Tag: suicide

My Father’s Loves



My Father’s Loves


When my father died, in 1976, notes began to appear.

First, on a piece of blue paper, placed in his journal, “There are no hints given. The coffee hits the spot. The biscotti are making me non-literary and not inclined to edit the novel. The moon is full. The air is cold. My yawns weigh me down. All of me still in the first person. There is a philology book I am supposed read: The German Language. It is 800 pages long. I am going for a walk. Would you like tea when I get back? Do not ever forget I love you. Mary Ann.”

The trouble was, it was not in my father’s handwriting. Nor in my mother’s. My father had glued it into his journal in such a way that it was hard to open. And Mary Ann was not my mother’s name.

He wrote that he had found her note stuck behind the frame of her bureau mirror, once when he was snooping around.  “It was folded in the middle, the way she used to part her hair, tucked away for the times I might need to read it.” With the date in his hand, “January 3, 1956.”

That was the first note.

Not too long ago, I found the second note.

My mother had asked me to repair the top drawer of her bureau. The drawer was binding and was hard to pull in and out. I knew a few gentle strokes with a wide-angle plane and a little sanding would do the trick. There, hidden from prying eyes, under the liner paper, was a scrap of paper and words written in my father’s hand, written twenty years after the Mary Ann’s note.  “Up at 5, gone for a walk, we’ll have coffee together when I’m back. Don’t forget I love you.”

That morning my father went to the river in his gray felt hat, wrapped in his brown herringbone woolen overcoat, and puffing his pipe, a neighbor said, and doing the stroll he loved so much, past the mill pond, and down the lane through pines, over the glacial sand toward the salt river skirted with ice, and slipped into the black river without his pipe or coat, or felt hat which he left hung over a the post at the end of the town wharf.

After the funeral, we walked to the river—my mother went by car, she grieved too much to walk—and we threw wreathes of white florist flowers into the river and sang Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

 A trusty shield and weapon

He helps us free from every need

That hath us now o’ertaken….


Six months later my mother discovered my father’s journal, and out of it dropped the message to him from Mary Ann. My mother read the diary, and a jealousy seized her so great that she was hospitalized for a week and nearly gave up her will to live. When she returned home, steadied between my brother and me—both in our early forties and undecided in our need for her to live or not to live, she asked us to assemble all my father’s papers, place them on the table beside her bed, and then leave her alone.

That night, she called me at my home in Cambridge. My wife and I had gone for a walk, and my Cynthia, our fourteen-year old daughter, talked to her troubled grandmother for over an hour. She could not sleep, her grandmother told her, without knowing what had become of this Mary Ann. She had to talk with her, if she was still alive, and could I, Cynthia’s father, call her back immediately, no matter the hour, and pledge my support in this project. Cynthia said she talked about love and passion, and about the excruciating pain of jealousy felt in the permanent absence of the person one loved. And then she cursed my father and wept and asked Cynthia if she believed in love, and whether she thought youthful passion meant more than the love between those who are old. My Cynthia is wise for her age, but these questions, she said, about youthful passion required an adult response, not hers.

Two years passed, and I spent many hours searching through records, telephoning relatives, interviewing my father’s surviving friends. And then I found Mary Ann, in West Arlington, alone in a brick house, with a black Labrador retriever and a hired companion.

At first, she pretended senility, the passage of years, forgetfulness, always disputing her identity as my father’s old love. After three visits I decided I would learn nothing, and I asked her to forgive me for disturbing her. Two days later, she called me. She could not sleep, she said. There were things to say, but they didn’t concern me and would I come for her the next morning? She wished to talk with my mother. And it would be a private meeting.

The next day was impossible for me, but the following Sunday afternoon I drove her to Marshfield. My brother had already arrived, to be with my mother as she waited. I led Mary Ann to the house, the Labrador following behind. My mother met her at the door—cordially, graciously, as she had always welcomed guests. She guided Mary Ann toward the living room and the crackling fire. She turned and asked my brother and me to walk to the river and see what the tide was. We protested that we already knew the tide. She said we looked peaked—that was her expression, in two syllables, and we needed a walk. It would do us good. My brother looked at me. Then Mary Ann asked us whether we could walk the dog. That she loved the water.

