The memory keepers: Remembering September 11th—and World Suicide Prevention Day, September 10th

My thoughts this weekend, along with much of America and many around the world, are on 9/11, remembering, mourning, thinking about what happened ten years ago and what has happened since.  Two wars, much grieving, many shifts, small and large, in our lives and our perceptions, of safety, of America and its role.  The repercussions of the attacks in 2001 and subsequent American policy decisions remain vast.  We live in a changed world.

And yet still, for me, a sense of hope rather than rancor surrounds this date.  Grief, with time, is contemplative more than ire-filled.

Grief can divide, and it can unite.  Grief can isolate us, perhaps it even needs to for a time, and it can bring us together.  As we remember the losses of September 11th ten years ago, we think also of the losses accumulated since: American, Iraqi, Afghani…others who have suffered, some at the hands of war, others at the hands of depression or related mental health issues.  Grief and war highlight fault-lines and frailties in individuals and nations; at the same time, adversity brings out strengths.

World Suicide Prevention Day falls on September 10th.  Each year, approximately a million people around the world die from suicide (that’s a death every 40 seconds), some touched by war, by grief or trauma, some not.  Suicide cannot always be prevented (a complex discussion, one which I take up more fully in “How Madoff the younger became my kin“), but, as The World Health Organization notes, “suicide is a major, preventable cause of premature death.”  “Suicide is complex with psychological, social, biological, cultural and environmental factors involved.”

My father’s birthday was on September 11th, though his suicide was seven years in the past by the time that date gained global attention.  Once you begin looking for strange patterns, coincidences, confluences, they rise up with surprising frequency.  My grief for my father, when it settles onto a date, perches on July 4th, the anniversary of his death.  His birthday holds different associations and memories, many of them quiet, even hopeful, and now, for the last decade, this includes a heightened awareness of grief as a shared suffering, a shared concern.

On September 10th, World Suicide Prevention Day, I will be thinking of so many souls, memories of loss for dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions, memories of who was and who still is.  I know already that the day after will hover, as it has hovered all week.  September 11th is engraved in our minds and our history.  Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, gone.  Each one irreplaceable for someone.

Eleven years ago, on September 10th, a different era really, I quit smoking, a ten year habit.  I had just finished a draft of a memoir about my father and his death.  I must, without saying so (even to myself), have been letting something go.  A particular bitterness of grief, anger and recriminations of suicide, the heft of a life—a life cut short, even while it was being lived—that was too heavy to carry.  Like my father when he finally quit after thirty years of unfiltered Camels, almost ten years before his death, I opted for the cold-turkey approach.  For me, this was a gesture of stubbornness—and a gesture of hope.  I knew I would have to leave the noxious (though intoxicating) habit behind before considering having children, a desire I had long held very strongly (off in some future time), and I was in a new relationship, with the wonderful man who would become my husband.  Though perhaps trite (as obvious truths often become), children—and love too—represent hope, aspiration, a belief in innocence and the future.  (Think of the birth spike nine months after 9/11; think of the baby boom after World War II.)

Children remind us of the past, who we were, who our predecessors were, but pull us forward to the future.  How do we want things to be?

I spend much time, too much, in my familial bubble.  Daily tasks consume me.  The problems of the world are too big, too distant.  But I do hope for my children to be citizens of that world, not just of America and Britain.  I like to think of them traveling, meeting new people; I like to think of them living in far away places, even while I want to keep them close.  Thoughts in conflict with each other.  Disparate desires.  Rather like the concept of peace; or like the eradication of conflict—in the world or in one’s self.  I have given up my youthful idealism.  On a pragmatic level, I don’t believe in peace.  And yet it is the ideal I hold in sight.

Earlier this week, I came across a notice for the exhibit “White Flags” by the artist Aaron Fein, a former classmate.  My internal eye keeps returning to its images: rows of white flags, their insignia bleached out—still there, but muted.  The photo draws the eyes upward.  Some flags are illuminated more than others.  Those hidden are as intriguing as those most immediately seen.  Of course, the white dove is perhaps the most iconic (and benign) of peace images; and a plain white flag signals truce, surrender.  But to take a nation’s emblem of patriotism, to take the patriotic symbol of every nation (of the UN), and not only bring them together (as the UN, ideally, does), but visually mark them with peace (rather than enmity and war), while yet maintaining each one’s distinctiveness, whether stars and stripes, or crescent moon and five-point star, or six-point star—  I find this idea, artistically rendered (symbolically daring), tremendously compelling.  Identity and difference (perhaps even some disagreement) in tact, but calm unity prevailing.

For me, these days, this weekend of commemoration—September 11th, and September 10th—are about contemplation, quiet remembering that allows us to move forward with thoughtful purpose.  One eye turns toward the past, while the other seeks something more from the future.

~  ~  ~

“White Flags” is currently on exhibit at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan.  An opening reception is scheduled for September 9th, and the exhibit can generally be viewed during business hours, before or after Chapel, which takes place daily between 12:00-12:30 p.m.  Other arrangements can also be made through their website~

~  ~  ~


A few writings on 9/11 that have caught (and held) my attention (including some contradictions)….

“Today, this is what I see: a nation wracked by recession and 10 years of war-debt, bled dry by profiteers, where the rich enrich themselves at the expense of the poor and the demagogues and con artists we’ve elected squander our commonwealth, our treasury and our lifeblood. And as Sept. 11 approaches, I wonder what we will be commemorating on that grim day.

“Now I think of these kids, who watched people cheering in the streets after an elite assassination team killed Osama bin Laden, and wonder what that flag means to them.”

“Not even a New York partisan like myself could call a six-lane boulevard bucolic, and in truth coexistence here is ever a bit provisional.  But this cacophonous and wounded place has not lost its tolerance.  Perhaps in this age, that’s a greater victory than we realize.”

“So a Sept. 11 commemoration might well be a celebration of democratic culture’s enduring presence.  …But is it impossible to imagine that in the midst of concerts and quilts for peace, communications with the spirit world and varied forms of political and psychological exorcisms, there might also be a recognition of what was at stake that day, and what, to a great extent, still is?”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“We called it ‘remote-control colonialism.'”

          – Hisham Matar, “The Light”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“Last year, I got a job offer in Istanbul.  ‘At least you’ll be in the world,’ a friend observed.  ‘As opposed to in America.’  I remembered then how after 9/11 people had said that America was now part of the rest of the world.  The feeling hadn’t lasted.”

“For years I didn’t think I’d ever want to recapture anything I felt in 2001, least of all that sense of free fall and obscurity.  But when I started looking for it again it was right where I’d left it.”

          – Elif Batuman, “In the World”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“To live in, or near, a war zone was frighteningly new to all but the immigrants who had come here to escape such places.”

          – David Remnick, “When the Towers Fell”

“My mind is decorated with splinters.”

“We do not necessarily need anniversaries when there are things we cannot forget.”

          – Colum McCann, “Dessert”

“A decade later, we pay tribute to the resilience of ordinary people in the face of appalling destruction.  We remember the dead and, with them, the survivors, the firemen and the police, the nurses and the doctors and the spontaneous, instinctive volunteers, the myriad acts of courage and kindness.  A decade later, we also continue to reckon not only with the violence that bin Laden inflicted but with the follies, the misjudgments, and the violence that, directly or indirectly, he provoked—the acts of government deception, illegal domestic surveillance, ‘extraordinary rendition,’ ‘enhanced interrogation,’ waterboarding.  …Ten years after the attacks, we are still faced with questions about ourselves—questions about the balance of liberty and security, about the urge to make common cause with liberation movements abroad, and about the countervailing limits.  Only absolutists answer these questions absolutely.”

          – David Remnick, “When the Towers Fell”

  •  The New Yorker: After 9/11, September 12, 2011

“It is the burden of the survivors and the curious to decipher final moments, whether they occurred a year, ten years, or a thousand years ago.  Do they speak to the reality of a particular time, to the nature of death itself, or to an individual’s final instincts during his or her last moments on earth?”

“Past horrors give us a language with which to define new ones.  Worldwide terrors become personalized.  …The job of reconstructing lives belongs to the living, the memory keepers, which is what all of us became that day, willing or unwilling witnesses, unable to look away.”

          – Edwidge Danticat, “Flight”

“In fact, 9/11 poses distinct challenges to the artist. As with Mr. Stone’s movie, there is the danger of trying to domesticate an overwhelming tragedy. There is also the question of presumption: How does one convey the enormity of the event without trivializing it? How does one bend art forms more often used for entertainment or artistic expression toward the capturing of history?”

This is a question I frequently ask myself, and yet, contrary to Michiko Kakutani (and more like Edwidge Danticat, who writes of “the memory keepers“), I believe the domestic realm is essential in our understanding of any tragedy.  This is where most of us live our lives, within the domestic, the quotidian.  We seek understanding through art (novels, memoirs, visual art, oral histories, music, photographs, even thoughtful journalism).  And really, what we take from 9/11, what we learn from the events of the day and its aftermath, is not about that single day, or any single date, anniversary, or memorial.  Much of politics and history occur in the in-between, in the places and ways in which we live our daily lives.  What do we and our politicians do?  What do we teach our children?  What do we speak up about, and what do we look over?  How do we tell the stories when we are looking back?  Which details do we put in, which do we leave out?  This is art, and this is how history forms.

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Addendum: War, suicide, aggression—hope (a gay politician, a veteran, and a president)

When I finally saw the film Milk earlier this summer, afterwards my thoughts kept returning to the stress placed on hope in the story, seemingly in a starkly different context from that of Iraq war veteran Brad Eifert (see my previous post “War, suicide, aggression—hope“).  The activists in Milk’s story take on the right to acknowledge being gay and still be able to keep your job as a teacher or public sector worker (among other struggles).  And yet these two stories—one of a gay politician and activist, the other of a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress and suicidal feelings—have unexpected interlocking commonalities.  Don’t ask don’t tell aptly describes what Harvey Milk was fighting against—secrecy, forced confinement to the closet, or worse, “rehabilitation” or living life as a lie.  Supervisor Milk, among the first openly gay politicians, was fighting suicide in the gay community too.

