Where mental health can aim us, or end us

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Tomorrow is National Mental Health Day. Unless we can treat mental health with compassion and bravery every week, one commemorative day on the calendar won’t make enough of a difference to save lives that end in suicide. It’s an act that often happens with a gun when men commit it. I recoiled from the pain and fear of my Dad’s suicide when I was 21. While I was rescuing faith in my fatherhood, touring towns in a ballpark trip with my son Nicky, I circled the haunting memory of Dad’s act of departure. His was a fatality caused by the 1970s treatment of what was probably Bipolar 2, on Dad’s worst days. I share some of his struggles with moods. His event with a gun became a moment in my memoir about fatherhood and baseball, Stealing Home.

After leaving our last scheduled game in St. Louis, the next day my son and I plowed through miles of Missouri, our first day without a ballgame to anticipate. We stopped at a monument along the Mississippi devoted to the Trail of Tears march of Native Americans. There was a park attached to an overlook of the river. Our vacation convertible seemed to grow quieter with every exit sign that whipped past. One looked tilted, like the green sign that Dad had once veered toward on a wayward vacation turn. While I was in the Army, he lost his way and slipped into his deepest depression. His slide turned out to be fatal.

He started from a high point. Our voices cut through one Saturday in our home when we announced to Mom he’d built us the Blipper, as Dad named the wooden case he loaded with what we called electronics. Circuits of wires and transistors, capacitors, and resistors all crowded a box the size of a small bread loaf. The Blipper was festooned with knobs and dials to concoct sounds rolling out of a two-inch speaker. The toy added drama to the stories I dreamed up. Later on, Dad gave me a cartooning box and easel for a birthday, a dozen hand-cut pieces he’d screwed and glued together. He invited me to spray-paint it, and like any teenager, I chose jet black. Dad never seemed to feel better than when he was building something, except maybe on nights he’d lay on the couch watching comics like Buddy Hackett and Dean Martin on the variety shows. He barked out his dad laughter like a foghorn of peace. The soft breezes of his guffaws would unfurl across the bow of our family’s life boat.

Dad landed on the disabled list after those years. A pair of heart attacks forced his retirement at only forty-six, an event he called being put out to pasture. Dad wore his work like an ID badge, the habit of men from the Greatest Generation. Once he lost his job, he slid into a ferocious depression, a mood that stalked the rest of his time with us. It pulled him down like the undertow on a beach.

He killed himself inside a room that he’d remodeled from the cinderblock out when I was just a toddler, first adding the yellow paint to keep the stone walls dry. Little basement windows were scattered along the tops of the walls that he and I had paneled together. The windows delivered daylight, but rarely any fresh breeze. They were never opened. By the day Dad died he had also closed his sense of hope. If he felt sick on one day, he was certain that he’d be as bad or worse the next.

At his end, he was too sad to keep living. He must have figured his duty to me and my brother Bob was finished after we left. Bob and I were away in the Army on that day. I cannot be sure of his mind in the weeks that led to his suicide. He dreaded our returns on leave because we were seeing him more diminished than ever. He was a sick man, he’d say to anyone, even if they hadn’t asked.

I don’t know exactly what that basement looked like on that afternoon he died. I know little about the morning he spent by himself, either. I can see him, though, still in his bathrobe by 2, the garment wrapped across the boxers that we knew as Dad’s underwear. Their waistband didn’t strain over his belly anymore. He’d lost weight because he didn’t eat much over his final weeks.

Dad and I gave up trying to bridge our divide. He was compulsive about his judging, though, and he turned that habit onto himself once he had no sons around. Unable to blame his sorrows on his family, he turned his anger onto his own heart.

He might have shuffled across the linoleum floor in the mock-leather slippers Mom gave him the year before for their 25th anniversary. On his final day he’d pull his records out of a cabinet he built himself and had coated with Formica, looking over one album and then another, studying each but unsure what to play. Barry Sadler’s The Ballad of the Green Berets eventually spun on the turntable. “Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men, who jump and die.” Maybe Dad thought about sons who were away in service while those lyrics tumbled out of the massive speakers he’d built. Dying that day would not be fearless for him.

The Green Berets might have led to Hank Williams as he dug into his dark mood, and on to other records whose grooves held more woe than hope. The sun crept enough to slant light through those tiny windows along the tops of the walls. He listened for movement upstairs and heard nothing. Mom would be at work until 3. He left that record cabinet door open and pushed through his workshop door, his hand running across the knotty pine that he’d sanded and shellacked.

This is where a gun plays a role in his finale, as it does for many men who commit suicide. After the knotty pine, his hand rested on another piece of wood, the stock of the lightest weapon in the house. His .22 pistol would be no problem for him to train on himself. Compulsive to the last, he took his time oiling and loading it and found that he wanted to pray. Dad’s prayer may have been for something better to be waiting beyond his very hard moment now at hand. Nothing more to do here, so move along, he said to himself. Buck Owens was wailing to cover the shot.

Later, when that white vacation station wagon rolled into the driveway and the storm door creaked at the landing atop the basement stairs, Mom slipped into the kitchen with paper grocery sacks. There was a sound coming from the basement’s stereo, the click of a record needle rubbing against an LP label. Dad wouldn’t put up with that for long. Mom came down the stairs to see if he was standing or fallen with another heart attack. She discovered him and his fatal gunshot wound, his body slumped on our leftover maroon couch in the rec room. The phone in the basement was disconnected, so she had to bolt up the stairs to call Toledo’s Rescue Squad.

They couldn’t rescue Dad from what drove him to his final day: mental illness. The death certificate said that he was gone in an instant once he pulled the trigger. Maybe some peace washed up around him on that March afternoon 42 years ago. His everyday waters of worry, though, sank him into a place where death was a relief to him. They will be better off without me is the lie that every suicide lives upon. His act felt like that to me as well, at first. His suicide was the end of a lifelong struggle against sadness and fear.

Dad wouldn’t say it this way, but his heart circuit was broken without his job. I was as manic and depressive as him on my worst days, but I never lost my work like he did, not for long. There were dark weeks after I was fired from a sports editor job, drifting into cab driving and warehouse labor for a brief time just to pay the bills. I made my way back into the light during the first year of Nicky’s life. I had to rescue myself from Dad’s weaknesses, so I tried to be the father he couldn’t be—whether it was because his generation’s men didn’t lay their hearts open, or because he didn’t see it was his duty to open his soul’s window to love. Being Nicky’s dad, trying to rescue rituals of fatherhood, was my way of shaking free from the past.

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