This piece was published in the 2011 edition of the Sigma Tau Delta Rectangle and can be found online at the following link (beginning on p. 56): http://www.english.org/sigmatd/pdf/publications/rectangle11.pdf.
I am my father’s daughter, more than I realize or possibly care to admit. I have his sienna irises, far darker than my mother’s nutmeg-colored ones. According to my mother, I have inherited my father’s aptitude for math, as well as his quiet nature married to a sort of distant impenetrability. My grandmother says that like him, I know what I want and make up my mind straightaway. I have inherited his taste in music, at least partially, rifling through his CDs to find odd gems such as Donald Fagen, and some not-so-odd ones, like Bruce Springsteen. I have inherited his perfectionism, several of his expressions, and also his preference for dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
I have also, finally, inherited my father’s suicide.
I have known that my father killed himself since the sixth grade, when my mother revealed to me that my father’s death seven years earlier was not the result of a “brain disease,” at least not in the sense that the direct cause of death was organic. A bullet is certainly not organic. From that point on, my own psyche began to rear up against itself, resulting in a series of incredibly bad poems as well as occasional self-mutilation, and culminating in my very own trip to the emergency room. I had figured out by then—or I had told myself—that my father’s chemical imbalances were as much a part of my genetics as those brown eyes of mine, which every psychologist that I talked to seemed to confirm. I was my father’s daughter, only I had managed to survive.
The psychologists praised me for this fact, for being self-aware, blah, blah, blah, and recognizing the suicidal feelings and taking the time to recognize them before doing anything serious.
Before doing anything serious.
I don’t think I ever told them about my greatest regret of the whole incident at the time: I never actually tried to kill myself. Not that I want to be dead; I have a wonderful life, even if sometimes I forget it. Besides, having witnessed the effects of suicide on my mother, I would never wish that upon her a second time. No, the reason that I wish I had done something more serious is that I wanted to be more like my father…
It is perhaps a consequence of growing up fatherless that the feminine ideal of being “Daddy’s little girl” is necessarily warped. This is not to say that I had no male role models; after my father’s death, my maternal grandfather played a large role in raising me. And then there were my mother and grandmother, both of whom provided me with strong female role models. But none of this is the same. None of this is the same as having the living man who helped create you nearby. This man will, in an ideal world, wrap you in a blanket of warmth and security and defend you against the evils of the world. Somehow, a mother is not the same. Mothers are warm and loving and protective, but there’s supposed to be someone else as well.
With most losses comes the tendency to romanticize the person who was lost. When a girl loses her father, she romanticizes him even more. My father worked as a computer programmer for a firm that worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. He was only about five-foot-nine, slightly balding, with thick glasses to make up for his terrible eyesight. But, to me, he becomes the über-mensch of digital exploration, a man working at the forefront of capital-S Science to greater mankind’s understanding of the universe that this planet of ours swims in.
Of course, my father also committed suicide. This takes some cognitive restructuring to make it work, but the larger-than-life image can still be made. Here was a man burdened so much by the strain of his disease that, rather than subject his family to endless trips to psychiatrists and expensive treatment, he decided instead to take his life into his own hands and annihilate himself. After all, a man who lives for others when he desires otherwise is not a free man.
Now, under scrutiny, especially having seen the effect of my father’s suicide on my mother—the way her eyes tear up and her lips purse when we talk about him—my rationalization does not hold up. The beauty of our minds, though, is that both the ugly truth and the glossy, idealized version can coexist, each to be pulled out whenever emotionally appropriate.
It was July 12, 2009 when I came to possess the last fragment of my father’s suicide.
My mother and I were standing in the basement, by the dusty old workbench peppered with greasy tools and a mélange of other clutter. I was finally talking to my mother after avoiding her all day as a result of an argument over whether I did enough housework, when she ended up apologizing. She said that teenagers do not naturally volunteer to clean floors. Then tears welled up in her eyes, and she said that it was the anniversary of my father’s suicide.
This was the first time that I had learned the exact date of my father’s death. Now that I was able to connect the event to a date, I needed time to process this. I gave my mother a hug; she blinked the tears away and kept working. My feet plodded up the tousled rust-colored carpeting on the basement stairs, across the living room hall, and up the steps to my room.
I was only in my room for maybe ten or fifteen minutes when I heard a set of footsteps echoing mine. I heard a drawer rumble open in my mother’s room, then came the tap, tap, tap at my door.
“You need to see this,” she said. “I meant to have given it to you by now.”
She handed two sheets of paper to me, stapled together. The first line, Dear Sheree [my mother’s name], was somewhat faded.
“This is a photocopy,” my mother said softly. “The original is in my safe-deposit box.”
I was holding a copy of my father’s suicide note.
I began to read, mainly just skimming. The note was handwritten; its paragraphs short and varied in regard to the topics they covered. I looked up at my mother. She looked back at me, her lips somewhere between pursed and scrunched, the way lips get when you force them to bear the brunt of your emotion because you want your eyes to stay as expressionless as possible. After skimming it another time, I thanked my mother, gave her a hug, and waited for her to leave the room and close the door behind her.
The first and only visual memory that I have of my father, unaided by photographs and videos, is an image of the back of his head. We were at White Marsh Mall, which I remember from the vivid tangerine- and lemon-colored lights of the Italian ice shop in the food court. My father was carrying me on his shoulders, and so all I could see was his dark hair, which I vaguely remember touching to steady myself. The rest—his face, his glasses, his manner of speaking—are all keepsakes of the technology of the early nineties.
