Few intimates escape the withering devastation of a family member’s suicide.
As though nostalgic for his Manitoba boyhood, my father points to his beloved hunting rifle. Transforming his fingers into a silent trigger, he touches his temple and says, “Sometimes I want to take that gun off the wall and blow my brains out.”
My father’s eyes are hooded and dark as he shows me how the skin peels off the back of his hands. “Stress,” he explains modestly, his face lined with sleepless fatigue. I feel awkward in an unfamiliar living room. On this, my first visit to the suburban house where my father lives with his new love and her two children, I enter his new domestic life like a visitor to a foreign country. Lost in the limbo of in-between, my father is caught in a long look back. It has been two years since my parents’ separation after decades of intermittent misery. Confused and ambivalent, he refuses to grant my mother a divorce.
Later he’ll call to tell me he loves me, but this morning he’s enmeshed in what ails him. New American owners have bought out the Quebec manufacturer that supplies snowmobiles to his Ontario distribution company. He predicts this change will shut down his business, since local distributors become redundant when ownership is transferred south of the border. My father doesn’t tell me he has become a useless middleman. But I’ve studied political economy and know he’s another statistic in branch-plant Canada.
Our meeting is short. It is Christmas 1974 and I am 24, half my father’s age. Feeling out of my depth, I coolly counsel him to take up jogging, the kind of banal advice that haunts me now. As I leave my father’s house, my inexplicable calm gives way to panic—How do I save my father from himself? When I seek out his close friends, their voices fill with loving warmth, but speak denial. They don’t know this depressed man. They remind me of his former self, filled with a passion for life.
How could any of them imagine my father’s suicide? Later I discover my father told friends he was undergoing medical treatment for depression. He lied. In 1974, therapy might be funny and fine for neurotic Woody Allen. But therapeutic care was beyond the ken of this conservative Canadianmid-life macho businessman. My mother’s suspicions lead to an unsuccessful intervention. His deadly plot unfolds, complex and ingenious. Within three weeks of uttering his threat to me, this youthful 48-year-old man is dead.
He doesn’t pull a trigger.
He doesn’t need a gun.
The obituary is ambiguous. His suicide was a secret act that revealed itself only to those who knew him well. No one suspected who shouldn’t have. He flew to the island of Eleuthera to visit friends. The morning after his arrival, alone in a small boat, he put on his mask and snorkel, tied a rope around his waist, and knotted it over and over—a deadly strategy for any seasoned diver like my father.
He couldn’t escape drowning, rope tangled in an underwater coral reef, after he dove into the turquoise sea.
Suicide is radioactive. Few intimates escape its withering devastation. The legacy of my father’s death reads like a soap opera; tragedies large and small extend the lethal reach of his singular end. Our nuclear family survives critically scarred. My grieving mother remarries a loving and gentle man but is haunted by her loss. My siblings, especially vulnerable teenagers, each tell their own private stories of despair.
And in the weeks that follow the funeral, my father’s lover breaks down and, stricken with misplaced guilt, is hospitalized for a month. It isn’t long before her beloved teenage son inexplicably disappears, never to be heard from again.
Who can comprehend this woman’s grief?
Suicide becomes a trembling wall in my life’s architecture. I keep busy in order to stop the pain. For my father’s funeral, I sew a wool skirt, and on my first attempt, stitch up three sides so it looks like a shroud.
A few months later I remain stricken by an irrational fear of my own demise and ask my live-in boyfriend to get married “because I feel like I’m going to die and want someone to mourn me.”
This ill-advised proposal initiates a marriage that lasts not quite 50 weeks. In the intervening months, I fall ill with pelvic inflammatory disease and discover my infertility.
This is a different kind of mourning. The either/or of women’s history tells me I can’t mother so I’ll become a writer. With past and future as bookends, the rest is a missing page. Documenting the present moment is what counts in my world.
I remain numb for years, working hard at this and that. In the late 1970s, temporary unemployment creates a time for me to retreat and think. That’s when I disappear into depression’s seductive spiral.
One afternoon, while visiting a yoga ashram, I meet a woman psychologist who listens to my story with great kindness. I describe how my life spins out of control with an uncanny predictability.
“What did you love to do before your father died?” she asks.
When I tell her I love writing, she continues in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why not make it your whole life? Do a PhD. I did.”
Sometimes it’s easy to connect the dots. I pack up my yoga mat and re-enter the academic world to study. My father’s story becomes part of my intellectual project. One day I return home from class to find my dog Mars has chewed up a copy of Durkheim’s On Suicide as though the caring canine could read.
In the central chapter of my dissertation, I explore Phyllis Webb’s suicide and anti-suicide poems. I especially love the throwaway humour of “To Friends Who Have Also Considered Suicide”—
It’s still a good idea.
