Being away at college, I had learned of my father’s passing when my family phoned with the alarming news. In the aftermath of that sobering call, I had so many questions. What had happened to my father? Was it accidental? Was he alone? And a hundred others.
Those questions swirling in my cloudy head, I also wondered how my sister was handling everything, for she is the one who had been destined to walk into his apartment and find him lifeless. In the week I spent at home for the funeral and in the years that have since passed, I learned what transpired on that wintry February day.
The date was Monday, February 5. It was just like any day in my sister’s high-school life. And her after-school life. Because I was in college, my sister bore the overwhelming responsibility of not only frequently visiting my father but also, with a little help from Mom (although they were divorced), serving as his keeper, understandably no small feat for a senior whose energy should’ve been exerted on enjoying the final months with friends and preparing for college.
But there she was, already having grown up before her time and once again asked to wear a cloak of maturity, while my father reversibly shed his. Routinely, she’d stop over at his apartment, visit for a little while, and, most importantly, make sure he was staying out of trouble.
My father suffered from depression, loneliness, and a lack of a social life (only adding to his depression and loneliness). His only social experiences at that point were in bars, hardly a healthy “balance” for a man suffering from alcoholism and other addictions. With no one calling on him, no job, and nowhere to go, he craved visitors, and my sister was the only one around. It was unfair to her for him to ask so much, and so she constantly moved about, weighted with heavy guilt and handicapped by a man no more mature than a child.
As she walked into his quiet, lonely apartment on that February day, she had little idea what to expect. It was like that every time we visited, knocking and entering with a large lump in our throats. What awaited behind a heavy, one-inch wooden door? Fear of the unknown.
That day was not my father’s finest hour: drunk and a mess, full of piss, hardly able to walk or speak, a stench so unbearable, the embodiment of another broken promise. Tenderhearted as my sister was (and is), she took care of him, then obliged to his request to get him some food: carryout from a local Italian restaurant and two Diet Cokes (he had a very serious relationship with Diet Coke, his beverage of choice when beer wasn’t an option).
Back at the apartment, she put the food on the kitchen counter and said her goodbye, alertly making sure to retain his wallet so that he had no money to go anywhere, do anything, or get into more trouble. His parting words to her: “Can you come back later and check up on me?” In retrospect, those words bear significant meaning and help shed clarity on a situation that only ends in question marks.
My sister didn’t return that evening, having enjoyed a high-school basketball game and a night out with friends. At the sounding of the 3:00 bell on February 6, she made it her sole mission to go back. By then, he should’ve slept it off, returning to his normal, sober self.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
She slowly slid open the door.
Peering inside, she spotted on the counter the food she had dropped off the day prior, untouched exactly where she had placed it. Surveying the room, Dad was not in his drunken position on the pee-soaked futon. Instant panic. Where had he gone? Why hadn’t he answered the door?
Stepping farther into the apartment, she caught a glimpse of two feet, hardly noticeable just around the corner that led into the kitchen. And there rested my father, motionless, blue face, no pulse, not breathing.
The paramedics arrived, only it was too late, their job simply to aid in pronouncing him deceased. Weeks later, an autopsy confirmed what we had feared: my father’s death called a suicide from apparent drug overdose. My father’s long bout with alcohol and drugs finally concluded. The very things that brought him so much joy and yet so much pain also caused his fateful demise.
To this day, the image of my father’s death haunts me. I wonder what really happened in that final hour. He had never touched his food but had made his way into the kitchen, where he collapsed. Had he purposefully downed the pills out of guilt? Or can the overdose be attributed to another bad, unconscionable decision made when drunk? We’ll never know.
But I knew this man all too well. It saddened my heart to think that he had done this on purpose, that he had finally reached his loneliest state of being, his point of no return. In that hour and in the hours leading up to it, everything came crashing down, and I firmly believe he, guilty laden, wanted it to end. As much as he loved my sister and me, I believe he knew the tremendous weight he had placed on our shoulders, and we were sinking deeper into his misery.
And so his words, “Can you come back later and check up on me?” were his version of a suicide note, his goodbye, his “I love you, but I can’t do this anymore.” That request was his way of preparing us for the inevitable, for what he was about to do.
Quoted in the lyrics by one of my favorite bands, “I fought the world, and I lost that bout.” I have never experienced pain and grief so deep as my father’s, and I pray I never do. If you feel like you’re fighting a daily battle, always coming out on the losing end, remember that you don’t have to go it alone. You have a great army of valiant, loyal soldiers backing you, ready to stand firm with your battle cry and prepared to protect you.