[After months of meticulously revising this post, I logged in this afternoon to write about something else and decided to finally publish this one instead. Enjoy.]
My dad died by suicide in 1999. I was 14 years old. He suffered from depression and alcoholism, and one dreary December day in Illinois, it got the best of him.
When I’m confronted with explaining the story of my dad’s death, I often soften the blow with a sprinkling of phrases like “yeah, it was terrible – but I’ve overcome it” and “it’s okay; it’s all in the past.” They’re all true statements, if a little too simplistic. The way I remember it, I was devastated, I cried a lot, and then I resumed my life the best I could. But, the older I get, the more I realize how many memories of my dad had been plucked from my brain during the healing process. The mind is truly a fascinating place.
We moved from small town Illinois to sunny Southern California. And life went on.
My dad was a lot of things. He was the guy who taught me to love science. He was a blue collar man who worked at a power plant in rural Illinois. At the plant, he taught people how to split atoms with a fancy machine. Or at least that’s what I remember thinking he did.
I’m sure he did other things, but as a child, I imagined him going to work in front of a pretty whiteboard, with a wooden dowel to point to important things on the pretty whiteboard, playing with a fancy atom-splitting machine in front of envious co-workers who probably wished they could use the fancy atom-splitting machine.
My dad made me look up the answers when I had a question about how something worked or why something existed, even though I’m positive he knew the answer. We had a set of encyclopedias in the basement, and I remember getting sidetracked when looking for my answers and accidentally learning a lot more than I intended.
He was the guy I drew a picture of, playing my saxophone, on a chalkboard in the basement in fifth grade. I’m pretty sure I was a terrible saxophone player when I was younger, but he let me play it anyway.
My dad taught me how to use a goose call, and he taught me how to sit patiently for hours, waiting for my bobber to dip under the water, signaling I had caught a fish. He taught me how to tell how old a tree was when it was cut down, and he taught me more than I really ever needed to know about the habits of deer.
At one point in my childhood, my dad drove purple Firebird with sparkles and bucket seats. At another point, he drove a Jeep Wrangler.
One year, during the winter, my dad took my brother and me out in our snow suits with our sleds. We tied the sleds to the back of the Wrangler, and he drove us down a country road, riding our sleds like something from Star Wars. I still laugh my ass off when my brother and I recall the moment my brother’s sled hit a bump. He bounced out of it, still holding on, got dragged a short while, and then hit another bump that bounced him back in. It probably wasn’t the best idea any of us ever had, but it sure was fun.
When I was very little, my dad sang songs to me – and there’s a song about five little pennies that I’m quite sure I still have memorized.
I loved that damn penny song, and somewhere in my stash of things I don’t look at very often, I’m pretty sure there’s a picture I made as a kid with the lyrics to the song and five pennies taped to a piece of paper and laminated. If I ever find it, I’ll probably frame it.
I haven’t thought about that penny song in probably 15 years, but it came to me while writing the original draft of this post.
I am comforted in knowing that all I can do is live my life and enjoy it if I’m able. Everything in this world is enough. I can decide what his death means to me and to remember that so many pieces of his life have informed who I am today and who I will become tomorrow, even in his absence.
I’ve tried for a week to write a conclusion to this post. Something about being ready to handle the memories, 14 years after my dad’s death. Something about comfort and love. Something about my friends who have lost their fathers more recently. Something about my amazing mom, who picked up the pieces for us all so many times. Something about how much I love and appreciate my stepdad for joining our family and sticking with us all for the last decade.
I never thought of what to write as my profound conclusion. I don’t want to write about what happens when we die because I find comfort in not trying to know. But I can write about the beauty of the memories I’m softly starting to recall. I can write about compassion and about helping others. I can write about the pain that sort of feels good to think about, the further from that time in my life I get. And I can write about all the love that has grown in my life over the years and the love and lessons from my dad that will exist eternally in my heart.
And I can write about five little pennies.
(Since originally writing this post in 2013, YouTube has become a lot more popular, and, hey, they’ve got the penny song! https://youtu.be/zPdYotzHadU)
This little penny is to wish on
And make your wishes come true.
This little penny is to dream on
Dream of all you can do.
This little penny is a dancing penny.
See how it glitters and it glows,
Bright as a whistle, Light as a thistle
Quick, quick as a wink, up on its twinkling toes.
This little penny is to laugh on
To see that tears never fall.
This little penny, is the last little penny,
And most important of all.
For this little penny is to love on,
And where love is, heaven is there.
So with just five pennies, if they’re these five pennies,
You’ll be a millionaire.