Of course “Don’t ask don’t tell” refers to the long-standing policy of closeting gays in the military.  We see the same attitude toward experiences of combat.  In some ways, I think the horrors of combat are all but unsharable with someone who has not been in the heat of war, and yet this forces an impossible burden on those who have.  Perhaps the term “unspeakable” refers as much to what we do not want to hear, or know of, as to what cannot be said.  (More on this below.)  But memory—experience—often demands a voice, both public and private.  In the end, this is Milk’s message and Eifert’s too.


On the subject of remembrance: In early July, President Obama changed government policy to include families of soldiers in combat who died by suicide in the list of those who receive condolence letters, a small but significant step in continuing to attend to the proportionately higher rates of suicide in the military.  Ignoring suicide, PTSD, and depression (and aggression) in those serving or returned to civilian life won’t make it go away.  Ask, listen, and offer help, and then we may have hope of improving the disheartening statistics.  Of making change.


In “The Optimism Bias” an article by Tali Sharot in Time magazine this past May (taken from her book of the same name), a convincing case is made for the importance of positive thinking, of hope.

“To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities—better ones—and we need to believe that we can achieve them.  Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals.”

“Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone.  Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future—to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come.  … Although most of us take this ability for granted, our capacity to envision a different time and place is in fact critical to our survival.  …  Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.”

“[Sharot’s study] found that people perceived [new] adverse events more positively if they had [already] experienced them in the past.”

This reminds me of the argument that young children need to be exposed to germs—colds have value—to build and strengthen their immune systems.  Perhaps we have emotional ‘immune systems’ too, which should not be over-taxed, yet still require exposure to difficulty (i.e. life).  This is the argument made in “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” by Lori Gottlieb, in The Atlantic, which came up in my post, “Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read“.

By extension, we need to know of the trying or traumatic experiences of others (take Brad Eifert, for example, or Harvey Milk), and we need to maintain an awareness of history (such as the Holocaust, Rwanda, Bosnia) to better understand and cope with the present—and the future.  Optimism needs knowledge, empathy, and realism running alongside.

On that note, just before leaving for London and Warsaw last month, I came across “The War Memoirist’s Dilemma” by Shannon P. Meehan at the Times “At War” Blog.  Meehan, author of the memoir Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq, writes,

“I realized that, ultimately, an honest and accurate portrait of the emotional landscape of a soldier in war was just as important as the physical landscape in which our battles were fought.”

“…. As the early voices shaping the narrative of these wars, we must shed desires to neatly package our stories into something tidy and sellable.  …  We have a responsibility as ‘soldier authors’ to tell the truth and endure the consequences of that truth.  These wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan], like all wars, present complicated questions, ones that deserve sophisticated and honest answers….”

This is the task of all memoirists, all writers, probing difficult truths and not straying from them.  In the case of memories of war, this must be all the more difficult.

~  ~  ~

~  Business Insider reports “One Million US Veterans Are In Prison, And 18 Commit Suicide Every Day.”  How many more Brad Eifert stories we need….  ~

~  Don’t miss Erica Goode‘s detailed account (“Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran”) of Brad Eifert’s descent, and how, with help from a police officer, a lawyer, and a judge, he climbed (and is still climbing) back up.  ~

~  September 1st marked seventy-two years since Nazi Germany invaded Poland, bringing on the beginning of World War II.  I was in Warsaw last week and still have on my mind the extent to which World War II remains not just a memory throughout much of Europe, but a period in history that still has an active present, not just via people’s recollections (now dwindling), but through plaques, statues, buildings gone, buildings replaced, buildings replicated.  Reminders.  More on Europe and memory (and literature) in a future post.  ~

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War, suicide, aggression—hope

In the autumn of 1992, having just returned from a semester in Moscow, I enrolled in my senior seminar, where I had the good fortune to study with Lawrence Weschler, then a staff writer with The New Yorker.  Almost twenty years later, I can’t say for sure that it was Mr. Weschler who opened my eyes to the war in Bosnia, where Sarajevo was then under siege, but he certainly played a role in introducing me to war as a personal concern.  Bosnia became my war.  And yet I did not even set foot in the former Yugoslavia for another twelve years.  A braver young woman, a bigger risk-taker, would have found a way to be there.  Some foreigners (writers) did—as civilians, aid workers, and journalists.  (Susan Sontag, Anthony Loyd, Heidi Postlewait, and Janine di Giovanni are among those who rendered compelling and passionate accounts.)  Instead, I wrote an essay or two.  I clipped newspaper articles.  I met a Bosnian emigré in a Ukrainian bar on Second Avenue, a man I spoke with for perhaps half an hour, whose haunted and hunted eyes have stuck with me since.

My father died two years later, in 1994, and I was distracted by a different kind of violence.  Guns and the body’s war with depression became my preoccupations.  A few years after that, I was reading trauma narratives, primarily accounts or analyses of the Holocaust and of World War I (“the war to end all war”), diving into lives of civilians and soldiers.  War and suicide became linked in my mind, through studies of survivors of both.  (See “What we want to say—when someone else is grieving” or “‘See that my brain’—a suicide note’s mixed message” for more about “suicide survivors,” a confusing term referring to family and friends of someone who has died by suicide.)  Gradually, I came to understand that survivors, of war (and of suicide too), later sought respite from what they remembered—and what they couldn’t—and what they could not bear to, relief sometimes difficult to come by.  I pondered the life of Primo Levi, a man who lived through Auschwitz, forty-two years later tumbling to his death (with probable intent) from a landing in his apartment building.  A few years after that, on September 11th, I watched as the second tower of the World Trade Center crumbled like an accordion, a mirage of impossible dust in lower Manhattan.  Steel reduced to rubble.  People simply gone, the acrid smell of burnt—I hardly dared think what—enduring in the air outside my apartment, sometimes in it, for days.  The feeling, the smell, of death was personal and familiar; the aftermath of my father’s suicide perched on my shoulder, resided still in my senses.

September 11th was my father’s birthday: seven years after his death, he would have reached the august age of sixty-seven on that day in 2001, a thought I could hardly attend to in the midst of so much new death around me.  A few years after this, visiting friends in Vienna, I read Jarhead, Anthony Swofford‘s illuminating account of his time serving in the first Iraq War.  I visited Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, saw buildings and sidewalks still pockmarked by bullets.  I wrote about Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, both fiction and fact.  A few more years, and again I was writing about the Holocaust, and about Russia, though I at first thought I would stick to something lighter, a surprise chase, a mystery, a marriage.  But always there is something heavier to explore or explain.  Violence, human cruelty, human suffering, the choices people make about living or dying, the guns they use for the purpose.  People caught in the cross-hairs: of history, of depression, of trauma.  People trying to outwit themselves or someone else.

Why this list of personal interests and obsessions?  Pursuits of knowledge, of understanding.  Even before my father’s suicide, I saw some violence in him—that he then turned against himself.  His story, as it were, is finished.  Elsewhere, I look for solace, for menace, for evidence—of the irredeemable cruelty of man—I look for hope.  In the story of Iraq war veteran Brad Eifert, as told recently by Erica Goode on the front page of the New York Times, there is some of all of this, but most especially hope.  Not just hope for a person, a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (from trauma) and depression and suicidal feelings.  But hope for a system that knows how to punish violence, but falters when it comes to preventing it and backs away when it comes to acknowledging some of its roots.  We send men and women to war, ask them to kill, to obey, to act first and think later, or not at all.  And then we bring them back and ask them to mow the lawn, chat with a neighbor, buy groceries, never thinking of, never dwelling on, what they have seen and what they have done, ask them to leave behind the instinct for protection and aggression that their training and tasks have so expertly honed.  How absurd.  And we see this absurdity in the form of higher suicide rates, aggression, sometimes murder, alcoholism and failed marriages when soldiers return to civilian life.  (This topic comes up again, on 8/3/11, in the NYT, “Antipsychotic Use Is Questioned for Combat Stress,” by Benedict Carey.)

Brad Eifert’s story not only gives deserved attention to the subject of post-traumatic stress in the military (on the front page no less), but also shows how a police officer, a lawyer, and a judge, in working together, offered a man who almost killed himself, and who came too close in the process to killing someone else, a second chance.  Erica Goode’s account, “Coming Together to Fight for a Troubled Veteran,” is even-handed and compelling, journalism at its best.

~  ~  ~

My thoughts this week have been frequently on London, the riots there and in other cities in the UK.  While abhorring the violence and thuggery I see in the news and hear of from friends, imagining and seeing places I love burned or blighted, my mind also turns to other real problems, economic, social—issues of poverty, lack of education and opportunity, and racism that underpin the unrest.  (The New York Times article “London Riots Put Spotlight on Troubled, Unemployed Youths in Britain” analyses some of this.  As the authors note, “Economic despair, racial tension and thuggery converge.”)

And yet, the senseless violence, quickly divorced from any righteousness or cause, harms innocent people (also those perpetrating it, once the heady rush of outlaw rebellion passes—which it will), only embedding fear, anger, more damage and blight.  How quickly rage and a mob mentality erupt; how little it accomplishes.  We still await the extent of the damage and its effects.

Posted in COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memory, Russia, Suicide, War, Welcome! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Father’s Guns (part 4) – Final Installment

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

My Father’s Guns


Travel back.  The early eighties: I might have been ten or eleven, and Dad had recently been severely depressed, suicidal even.  The woman—Lucinde? Catherine? I no longer know which one—was gone from his life, the girls returned home to Wooster, to school, to normal life, to Mom.  He was left alone.  Dad called Mom frequently, late in the evening, needing to talk for hours.  She was one of his only friends, despite permanent tensions from their divorce, disagreements on loving, raising, and caring for two children.

“He was slurring his speech,” Mom remembers.  “He was saying things about rugs for you girls” and reminding my mother about what debts he would have.

Following one of these conversations, my mother remembers me turning to her after I hung up the phone.  “It seems like Daddy is feeling a little better,” I said.

