I have a few memories from my childhood. When I was 6 months old, I yanked the mobile over my crib onto myself (I really wanted the blue terry cloth elephant dangling from it). I remember learning to crawl and playing with a Gerber baby plastic book that had a picture of a baby, and right next to it was a blurry mirror thing that was probably supposed to be my face. After mastering the crawl-and-sit, I discovered exactly how sneaky one of my toys was. No matter how far I threw that toy, it always wound up back in the brown purse with wooden clackety handles.
Later, when I was old enough to walk, I wedged one of the brown vinyl-seated chairs between my arguing parents to gently pat their cheeks (like Mom patted mine when I was upset). They stopped yelling at each other long enough to smile at me and move me out of the kitchen to their bed.
When I was old enough to walk and climb, I noticed a brightly colored rainbow-striped glue stick. It sat high on one of Mom’s brown pressboard bookshelves. Whenever I tried to climb up and reach it, Mom would yell and pull me down. One day Dad came in from outside right after another of my unsuccessful attempts, and I realized he could easily reach it. Gesturing wildly, I explained in my best one-year-old speech that I needed that stick. He smiled at me, patted my head, and continued past me to the kitchen. I was very disappointed that yet another tall person didn’t understand me.
I don’t remember the walks I had with Dad, to and from the local convenience store. I’ve been told he would buy a pack of peanut M&Ms and share them with me on the way home. I love peanut M&Ms, but that memory isn’t one I stored.
By the time I was old enough to start remembering more and more things, Dad wasn’t around anymore. I was told a lot of lies about why he disappeared. To this day I still don’t know the truth.
During the start of my belligerent teen years someone asked whether sending a letter to Dad would get me to stop being such a brat. It wasn’t the cause of my normal teen angst (that I knew of), but I did want a Dad, so I quickly agreed to send him a letter.
Months later I received a letter from my sister. Our Dad never intended to write back to me — once she found out I’d sent a letter, though, she immediately got in contact with me. We’ve kept in contact ever since through phone or email (and now social media). I only met our Dad because that letter from my sister brought me into the fold on Dad’s side of the family. Nobody had known how to find me until then. It was also the start of everything in my life falling apart and building back up completely differently. With Dad back in our lives, Mom realized how much she missed him, and they would meet each other throughout the week.
Fast-forward a few years to the summer before I turned 15. Those previously mentioned life changes (caused by Terrible Things and a Very Bad Man) thrust me into a horrible depression. Mom discussed it with my grandparents, and they all agreed it would be healthier for me to spend the summer with my grandparents at their place near Uvas Canyon in Morgan Hill, CA. I wanted out of the house I’d grown up in — it had become what felt like a jail, as well as another reminder of Terrible Things and the Very Bad Man. I latched onto the plan and was packed within the hour.
That summer was a pivotal one in my emotional and physical growth. With 50 acres to roam and countless pipes and wires to fix, as well as rooms to build, my Grandpa had plenty of time to work his sage advice between requests for the wrench or a screwdriver. He was kind but blunt. Humans are instinctual creatures, and it’s only the trappings of society that keep them in check. To my teenaged brain it felt like a slap, but as I ruminated I realized what he meant. He wanted me to understand people are shaped by their families and their communities, not just by whatever is in their heads.
He didn’t think the Very Bad Man had done something acceptable — he understood the guy was broken somehow, but explained part of that brokenness can be fixed by society in most broken people.
My Grandma offered her love and spirituality, showing me how to mentally sink myself into the Earth and ground myself. She connected to the Native American in me even though her roots were all Mayflower.
After recovering from the larger emotional wounds, the Summer of Healing came to a close and I soon found myself back home right before the new school year started. Much to my surprise, Mom and Dad had moved in together while I’d been healing. I felt betrayed and lost, floundering in a sea of flotsam from my old, broken life. I lashed out in the worst ways I could, wounding my Dad with words to make him go away. I wanted Mom to myself again. I wanted her love all to myself.
Eventually our relationships stabilized and I remembered I’d always wanted my Dad. I used to pray every night that I would have my Dad and a little brother (although a sister would be OK too). Every night of my pre-teen years I’d prayed that same prayer.
A few months after school started, Mom found out she was pregnant. She was nearing 40, so this was a huge surprise for all of us. Dad was worried but excited — he couldn’t wait for another baby. Mom was off her medications for the duration of the pregnancy, so she was extremely difficult to deal with. Thankfully Dad understood and never once gave up on our little family, even later the following summer when I ran away from home (pregnant women are crazy).
My Dad was sometimes affectionate, but was usually abrupt and quiet. He didn’t like showing feelings or affection. He was good at angry, but not very good at loving or happy. I will say that cannabis made him who I think he wanted to be. I’ve been told by a lot of different well-meaning people that he had some undiagnosed mental issue: this, that, and/or the other thing. The cannabis was his way of self-medicating (it worked), but people think he should’ve been prescribed something by a psychiatrist instead of a plant.
