When There’s No Time
To Say Goodbye
Breaking the Legacy of Silence #41
Kim D. Bailey
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you can never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with a limp.”
Last week I mentioned I would write to Chris Cornell’s death and suicide, and the reaction to it, here in my 41st column installment. My dismay and rage at some things being said about Cornell’s death, specifically his apparent misuse of a benzodiazepine anti-anxiety medication, Ativan (Lorazepam), were only fueled by my personal experience with suicide and how it has shaped me as a person and a writer.
This coming Sunday, May 28, marks the 29th anniversary of my dad’s death. By some accounts, my dad died of a heart attack, or heart failure, or something related to heart disease. His death certificate reads, “Unknown.” Some of us believe he took his own life, most likely with a combination of alcohol and drugs.
No matter how it happened, my dad left few clues behind. Empty bottles of rum and pill bottles were found near his bed, as were some dark poems he had written in his own hand. An autopsy was not performed because my great grandmother somehow made sure it wasn’t done. At least, the results of such, if it happened, were not documented or made known to anyone else. My uncle and great grandfather drove down from the Chattanooga area to see to dad’s remains and arrange for his body to be transported back here to be buried in Chattanooga National Cemetery.
I was living in Oklahoma at the time. I had just returned there after having been divorced from my first husband, and after my trip to Florida during the divorce where I tried to make ends meet with the help of my “family” there. I had returned to Oklahoma because my oldest child was with his dad six months out of the year, as per our divorce decree, and being away so long was torture. I also secretly hoped his dad would take me back. And let’s be honest. My “family” in Florida were never there for me, not then and not in the years since. I knew in my bones they wouldn’t be supportive or compassionate when I went down there, and yet, I did it anyway. Hoping against hope for some miracle of love and family bonds. Yeah. Right.
Those were hard days for me. I was 21 years old, terrified, alone, and heartbroken.
I spoke with my dad in February of 1988, from a phone booth at the corner of McElroy Road and N. Perkins Road in Stillwater, Oklahoma. My teeth chattered as I dialed his number in Gulfport, Florida. Oklahoma winters can be brutal. My fingers shook in the below-freezing weather and I waited as my dad’s landlord took the phone to him.
“Hey, baby girl.” Dad said, his voice raspy.
“Hey. You don’t sound good.”
“I’m alright. It’s just a cold.”
I knew he was lying. “I’ve got a card to send to you, for St. Patrick’s Day. I need your address.”
Our words were stilted. We hadn’t spoken for several months, since my now nearly 2-year-old son was 6 months old. My anger was as cold as the Oklahoma air, hanging on each word like the twilight shadows that began to envelope me in that phone booth.
“Look, I—I hope you and your sister know how much I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t make it right.”
I stared at my feet, arms crossed, wanting so much to hold onto my anger. It was righteous and comforting. Dad left us. Sure, our mom filed the divorce and they both had done some things they shouldn’t have done, but still. He had done unspeakable things to all of us, things I don’t want to share with anyone here. Things only one other person knows, and he knows so he can hold me when I break down for no “apparent reason.”
No, my dad was far from perfect.
But, I loved him. He was the only one in my family who really understood me and my quirks, or my dark moments. He had an artistic side that was squelched by societal expectation and personal fear. He had undiagnosed depression, and self-medicated with alcohol and drugs. Dad was hard sometimes, but he “got” me. Like no one else.
“I know, Daddy. I love you, too.”
“I won’t be around much longer, so I just wanted you to know.”
“Don’t talk like that!”
Dad cleared his throat, “Well, there it is.”
Hot tears warmed my face as I sucked in my breath. I knew these were the last words my dad and I would exchange.
In 2004, I drove myself to a local hospital and waited for over 14 hours in the ER for a bed in the Behavioral Health Unit to open so I could be admitted. I had been depressed for some time, and suicidal for weeks. I had a clear plan, and some not-so-clear plans. The abyss and I were close, and I had seen its seductive darkness.
In December of 2010, my brother-in-law took his life. It was unexpected, and there were no clues then, either. I had known Robert for nearly 30 years. Despite a somewhat tense relationship, he was a huge part of my life and I loved him. His suicide devastated my sister and their children.
When one of my children was a teenager, I had to go against his dad and insist that our son go to a behavioral unit. He was cutting, and he had suicidal ideation. I drove from the Tampa area in Florida to Oklahoma to make sure my son received help. My ex felt it was an exploitive move on my part, perhaps my way to get some control of my child that he had taken away from me. He verbally abused me on the phone before I arrived, and afterward, when we were waiting for our son to get some clothes together, he cursed me and called me, “the worst mother in the world,” while I stood my ground and made sure my child was taken to get help for his depression and self-harming behaviors. I knew depression and suicide well enough—personally and through my family—that I wasn’t willing to risk my son’s life over some imagined power play or avoidance of his dad’s harshness toward me.
Since people all grieve in their own ways, some of us become angry in our pain and unfathomable despair. We lash out at others, hurting them from the depths of our loss. I’ve witnessed as family turned on family in these difficult times. We cut with our words and silences, let resentment fester and eat away at any connection we may have with another. Sometimes, we must step away from the carnage and let the dogs fight it out. Our sanity often depends on our self-care and boundaries in these situations.
So, I understand how some people can be judgmental about circumstances surrounding death, especially when those circumstances point to, or are definitively caused by, suicide. When celebrities or other well-known people complete suicide, so many think they have the answers, or the wisdom. They feel like they are judge and jury and can make proclamations of guilt, whether assigned to the deceased, his or her family, close friends, co-workers, healthcare professionals, or a combination of any or all the above.
The fact is, unless one knows from his or her own experience, whether it’s one’s own or via a close family or friend, then one cannot speak to suicide with any understanding or intelligence. Even those of us who do know cannot speak to another’s situation with clarity.
So, for all the dumbasses out there who are debating the latest celebrity death, medications he or she was taking, the lack of support he or she received from family or friends, or whether he or she was being selfish by taking his or her own life—all of you need to back up a minute and shut the fuck up.
Think for just a minute about how your theories and criticisms may affect those still-living members of that person’s family. How would you feel if your father, mother, sister, brother, grandmother, uncle, or best friend took his or her own life and others shunned, criticized, and shamed him or her and your family?
Suicide is hard enough for those of us who have had no time to say goodbye to those who decided to check out on us. Why make it harder with opinions that mean nothing at all? In the end, there are no answers. There are only more questions.
My dad died 29 years ago this weekend. I’ve come to some level of peace, but my heart still aches. I know as much now about why and how as I knew the day he died—nothing. My theories and fantasies only mollify me for the moment, and then it’s back to the unanswered void. There will never be a satisfactory explanation as to why someone you love takes his own life. Whether it’s because of illness, or old age, mental illness, alcohol, drugs, a broken heart—nothing will ever explain it away enough to repair the damage suicide exacts on survivors.
More than one person I love has left this world on his own terms. Neither of them gave me a chance, really, to say goodbye. Not on my terms.
Each day is a gift. We cannot foresee what tomorrow will bring. Someone we love will die, and we will have felt cheated of last words, goodbyes, and time with that person.
When someone you love completes a suicide, you get no time to say goodbye. There is no remote possibility. Its finality is only surpassed and made more painful by the knowledge that your loved one knew this and left you anyway.
Love and live in the moment. It’s all we really have.