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The Grieving Never Ends

THE WASHINGTON POST

The blood was like Jell-O. That is what blood gets like, after you die, before they tidy up.

Somehow, I had expected it would be gone. The police and coroner spent more than an hour behind the closed door; surely it was someone’s job to clean it up. But when they left, it still covered the kitchen floor like the glazing on a candy apple.

You couldn’t mop it. You needed a dustpan and a bucket.

I got on my knees, slid the pan against the linoleum and lifted chunks to the bucket. It took hours to clean it all up.

It wasn’t until I finally stood up that I noticed the pictures from his wallet. The wooden breadboard had been pulled out slightly, and four photographs were spilled across it. “Now what?” I thought with annoyance. “What were the police looking for?”

But then it hit me. The police hadn’t done it. These snapshots--one of my mother, one of our dog and two of my brother and me--had been carefully set out in a row by my father.

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It was his penultimate act, just before he knelt on the floor, put the barrel of a .22 rifle in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.

He was 46 years old. I was 21. It has been 20 years since his death and I am still cleaning up.

By the time you finish this article, another person in the United States will have killed himself. More than 30,000 people do it every year, one every 15 minutes. My father’s was a textbook case: Depressed white male with gun offs himself in May. December may be the loneliest month, April the cruelest, but May is the peak time for suicide. No one knows why, but I can guess: You’ve made it through another winter, but your world is no warmer.

This year, thousands of families will begin the process that ours began that night 20 years ago. Studies show that their grief will be more complicated, more intense and longer lasting than for any other form of death in the family. They will receive less support and more blame from others. Some will never really get over it: Children of suicides become a higher risk for suicide themselves.

These are the legacies of suicide: guilt, anger, doubt, blame, fear, rejection, abandonment and profound grieving.

Shortly after he died, I remember thinking, “I wonder how I’ll feel about this in 20 years?”

Twenty years later, my father’s suicide is, simply, a part of me. Think of your life as a can of white paint. Each significant experience adds a tiny drop of color: pink for a birthday, yellow for a good report card. Worries are brown; setbacks, gray. Lavender--my favorite color when I was a little girl--is for a pretty new dress. Over time, a color begins to emerge. Your personality.

When a suicide happens, someone hurls in a huge glob of red. You can’t get it out. You can’t start over. The red will always be there, no matter how many drops of yellow you add.

*

The call came about 9 p.m. It was a Friday night in suburban Minneapolis; the restaurant was packed. I was racing from the bar with a tray of drinks for my customers when the manager gestured me to the phone. It’s your mother, she said.

“Roxanne, he’s got a gun. He’s in the garage with a gun. You have to come.”

There had been many, many threats. This was different. There had never been a weapon before.

I made many choices that night; some were smart, some stupid, some crazy. I believed my father would indeed kill himself, sooner or later. Looking back, I feel lucky to have survived the night.

I drove past the house. He was standing in the shadows of the frontyard; I couldn’t see if he had the gun. I sped to a phone booth two blocks away and dialed.

She answered. “He’s in the front yard,” I said. “Can you get out?”

Five minutes later, she walked up to the car. He was quiet now, she said. She told him she was going to talk to me but would be back. Then she dropped the bombshell: He had held her at gunpoint for two hours before she called me.

We attempted rational conversation. We came to what seemed, at the time, a rational decision. We pulled up to the house, and my father came out the front door without the gun. He wanted to talk.

Give me the gun, I said. He refused. We can’t talk until the gun is gone, we said. He shook his head. Come inside, he asked my mother. She shook her head.

He went back in, we drove to a coffee shop nearby. Frantic, we debated what to do next. To this day, I am still astonished that it never occurred to us to get help.

It was almost midnight; exhausted, my mother wanted to go home. She would stay the night if he let me take the gun away.

The house was silent; the door to the kitchen was shut. Ominous. My mother reached it first. Opened it.

“He did it,” she whispered and slumped against the wall.

