Reflections following a fraternal visit, August, 2016
My father’s death was adjudged to have been a suicide. Certainly he had been depressed, worried about money, and trapped in a profession that he hated. And he lived with my mother. Reasons enough to be very, very blue. He was pickled in good gin, she in cheap scotch. That can’t help with depression; especially when there have been decades of serious drinking.
Enough about that, for now.
I received the call late at night from a frantic sister-in-law: Get to Stanford Hospital now, something’s up with your dad. Out of bed, into the car, the drive from San Francisco to Palo Alto, panic rising. Nurse Ratched escorts me into a holding area, and there they are: my mother, brother, his wife, a family friend or two; it’s been a while; I’m hazy about who exactly was there.
A while. Forty years.
I know without any words spoken that he’s dead. I ask: So what happened, heart attack?
My brother says: He shot himself.
I shut down. I feel nothing. I’m dead too. My head spins; cliché reaction, and I sit down. I’m told I can go see him; he’s just behind that door. I refuse; I have some bullshit thing to say about his not being there, his soul having left, we are not the body, yada yada. I regret that now. Such arrogance. Such denial. Later, when he’s embalmed, cramped into the cheap casket my mother penuriously provided for him, I refuse again, with the same bullshit argument.
But before then, before the trip to the mortician, the funeral, my brother and I visit the home. Police are there. We stand in the bedroom, on the bloody rug where he died. My brother, also police, searches for the bullet in the wall, as apparently, there was an exit wound.
He finds it.
The phone rings, and, amazingly, it’s for me. It’s the university I left three years prior. They’re tracking me down to pay off my student debt. We negotiate, I agree, we hang up, and then I stare at the rug some more. There’s not much blood, not really, a small reddish brown balloon shape on the beige and blue rug from China my grandfather brought back from his tour of duty there in the 1920s.
He was shot in the heart. My dad, not my grandfather, his dad, whom I never knew, he died before I was born. Heart attack.
Hushed conversations between the investigating police officers and my brother the cop to which I’m not privy. I don’t feel well. Up all night, all the horror, all the everything. I stuff it all.
Early afternoon I drive back to the City, hysterical. Finally, I feel something, and it is overwhelming. I shouldn’t be driving, I should pull over, I’m a danger to others and myself. But I don’t pull over. I don’t care. I hallucinate. I see the face and hear the voice of the leader of the healing circle I am peripherally attached to. It calms me a bit. Later I am told they have been alerted to my situation and are doing their thing for me at that same moment. Weird, but true.
The funeral home. The cheapest coffin available. Seriously. She insists, wailing and bitter. The unctuous mortician is so smooth, so oily, and, though he works at concealing it, so appalled.
The lawyer. My mother’s lawyer. My brother and I are told that our mother will be penniless unless we sign over our share of any inheritance. This is against my father’s wishes as expressed in his will. There’s a no suicide clause in his latest life insurance policy, but somehow, the lawyer says he can wrangle half the amount for our mother.
We sign. Of course, later we learn that she is, in fact, sitting pretty, nearly half a million, and forty years ago, that was pretty substantial. It takes her seven years to spend it all. Nearly all. All but sixty K.
AT this time, they are both 48, my mother and my dead father.
Another weird. The year previous to all this I had gone to Europe, leading a tour an academic tour of privileged white Marin County youth to Germany, France, Belgium, and the UK. I had actually seeded this trip with job applications, hoping to stay in England and teach ceramics. I would bring the family over as soon as I was settled. I had sent a couple dozen letters of inquiry and ended up with three interviews. I managed somehow to get myself hired, at a State school in Ashford, Kent, a bedroom community on the rail line east of London. The schools had a long tradition of teaching pottery but couldn’t get anyone to fill the position and were therefore desperate. Hence, me. I liked the Headmaster a lot; he was a Northerner and cocked a bit of a nod and a wink at the posh charges under his wing. We would have got on well, but there were visa problems. The Ministry wanted a Brit or a least a Commonwealth citizen in the job, not some brash, and young, Yank Anglophile.
Inwardly, though disappointed, I was relieved. I did have this gnawing sense that were I to be gone for a year, I would never see my father again. And that turned out to be the case, had I stayed.
