Dead On Purpose

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.

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42 thoughts on “Dead On Purpose”

  1. Wow. That’s a tough one. It’s young to start dealing with the concept of death by itself. But suicide? Carries so many more things with it than just death. It seems there’s so much more to process. There’s a lot of fall-out left for the survivors.

    I appreciate what it took for you to write this. Mine took a lot out of me & it wasn’t a family member, or even someone I actually knew really…but I can tell you, it profoundly changed my life.

    1. That was part of my mom’s terrible anger at Nadine – that it was an introduction to death for my sister and me. My mom’s brother had already died, but I was only 2 1/2 so it was totally different (Plus? Not suicide.).

    1. Yes. I was going through all these boxes of my grandma’s pictures and things and when I came across the death certificate, it was like someone had punched me.

  2. I remember my uncle by marriage and his brother coming to our house a lot when I was a little kid, and once day, my uncle didn’t bring Robert anymore. My cousins told me that he’d hung himself, and it wasn’t until years later that I found out he’d struggled for years with depression. 🙁

    So anyway, I can totally relate. It’s a tough subject and hard to write about, but this is a great entry.

    1. Thank you. I think there’s not a single thing that any (regular, non-criminal) person can do that’s more emotionally destructive than suicide. That’s terrible about your uncle’s brother. Terrible.

  3. Suicide. Such a hard thing. To live through, to learn about, to write about. You did the writing part beautifully. The tag that you used “the eternal fuck you” really makes a point and tells a whole different story than the one you actually wrote. Thank you for sharing, because I still own the “bad things don’t happen to good people” mentality. Indeed bad happens, no matter how much you think it can’t or will it not to.

    1. That tag comes from a different piece about my aunt’s suicide, one that focused on my mom’s anger after her death. The moment I wrote it down, it became the way I thought of it. I don’t think there is any angrier thing a person can do.

  4. wow. that knocked the wind out of me.
    I want to offer some words of comfort, but what can I say… I can say that I have no idea what that must have been like for you to hear as a child and how that moment must be bookmarked in your mind… when a kid goes through something like that the emotion stays anchored there- so matter how old and wise we become, when we think about those moments- we think about them with the emotional heart of a kid. it’s overwhelming and confusing…
    and your aunt… she must have been suffering profoundly.
    there are lots of people out there who play around with suicide. they talk about it, write about it, they take a few pills here and there. it’s called ‘gesturing’ and it’s about getting attention.
    then there are those who don’t talk about it, because they don’t want the attention. they don’t want to be stopped, they just want the pain to stop and they are the ones who use the means to make sure they complete their task. you aunt was one of those people…
    I am sorry for her and for you and your family. I’d hug you all if I could.
    Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you. Yes, there are so many memories of that week – images, smells, sounds – that are this weird combination of sharp and far away. My aunt was deeply depressed and very, very angry.

  5. My mom lost a good friend of hers to suicide when I was 12, and while different I remember her reaction when she heard, the same kinds of questions, the hushed tones, the sideways looks in the days after. That family was completely broken after, and still are to this day. Decades later, our very good friend killed himself shortly after our wedding. It was odd, how in just one moment I knew what my mom had gone through then. He had not said a thing about wanting to kill himself or that he was depressed, but was going through an ending long relationship which was difficult as it is for everyone. What I have written about it has been well out of the public view, but it affects us to this day. We have stayed close to his family, and they have I think (hope) been helped by this. We all carry the scar though. Maybe someday I will share those thoughts in wider view. Thank you for writing about it, these stories do need telling.

    1. Thank you. My aunt’s suicide broke my family, too. It’s been 30+ years now and we’re still feeling the ripples. I contacted her husband several months ago and it was the first time since Nadine’s death that anyone from my family has spoken to him.

      I’m so sad to hear about your friend and your mom’s friend. I wish none of us knew anything about suicide.

  6. this made me sad thinking about all the people who have gone this way.

    but grateful for all the people who tried, failed and eventually got happy.

    i miss my friend though. as im sure you miss your aunt.

  7. i shared this one with my DH
    that pain never goes away
    the worst part in explaining to a child
    how something like this happens
    is having to admit to them
    that something *like* this can happen
    because that opens up the possibility
    that is could happen to them

    you may not get points for style, lady
    but you rack them up in my book

    i so wish we lived nearer each other

  8. Wow. You put this so beautifully. My girlfriend’s son just did the same thing the day after Easter this past April and we are still reeling with the shock. It’s the not knowing why that is the killer. Sigh.

  9. thank you thank you thank you!
    Suicide happens once every 16 seconds in America, and I feel like nobody talks about it. It’s really horrible for the whole family, and I think that the more people know that, they might think more than twice about doing it.

    So I really appreciate you writing about it. It never really goes away. Isn’t it strange how you remember so many details of certain horrifying moments?

    I really really really hate to sound like I’m trying to drag traffic to my blog right now, but I just wrote a post about finally forgiving my father after he committed suicide. It was hard. And took 14 years. It might help:


    1. I’m going to head over and read it now. People don’t talk about it much because it’s so huge – a private horror and people don’t know how to approach it.

    1. There’s not much TO say, I don’t think. She did a terrible, wounding thing. 30+ years later and we still haven’t made sense of it, and likely never will.

  10. I wish that…I wish…

    It’s hard to know what to wish for.

    I guess, I wish that your introduction to death had not been so painful and violent. It becomes very hard to see it the natural part of life that it is when it happens so UNnaturally, and the scar it leave can be so deep.

    I wish…I wish a lot of things.

    I never get to change anything with my wishes, but the still float around out there.

    1. Sigh. Yes, I wish I had learned about death when a pet died, or an elderly relative. Yes, the scar. The huge, twisty scars that always hurt when it rains.

  11. When I was little my dad’s best friend shot himself, and I was convinced for years that when I grew up my best friend would too. (My grandfather’s best friend had also killed himself, so it seemed hereditary.) Yet my memories aren’t nearly as clear or crisp as yours.

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