We’ve experienced some loss here recently. It was hard for all of us to learn that Louise’s wonderful, talented, charming husband Bruce had died. I think we’re all experiencing that same kind of shock after hearing about Cornelia’s father, who died from suicide last week. We’re all thinking about them, and caring about them, during this very painful time.
Cornelia’s post about her father brought instant memories of my own father, who took his life twenty-five years ago. I was twenty years old.
I want to be careful not to detract from their losses by rattling on about my own ancient history. But, in many ways, it’s never ancient history. Although things are easier, I still live with this loss every day. Last night I woke from a dream that I was certain was real. I dreamed that, after many years thinking my father had died, I discovered he was alive and well, having faked his death and assumed a new identity. I dreamed that we were close again, that I had forgiven him for disappearing and making us think he had killed himself. I sat for twenty minutes awake in bed before I realized that I had it all wrong.
Everything that has happened in my life since the day he died has been influenced by that moment. Every sentence I’ve written flows from that place of wonder and anger and passion and curiosity and pain.
I’ve always written stories and by the time I was twenty I was in the middle of writing my first screenplay. A crucial relationship in the story involved the eighteen-year old protagonist and his estranged father. The father didn’t know how to love his son.
So, while I’m writing this screenplay, my dad up and kills himself. He accomplished this using Demerol, which he had easy access to. He was a doctor.
My writing changed instantly. Suddenly I had feelings and questions and an anger that needed to be communicated. Feelings so strong they couldn’t be buried in immature writing. The writing would have to mature if I was going to be heard.
When my parents divorced I was just fourteen years old. I was in shock for a year, thinking things were just hunky-dory. And then—Wham!—it hit me. Hard. I had wild fits of anger, punched walls until my knuckles bled, kicked boulders, screamed epithets into the sky.
Remembering this, I knew my father’s suicide would hit me harder. This time I wasn’t going to be caught off-guard. So I dove in, writing, writing, writing. I wrote whether I had something to say or not. Most of it was free-verse poetry, not my forte. But it tapped the emotions, the anger, the grief. I also explored my father’s last days, trying to get a handle on why he did what he did. I went to the hotel room where he ended his life, where he spent a long three days and nights before committing the act. I sat on the bed where he was found. I stared into the bathroom mirror, as I imagined him doing, hour after hour.
I wrote my first short story at this point, called “Yahrzeit Candle.” It was about a little Jewish boy who wakes up one morning to find his father sitting in front of this ominous candle in the living room. When the boy goes to the candle the smoke from the flame gets in his eyes and he is suddenly overwhelmed by memories of his grandfather. He doesn’t realize it yet, but his grandfather has died, and his father is engaged in the seven-day ritual of Yarhzeit. But the father, seemingly hypnotized, never leaves the candle, and the boy sees his daddy falling apart, bit by bit, day after day. The boy comes to believe that the candle is causing his daddy’s pain and he decides to snuff it out. But, as he gets closer, the smoke fills his eyes and the memories force him back into his father’s arms and the two finally connect, father and son, and they rock back and forth in their bear hug and the flame finally flickers out on its own.
It was my first short story and I hadn’t even really considered myself a writer yet. I submitted it to two national contests and won both. I sent it to Elie Wiesel and he sent back a note saying it was “Shining, evocative and penetrating.” I don’t think I could’ve written that story if I hadn’t gone through the trauma of my father’s death. I don’t think I could have written anything “evocative.”
I also wrote a screenplay for a short film. It was really just a ten-page poem, a description of visuals without dialogue, representing the relationship between my father and I from my birth to his death. I had to enroll in film school, and it would take another five years before I had the skills to do it, but eventually I made “Meditations on a Suicide.” I needed the help of dozens of professionals, and I didn’t have a dime to pay anyone. They all worked for free. Everything was donated. The budget would have probably been around thirty thousand dollars, but it cost me just about nothing, except for what I managed to cash-advance on my credit cards and the cash donations I received from people who believed in the project. It all came through at the eleventh hour. A film that should not have come together was somehow made, and I can’t help but think that my dad was there helping it along, getting people to make the right decisions, making sure I got what I needed to realize the vision in my head. The film went on to garner awards and accolades, at least as much as it could for being a short, black-and-white, 16mm student film. The process forced me to reach deep inside myself to do something I hadn’t known I could do. I don’t think I would have accomplished it if my father hadn’t been at my side.
The film was supposed to be my catharsis. That’s how I saw it. But in the process of making the film I became desensitized to the subject matter and I found that I was directing what felt like a fictional story. In a sense, it was. I mean, how do you whittle down a twenty-year relationship into a twenty-minute film?
Every time I think I’m over it, it reappears.
A good friend of mine whom I met when I made the film (twenty years ago) told me, after reading Boulevard, that he felt I was still dealing with my father’s suicide. Of course I am.
The anger has gradually subsided, although it has never really gone away. I’m mostly sad and upset that my children will never know their grandfather. He was a pediatrician, he loved children. It would have been great to call him up in the middle of the night as the kids were growing up, ask for advice on how to crack a fever or soothe a sore throat.
But he did leave me with something. A reason to tell stories. Through his own story, his pain and suffering. His suicide took me by the shoulders and said, “Wake the fuck up. Look around. What have you got to say about this?”
As Mr. Hemmingway once wrote, “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places.”