Shortly after getting up and starting my morning ritual with the dogs, I had an overwhelming urge to call my mother. It was a sudden burst, a flash, and then it was gone as I realized calling her was an impossibility. My mother passed away eleven years ago.
Though I think about her daily, often incorporating her sayings and mannerisms into my norm, I haven’t had that strong urge to call her in a long time. It was as if for a moment, I could actually phone her.
Then it dawned on me. Today is the day I live longer. Today is the day I begin bonus days, days on the other side of that marker. It’s strong and substantial enough for me to recognize it, and I think it manifested itself in that urge to call my mother.
Let me explain. The dates on the calendar are different than from this time I’m referencing, off by four days, which lines up perfectly. My father’s birthday was four days after mine. Today is December 7. He died on December 11, 1980—four days after the seventh. But it was a Thursday. Today is Thursday.
He was 55. I was preparing for my last final exam at Georgia Southern College and would be home for Christmas the next day.
I am now 55. My younger son is preparing for his last final at Georgia Southern University and will be home for Christmas.
My father lived 55 years, six weeks, six days.
Today for me marks 55 years, six weeks, six days.
So though it’s not yet the actual anniversary of my father’s death, it is like some weird time continuum in relation to how the puzzle pieces are placed and how his life affected mine.
I only knew my father for 18 years. I’ve known my husband as a father for 23 years. That boggles my mind.
But so much of what makes up ME was formed by my father in those 18 years and the challenges and choices I made as a result of losing him. Trying to understand. Trying to control. Trying to be good enough. Trying to lead. Trying to make better choices. Trying to brush off the pain and be strong and hold his intrinsic goodness inside me, forgiving him for leaving us too soon, trying to understand his pain.
And yet here I am 37 years later still wanting my Daddy to be proud of me. Still longing for him to be here to know me as an adult, to see that Chris and I really did get married (he really liked my boyfriend Chris back in the day, and I think he would’ve approved), to know his grandsons, as well as my sisters’ six children and their children as well.
For him to have stayed and fought through whatever seemed unsurmountable at the time would have avoided so much pain, so much agony my dear mother went through, including the long years with her next husband—a man we’re sure she married because she was afraid to be alone. She didn’t want him. She wanted my father, but he had quit. He had quit life.
The odd thing about that is I don’t think of my father as a quitter. He was the only son growing up with three sisters in an Atlanta family. They were all smart, hardworking, stylish. Good stock, so to speak. My father joined the US Navy just before his 18th birthday and set sail in the Pacific Rim during WWII on a destroyer, the USS Trumpeter. I have his journal where he documented the workdays of the sailors on his watch. All that time at sea, he was in love with a little gal back home in Atlanta. When he was finally discharged from service, he returned home and married that little 17-year-old. Sixteen years later I was born and joined their two other daughters to make us a family of five.
I lived a beautiful childhood in Decatur, in a middle-class neighborhood where we knew all the neighbors, skated on the sidewalks, rode bikes or walked to school. I played outside all day with all the friends who were either next-door or a hop-over-the-fence away. I sold Girl Scout cookies door to door for 50 cents a box delivering them on the spot and peanut brittle as a fundraiser for my church group.
I was a latch-key kid once old enough, proud to have earned the privilege to have my own front door key. Both parents worked in offices somewhere doing office things. When you’re a kid you don’t know the details of those things. Mama was a secretary; Daddy was an insurance claims adjuster. He wore a coat and tie to work and carried a briefcase and a Polaroid camera.
But he loved the little workshop he created in our one-car garage. My task would often be to hold the end of the lumber in place as he used the electric saw to cut it to size for whatever project he was working on. To this day when I hear the screech of a saw or smell sawdust, I’m transported to that time and place.
What he really wanted to do was start his own construction company, and after we moved from that idyllic family home, he did just that—went out on his own to start a small general contracting business. His entrepreneurial spirit came to life, and his business card said general construction and fire damage specialist. He was a master craftsman, never cutting corners, no job was too small to be done well. He worked restoring some historic homes in Inman Park and later connected with a general contractor in the residential construction business who gave him leads for some finish work. He built out some rec rooms in our new neighborhood too. In one of those is where a defining moment happened.