“She could swim in the river. It’s a place she would love.”

How did she know about the river? I thought, and had she swum there naked with my father?

My mother advanced on us, driving us back through the kitchen, and Mary Ann guided the dog to the door. “Her name is Lucy,” she said with a smile,

And then, more softly, “Maybe she can tell you the rest of whatever you might want to know about me.”

Then Lucy, my brother, and I watched the old women walk stiffly back into the living room and settle at opposite ends of the couch. I grabbed a few things I had set aside in the clothes closet, one of them my father’s felt hat, which I put on my head, and his pipe, which I put in my pocket.

Outside, snow began to fall around us in heavy flakes. We moved around the outside of the house so we could look through the living room windows. We saw the old women nod their heads as they talked and to our surprise laugh, not just once, but again and again. And then they cried and held each other and were soon sitting together in the center of the couch, where they looked at pictures from photo albums and drank tea, then sherry, and then more sherry.

The snow had built up on our shoulders and our feet had grown cold. Lucy the Labrador had found other things to do and wandered farther and farther away from us, skirting the yard, a dark busy form against the whitened pines. Finally, she pulled us away from the windows, and we followed her down the lane, past the mill pond, down over the glacial sand, crunching and squeaking in the fresh snow, until we reached the banks of the river and stood and watched the her plunge into the black water and swim toward the opposite bank—and be swept downstream by the tidal current, so that we called to her in alarm. But she climbed up through the salt grass on the far bank, bounded upstream, reentered the water and, using the drift of the current, returned, intelligent and proud to the very place we stood.

The sky had cleared, and the moon appeared big and round and bright. The Labrador walked to the end of the town wharf and shook her coat, so that the spray glinted in the moonlight for a moment, then disappeared. And we laughed and said she was a hell of a dog, and that we’d better get back before the two old ladies killed each other or got drunk and had heart-attacks or the dog got pneumonia. We needed a drink anyway, and when the dog stood beside me for a moment, I reached down and felt her, and she was black like the water of the river, and warm, and very much alive. The last thing I did, with my brother’s agreement, was take a last smell of my father that still lingered on inside rim of his hat—the same smell I got when I rubbed my own scalp and smelled my fingers. Then I lay down and launched my father’s felt hat, inverted like a boat, with his pipe in the middle. Then I stood up and the three of us watched as the hat began its journey seaward. I held the dog by the collar until her impulse to rescue the hat passed. It had started to snow again, and we stood for a while at the very end of the wharf, trying to see whether we could hear the big flakes hitting the water. A lost cause because of the way dog’s soft panting filled the night.

“How long will it float?” my brother asked, and I said I didn’t know much about the seaworthiness of felt hats or the buoyancy of pipes. Or, for myself, just when the water would extinguish his smell.


