Friday, April 8, 2016

Suicide and Survivor's Guilt

One of the few times we were all together after my first birthday.
There are aspects of life that highlight the contrast between the things you know and the things you feel. There are trivial ones, like sports fan superstitions, and then there's things like coping with suicide. It's common for the people left behind to carry guilt. We feel like we should have been able to do something. If only we'd seen it coming, if we'd called, said something, answered the phone, whatever it is we feel we should have been able to do to prevent it. We feel this way even though it's probably not true. It's not our fault. It's the difference between what we know and what we feel.
My uncle committed suicide shortly before I was born. As long as I've been a conscious person I've been aware that people sometimes kill themselves. It became part of the backdrop of my life, something that was always a possibility. When I was twenty a friend hung himself in the stairwell of my house. We always believed that the 15 bedroom house was so big, and busy at all hours, that he expected to stopped. Or he was making a statement. Either way, I didn't feel guilty, or angry. It was just something that happened. We all knew that the way we lived as adolescents, some of us weren't going to make it to adulthood. I didn't blame my friend, I knew there was something wrong inside him that he couldn't control.
My dad was different. I had been married a few months when I came home and found a police officer's business card stuck in my screen door. It was the coroner's office. They wanted me to come identify the body. I was a thirty-year-old orphan. It wasn't fair. Not just that he'd died, but that he'd lived as long as he had, while my mom died of cancer at 54. My mother did everything "right." She was vegetarian, a swimmer, she drank her one glass of wine. She raised me. 
My dad was the opposite. He wasn't around when I was a kid. At one point I hadn't heard from him in so long that I started telling people he had died. Growing up in the South Bronx projects, he was at times a gang member, a heroine addict and an alcoholic. He claimed he'd been shot once. He didn't eat well or exercise. But he was indestructible. I was six-years-old when he first beat cancer. He lost a lung that time. At twelve I came home one night and found him comatose from vodka and pills. My senior year of college he did it again, they told me he wouldn't live through the weekend. I was told that four weeks in a row before I stopped driving the 400 miles home on Fridays. They later found him wandering the ICU looking for cigarettes. He'd woken up from an induced coma, pulled out all the tubes, and set about finding some smokes. That's also when he beat cancer the second time. They'd found he had prostate cancer but didn't treat it until they knew he'd recover from the pneumonia.
In later years he survived diabetes and a car accident that destroyed his car and lost him his license. By 2008 he was losing his sight and a foot. We had been in touch sporadically over the years, trying to repair a broken past. I wasn't as attentive as I could have been in the year after my mother passed. I was also newly married and we were waiting out the three months before telling people we were expecting a baby. We were three days from the big announcement when I found the card in my door.
I could have called him earlier and told him he was going to be a grandfather. I still can't shake the feeling that I might have been able to give him something to live for. After every incident my dad would say, "Nothing can kill me. I'm from the Bronx." He was right. The only thing that could end his life was his own desire to die. I don't know if he was depressed about our fractured relationship, or if he was weary of his rapidly deteriorating body. Maybe it was a quality of life issue. Maybe staying alive for his grandson would have been a burden rather than a relief. The problem with suicide is you rarely get answers. None of the four suicides that have touched my life have involved a note. Without one no matter how much I know I couldn't have changed it, I feel like I might have.
I didn't know my dad well at the end of his life. I did love him. I do miss him. I miss having that link to my childhood. I miss being able to compare my son to myself at the same age. I have no one now who can tell me if he's just like me. To this day, no matter how much I read to the contrary, I carry the guilt of not having done enough to save him.
It's not my fault. It's not yours either.