(note, this article was triggered by an article about suicide in the NY Times, it may trigger some of my readers as well. I’ve not written about this before, nor have I been posting my normal amount lately. That article made me want to share this story. Thank NY Times opinion writer David Brooks).
No, this headline isn’t click bait. Those were the words of a 9 year old on a Sunday morning that changed my life. They were my words. And, it was a full 15 minutes before my father had a clue that they would change his life as well.
My father worked nights as a copy editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A copy editor is someone who checks the facts, makes sure the story reads and made it fit in the paper in the space allotted. In 1971, they were still using IBM selectric typewriters, rubber cement and scissors to edit. Speed was everything, as was accuracy. They also wrote the headline- to inform, not to get your attention. At 7ish AM- he wasn’t usually functional. That would happen around 9:30 am most mornings, and after 2 cups of coffee, a few Players cigarettes and a read of the NY Times (from 3 days ago- since he insisted on getting the final city edition mailed to him instead of the earlier national edition).
I don’t remember much of Saturday night. Dad told me I was up until around 10:30, “celebrating” my Grandfather Fred’s (Opa) Birthday. He was in Boston- so it must have meant a phone call- and some cake. He was my father’s stepfather, but that didn’t register until I was 12 for some reason, my biological grandfather had died before I was born, and my grandmother had divorced him in 1941, soon to remarry another German M.D. – the man I knew as Opa.
When I couldn’t find my underwear, I went into my parents room and tried to wake my mom and she wouldn’t budge. Usually a light sleeper (my parents slept in separate twin beds because of it- and the fact that my father tossed and turned and even would punch his pillow in his sleep), this wasn’t normal. When he woke, and told me to let her sleep, I thought I was in trouble, but not for the trouble that was hanging over the room that morning. By the time he called the ambulance, and they took her flaccid body out on a gurney, both of us were fully awake, and soon on our way to University Hospital.
This was the beginning of the story from the NYTimes this morning. I had no idea who Frederick Buechner was, but, it turns out he’s also a writer, like me, and my father before me.
One morning in the fall of 1936, 10-year-old Frederick Buechner and his younger brother were playing in their room. Their father opened the door, checked on them, and then went down into the family garage, turned on the engine of the car and waited for the exhaust to kill him.
Buechner and his brother heard a commotion, looked out the window and saw their father on his back in the driveway. Their mother and grandmother, in their nightgowns, had dragged him out of the garage and were pumping his legs up and down in a doomed attempt to revive him.
There would be no funeral, or discussion of what happened. Their mother just moved the boys to Bermuda to escape. The rules in that family were, “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.” They became masters at covering themselves over.
My mother, the light sleeper, had a prescription for “sleeping pills” back in 1971. We had just moved back to Cleveland after 2 years in Toronto, where my mother would complain about the trash truck coming in the middle of the night and waking her. Ear plugs would have been a better solution, but, drugs were easy- and maybe they weren’t just given to her because of sleep. I now administer a bunch of a drugs to a mentally ill veteran, and there are “anxiety pills” available to help him sleep when he’s on edge.
My father and I sat in an alcove at the hospital, down the hall from the intensive care room she was in. It was on an upper floor- and the window looked out over Severance Circle, with the pond in front of the Art Museum, the old church with the green patina copper roof that my dad had labeled “the oil can” because of it’s steeples odd shape. My fraternal grandmother would later come to Cleveland and lived next door to the oil can in an old hotel that had become a senior living facility.
Around 3pm I was allowed to see her, sort of, my father had taken me down the hall, and lifted me to the window, where I saw my mother, surrounded by tubes and machinery, and with black spittle covering the side of her face and down onto the gown and sheets. They had pumped her stomach using charcoal, to get the undigested sleeping pills out of her body- and she was in a coma, with no real prognosis on recovery at that point.
My father and I hadn’t said much to each other that day. He was in shock, I was confused, and neither of us knew what our future held. It was probably around 7pm that I asked him “If she wanted to die, why don’t we let her?” It was a logical question, and the only one I felt needed answering that day. The answer was not what I ever expected from my father, a man who had always had patience to explain things, even if it meant I had to answer questions along the way on why I had asked the question. This time, there were no words, just a slap across the face. He’d never hit me like that, or would ever again. I didn’t cry. And we sat the rest of the night in silence, before going home.
My grandmother, Oma, arrived from Boston either Monday or Tuesday. The school, where I was still the new kid was informed of the trauma I’d suffered, and I think I was back going to school right away. Mom was in a coma for three and a half days. And, I wasn’t to see her again for about 2 months. Oma stayed two weeks to take care of me. Since Dad worked nights- and would usually be gone by the time I got home from school, she’d hired a woman, Mrs. Morley, to come stay at the house while dad worked.
