Content warning: Mention and discussion about suicide.
Yesterday I went to the record store with my wife and 10 year old son C to work on building my collection. I love visiting record stores not only because I love music but because of the memories encased in dust jackets.
I went to the record store yesterday to celebrate my step-dad’s Birthday. We both love records.
He would have been 65.
19 years ago he died from suicide.
For the first 10 of those 19 years, my focus was on his death day, November 19, 2003. Keeping my focus there nursed the sense of anger, hurt, and injustice that he did to me, my siblings, my mom, and family and friends.
Today, counting the numbers of years is a way to mark the time, the distance between then and now. It is a reference point. I know what my other family members who have turned 65 are like.
I know what they look like.
What they are concerned with.
What they talk about.
I know what they are like.
I wonder what Bernie at 65 would be like today? If he’d been healthy, if life had take another direction: What would interest him? What would he talk about? Would he ever travel out of state to come visit us; a thing he never had got the chance to do.
Bernie died when he was 46 years old. Two years older than me now. His life was different from mine is many ways. I can’t imagine how we would relate to each other today. We struggled even back then when the gap was smaller.
But I know he loved me.
And I loved him.
On Names and Hair
I called him Bernie for most of my life; it was important for me to distinguish him from my “real dad.” Like I didn’t have enough space in my heart for more than one. He never said anything about it, but I wonder if that impacted him? That’s another thing I’d ask him about.
He wasn’t my biological dad, that was clear to everyone who knows my dad, but Bernie was a father to me. I lived “under his roof,” as he would say, from the age of 3 until I left for college (except for two years when I moved to live with my dad and step-mom at the age of 12).
He came to my performances and games. Was always proud, smiling big and tears running down his face with pride. He was an emotional person who wasn’t afraid to show his emotions. This was remarkable considering how tough his exterior was. Most people who met him were intimated by him. His red beard, long hair (down to the middle of his back), boots, jeans, and chambray shirts unbuttoned 3 buttons down. This in combination gave a certain “I give no shits” look.
Looking down, I see I am wearing the clothes similar to what I remember him wearing, with the exception that I button my shirt higher, keep my hair shorter, and beard longer. It never occurred to me until now that some of his aesthetics rubbed off on me.
I went to a small Christian School for High School: small as in I graduated third in my class, out of three. I was two months away from graduating when I was called into the pastor/principle’s office. My hair had gotten too long, curls bouncing well beneath my collar. Those were the days when I loved wearing bell-bottoms and polyester shirts to match my big curly hair. I was informed that the hair was against the dress code and with graduation coming it needed to be cut. My principle had short hair, he was a clean cut navy-man, he loved to joke about his balding. My parents were called into the office; the effect of Bernie walking into that office with his hair nearly hitting his belt, shirt half buttoned, blue jeans was a juxtaposition if ever there was one. There was some conversation about the infraction and then Bernie informed the principle I wouldn’t be cutting my hair for graduation. It was a small thing, but his defending me, when he was such a stickler for following the rules, sticks with me.
It’s unsurprising then that it was around this time that I started to call him dad too. I asked him if he was okay with it. He was. And that was it. We never made a big thing about it. There was no further conversation. I know he never had a separate category for me, I was one of his kids. I was a son. In my own growing, I came to understood that I too had enough space in my heart for more than one “dad.”
He was not one to be pushed around.
I’m not sure if it was a result of being one of the youngest in a large Irish Catholic family, being a biker, or being hardened from work at the family business for years on end. He used to tell the story of how his dad, our grandpa who started the family business, would wake them up as children at 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning to help with the baking. Then once it was time to go to school, they were off to school. He would gesture with his hands and say, “If we were too young to reach the counter to help customers, he’d give us a bucket to stand on so we could see over.”
I always heard this as a childhood cruelty.
I think that’s how he meant to tell the story.
I think his relationship with his father was broken and that brokenness was part of what broke him.
He’d never come right out and say it but I think there was trauma from his childhood and that was at least some of what hardened him. Looking back, thinking about the stories he’d share, I can’t imagine going through what he – they, he and his siblings – went through. I’m sure it was different for everyone. Maybe worse for some? Maybe better? Regardless, it was very clearly hard for him.
These are the kinds of things you try and figure out when a parent, whose main work in life is to protect and cherish your life, chooses to take their own.
These are the kinds of things I would want to explore if he were here today, trying to build a collection of stories that help me make sense of him and the ways he impacted me.
Finding Story, Losing Perspective
I think it might be a loved one’s perspective that is hardest to rebuild after they are gone. We have our own stories about them and with enough of us gathered around a fire we could resuscitate a version of our father that would be identifiable to us and maybe, to him. But the part I think we’d struggle to grasp, and the thing that feels most like a hole are not the stories, but the perspective, the interpretation, the figurin’ only he could do.