I remember long hours, during childhood summers, sitting in the formal living room on Ruby Lane.  Oriental rugs on the floor and two walls, the wood and brick fireplace—seldom used—an antique carved table, dark mahogany with a silver decanter and miniature wine cups adorning its polished surface, precious jade on the finely carved end table.  My father almost silent, his body slumped in his old leather chair, his face slumped too, the air thick with the weight of sorrow.  It was as though the measure of gravity for the house had been doubled, the depression so tangible, the air oppressive.  I tried to slink beneath it, to slouch my shoulders so as not to have the pressure of this weight push down so hard, just waiting for days to pass, for the end of the weeks to arrive, wishing for a woman to return, clearing the wreckage of the last departure.

“What do you think I should do?” he asked.  I didn’t know.

A decade later, I still didn’t know.  On the phone, in the months before he died, he asked for advice from me, from Adriane.  Did we think him foolish? Falling in love with a student, a woman so much younger.  But he said nothing about Alicia’s pregnancy, said nothing of how he wished for another child, a fantasy I had had myself years earlier, thinking another brother or sister—a lasting woman for Dad—would ease his hostility, quench his need and soften his hurt.  Alicia began to do exactly this.  That spring he found joy, as he hadn’t experienced in ages.   He summed up this feeling of flight in a poem that March.

“To be taken back to youth with a /sweep so natural that only later / one knows an eternity is needed to return intact.  To not stay there, and never to find / where one was.  The deadly joy of / scattering one’s self to the wind.”

He wanted to marry Alicia, though she was married already.  He welcomed the thought of being a parent again, though he would turn sixty that September.  An illusion of beginning anew.  But his checkbook tells of his resignation, the entry from two days before his death, part of a journey that began decades earlier, again involving a notation in a checkbook registry, that 3rd day of July, 1959.  Numbers, cryptic words, struggling to tell a story, the central narrator missing.

Alicia had the abortion in the weeks after my father’s death.  In the haze-filled days after Dad’s suicide, I could barely take her in, let alone a potential half-sibling growing within her.  Yet his life is now inextricably linked with her, a woman barely older than me, who I have met only a few times.  The pregnancy, her abortion, these were just additional details thrown upon the pile of inconceivable information, a new reality, everything shaped by one thing: my father pulling the trigger of a gun, his blood in the house, suicide.

I did not realize how dark his world had become.  I did not understand when he said, “I have stopped thinking.  I only think anymore on a sub-conscious, an unconscious level.”  Each day I live with his choice, just as each day he no longer can.

Coda* (2006) 

This September my father would have turned seventy-two, an age I can’t make him reach.  He might have mellowed, as the proverb suggests, or he might, too, have grown more cantankerous as common wisdom tells us.  I prefer the former thought, allowing him the benefit of my grief, which, of necessity, has softened with the years.

Two weeks after Dad’s birthday, I browsed in a department store, window-shopping possible furnishings for our apartment, envisioning changes my husband and I hoped to make.  My son, born the autumn before, kicked his legs in exasperation against his stroller.  It had been a long day, and he had been patient, but I needed a few more minutes of fortitude as I tried to imagine our small family in our rearranged home.  I approached the carpets, our penultimate destination.

We would be abandoning dirtying cream wall-to-wall in favor of parquet floors, over which I envisioned an Oriental rug in the small living area.  I imagined J. playing on its colorful surface, toying with the fringe at the edge as I’d seen him do in the doctor’s lobby, the deep reds rich beneath his curious hands.  Just as I must have played on my father’s rugs more than three decades earlier.

I plucked J. from his stroller, an easy antidote to his displeasure, as well as my own weariness, and propped him on my hip, guiding the stroller to a pile of rugs.  We quickly looked through the top layer before turning to examine a carpet covering the wall.  I held J. closer, the compactness of his warm body a welcome reassurance as tears pierced my vision.

“That looks just like a rug your Granddad Frye used to have,” I said to him softly.

My tone arrived as an admixture of cheerful, thoughtful, wistful, a combination I had found since becoming a parent, wanting to share memories with J., but not wanting to burden him with their full weight.  We stood there together, my ten-month-old son and I, in the emptying store, the weight of him against my body, tears filling my eyes.

In the days, after my father’s death, days which turned to years, Dad’s possessions had exuded death, inseparable from the violence of his departure.  Yet this strange carpet, far beyond my means, reminded me of what my father held dear, what then I must have too: inchoate memories of love embedded in worn threads, now gone.  For a few moments among the lights and salespeople, our three generations stood together, a welcome weight, Granddad Frye—the name still strange—with his daughter, and the grandson who will know him through me.

~  ~  ~

~  Click for Part 1 of My Father’s Guns, or Part 2 or Part 3.  ~

~ If you are new to the site, check out “What we want to say—when someone else is grieving” and “The legacy of suicide—Mark Madoff redux” for other perspectives on some of the same material….  ~

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye  //  * This Coda previously appeared in slightly different form.

*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

Posted in EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memoir, Memory, Motherhood, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Antidepressants—and Sex & Motherhood—in the News

During the notorious summer lull in “serious” books, I have found a number of interesting articles to feed my brain in recent weeks on topics as varied as depression, divorce, subjectivity, sex, and motherhood.  These essays—and their subjects—overlap and bump into each other in surprising ways, even reminding me how and why the issues compel, and remain irresolute….

Earlier this month, Peter D. Kramer, clinical professor of psychology at Brown University and author of the books Listening to Prozac (1993) and Against Depression (2003), published an important essay in The New York Times‘ Sunday Review, In Defense of Antidepressants,” in which he takes on negative media attention directed toward the use of antidepressants:

“My own beliefs aside, it is dangerous for the press to hammer away at the theme that antidepressants are placebos.  They’re not.  To give the impression that they are is to cause needless suffering.”

In the article, Kramer writes at length about how drug trials are carried out and the potential blind spots, as well as successes, the methods produce—and how this has contributed to misperceptions about the effectiveness of antidepressants.

For anyone interested in more debate on the subject, The Times showcased a range of letters a week later, “Sunday Dialogue: Seeking a Path Through Depression’s Landscape,” prompted by a Letter to the Editor earlier in the week by Warren R. Procci, president of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in which he refers to “the high-stakes battle involving pharmaceutical companies, health care providers and patients.”

I certainly cast a skeptical eye on pharmaceuticals and their intentions, but I agree with Kramer: the backlash against antidepressants is dangerous.  Antidepressants are a valuable tool, along with psychotherapy (not in place of), for improving the lives of people suffering from depression, and, in some cases, saving them.


Another Kramer pops up in the same NYT, this time in the Magazine where Heather Havrilesky (author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness) recalls the iconic divorce drama “Kramer vs. Kramer” from 1979 (three years after my own parents divorced), contrasting it with the sunny face current pop culture puts on the subject: “The Divorce Delusion: ‘A Joyful Kabuki Mask to Obscure The Anguish of Marital Bliss Gone Sour.’”  I remember the sense of awkward disconnect watching the original movie on television in the early 1980s while visiting my father.  With a few twists this was a version of our life.  Unlike Billy Kramer in the movie and Heather Havrilesky, as she recounts in this piece, my sister and I were not left behind when mom left dad.  But summers with my father involved some of the same emotions.  My father wished to have his children full-time, an aching pain that was replicated on the screen as Dustin Hoffman’s Ted Kramer suffered when Meryl Streep’s Joanna Kramer returned to reclaim their son.

In fact, there are some unexpected overlaps between Peter Kramer’s arguments (above) and Havrilesky’s here on the subject of Joanna and Ted Kramer, rendered so well by Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.  The same prescriptive isn’t right for everyone; and a deeper look can reveal more detailed information, and even a different outcome.

“The notion that there’s some ‘right’ choice for every life challenge fits neatly into the control-freak-mind-set of our current moment.  We’ve developed a real talent for transforming neutral or negative events into triumphant rites of passage.  This may represent Oprah’s most enduring legacy: the relentless conviction that even the most unpredictable, unmanageable problems can be stuffed into the familiar packaging of ‘catharsis.’  Rather than acknowledging residual pain or lingering trauma, we’re urged to embrace each story as a wake-up call or a breakthrough on the road to self-fulfillment.”

Havrilesky dissects how much change we’ve seen in social mores since the Kramer-era, and how much more visible family troubles have become:

“Infidelity, a love child (or two), dalliances with prostitutes, lewd online behavior; we’ve watched so many spouses bounce back from hell that maybe we’re beginning to believe that there’s no trauma so great that it can’t be quickly metabolized into a courageous determination to sally forth against the storm.”

Havrilesky points out that…

“‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ would most likely get panned today as a depressing Debbie Downer of a film.  But watching it again as an adult left me with a satisfying sense that I endured something profoundly sad and emerged with a new feeling of resiliency.  …[S]ometimes the urge to reshape a tragedy into a story of hope just undermines the hope therein.  We don’t need to reimagine every disaster as a tale of heroism.”

And perhaps there is even something cathartic about resiliency.


Publisher and cultural critic James Atlas, “The Art of the Interview,” writes in The New York Times about the recent Katie Roiphe interview with Janet Malcolm in The Paris Review.  Atlas, Roiphe, and Malcolm all engage with how subjects construct themselves—and how journalists shape this process—in interviews.  I am almost always a fan of The Paris Review’s author interviews, and this one is noteworthy in how it was conducted.  Rather than tape-record the author’s words (which the author later has opportunity to revise), Roiphe and Malcolm shared an email exchange—our modernized version of an epistolary relationship.


Sharing a page with Atlas, is Erica Jong (known for her seminal novel, Fear of Flying, in which she coined a lasting term, in language I won’t repeat here, about “zipless” encounters).  In her recent NYT article, “Is Sex Passé?,” Jong writes…

“Sex is discombobulating and distracting, it makes you immune to money, politics and family. And sometimes I think the younger generation wants to give it up.”

A week later, we find an interview with Erica Jong and her daughter, writer Molly Jong-Fast, in The (London) Guardian, “Erica Jong: Sex and motherhood,” where they banter about generational shifts in attitudes towards sex—the looseness of the ’70s has given over to the “prudishness”of the early 21st century.

In the earlier piece, Erica Jong sees “signs that sex has lost its frisson of freedom,” wondering if sex is “less piquant when it is not forbidden.”

“Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. “

Katha Pollit has a down-to-earth, yet fiery, reply (“No, Erica Jong, Sex is Not Passé“) on The Nation blog, including…

“Jong worries that young women are too stuck on monogamy, but not to worry: There’s plenty of infidelity, and rising rates of it among younger women. Cheating on your spouse is one thing that is never going out of style.”

Erin Gloria Ryan (“Younger Generation Totally Over Sex, Proclaims Someone in Older Generation“) weighs in from Jezebel, with Brenna Cammeron summing up on The Huffington Post:

“Liberated sex didn’t stop being exciting — it just stopped being news.”

Lots more to explore here (see also the announcement below for Anna Fishbeyn’s show “Sex in Mommyville“) . . . but this discussion ties right in with the novel I should be revising instead of navigating the sex-culture-generation wars . . . COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, in which sex is a tool, a sign of love, a sign of betrayal, an escape, an excuse, a wound—a liberation or a weapon?  A walk through Grand Central sets off a surprising chain of events, where the subjects of depression, sex, and motherhood share the page again.

~  ~  ~

Erica Jong writes on “Guns and Madness,” in her January 2011 blog post on The Huffington Post.  ~

~  Judith Warner examines the issues behind medication, migraines, and the responsibilities of public office in today’s NYT, “Me, Michele and Our Migraines.”  ~

“Is our problem with Representative Michele Bachmann’s migraines that she has them, or that she takes medication for them?”

“There’s an enormous stigma attached to mental health problems, and migraines, with their association with depression and anxiety, their well-known link to stress and their history of being dismissed as a disease of neurotic women, very clearly carry the taint of psychiatric illness. ….  There’s perhaps as great a stigma now about taking medication for a brain-related disorder as there is about having that disorder in the first place.”

And we’re right back where we started…In Defense of Antidepressants….

~  Anna Fishbeyn’s wonderful show “Sex in Mommyville” (which I wrote about here in February) will be performed next week at The Manhattan Repertory Theatre.  Check it out!  ~

~  Part 4 of “My Father’s Guns” coming soon.  ~

Posted in COUNTRIES OF LOST THINGS, Memory, Motherhood, Suicide, Writing & Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mysteries of childhood—avid reader, cannot read

Tom Swift, Laura Ingalls and Friends

Here I am, back on blog, a worried mother twisting her memory to remember what happened when in her young son’s life.  Where does the trail begin, if I want to understand what he is struggling with now?  Words are his best friends, the stories he has listened to avidly since he was an infant and toddler curved into my arm, his attention longer than mine.  Fatigue weighted my eyelids, while he wanted more, more.  It is the same now, in his sixth year, though the books have changed.  Little House on the Prairie and all its companion volumes finished over a year ago.  Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, various Roald Dahl and book after book of Tom Swift, a series of adventures and escapades penned in the 1920s, that he consumes with intense avidity with his father.  He cannot get enough.  He listens; and then he talks, a wordsmith who at times sounds like he is prepping for the SATs.  He consumes vocabulary, from conversation or from books, like food; unexpected words sprinkled in, almost always correctly employed, sometimes in creative and novel ways, still accurate but pleasantly unexpected.  An overly warm room is a smelting plant.  A portcullis pops up in a super-hero adventure, blocking someone’s way.

Vision Therapy: eyes, arms, & mouth

And yet to watch his eyes trained on a word another child of five might decode, is to see a child allergic to letters, his brain visibly uncomfortable, his gaze straining away.  Perhaps there is some improvement here; perhaps an extra year will bump him over to the other side, the land of readers, a pleasure I cannot imagine life without.

Though school curriculums in New York City, and elsewhere, have pushed reading a year or even two earlier, children’s brains have not changed.  Some can read at three, for others the mysterious world of letter-to-word-to-sentence does not come into focus until age six, or even seven.  Years afterwards, none of us knows the difference.  I don’t remember reading until first grade, when I would have been six.  No one made special efforts outside of school to compel me to master the phonics and their emergence into full stories.  My husband learned at age three or four.  Now we both consume, interpret, and take pleasure from books.

Will it be different for my son?  I cannot imagine him unable to sustain his deep love of stories and written information on his own.  It is impossible.  But his path may be more difficult, his need for help more complicated.

In June, I returned with renewed hunger to stories, to the written word.  In desperation, I carved out a half-hour, less, eagerly immersing myself, like the need for sleep after a succession of sleepless nights.  For most of May, I coasted through this word drought.  We moved apartments at the beginning of the month.  I found myself blasted by memory: I had forgotten how arduous this process is.  Four people’s possessions, un-impacted from corners and closets, like clowns emerging from their tiny car, grinning faces, bobbing hats, foot after foot.  How did it all fit in?  And then the process of making the puzzle anew, jettisoning baby clothes, maternity shirts and expandable-waist pants, nursing bras, displaced papers, and dusty magazines along the way.

Books should have appeared in that list too, our bookshelves bloated, doubled up in places, but I have not gotten there yet.  My squirrely nature, as my husband says, gets in the way.  Now we see this in our son, his urge to keep this and that, the accumulation sometimes startling: bits of ribbon; rock after rock, some colored, blue and green and red, some lingering in their natural grey-brown state; little Lego structures, grown static in their last state of construction; paper towel rolls, crayoned and binder-clipped; old party hats, some now serving as dumb-waiters when given the opportunity, the elastic jiggling the inverted cone up-and-down, and yet not breaking.  There is a whole system, a world in place here, much of it opaque to me.  He has a name for this collection of plastic bins (optimistically supplied by me) and discarded gift bags: Lego policeStories burgeon out from these discordant things and the role they play in his head.

Aleksandar Hemon has a wonderful way of describing this need to verbalize stories and use new language, likely innate, in his recent piece, “The Aquarium: A child’s isolating illness,” in the New Yorker (see “Thoughts on reading, breathing, writing and grief“).  The essay is devastating in its eloquent treatment of tragedy (the cancer of his nine-month-old, Isabel), but here Hemon writes about his older daughter, three-year-old Ella:

“The creation of an imaginary character is related, I believe, to the explosion of linguistic abilities that occurs between the ages of two and four, and rapidly creates an excess of language, which the child may not have enough experience to match.  She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses.  Ella now knew the word “California,” for instance, but she had no experience that was in any way related to it; nor could she conceptualize it in its abstract aspect—in its California-ness.  Hence, her imaginary brother had to be deployed to the sunny state, which allowed Ella to talk at length as if she knew California.  The words demanded the story.”

But now I fear my words have run away from me.  In my zealous need to describe, to impart the vastness of Lego police’s role, the range of its imaginative and physical array, I have made it sound larger and more dramatic, overwhelming in its physicality.  For now, Lego police is confined—housed—on less than two shelves in the boys’ shared room, evicted from the living room after our move.  This is what boys do, I tell myself; they collect, they secret things away, old rocks in their pockets, crumpled wrappers.  My memory relies on remnants of children’s stories from my own childhood, on tales I remember from my step-father of his unfettered summers as a youth: boys in the fields, their imaginations roaming the grass, hiding among trees, a boys’ world like nothing since.  And then I remember, too, my mud-pies and sticks and little notebooks; but memory and imagination eventually fall short.  And I worry again, turning over the details like tarot cards.

Eye on the ball (Foot on the ball)

My son is lively, engaging, friendly, eager to play with other children, despite the bookish loves I have described.  He wants to dig in the dirt; he wants to dive into experiences with his friends.  He is social and well-adjusted.  He loves to run, even if his gait remains unsynchronized, arms and legs working against each other, not yet harmonized like his younger brother’s.  He has lost his allergy to balls; he eagerly anticipates his next soccer class; he notes when another child is less coordinated than he.  But his skill with puzzles still lags behind his peers; he still sucks his thumb, and his need for physical contact, pressure against his skin, is heightened.  His world has less gravity than ours—this is how I have come to think of it when I need to explain the discrepancy between what he gets (what we get) and what he needs: more hugs, the pressure of a wall, the sofa, a heavy blanket, a person.  He is affectionate.  When he is talking he seems mature, older than his five years; when he is not, he seems younger.

Try to paint a picture of the whole child, and you can’t.

My son receives “services,” Department of Education parlance for the Occupational Therapy (OT) and Physical Therapy (PT) the city funds for him several times a week at school, addressing his fine- and gross-motor delays.  He can write all of the capital letters, most of the lower case, but his grip is still weak and inefficient, his strokes often the wrong way around.  His letters jump in size, the lines unable to contain them.  But he can sound out a sentence when he really wants to write it.  He is making progress.  He is not making progress fast enough.

His fingers are clumsy.  I see this, when he holds a plate.  I have to remind him how to carry it, thumbs on top, keep it steady; while his three-year-old brother just seems to know.  Amazing how many things are encoded in our brains and bodies, unwrapped and revealed at the right developmental stage.  I have only recognized this as we came to note our younger son attempting things more masterfully than our older.  His grip on a crayon before age-two: one body knew what to do, the other did not.  Why should such a small sentence press this pain into my chest?  How difficult it is to watch your child, and even while taking the correct steps remain so helpless.  Correct!  The word is deceitfully precise; what is correct shifts and changes, alongside what we understand, or sometimes ahead of what we know, or behind.  Comprehension is slow, imperfect, too often temporary.  My son is “normal.”  I am lucky, so lucky, to have two such healthy, loving and loveable boys.  What is normal?

King Tut...Can Go

After my father died, I had to learn how to talk about suicide.  It sometimes felt like I had to learn how to talk; I had a new language, new reactions, new realities to understand.  I gradually found that being open about my father, how he had died, was helpful.  It helped me to feel less alone with the experience, and it helped me in understanding it. Sometimes there was discomfort or incomprehension in people’s reactions.  But gradually, I learned that people around me struggled with tough things too, depression, suicide, grief, experiences similar to, or different from, mine; and even if they hadn’t, that didn’t mean they couldn’t.