Sudden Naps





Sudden Naps

“The blank page is the mirror image of my brain,” my friend often said, and then one day went out into his orchard to check for buds forming on his favorite apple trees, the Gravensteins. He loved their smooth elephant gray bark against the dark green spring grass and the sun on his back. Then he went to the pump house and retrieved the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum he kept there, wrapped in an oily rag, tucked out of sight behind the pressure tank. Or maybe he did what Heinrich Himmler did, Hitler’s Head of the SS and bit more. The British identified him in spite of his disguise, and so he bit down on his glass cyanide capsule. He had to work fast to spit out the splinters, while he could still work his tongue and lips. The bullet or the glass ampule? There was no evidence of poison. Not even a body. His wife had gone for a walk. When she got back she ran the washing machine so she’d have some nice things to wear that night for their lovemaking date. She couldn’t account for his absence. She drew hot water before starting the dishwasher. If you got the water hot, then the dishwasher didn’t have to run its electrical element to heat the water, thereby saving energy. She heard the vroompf when the gas ignited in the expensive on demand hot water heater that he had installed himself, with all the complicated plumbing. She noticed the red hue of the water, then went through the house looking for him. He would be able to fix the water. “Are you in here?” she asked, knocking once on his door, stepping into his room, expecting to see him bent over his computer, typing furiously with two fingers, focused intensely on some plot, some yarn that would make people laugh or cry or gasp. Sometimes sneer or, more often, frown. But he wasn’t there. She went to the stairs, said “Dear?” and ascended the worn, termite-weakened steps and crossed the blue painted floor to the far end. She bent to look through the finger hole of the low door—there was no latch—looked through to see if he was sleeping on their bed. This was a man who took naps after asking, “Where will you be for the next half hour? Are you going to be telephoning? If so, could you do it away from the bedroom window?” A wry smile, a look of incredulity that said “I know it’s going to be hard for you to remember but I would sure love it if you’d try.” But he wasn’t there either. She went downstairs again. Outside, the old  Ford tractor was standing in the field with its rotary mower attached to the hydraulics, the grass mown, and no husband. She went around to the shop, looked in, and said “Jim?” the Swampscott Dory he was building was coming along. Sunlight from a high Rembrandt window fell on the Sitka spruce steam-bent lap strakes and on the shavings that the hull rested above. You could see what it was becoming. It gleamed like a new egg after the hen gets up and walks away from it to spread the news. His wife kept going toward the pond. He wasn’t in the dark water up to his chest, throwing algae up on the bank to dry and then be spread on her garden as mulch. He wasn’t sitting there on the granite slab bench, trucked in from New England, watching for the big bass that liked the shadows from the overhanging blackberries that ripened too slowly because of afternoon ocean fog. She kept going up the hill. He wasn’t in the upper garden with the eight-foot deer fencing around it, the place that got winter sun, where he weeded his garlic and onions. She went along under the cypress, to check the disintegrating aluminum chaise-longue where he corrected blue books. But the chair was empty, and the blue books were back in the hands of their chastened authors. She came down the hill through the field past the sleeping platform where they spent summer nights sleeping under stars or costal fog, between paths deer passed on, who added snorts of alarm to their own of passion. He would mow the field again later in the summer when the new grass was dry and before the thistles sent their dried seeds drifting across the field toward the pond below. He wasn’t in the orchard. She checked his car to see if he was lying with the seat back, listening to a recorded book. David Copperfield now, she thought. She crossed the road, picked her way down the path through the Eucalyptus to his writing cabin. The collapsible green canvas cot was propped against the wall. He wasn’t there. Back up at the house she checked the bikes. Both leaned against the shop. She drew water from the bottled water carafe, put the kettle on the gas flame. She looked out the kitchen window to see if she could see whether the blue birds  had accepted the birdhouses he had put up for them on ten-foot 4 by 4’s. She membered the dishwasher. She turned on the hot water. She watched as it grew warmer and redder. She thought about the plot of the murder mystery she was working on. Her publisher was asking her to hurry up. Her readers were calling him. They loved her woman detective who solved murders for the Mexican federal government in an inland colonial city in Mexico. She thought about the redness. The water came from a well in the pump house exactly six feet deep, fed by an ancient spring used by earlier people. Miwok or Pomo Indians. They knew this because of all the arrowheads and obsidian tools they found fifty feet downhill from the spring. It was the same water they used now to cook, drink and bathe in. If you forgot and drained the well, you had to wait five or six hours for it to fill again. In July and August, over night, when there was less fog to drip from the old cypresses on the top of the hill and replenish the aquifer. Jim had made a wooden cover for it to keep out the Norwegian rats that he left  poison for in in the house, in the cubbyhole over the bed. That was a dark side. The poor rats plunged into the water to escape their lethal thirst. And each time he discovered one, coated in the white fur of decomposition and fished it out, he buried it in the compost pile and didn’t tell her about it. She knew he just plopped a small chlorine tablet into the brownish water.

