Loss of a Father
Only A Photograph
By Eric Marcus, the author of Why Suicide? Questions & Answers About Suicide, Suicide Prevention, and Coping With the Suicide of Someone You Know. Please visit him at www.whysuicidebook.com. He blogs at www.whysuicideblog.com. And follow him on Twitter @whysuicide.
It’s just a photograph, I tell myself, as I recover from the unexpected shock of seeing my long-dead father stare back at me from my computer screen. The misleading subject line of the email from Bob, my dad’s once-young protégé, read: “Attached is your father’s portrait.”
My dad painted and, after my parents separated in 1968, my mom offloaded his two dozen or so paintings to a couple of his close friends (I managed to rescue a few, arguing that the ones my dad painted of my brother and me belonged to us and weren’t hers to give away). So I thought that Bob, who had recently called to ask if I wanted one of the paintings Mom had given him—a portrait of a yogi—was sending a photo of the painting so I could decide if I wanted it. Instead, what he sent was a black and white portrait of my father that he shot not long before Dad overdosed and died in December 1970. My father was forty-four. I was twelve.
Most of how I remember my dad is from photographs when he was in his twenties and thirties, when he and Mom were newlyweds and then later the parents of young children. There are very few photos of my dad from later in his troubled life, and nothing like the intense—and intensely sad—image on my computer. If you didn’t know that my dad suffered from depression and killed himself, you might think that he simply looked thoughtful and contemplative, which he was. But knowing what I know about his death—knowing what I can never forget as much as I would like to forget—I see sadness and heartbreak. His sadness. My heartbreak.
I’ve ticked off the passing years since my dad’s death with something approaching ritual every December 16, although since I marked my own forty-fourth birthday, I no longer worry that I’ll wind up killing myself too—which I’ve learned is something that children of a parent who takes his or her life often fear. And the pain of Dad’s suicide has long since faded from crushing and persistent to a simple (simple!) occasional ache. It does indeed get better with time, a long time.
But that photograph makes me more than ache. I see myself in that face, a face that I can see in my own, and Dad looks as sad as I feel when I think of him and what I lost. He’s a man I hardly knew, who died eight years shy of the age I am now, yet his absence still has the power to take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes when I look into his eyes.