From the Archives: It’s Hard for People Who Don’t Know the Whole Story
Fall seemed too quick the year Shawn died, though maybe it was better that way. I didn’t want to spend the whole season reliving his illness. Instead, I spent a lot of time writing in the safety and warmth of my bedroom, though I also found refuge in my kitchen after the kids’ bedtime. I still wasn’t cooking much, but I could brew a cup of tea and eat a bowl of chocolate chips and feel like I was getting some sort of treat.
One night, when I was up finishing a blog post about my life just after my mom died, my dad came downstairs. “You writing?” he asked as he thumbed through the junk drawer for a pencil.
“Just finished,” I said. “Want me to read it to you?”
“Sure,” he said, closing the drawer and taking a seat at the kitchen counter.
I read him the post. It was about how awful I’d been to my then-boyfriend Steve after my mom’s death. I was not good to Steve, even though he was good to me, I had written. It was just too hard to let him into my pain, and so I pushed him away. Grief changed me that year. I wasn’t able to really tell anyone how it felt to be so alone in this world and I struggled to make real connections. When I think about myself at 19, trying to understand why such a terrible thing would happen to me, I want to wrap my arms around that young version of myself and say, “Everything’s gonna be alright.”
My dad listened to me read. When I finished, as was usual after I’d read something I’d written, he didn’t say anything right away. Instead, he looked up at the ceiling for a bit, his eyes open. The kitchen was dark except for the light above the island, and I could see the whites of his eyes.
“That time was really difficult,” he said, still looking upwards. “I think it was impossible for any of us to grasp why she did it.”
This hadn’t really been the point of my blog post, but it was something I often pondered. I knew my mom was depressed. I knew she felt hopeless. But to take her own life: Why that? I looked at my dad. He was doing that thing where he was in his own head, remembering pieces of the past. We sat there in silence for a few moments.
“Some people were really angry with me,” he said.
“What?” I was confused. “Do you mean to say they blamed you?”
“Yes,” he said, “though not everyone said it out loud. “But Jane—you remember Jane, right?”
“Dad, of course,” I said. Jane was my mom’s best friend growing up. She didn’t visit our home in Oregon but I’d seen a million photos of her and I sometimes heard my mom talking to her on the phone. But she hadn’t kept in touch much after my mom died, and I hadn’t thought of her in a long while.
“Your mom died on a Wednesday,” my dad said. “Jane called the Sunday before that. She hadn’t called in months, but she told your mom that she wanted to go on a vacation with her. Your mom had indicated she’d be interested in doing something like that, and they had a long conversation about the fun they’d have before eventually hanging up.”
My dad paused. He was thinking, but he didn’t seem upset. He merely seemed like he was trying to remember all the details.
“Jane couldn’t understand why she would kill herself after a conversation like that. I think she figured it must have been my fault.”
“Dad,” I said, “that’s impossible. She must have known that mom was so sick.”
“I don’t really know that she understood how bad it had become,” he said, “and so she blamed me. She wanted to know why I hadn’t done more and she implied—at the funeral—that I must have been a bad husband.”
My dad’s face was even. He didn’t seem angry, but I was. “How could she blame you, of all people?” I asked.
“It’s hard for people who don’t know the whole story,” he said. “She didn’t see her regularly and your mom could put on a brave face, or voice, for other people.”
My dad said everything with such calmness that I knew he’d long ago left any anger at Jane behind. But this was all news to me, and the frustration I felt on his behalf made my throat tighten. I put myself in his place, trying to imagine if Shawn’s best friend had turned to me at the funeral and blamed me for Shawn’s death. I couldn’t. But my dad had been forced to contend with that. I told him as much.
“That’s why I copied your mom’s diary,” he said. “I sent it to Jane. She called after that and said that she was sorry.”
I had vague memories of this diary. I remembered finding it as we were cleaning out my mom’s bureau. In my memory, I found it, but maybe it had been my Dad. Either way, what we actually found wasn’t a book, but simply a basic lined notepad with dozens of pages of her loopy cursive script. It chronicled the last few months of her life, and at the time it had been too much for me to absorb what I was reading. I’d just read the first few pages and then stopped. Or at least that’s all I could remember doing. I never touched it again, and I never asked my dad to read it in the years that followed.
“I didn’t fully read it,” I told him, “and I can’t really remember the parts that I read.”
“She said I’d find someone else,” he said, “and that you girls would be okay without her.”
“That’s the one part I remember,” I said, “mostly because I thought about it in the months afterward and thought, ‘She was wrong about me being okay.’”
We sat there for a moment in silence. “Do you still have a copy of it?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “It’s on my nightstand back home.”
“Can you send it to me?”
“Sure,” he said. “When I go home this summer, I’ll make a copy and send it back to you. I have everything except the note she left in the car.”
I looked at him and it took me a second to say the next few words. “There was a note in the car?”
“Yes,” he said, “but the cop that investigated her death told me he had to take it as evidence.”
I was stunned. There was a suicide note in the car? I thought there was just the one we found on the bed, a rambling letter that could have been just an extra few pages in her diary. How had I missed this detail? I was away from the house when my dad found her the next morning, but I was home later that day. I was there. I was crying with everyone else and I was wandering aimlessly around my kitchen after dinner and I was lying awake at night in my childhood bedroom wondering why she’d done it. But no one mentioned a note. They couldn’t have. I would have remembered that.
Two decades had passed and I never knew there was a note in the car. A note meant she wasn’t sleepwalking when she got into the car, so fogged by a lack of sleep that she made a snap decision. A note meant that she paused either just before or just after sitting down in the driver’s seat of the car and starting the engine. A note meant she knew exactly what she was doing even at that very last moment. How had I never known about this note? Did my sister know?
“I didn’t know there was a note,” I said. “What did it say?”
“It said, ‘Please forgive me.’” He seemed reflective. “The cop who came, he sat with me after he took the note. He was a good guy. I was crying but he was kind.” He paused. “I learned years later that his son died in Iraq,” he said, shaking his head. “What a tragedy.”
Later that night, as I was reading in bed, my dad knocked on my bedroom door. “I called Terry,” he said.
“How is she?” I asked, assuming the phone call had been a general catch-up. He was close with his sister, so it wasn’t a surprise that they had spoken on the phone.
“She’s fine,” he said, “and she has a copy of your mom’s diary. She’s going to photocopy it and send it to you tomorrow.”
‘ It’s hard for people who don’t know the whole story.” That is a line a ponder on. Sometimes we tend to judge when we don’t even have an idea of the full story. Must have been a really hard time for you and your family especially your dad. Thank God for healing over the years.
So true. And thank you for your kind comment. We are lucky that we were both able to heal, if not fully, but in a way that could move us forward.