Jim walked back to the pump house. He too was thinking about rodents. As boy he had once found a nest of field mice and had thrown some ten pink babies into a stream to watch them drown. He had horrified himself in the process that he was so easily capable of cruelty. When he was a little younger perhaps eight, toward the end of WW2, he had seen a black and white government Newsreel, between two Walt Disney films, showing bulldozers pushing mounds of flopping emaciated corpses of Jews, Russian prisoners of war, and political prisoners into mass graves.  He had been disturbed for a couple of years afterward. His mother hadn’t known how to explain it to him, she said, and, as a student of Freud, she had encouraged him to draw pictures of what he’d seen. At the same time, he dreamt of dark three-legged cats that thumped down from a higher level onto the level of the bedroom floor where he and his brother slept, coming for him. He dreamt of black Panthers in stairwells, racing up after him. His mother still suffered from the loss of her mother, father and thirty-year old sister, who all died within one year. The thirty-year old sister from a botched abortion.  That was 1942, he thought. At twenty, he went to Germany and visited the concentration camp KZ Dachau and stood before the ovens. He courted and later married a beautiful, slightly walleyed German girl and had two fine sons. He taught German at a university in Northern California. He wrote stories that subconsciously always skirted the image of mass graves and the question of Why? He decided that that was the central question in his life, including his own execution of the baby mice.

This time, when the spring sun turned warm, and the gravensteins showed their buds and everything was still, he heard the pump running in the pump house and so he went to see why. He reached behind the pressure tank and lifted out the heavy oily red rag. He unwrapped the Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum and held it with two hands, as if it were evidence, went outside and laid on a tuft of grass away from the boggy area near the door. He went back in, found a piece of wire and wired the gun rag around the leak. He remembered why he had bought the gun. Someone had killed two women and left their bodies in the eucalyptus forests across the street from their old slanting farmhouse. The forensics people collected the rotten corpses in coffee cans. Then they drove away, leaving thick patches stinking black tar where the bodies had lain. Incensed, he brought a gasoline can, matches and a shovel to the grove. The fallen Eucalyptus leaves were six inched deep and dry. He splashed gas on the tarred spots and struck a match. He had barely been able to beat out the fire. Afterward, he was bathed in anger, sweat, self- recrimination, and shame for nearly igniting a forest fire. His two young sons slept downstairs. What if someone came into the house, looking for two little boys to slaughter? What then?

Now they lived their own lives elsewhere. Only the gun was still there. A dangerous thing for depressives. His second father-in-law—the second wife— had labeled him a depressive. Better a depressive than a man so self-centered that at times he spoke to his daughters in Latin when what they craved was attention in English. That man’s father had been the psychiatrist for the great German writer Thomas Mann, who was exiled in Los Angeles. Jim removed the cartridges, walked to the pond and threw them in. Then he threw in  the .357 Magnum. In time, mud would cover everything so deeply that not even a swimmer’s would touch it.

And so, he did not blow his brains out, nor find a son hanged from the shower head in the shower.  Nor had he been attacked by the Nazi father of his wall-eyed German love. The architect who built airfields in France for the bombing of London and Coventry, while his own father had been the president of a fish line factory in upper New York State that had been converted to manufacturing parachute cord and glider cord for the Invasion of Europe.

Then he bought a pump shotgun with a short barrel called “The Defender.” He hid it loaded with five shells in the cubbyhole above the LL bean bed he slept in with his mate. She was a lovely Midwestern woman, bright, loving and funny who became the compass that had been missing up to that point in his life. She did not know that she slept beneath a loaded 12-gauge shotgun, and she and didn’t like it when he finally told her. It was terrible weapon, preferred by soldiers in close-quarter combat. He took a lesson at a local redneck gun shop. on how to shoot from the hip at a human target twenty feet away, and not miss. It had never occurred to him to kill himself with the shotgun. The .357 Magnum was a different matter. It suggested the act the way standing before a great drop-off suggested jumping. He had always resisted and backed away. After all, he had sons and had already accrued his limit of guilt about parenting—most of it, single parenting.