My mother survived her husband by seven years until she drank up all his money and drank herself to death, literally. Now her mother had just gone to bed after the death of her husband. And she stayed there, in her bed, nearly all the time, until she died. Nine years later. Her sister and her African American servant catered to her every need all that time. So this became the example my mother emulated. After a few years of attempting normalcy, after I moved away and said to her we are done, after my bother gave up his career and left the state, she too ended up supine. And hired private round the clock nurses to cater to her every need.
My mother’s story as to what happened on the night of varied wildly. She was in the bedroom, she was downstairs, she begged him not to, she didn’t know what was going on. And on and on and on. A hundred and one stories. Her oldest and closest friends began to have misgivings. Some dozen or so years after the fact her oldest friend told me she was convinced that my mother had shot my father. My brother had floated this theory from the start. I rejected it, thought it was quite simply denial that he could do such a thing. I knew my dad was depressed, and in our last telephone conversation two weeks before the event he lamented the state of the economy, and that I “wouldn’t be able to buy a house until [he] blew [his] brains out.” And of course, he didn’t blow his brains out; he was shot in the heart.
Jump ahead forty years. My bother is ill; our relationship has always been rocky, he’s five years older, we are from different planets. I find him difficult, but I have always said of him that I sympathize, because I know who his parents were. After fifteen years of no contact, I reach out to him by mail. He responds. This is followed by a trip out of state to the hospital where he has just had life saving open-heart surgery.
His recovery is slow, but he is recovering. Some few months pass, and I am summoned. He says, “There are things you need to know that I can’t talk to you about on the phone. Plan on coming to see me for about a week.” I know what this is, I can feel it in every cell. So I go.
We hang out, we chat, we watch TV, I go with him to his physical therapy appointment. I am concerned. He does not look well, and his attitude is quite often really shitty. I tell his wife, without whom he would surely be dead, that he won’t die of cardio-pulmonary disease, but anger and bitterness. She agrees. She also caters to his every need. See the pattern here?
He insists on giving me a gun. He’s a gun person, I am not. But he’s persistent. I reject the shotgun he wants me to take, I have no use for it, I don’t hunt. But of course, hunting is not why he wants me to have it. He offers a Remington .22 long rifle. There could be a use for this, putting an injured animal out of its misery, is what I’m thinking, so I take it, and the 900 rounds of ammunition he throws in as well.
Finally, just before I am to leave, we have The Talk. He offers a statistic, I don’t know how valid it is, that men always shoot themselves in the head. This argument doesn’t work for me; I think that maybe our dad spared us all a big mess by aiming for the heart. A .357 magnum, the pistol that was used, makes a big splash. Then we go over both the Autopsy Report and the Investigator’s Report. He walks me through them, and how this all worked.
This is the thing. There were no powder marks on my father’s chest, no residue on his hands. It would have been impossible for him to hold the gun far enough from him to have shot himself. The bullet had to come from at least three feet away. Were these facts, this evidence known at the time? Of course. My brother was a cop, an investigator, a detective, known to the other cops from the neighboring jurisdiction. Cops look out for other cops, this is so familiar as to be clichéd. Here is a grieving cop son arriving later on the scene. His mother is hysterical, irrational, very drunk, rambling and babbling. What to do? Arrest her? Cause more grief for the cop son and the cop son’s family? If she is charged, is a conviction for Murder likely? No, maybe plea out to Manslaughter? No, an insanity defense would have been no problem, not for her, not for the perpetual state she was in.
Summary justice is given, and the mother and son get a pass. Is this an act of compassion? I don’t know, I can’t decide. Would things have gone this way were I the only child, hippie that I was at the time? As my brother summed it up: “it’s a Thin Blue Line Thing.”
This is what bothers me: what happened? It was just the two of them, my parents, alone there that night. What could it have been? Although their history of violence was huge, their love/hate relationship, so terribly injurious, I believe they had long drowned their brutality, that intense antipathy. The years of constant battling and boozing had made them numb, almost mellow, tolerant and tolerable. I can’t ever know what happened, there’s only speculation, endless speculation. A well-meaning friend said to me that it was so long ago; surely the sting of it is gone. Well-meaning, yes, and incredibly naïve.
I don’t believe in closure. I don’t even know what that means. I can’t imagine. While staying at my brother’s, I found what might be my father’s final piece of writing. While on a business trip in New Jersey he wrote my mother ten days before he died. His letter concludes, “I love you so much. You have my heart, please take good care of it.”