What I am trying to piece together now, with my son’s abilities and his difficulties, is easier, I think, the scale smaller.  But I recognize the confusion in myself and in others who know him, and see again that there are mysteries I need to grapple with, and mysteries to which I will never have the answer.  Did that airplane flight matter?  Was the birth too slow?  Are we formed from birth?  When do we change?  When he started to ask for hugs—hug me, hug me—out of proportion to the affection he already received, was that the first sign that something was different?  Does that mean something was wrong?  Why? It’s a question we have to ask.  The importance of it is clear: think of Aleksandar Hemon’s daughter Ella employing new language, trying to make sense out of words and experiences that can’t yet make sense; or watch a toddler take in the world—demanding reasons for the ways in which it is ordered, and the chaos that seems without reason.  How many answers we have!  And so many we don’t know, or have to make up along the way.

  ~  ~  ~

~  A recent article in The Atlantic, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” by Lori Gottlieb, argues (quite convincingly) that parental trends have veered too far towards over-attending to our children.  The piece makes for an interesting, thought-provoking read.  ~

Posted in Memory, Motherhood, Suicide, Writing & Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Father’s Guns (part 3)

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

My Father’s Guns


Stewart’s Gun Shop in Bloomington is on South Walnut, a side street perpendicular to central downtown.  I’d been there several times before my trip back, but I had never thought of it as a gun store, never noticed—or at least remembered—the middle word of the shop’s name.  For us it was simply “Stewart’s,” the eclectic store where Dad bought African art, masks and statues, not guns.

My father was an inveterate collector.  He passed through phases, objects marking a series of years, as did relationships.  The collections sometimes came wedded to a woman, other times independent from her.  Dad studied up, honed an expertise on contemporary art, on Oriental rugs, on jade, on Chinese porcelain, before I was born.  Crystal was briefly in favor during my childhood, followed by Italian leather masks and Spanish ceramics.  Looking back, I see this must have been a domestic phase—children dominant, and only one or two serious women.  African art, carved masks and wood statues, filled the longest period in my memory—most of my teen years, until close to the end.

But I wanted to find out about the guns: were the “antique” revolvers from 1979 long gone? had they been sold? or was one of them the revolver he had used on July 4th?  Were these the same guns he might have purchased decades earlier, in 1959?  There should have been both a shotgun and a rifle from the years at the farm in the early seventies; we had found only the rifle.  Stewart’s bought and sold guns, an old friend had reminded me the day before.  I then recalled the rifles and shotguns lined against a wall, almost blending into invisibility.

I nervously parked my rental car on South Walnut, the street eerily familiar from another life.  I had been there perhaps six years before with my father, the hugeness of his presence—his deep voice, his confident tread, the lines of his face, both thoughtful and fierce, playful and serious—leaving a vast absence in his stead as I approached the door alone.  The front of the shop was filled with oddities and remnants crowded together: piles of old record albums, Native American rugs, knick-knacks, pipes in a display case, a life-size wooden statue of an Indian in full head-dress.  An unobtrusive doorway behind the counter offered access to a much larger back room.  This hidden storage area, including an open second floor, overflowed with African art, my father’s new passion during my high school and college years: this was the reason we came to Stewart’s, to haggle over prices for items in the back, my father coveting more than he could realistically fit into his gradually bloating house, and spending more than he could easily afford.  But he was meticulous about keeping accounts, making sure he stayed above water.

Bob Stewart and his wife, Joanne, were friendly, their faces well-worn, open and reassuring.  They had no problem remembering my father, and they even recalled his visits with Adriane and me.  But Stewart didn’t recollect any transaction with Lawrence that involved a gun.  He thought for a minute and then called over his wife, who handles most of the gun sales.  I glanced down and saw that the glass counter between us held an array of previously invisible pistols, revolvers, handguns.

Joanne thought they might have bought a gun from my father, or perhaps sold one to him, but, like her husband, she remembered nothing concrete.  She offered to go through her ledgers, saying then we’d know for sure.

“The more I look, the more I think I have seen his name in this book,” Joanne tells me when we speak on the phone a couple of days later.  The rhyme is not lost to me as I jot down what she says, though my limbs and brain feel tingly from numbness colliding with adrenaline.  She calls me “babe” and “honey” and I feel better, strangely comforted by her southern Indiana accent and motherly tone, though she is looking for concrete evidence of exchange of a weapon that I loathe, that fills me with incongruous emotions of sadness, rage, bleak and gory terror, and some primordial, intense need for knowledge.

She isn’t done going through the ledgers yet, she tells me, but she’s beginning to feel like she has some recollection of a “snub nose”—of selling one to him.  I don’t know what she means and she explains that a “snub nose” is a .38 revolver, and that it takes a cylinder not a clip.  “.38” and “cylinder” are words that have been incorporated into my post-suicide vocabulary, and I understand that, if she is right, this could have been the gun.

I waited more than a year to follow up with Stewart’s again.  I can’t really say why, except that I procrastinated, and then I procrastinated some more, and then it began to feel like calling the moon: something so distant, so impossible that I couldn’t activate the simple motions of pulling out their card from my date book and dialing the number.  Because then I would have to explain again about my strange—even morbid—need to know when and how the guns moved around, whether one or two had been sold, later replaced, whether there were always guns in my father’s study or his bedroom, lurking behind cupboards and closed doors.  But New York and Bloomington are not as distant as they had come to feel, just a phone call away, though my life in the present—living alone in my East Village studio, friends scattered throughout the city—felt light years away from a world where people keep guns in the closets or dressers of their homes.  I know this dichotomy is false, yet I don’t feel like a woman with a father—a professor, a collector of art—who bought guns.

“It seemed to me like once I bought something from him,” Joanne says when I finally renew contact late in the summer of 1999.  But she still can’t find concrete evidence of a purchase in her ledgers or among her piles of receipts, nothing more solid than inchoate memories without tangible evidence or proof.  “Indiana hasn’t had registration for a good long while,” she tells me, so state records would be of no help.

When her search continues to come up empty, she suggests getting in touch with the BATF, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  “They’re not there to harm people,” she assures me, “they’re sure not.”

The BATF won’t have anything current from Indiana, Joanne explains, but if anyone were still to have a record of a purchase as far back as 1959, it would be them.  And so I proceed, by phone, through a number of offices, bouncing around the country, contacting Atlanta, D.C., Texas, and then the ATF National Tracing Center.  The state of Texas has no records that far back; Atlanta will send me a form for “Request for Information Concerning a Firearm”; and then the National Tracing Center offers to look into the unlikely possibility that records exist for a gun purchased in Texas forty years ago, a purchase that may not even have taken place.

Eudora at the National Tracing Center says they do not maintain records for Indiana, except sometimes, by Federal law, if the store has gone out of business.  They do not keep any comprehensive listing by name of purchasers; but she can have someone check to see if there are listings for any “Chuck’s Gun Shop” in Austin, in which case I can fill out the “Information” form and return it with $37.50 for a full record.

Who is this young woman—me?—requesting gun records from the BATF?  I am mutating, my urges growing unrecognizable.  My maternal ancestors are Mennonites, pacifists who would not fight in wars, their values in conflict with the object of my growing obsession, the same obsession with which I risk betraying my father.  And yet, he wished for greater inquisitiveness in me, a honing of insight and inquiry.  I have grown more attentive to him in death than in life.

There were in fact three stores in Austin named “Chuck’s Gun Shop,” though not one is listed with current directory information.  One has no records on file, and the other two do not have records going back as far as 1959.  The BATF, a bevy of normal people speaking to me on the phone, has been very helpful.  But they cannot help me at all.

There may have been a gun in 1959; there were two revolvers in 1979; there was one revolver fifteen years later.  The numbers do not add up, they do not subtract, they become an equation with indefinite variables, only one solid numerical certainty: one revolver, existing outside of time—transgressing—of undefined origin, of uncertain paternity.

I have never seen this gun my father placed against his right temple.  The police took it as evidence, and Adriane and I declined to have it returned.  I have seen very few guns.  I have never touched a gun.  But now I watch them, wanting to turn away, but often unable, riveted by these instruments: so decimating, yet so compact.  I study them, watching surreptitiously as though they, or someone else, might notice: as though my father’s gun could brand me as a gun-lover, or a gun-hater.  I don’t trust them, the guns, they are more powerful than I understand; and they make people more malevolent than I otherwise want to believe.

My father’s finger on the trigger, the barrel pressed against the side of his head, and then the revolver’s cylinder rotates, so quickly it defies human movement.  The bullet, no wider than my fingernail, enters human flesh, tears through his brain, and exits, creating a wound three times the size of the bullet, spilling blood.  Ending a life.

~  Part 4 coming soon.  ~

~  Click for Part 1 or Part 2 or Part 4.  ~

~ If you are new to the site, check out “Remembering—who we are” and “Hollywood and the army base, and bipolar realities” for other perspectives on some of the same material….  ~

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

Posted in EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memoir, Memory, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Father’s Guns (part 2)

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

My Father’s Guns


On Bastille Day 1998, accidental marker of independence and revolt, I exit the plane from New York and enter the Indianapolis airport, the air flat and snug against my skin.  It feels wrong to be back, four years like an eternity.  In that time, I have quit my job as a purchasing agent, traveled in Europe, written a novel, and completed a year of graduate school.  Yet Dad’s death remains fresh, my grief still raw.  Numbness coats my movements, dulling my hyper-vigilant senses, as I enter the terminal.  A cheerful sign greets me:

“Welcome to Indianapolis, the success story of the Midwest.”

I almost want to laugh, but I can feel it choked in my throat.  I probably want to cry more.  My whole body is tense, I just want a cigarette, I just want to be settled into my motel in Bloomington, still fifty miles away.

My brain is melting.

I am in the shiny bright-green rental car, sitting low to the ground.  Last time I rented a car, the acceleration was lousy.  This time it’s the brakes; they work, but I have to press hard, half holding my breath, waiting for the car’s delayed reaction.  It seems fitting since I can’t really stop now anyway.  Though I don’t know exactly why I’ve come back, I do know that I cannot turn around.

The speeding car and the too-familiar highway are hurtling me back toward all of the years and ages preceding this moment.  All of these different stages and ages of someone named “Kara” are rising up, revolting, returning with me now; and I am losing me in the process.  I’m not sure what “Kara” means, who should answer to the name.  I am twenty-seven, but I might be eight, ten, five, thirteen. . . .  I’m afraid I might be slipping away.  Again.