Its exercise is discipline:
to remember to cross the street without looking…
One day after a few beers in a campus pub, a visiting literary critic and I talk about our histories and I tell her about my father’s suicide. When she confesses her own father’s suicide, I imagine a fellow traveller. In an instant this connection splinters as she says with a flourish, “But my father died for the revolution.” A vanguard, a pecking order of suicide. A hierarchy of grief.
My father’s death becomes a site of resistance, a challenging place to find meaning where he did not. Like a novelist, I revise my plot. As if to repudiate the sense of an ending, at 48 I chose to begin my life again as a single mother to an adopted toddler. Now 12, my daughter remains the tender pivot of my life. Her presence and our profound connection make suicide unthinkable and help keep me safe. Abandoned near a southern Chinese market and institutionalized for the first years of her life, my daughter has a history already crowded with catastrophe. How could I visit upon her a second abandonment?
Not long after adopting her, I have several accidents that leave me incapacitated and immobile, with a lively 3-year-old. And I become ill with a terrible depression.
In response to my despair, my doctor recommends we avoid drugs and follow a bigger prescription: “You need a holistic approach to your depression—physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.”
“I’m an atheist or agnostic, and I’ve not much time for spiritual life,” I say, exhausted by my work and single mothering.
“By spiritual, I just mean you need a community,” the doctor explains. “Some agnostics and atheists are Unitarian.”
That’s how I find myself one Sunday at a small Unitarian congregation where the service leader is Susan Anderson, a beautiful ice-blue-eyed woman in her late forties who talks about her research into how suicidal persons conceive of the divine. She opens her homily confessing she came to her subject out of grief at the suicide of a childhood friend.
The hall is silent as she describes her research subjects as “co-researchers” who lived to tell their tales. In every interview, she encountered great suffering—excruciating psychological pain and the person’s profound longing for it to stop. Each person described making suicidal plots that they were unsuccessful in carrying out. All described their unceasing ambivalence about death itself. And they all described themselves as isolated in an aloneness that derived in part from their inability to confide in others. Or they felt alone as a result of the reluctance of others to hear their pain without either judging or offering useless advice. In their interviews, these potential suicides described how they appealed to their version of the divine without a response.
In this woman’s words, I hear the echo of my father’s voice. I wonder what his last moments might have been like—a wrenching torturous second thought?
Here at latitude 53, seasonal despair is a geographical hazard: the sun can slip too low across the autumnal sky to keep psyches afloat until spring.
One legacy of my father’s suicide is that in more than 25 years of teaching, I often begin a new course with a cautionary note to my students: “I’ve experienced suicide in my family and don’t mean to be alarmist, but should you need help, I can direct you to good care and counselling.”
R, an exceptionally talented young man, returned for a second course with me, an upper-level workshop in creative writing. He needed little encouragement and already enjoyed a more than part-time journalism career as a weekly print writer and music reviewer for local radio.
R’s ready smile and humour seemed to make light of winter’s darkness. We didn’t keep in touch after his studies, but I followed his progress and silently cheered his every success.
Perhaps R remembered someone’s cautionary advice when one mid-October morning he entered the automatic glass doors of a central Edmonton hospital and explained to the resident that he wanted to die.
Clinicians listened and talked with him, and then, after four hours, discharged him with helpful advice.
What did R confide to them? Why did they let him go? Questions proliferate but give no consolation.
No one else seemed to know he was depressed. His family was shocked by the news. Research shows that some suicidal impulses last no more than 24 hours. We can retrace R’s steps and still not know how his thoughts led him toward his final destination. After he left the hospital, it didn’t take R long to walk the few numbered city blocks muted by the quiet of an early snowfall.
The ebony industrial girders of the High Level Bridge stand in bold relief and span the frigid North Saskatchewan River. No one anticipated R’s leap into the futureless space below. When his body is recovered, the hospital’s suicide prevention pamphlet is neatly folded in his pocket.
After the fact, suicide concerns those who care for the dead. I weep for his family and friends, their hearts broken open with grief and loss. A crack as wide as this world.
A year later, The New York Times Magazine runs a big story about a social movement to inhibit suicides that explores not the “why” of suicide but the “how” of methods. Researchers investigate “jumpers” and conclude there are practical ways to discourage them.
Suicidal impulses can be tied to location. If the Golden Gate Bridge is not an available perch, potential suicides won’t necessarily take pills, hang or shoot themselves. Some are attached to the means, not the end. Of 515 people who have been prevented from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, more than 90 per cent survived, dying of natural causes an average of 26 years after the suicide attempt. Not long ago, activists successfully campaigned to erect suicide prevention barriers at the Golden Gate Bridge.
I become obsessed with how someone might have saved young R from his too-early death. What net below the High Level Bridge might be life giving? How high? How strong?
When I contact the Edmonton office of the Chief Medical Examiner to request information about suicides from the High Level Bridge, the resident researcher tells me there is a new sign on the bridge that warns of the dangers. She promises to study the statistics and send me a report. It arrives as an e-mail attachment titled: # of Suicides from Jumping from the High Level Bridge in Edmonton, Alberta.