The cloth he wired up the leak with was one of those cheap red rags you buy in an auto shop. Now it kept the leak spray from causing a short in the expensive pump. It leaked the same amount, but in a controlled way. He would replace the pipe later. The escaping water, tinted red from the cloth, found its way to the well and up through the system again, all the way to the dishwasher and kitchen faucet. The red hue was probably the same as the water in the abortionist’s sink when he washed his arms and hands and watched Jim’s thirty-year old aunt turn pale. That had been 1942, the same year Heinrich Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich and SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann were meeting at Wannsee to discuss what they referred to as the Jewish Question, Die Judenfrage. The Holocaust policy of mass murder. If only the abortionist had been more skillful and the mass murders, less.


Now, as Jim approached the house, he frightened himself thinking about parachuting into Czechoslovakia with a .357 Magnum or something similar to assassinate Heinrich Himmler of the Round Eyeglasses in his open military field car. Would he have been so brave and self- sacrificing, had he been assigned the job? He thought not. But he would not have hesitated for a second if, while holding the shotgun, Heinrich Himmler had come for his boys.

Putting Down Me and the Dog

When my dog died—how many stories start that way?—I put off trying to discover new ways to market my novel. I cried in waves, as I dug the hole, a place where an old orange tree had lived for as many years as my sons are old. I wrapped the old fellow in my favorite Harris Tweed and eased him into his grave.

I thought I would have learned something about dying from him, but it is very hard when you’re not the dog that’s dying. I stroked his head and spoke to him, telling him how much I was going to miss him. I held his head when the vet approached from behind, touching him gently on his upward shoulder, looking for the spot for the needle. My friend’s eyes were warm and full of confidence, even as the needle entered, and for a few seconds afterward.

His gaze stayed on me, even though he had already left.

The man I sit across from, my writing partner, is experimenting with the various sounds his cell phone can make when calls and messages come in. My late friend doesn’t call me. Neither do my mother or father. Age, not the needle, put them down. But I can see the advantage of the pointy thing. Your love caresses you your forehead with a hand that is no longer young, but still as warm and smooth as when you met her when she was thirty-four.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

“No,” I say, with a spoiled, irritated whine, at the idea of being extinguished forever.

Her eyes are wet. I have increased my breathing, tightened my stomach for the exertion that is coming.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” she asks.

“No,” I say, in the same snotty tone. “It’s an impossible decision.”

I sob once, then try to smile. I love her and life equally. I am too smart to not know what’s about to happen.

“Then stay,” she says.

“How long?” I ask.

“As long as you want.”

Her smile is warm, her eyes, brown. As deep as my old dog’s.

“A few days, a week at the most. The point comes eventually,” I say.

She looks at me.

“Both points,” I say.

We have always had our little jokes. A doctor friend has brought the needle and the treacle. He will approach from behind, the upper shoulder. All I have to do is give the signal.

We have reached the point two times already. And each time I have taken the reprieve, unable to leave everything and step into obliteration.

My old friend wagged his tail and trusted me. Perhaps knowing what was happening—perhaps not. He could not tell me how to do it. If acceptance is a kind of intelligence, then I do not have it. I think it was Karl Gustav Jung that said the unconscious cannot imagine its own extinction. He may have been right concerning my dog. Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting until the unconscious—the sea from which we came—has crept closer. Or we have ebbed back toward it.

In writing this, at about where I wrote Perhaps that is a good reason for waiting, the brown-eyed love I have referred to came up the stairs to the second floor of this wreck of a café, where we write—something she has never done in the ten years I’ve been meeting with my writing partner—to whom I will soon read this free write, as per custom.

I am someone that believes—to a certain extent—in synchronicity, the theory that things happen in coordination with each other, i.e. not entirely by chance.