I am an angry and scared four-year-old, screaming as my mother buckles me into the car to visit my father.  I am an eight-year-old transporting every belonging I can pack, bringing every stuffed animal, every book, every toy, as I pile into the car, leaving my home for his.  I am a trembly ten-year-old, tears sprouting in the corners of my eyes, my chin trying to hold still so my pain, my longing for my mother, will not show as we drive away from the mid-way meeting point in desolate western Ohio, the three-hour journey from Wooster too short.  “Ohio, the heart of it all,” our license plates proclaim.  I wave forlornly to my mother as we drive off, and I try to be strong, try not to think about how much my ribs hurt, my throat aches, how long six weeks, eight weeks, will feel.

I am a stubborn thirteen-year-old, utterly insecure about my body, my social skills, my place in the world, but I will argue tooth-and-nail to get my allowance, to get permission to walk to the mall with Adriane, to finish reading a book when my father wants me to talk instead.  My little sister and books offer respite from Dad’s erratic angers, from the vagaries of his unnamed depression.  Mostly, I am sullen, I am silent, my face can turn implacable, my voice firm, and I can argue with the best—because I learned from the master.  Even if I rarely win, I will fight.

This is what I try to remember as I move closer and closer to Bloomington, as scraps of the past whiz forward: I am a fighter, I am a survivor.  The cliché reassures me, a reliable platitude in the midst of chaos.  Even if I didn’t always know what I was fighting, now I have begun to know what I am surviving: death, the suicide waiting latent for years, the intense need that might have foretold it, had it been truly readable.  I tried to read everything but that need—I read only that need, then ran from it.  We should not have fought each other so resolutely, but generations of precedent don’t easily vanish.  And death comes suddenly, irrevocably.

Doesn’t it?

The motel on the edge of town is just as I remember it, except I barely remember being here at all.  The four of us—the new family of my mother, sister, and stepfather—spent five nights here immediately following Dad’s death, but all I remember is a bed and the only sleeping pill I ever took and running along Third Avenue in the morning.  The Bloomington shopping mall—large, non-descript, ugly even—rests reassuringly across the busy intersection of city streets and the highway, just a block away.  The chilled mall was the haven of my childhood, where I could buy candy, trinkets, and, later, clothes.  Where I felt independent, in charge of my own movements, for stolen hours at a time.  No one watching, no one criticizing, no one saying, “Don’t do that.”

God, I miss him.

As I get ready to go to dinner with Lucinde*, one of his earlier, post-divorce girlfriends—one of “his women,” as Lucinde will put it, that other, intelligent, middle-aged men were jealous of—I am not yet thinking of loss and rage.  His losses I have been familiar with for as long as I can remember; I just couldn’t be enough to replace them without disappearing myself.  But rage I am just beginning to understand.  Rage and bullets and guns.  Death and anger, anger and death.  But I cannot bring them together yet, cannot fit the pieces together.

Suicide.  The dictionary says: 1.  “The act or an instant of intentionally killing oneself.”  It is an action taken.  2.  “The destruction or ruin of one’s own interests.”  It is a result.  3.  “One who commits suicide.”  And it is a person.  So cold, so plastic, so empty; like what it sometimes leaves behind.  An act, a resulting destruction and ruin . . . a person.  Cold, plastic emptiness.  Suicide, even the sound is slippery.  Sui: of oneself.  Cide: killer.  He is the murderer.  He is the victim.  Suicide.  I repeat it in my head . . . until the word is empty, until it has over-flowed so much that nothing and everything remains: the result of the word, of the act, the culmination of his life, a life which has only ended physically.  He still remains.

But I don’t think about all of this as I quickly change, as I try to remember I am a New Yorker, I have left this place, I am not eight or thirteen or . . . I am me with an adult life.  And he hovers around the fringes of the motel room, the edge of my thoughts, in the Indiana summer air, and I wonder again, “Why did I come back?  Why now?”  I didn’t think there was anything significant to learn.

Lucinde welcomes me warmly with a hug at her front door, but her movements seem vaguely hurried and nervous.  Her hair is rich auburn now, cut shorter near her jaw, instead of the light brown I remember from childhood.  She says she exercises every day, and she looks healthy.  She seems comfortable in her body, her life.  I like the new chicer, blunt-cut auburn.

I try to be relaxed, calm, I try to be me.  I think her hand shakes a little as she makes wine spritzers for us to take onto the porch.  Within a few days I will be used to seeing hands shake, almost indiscernibly, and faces wearing a mask of wariness as they greet me, just as their voices covered themselves in caution over the phone.  After all, I am his daughter.  I am not Lawrence, but I am a reminder of who he was, and what he did.  Yet everyone is kind, considerate, even thoughtful in what they share, how they open themselves up to both painful and joyous memories, and the reminder that it came to an end with a bullet through his head.  The love is still there, and the painful questions, still unanswered, never really to be answered: “Why couldn’t he control his temper?  Why couldn’t he only be all of those amazing, wonderful things?”  He was witty, he was sharp as hell, he was humorous, he was maybe even a “genius.”  This word “genius” floats around like some unfair twist of fate.  And his temper. . . he was never wrong, and, now, he has finally had the last word.  Unless, maybe, we do.

Lucinde and I settle into lawn chairs on the porch, the air warm, the light buzz of summer evening around us.  The street is quiet, with little traffic.  The occasional pedestrian or stray voice calls in an errant child for supper.  We talk about safe topics: Lucinde’s work, her daughter, my sister, what I’m doing in graduate school.  And then we move inside for dinner.

We eat rice and stir-fry that Lucinde has prepared.  We are growing more comfortable together, our shared history softening the gaps in our intimacy.  But, still, I feel like a pilot on a long, night flight through a storm; my senses are completely alert, adrenaline pumping, while on the surface I remain easy-going, calm.  Lucinde delves deeper into her memories, and the storm gathers momentum.  My father owned guns long before his death, Lucinde tells me.  He had two revolvers, as well as a rifle, when they were lovers in the late 1970s.  My stomach drops.  My semblance of childhood begins to crumble, eroding further than I thought possible.  I push food around my plate.  I keep my face polite; I keep it strong so she won’t stop talking.

Of course, I know he had a gun in his hand at death: the last word, the last sound, a shot.  “A .38 caliber police revolver from the ’40s.”  This is what the coroner told us.  But I believed it was newly acquired, though I did not know when.  But Lucinde has shattered my sense of sequence, willfully near-sighted though it was.  His suicide was not a rupture in an otherwise even-keeled life; it was building for years.  This does not come as a surprise, not after four years of considering his suicide, the depression preceding it.  But now I am confronted with the violence of his death, the latent violence before.  I had known about my father’s rifle.  He had it on the farm where my parents lived for four years from my infancy until my mother left in 1975.  We found the rifle when we sorted through my father’s house after his death.

But two revolvers?  We are talking about 1979.  I was eight years old.  Lucinde and her daughter, Becky, were living with him.  I remember that summer: the new semblance of a family, playing with Becky, teasing Adriane, day camp, taking photos in the backyard.  Lucinde and Becky moved out in September.  Adriane and I had already returned home to Ohio, our small-town home, our mother, our routine and comfort.  So, I don’t remember them leaving, just that they were gone.

Lucinde says it was late.  They were having a fight.  She was going to call the police—I don’t ask why—and he brought out the guns.  She can’t think of the word for the piece of furniture where they were stored.  Though she is German, she speaks fluent English, but at this moment, in this awful memory, the simplicity of one word evaporates.  I say, “the bureau,” and she says, “yes,” but later I will think it was the closet, with its Swiss shoes and forbidden top shelves.  But how could I know?  After all, I was not there.  Her words emblazon a story, a series of frozen, staccato images, in my mind.

They were in a case, a pair of revolvers or pistols.  He threatened her with one of them.  I see him holding the gun and my blood is frozen.  I imagine Becky, not yet eleven years old, just outside the room, but I don’t know if she was.

Lucinde and Becky moved out that night, buying a new house within two weeks, abandoning the home to be made together, the talk of marriage, the new family Adriane and I might have returned to at Christmas or the following summer.  Leaving his temper behind, though the relationship dragged on for months to come.

There are things I have forgotten, pushed away in order to carry on.  And there are things I had no idea I did not know.  Just one life, and, of course, it is far more complex than I have realized.  He was charismatic, my father, he was intense and loving and fascinating, and he could be verbally terrifying.  But never physically threatening.

I am being a sissy, I tell myself, a wuss, a wimp, my vocabulary regresses, I am a naive child.  Nearly fifty-percent of homes in America hold a firearm.  Why should mine have been different?  Guns are everywhere.  And I hate them.  Because I saw my father afterwards.  Because I saw his face, white, drained of blood; his hair matted on one side, sticking up wildly on the other.  Because I saw the expression on his face, that expression frozen forever, indescribable, but visually inscribed across the cells of my brain.  I cannot dwell on it without my body tingling, my brain slowing and my pulse beginning to quicken: the same physiological reactions I imagine my father having in his last moments.  And I cannot forget it, even though I must not have seen him for more than ten, maybe fifteen, seconds, as I dutifully confirmed what everyone already knew: Yes, that is my father, that is Lawrence O. Frye.  Deceased.

Even if I hadn’t seen him then, at the funeral home, after they had cleaned him up, after they had tried to erase some of the horror of what he had done, I would still have the pictures in my head of how he must have lain in his hallway, of how he must have pulled the trigger.  How Alicia found him.

When I first met Alicia, immediately after his death, I felt empathy: I identified with her, I wanted to reassure her.  After all, she had known him, loved him, for less than a year.  She was a novice at negotiating his needs, his temper, his love.  I had been with him for twenty-three years.  I understood how hard it was to love him, how hard to stay.