I remember countless times when Dad would say something awful or derogatory. Insulting people may not have been his intention, but it was definitely the result. I loved and respected him, so hearing negative commentary from him about myself hurt. I would cry, and he would accuse me of emotional blackmail. It got to the point that I’d stomp in the typical teenage way upstairs to cry so he couldn’t blame me for how I reacted to his mean words. I remember thinking “I wish he was dead,” like any other upset teen might. I’d always take it back after thinking it. I didn’t really want him dead.
After I turned 18, I didn’t stick around for long. I moved back in with my parents for a short time when I was 19, but moved out again part-way through 20 for a lot of reasons. In short, living there made me crazy.
One day Dad would tell me he didn’t like me dating, and the next he’d tell me I’d never get a boyfriend if I wore jeans and tees. He wouldn’t let me work because he felt it undermined his position. If I stayed out after 10, he told me not to come home until morning. I tested that last one once, not realizing I was supposed to call him to let him know. He took that rule back after worrying about me all night.
It was that final move to my boyfriend’s friend’s house (a room had just become available) that pushed Mom to leave Dad. Without me to buffer the fights (patting their faces never worked anyway), Dad had moved to throwing his words at Mom instead of me. She took my brother and moved in with her parents at the beginning of February, 2003. I went to visit a few times since Dad hadn’t let us communicate with my grandparents for a few years. It was really really good to see them again. We never told Dad, but Mom was always sneaking calls to my grandparents even though he “forbade” it.
This is the part of this whole story that’s hard for me to write. Of all the terrible, awful, no-good things that have happened in my life, I still struggle to put into words what happened next. I will warn anyone reading this that September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness month. I warn you this may be graphic to some eyes, so if you have triggers, you may want to skip the next section. There is also a photo of a note and the photo on the other side of the note.
The last two paragraphs of this post should skip most of the emotional chunk.
If the words seem weird or off-kilter, it’s because it’s hard to write through tears. I guess editing only gets you so far when the words are painful.
February 14th, 2003, while out driving with my boyfriend-at-the-time, the purple amethyst heart-shaped pendant hanging from its chain around my neck slid off its post. I had reached up to adjust it (it always strayed to the left) and instead the stone gently fell into my palm. Heart pounding, wondering what it meant (ever the Native American), I swallowed sudden tears and shoved it into my pocket. It couldn’t mean anything. Sure, I’d lost the stupid heart when I left home at 18, and had only found it again after moving back home (in the shaggy carpet by my bed of all places), but this couldn’t mean anything.
The weekend after the 14th, I was working on a new website in my shiny new room when my shiny new roommate brought the house phone in. Mom was calling and it sounded urgent.
I was sure this was a call where Mom would tell me she and Dad were either back together, or she wanted to invite me to visit with my brother again, or something equally familial. The purple heart was missing again, even though I’d carefully placed it in a jewelry box so I wouldn’t lose it. I nervously tugged on the cheap heart-shaped dog tag hanging from a collar around my neck instead.
“Laura, are you sitting down?” Mom sounded serious. She sounded scared. I carefully climbed into my computer chair and nodded.
“I hope you’re sitting. Laura, I have some awful news. I don’t know how to tell you this. I was just standing there trying to talk to him and Dad (my grandfather) came in to see what was going on and he realized what had happened and pushed me out of the garage. He made me go inside to call the police. They don’t know the exact time of death because it was warm in the garage, and I guess carbon monoxide, anyway — Laura, your Dad is dead and…” after that I could only hear words here and there. I couldn’t understand them. They didn’t seem to join together very well.
He was in his station wagon, a Ford Taurus we called “The Eggplant” because it was long and eggplant-colored. He was dead because he’d attached a vacuum hose to the exhaust pipe and inhaled from the hose. I could picture it in my head because I knew that garage so well. Dad was gone. I’d worked out there, dancing to cartoons and pop music. I’d tried my thumb at gardening a few steps away in the little backyard between the house and garage. Dad couldn’t be gone. We’d piled into that same car countless times to get food, go places, do things. Family things. Dad was gone. My bike used to be parked in there so I could go to work and do my own things. Dad wasn’t gone, this had to be some sick and twisted joke. Did Dad stage his own death? He must have.
I was crying and didn’t realize I was making awful sounds, but my roommate took over and managed to figure out what had happened. He bundled me up to deliver me to his friend (my boyfriend-at-the-time) since he didn’t want me to be alone. I remember thinking “I’d do anything…” and then halting the thought. I wouldn’t do anything, because anything meant living my life the way Dad wanted to, under his rule while having no life of my own. That made me feel guilty. Remembering how I’d wished him dead as a teen made the guilt pile higher. I hadn’t really wanted him dead — I’d just wanted him to stop being so mean.
