At a little after 9 on the evening of October 23, 1989 I thought it was too late to call my dad. I had just gotten off the phone with my sister in Arizona — I had called to tell her I was pregnant. It was my first and I had just been to the doctor that day for my first ultrasound and was nearly through my first trimester so felt it was time to tell. But, I wanted to take my time in the telling — spending whatever time on the phone that was needed to honor the occasion. Remember, these were pre-cell phone and Facebook-was-not-even-a-thought days and so long distance phone calls were meaningful, and less expensive after 7 pm.
So, a little after 7, the next evening, October 24, I called my dad in Florida. He was not home and I left a message with his wife to call me when he got a chance. That chance never came because I had called too late. Because at a little after 7 on the morning of October 25, they found him. I would never have the chance to talk to him again because he had died by his own choice.
For the next 25 years I would ask, on this date, what happened today that made today “the” day. The day that became his last. The day that the worries became a war that he no longer cared to fight. The day that the phrase “at the end of his rope” was no longer a metaphor. The day that the certainty of death made that day a mystery.
For 25 years I carried the burden of “if”. If I had called one day earlier. If I had been better about calling in the months leading up to it. If I had been a better daughter or a better person or a better human being he would have hung on long enough to hang on to a phone for a chat, with me. One that would give him a reason to live in the new life I was carrying… his first granddaughter.
25 years is a long time. And time does not heal wounds. Time tells the truth. It took 25 years for me to learn the truth of that day and when it finally made sense I realized that I had spent all that time carrying a burden so heavy that it made me strong enough not just to withstand it but to use it for good. I realized that having dealt with my father’s suicide made me look it square in the face when it threatened my children. I was still standing, even if my father wasn’t, and depression and death was going to have to go through me to take anyone else I loved. In realizing that I had brought the circumstances of my father’s death to his life meant that I could remove it from my children’s.
For 25 years I beat myself up with the “ifs”. I hammered myself like a blacksmith shapes iron and over time, that cold, useless, weighty lump of guilt turned into a tool for purpose. Because IF I could have saved him, then someone else could be saved. If a connection on a phone or in my heart could have pulled him back into his life, I could connect in ways that could, just maybe, pull someone else out of that fire. Turning self-blame into personal responsibility didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t happen in those first 25 years. It happened because I learned the truth about that day. The day. The day that literally, ended all days.
Today is a new day. 28 years ago, today, I reached out to my father to tell him life goes on… in me, because of me. Because of him, our lives go on. Because of his death I was educated on suicide and vigilant about depression and willing to get myself and my children help. For me, hope was the hammer that shaped my molten grief into a tool of purpose. Purpose that says as long as there was this “if” there could have been a different “then”.
28 years ago, suicide was a word whispered at the back of the funeral home, ignored around a Thanksgiving table and unmentionable in wider circles and it is that stigma that amplifies its impact. If we don’t talk about it, and its myriad of causes, we can’t hope to prevent it. If we don’t accept personal responsibility for its existence in our lives we cannot begin to prevent it as a cause of death. There is not one place to place the blame. There is not one box in which to secret it away — not a person or a physical condition or a mental diagnosis — and to me, that is the problem. The physical health approach of strength through self-care and an arms-length antibacterial human interaction is a breeding ground for suicide. Suicide lives in the dark and is a contagious answer to a community problem. It is passed from one to another by lack of connection and an unwillingness to admit that you could have done something. That you should have done something. My hope is that you would have done something, if you had known.
So, get in the know about suicide. Saying the word doesn’t make it appear like Beetlejuice. Adding the word to your vocabulary and your conversations with your children or friends reduces the stigma and reduces the likelihood of someone you know becoming a statistic. Saying the word did not bring the idea into my home, it helped me acknowledge the truth of it and in doing so, act to prevent it. I know more about suicide than I want to, so I want you to know that there is help and connection and a community that will see you through it.
I now know the facts about “the” day that was my dad’s last. I have seen how they play out in front of you and how easy it is to miss the signs. But I also see how necessary it is to not let missed chances turn into choices that leave us missing someone important. You never know, today might be the day that hope gets formed by faith, rather than the fire.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255