Early January 1978 while using an electric saw on a doorway, one mistake, one slip cost him two fingers. Thankfully not his dominant hand, but nonetheless he lost his index finger down to the first joint and the tip of the next one. His hands had been his tools, and my mother later explained to me she thought he was never the same after that accident. He did have some fun with his new shortened digit when given the chance: when asked a question, he’d act like he was thinking of the answer and put his finger in his ear—what looked like way in his ear—to the surprised look of others.
In our new house where just he and my mother and I lived, Daddy built out a nice workshop in the basement. It was our first basement ever, and he was really proud of that space. I had a little section of the unfinished area myself and created a little den with my belongings. We lived there five years together. I had more chances to smell sawdust and hold the 2 x 4s, though I’m sure it was annoying to me then since I’d hit the teenage years and surely had more important things to do.
Life was different then. Though we had our new house, some neighbor friends, a new school and totally new environment for me, my big sisters had both married and moved on to their new lives, and it was just the three of us and a couple dogs. It was just different. Lonely.
And then the drinking grew heavier and their arguments began. Finances. Always finances. Daddy worked long hours on his jobs, and I remember having to go to one of his jobsite houses in the cold winter and scrape paint from windows with a razor blade. I hated every minute of it. Money was tight, and I understood that. I tried not to add any stress to the situation by being as self-sufficient as I could financially. I kept a full calendar of babysitting jobs to make money and paid my own way as much as I could. I learned to be frugal and make the most of everything. My parents were children of the Great Depression, and that appreciation for everything passed on to me. That’s why I still to this day have the scissors from my first day of school. I have a hard time upgrading in today’s way-of-thinking when the one I have is perfectly sufficient (My 2003 car gets me from here to there just fine, thank you), and I can repurpose just about anything.
So 55 years, six weeks, and six days after he was born, my father ended it all—in that very basement where the sawdust used to be. Many lives changed forever on that day. And today I get a chance to live longer than he did.
One thing I learned from Iris Bolton, founder of the Link Counseling Center, while grieving his loss was that survivors of suicide lose the option of ever going there themselves because we know firsthand the depth of pain that loss causes. Regardless of how much pain we may suffer or the struggles we endure, we would not do that to our loved ones. After weaving in and out among anger, hurt, despair, confusion, pity, and self-destruction, we learn to forgive eventually because it’s the only way to make peace about a nonsensical act. We learn to say, “The pain he felt must have been so unbearable that he couldn’t see any way out from his point of view.”
As the years pass, it becomes easier to talk about. But knowing that today is the day in the number of days that his life and my life coincide, I’m carrying a uniqueness that I don’t want to go unnoticed. Not that anyone else needs notice it, but I do. I need to know that today I am the age of my father the day he ended his life. I would like to invite him to my house, look him in the eye, and talk to him—to give him hope.
I wish I could show him in It’s a Wonderful Life style what his absence would cause.
If money were the issue, I could write him a check today for the dollar amount he was in debt that back then seemed insurmountable.
I wish he could know my sons.
As if that weren’t enough in this whole coincidence thing for today, within the hour I will be heading over to No Longer Bound where I’ve contracted their wood shop to build a custom door for my home. NLB a non-profit whose mission is to rescue addicts, regenerate men, and reconcile families. In 1980 we didn’t use words such as those. My father’s late-life drinking grew out of hand, but in that day he was never considered an “alcoholic,” and the thought of his getting help or needing counseling was never spoken. That was before the time of intervention.
I told someone at NLB about my father’s story earlier this year as we donated some of his tools to them. One of their interns surprised me with something special. So today I will walk in their wood shop, and on the wall I will see a plaque that one of their residents made mounting three of my father’s hand wood-planers. On the plaque the words read: NEVER GIVE UP. It serves as a reminder to the men brave enough to make a radical change in their behavior and lives that they’re worth it. Never should a wife have to live without her husband, children without their father, grandchildren never knowing their grandfather because of his own decision to quit life.
I honor him, but from here on out I’m on the other side. Today I live longer.