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THE LEGACY
SUICIDE IS DESPERATE. IT IS HOSTILE. IT IS TRAGIC. BUT MOSTLY, IT IS A BLOODY MESS

Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 19, 1996 8:38 AM

The blood was like Jell-O. That is what blood gets like, after you die, before they tidy up.

Somehow, I had expected it would be gone. The police and coroner spent more than an hour behind the closed door; surely it was someone's job to clean it up. But when they left, it still covered the kitchen floor like the glazing on a candy apple.

You couldn't mop it. You needed a dustpan and a bucket.

I got on my knees, slid the pan against the linoleum and lifted chunks to the bucket. It took hours to clean it all up, and even after that we found pools I had missed under the stove and sink.

It wasn't until I finally stood up that I noticed the pictures from his wallet. The wooden breadboard had been pulled out slightly, and four photographs were spilled across it. "Now what?" I thought with annoyance. "What were the police looking for?"

But then it hit me. The police hadn't done it. These snapshots -- one of my mother, one of our dog and two of my brother and me -- had been carefully set out in a row, by my father.

It was his penultimate act, just before he knelt on the floor, put the barrel of a .22 rifle in his mouth, and squeezed the trigger.

He was 46 years old. I was 21. This week marks the 20th anniversary of his death. And I am still cleaning up.

By the time you finish this article, another person in the United States will have killed himself. More than 30,000 people do it every year, one every 15 minutes. Few receive the attention Adm. Jeremy Boorda's suicide is getting. My father's was a textbook case: Depressed white male with gun offs himself in May. December may be the loneliest month, April the cruelest, but May is the peak time for suicide. No one knows why, but I can guess: You've made it through another winter, but your world is no warmer.

This year, thousands of families will begin the process that ours began that night 20 years ago. Studies show that their grief will be more complicated, more intense and longer lasting than for any other form of death in the family. They will receive less support and more blame from others. Some will never really get over it: Children of suicides become a higher risk for suicide themselves. I once asked a psychologist why.

"Many children feel they don't have a right to be any happier than their parents were," he said. "To be happier is a form of betrayal."

These are the legacies of suicide: guilt, anger, doubt, blame, fear, rejection, abandonment and profound grieving. Most people don't want to talk about it, don't even want to think about it. It is too raw and confusing.

Shortly after he died, I remember thinking, "I wonder how I'll feel about this in 20 years?" Twenty years seemed like a lifetime away. Would I remember his suicide? Would I think about it much? Would I still feel angry, guilty, sad? Would time heal all wounds?

Twenty years later: Yes, I remember. No, I don't think about it often. I don't feel angry or guilty or sad, but no -- time does not heal all wounds.

My father's suicide is, simply, a part of me. Think of your life as a can of white paint. Each significant experience adds a tiny drop of color: pink for a birthday, yellow for a good report card. Worries are brown, setbacks gray. Lavender -- my favorite color when I was a little girl -- is for a pretty new dress. Over time, a color begins to emerge. Your personality.

When a suicide happens, someone hurls in a huge glob of red. You can't get it out. You can't start over. The red will always be there, no matter how many drops of yellow you add.

It colors the memories that came before it. It shades all the choices that followed. It is always there. He Did It'

The call came about 9 p.m. It was a Friday night in suburban Minneapolis; the restaurant was packed. I was racing from the bar with a tray of drinks for my customers when the manager gestured me to the phone. It's your mother, she said.

"Roxanne, he's got a gun. He's in the garage with a gun. You have to come."

There had been many, many threats: "Be home in a half-hour," he would say to my mother, "or I'll be dead." Sometimes she dashed back from the office, sometimes she refused.

This was different. There had never been a weapon before. "I have to go," I said to my boss, hoping I wouldn't be fired. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry."

I made many choices that night; some were smart, some stupid, some crazy. I believed, deep down, my father would indeed kill himself, sooner or later; I knew my mother was in danger; and I knew he blamed me for a lot of his misery. Looking back, I feel lucky to have survived the night.

I drove past the house. He was standing in the shadows of the front yard; I couldn't see if he had the gun. I sped to a phone booth two blocks away and dialed.

She answered. "He's in the front yard," I said. "Can you get out?"

