My father confronted his mortality head on when he was 35. Not a depressive man but rather an agonizingly rational one, he thought through every issue that occurred to him and acted on his conclusions. So it was that he drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods that November day, selected a small pistol from one of the back aisles and (having never before fired a gun in his life) shot the back of his head out in our basement. I was only 7 years old and did not understand nearly everything that was happening at the time. The only reason I know anything of the circumstances of my father’s death is the oddly courteous note he left for my mother and me. I was young enough when my father shot himself that he remains a ghostly figure in my life – influential in an almost tangible way but too dim in my memory, so I will never fully understand the ways in which he lives in me. What I do actually remember about my father is his salt and pepper hair, his broad shoulders, his great height, and most vividly, his clear and lucid eyes, which twinkled constantly and straddled the line between blue and gray. Yet it was through his suicide note that I found what I believe was the best characterization of my father. I had never read the note until my mother passed away when I was 34 (over 15 years ago) and have kept it in the lowermost drawer of my writing desk since then. The anniversary of his death is drawing near, and I find myself pulling the letter out with greater frequency, as is my wont this time of year. There is no need; I memorized the note over a decade ago (having copied it dozens of times in fact) but I take comfort in reading it in his own handwriting.
It is not with sadness that I recapitulate this final letter from my father. To be sure, there was a time, when my mother had just passed away and I was reminded of the tragedy of my father’s suicide by my discovery of the letter, but since then I have come to appreciate the note for allowing me to learn who my father was after all of these years. It is difficult still, however, not to wonder what might have been, but it is likewise important to remember that what might have been is not necessarily better than what actually was.
“Dearest Doris and Samuel,” my father wrote.
“Do not panic. I have been thinking about this for some time and have come to the conclusion that life is not worth living. I apologize for what you surely realize now to be my ulterior motives in suggesting your camping trip. It was necessary, for I wished to inform you myself without unduly alarming you by warning you of my intention. Today, Saturday, about an hour after you left, I drove to Dick’s in Hutchington and purchased a small firearm. The moment I finish this letter I will telephone the police to tell them about my body (though I will not, of course, tell them your whereabouts. I couldn’t bear for you to hear about this from a police officer.). I will then descend the cellar stairs and shoot myself in the head. As I said, I have given this quite a bit of thought, and am entirely prepared.
“This is neither of your faults. This is not a demonstration of dissatisfaction with my life or either of you; it is simply the conclusion of a rational train of thought. I love you both, and I love my life for you being in it.
“The real question is what am I giving up, and what am I gaining in return? Well, first and foremost, I give up my life with you, little Samuel; you are only seven years old – I will never see you grow up. Yet I could never really see you grow up anyway – as children grow older they become more sullen and withdrawn. I would lose you as acolyte, and you would lose me as a role model. For I could never live up to your idealized standards of greatness, the only way I can is by becoming ideal myself. Better for me to fulfill your ideal merely as a dimly remembered exemplar, made that much more glorious by my sacrifice. Someday, son, I earnestly believe that you will come to the same conclusion I have, but that day is probably a long way off. I sincerely hope you realize it before it’s too late – even earlier than I is better.
“Sweet Doris, you must know that I love you more than anything else – for you I would do anything, and it was that reason in fact that kept me from enlightening you to my purpose. My will is putty in your soft embrace, and I did not want my weak emotions to interfere with the logical will of a purely rational man. Again, I’m sorry, but it is not too late for you, too, to make the decision I made.” My mother in fact did commit suicide, an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 55. The state of the note when I received it suggested that she had read his letter on as regular a basis as I do, if not more so.
“Life will get better again for the two of you,” my father continued, “though the pain of existence will never fade – it is invincible and omnipresent. This is my essential thesis. No rational creature can exist and not be in pain, for reason knows a deeper, more spiritual pain possible only through the dual gift-curses of empathy, communication, and probably worst of all, self-awareness. The irony, of course, is that it is these exact traits that make it seem as though life is worth living, but this is a fallacy. Consider the age of the earth, or better, the universe. Consider also the amount of time the universe is likely to stretch into the future. The brief snippet of consciousness we are allotted is as nothing next to the amount of time each of us will spend not existing.
“In fact the only objects of note that I lose in giving up my life are pleasure and pain. Pleasure is a worthwhile sacrifice – after all, it is not as though I will be able to pine for the days when I could experience pleasure, and I lose all pain in the deal as well. It is so clear, once you apply your mind, that all pain stems from the intrinsic absurdity of the ethereal consciousness trapped in the material world. Don’t think of me as being gone, for I exist in your memories but more importantly in your histories – I have made you who you are – and even before I pull the trigger of this gun it is in you that the better part, the more vivacious part of me resides. I have not gone anywhere, I have simply returned to where I came from. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
“With all of my love, and looking forward to seeing you again,
Your Father, Husband, and Greatest Ally,
He shot himself, just like he said he would. There was no sign of depression or apprehension. He set up a tarp so that there wouldn’t be a mess, and when we had returned from our camping trip, my mother found the note before we ever saw the body, which had already been brought down to the morgue. My mother was called to identify the body, but of course this was a mere formality. My father, once he made up his mind, acted, and to this day I believe he was the bravest person I have ever known.