And she. . . .  I don’t think she is as complicated as my father, but she is much younger, and for a while I think she could practically have been me.  She learned too late: too late, what is too much, and what is too little.  Or, perhaps, she just arrived too late, thirty or forty years past due.  He drank from Alicia’s youth, allowing his thoughts to open up.  He relished her vivaciousness, her candor.  It brought forth candor and new energy of his own.  But he never understood that no woman could save him, nor could she reverse his earlier mistakes, make him born anew.  Just as a new child would not remake his past, return to him opportunities he had lost or squandered.  And yet, despite the joy she gave him, he meant for Alicia to find him—he taped her phone number to the door—though she was barely an adult herself, though he loved her.

I refuse to think of my father, gun to his head, living his last moments in rage.  I refuse to see violence in the movement of his finger pulling the trigger.  I cannot see vindictiveness shaping his final hours.  I focus on his pain, his hopelessness, his depression.  His illness.

But my own dreams belie my intellect’s attempt to think of suicide as non-aggressive, only private and individual.  My dreams are filled with violence, with threat.  In one, he holds a gun to my sister’s head, and I am responsible for saving her, by doing what he asks, but also by deceiving him.  I think I do save her, but the dream ends without resolution.

In another dream, he is calling me to come talk in the living room, a place of sullen conversations in guarded language.  I feel threatened, in physical danger.  Does he have a knife?  I am in the kitchen; I am afraid to go into the other room, but I know I must.  I take three knives, hiding them in my clothes.  The dream ends before we confront each other.

He said he did not want us to be angry with Alicia, he said he wanted us to help her, if she needed it, and she us.  As though we could be made family by his love.

You know already how I feel about you, how I love you both,” he wrote to his daughters.

“You are both wonderful and will do well.  All I have is yours to share, divide – including disarray and debts.  Your mother will hopefully help sort out & order.  Perhaps – if she’s willing, I hope – Alicia will also help.  If she needs any help or support from you, please give it.  – I want that, even if things didn’t turn out as I would wish & envision.”

This is what he said he wanted, what he wrote down late on the afternoon of the 3rd, before he would call me that evening to wish me a happy birthday, before his thoughts and syntax would become less lucid.  And I know, now, that words—what we say or what we write—can rarely contain and convey all of what we mean, or what we feel.  Suicide notes, in particular, are not reliable documents.  They can appear so honest, so bare, so brief—they seem to hit a raw place of pure emotion, pure feeling.  Yet they are deceptive, the work of a mind feeding upon itself.  After putting down his last words for Adriane and me, he composed several elliptical notes to Alicia.

July 3rd, 11:23 p.m.:

“If we couldn’t meet in a new alliance, with whom could or would I?!  We – you who so wanted to get under my skin, who liked this and that, who loved – in spite of this and that.  I, so entranced by you that I spun myself out to you – and wanted to be re-wrapped in you.  . . . If only I knew you had something to strongly remember me by and with.”

He continued his thoughts a few minutes later, shortly after 12:01 a.m., according to his diligent notations, on the 4th of July.

“I wonder from what motive you give no sign of yourself.  Sad moments.  I’m in terror.”

“. . . This incredibly excruciating and                                                                                                                                                 hard.”

The last word of this note drops down off its line, the thought truncated, too heavy, unsayable.

~  Part 3 coming soon.  ~

~  For Part 1 click here.  ~

~ If you are new to the site, check out “What we want to say—when someone else is grieving” or “How Madoff the younger became my kin” for other perspectives on some of the same material….  ~

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

Posted in EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memoir, Memory, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on reading, breathing, writing & grief

Barnes and Noble has demoted its literary journals, shifting them further in and narrowing their shelf space, during my recent period of inattention.  Of course these facts are unrelated: my distraction—consumption—by family life and my local B&N’s shelf make-over.  Yet, like so much in life that is arbitrary and unparticular, it feels specific, relevant, and personal.

The past month and a half, I have been a writer who does not write, does not read.  Each week has felt like it is approaching the last of this hectic season, a year that has surprised me in its intensity.  And then I think, well is this what parenting is: always thinking you are about to catch your breath? but never quite getting there?  Then I remind myself of the onslaught that is surely particular, not part of a permanent trend, school decisions, surgery, and a move to a new apartment among them.

How odd that private life comes to remind us of public debates and perennial questions: Has everyone stopped reading?  I don’t believe it, a perspective that is supported by at least some hard data.  [Not everyone, but it looks like people are making different choices and reading less….  For example (and many stats), see “Twilight of the Books,” by Caleb Crain in the New Yorker.]  Data almost always proves useful for more than one side of an argument; the perfidious, fickle, unreliable nature of information.

Data: Doctors say the ulnar nerve may start to trap and strain in your forties.  As efficiently as that date approaches, I have not arrived, and yet there was my left ulnar nerve—trapped—pulling on some invisible thread to my fingers, numbing and weakening them, at first in stealth, and then abruptly making the defect known.  Data: July 4th is Independence Day.  And yet, since my father died on that date, I can only see the holiday’s name with an ironic eye.  When my son mentions America’s birthday right next to mine—independence day, he says—I sense the invisible flinch, like a twitch or tic, within me.  These sound like crotchety thoughts, not at all the route I had in mind.

Indeed, I miss the written word.  How has other life pushed me from it?

More on that in a future post.  For now, I’ll point out the two essays I have managed to read during this period of literary drought, the first, by Rachel Cusk, “Aftermath,” about her divorce, motherhood, and writing, in the newest issue of Granta (#115), which (amazingly!?—see the Vida Count), is composed entirely of pieces written by women, a refreshing and welcome shift.  Cusk, author of the memoir A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and novels such as Arlington Park, here engaged and moved me, made me think and say “oh, yes,” and then think some more.  The essay seems to say exactly what I think (much of my own experience quite different) and then go on to say the precise opposite—and so on, back-and-forth.  And yet when I finished reading it, I wanted to walk around with the volume raised, proclaiming…something—like some bible-thumping convert.

Cusk, until her separation from her husband, was the employed half of the couple.  In the midst of divorce (in England), she finds her priorities and choices shifting.  She is faced with supporting her soon-to-be ex-husband financially, and she wants more than half-custody of their daughters.  “They’re my children, I said.  They belong to me.”  Here is a taste of what she is investigating:

“Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated.  He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expect me to defend him against myself, the male oppressor.  He felt it was womanly to shop and cook, to collect the children from school.  Yet it was when I myself did those things that I often felt most unsexed.  My own mother had not seemed beautiful to me in the exercise of her maternal duties; likewise they seemed to threaten, not enhance, her womanliness. …. It was only when she was with other people that, as a child, I was able to notice her objectively. …Suddenly I could see her….”


“It has existed as a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters.  Have I been, as a mother, denied?  The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed—all unmentioned, wilfully or casually forgotten as time has passed, the Dark Ages on which I now feel the civilization of our family has been built.  ….My own mother once wept at the supper table, wildly accusing us of never having thanked her for giving birth to us. …We felt uneasy and rightly so: we had been unjustly blamed.  Wasn’t it my father who should have thanked her, for giving form and substance, continuance, of himself?  Instead, his own contribution, his work, ran parallel to hers: it was she who had to be grateful to him, superficially at least.  For years he had gone to the office and come back again, regular as a Swiss train, as authorized as she was illicit.”

Cusk, in probing her own life, poses interesting questions on the subjects of motherhood, marriage, work, and creativity, and does so with intimate particularity.  Her forthrightness, whether one agrees or not with some of her conclusions, is refreshing.

The second essay, by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Aleksandar Hemon, I turned to with a consuming desperation.  I selected “The Aquarium: A child’s isolating illness” for its writer not its subject.  I needed words, a narrative, like a lost soul looking for water in the desert of my night-time kitchen.  Dishes still waited; exhaustion and heartache, for my son and troubles I could not unravel or solve, overwhelmed me.  I abandoned the kitchen, and its waiting drudgery, for the living room sofa and the just-arrived New Yorker, and was soon moved to tears, overwhelmed in an entirely different way, by someone else’s pain so much more acute than my own.  Hemon’s story about his nine-month-old, Isabel’s, battle with cancer is tragically beautiful in its prose, meticulous, precise, and wrenching.

“One day at breakfast, while Ella [Isabel’s older sister] ate her oatmeal and rambled on about her [imaginary] brother, I recognized in a humbling flash that she was doing exactly what I’d been doing as a writer all these years: the fictional characters in my books had allowed me to understand what was hard for me to understand….  Listening to Ella furiously and endlessly unfurl the Mingus tales, I understood that the need to tell stories was deeply embedded in our minds and inseparably entangled with the mechanisms that generate and absorb language.  Narrative imagination—and therefore fiction—was a basic evolutionary tool of survival.  We processed the world by telling stories, produced human knowledge through our engagement with imagined selves.”

I had stumbled upon precisely what I needed to read.  I had been suffocating, during this month without writing, without words; my oxygen was depleted, and here was someone else who understood.  Writing (and reading too) helps us to know what we think, and even what we feel.  But Hemon goes on to explain how words and writing are not enough in the face of certain losses, particularly in the consuming helplessness and horror of looming anguish such as Hemon describes.

“Whatever knowledge I’d acquired in my fiction-writing career was of no value inside our A.T.R.T. [cancer] aquarium, however.  Unlike Ella, I could not construct a story that would help me comprehend what was happening.  Isabel’s illness overrode any form of imaginative involvement on my part.”

And yet Hemon’s essay illustrates how important narrative is: communicating, containing, offering a finite task when other tasks remain infinite.  Certainly grief cannot be trapped and contained; and yet we try.

~  Coming next… Part 2 of “My Father’s Guns”  ~

~  For Part 1, click here.  ~

Posted in Memory, Motherhood, Suicide, Writing & Reading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Father’s Guns (part 1)

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye  [Krauze]

* Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

My Father’s Guns


July 3rd, 1959: my father wrote a check to Chuck’s Gun Shop.  Larry, as he was known back then, was a graduate student at the University of Texas-Austin.  He was married to his first wife, but the marriage would end within a year.  I was born on July 3rd twelve years later.  This record of a check, this date, is perhaps insignificant: just a notation in a now mildewed checkbook registry, the staples bleeding rust.  The barely legible scrawl of his handwriting gives no indication what he actually purchased with that thirty-five dollar check.  But my father died thirty-five years later, almost to the day, from a gun—his own.

