Not every Father’s Day turns out the way we expect. It is especially hard when there is mental illness involved. This story is meant to speak to the challenges of having a loving father who suffered with mental illness at the end of his life and to honor the history of a great man who loved education and awareness by telling the truth about the last part of his history.
After years of having a productive and loving life, my father’s mental health had deteriorated, nearly imperceptibly at first, but more dramatically as time went on.
My mother called a few weeks before Father’s Day 1999 to tell me that my father was becoming more agitated and paranoid. She said that he was afraid she was trying to kill him. My mother was seventy-six years old, had suffered several strokes by that time and was a devout Roman Catholic. My father was a decorated World War II veteran. Dad was suffering from what appeared to be Alzheimer’s Disease, although we were to learn long afterward that it actually was a chemical imbalance that had been diagnosed but for which he was refusing treatment. He was so terrified, he was attempting to purchase a gun to protect himself from everyone, especially my mother. Thankfully, the man at the hardware store realized something was terribly wrong and put up enough road blocks to prevent my father from purchasing this firearm.
Dad refused to eat what my mother would cook because of his fears. He would store food that he purchased in the furniture. After my mother reported to me that Dad had struck her for the first time in their forty-three year marriage, I insisted that my mother move in with my aunt several miles away. It was clear to me that my father was losing his mind. I knew, too, that Dad did not have the boundaries that would prevent him from taking his own life, and perhaps, in a rage, my mother’s life, as well.
Dad finally decided to move to a veteran’s home to live out the remainder of his years in what he hoped would be peace and tranquility. Instead of making definite plans, he basically ran away from home.
After visiting the facility where he wanted to move, he arrived at my home on June 18, 1999, while I was at a rehearsal for a show I was music directing. He was clearly frightened and frustrated according to my eldest daughter who called me at rehearsal after welcoming my father into our home. I told her I would be home immediately after the practice was over. I was dreading this unexpected visit.
Dad and I had always had our difficulties. I always described our relationship as two men who tended to answer the same question using the same math equation and coming up with two different answers. It was challenging at best, at times. Other times, we laughed uproariously together at the smallest things.
When I arrived, Dad was sound asleep after his 200 miles trek. I called my mother to let her know he was with me and safe. She was relieved.
The next day, Dad took me to lunch for Father’s Day at Baker’s Square Restaurant. Our time together was strained, but I was happy to share his 38th Father’s Day with him, just the two of us. I didn’t want there to be any tension, so we kept the conversation light.
That all changed, however, when we arrived home. He put some papers in front of me that I said I needed to sign saying he was in good physical and mental health. These important papers were for the veteran’s home. They wanted to make sure Dad was not a danger to himself or to others.
I refused to sign. I told him that I knew he was suffering from a mental illness and that I could not, in good conscience, sign these documents. I said that there had to be other homes that would be more appropriate for him that could care for him as he progressed through his illness.
From there the conversation grew increasingly vitriolic. We were screaming at one another. I understood that he was fighting for his freedom. I, on the other hand, was fighting for his health and safety. Our horrific battle went on for at least three hours. Nearly forty years of unspoken animosity came tumbling out of my mouth. His four decade long frustration with me was vomitted forth toward me. The truth was, everything that needed to be said between us got spoken. I was tragically sad and ultimately relieved.
At the end of our verbal journey, I said, “Dad, I know you can’t understand this right now, but I’m doing what I know is best for you. I’m doing this because it appears you are suffering from Alzheimer’s and because I love you so much.”
Dad didn’t really say anything. He was too hurt to speak. I had attacked him. I had injured his heart. In his mind, I was cruel beyond belief after a lifetime of love he had shown me. He was my Dad. He became my Dad through adoption, not birth, for which I was deeply and eternally thankful. He and my mother gave me an amazing life. I am, to this day, overwhelmingly grateful for that. Sadly, there was no way he could see that gratitude in our conversation.
He went to bed that night without a word.
By the time I got up the next morning, he was gone. He had taken his GMC truck and driven away. It was the last time I would see or talk with my father.
Mom and I decided we would try to get him admitted to a locked facility. Through a series of misunderstandings, my father found out about what we were trying to do. Being a firm believer in Dr. Kevorkian, my father planned out and executed his own suicide through carbon monoxide poisoning in the very truck he brought to my home on that last visit.
Mother called on the last day of July 1999. My father was dead. I found out years later that my father shared a birthday with his mother and, eventually, his date of death, also.
After he was cremated, I placed his ashes where I knew he wanted to be buried. No funeral. No gravestone. Just good drainage, for which he so often requested.
I was alone on that hillside. No one would stand with me as I wailed my sorrow and grief into the bright summer afternoon.
After I finished patting down the dirt on my father’s grave, I sat on the berm near his final resting place and lit a cigarette. Suddenly, with the clarity of the sound of a living voice, I heard my father laughing.
“What’s so funny, Dad?” I asked out loud.
“You were right, Jim. There is more after life,” he responded jovially.
We both laughed together because my father had been an agnostic/atheist for more than thirty years. We had argued vehemently about God’s existence many, many times.
I didn’t think to ask him what it was that existed beyond our living perception. I suppose I figured I would find out for myself someday. I just knew that, as was often the case between us, we would argue and then laugh together. We would scream and then smile.
That was just our way.
Although I still have my birth father still living, Father’s Day will never be the same since Dad took his own life. The comfort I feel, though, is that I genuinely acted in my father’s best interest. I tried to be the best son I knew how to be. Perhaps in some ways I failed, but in other ways, important ways, I succeeded. God knows my father succeeded brilliantly at being a good father. My brother and I were always first in his mind and in his heart.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I love you. I miss you terribly. Dziękuję, Ta.