Some of you, dear readers, who have read previous posts about me, my family, and what I was up to, may have guessed at a few truths I wasn’t ready to reveal. However, I will also say that this true story was not the reason I suddenly changed my mind about suicide and the idea that it’s a selfish act.
I’d actually been questioning this stance for some time.
In the interest of truth, I’ll admit that a year ago yesterday, my father committed suicide. He’d been sick for so damned long (and I already wrote tons of blog posts related to care taking, the anxiety, and the fights that were a part of it). I won’t rehash everything that those posts mentioned, because you can look them up.
However, even a year ago, I did not blame dad for his suicide. I never once thought it was selfish of him to do it, either.
I wasn’t ready, and the timing was awful, but the important thing is that he’s no longer in pain. I can walk away with that.
I’ll say again: I do not blame him for his decision, and here’s why.
At first I thought it was just bad timing. I’d left for work early that morning because I’d planned to take time and drink coffee across from work while going over some tutoring plans I had to start that day. I’d barely gotten to work and was about to start when I got a call just after 10 a.m. from the Sheriff’s office saying I needed to get home right away. I’d been out of the house since about 6-ish, when he asked me to take the dog out to pee before I left. I think the last thing he said was “be careful,” as he usually did when I was driving in the real world.
I floored it all the way home, and saw the police cars and a van out front. My first thought was that perhaps something happened because of the police tape near the back door. I thought maybe somebody thought the house was empty after I’d left (as dad never ventured outside anymore–the pollen aggravated him too badly), so somebody tried to break in.
Then I figured it was bad timing and he’d tried to call an ambulance because of his breathing issues and died before they could get there (or they’d already taken him to the hospital and the cops were trying to let me know what happened).
Granted, this all went through my head from the moment I turned onto the street to the moment I hit the driveway. I would find out much more later.
Anyway, the reason I thought it was “bad timing” is dad’s breathing problems. Two bouts with cancer, one resulting in chemo, messed with his body badly. The second resulted in the chemo and radiation treatments created scar tissue on his esophagus–a side-effect that essentially meant he could not eat normal foods ever again. But it also froze his airway in the same reduced capacity (roughly 30-35%) that it was before treatment. They tried a procedure to stretch the airway again so he could breathe and eat easier, but it did not work.
So now, picture yourself sucking air through only a drinking straw. Do that 24/7 for over a decade while you try to talk, walk, change clothes, take showers, changing oil in the truck, etc.
That’s what it was like for my dad. By the end, he would get winded just putting his clothes on. He was stuck with his lazy chair watching TV and unable to work or do anything.
That was the thing that hurt worse, to me and him. He didn’t always like his job, but he loved to work and be out and about (and yes, sit on his butt and watch TV when he’d put in all that work). It’s part of the reason we lived where we did, lots of outdoor maintenance and possible projects.
Well, he could no longer do any of those things. He’d always worked hard and actually averaged 60 bpm as a normal heart rate. He’d freak out the nurses when he went under anesthesia the few times he had surgery because his rate would dip so low.
Unfortunately, since he wasn’t climbing telephone poles, digging ditches, and all the other stuff he used to do anymore, his body decided “use it or lose it.” Eventually his heart decided it wasn’t necessary to work so hard when it’s host wasn’t doing the job, and the muscles atrophied from his lack of use.
I wondered how much longer he was going to go on like this. I knew he hated it and wondered why he wasn’t dead yet. His humor became darker and more fatalistic. He’d had a bout of pneumonia because he was trying to drink Ensure to get his vitamins and couldn’t even ingest that because he kept aspirating the liquid into his lungs.
So, even nutritional drinks were lost to him.
He couldn’t drink or eat, and he couldn’t work.
I didn’t realize how bad it was til about mid June last year. He was having a panic attack when his airway seized and I just tried so hard not to panic myself and startle him. I did what I could to help him and get his nebulizer working. Well, he was okay, but it took a bit. I think my heart kept racing, even 10 minutes after he indicated he was okay.
I offered to take him to the hospital, but he said no, that he was reasonably okay again.
So, a little more than a month after that panic attack, the cops told me he was gone, and then asked me about that mid June morning. I looked in my journal and figured out the date and told them about the breathing and panic attack.
Then I heard one of the officers come to the one who was talking to me and say, “we need to retrieve the weapon.”
I think that’s when I just sat down in shock.
A thousand scenarios had gone through my head on the drive over–tried to call an ambulance and failed, tried to call family to take him to the hospital, the burglar scenario… but a bullet wasn’t one of them.
On the other hand, I can understand it.
The human body is a remarkable thing. It keeps us going and tries to help us in case of shortages and emergencies. It can keep us alive for weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air.
I’d seen dad go several minutes gasping for that much needed air… and it scared the hell out of him. And me.
He was in pain and completely freaked out, working his mouth out of sheer panic that he was going to die in such a painful way right in front of me.
He might’ve had another panic attack and grabbed the gun he always had near him in his chair. That’s what I figured, that he just thought “no way in hell am I doing that again.” I thought it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
Then I found out he’d locked the dog in the cage before he called 9-1-1. Unless she’d chewed up something valuable and was being punished, we NEVER put the dog in the cage.
He’d planned on it, and made sure I wouldn’t be home to find him.
I always heard how selfish it was for someone to take his or her own life… but in cases like this, I can’t blame anyone going through that much fear and pain for taking his or her life.
