In November of 2008 my father went missing. It was a Friday when I got the call. I remember thinking that it must have been my dad calling, because it was 8:30 in the morning and everyone else in my life respected my “no calls til noon” rule. My dad woke up with the sun, and didn’t have patience for my plans to sleep in. I was a waitress at the time and never worked morning shifts, so it was with a groan that I got out of bed to answer my phone. It wasn’t my dad though. It was his friend Kathy, a woman that he would stay with when he was in Gainesville. He had a trailer about 45 minutes away, but he was rarely ever home.
Kathy’s first question was “have you heard from your father?” I had. We had talked on Wednesday. We had a really nice long call two days before; less than 48 hours ago. She meant more recently than that. Kathy said that he had left to go to a gig the night before, but had never shown up and no one had heard from him. This made no sense to me. My father had very little to pride himself on, but two things were core to his person; his love of music and his sense of responsibility to his friends. He was the guy who showed up early to everything and it made you feel bad for being on time. He wasn’t a great musician, but it was clearly the one thing he loved most in the world. Point being, my dad always showed up. Especially for music.
He wasn’t the best dad when I was growing up. Definitely not abusive, and neglectful isn’t exactly the right word, but a lot of things weren’t right. He would forget to feed me dinner, or forget to make sure I had taken a shower, or brushed my teeth. His house was always a disaster, and I don’t just mean that it was untidy or a “bachelor pad”. A tree fell through the roof when I was 7 and let in bugs, rain, Florida heat, etc. The rotting tree was in the house for over 6 years. My bed sheets were never washed and soaked in sweat. There were cockroaches everywhere. But I loved my dad and didn’t want my mom to call the authorities so I never told her about it.
I think he didn’t know how to be a dad. He referred to his own father as “one of the last great stand up drunks”. I think he didn’t know what it meant to be a father. I wouldn’t blame someone for their inability to build a house if no one ever gave them the tools to build one.
I lived in Nashville, TN when he went missing and he was still in Florida. So when there was still no word by Saturday night, I decided to drive down to Florida the next morning.
The next few days were spent working with the local police to try to track him down, follow the few leads we had, and an official missing person’s report was put out as well as a “silver alert” (like an Amber Alert, but for missing elderly people). My aunt who lives in Texas flew in on Thursday and stayed with a friend of hers in Jacksonville. Later that evening, the officer working the case called to say that my dad’s van had been found in the Jacksonville Airport parking lot. There seemed to be no one inside, but there was a gun on the front passenger seat.
I was at a bar with friends when the officer called to tell me she had found the van. I didn’t really know what to think or feel. If we found him alive, I knew what that meant. He would have to come back with me to Nashville to live. It made sense on paper; I lived with my boyfriend in a 2-bedroom apartment. We had the room. I’m his only daughter, he never remarried after my mom, and his other family wouldn’t want to, or would be too poor to take him in, especially if he was having mental problems and would need medical care. It would be up to me entirely.
I’ve struggled with my guilt over my reaction to this possibility. My therapist told me that a healthy relationship between a parent and a child comes with a bit of a contract. The parent takes care of the child and when the child grows up, he/she takes care of the parent. No one signs anything, nothing is notarized, but my therapist is right; that contract is sort of there. The problem is, my dad never really fulfilled his end of the bargain. Don’t get me wrong, I would have done it. If we had found him alive, I would have taken him with me to Nashville. But I can’t say that I wouldn’t have resented it.
The next day (another Friday, one week after the first call), I drove to Jacksonville to pick up my aunt and we went to meet the detective working my dad’s case at the airport. The plan was, we would walk around, talk to ticket agents, show his picture around, and see if anyone remembered him.
While we were driving around looking for the detective, we saw the crime scene tape. My dad’s green van was parked in a corner spot in Long-Term Parking and it had a blown out window. We quickly parked and raced over to meet with the officer we had been dealing with. She saw us, her face fell, and she tried to get steer us away from the van. That’s when I knew.
It seems that she had come up to the van an hour earlier and had seen a man sleeping in the back seat. She knocked on the window to get his attention and he pulled his gun on her. Now, this is what makes me know that my dad must have suffered a mental break. He was military, had an abundance of respect for people in uniform, and always donated a portion of his extremely limited funds to the sheriff’s department every year. The thought of him pulling a gun on a person in uniform makes no sense and goes against everything I have ever known about my father.
The detective ran for cover, alerted the other officers that my dad was armed and moments later they heard a shot. He had shot himself in the head.
It’s been five years and I am still a little numb. We didn’t have the best relationship when I was growing up, but we had gotten a lot closer in the years leading up to it. I didn’t have cable at the time and he would always call on Wednesday nights to tell me what had happened on Lost. Of course, that show was confusing enough watching it first-hand so his recaps barely made sense, but it was a sweet tradition and I always looked forward to it. We would also always talk before, during halftime and after Gator football games. I miss that.
He didn’t leave a note. I will never know why or how or what happened. That’s the hardest part. It makes me sad when I think about getting married, or having kids, or really any life event that I may go through that I won’t be able to share with him. He should be there.
There are support groups available for Survivors of Suicide, but I only went once and I didn’t share my story. For the most part, I have moved on with my life. It’s been five years, after all. Random things will happen though, certain smells, songs, etc., that make me think of him; that make me sad.
We are called “survivors” and that phrase has always seemed weird to me. But I guess it’s appropriate. We are the ones who are surviving, or trying to survive, after our loved ones made the decision to stop trying.