*

There was a time when suicide was considered a noble act of noble men. There was a time when corpses of suicides were dragged through the streets, refused Christian burial, and all the family’s worldly goods were seized by the state. There was a time when romantics embraced suicide as a sign of their sensitivity.

Now we have long, impassioned debates about “assisted suicide,” which pales beside the much larger issue: How do we feel about suicides when there isn’t a terminal disease and a supportive family on hand? How do we feel about suicide if a 46-year-old guy just doesn’t want to live anymore?

How do we feel about someone who’s depressed but won’t get help? Who blames all his problems on someone else? Who emotionally terrorizes and blackmails the people he loves? Is that OK too?

This is what I will tell you: Suicide is the last word in an argument, maybe an argument you never knew you were having. It is meant to be the last scene of the last act of life. Curtain down. End of story.

Except it isn’t.

Tosca jumps off the parapet and I wonder who finds the shattered body. Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, and I grieve for their parents.

*

The calls began: first to my father’s only brother, who lived three blocks away, then to the police. Officers arrived, then detectives and someone from the coroner’s office. Someone came into the living room to ask questions. I answered. Yes, he was depressed. Yes, he had threatened suicide. No, there wasn’t a note.

This was the night of my brother Mike’s high school senior prom. The dance was on a boat--we didn’t know where--then there was an all-night party and a picnic the next day.

The detectives were still in the kitchen when Mike’s car turned slowly onto the street and found a sea of police cars, lights flashing.

I watched from the front step as my mother ran to him. “Your father shot himself and he’s dead,” she said, guiding him to the neighbor’s house. I watched as the police took the body out, dripping thick drops of blood. I watched my uncle stare blankly when I asked him to help clean up the kitchen.

White-lipped, he watched as I scooped up buckets of blood and flushed them down the toilet. I threw him an old sheet and told him to start wiping.

Years later, I learned how angry I made him, how he never forgave me for making him do that.

I was alone in the kitchen again when I noticed the pictures from my father’s wallet. There were two portraits of his children. He loved both pictures. Everybody knew Mike Roberts loved his kids. So why ruin his son’s prom night?

“You selfish bastard,” I thought. “You couldn’t have waited one more night?”

*

My mother was never well liked by my father’s sisters, and so they concluded that what had happened was my mother’s fault. She was having an affair. That’s what my father had told them before he died. The fact that she wore an aqua suit to the funeral was proof, wasn’t it? (My mother swears there was no affair.)

And I? I was on her side. So it was my fault too.

After the funeral, we were simply abandoned by my father’s family. My mother was still numb, but I was confused and angry. No calls, no help, no kindness. There were no invitations to dinner, not even Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Two years later, I found out why: They thought my mother and I killed him.

At one of those little get-togethers just after he died, my father’s family decided that perhaps my mother and I had cleverly managed to murder my father and make it look like a suicide.

A cousin was so skeptical he went to the coroner and asked to see police photos. It was a suicide, the coroner assured him.

I vowed never, ever to speak to any of them again. When a distant member of the family--a devoted wife and mother--found her husband dead, sucking the end of an exhaust pipe, I was almost glad.

“Good,” I thought fiercely. “Now they’ll understand that suicide happens in nice families too.”

*

Second-guessing is the devil’s game, for there are no answers and infinite questions. But it is an inevitable, inescapable refrain, like a bad song you can’t get out of your mind. What if, what if, what if. What if we had forced him to get help? Had him committed? What if we had called the police that night? Why didn’t we?

Part of it was the natural tendency toward privacy. Part of it was arrogance, believing that we knew father best, or at least we could handle whatever he threw at us. I think I knew my father would have charmed the police, sent them away, leaving him furious with me, furious with my mother, dangerous, armed.

Maybe that’s why. Maybe it was fear. Maybe not. Maybe I wanted him to die.

*

The police were puzzled by a wand of black mascara they found in my father’s pocket. Another woman? Proof of an affair? The answer was simple: He used it to touch up the gray on his temples.