Lawrence Ortlieb Frye taught Germanic Studies at Indiana University in Bloomington for more than thirty years.  I was born in this small Midwestern city.  The university, the center point of the town, was where my parents had met, my mother then a graduate student in English literature fulfilling a language requirement.  They divorced eight years later, in 1976, and my mother soon moved my younger sister and me to Ohio, where she had found a teaching position at a small liberal arts college.  My sister, Adriane (almost four years my junior), and I returned to Bloomington for long visits with our father during the summer and for the Christmas holidays, our lives unevenly divided between Wooster and Bloomington, between Mom and Dad.

In July 1998, I traveled back to Bloomington, for the first time since my father’s death, my longest absence.  When I belatedly realized I had booked my flight from New York to Indianapolis on Bastille Day, it seemed appropriate.  I think my father, with his edgy humor and linguistic acumen, might have appreciated it too.  French revolt instead of American independence.  A counterpart to July 4th, the anniversary of his suicide.  Independence Day: I hear those words differently now, a small, wry laugh inside, a twinge of pain.

I last passed through the Indianapolis airport four years earlier.  But last time was in reverse.  Then I was returning to New York, clutching a soft-sided, rectangular, tan leather bag, my father’s weekend case, with a cardboard box inside.  I nervously released the bag to the x-ray conveyor belt before entering the terminal wing.  The attendant stopped the belt, staring at the x-ray screen.  The contents of the box were too dense to decipher what was inside.  Another man in a security uniform joined her.  They asked me to open the bag.

“It’s my father’s ashes,” I said, the words falling awkwardly from my mouth.

I pulled out the “Permit for Disposition of Human Remains” the funeral director had given me.  Everything moved in electrified slow-motion.  I was removed from my body, hovering above the scene, as though viewing a security video designed to capture my anxiety for strangers.  I tried to sound calm, tried to make this preposterous situation seem normal.  In the week since my father’s death, I had almost grown accustomed to the strangest of requests and explanations coming out in my voice, an unexpected cousin to my normal voice, my tone tightened by tension and grief.  I struggled to find a delicate way to explain ugly details, provide macabre descriptions, and ask uncomfortable questions.

I was twenty-three when my father killed himself.  He was fifty-nine.  Alicia, his lover, was twenty-six.  I find comfort, a certain immutable surety in numbers, in ages, in these indisputable details.  Numbers do not lie; even if they barely speak at all, even though they are deceptively simple.  I return to them, accumulate them, count them, as though they were the beads of a rosary, a talisman I could never possess.  But they are solid at least, precise and explicable, when so much else defies me, pummeling my trust and taunting my memory.

My father was a visually-imposing man, a forceful presence whom people often found intimidating.  Six feet two inches tall, long-legged and broad-shouldered with solid arms, his round stomach protruded between his chest and belt line in later years, like an extraneous guest, an afterthought, but it emphasized his solidity.  He might almost have made a good Santa, though too magisterial, too tall.  He had a deep voice, sometimes melodious, when he chose, when he wished to seduce you with words or a story.  His physical stature lent him an easy authority, but I think it was the sharpness of his intellect that proved it, his penetrating eyes upon you, studying you, breaking apart what you’d just said, rendering your sense into nonsense, or sometimes into greater sense.

He must have cultivated this firmness of stature, striving for indomitability, at least since college when he rejected his father’s plans for him to attend Wharton business school and instead chose to concentrate in the arts, eventually majoring in Germanic literature, going on to a Fulbright scholarship and a doctorate.  The late 1950s, what could be more invincible than a professor? —a man armed with intellectual discourse, educated with the elite.  He had found a new tool with which to differentiate himself from his comparatively mundane, struggling middle-class roots.  He sometimes used this professional authority and quick-witted intelligence indiscriminately: I watched his biting sarcasm unleashed upon check-out clerks and colleagues, lovers and gas station attendants, my mother and my sister and me.  He warded off the demons of weakness and self-doubt with sharp intellect, erudition, and an acerbic wit.

But there was a soft underbelly to Dad’s sharpness, if you could find it.  I remember a bus ride in Ireland, shortly before I turned fourteen, when Adriane (then ten) and I traveled with our father in Europe for a month.  An older woman was offering sweets to fellow passengers.  I stiffened and sat up straighter as she approached our seats.  Preparing myself for Dad’s harsh words, I cast my eyes down in order to avoid complicity with his haughtiness.  But when the woman reached us, he accepted her offer gratefully, a smile lighting his face, a smile that seemed sweeter than the candy itself.  More than half a lifetime later, I still hold the image of that smile engraved in my memory: my father seemed so genuinely pleased by this surprise kindness, insignificant as it was.  The smile reached up to his eyes, which crinkled at the corners; its sincerity almost surpassed the capacity of his face to convey it.

Dad was frequently judgmental, but perhaps most heavily upon himself.  He cloaked his vulnerability beneath protective scaffolding—bespoke suits, an East Coast accent in southern Indiana, studied self-possession.  He was terribly self-involved, self-centered even, but he needed attentiveness (whether his own or from others) to protect himself, from erasure or potential insult, I’m still not sure.  Likely both.  Every exchange offered the possibility of a fresh wound, of old scabs revisited—one must preempt the possibility.

When we walked into the house the first time, afterwards, it was warm and humid, the house shut up for days, and the smell unbearable.  I cannot forget that smell.  Death, old blood, decaying body.  My father’s corpse had been removed from the hallway more than twenty-four hours before, but the stench was still overpowering.  I am almost able to recall it at will, like you might remember a photo.

I don’t know who else might recognize the smell of death, of human decay.  It is not something you talk about, the awful smell your father left behind, the knowledge you have of rotting blood, of a corpse left untended for a day and then some, thirty hours of change.  But she—Alicia—understands.  She arrived first.

I think of the end of my father’s life as being drained of rage.  His anger deflated, he was left only with depression and pain.  But then there is the gun, there is the violence of the blood sprayed from his head.  There is the awful mess the police did not clean up.  The note on the front door telling whoever might knock, and get no reply, to call a phone number.  The number is Alicia’s.  And she does find him, as he wished.

A fist-sized stone lay near his body, a talisman Alicia says she gave him.  The porous stone had turned a mottled brownish-red by the time my sister and I saw it, altered by his blood.  He may have clutched the stone in his left hand, its bumps and grooves a comfort against his palm, as the right hand pulled the trigger.  He wanted to have a piece of Alicia with him in his last moments, before his last desperate act.  She believes he wanted her to arrive first, because he wanted someone he loved, someone who loved him, to be with him, with his body, before the uniforms and officials—strangers—would carry him out: another corpse, another suicide.

Alicia was pregnant then, for those brief weeks, before and then after his death.  They both thought the unborn child was his, but they each wanted a different outcome for the child-that-might-be.

July 7th, 1994.  Two days have passed since the coroner and police removed my father’s body.  The holiday is long over.  The house is deathly quiet.  His absence, the empty silence left behind, has brought new meaning to the cliché.  My father’s possessions—not just the blood-mottled carpet, but the Oriental rugs, the African masks and carvings, the framed art prints and photographs, even the silverware, coffee maker, and fondue pots—exude death, reminding me of its choice, shooting sinister glances suggesting how quickly he made himself gone; and how many years it might have taken.

At first, only the four of us are in his house—me, my sister, my mother and stepfather—our shoes a transgression upon his carpets, our presence there together palpably wrong.  Adriane has just finished her first year of college and is home for the summer with our Mom and stepfather, Ron.  This is her first summer in Wooster, instead of in Bloomington with Dad.  He picked her up from college just over a month ago, and they drove from Minnesota to Bloomington for a visit, before Adriane would go on to Wooster to start her summer job.  Now she is back in Bloomington already.  My father’s brother has caught a flight from upstate New York.  He and Alicia will join us at the house later in the day.  Everything remains unfathomable, surreal details accruing, impossibly true.

The police found Dad’s body on July 5th, after Alicia called from his home.  An officer later phoned the German Department, and a colleague of my father’s called my mother in Ohio.  A few hours later, the end of my workday near, my mother phoned me in New York, asking me to return straight home to my apartment, so she could speak to me there.  Since the phone call from my mother, not even forty-eight hours ago, I seem to be the one in charge.  I am virtually numb; details pinch my brain, emotion might hit in waves or pin-pricks, but everything is on hold except for essentials: the coroner, the funeral home, the insurance company and retirement policy.  We need a lawyer.  We must sanitize the house and sort through belongings.

I look through the phone book for companies that clean air ducts.  I hadn’t even known that such a service existed, but now I know there are many, most of them booked for the next month, most of them not willing to clean a duct filled with human blood.  Though Dad made careful plans—choosing the hallway rather than a room, laying a beach towel beneath him, a pillow to cushion his head—he overlooked the air vent inches away, a ready drain to the basement.  I suddenly have a team of people to talk to, phone calls to make, health code obligations to meet.  I am so used to my new voice—calm, even-toned, filled with grief—that it is almost all I have left.  I am the young woman on the phone, or in person, whose father shot himself.  A hasty introduction to shame, to denial, yet already my shame competes with a growing obstinacy: while I may want to hide, I don’t want to cower, don’t want to feel tainted by the word assigned to Dad and his death, still so new, strange and foreign: suicide.   But for now, I am the twenty-three-year-old child who must explain: my father passed away. . . .  Everything is almost unbearably difficult, but I am capable of anything.  I have become a machine of details, a body with a voice that will modulate as needed, will explain what must be explained.

Alicia explains things to me too.  My father has left his current checkbook out with other papers and overdue library books on the dining room table.  Mundane entries mostly, loan payments, a bookstore purchase, but then, at the end, there is a notation of a check for two hundred dollars written to Alicia on the 2nd of July.  Her abortion was scheduled for later that month.

~  Part 2  ~

~ If you are new to the site, see “How Madoff the younger became my kin” for another view on some of the same material….  ~

©2007, originally published in Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts, Vol. 6, “My Father’s Guns,” by Kara Frye

*Several names (of people not related to my father by blood or marriage) and some physical details have been changed.

Posted in EXIT WOUND: Suicide is Not a Love Story, Memoir, Memory, Suicide | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment