This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1990 issue of Notre Dame Magazine. We republish it here it as part of Magazine Classics, a new series highlighting notable works from the magazine's archives.
On June 19, 1988, near his northern California home, my father took his life. It was Father’s Day.
That morning, Dad insisted that he and my stepmother go to breakfast at a restaurant that had once been their favorite Sunday-morning spot. Later, back in his living room, he chatted by the phone with my sister, who called from her home in western Washington state to wish him a happy Father’s Day.
A while after lunch, my stepmother noticed Dad was gone. She assumed he had wandered over to see friends who lived nearby. In fact, he had put a loaded handgun in his jacket pocket and set out walking in the warm afternoon sun. He hiked a couple of miles until he reached a two-lane highway, which he followed along the side of the road.
For some reason, a sheriff’s deputy had stopped his squad car off the pavement. Dad approached the deputy standing outside the vehicle, took his wallet out of his rear pants pocket and held it out for the officer to take. “Here,” he said, “I want you to have this. I’m going to kill myself.” Those were his last words.
As my father turned and began to walk away, the officer called out, “Hey! Wait!” At that, Dad turned and pointed his gun at the deputy, who froze.
Walking on a little farther, Dad lowered his small frame—at 65 he stood 5 feet 7 inches and weighed, at most, 147 pounds—to a sitting position at the side of the road, his back to the deputy. He raised the handgun to his head and, in the words of the brief newspaper account the next day, “fired one round.”
At that precise moment, I was driving with my wife and three young sons over Snoqualmine Pass, making the five-hour return trip from Seattle to our home on the eastern side of the state. Two days earlier, we had driven over to watch the Mariners go down in glorious defeat to the Oakland A’s. Our three sons, aged 10, 8, and 6, were still ecstatic from seeing Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the flesh.
As we cruised along I-90, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to send a Father’s Day card and I remarked on the oversight to my wife. I decided I’d phone Dad as soon as we got home.
My mind drifted to a birthday card I’d sent him the previous April: On the front was a drawing of a goofy dog and under it, “In honor of your birthday, my champion stunt dog Rex will tap out your age with his paws.” On the inside of the card, Rex is tapping like mad, and tapping some more, until finally he lies there with dead x’s for eyes. “Hey!” said the final caption, “You killed my dog!”
Within minutes after we got home the phone rang. It was my mother. She took a deep breath, then told me that she had just had a call from my sister. My father had shot himself. Shocked, I said, “Are you kidding?” Right away, I wondered why I said that. She wouldn’t kid about my father shooting himself.
She told me what she knew, which wasn’t much, and that was that.
I have a few memories of my father being around home when I was a boy. He worked in the logging business and often seemed to be gone. The summers when I was between 10 and 14, Dad paid me a few dollars a day to help him survey timber land. Usually those days in the hot, dusty mountains included him telling me vulgar sexual jokes, which embarrassed me intensely. Almost always, he also would end up getting red-faced with anger and swearing at me for not completing some task to his satisfaction.
One day when I was about 14, Dad towed a classic old auto into our garage—a 1927 Durant, as I recall. It was in bad shape, rusted all over, but it could be rescued. “We’ll restore it,” he said, and he showed me how to sand the rusty body by hand. We worked together for maybe 10 minutes, then he went in the house and left me to work alone. He never returned to this project, but he often admonished me to get on out there and keep sanding. I soon gave it up too.
When I was 15, with no warning, Dad left my mother, my sister and me, moved to California, and did not show up again until my high school graduation almost three years later. Mom had to sell our house and move us into a one-bedroom apartment in a dingy, four-story brick building where my bed folded down out of a closet in the tiny living room. Dad sent token child-support checks at irregular intervals, and Mom eventually found a minimum-wage job in a small drugstore.
When I decided after high school that I wanted to try life in a Catholic religious order, Dad went wild with anger, begging and swearing until I relented and joined the Navy, which pleased him to no end.
When my enlistment was over, however, and I announced that at the age of 22 that I still wanted to try life in a religious order (which I did for about four years), Dad waxed sarcastic about my decision every chance he got. On several occasions he called me “queer,” which for him was the ultimate insult.
My father coped with his personal demons by drinking, sometimes heavily. Once, when I was about 12, he remarked to me that I would understand when I grew up. When he was drinking he sometimes made a weird, high-pitched noise that frightened me. On a few occasions, my friends witnessed him “stewed to the gills” (the phrase was his) and I felt like crawling under the nearest rock.
I try to understand him. Though he was a poor excuse for a father, I don’t doubt that he did the best he could, according to his lights; apart from spankings when I was young, he never resorted to physical abuse.