I don’t think he ever really expected to get old. He was the baby, the youngest of five children. He was a very happy child; it was adulthood that he could never quite grasp.

He was charming enough to talk his way into job after job. There was the real estate phase, the radio phase, the political hanger-on phase. (In one photo, he is shaking hands with Hubert Humphrey.) No job lasted long; it never occurred to him to do heavy lifting.

Things started out well enough: a beautiful teenage bride, two kids and--after his mother died--his childhood home, a little bungalow, to raise his family in.

When did things start falling apart? Or were they ever really together?

I remember a night when I was 11. One of our cats streaked across the living room. In his mouth was a hamster that had somehow escaped from its cage. We all jumped to the rescue; my father caught the cat at the top of the basement stairs. He was suddenly, unaccountably livid. He shook the cat, and the hamster fell to the floor and scampered free.

I will never forget what came next: With all his might, he threw the cat down the stairs.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then tears and regret and an emergency trip to the vet. The cat lived. But I think I never fully trusted my father again.

The 10 years that followed were filled with sudden rages, explosions. I found out later that he first hit my mother when she was pregnant with me, and continued on and off for two decades.

We begged him to get help. We asked his brother and sisters to talk to him. And when, ultimately, I told my mother I thought she needed to leave for her own safety, my father saw that as a betrayal. He didn’t speak to me for two months, until the night he died.

*

I lied to the police.

I told them there was no suicide note. In fact, there were three. Two were waiting in the living room as we walked into the house.

The note to my mother begged for forgiveness but said he simply could not go on the way things were. She has, to this day, no memory of reading it.

The note addressed to me opened with a rapprochement. “All is forgiven,” read the first line. My eyes filled. No, I said silently, all is not forgiven.

The rest of the note instructed me to take care of things.

When I went to call the police, I found the third note, addressed to my brother. I cannot recall the specific words, but the short message to an 18-year-old boy was this: Son, you can’t trust women.

My father had asked me to take care of things. And I was going to take care of things.

I stuffed all three notes in my purse and went back out to the living room. A week later, I ripped them to pieces and flushed them down the toilet.

When I recently told my brother about this, he was angry and hurt. He asked, quietly, “What made you think you could take something Dad left for me?” Fair question.

Here is the answer, Mike. It is simple. I hope you can live with it: I had to. The wishes of the dead do not take precedence over the needs of the living.

*

About a year after my father died, I left Minneapolis. I stumbled though my 20s, met a terrific man and got married, and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Nine months after the funeral, my brother moved to California. He was reckless, strong, adrift and almost died three times--once in a motorcycle accident, once in a stabbing and once in a heedless dive into a pool that split open his skull. He returned to Minnesota, subdued and gentle, and went on to a successful computer career. He was, surprisingly, never angry at my father or his family.

But he cannot bring himself to marry his girlfriend of 16 years. They live together, in a home they bought together, but he simply does not trust marriage.

Two years after the suicide, my mother remarried, changing her friends, her religion, even her first name. She was widowed again--a heart attack--and announced a year later that she was getting married again. Her fiance was my cousin--her nephew by marriage. He was the son of the aunt who had accused us of murder.

“I expect you to be civil to her,” my mother told me.

We had an ugly fight, and my mother didn’t speak to me for months. I went to her wedding but fled to the other side of the room when my aunt approached me.

My mother tells me my aunt is very hurt by all this. The cycle continues, in ways I will never fully understand.

*

Four years ago, when my son was a month old, I took him to Minnesota to meet my family.

“Take me to Father’s grave,” I told my brother.

It was the first time I’d been there since the funeral. I introduced my beautiful new baby to his grandfather, and my father to his only grandchild.

Today, when I stare at the boy who takes my breath away, I think about how much my father missed over the past 20 years, and how much more he will miss. I’ve more sorrow than anger now.

A lot of wonderful things have happened in those years, hundreds of shimmering droplets added to the mix. When I stir the paint now, it is a soft dusky rose. A grown-up’s color, with a touch of sweetness and a touch of melancholy.


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