The first memory I have of suicide happened sitting cross-legged on the cool grass in my backyard with two girls from Racebrook Elementary School. We were ten or so, arranged in a circle, palms growing damp from the spring dirt as they stretched behind us supporting the weight of our underdeveloped bodies. Jen, my closer friend, had brought Debbie—a large-nosed twig of a girl with a slight learning disability whose family lived in an overgrown home with about two dozen cats. I disliked Debbie because her unselfconscious confidence seemed disproportionate to her rank as the most widely mocked of our classmates. She was the kind of girl who said things like, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and meant it. I did not envy her assurance. She may have been sincere, but her didactic tone sounded as rehearsed as an after-school-special, and I pitied her naïveté.
I was the only one of the group whose father wasn’t dead. Jen and Debbie shared this bond and I tried to weasel my way in by interjecting stories of my father’s perpetual absence, the other family he had conveniently overlooked while in bed with my mother, every one of my birthdays he missed—but his transgressions fell limp in comparison to a father loved and then lost, not to negligence, but to death. Their shared loss isolated them into an exclusive pocket of grief and silenced even my desperate need to be accepted into that fold.
Jen’s father had died of cancer when we were in the second grade. News of his death had somehow passed through a series of distorted channels and came out in an unrecognizable shape like the way things do at the end of a game of Telephone. One morning Jen was absent from school because her cat got hit by a car. Later that morning the car became a school bus, and by the afternoon everyone was whispering about how Jen had actually witnessed the bus flattening her childhood pet like a sugar cookie. It wasn’t until later that week when Jen returned to school that we learned her cat was still alive in all its catness and it was actually her father that had died in the less startling but more traumatic thralls of lung cancer. Jen’s mother quickly replaced her lost husband with a man named Larry who always wore soiled white crew neck t-shirts and often drank cans of Budweiser from a foldout lawn chair inside their garage. Jen kept an 8×10 black-and-white framed photo of her father on her nightstand. I think it may have been his high school senior portrait. The picture always made me sad. His young gaze wandered off into the distance of a future filled with possibility.
I knew the patriarch in Debbie’s overgrown home was a stepfather who had replaced a dead father, but it wasn’t until that day on the lawn that I learned her original father had shot himself in the head in his home office when she was four or five years old. She claimed with her usual assurance that he had killed himself because of her learning disability. Jen consoled her with something like, “of course he didn’t,” but I couldn’t find any words to say that made any sense.
Debbie remained steadfast. “If I wasn’t born stupid he wouldn’t have done it.” She tore two handfuls of grass from the ground by her knees and threw one at each of us, an otherwise lighthearted gesture that became retaliatory and seemed to suggest it was the end of the discussion. I said nothing and sat only with an image of a father I had never seen, slumped over his desk like an old stuffed animal loved until the point of limpness and left haphazardly on a park bench.
I’ll never know where Debbie got the idea that her father brought his life to an end because of her learning disability. Maybe her mother spit those cruel words at her in a desperate fit of grief. Maybe she had once overheard her parents arguing about it behind a closed door and that memory wedged its way into an explanation. It doesn’t really matter. It seemed to suit Debbie to believe it, and sometimes even the harshest answers are better than no answers at all.