“I need money,” she said.

I reached for my wallet.

“I don’t have a lot,” I said, noting matter-of-factly that neither of us might have enough.

“I need just enough for D,” she said. D is our personal trainer. We say those words with irony each time—aware of their pretentious ring. Instead of shrinking and withering away, my love and I have decided to buff up and work on balance.

“And for the gym,” she said. “Thirty pesos each.”

I hand over my money. My writing partner holds out his hand. He wants in on the dispensation. The mood has changed; the ocean, receded. I don’t have to mourn for my imaginary dog any longer, at least not right now. He has trotted out ahead, through my field of autumn thoughts. And I am glad enough if he does not come back right away. My love is walking toward the gym, a place as rickety as the café I am writing in. I am still here, on my own.

Still not ready.

Sudden Naps

“The blank page is the mirror image of my brain.” My friend said this and then went out in his orchard, looked for buds on his favorite Gravensteins, maybe for meaning in general, then went to the pump house and blew his brains out with the .357 Magnum he’d kept hidden there, wrapped in an oily rag. Next to the well, open like a man hole.

His wife had gone for a walk. When she got back, she ran the washing machine so she’d have some nice things to wear that evening for him—for them both. She couldn’t account for his absence till she drew hot water before starting the dishwasher. If you got the water hot, then the dishwasher didn’t have to run its electrical element to heat the water, thereby saving energy and money.

She noticed the reddish hew of rust in the water, then went through the house looking for him. He would be able to fix it. “Are you in here?” she asked, knocking once on his door, stepping into his room, expecting to see him bent over his computer, typing furiously with two fingers, focused intensely on some plot, some story that would make people laugh or cry or gasp. But he wasn’t there. She went to the stairs, said fairly softly, “Dear?”—then ascended, crossed the Delft blue wooden floor to the far end, bent to look through the finger hole in the simple door, looked through to see if he was sleeping.

This was a man who took sudden naps after asking, “Where will you be for the next half hour? Are you going to be telephoning? If so, could you do it away from the bedroom window?” He always said this with a wry smile, a look of incredulity, a look that said “I know it’s going to be hard for you to remember but I would sure love it if you’d try.”

But he wasn’t there either. The tractor was standing with its mower in the field, with no husband near it. She went around to the shop, looked in, chirped “Jim?” and kept going toward the pond. He wasn’t on the granit bench beside the pond, thinking, watching for the big bass.

She kept going up the hill. He wasn’t in the upper garden, wasn’t weeding his onions and garlic there. She went along the Cypress, checking the aluminum chaise-longue, but it was empty. She came down the hill through the field of North Coast Dry Pasture Mix he would mow again later in the summer when the grass was dry and the thistles were getting ready to give up their seeds to the wind.

He wasn’t in the orchard. She checked his car to see if he was lying with the seat back, listening to a book on tape. She crossed the road, picked her way down the path through the Eucalyptus, edging by strands of poison oak, to his writing cabin. The aluminum and green cloth cot was propped against the wall. He wasn’t there.

He must have gone for a walk—a walk that could last no longer than an hour. Back in the house, she checked the bikes. All three of them were in place. She drew drinking water from the swinging glass carboy, put the kettle on the gas flame, and looked out the kitchen window to see if she could see the blue birds—see whether they had decided to use the birdhouse Jim had put up.

She marveled at the places she had been to find him. He was a hard man to keep track of, so many interests, so many projects: writing, gardening, language learning, cabinet-making, dreaming, thinking, boats, musical instruments, and endless short stories.

She remembered the dishwasher and ran the water to get it hot. It grew warmer and warmer and, at the same time, redder and redder. Then she remembered why she had looked for him in the first place. She felt the warmth on her hands. She thought about the color. And as the water got hotter, a thought came to her and she turned the faucet to stop it, and watched until the last of the water swirled and disappeared clockwise into the drain—leaving the sink white again.