It took my father nearly four decades to commit suicide. He picked up the bottle at age 17 in Lubbock, Texas, and died of an alcohol-induced heart attack at age 55 outside Baltimore, Maryland.
One thing you can say about my dad: he was persistent.
My mother discovered her husband’s body in the dingy, one-bedroom garden apartment where he had been living since their separation some months before. She had gone there to check in on him and bring him some food, found him sprawled out in the bathroom, called 911, and then called me.
As soon as I heard her voice on the phone, I knew. I told my boss in a strained but otherwise calm voice that I needed to take the afternoon off because “I think my father’s dead.” For whatever reason, the expression of shock on my manager’s face sticks in my memory more than many other things about that day.
I arrived in time to see men in official-looking windbreakers zip my dad’s corpse up in a body bag, his pale legs and tighty whities disappearing into black plastic, just like in the TV shows. I didn’t cry. I don’t think my mother did, either. We focused mostly on practical matters. We are very practical, my mother and I.
Things I inherited from my father: his temper, his wanderlust, a nearly new toaster oven. Also this pocket knife, which he used to carry with him on the hikes we took through the Vienna Woods each Sunday morning when I was a kid in Austria.
He also passed on to me a deep affinity for both storytelling and poetry. He was a huge sci-fi nerd, back before those things were even phrases in the common lexicon. He couldn’t wait until I was old enough to read Tolkien, so that he could have someone to geek out to about it. We would memorize poems and songs from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and we would test each other’s ability to recite them when we hiked in the woods together.
On those walks, a stand of birch trees with silver bark and golden leaves would become the borders of the enchanted forest of Lothlorien. This pocket knife would become the dagger Sting, glowing blue along its edge in the presence of orcs, and like the elvish warrior heroes we fancied ourselves, we would chant:
A Elbereth, Gilthoniel
Silivren penna miriel
O menel aglar elenath
Gilthoniel A Elbereth
Sometimes we got lost in the woods. We’d be so busy tramping around Middle Earth that we’d stray from the path and have to find our way to the nearest town, where we would call my mom and ask her to pick us up. One of my happiest memories is of the day she drove out to meet us for lunch at the little gasthaus where we’d ended up.
We ate out on the terrace and I remember a deep blue sky and bright sunlight and french fries and my mother’s smile.
The ability to tell stories came as naturally to my father as breathing, or as naturally as drinking, at least. He grew up in the panhandle of West Texas, the scion of a long and distinguished family tree of drunken bullshitters in the grand old southern storytelling tradition.
During the nearly three decades he worked for the U.S. government, my dad lived in nearly a dozen different countries. He had the best stories about his friends and other people he met in his travels.
He told this one about Schuyan, a Hungarian instructor he had when he was studying to be a U.S. Army linguist. Schuyan, your stereotypical absentminded professor, always had trouble keeping track of time in class, so he would constantly look up at the clock over his desk.
Some of the students discovered that if you hit the clock with something, it would advance the time by five minutes. So the students took to throwing chalkboard erasers at the clock every time Schuyan turned his back, to the point where they were getting out of class earlier and earlier each time.
One day they had a test, and after Schuyan had finished handing out the work books, he went to the back of the class and pulled out a bag full of chalkboard erasers, which he proceeded to throw at the clock, one after another, while the students scribbled furiously to finish the tests as their remaining time dwindled.
There was a difference between the stories my dad would tell about other people, which were typically funny, and the stories he told about himself, which tended toward the grim. His stories about himself were all about being unloved, unappreciated, unwanted. They were about how everyone was out to get him, and how the world would be a better place if he wasn’t in it.
He was like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ only Clarence never would have gotten his wings if he had come down to save my dad. Instead, the angel would have just ended up getting depressed and drunk with him, muttering “Fuck it, you’re right, dude, it’s all hopeless.”
The Calm, Cool Face of the River
That same bleakness bled into the poetry he liked. One year, my dad got me this copy of Langston Hughes’ Selected Poems. It’s a great collection, full of jazz and anger and passion, but my dad’s favorite was one called, ‘Suicide’s Note,’ which he read to me in its entirety over breakfast one morning:
The calm, cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
I was eight.
Treachery, Defeat, Humiliation
As I grew older, and my dad got drunker and darker, I realized that stories we tell about ourselves are not a listing of chronological facts about our lives. We create our stories in order to retroactively justify how we ended up who are right now. We choose those facts about our lives very carefully. We embellish them. We make a lot of them up. And then we say, to ourselves, and others, “See? This is why I am who I am, and there is no way it could have turned out differently.”
I inherited my father’s love of storytelling and poetry, but I chose to read different poems than he did.
One of my favorites, by Jorge Luis Borges, is about a guy in a train station at night who suddenly hears “an infinite voice” from within him listing all the wonderful, miraculous things that the poet doesn’t appreciate about the world: “chessboards, galleries, skylights, cellars / a human body to walk with on the earth…”
The inventory even includes “treachery, defeat, humiliation,” which are described as “the ancient nourishment of heroes.”
That phrase haunts me. My dad was always going about treachery, defeat, and humiliation – not as the “nourishment of heroes,” but as weapons that had been used against him throughout his life, by his parents, his bosses, his wife, his only son.
Slowly over time, with mounting horror and sadness, I came to understand that my father didn’t see himself as an elvish warrior hero with a magic sword. He saw himself as Gollum: a bitter, abused, misunderstood creature who’s treated poorly by everyone he comes across.
Just as Gollum had his “precious,” my dad had his family-sized plastic bottle of vodka, and he clung to it until it finally dragged him down into the pit of doom.
A couple of years after he died, I came across a poem by Zbignew Herbert that I wish I could have shared with him. Not that it would have saved his life – he’d already crafted his story, after all – but maybe it could have communicated to him my belief that there are other stories to tell.
not for the stone wreath of Troy do we implore You o Master
not for a plume of flame white women and gold
but restore if you can to blemished faces goodness
and put simplicity into our hands just as you once put iron
send down white clouds Apollo white clouds white clouds
Sometimes I imagine myself as a time traveler, going back to meet my father at different points in his life. I’d meet him in that shabby little apartment of his the day before he drank his last bottle of Listerine and collapsed on the bathroom floor. I’d meet him walking among the birch trees of the Vienna Woods in the autumn, pretending he was in Middle Earth. I’d meet him on the dusty flats outside Lubbock, Texas, just before he latched onto that precious, poisoned bottle of self-loathing and despair.
I would read him Herbert’s ‘Fragment.’ And I would look him in the eyes and touch his arm and tell him: This is your hero’s weapon. This is what you use to beat back the darkness. Now let’s go slay some orcs.