Five minutes later, she walked up to the car. He was quiet now, she said. She told him she was going to talk to me, but would be back. Then she dropped the bombshell: He had held her at gunpoint for two hours before she called the restaurant.

We attempted rational conversation. We came to what seemed, at the time, a rational decision. We pulled up to the house, and my father came out the front door without the gun. He wanted to talk.

Give me the gun, I said. He refused. We can't talk until the gun is gone, we said. He shook his head. Come inside, he asked my mother. She shook her head.

He went back in, we drove to a coffee shop nearby. Frantic, we debated what to do next. To this day, I am still astonished that it never occurred to us to get help -- to call the police, a hot line, anybody.

It was almost midnight; exhausted, my mother wanted to go home. She would stay the night if he let me take the gun away. Tomorrow, after a night's sleep, we would be able to think clearly.

The house was silent; the door to the kitchen was shut. Ominous. My mother reached it first. Opened it.

"He did it," she whispered and slumped against the wall. I looked in, then pulled her back and shut the door again to prevent her little dogs from running in all the blood.

"Why didn't I kiss him?" she asked.

"What?" I said, confused.

"Before the coffee shop, he asked me to kiss him and I wouldn't." She sank onto the couch. "Why didn't I kiss him?" The Last Word

There was a time when suicide was considered a noble act of noble men. There was a time when corpses of suicides were dragged through the streets, refused Christian burial, and all the family's worldly goods were seized by the state. There was a time when romantics, inspired by Goethe's "The Sorrows of Young Werther," embraced suicide as a sign of their sensitivity.

Now we have long, impassioned debates about "assisted suicide," which pales beside the much larger issue: How do we feel about suicides when there isn't a terminal disease and a supportive family on hand?

How do we feel about suicide if a 46-year-old guy just doesn't want to live anymore? A man whose marriage is falling apart, whose kids are growing up and moving out, who can't seem to hold down a job? Reason enough?

How do we feel about someone who's depressed but won't get help? Who blames all his problems on someone else? Who emotionally terrorizes and blackmails the people he loves? Is that okay, too? Can you fault him for anything if he ends up dead?

There are people who will tell you, convincingly, that depression is so dark that it blots out reason, perspective and all other survival mechanisms. They are experts who will tell you suicide is rage turned inward: A desire to kill becomes a need to die.

This is what I will tell you: Suicide is the last word in an argument, maybe an argument you never knew you were having. It is a grand exit, one guaranteed to make everybody stop in his tracks, pay attention and feel bad. It is meant to be the last scene of the last act of life. Curtain down. End of story.

Except it isn't.

Tosca jumps off the parapet, and I wonder who finds the shattered body. Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, and I grieve for their parents. Madame Butterfly collapses on the dagger, and I cry for her little boy in the sailor suit. Prom Night

The calls began: first to my father's only brother, who lived three blocks away, then to the police. Officers arrived, then detectives and someone from the coroner's office. Someone came into the living room to ask questions. I answered. Yes, he was depressed. Yes, he had threatened to kill himself. No, there wasn't a note.

I had sent my mother next door. "Watch for Mike's car," I instructed. "You have to watch for Mike's car."

This was the night of my brother's high school senior prom. The dance was on a boat -- we didn't know where -- then there was an all-night party and a picnic the next day. I called his girlfriend's house. There is an emergency at home, I said. Tell him to call.

An hour passed. No call. The detectives were still in the kitchen when Mike's car turned slowly onto the street and found a sea of police cars, lights flashing. Neighbors huddled in clusters across the street.

I watched from the front step as my mother ran to him. "Your father shot himself and he's dead," she said, guiding him to the neighbor's house. I watched as the police took the body out, dripping thick drops of blood from the kitchen to the front door. I watched my uncle stare blankly when I asked him to help clean up the kitchen.

"Frank," I ordered. "You have to help me. I don't want Mike to have to see this."

White-lipped, he watched as I scooped up buckets of blood and flushed them down the toilet. I threw him an old sheet and told him to start wiping.

Years later, I learned how angry I made him, how he never forgave me for making him do that. He didn't like blood on his hands.

I was alone in the kitchen again when I noticed the pictures from my father's wallet. There were two portraits of his children. In the first one, I am 4 or 5 and my brother is maybe a year old. The other was more recent, taken for Dad's last birthday just a few months earlier. He loved both pictures. Everybody knew Mike Roberts loved his kids.