Murder-suicide, on the other hand, is the most selfish thing I can think of, because the murderer is taking someone else down with them, someone who does not want to follow. But that’s for another post…
My dad was a strong man all his life, and cancer made him so terribly weak. I saw how awful he felt and told him if he needed something that would help, that if I needed to take him to a hospital or NOT take him, I would respect his wishes and do it.
He knew what he could handle, what he could mentally take. Not even being able to do the simple act of breathing anymore was just the last straw.
And this is the main reason why I think it’s a case by case basis. Humans are so different, and handed a different stacked deck of cards.
No one knows what another person goes through. That’s why I can’t blame him for what he did. And others going through terminal illnesses with no cure, who don’t want to be burdens to their families (perceived or otherwise)?
I can’t blame them.
What I find awful is when someone goes against the dying person’s wishes to prolong their life when it’s almost just a shell of who they were. Why would you put the person through more pain, rather than let them have some peace in their last days?
Especially if there’s no cure, and none forthcoming.
Robin Williams also got me thinking about this. I would never blame Robin Williams for what he did–he had Parkinson’s and Lewy Body Dementia. He wanted to be remembered for what he’d done rather than who he would become as the diseases took hold and robbed him of what made him himself. They were going to take him down, mentally and physically.
Does it suck that we’re going to be without that wonderfully funny man from now on? Yes. But I can understand his decision.
My dad was a hard working man. Not being able to work was tough, but he griped about early retirement and took medical leave.
Then he couldn’t eat or drink anything and had to rely on a feeding tube, which further restricted his abilities. Then he’d lost the ability to sleep fully, crashing in his chair or overdoing it in long doses, not getting up til after noon. Then he had trouble walking across his bedroom without getting winded.
I can’t imagine anything worse. I felt that morning in mid-June that I was getting a helluva glimpse into what dad’s last minutes would be like if he kept going. Would it be in two days or twenty years?
And I knew he didn’t want to do 20 more years in that body.
Watching him try to catch his breath that June day almost sent me into a panic attack of my own. I’m pretty sure that’s what helped his decision to end it his own way, because he made sure I wouldn’t be the one to find him.
I don’t know all the particulars of that morning a year ago, and what was said on the phone or whatever. I just know I sat outside in the back of the car on the hatch bumper, hatch open while waiting for something to happen.
But even in that moment, between the cops all leaving and my aunt and uncle coming to be with me (as I was not going in that freaking house by myself), I knew I didn’t blame dad for what he did.
I’ve heard of others with a suicide in the family who did, that they still nurse grudges against people who made that terrible choice years before and actually hate them and all their memories.
My father was a dead man walking and he knew it. Nothing was going to change it. There wasn’t some medication or surgery to give him his airway back and let him go back to a semi-normal life.
If there was, I’d have hauled him to the hospital for it. He had good insurance that would pay.
But when there’s no cure… who is to say you wouldn’t do the same?
I can partially blame my dad for other things: my sheltered childhood, not telling me everything I needed to know when dealing with awful people in our pasts… things like that.
But his decision to stop his fears? I can’t blame him for that, and won’t, even if others think I should.
In his note he apologized that he was leaving me alone, and said he was tired and couldn’t sleep anymore, and the thing he needed most was a nice long rest.
Well, he has that now. Even though I question anything related to an afterlife, I still think the lack of his pain is the most important thing. He’s actually on my mantle right now, which also has pictures of him in the Navy and at work, and my last good picture of him before he got weaker and rarely went outside anymore. There’s also a bottle of Glenlivet with his name on it, a service cap, and because I’m a weirdo, Funko Pop figures of the Jaws cast and the shark.
Hey, it was our fave movie, so why not?
Regarding the truth of what happened, that day I blurted it out to a few people when I tried to inform them of the funeral and they kept asking questions. It took a few calls (and a reminder that not everybody should know about that) before I calmed down and was able to just say “his body gave out.” I became more vague as things went on because I was so afraid of blowing up.
Those phone calls I had to make were the toughest few hours of my life, I think.
I also never went on social media about it because of God Squad relatives whose answer to everything is quoting biblical scripture. That’s never made me feel better (and dad was a cultural Christian at best, anyway).
Or worse yet, the unspoken condemnation that I remember so well from evangelism, that because he took his own life, he’s burning in Hell.
Well, I’d think a supposedly just and loving God could or should take some things into account and have a little perspective. And if that’s blasphemous, I don’t give a damn.
Either way, when there’s no cure for body or mind, I really can’t blame someone for choosing suicide, especially if all known options for treatment have been exhausted or contemplated. I don’t blame him because I have no clue what I would do if I was living in his shoes.
Or Robin Williams.
Or Anthony Bourdain’s (also diagnosed with Parkinsons).
Be well. I’m going to cuddle with my dogs a little longer and go to bed. It’s 1:10 a.m. and I’ve got about 24 very loud kids to deal with tomorrow at camp.
But dad was naturally on my mind today, as was the merry-go-round discussions about suicide that crop up in the media, so I felt I’d better throw my two-cents in. It’s definitely relieving to get it off my mind, because it was the most disappointing day until I could come home to my furry and feathered ones and some sangria.
It’s been a long year and not-so long all at the same time. Life goes on, somehow, with these fixed decks we all have in our hands. Hopefully you and yours have some good cards in it.