandchildren. Or whether that last scenario might just be a story I read once upon a time.

I will never know exactly what happened and every why detail. The not-knowing is part of the deal. I know this now.

 

Here’s what I want his children to know about their father’s suicide:

You were the greatest gift of your father’s life. You were his joy, his light, his inspiration. This does not mean it was your job to save him. Your role then – as it is now – is to be yourself. Be your funny, spirited, smart, wonderful, glitchy, imperfect self. His death cannot take you away from you.

Your father loved you with all of his heart. His death is not the end his love for you.

He would never have left you willingly. Not in a million years. I know it looks like he chose to leave, but I promise you with every ounce of my being that if he was in his right mind, he would not have left you. No way. The only way I can reconcile the fact that he took his own life with how much he adored you is that he must have been gravely ill. Somehow in the warped operation of his mind, he was convinced that you were better off without him. This makes no logical sense. I hope that, as you navigate the course of your own life, you will be able to come to terms with this paradox.

You are not destined to repeat your father’s path. Be alert. Suicide and depression run in families, but they do not own you. Know yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Trust that you have resources and agency.

You didn’t deserve for your father to die. Life is not about what we deserve. Do your best to let go of life’s injustices and to hold on to moments of grace.

On the night your father died, I sat with each of you tucked under my arms. You were small enough then that the three of us fit in one armchair. I told you something that is as true now as it was then: Your father’s love for you will always be with you. Always. Forever.

 

Here’s what I want Sam to know about his suicide:

Your death caused us more pain than you could possibly have imagined. We forgive you and love you anyway.

To be unnervingly honest, I do have several friends who have no intention of forgiving you. I’ll just say that when they get to heaven, you’d better get ready to run.

You must have been experiencing more pain that we could possibly have imagined. We hope you forgive us and love us still.

The little baseball team you coached was devastated at your death – not because of your academic or professional accomplishments, not because you were the greatest baseball player or coach, not because you were somebody’s daddy, but simply because you were a kind man who cared enough to spend time with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every Saturday afternoon. I want you to know that your goodness is what we hold on to.

We are creating lives that would make you proud. We live with joy and passion and faith and integrity. We laugh and sing and run and play. We shout and swear and sweat. We have traveled to places you never got to go, and I’ve let the kids go places you might not have wanted them to visit. For the record, they loved it. We had your favorite comfort food for dinner last night, turkey meatloaf with garlic green beans and spaetzle with parmesan. We raise a glass to you on your birthday, your deathaversary, on holidays and random days. Sometimes it really irritates me that you believed that we could live full lives without you, but more often I am grateful.

I fell in love. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. He is handsome and kind and funny. He loves me, and he loves our sons as his own. Tim was also widowed, and he has two sons whom I love with my whole heart. We have created a family together, and I cannot find the words to explain how beautiful this life is.

I want you to know that we are happy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And perspective.

Tradition

My father thinks I’m perfect, so it was only as an adult that I started to come to terms with the fact that I don’t do everything well. Life has humbled me a great deal. And if not Life itself then I can rely on my sons to do the job effectively. But the first Father’s Day after Sam’s death I did do well.

Being a single mother in the hardest thing I’ve ever done. There’s no break. Ever. It’s the Mommy Channel 24-7, and believe me, the children are not the only ones tired of hearing my nagging voice. Being the mom and the dad is its own circus act, and I was not looking forward to carrying the weight of his golf clubs, donning the tie from his alma mater, wielding the barbeque tongs and the television remote, all while sporting high heels and balancing on a pink pilates ball.

Even so, I resented when people told me that my sons needed a father in their life. My parents raised my sister and me to believe that girls could do everything that boys could do, and they were so effective in conveying this message that I remained confident in my ability to mother and to father my children. I had absolutely no intention of getting married again (that turned out to be another piece of humble pie on the platter of my life), and certainly not for the express purpose of providing my children with a father.

Shortly after Sam’s death, one of my sons desperately wanted a step-father, because he was “too little to be the man of the house,” but a couple years later when I was falling in love with the man who would become his step-father, he wanted none of it. I recall saying to him, “That’s so interesting. Right after daddy died you wanted me to get married again but now you don’t. I wonder what has changed for you?” (Obviously I’ve had a lot of therapy.)

His answer: “Mom, right after daddy died, I didn’t know that you could take care of us. And now I know you can.” (Worth every penny I’ve paid my therapist. And his.)

When the first June without Sam was looming on our horizon, I knew I had to grab that Father’s Day bull by the horns. Every school project honoring fathers was painful. Sometimes the boys substituted in their grandfathers, or an uncle, or me. Other times, they opted not to participate at all, the loss of their father still raw and overwhelming.

Meanwhile, one of my closest girlfriends was in the midst of a divorce, and Father’s Day that year also happened to fall on the anniversary of her own father’s death. A Father’s Day trifecta. Emphasis on the fect, if you know what I mean.

We needed a new tradition.

We decided that “F-Day” was going to suck wherever we were, so it might as well suck poolside and with room service. Every now and again a girl needs a day to fall apart and let somebody else pick up the pieces.

We checked in early, and ordered drinks with umbrellas. We toasted the good fathers in our lives and roasted the bad ones. Some of these were the same men. We played in the pool and the sun, and the boys watched movies on demand for as long as they could keep their eyes open. We talked, laughed, and cried. Sunday morning, we skipped church and ordered room service. The afternoon might have included a few more umbrellas, by which I mean the large ones adjacent to the pool. Also the fancy little paper ones.

It wasn’t nearly as bad as we feared. In fact, we kind of liked it.

We’ve been celebrating F-Day ever since. Even looking forward to it.

Sometimes the girl hits a home run.

When tradition ceased to serve our best interest, we created our own Father’s Day observance. As with other aspects of life, we have more choices than we might acknowledge. This is not necessarily an easy path, particularly when the extended family have their own agenda for our day. I knew myself and my children well enough to see what we needed as a nuclear family, and I was forthright enough to say so. And so it was done.

As the years progress, we have revised our Father’s Day observances as we see fit. I try to be mindful of the fact that I do not know the loss of a parent, and I tailor the weekend to accommodate my sons’ changing needs. Some years, the boys felt comfort in the company of uncles and grandfathers; other times, they found more solace in seclusion.

After Tim and I were married, the boys wanted to spend the official Father’s Day with him, so my girlfriend and I moved our F-day tradition to a different Sunday in June, which had the excellent effect of opening it up for her little one to join us. The weekend includes joyous moments and solemn ones, splashes and tears, and when we spill, in whatever ways this means, we have help mopping up the mess. In the process of celebrating all the fathers in our life, even the ones who are gone, we honor ourselves and our own F-Day needs.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a tradition that suits you.