I would have to imagine that with time, had he had more of his own, his perspective would have grown and changed. What would a 65 year old father who was able to survive a mental health crisis have to say now? What wisdom could he share that was out of his grasp then? What might he be able to gather from the collection of his own stories and the stories of each of us that would say he had earned the gray in his beard. He died beard still red, age not yet set in: a second half of life left unexplored.
Part of what hurt so bad when he died was selfish, or maybe it was just the first time; I grieved losing the part of my own history that he carried with him. His stories about me growing up are gone forever. He had favorite ones he liked to tell, my loving his motorcycle as a baby, buying his first house for my mom, brother, and I, camping, the wedding, and more. There were other stories we didn’t discuss or mention. He understood and saw me in a particular way, a way informed by his own perspective that was unique to him. While I didn’t always agree, while sometimes I argued or saw it as too fixed, sometimes he saw right through me and spoke to something no one else could.
What I didn’t realize at the time, because I was focused on my own pain, is that not only did I lose his version of my history, we have lost this unique perspective that was his alone and we lost the possibility of it changing with age, wisdom, and time.
Only by piecing together memories I didn’t know I needed to hold tighter to; corroborating childhoods with younger (half) siblings’ whose own memories were then still developing – siblings who had no notion that a parent, even their own father, could or would kill himself; or bombarding with question for a mother who worked hard to move on from a completely devastating time in her life: we’re only left the outline of a shadow, some tattered threads of an old painting, and faded pencils marks in journal entries never written.
These memories of dad are like a paint by number but 2/3 of the numbers are quickly fading.
Rebuilding the Collection
I struggled for a lot time to forgive him. I have written about that process in a few places:
For ten years, my unforgiveness held captive his memory by the way I remembered him and told the story of his life to others. I ensured that had anyone who ever met him through my storytelling would side with me and see how terrible he was when living and how terrible he was for dying. But then I forgive him and in doing so I began to renarrate his life for myself. I am slowly trying to rebuild the collection I have of stories and memories, this time of the good ones, the ones I want to remember. Today, I talk about him now with my children, tell them of their grandpa Bernie, in ways that allow him to be more fully human. Lovable and complicated, a man who loved his family and a man who struggled with anger and depression and didn’t get the help he needed.
In rebuilding the collection, I intentionally had to focus my memories on the stories that bring me joy and some of the things we share in common: our love for our kids, the importance of our faith, our love of motorcycles (even though mine is not a Harley!), and our love for records. Therefore, a few years back, as a sign of a new chapter in my relationship to him, I took part in a kind of post-mortem forgiveness on his birthday, March 7th. I went to the record shop in town and bought his favorite album: Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. I keep it for him here at the house. It’s a little joke between us, something I think he’d get a kick out of.
He used to remind me with some frequency of a story about when I was only a couple of years old:
He started dating my mom and I was at the house crawling around in the bedroom. While I was in there, left unattended for only a brief time no doubt, I found my mom’s red lipstick (has she ever worn lipstick?!). With that lipstick, I crawled over to his record collection and began to draw all over not just the covers but taking the vinyl out of its dust-jacket I saw the opportunity for red on beautiful black canvas. I like to think this was the first sign of my being an artist, that big red marker in my little hands. My first sign of sharing in his love of music, he had good taste. Of course, initially, he didn’t see it quite that way. I destroyed his beloved record collection. Something he got over since he married my mom and became my (step) dad. Looking back now, him telling me that story from time to time was both an expression of his own sense of loss of his favorite record collection, and also a funny memory we shared before our lives become knit together. Maybe in some way the destruction of his beloved records that day presented him with a choice and in the retelling of that story he reminded me of the choice he made.
I don’t really think about our dad much on his death day any more. Whether it is intentional or accidental, I remember it more often after the fact. It’s hard to memorialize the death day of someone who decided to take their own life. To remove themselves from your story without first asking any of us first is an unspeakable sadness.
Instead, I have decided to celebrate dad’s birthday. March 7th. Celebrating the day he entered this world is more healing than the day he left it. I celebrate it by rebuilding the collection literally and figuratively.
I spend some time listening to Dark Side of the Moon and telling my kids some stories about their grandpa they never met. Then I pay a visit to the local record shop and buy a new album or two. It’s not really for him per se but I’m willing to share. This year I bought Led Zeppelin’s IV and the White Album. My son and I picked them out together. C. asked me questions about his grandpa, we picked out albums we thought he’d like if he were still here, albums that will remind us of him when we listen to them together.
Since that transgression of my infancy his love of vinyl passed onto me, along with many other things. I think about my record collection as a reminder of a moment we shared and given the choice, he decided to stay in my life. Even though it was cut short, it was worth it.
With enough time I will rebuild a collection of stories and records. One day, I might have a bigger collection than him and then I will be able to pass on that collection to my kids. Then, the tables may turn and I will be the one protecting my collection from babies armed with lipstick.
Happy birthday, dad.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide there is help out there:
- Call 988 or visit https://988lifeline.org
- There are also great resources on the CDC.