My father and I hadn’t spoken in seven years by the time he finally hanged himself. Following the grim phone calls and a long, morose drive north to Stockton, I found in his home a collection of photographs, mostly of me and my mother, who had divorced him twenty-five years previous. He had written on the backs of them, sometimes dates, often recriminations: why had we abandoned him? How could we have taken away his only precious objects – ourselves, our support? Our love?
Well, you know how it is. It was him or us.
For the most part he was a funny, kind, and generous man. A drunk, he wasn’t too much trouble if you didn’t have to live with him. If you did, though, if you loved him, his presence was intolerable because he also had bad days when crippling depression made him a horror to himself and anybody around. As the years went by, he got worse. Depression teaches you that you are impotent, that you can handle nothing, that life, no matter how good today, will crush you tomorrow. And so your spirit dies a long while before your sagging shell.
One day when I was sixteen or seventeen I drove over after school to visit and found him despondent. He said, not for the first time, that he was going to kill himself. He pointed out various items that I should take, things for my mother. He didn’t have much energy to talk. He mostly just sat in a bentwood chair and stared at the floor and apologized for his failures. I said okay, got a beer, and went over to his giant record collection. I found an old album by the Hi-Lo’s, a barbershop quartet in crew cuts and bow ties Pop kept around as a joke. I set the needle on a track called “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” and Pop stopped crying to laugh. He didn’t kill himself that day. I was so proud of my ingenuity and resourcefulness that I fairly burst. But you can’t keep someone alive indefinitely on a diet of novelties. You will run out of them or get sick of providing them or your dad will cease to be amused.
Like many Americans with mental health issues, no health insurance, and no job, Pop had his brushes with treatment. People who loved him (his ex-wife, his mother, others) offered help with the bureaucracy or paid for him to “see somebody.” It never took. An unsuccessful artist during his lifetime, I couldn’t afford to get my dad to a decent shrink; when it came to it, I couldn’t even afford to bury him. And Pop was constitutionally unable to tolerate the paperwork, strictures, and various responsibilities associated with ongoing County-provided mental health care. You had to come to the help, and a sick person often simply cannot. He refused medication on grounds that it made his skin break out, or worsened his condition, or constituted its own dependency on top of the many he had already cultivated. His ability to sustain relationships deteriorated; so did his patience for all human interaction not mingled with substance abuse. At the time he died, he hadn’t had anything like steady employment for two decades, and most of his friends shared most of his problems.
He lived almost the last half of his life in an apartment building owned by his father, the majority of that time without paying rent. The latter fact, and his squabbles with other tenants, grieved my conservative and never very compassionate grandfather, but to his credit (or more likely to my grandmother’s) my father never slept on the streets. Ironically, a previous upstairs tenant far more deranged than my father did her best to get him out.
A refugee from Vietnam, this tragic creature was famous about town from her regular appearances at the televised Stockton City Council meetings, where each week she used her allotted five minutes to blow the whistle on government complicity with demons living in the walls and closets of her home. Those demons visited upon her terrible, humiliating tortures, many of which sounded like atrocities she might have experienced before escaping the napalm hell America and the North Vietnamese Army had made of her country. She typically fought these demons in the middle of the night, literally throwing chairs and her bedframe across the room to thwart their attacks. Downstairs, my dad would pound on the ceiling and call the cops. Sometimes he went up and confronted her. I remember coming to visit him one morning after the woman had been removed by police for an “observation period.” Her struggle in their hands was recorded in long black-and-gray hairs trapped in the cracked pane of the stairway window.
She still lived in the building in January of 1989 when yet another lunatic brought a rifle to Cleveland School, just two blocks away, and shot thirty-four elementary students, mostly Vietnamese- and Cambodian-American (plus one adult), in the schoolyard. Five of the children died. Situated in a river delta, Stockton was one of the primary placement zones for what we called the Boat People, an immigrant group largely composed of Hmong and other ethnicities who had assisted the United States in its Southeast Asian endeavors; hearing about a bunch of refugee kids being massacred in this, their demon-haunted haven, did the woman upstairs no good at all. She called 911 and told police that the murderer was an associate and frequent guest of her downstairs neighbor, my father, who had helped to plan the attack and had provided the assault rifle.
Well acquainted with the woman upstairs, the police didn’t take her accusation too seriously. But, shaken by the shootings and duty-bound to investigate all leads, they still had to follow through and subject my father to the indignity of an interview in his home. Pop handled it pretty well, confining his outrage to a mild query about when “they” were going to “do something” about that nut upstairs. Michael Jackson visited the school. The nation moved on.
I don’t know what happened to her. Having come to California decades after Governor Reagan had closed the mental institutions and more than doubled the homeless population, she probably didn’t get the help she clearly needed from the state. One day I just noticed she wasn’t living there anymore.
What happened to my father is a known quantity. Increasingly embittered, alienated from a world that wouldn’t negotiate on his terms, paddling in a dwindling reservoir of junkies and drunks, he finally suffered one too many insults and declined to pursue further adventures. After the new upstairs neighbor got him sent to jail for some outburst or other, he was released the next day and walked ten miles back to his apartment to commit suicide. On his way, he left a polite note on his brother’s door. Having sold his gun years before, when the time came he used a rope.
His own demons would not allow him to see that the flight of his wife and son was an act of self-preservation, so when he died he did so blind to the love in his wake. What my mother had put up with was more than she should have, and after his refusal to refrain from drinking during my last visit, I couldn’t go back. I’m pretty sure it would have killed me. And so he died forsaken as well as miserable.
So here’s another December in which I loathe and resent the prospect of family gathering, of that communion of folks with merely blood ties to tether them in a roomful of baked meat and pastry. I hate the word “family.” It represents to me the illusions proffered by a society that can’t be bothered, or is too busy, or too frail, to take care of its members. I am so sad that I couldn’t get my dad the help he deserved, that society deserved on his behalf. How much easier would it have been for those cops who had to cut him down, if only he had been locked into some treatment years before and turned into someone who could hold a job and family together? How much lost production, industrial and spiritual, is represented in such a wasted life? How much happier would I have been if I had had a father who spent some time in a hospital instead of a life in his head?
Maybe someday I’ll get over it. And maybe this country will start taking steps toward self-preservation that include the care and treatment of the citizens least able to care for themselves. And maybe not.
About the Author: Jason Rohrer was educated in California, New York, Russia and Bulgaria. He reviews film and performing arts for stageandcinema.com, contributes to American Theatre Magazine, and co-hosts the podcast Jason and Todd Talk through Lousy Films. He tweets as @RohrerVacui.