Remembering a Different Memorial Day

I want to share a personal account of what I experienced four years ago. This article was originally submitted and published to The Good Men Project and can be found here:

It was Spring of 2013 and changes were blooming. My binge drinking and marijuana use had spanned over the past 15 years, adversely impacting my physical and emotional health. I was crying myself to sleep multiple times a week and no longer had the courage to look at myself in the mirror when I brushed my teeth in the morning. I was 32 when I decided to cork the bottle and snuff out the pipe for the first time. It was painful. It was, brutal. I had tremors, shakes, sweats, day hallucinations, and nightmares of unspeakable proportions. I was determined to purge my demons; it was my commitment to a healthier and hopefully happier life. No more vomiting at work the next day near the docks of a military base. No more rushing to the grocery store to get another 12-pack or bottle of wine at 4 pm to quell my impending tremors. I feared I would die young if I didn’t make the change.

I had lived with my younger brother for nearly a year and we both agreed it was time for me to have my own place. I found this small two bedroom, one bath home not too far from our old apartment. It was 700 square feet of immaculate single living. I didn’t have much furniture, but my father was willing to help me out. He had some furniture that came bundled with the manufactured home that he was finishing. My parents had separated after 30 years of marriage and the house we grew up in would be sold as part of the division of assets.

My father was a hardworking man that was raised in poverty in Florence, SC and later Camden, NC when my grandmother remarried. He was driven to acquire nice things and provide the best for his children, presumably because of my alcoholic grandfather’s capacity to hemorrhage every precious dollar that his family earned on booze and extramarital affairs. There were times when my grandmother and her five children did not have money to purchase food. The generosity of neighbors’ gardens would sustain them as my grandfather disappeared for weeks on his benders. My grandfather would return after his benders and beat my grandmother in front of the children. He terrorized my grandmother by firing his pistol at the floor near her feet, all while my dad and his siblings watched. Were these actions a result of a guilty conscience?

My father was the second oldest of five children from my grandmother’s first marriage, but later became the oldest when his brother, my Uncle Dale, died in a car accident at 23. He was a skilled tradesman; a Master Electrician and Welder for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union. My mother also worked very hard. She was a Social Worker for a nursing home for 14 years and a receptionist for a doctor’s office for 8 years. She did her best to take care of me and my brother while my father worked the lucrative jobs in the Northeast. She retired early due to a hip disability that she endured since she was 12. My father always talked about taking care of her and pushed for her early retirement.

I recall the negativity and lack of positive self-image I felt growing up around my father. He rarely smiled and always looked tired. Words of encouragement were scant or forced. His cigarette smoking had permanently stained his hands yellow by the time he was 40 and our garage smelled like a wet ashtray. The amber glass ashtray rested on top of the deep freezer year round, butts piled to the brim. I witnessed three or four half burned cigarettes scattered outside of that ashtray onto the deep freezer when I visited my father in the year prior to my parents’ divorce finalization. His prescription opiate addiction had escalated since his knee replacement in the early 2000’s resulting from a job site injury.

My mother was living with her sister in Pennsylvania leading up to the divorce. She would later confess to me that she wanted to leave my father years ago, but did not know how she would take care of my brother and me. She made a sacrifice to stay with my father to keep our family intact. My father’s mother, my grandmother, made the same decision many years prior.

We suffered emotional abuse and neglect living under my father’s rule. He would often discourage my mother, brother, and me from being the best versions of ourselves. I remember watching Jeopardy with my parents and my mother would make an error in her response to a question and his routine response while eloquently perched from the sectional couch was “dumbass…just kidding.” My mother would force a half-smile or chuckle. Her eyes would well-up a few minutes later and she would go into a numb trance. I saw no joy in her eyes. She was a broken, empty shell.

I was always eager to make my father happy and whenever I brought home a good grade in school or did something that appeased his ego he would say something like “Good job, Chris. You have integrity and not many people have it. Always remember that. Your brother doesn’t have that, you know.” I have always excelled at video games. I have been a gamer since I fell in love with Nintendo at five years old. However, my father was the real gamer. He was the final boss of mind games. He had no cheat codes and you couldn’t beat him.

I planned to go with my father to pick up a water pump and my lawn mower that was in storage Memorial Day weekend of 2013. He picked me up at my new place in his panel truck and we drove toward Hertford, NC to his aircraft hangar/storage unit. We stopped at a Hardees to get a steak biscuit. Dad hobbled inside and I walked across the parking lot to a convenience store to get him a pack of cigarettes and a couple of drinks for us both.

The back-country roads were quiet and the air was crisp. Rays of sunshine beamed down on lavender fields and cigarette smoke permeated the cab even though the windows were down. We listened to a classic rock station and did not speak to one another. We arrived at the hangar and loaded up the water pump and lawn mower rather quickly. My father had to sit down and rest a couple of times prior to reentering the cab and making the trek back to my place.

We unloaded the lawn mower upon arriving at my place and thanked each other for the help. I said that I would come visit him next weekend. He said, “I’ll see you later, Chris.”

On June 1st, 2013 my father’s sister and brother came to visit my new place at 7 am. My aunt said with a broken voice and teary eyes “We’ve come to see the house.” My father had committed suicide by gunshot to the head at the age of 58. It was the one year anniversary of the divorce finalization.

It was Spring of 2013 and changes were blooming.