I looked down at the note in my hands and began to read:
If you’re wondering what happened to me today, here it is. I stopped at Bob Evans for breakfast. I then bought a few things and drove around alot[sic] in the process. I didn’t want to be near Baltimore because of the news coverage. I also, for whatever reason, wanted to be somewhere where it was cool. I started driving west and ended up at the lake (Deep Creek).
I’ve been to Deep Creek Lake. The air is so brisk that it cuts into you, slicing away any of the polluted Baltimore air that might have still been lingering in your lungs. The mountains yawn out in front of you as you drive to the west until they threaten to swallow you up. Before you know it, you’re past seeing them, you’re in their jaws, flanked by two lines of trees that rise up like giant, green supple teeth that on an angry day could clamp down and swallow your car whole.
So, Deep Creek. I had a place now. And that bit about the news coverage was thoughtful, or at least as thoughtful as you can get. There was more on that, the thoughtfulness:
I didn’t see a future for us. You were the best wife you knew how to be. I was lost. I didn’t belong, and I felt like I had no home.
Although this will be hard for you now, I think this will be better in the long run. I don’t think either of us could survive a separation. Our marriage was starting to hurt Lara.
Really, I thought. Really? I was three. How on earth could their marriage possibly have been hurting me? The thoughtfulness went on to include how my father’s inheritance would help support my mother and me, and how my father’s father would also help us out.
Then there was this:
I wanted to be Lara’s father. I love Lara more than anything I have ever loved, but I was destroying our family. Lara should grow up in a family of love. I know you love her more than anything in the world as well. Together you will be a family of love. You can be happy together.
In spite of myself, I started to cry. Don’t put this on me! I wanted to scream. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask you to blow your goddamn brains out and screw up my mother for life! I couldn’t understand it; I read the rest of the letter again, then again. It was all wrong. I had been told that my father had recently been promoted at work and then missed an error made by one of his subordinates, which, as a perfectionist, drove him over the edge. A psychologist had even told my mother: people commit suicide on Mondays (as my father did) to avoid going to work. They commit suicide on Fridays to avoid going home to their families for the weekend. My father was a Monday suicide; he couldn’t have done this…for me.
But in the note, there was no mention of work at all. Together you will be a family of love. I could see his face fading from our photographs; I think he could see his face fading from our photographs, with the torso evaporating first, then the hair, and finally the face, like a ghastly Cheshire cat, leaving behind only the mouth and perhaps a pair of glasses, only the glasses were cold and eyeless, and the mouth wasn’t smiling.
With a final rereading, I flung the note across the room. It landed softly and flopped to one side, like a crane with a mutilated wing. I looked at it, just shaking my head, putting together what it meant, what it was, and then I knew: it was a bad poem.
Now, I’m not saying that the note was literally poetic or meant to be anything other than a suicide note, scribbled out in a few minutes—there were very few scratch-outs, so he planned what he wrote in his head—but I knew the sentiment behind it just as well. This could have been one of my bad poems. Sure, it lacked the forced metaphors and polysyndeton and so on, but the angst was there. Yes, the legitimate anguish of a 35-year-old man shone through in places, but this might have well have been one of my own journal entries from when I was twelve. I felt like I had no home—hadn’t I written that so many times in so many different ways? What was it Oscar Wilde wrote? Something about “the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass”? He was talking about public reaction to realism in literature, but it applied here too. What was I but a girl with a deformed psyche, looking at a note that told me, in no uncertain terms, that my father was his daughter’s father, and nothing more?
Over the summer, I watched videos from my parents’ wedding as well as a few from my early childhood. I was struck by the image of this man holding my mother’s hand, or holding my hand as a little one-year-old Lara wobbled around the backyard in a tiny magenta bathing suit. The video of my parents’ wedding came complete with a speech by my father’s cousin, which included a series of anecdotes about my father. The one I remember best has to do with my father getting separated from his friends at Mardi Gras in New Orleans only to be found drinking bourbon at three in the morning with a local.
My father was alive, I realized. At one point, he had a life.
I was at that point where crying is no longer a conscious act, where the tears leak down in rivulets of their own accord, when my mother knocked on my door. I snatched up the note and set it by my bed as if I had not thrown my most direct connection to my father away in disgust. Perhaps it is another resemblance to my father that I find myself unable to show sadness in front of my mother; my lacrimal ducts shut off as my mother entered the room, leaving me to sniffle pitifully as she gave me another hug. We talked for a while, and then she left me alone again with those two little folded pieces of paper.
After a few deep breaths, I picked them up again. The smell of baked chicken began to waft up from downstairs, the aroma of poultry mixing with the taste of draining phlegm to tie knots in my throat. I retrieved my journal from one of the drawers of my marble-topped furniture and made a note of the significance of the day’s date. On July 12, 2009, around 9:30 in the evening, I put down my father’s suicide note, walked out of my room and shut the door, breathing in the essence of warm food.
On July 12, 1993, probably sometime in the afternoon, my father put down his suicide note, stepped out of his Acura and shut the door, breathing in the crispness of cool mountain air.
I’m thankful that you have been and are such a good mother. I’m thankful for our beautiful child. I’m thankful for my family and the friends I have made…