Orphaned Again

My wife and I sit in a Culver’s, on the way to a memorial service for a friend. I gaze absently out at the falling snow, and the falling night. I suddenly recognize my situation: I am in rural Racine County a few miles from the spot where my father ended his life, on this date, in such weather, thirty one years ago, when he was my present age of fifty three. I feel that in a sense I have outlived my father a second time.

Later, at the memorial, I remember another service several years ago, at another rural church on another chilly night, for another awful suicide. The victim was my friend’s sister. My friend’s name was Sister. My wife sat on my right, Sister sat on my left. I held Sister’s hand as she wept. I suddenly recognized my my situation: I was sitting in precisely the same seat I occupied in yet another church at my father’s memorial so long ago. My mother sat on my right, my sister sat on my left. My sister held my hand as I wept. The soloist sang “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and my nose hemorrhaged. My mother and sister fussed over me as we all wept. I turned to Sister on my left. I leaned in, touched my temple to hers and murmured “It never goes away. You never get over it. This is now part of your story, part of who you are, part of you.” We held on to each other for a long time.

Tonight’s service is in memory of a saintly woman who passed away in the fullness of time, at a ripe age, surrounded and celebrated by four generations of descendants. My father died alone in the woods in drifting snow. If my father had chosen life, if I had not been in such denial of his despair and had been more helpful and involved, would he have made it to his 84th birthday this month? Who can know? His health was not great; he could have gone at any time. I generally don’t concern myself with these speculations, but on this significant anniversary the ideas assert themselves.

I cannot even imagine laying hands on myself. Really — I can’t imagine it, and I have quite a vivid imagination. With all I now know of my father’s circumstances and mental state at the time, I still can barely fathom that he did this violence to himself and chose oblivion over life with us on any terms. It still staggers me. It is not something I expect to get over. It is now part of my story, part of who I am, part of me.

My wife and I hold on to each other for a long time. I feel like I have outlived my father a second time. I feel orphaned again.

Photo: Kevin Palmer

Photo: Kevin Palmer



2 thoughts on “Orphaned Again

  1. This is so powerful: choosing “oblivion over life with us on any terms.” Such a powerful rendering of the unimaginable. Thank you for writing this.


    • Thanks for your comment Amy. For many years after my father’s death I could only think of it as a tragedy that befell him. It was decades before I was able to be more truthful with myself and admit “That stupid idiot abandoned us!” That’s when I first considered the “oblivion over life” idea.
      It bothers me that many of my posts have but meager themes of redemption. While God does redeem our wounds in some mysterious way, it’s often a lifelong process. In the meantime I practice telling myself the truth about the painful things. I find it helpful. And I hope these reflections are helpful to others.


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