In typical fashion for someone so close to the edge like Dad was, there were words written everywhere explaining why he did it. He’d started out drinking all the alcohol in the house (some of which was expired). Evidently he’d barfed that up sometime between drinking and smoking all his cigarettes and cannabis. His note was written in blue highlighter and pen.
On the back of a photo of my brother and I (at his first birthday), he wrote “To them, if I have no $$ money, I am no good, just figer,” and a few lines down “I love you” (he was normally pretty good with spelling). There was another note written in blue highlighter that was a big rambling mess about angels, and about finishing his assignment on Earth (which was saving Mom and I from the Very Bad Man and the Terrible Things he’d done). It’s funny he felt that way, because that was one topic we were never ever allowed to bring up. It wasn’t until much later that I got any closure on the Terrible Things.
Dad told me once when he was completely stoned that he’d actually tried to kill himself when he was much younger. He was told by angels that he couldn’t yet because he still had something to do. Dad explained that was what pushed him to get closer to Mom and I. It was nice to hear, but I wish he’d stuck around after his “job” was done.
Dad was cremated and put in a wall overlooking Half Moon Bay. It’s a beautiful drive, a wonderful view, a good place to visit Dad. I still only vaguely remember the ceremony. My brother drew a family drawing without Dad. There was a funny blob instead. Nobody had told him Dad was gone, but my brother told us Dad was a ghost now and that’s what the blob was.
My sister and I reconnected after a few years of intermittent communication. Life had gone on and we had lost touch, but now we understood how important it was to stay in touch. Stay available.
She told me the photo she had of me in her car’s visor had fallen to the seat that day, and she’d wondered what it meant the same way I wondered about my purple heart.
Dad’s younger brother (who is very hard of hearing) swore he heard Dad outside his house the night he died. He ran outside to find him, but there was no-one there. Even though the coroner has no exact time of death, we all know when it happened. Dad had said goodbye as his soul flew away.
I don’t remember the next few days, weeks, months, or years. Two years of my life are a blur of wondering where Dad was, seeing him in crowds, and crying when I’d see my uncle (who looks like him from a distance). He may have been a jerk, but he was my jerk. He was my Dad. I’d wanted one all my life, finally had one, and now he was gone. More than that, we had connected on so many levels, it felt like someone had snapped my life-line. He’d taught me computers. We used to stay up all night watching James Bond and Saturday Night Live. Dad once admitted he wanted to be 007. Dad introduced me to so many of my favorite movies. He cheered me on when the first computer I built powered up just fine. He helped me when my PSU exploded on a hot summer day. When my HDD died, we bought a new one. So many memories for such a short time with someone I loved so much, wanted to hate, but couldn’t.
I know where Dad is now. It took a talk with Mom to realize why there were huge holes in my memory. I’d just discovered my boyfriend-at-the-time had taken me to a lot of places, like Disneyland and Six Flags, and I couldn’t remember them at all, so I called Mom to tell her how weird it was. The only clear memory I had from any of those places was a giraffe with a bent neck, and riding the Boomerang at Six Flags with Dad at a company picnic. Mom explained the same thing had happened to my Grandma after Mom’s older brother died at 6 months.
Apparently my mind had gone on the defensive and strictly blocked anything that reminded me of Dad. Even though my job for those two “lost years” was at the electronics store the two of us had always shopped at, the only fairly clear memories I have from that time are from work. Perhaps because it was a different location of the store? I do remember spending most of my time there working dutifully, but also watching the door for a sign of Dad. Surely he’d come visit our favorite store if he knew I was there. The first time I saw my uncle walk through the doors and realized it wasn’t Dad, I had to hide in the bathroom crying for 30 minutes. He was gone by the time I came out.
There’s still a lot of guilt. There’s so much hurt, even though it was over ten years ago. Dad has grandchildren now, 2 each from me and my sister, awesome kids he never got to meet because he left so soon. I still wonder exactly what I’d be willing to do if I could have even one moment with Dad, a moment to show him how much I love and miss him. If he is still alive, as a spirit or angel, I hope he understands and feels it better than he did when he was human.
If you got this far, I hope you understand at least part of what I’m saying here. No matter how much you think nobody cares about you, loves you, or wants you around, I guarantee someone does. Remember my Dad, the crazy jerk who drove his whole family nuts. Remember how broken it made me, and how broken I still am in some ways. Please don’t do what he did. Even if I don’t know you, I love you too.
By the way, the purple heart pendant reappeared immediately after I married my husband 5 years ago. Wedding day surprise. I was putting away my jewelry after the ceremony, and the heart-shaped jewelry box I’d placed it in all those years ago held a bracelet I’d worn. I opened the box to put the bracelet back and the pendant was sitting right on top.