Mrs. Morley wasn’t like anyone I’d been around much. She was Black, Southern, and she had soul. It came out in her cooking- where I was getting food I’d never tasted before- okra, collard greens, black eyed peas and a can of Crisco appeared in the house for the first time in my life. She taught me how to shuffle cards, you know, make them make a bridge as they fluttered into a stack, and we played Tonk and Spades and other card games that would come in handy in homeroom in High School, where we had 15 minutes to socialize. I’d either play cards with the Black girls in my homeroom- Joy Jordan is now a dentist, or play chess and get my butt kicked by Dan Lancry, who I’d actually gone to kindergarten with in a different district before our move to Toronto.
When I did finally see my mother, she was at St. Lukes on the psychiatric ward. She was frail, in a wheelchair, and somehow different. What I didn’t know at the time, was they had been doing electroshock therapy on her, trying to rewire her brain via electrical trauma. That practice stopped a few years later, only to make a comeback again in the last decade or two.
In the time my mother was gone, my father and I formed a bond and an understanding, it was our job to look out for Mom. We grew close. He went out and got a model airplane for us to build together- not a plastic kit, but balsa and tissue. He didn’t start out with an easy one either, it was a F4U Corsair, the gull winged fighter that dominated in the Pacific theater of WWII. It was supposed to be able to fly with a rubber band driven prop, but, we had a near impossible time getting the wing assembly onto the fuselage correctly, so next up came plastic kits- which was a hobby of mine for the next 4 or 5 years until the sax, then photography and hockey started to take more of my time.
When Mom did come home, we walked on pin cushions around her. Soon after, my father’s friend from Toronto, John Kelsey, moved in with us (the story was that John was on the run from the Toronto Communist party, that he had been a member of) – and started working with Dad at the Plain Dealer. Soon, John’s wife Bo and his daughter Jennifer were living with us too- and Mom and Bo were out looking for a house for them, when Mom found and fell in love with the glass house, or “lego house” that I grew up in. John and dad remained close friends until Dad’s death in 2016. John drove from Eastern PA to visit dad in the hospital. Dad had suggested to John to pick a hobby when he needed something other than lefty politics to bide his time. John took up woodworking and taught me some basics. My first project was a wooden toolbox I made for my dad in the basement with John. I still have it today. John went on to become the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine and is still a master woodworker after getting a masters degree from RIT in furniture building after he left Cleveland in the early eighties.
My mother was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder. To this day, I don’t know if she truly was, or what it was that triggered her to take that entire bottle of sleeping pills. She can’t remember anything about the time before that Saturday night- and the times we talked about it, all she could do is apologize to me.
Every single one of us has done something one time, out of character, brought on by something, that may either change our life or that of those around us. I’ve had more than a few “forks in the road” where I’ve taken the wrong path, but we never know where that path will lead us. Without moms botched suicide a series of things would never have happened; my bonding with my dad, spending a few weeks with my Oma, Mrs. Morley, the Kelsey clan sharing our rental house, my father buying a house (he would be famous for saying, “you don’t own a house, a house owns you” after doing the restoration on the glass house which became a National Landmark), my love of airplanes- esp. WWII ones, and an understanding that mental illness isn’t well understood and is treated differently than other medical conditions- more art than science.
I do know that I was lucky that she survived, even though we never were as close after the suicide attempt. It was this trial by fire where I saw how much my father loved her, and stood by his vows of marriage at times when most men would have walked away.
I’d always expected them to die within days of each other, but, in the end, her dementia getting worse was too much for him to handle and I think he just threw in the towel knowing his beloved wife was gone and never coming back. His death barely registered with her and for the next three years, I was her only tie to reality. When she died at hospice, I was holding her hand, reading to her from the NY Times, an article about editing. A profession both my parents had made a living at, and a skill, I still need to perfect.
Life doesn’t follow a script to a nice clean happy ending. If you think you are the master of your destiny, I guarantee, there have been “I can’t find my underwear” moments that have changed the course of your life as they did mine.
I am sure that there will be vicious attacks on me by the time November 8, 2022 when I stand as the democratic choice for Congress in Ohio-10. I’ve already seen my own political party ostracize me, and watched them attack other candidates of their own party who I supported (Darryl Fairchild and Shenise Turner Sloss). Nothing will surprise me, or hurt me as much as that morning when I couldn’t find my underwear. But it will leave me just as confused.
I know that one thing I am committed to more than anything if elected is to normalize mental illness, to stop our prisons from being our psych wards, and finding better solutions for those who need medical help than our corporate medical system.
In the mean time, I take care of that veteran, as I would hope another veteran would take care of me, and hope that I get the chance to serve, so that no other 9 year old has to deal with the trauma of a parents suicide ever again.
If you are considering suicide, or know someone struggling with their own value, you can call 9-8-8 in most places to be connected with the suicide prevention hotline.