On Saturday, October 27, 1979, I knew a few things: my little sister’s blonde pony tails were prettier than my brown ones; my favorite TV show, Little House on the Prairie, came on every Monday evening at 7:00; my third grade teacher’s breath smelled like tuna fish; and bad things didn’t happen in my family. Bad things couldn’t happen in my family. We were Presbyterians, and not just any Presbyterians. Dad was an elder, Mom was our church’s wedding coordinator, and my sister Erin and I were award-winning Bible verse memorizers. I was inclined to believe that this made us Good People, a notion of which my parents were in no hurry to disabuse me.
On Sunday, October 28, 1979, I learned how wrong I was. My Aunt Nadine, my dad’s younger sister, was dead. My parents woke my sister and me before dawn on that Sunday and took us from Albuquerque to our grandparents’ home in Seattle. My mom forgot to pack our Halloween costumes. I saw my dad cry for the first time.
On Monday, October 29, 1979, my sister Erin and I were playing in our grandparents’ basement when Dad asked us to come with him for a walk.
Dad, Erin, our grandpa and I walked uphill away from the house, toward the little grocery store where my dad worked when he was in high school. We were walking into a break in the incessant Seattle drizzle, everywhere the sounds and smells of wetness, so different from the sounds and smells of my desert home. The trees and eaves dripped constantly. The Chevrolets and Fords were shiny wet under a dark, low sky. The humid air was soaked with the smells of rotten vegetables and felt heavy as I moved it in and out of my lungs.
We walked past houses lit up as if it was night even though it was only just the beginning of happy hour. The constant dusk confused me, made me lose track of time. We walked past my grandparents’ neighbors, out walking their dogs or working in their yards, people who knew our names. Usually Grandpa greeted them and they shook his hand, offered to top off his drink, said hello to Erin and me. That day they looked a little lost, didn’t know where to rest their eyes. “Hello, Howard,” a few said. Some of the women turned away, sniffing. I stopped to pet a neighbor’s huge black poodle, but my dad hurried me along, pushing me forward in the wet neighborhood.
Grandpa had a gin and tonic in his left hand; Dad carried a beer in his right. The time when I would hate the sight and smell of those ubiquitous drinks was many years away and I took a sip of each, enjoying the bitter flavor of the beer, the burn of Grandpa’s ice-cold gin. Grandpa, usually a joker and a teaser, watched his shoes as he walked, silent. Erin held his free hand and put her other thumb in her mouth, making the scritch-scritch sucking sound, but Grandpa didn’t pop it out of her mouth. He cleared his throat, took a swallow of his drink, cleared his throat again.
We kept walking, on through the damp and the smell of moss. I liked the oily rainbows in the puddles, hated the wormy smell of black, wet earth. My legs were getting tired, and so were Erin’s. “Grandpa,” she said around her thumb, “let’s go home to your house.” He cleared his throat again, looked at my dad, chewed some ice from his glass.
Dad stopped us then, in front of a wide yard whose owners hadn’t raked the leaves. My grandpa, always the wise ass, would usually make a smart remark: “The way they leave their yard, I wonder if they can be bothered to wipe their asses.” At home in the desert, unraked leaves dried up and blew around the neighborhood. Here, they moldered and stank. I started to move away from the smell, but Dad stopped me. “I have to tell you how Nadine died,” he said, not looking into my face but out over the top of my head. He held his right arm close to his body; the shoulder that he dislocated during a fishing trip last month was hurting him. “Dad, don’t you want to go home?” I asked, because I didn’t think I wanted to know how she died. She wasn’t sick, and she wasn’t old, so I thought someone must have murdered her. I didn’t want to know anything about that.
My dad knelt down and looked, finally, into my face. Erin stood next to me, sucking her thumb furiously. “Nadine killed herself. She died on purpose.”
“How?” I asked. I didn’t want to know, didn’t want Erin to hear, but the word slipped out of my mouth nevertheless.
And why did he tell me? Perhaps he was in shock himself, not thinking clearly about what little girls did and did not need to know. Maybe because he was afraid someone else would tell us. Whatever the reason, he said it aloud: “She went into the garage and shot herself in the head.”
Grandpa started to cry then, though he didn’t seem to remember how and made a chuffing, choking sound while frantically wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. “Let’s go back,” I said, and so we turned and made our way back.
The sky was getting darker, turning from gray to black. It started to drizzle and Dad took off his jacket and put it over Erin to keep her dry. The streets were empty now; we could see people sitting down to supper in the houses we walked past. They passed the peas and salt, drank their milk or their wine. I watched them, imagined that some of them would turn on the TV at 7:00 to watch Little House on the Prairie. I cried a little, I think.
On October 30, 1979, I knew some new things. I knew that bad things could happen in any family, no matter how many Bible verses the children memorized. I knew that people could get broken. So deeply broken that they die on purpose.