Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Other Suicide: An Appreciation of My Father

Last week was the 34th anniversary of my father’s suicide. He took his life when he was 55 and I was 26. I haven’t written much about that loss here, yet it was a formative experience that shaped much of my grieving self and how I’ve responded to Noah’s suicide. I’ve been so consumed with mourning Noah these past three years that I couldn’t face thinking about my father and commemorating his anniversary; at survivors gatherings, I’d talk about Noah and have to be reminded that I’m also a survivor of my father’s suicide. That's shifting this year due to writing about my father’s suicide for a grief memoir, re-grieving him, and starting to talk with others who have lost parents to suicide.
As I try to integrate the story of my father’s life and death more fully into my life, I want to introduce him here. Just as Noah’s name is already disappearing from conversation, my father’s name is even more lost to the world. In future posts, I hope to describe how each devastating loss has informed the other and how it feels to be doubly cursed by suicide.
            My father, Irwin Auerbach (1926-1982), grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn and attended yeshiva for his entire K12 education. Though he later rejected God and Orthodox ways, his early training may have honed his analytical mind and argumentative bent; I was never clear on the roots of his social conscience. As a young man, he studied sociology and wrote poetry, along with letters to the editor of the New York Post, like one printed in the 1940s in favor of integrating the U.S. military. He remained outspoken all his life on civil rights, civil liberties, consumer, environmental, and local government issues; his obituary by the editor of the local paper was titled, “He Spoke Up.” 
           My father met my mother in the Brooklyn College library, no doubt wooed her with his wit, and married her in 1951. They were both determined to escape the confines of their Orthodox (him) and Eastern European immigrant (her) families and neighborhoods. They had me, their only child, in 1956, and in 1958, moved to suburban Maryland. They enjoyed travel, visiting museums, and hosting a playreading group.
            My father's idealism led him to work for the still-young New Deal-inspired Social Security Administration and to become a civil rights activist with Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) in Baltimore, where he strategized behind the scenes for fair housing and employment. In 1967, he sold our house in a white suburb to a black family over the “blockbuster!” cries of the neighbors, then moved our family to Columbia, Maryland, a planned community that was unique for being racially and economically integrated by design. I remember going to the Poor People’s March on Washington with my father and seeing him cry for the first time when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. My father continued to write to public officials, consume news voraciously, and support liberal causes all his life.
He was absent for much of my childhood, either because he was out or because when home, he was often behind a newspaper. He'd emerge to share jokes or puns, play word games, or watch “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” together. Every Wednesday night when I thought he was at a union meeting, he was actually meeting with a psychiatrist, my mother later told me. I never knew anything else about my father’s mental health until near the end of his life. He left my mother when I was 14, part of what seemed like a mass migration of middle-aged men out of their marriages in the 1970s. He thought that the divorce and early retirement would make him happier, but he still seemed lonely and restless.
All through adolescence, I resented my father for leaving my mother and me and was disdainful of his little habits; we got along best when exchanging letters or discussing current events. We did family therapy to try to repair our relationship after my mother died in 1976, but it took longer for me to forgive him. He surprised me by volunteering on a community crisis line; I had no idea that my intellectual father may have felt the pain of people in distress. In fact, I barely knew my father.
I began to know him better through his letters from 1980-82 when I was living in Greece doing folklore research. He was my most reliable correspondent. (When I was in college, he’d send back my letters with edits in ALL CAPS; weird, I know, but he was trying to help me be a good writer and his advice was on point!) He confided that he was depressed and had chronic back pain. He made himself to do “comedy therapy” late at night with New Yorker cartoons and TV talk shows. I tried to cheer him in my letters and encouraged him to pursue his dreams of being a librarian or opening a bookstore. Did he notice that I was trying to forgive him and be a more loving daughter? In the way of the young, I didn’t fully take account of the extent of his suffering in either body and mind.
In May, 1982, I got a telegram: Being treated for severe depression. Call home. When I did, my father sounded alarmingly disoriented, and I arranged to fly home from the village where I lived, which took a few days. In the middle of the night before my arrival, my father drove to a nearby lake, left his wallet in the car, and drowned. The new anti-depressants in his system may have given him the energy to take a previously planned action, as with many suicides. My uncle identified him for police; I never saw his body.
My uncle didn’t tell me what happened until we were halfway home from the airport. I remember staring down at the floor of the car, unable to speak or breathe. I felt punished and betrayed; how could my father do this when I was on my way home to help him? I was an only child without a mother; how could he destroy my last vestige of family?
I learned a lot about my father in the stunned silence and speeches at his memorial service. I didn’t know so many people admired him. Several expressed bewilderment and dismay that such a courageous man could take his life, implying that suicide is cowardly. It was much like Noah’s friends years later, who couldn’t square Noah’s charisma and love of life with ending it. Both my father and my son shed their pain only to pass it on to me and others left behind.
My father passed on so much else, like an affinity for social justice, the confidence to speak my mind, and an appreciation of writing, nature, anthropology, photography, and whimsy. Only recently, I recovered the memory of how, when I called him in hysterics at 4am a few days after my mother’s death, he came right over, covered me in blankets, sat by me and stroked my hair, and made me breakfast. This week when I light a candle for my father’s yahrzeit (Jewish calendar anniversary), I’ll try to remember his love, honor his courage, and hold him in the light.

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