On Thursday, May 3rd, 2007, at about six in the evening, in Spokane, Washington, my mother and father had a fierce argument. Fights and conflict were rare for them, and never lasted long. They’d been married thirty-nine years. They had a happy marriage. My father said, “If you want me to go, then I’ll really go.” He went upstairs. A few minutes later, my mother followed. She found him sitting on the end of their bed, his eyes unfocused, his head and shoulders sagging. “What did you do?” she shouted. “I took some pills,” my father answered. “ You won’t have to worry about me anymore.” My mother went into the bathroom. All the bottles from the medicine cabinet, a pharmacy’s worth of drugs including the Ativan and Trazodone my mother took for bipolar disorder, were out and open and empty on the counter. She called 911.
The last thing my father ever wanted was to be a character in a melodrama. He did not want to step on stage at sixty-six, his hair gray, a small paunch over his belt, and play the tragic lead.
He wanted to drink Coca-cola and watch Jeopardy! and listen to The Kingston Trio, to bowl and play cribbage with my mother, to read science fiction novels and watch movies with explosions, to work as a speech pathologist in a nursing home, helping the elderly to speak again and swallow soft foods like yogurt and rice pudding.
Two days later, on the fifth floor of the psychiatric ICU of Spokane’s Sacred Heart Hospital, after my father had spent thirty-six hours in a coma on a ventilator, the intubation tube was removed from his throat. His head back on his pillow, his eyes closed, his face pale, he slowly regained consciousness. He recognized me as I gripped his hand, touched his forehead. The agony etched on his wrinkled face was clear. He did not want to be alive.
For hours, my father would not speak. Tears leaked slowly from his eyes.
For the past two days, my mother had refused to tell me why he had done this. “ Your father will have to tell you himself.”
She could hardly look at me. She said this each time I asked, and I asked more than a few times. She said this even in the first hours after his suicide attempt, when it wasn’t clear if he’d pull through, as if she was willing to let him take his reasons to the grave.
I told my father I loved him, and he mouthed the words, “ You won’t.”
My father told me two things that day, two revelations which I had never once suspected. He told me that for ten years, from the time he was four until he was fourteen, his father had molested him. His voice broke as he said this. He hesitated and looked wildly about the room. I moved toward him. My father held up his hand. “I’m not done.” He then said that he’d been having anonymous affairs for as long as he and my mother had been married – for thirty-nine years. All of these affairs were with men. He was gay. My father cried as he spoke. I cried with him. I told him I was grateful he was alive.
For the next half hour or so, I sat with my father beside his bed. Or my mother sat at his side, talking to him in a quiet voice and holding his hand and stroking his thin, gray hair. Or she stood at the edge of the room, her mouth in a tight line, her arms crossed, her eyes far away.
It is summer and dusk and my father is seven years old. He lives with his mother and sisters in a small apartment with a porch facing the street and an unfenced backyard. The night is hot and humid and the windows are open, the air heavy with the smell of Virginia’s James River and of coal. My father is reading a Donald Duck comic in the bedroom he shares with his two sisters, teenagers and out somewhere. He sits at the edge of the bed, still dressed in shorts and shirtsleeves, his hair neatly combed. His mother sits at the table in the kitchen: maybe she is paying bills or flipping through the newspaper looking for sales or looking out the window at the coming dark. She works a sixty hour week at the Newport News shipyard as a drafting technician.
She walks to work each day to save the twenty cents of bus fare so her children will have lunch money for school. From the alley, my father hears pebbles crunching beneath tires, an engine downshifting, the familiar grind of brakes. A car door opens and closes. Then his father is shouting. Awful things – about his mother, about his sisters, about him. My father doesn’t need to look out the window to see the drunken sneer on his father’s face.
He knows his father will not leave until one of the neighbors calls the police. The neighbors’ windows are open, every one, every single window, and shame quickens in my father’s gut.
Other times his father lets the car idle in the alley while he gets out, stands quietly, and smokes a cigarette. He lingers there in silence for ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour, and in my father feels the horrible pull of his father’s gravity like the moon’s on tidewater.
My father told me this story late at night in the psychiatric ICU as I willed myself to stay awake on my cot. He was on suicide watch. We had long since turned out the lights. I still didn’t trust that he wouldn’t try to kill himself. I kept having dark premonitions. I’d heard him stir in his bed and asked him what he was thinking. The blinds to the locked windows of our fifth floor room were open wide.
Later that night I startled awake. My father was out of bed.
It was sometime past midnight. The room had a bathroom, and he’d gone inside and shut the door. He was in there a long time.
Too long. I waited and waited. I could feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. Finally I got up and went over and banged hard on the metal door with the side of my fist.
“What? What?” my father shouted.
I let out a gasp. I’d been holding my breath. I tried the door. It was unlocked. I opened it. My father was sitting on the toilet in his gown.
It took me a few moments to speak. My father looked at me. His face was covered in gray stubble. The light in the bathroom was bright. His eyes were wet and glistening. He could not control the movements of his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “ You were in here so long. I thought – ”
He met my eyes and shook his head but couldn’t speak.
“Come on, Dad,” I said, and I helped him up off the toilet, and I held him by the arm and he put his hand on my shoulder.
I guided him through the near dark over to the hospital bed and pulled the thin, white cotton blanket up over his chest.
I had been a father, myself, for almost seven years. But I did not tell him in a soft, reassuring voice that everything would be okay.
GREGORY MARTIN is the author of Mountain City, a memoir of the life of a town of thirty-three people in remote northeastern Nevada, which received a Washington State Book Award, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and is referred to by some people in Mountain City as “the book.” Martin’s work has appeared in The Sun, Kenyon Review Online, Creative Nonfiction, Storyquarterly, and Orion. He teaches creative writing at the University of New Mexico. He lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two sons.