If he had to kill himself, I thought angrily, why did he do it tonight? Why did he spoil his son's last night as a teenager? Why ruin prom night?

"You selfish bastard," I thought. "You couldn't have waited one more night?" A Toxic Waste

Suicide is poison.

In 1988, Gloria Vanderbilt's 23-year-old son flung himself off the balcony of her 14th-floor Manhattan apartment as she watched in horror. His last words to his mother: "{Expletive} you."

Suicide is a desperate act, but it is also a hostile act. It begets more hostility. It gives the survivors the perfect opportunity to express all their real feelings about one another, good and bad. Years of petty resentments, years of unmentioned slights and snubs, grab center stage.

Something -- or somebody -- had driven my father to take his life. Somebody had failed to recognize the symptoms. Somebody had failed him, over and over. It was somebody's fault. It had to be somebody's fault -- anybody but the guy who did it.

My mother was never well liked by my father's sisters, and so they concluded that what had happened was my mother's fault. She was having an affair, she had driven him to it. That's what my father had told them before he died. The fact that she wore an aqua suit to the funeral was proof, wasn't it?

And I? I was on her side. So it was my fault, too. The fact that I didn't fall apart at the funeral was proof, wasn't it?

There is no one truth. There are too many truths. My mother swears there was no affair, my father swore there was. I search my memory and come up empty. Did I ever know? Have I forgotten? In the end, of course, it doesn't justify the suicide, even if it's true.

Death makes most of us stupid: We say the wrong thing, or we don't say anything at all. Suicide is worse. Sometimes it makes people cruel.

After the funeral, we were simply abandoned by my father's family. My mother was still numb, but I was confused and angry. No calls, no help, no kindness. There were no invitations to dinner, not even Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Two years later, I found out why: They thought my mother and I killed him.

At one of those little get-togethers just after he died, my father's family decided that perhaps my mother and I had cleverly managed to murder my father and make it look like a suicide. There wasn't any note, after all.

One of my cousins was so skeptical he went to the coroner and asked to look at the police photos. It was a classic suicide, the coroner assured him.

After all we'd been through, this accusation was simply too much to bear. What kind of cruelty was this? And what had we done to deserve it?

I vowed never, ever to speak to any of them again. When a distant member of the family -- a devoted wife and mother -- found her husband dead in the garage, sucking the end of an exhaust pipe, I was almost glad.

"Good," I thought fiercely. "Now they'll understand that suicide happens in nice families, too."

Suicide is poison. It poisons the ground beneath it. Anything that grows in that ground is poisoned; the fruit is poisoned. But people feast on it.

It is a terrible mistake. To survive, you have to get the hell out of there. The Inevitable Question

Second-guessing is the Devil's game, for there are no answers and infinite questions. But it is an inevitable, inescapable refrain, like a bad song you can't get out of your mind. What if, what if, what if. What if we had forced him to get help? Had him committed?

What if, that night he died, we had called the police? Why didn't we?

Part of it was the natural tendency toward privacy: Family business is kept in the family. Part of it was arrogance, believing that we knew father best, or at least we could handle whatever he threw at us.

I think I knew my father would have charmed the police, sent them away, leaving him furious with me, furious with my mother, dangerous, armed.

Maybe that's why. Maybe it was fear. Maybe not. Maybe I wanted him to die.

The tiniest thoughts, the slightest variations, carry the seeds of redemption and damnation. "Why didn't I kiss him?"

At some point, you simply give up. You could have done everything differently. You could have done nothing differently. You finally let it rest or you go crazy. The Unraveling

The police were puzzled by a wand of Maybelline black mascara they found in my father's pocket. Another woman? Proof of an affair?

The answer was simple: He used it to touch up the gray on his temples.

I don't think he ever really expected to get old. He was the baby, the youngest of five children. He had three older sisters to fuss over him and a timid older brother who was envious of his effortless popularity. He was a very happy child; it was adulthood that he could never quite grasp.