I discover that between January of 2000 and the end of August 2008, 27 people were seen jumping to their deaths from the High Level Bridge. “The age ranges for these deaths was between 19 and 51 years of age. There were six females and 21 males.” More than half of the dead are below the age of 34. These deaths make up 2 per cent of the total number of deaths by suicide in Alberta. But this estimate must be low. The researcher explains the difficulty of gathering accurate statistics: more bodies are taken from the river than are accounted for in these statistics. She says some of them may simply have walked into the river, or jumped from another bridge in the city. Where entry into the river was not witnessed, numbers are not included in statistics on those jumping from the High Level Bridge.
I wonder: if statistics could somehow include unwitnessed suicides, what would the number of people annually jumping from the High Level be? Would a higher number lead to public pressure for the erection of prevention barriers on our bridge?
Over the past year, a friend loses his second brother to the seduction of the High Level’s suicidal drop. And in spring and summer, I’m invited to search for two depressed men who have disappeared. In my mind’s eye, I see their bodies submerged and, hopeless, can’t bring myself to participate. Their bodies will be found in our local unofficial cemetery downriver from the bridge.
One chilly evening not long ago a woman friend appears on my doorstep shattered by lost love. Her husband of 23 years has just announced he is leaving her. To avoid encountering the disappearing ghost of her beloved in her own home, she stays two nights in mine.
This is how I re-encounter the intensity of suicidal longings up close. Weeping and inconsolable, my friend has planned her final leap from nearby High Level Bridge.
Like a sleepwalker, I follow all the steps I wished I had performed in response to my father’s tragic threat. I call to a faraway city, listening while her worried sister speaks with direct and loving clarity to her twin. The following day I will call her doctor to tell him of his patient’s plans. He responds to my communication with gratitude.
But at night I rest uneasily, my body an hysterical memory bank revisited by sharp anguish. Struck by the intensity of my embodied response, I visit my own doctor to tell him, “I couldn’t imagine the waves of destruction that followed my father’s suicide. Everyone was crushed by it. His wife, his lover, his children, his friends.”
My doctor reveals that his mother was 9 when his grandmother committed suicide, “The effects are intergenerational.”
Then he advises, “I understand what you are saying, but you must forgive yourself. You couldn’t stop your father just as you cannot stop your friend from killing herself. When my suicidal patients leave my office, I can do nothing to change their behaviour, alter their decisions.”
Suicide is an obstinate death, stubborn and almost impossible to bury. Ghosts prevail. Like the musical figure ostinato, riffs, patterns can repeat themselves throughout survivors’ lives, automatic or surprising.
Sometimes I encounter my father’s uneasy shadow. In a local jazz club I remember how he invited me as a teenager to hear Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis play at Toronto’s fabled Colonial Tavern.
The small, darkened Edmonton room expands when the jazz singer’s voice fills with Hoagy Carmichael’s words: “Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.” In “Stardust,” I hear the notes of Spanish poet García Lorca’s duende, the spirit of death in life that loves “edges and wounds… now shadowy, now like molten tin, now covered with moss.”
Suddenly I am 15 as I see my father’s hands flash across the keyboard of his jazz piano in our childhood home. I peek from behind the entrance into our long living room and watch my father, sleek and mysterious in his black turtleneck and polished shoes. In my mind’s eye, my mother sways in her rose crêpe de Chine cocktail dress and jewelled sling-back pumps.
Forty years later, I listen to my daughter play everything from Bach to boogie woogie, and I hear a time-travelling ostinato. In the haunting repetition as her fingers flash across the keyboard, I remember that one way to repeat a pattern is—da capo, to begin again from the top.
I begin again the story of my life.
My daughter and I travel to Tulum, Mexico, where a Mayan temple overlooks the ocean. While eavesdropping on a tour group, I spot a painted panel explaining Mayan gods to visitors. In the tropical noonday heat, I stand transfixed in front of a drawing of Ixtab, the goddess of suicide. She hangs suspended, her knees drawn up tight toward her torso, a noose around her neck. Long bony fingers dangle loosely at her side. An oval splotch of black on her cheek marks death’s touch.
I feel a strange sense of comfort in Ixtab’s presence where ghosted bodies of suicides are publicly named, not shamefully hidden away. Later I learn that Ixtab is a psychopomp, a figure who accompanies spirits into the next world. In this ancient lost culture, Ixtab guides the souls of suicides to the highest and 13th realm of Mayan heaven along with priests, women who die in childbirth, and human sacrifices. In this paradise of paradises, Ixtab rests in the shade of a giant tree.
Suicide is a green country, a continent sown with Lorca’s “grass-blades of death.” Suicide survivors are a special tribe. I will revisit this green continent. But at this Mayan temple site on the edge of the Caribbean, we descend a staircase to the beach and I swim out far enough to imagine my psyche releasing a suicide’s story. A bitter telling dissolves in the turquoise sea.
Janice Williamson is a professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta.
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