If no one remembers my dad, did he even exist? When it’s too painful to memorialize those lost to suicide, future losses are tragically compounded.
Recently, a small memorial service was organized for my father-in-law. We weren’t close, but I had many memories of him, some mine, others borrowed. As we reminisced, I could hear the sound of his voice, laughing along with us, perhaps interjecting to add a few inches to a tall tale. Over the years, I had heard enough of stories by him and about him, that I could help my husband knit together the heartwarming eulogy he delivered that day.
I remembered how difficult it was for me to write my grandmother’s obituary two years prior. A stoic, proud German woman, I would describe her as warm only because her perennial coolness was occasionally infused with hot blasts of affection, most often expressed through her cooking and the sweet nicknames she made for us. She didn’t tell many stories about herself — her heart and its secrets were kept behind a steely exterior. So when I endeavored to record even the most basic facts of her life, they required extensive fact-checking — both by phone calls to close relatives and searches farther afield, on ancestry.com. I was sad and disappointed that there was so much about her I never knew, or that had slipped away after years of trying to penetrate those walls, which seemed to grow thicker over time. The weekly calls that felt like interruptions became monthly, then less as our brusque interactions left me feeling increasingly rejected. It never clicked that our disconnection was because she was hung up over her son’s shameful death more than a decade prior, and that I was a painful reminder of him. That much of her joy and many of her stories revolved around her beloved children, and she couldn’t bring herself to talk about them anymore. There was nothing to say, and so much to forget.
The only story I remember her telling me about my dad was when he was a boy and remarked that “sweater” was so named because they always made him sweat. She had his old Lionel trains that we were not allowed to play with, but I don’t know what he was like, what he loved, his favorite color, or any of the dreams he had; dreams that must have been lost irretrievably for him to conclude that his life was no longer worth living.
When he died suddenly, and very unexpectedly, we were both quite young — he was 30 and I was 7. At that age, my heart held knowledge that my mind lacked the experience to process. There were so many things that I knew but didn’t understand; that I’d seen but lacked the vocabulary to explain. Bewildered between Denial and Anger on the Kubler-Ross model, I chose to not attend his funeral. I wish the adults had insisted I attend, as shocked seven-year-olds don’t make good decisions, and remaining behind that day deprived me of the memories shared by everyone else who loved him. I didn’t know it would be the last time we would celebrate him, but it was.
So my last memory of him was riding in the car with his ashes. I was shocked by how unceremoniously they were packaged; in a small white paper bag that should have contained somebody’s lunch. It seemed impossible that any man could be contained in such a modest vessel. Certainly not the man who made me safe, for whom I would wait outside when he was expected home from work, not just because he would often bring me candy. But when we were on that Zoom, sharing our memories of my father-in-law, I realized that if I wrote all my memories of my own father on individual pieces of paper, they would not fill that bag, nor would I hear my father’s laugh, because I can’t remember his voice, no matter how hard I try.
Most of the people who knew my dad best are gone. The scant traces of him on Google confirm only that he died, without any evidence of the life he lived, or the people he loved. All I have are faded photos that are stand-ins for memories, the only evidence that he ever lived at all.