I am the happy product of a family that took weeklong vacations down the Cape [read: Cape Cod] every summer, placed importance on home-cooked meals, laughed at Thursday night sitcoms, and searched far and wide for the tallest Christmas tree every December. My younger brother and I had our own rooms, which we were allowed to paint any color we wanted, and my parents slow-danced with each other in the kitchen after they did the dishes. And even though my mother clipped coupons and my father turned down the thermostat at night, my brother and I didn’t miss out on soccer, baseball, and wrestling camps (in his case) or dance and cheerleading camps (in my case). We were captains of our respective high school sports, on the honor roll, and we went to great colleges with academic scholarships. He graduated and moved out to California; I got married on one of those Cape Cod beaches.
My father taught me how to read when I was two, how to do a cartwheel when I was five, and tricks to memorize the Periodic table during my junior year of chemistry. His most often repeated mantra was “there should be no room in your heart for hatred.” If I said I hated green beans, I was expected to restate my sentence: “I strongly dislike green beans with every fiber of my being.” He instilled in us an insatiable thirst for knowledge and fun facts. “What’s a word in the English language where all vowels are presented in alphabetical order, including ‘sometimes y?’” he’d ask us while we ate breakfast in the morning. (Answer: facetious, or facetiously.) After I had reconstructive knee surgery and returned to dance competitions, my father wore sunglasses in the theater. “I can’t have all the other parents see me crying while my little girl is onstage,” he informed me, tapping his trademark black Ray Bans, a birthday gift from ten years before.
This was not only the father I knew, but also the man everyone around us knew: the man who my best friends referred to as “Daddy Fagan,” who drove us both to and from the mall or the movies when other parents were too tired (or tipsy). The man who made my parents’ friends laugh until they cried, who coached Little League baseball, who drove for hours to see his son’s wrestling matches and came home early from work when I was frightened of a spider in the shower.
Growing up, I felt happy, lucky, and safe. I couldn’t fathom being what I am today: the daughter of a suicide victim.
The loss of a parent is not unique. Sadly, suicide is not even that unique — according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, someone dies by his or her own hand every sixteen minutes in the United States.
But, suicide is taboo. It is something people whisper about, something they try to hide when their family members are at risk. There is an extra sadness, an impermeable melancholy that shrouds the survivors of a suicide victim. In our world, suicide is shame, reflected in the liquid pity of the eyes of friends and family.
My father’s death was a layered thing: the pain of loss paled in comparison with the knowledge that he chose to end his life. “Was I such a bad wife?” my mother asked the policemen who came to the door the night they found him, as we waited anxiously for news of his whereabouts. “Who’s going to walk me down the aisle at my wedding?” I asked my now-husband, Kevin, as the police stood in the foyer and shuffled their feet, their cheeks stained red from the biting December cold. Outside, icy Christmas lights twinkled and blew in the wind. My brother, on the phone from college down in Pennsylvania, couldn’t even find the words. “What? What?” he cried. In one fell swoop, I went from the daughter of two parents to the child of suicide — a role I was not prepared for, yet am now living.
Soon after his death, I read an article on a reputable news site that advised people to “give a suicidal person a hug and tell them you care.” I felt an anger so crippling that my vision blurred. I feel lucky that every time I saw my father, we hugged and said we loved each other.
Now, my family is in the process of coming to terms with not just my father’s absence, but his chosen absence. Since December 7, 2009, he has missed three years of birthdays, my brother’s wrestling meets, the trip to Egypt my parents had mentioned, the first time I did my taxes myself, my first job offer, my wedding. He won’t hold his future grandchildren or my mother’s hand. The week before he died, we spoke about my someday-wedding, and he told me I needed to choose a dress I could really move around in. “I’m going to lift you a lot during our father-daughter dance, and I don’t want you to rip it,” he said, his expression serious.
My father grew up ninth in line of fifteen children, in an Irish-Catholic family with a distant, abusive father and a meek mother. No one in his family was allowed to speak during dinner. If the phone rang, the child on the receiving end more often than not found him or herself getting whipped with a belt. They ate ketchup sandwiches and slept three to a bed. One of his brothers died from pneumonia at age six, and another hung himself in the backyard because of a drug addiction at age seventeen. As the first in his family to go to college, my father had to hitchhike to Pittsburgh, an eleven-hour drive from his Boston suburb, because his own father wouldn’t loan him money for a bus ticket. When he became a father himself, he swore to raise us as he had not been raised: in a safe, loving, violence-free home. And he did, until the end.
But the week before he died, he already knew he was going to die. He had been planning it for at least a month. My father suffered from a severe gambling addiction — one that made him waste my parents’ life savings on lottery tickets, one that forced them to declare bankruptcy, one that shamed him into hanging himself with a rope he bought at a local hardware store. He chose to die in a forest right next to my parents’ house, behind the town baseball fields, lest we find out he’d gotten access to some old family money and squandered that away, too. His suicide note was a jumbled mix of sorrow, shame, and inane, practical instructions. (“The mail from this morning is on the counter. There is a Nintendo Wii I bought as a gift in my closet.”) These are the details of literary characters.
What was he thinking in the days preceding his death? The last time he would eat my mother’s slow-cooked red sauce or pot roast, the last time he would put on Old Spice deodorant and scrape away his ruddy stubble with the ever-present striped can Barbasol shaving cream. The last time he would nimbly leap from the couch and cheer for a Patriots touchdown or curse at a blunder. What do you choose to wear on your last day on earth? I can only imagine that it got to the point where he thought that if he could erase himself from the world, he’d be taking the pain of his actions with him. His compulsion taught me that addictions are like cancer — no one chooses them, and the fight against them is long, hard, and often lost.
Adjusting to life without my father is not easy, but it’s also not impossible. Days after his death, I laughed at a scene in a Will Ferrell movie and looked around the room in surprise after I realized that the sound came from me. My father’s seat was empty for family dinners until my mother solved the problem and took the chair away. She didn’t put up a Christmas tree in my childhood home that first year, a mere two weeks after his funeral; instead, all of our presents were piled up on the dining room table.
And yet, so much happiness since then.
The word “suicide” is harsh. When I speak it out loud, I feel like I have rocks in my mouth that I need to spit out. But suicide also gives me the freedom to move on from my father’s death. I do not feel guilty for my happiness. I thrive in it and still seek it. Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself as a daughter of suicide. After that, I thought I could never be happy after losing my father. But I am. My father, who I still love with a feeling so inimitable and unbroken it hurts, chose one path. I’m choosing another.