He was tall and cinematically handsome -- blue eyes, dark curly hair -- and wore bad suits well. He was charming enough to talk his way into job after job. There was the real estate phase, the radio phase, the political hanger-on phase. (In one family photo, he is shaking hands with Hubert Humphrey.) No job lasted long, but it never occurred to him to do heavy lifting. The big score, the one that would make him a rich man, was always just around the corner.

Things started out well enough: a beautiful teenage bride, two kids and -- after his mother died -- his childhood home, a little bungalow, to raise his family in. His son was popular and athletic. His daughter was pretty and smart and attentive. Because he thought Ava Gardner fabulous and didn't care much for Marilyn Monroe, I never felt the urge to dye my hair blond. It was like that in the beginning. Things should have been idyllic.

But money bedeviled him. He described himself as the most unlucky of men. He must have felt himself a dreadful failure. I remember him hiding in the bedroom while I lied to bill collectors at the door. Some creditors were less gentle. One summer my father parked his old car on a different block every night, but still someone found it and smashed the windshield.

My memories are mostly like that, dark and forbidding. And yet, a few years ago, I found an old audio tape my parents must have made when I was 5 or 6. It is preserved from a big old reel-to-reel. My mother is braiding my hair. My father is teasing me. I am giggling.

"Hey!" my voice pipes up, delighted. "You bit me on the nose!" It is a moment of wonderful, giddy joy. I can't recall it at all, or anything like it, except here it is, incontestable proof. There must have been thousands of moments like that. To me, they are gone. They are drowned out by red.

When did things start falling apart? Or were they ever really together? Which was the last straw?

I remember a night when I was 11. One of our cats streaked across the living room. In his mouth was a hamster that had somehow escaped from its cage. We all jumped to the rescue; my father caught the cat at the top of the basement stairs. He was suddenly, unaccountably livid. He shook the cat, and the hamster fell to the floor and scampered free.

I will never forget what came next: With all his might, he threw the cat down the stairs. It landed in a heap on the concrete floor, motionless.

There was a moment of stunned silence, then tears and regret and an emergency trip to the vet. The cat lived. But I think I never fully trusted my father again: Anything, anytime, could set him off. One day, I said to myself, it could be me at the bottom of those stairs. He will feel terrible afterward, and beg for forgiveness, but what difference will it make then?

The 10 years that followed were filled with sudden rages, explosions without warning. I found out later that he first hit my mother when she was pregnant with me, and continued on and off for two decades.

But in the last year of his life, he collapsed.

His marriage of 22 years was slipping away from him. His children were leaving him: I had moved out three years earlier; my brother was about to graduate from high school. He couldn't find anyone who wanted to hire him at a job he would take.

We begged him to get help. We asked his brother and sisters to talk to him. And when, ultimately, I told my mother I thought she needed to leave for her own safety, my father saw that as a betrayal. He ordered me out of his life.

He didn't speak to me again for two months, until the night he died.

That night, he spoke volumes. I Lied

I lied to the police.

I told them there was no suicide note. In fact, there were three. They were handwritten on white sheets of notebook paper, short spurts of deadly poetry. Two were waiting in the living room as we walked into the house.

The note to my mother begged for forgiveness but said he simply could not go on the way things were. She has, to this day, no memory of reading it.

The note addressed to me opened with a rapprochement. "All is forgiven," read the first line. My eyes filled. No, I said silently, all is not forgiven. Death does not convey absolution. You don't get off that cheap.

The rest of the note instructed me to take care of things.

When I went to call the police, I found the third note, addressed to my brother, in his room next to the extension phone. I cannot recall the specific words, but the short message to an 18-year-old boy was this: Son, you can't trust women.

My father had asked me to take care of things. And I was going to take care of things.

He was dead; we were alive. There was nothing more we could do for him. But Mike and my mother needed each other now, more than ever. This note could do no good.

I stuffed all three in my purse and went back out to the living room. A week later, with my mother watching, I ripped them to pieces and flushed them down the toilet.

When I finally told my brother about this, just two weeks ago, he was angry and hurt, as I knew he would be. He asked, quietly, "What made you think you could take something Dad left for me?"

Fair question.

Here is the answer, Mike. It is simple. I hope you can live with it. I've had to.

The wishes of the dead do not take precedence over the needs of the living. Blood Sport

Suicide does strange things to the subconscious.