His own father died when Dad was 7. He didn’t try to educate himself by reading, and in spite of the fact that the whole family joined the Catholic Church when my sister and I were young, he was not a religious person.
In the weeks that followed Dad’s suicide, rarely a day went by that I did not think about what he’d done. I tried to reconstruct the circumstances of his death in my imagination. I insisted that my stepmother send me the newspaper clipping that described how he’d killed himself. I wanted to know as much as I could. Why had he done it?
He had been afflicted with poor health for years as a result of a gunshot wound in his throat. Back in the early 1970s, while Dad was sitting in a car in a supermarket parking lot, a man walked up and fired a pistol at him point-blank for no apparent reason. It was amazing that he survived at all, and it took pioneering surgery to repair his vocal cords so he could talk again.
About two weeks before Dad’s suicide, a doctor told him there was no more they could do for his throat. Scar tissue continued to build up, and he was having difficulty breathing. He had suffered a heart attack six months earlier, and surgery to remove the scar tissue was considered too great a risk.
It is likely that Dad’s suicide was a simple case of a guy who figured that his life was over anyway. Depressed, he saw no reason to wait around to die slowly and painfully by suffocation.
I still ponder the fact that Dad killed himself so matter-of-factly—as if he were going out to get a loaf of bread. It was all neatly planned and carried out, with no loose ends. Here’s my wallet, so you’ll know who I am and who to inform.
Did he give any thought to the effect his suicide would have on other people? Maybe, but he probably concluded that it couldn’t be helped. Did he think his suicide was an act of courage? Knowing him, I find that possible; he tended to face life with a kind of pathetic, juvenile bravado, and when he decided to do something he didn’t care if others thought it was stupid. So this is what he meant by courage.
So he left no note, made no final symbolic gesture; he simply decided to kill himself, and then he did. Bang. I can easily imagine him saying, “So what? It’s nobody else’s damn business.”
Today, at the age of 43, I am a contented person who enjoys life. I’ve been happily married for 15 years, and I love and enjoy my children. I enjoy being able to work successfully as a free-lance writer. I think, however, that I am happy in great part because of my determination not to be the kind of husband and father Dad was. I suppose he did me a perverse favor by showing me how not to do it.
The morning after Dad’s suicide, while our boys were eating their breakfast cereal, I told them that their grandfather who lived in California, whom they had met only twice, was dead. What was very sad about it, I said, was that he had killed himself. He had shot himself with a gun.
I don’t know whether my announcement was too much or the children to grasp or what, but the news had little apparent effect and none of our sons has asked any questions about it. Perhaps the whole business was too unreal for them to comprehend, or maybe they sensed that I would rather not talk about it.
I’m not the perfect father myself; I’m too authoritarian and I yell a lot. Now and then, angered by rebellious or disrespectful behavior, I’ll smack a kid and regret it later. But I do good things, too.
Since our first son was born more than a decade ago, my wife and I have arranged our work schedules so I can be home at least half of each workday. I’ve changed more diapers and read more bedtime stories than you can shake a stick at. When I tuck our boys into bed, I never fail to tell each one that I love him very much. I give hugs in abundance, I help with homework. I praise the latest achievement in spelling bee or band. And although I’m no sports fan, I find myself these days enthusiastic for baseball; at every opportunity I take the boys to the minor league games in the city where we live, and I’m tickled that this gives us a special source of fun that we share as a family.
A few years ago, there was much talk about “quality time” being more important for kids than “quantity time.” That, in my book, is a crock. Kids want their parents to simply be there—to listen to a dumb joke, exclaim over a new drawing, hear a tale of woe, raise a ruckus when a kid does something he or she shouldn’t, and say yes, those definitely are bugs you have in that jar, take it outside please.
One of the big questions is whether or not my father specifically chose Father’s Day to kill himself. He was aware what day it was. Could it be that he chose the day purposely so his children would not forget him? If so, it was the only time I know of that he ever came close to admitting that he, too, needed to be loved.
Lately, I’ve begun to feel pity for my father more than anything else, and here’s why. In spite of the many frustrations of family life, there is nothing that gives me more joy than loving my wife and sharing life with our sons, watching them grow. If my father had known this same kind of joy, perhaps he would have longed to go on living and would have been willing to let death bide its time in spite of the pain.
Perhaps he would not have been so ready to walk away from home on a warm Father’s Day afternoon and put a bullet in his brain.
Mitch Finley is an award-winning freelance writer. This article is also an award-winner, having earned the Excellence in Writing Award from the American Society of Journalists & Authors.