A few weeks after the funeral, I attended a performance by a local improvisational troupe. The audience threw out suggestions; the actors proved how fast they could think on their feet.

"For the next sketch we need something you inherit," announced a pert blond actress. "You know: silver, jewelry, pictures -- something that gets passed on to the next generation."

"Hemophilia," I blurted out. I didn't know why I said that.

There was a long silence; then the room exploded in laughter.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense: a hereditary disease where the children, when bruised, cannot stop bleeding. Missing Grandpa

Nothing is ever the same.

At first, I read every book I could get my hands on about suicide. I tried to make sense of it all, tried to find reason in an irrational choice. To this day, I cannot bear the idea of a gun in my house.

On Easter Sunday almost a year after the suicide, I was standing at the entrance of the restaurant for which I worked, wearing a giant bunny costume to greet families arriving for dinner. A little boy, maybe 2 or 3 years old, came racing up to me, his eyes wide.

"Grandpa, look!" he said excitedly. An older man smiled broadly and swung the boy up in his arms.

I watched the two of them delight in each other. My father will never get a chance to know my children, I realized. He would have been a good grandfather.

And the Easter Bunny began to cry.

I have come to understand that my father was angry, selfish, self-pitying. But most of all, he was without hope and in desperate pain. I don't fault him for his depression; I fault him for refusing to get any help.

Suicides often believe everyone will be better off when they are dead. Even at his worst, I do not believe my father could have imagined the toll his death would take on all of us, and I don't believe he ever really intended to hurt his children. His life was filled with errors in judgment, and this was his final one, a permanent mistake he could never correct or amend.

Suicide cuts a lot of ambivalence out of your life. I decided good intentions are never enough. I became fiercely protective of my happiness. Happiness, not money or titles, became my yardstick of a successful life. This was not adolescent self-indulgence or an epistemological exercise. It was life or death.

About a year after my father died, I left Minneapolis. I stumbled though my twenties, met a terrific man and got married, and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. For a couple of years I worked in advertising, an industry peopled by individuals with brains and creativity and a contempt for what they do. Not for me.

I think I became a journalist because whatever other duplicities this craft may embrace, your mission is the truth. You are not forced into war with yourself.

Nine months after the funeral, my brother moved to California. He was reckless, strong, adrift, and almost died three times -- once in a motorcycle accident, once in a stabbing and once in a heedless dive into a pool that split open his skull.

He returned to Minnesota, subdued and gentle, and went on to a successful computer career. He was, surprisingly, never angry at my father or his family. He cherishes happy memories of our childhood, memories I cannot recall.

But he cannot bring himself to marry his girlfriend of 16 years. They live together, in a home they bought together, but he simply does not trust marriage.

Two years after the suicide, my mother remarried, changing her friends, her religion, even her first name. She was widowed again -- a heart attack -- and announced a year later that she was getting married again. Her fiance was my cousin -- her nephew by marriage. He was the son of the aunt who had accused us of murder.

I was at a complete loss. His mother was someone I'd cut out of my life years before. I never expected to see her again; now she would be my mother's new mother-in-law. One big strange dysfunctional family.

"I expect you to be civil to her," my mother told me.

No, I said. I could promise to come to the wedding, and I could promise not to make a scene, but small talk with someone who thought I had murdered my father was too much to ask.

My mother was outraged. We had a ugly fight, and she didn't speak to me for months. I went to her wedding but fled to the other side of the room when my aunt approached me. Nothing she could say would make any difference now.

My mother tells me my aunt is very hurt by all this.

The cycle continues, in ways I will never fully understand. Under the Oaks

Four years ago, when my son was a month old, I took him to Minnesota to meet my family.

"Take me to Father's grave," I told my brother.

It was the first time I'd been there since the funeral. The cemetery, shaded by rows of old oak trees, was cool and serene. I introduced my beautiful new baby to his grandfather, and my father to his only grandchild.

Today, when I stare at the boy who takes my breath away, I think about how much my father missed over the past 20 years, and how much more he will miss. I've more sorrow than anger now.

A lot of wonderful things have happened in those years, hundreds of shimmering droplets added to the mix. When I stir the paint now, it is a soft dusky rose. A grown-up's color, with a touch of sweetness and a touch of melancholy.

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