RUTH AND BUCKY JENKINS ARE SUSpended somewhere between despair and redemption.
It has been that way for several years now, ever since their son, 22-year-old Ricky, killed himself. Ricky was always trouble. Or at least always in trouble. He'd break the rules and charm his way out. He was so charming. And caring, not at all mean-spirited. It's just that for as long as anybody can recall, no one could tell Ricky Jenkins what to do, not his folks, his friends, his teachers. As a boy he broke windows, vandalized the local pool, rigged a water fountain to drench Sister Claire. His father was a fireman. Ricky set a field on fire.
It's so easy to look back now and say Ricky was crying out for attention, for respect. Nobody saw that then. He was just a bad boy, and his troubles only grew with age. He discovered drugs at 13 and went on to get a girl pregnant, skip school, bounce from job to job, become
addicted to, of all things, model airplane glue. Life became a labor. Even as a boy Ricky talked about escaping, finding what he called freedom, a mysterious thing that seemed vague and fantastic to those who loved him but which seemed very real to Ricky. Finally, at a time when life appeared better for him, Ricky waited until everyone was gone from his parents'
house, went to the little shed in the yard, closed the door, started his motorcycle and died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Ricky wanted to be free of his emotional pain, free of his imagined worthlessness, free of a closing circle of high expectations and repeated failure, free of his addiction. And he wanted his parents to be free of him. But they are not. Because Ricky wasn't only the cause of his family's troubles, but also their reflection. And nearly three years after Ricky's death, that is what Ruth and Bucky, ages 50 and 52, are still confronting.
Every day they ask themselves why Ricky did this -- to himself and to them. Because the suicide of a child leads parents into a dark tunnel of soul- searching that descends into their histories and psyches, reawakening fears long buried. Those who emerge are stronger. Yet some don't emerge. For them, life after the suicide is never better than before. How to take responsibility but not blame? That is what Ricky's parents, particularly his father, are struggling to do.
They haven't yet found redemption. But God knows, they're trying.
BUCKY AND RUTH JENKINS PULLED into their driveway that Saturday night in June 1984, and right away Bucky noticed that the lock on the red storage shed to the right of the house was hanging open. Bucky, who rose from rookie to Arlington's assistant fire chief, noticed that kind of thing without effort. He was a detail man, a man who believed that a life's achievements were constructed one brick at a time. He'd done well that way. It also was like Bucky to feel a rush of irritation that one of the kids, Ricky or his then-28-year-old brother, Lee, would have gone off and left the shed open while their folks were in the mountains. Most likely, Ricky was the culprit. Even a loving father couldn't argue with history.
Ruth went to the house and Bucky to the shed. Before latching the lock, though, he glanced inside. That moment is forever captured in stop-motion in his mind: There on the floor, lying atop a bed of storage blankets, was Ricky, motionless, his eyes closed. Anger flashed in Bucky at the thought that his boy would play so sick a joke.
"Get up!" he said curtly.
His words and his horrible recognition came simultaneously. He bent down and touched Ricky's skin, cold and firm. As a fireman, Bucky had touched a score of corpses and he knew instinctively that his boy was dead. But he ran to the house, ordered his wife to call for help and ran back to the shed, where he tried to revive Ricky. No chance. Bucky stroked his boy's hair and sobbed, which no one had ever seen him do. Through his tears, he kept asking, "Why would he do this? Why would he do this?"
Bucky was close to hysteria that night, and he was not a man prone to hysteria. He ranked no manly virtue higher than being in control -- in control of himself and, by virtue of his role as provider, in control of his wife and children. They were his responsibility, and he was proud of that. When Ruth went back to work after 20 years of child-rearing, Bucky insisted she spend her income only on herself. Bucky would provide for the family. Bucky was the strong one. The posture was something of a loving joke in the family, because Ruth and the kids knew Bucky was cotton candy beneath the gruffness, "a soft touch," they called him. He'd rant and rave, bark orders, but they knew he wasn't so strong as he pretended, as they allowed him to pretend. The funny thing is that Bucky also knew this about himself. And he knew his family knew. It was just a game they agreed to play. That night, though, Bucky lost it.
"Why not me!" he screamed, again and again, revealing almost immediately his terrible guilt about Ricky's life and death. "Why him?" he asked plaintively. "Why not me?"
Ruth, obedient wife Ruth, was not herself that night either. "Shut up!" she roared. "He's gone, he's dead! There's nothing you can do about it, so shut up!" Shocked, Bucky shut up and regained his control. In the next few days he handled all the arrangements with military precision. But he also became obsessed with finding a suicide note. They nearly tore the house apart. Ricky's younger sister, 19-year-old Janet, even looked in Ricky's secret drug-stash compartment in his bedroom, but no note. Bucky kept saying Ricky wouldn't do this, not without a note, but everyone else concluded he had. Then Ricky's older sister, 25-year-old Linda, mentioned that the passage her mother had marked in the daily book of readings in the upstairs bathroom was oddly relevant to the suicide.
A look that Linda will never forget flashed on her mother's face and she tore up the steps. "I didn't mark this passage," she said calmly when she returned. They had found Ricky's note: "I surrender my will to the wisdom of a loving God." The words comforted the Jenkins family because it meant to them that Ricky hadn't killed himself to punish them. He didn't blame them.
Says Janet, "Ricky just wanted out."
It was a sentiment easier to voice than to truly accept.
RUTH MCNEY WAS 16 AND BUCKY Jenkins was 18 when they married, and both were running away from their childhoods. They met when Bucky's best friend, also Ruth's boyfriend, asked Bucky to entertain her while he was in California for a few weeks. Bucky did, and the old story played out. In time, Ruth and Bucky had a son, Lee. Suddenly, they felt helpless. Raise a child? How do you do that? Of only one thing were they confident: Their childhoods were no guide.
She'd grown up in Bradbury Heights in Prince George's County and her father was a clerk at the patent office. It was a good job, but he was an alcoholic. She wasn't beaten or abused, but the house, a nice little house, was always in turmoil, with her mother riding her father about his drinking. He was a weak man, warm and loving with Ruth, an only child, but forever sad. Her mother, a strikingly beautiful woman, worked as a secretary before most mothers worked, and Ruth was at home alone a lot. But despite the sometimes desperate atmosphere, she always felt loved, if lost. Life got worse in her teens when her mother too became an alcoholic. And by the time Ruth had kids, her folks were riding a hopeless seesaw of drunken regrets and recriminations. She never asked their advice and they never offered.
Young Ruth was a quiet, lonely and frightened girl. She was pretty, but she believed she was ugly, especially next to her mother. Short, 5 feet 2, petite and well-formed, Ruth had an infectious smile. But like her father, she also harbored an abiding sadness and fear. She hated arguments; she'd heard enough, and she'd do nearly anything to keep from arguing, especially with Bucky.
In those days, Bucky had a touch of the know-it-all about him. But then, he'd come up the hard way, perhaps the hardest way, and if his confidence was part show, it worked. He knew even then that determination was his life's advantage. Bucky had grown up in Berryville, Va., on a 263-acre farm owned by an old bachelor. Bucky's grandmother, the old man's housekeeper, had taken Bucky from his alcoholic mother at age 1, after she had beaten him. His father was already dead. After that, Bucky's mother disappeared, except for rare visits when mother and son would end up at a local bar. Bucky laughs and says, "She thought nothing of reaching across the bar stool and smacking me."
Grandmother -- Granny, as he called her -- was Bucky's family. She was a tough one, Granny, and Bucky was rarely hugged or kissed. But she loved him dearly, even if he was too young to understand it. She wore ragged clothes and had holes in her shoes, but not little Bucky. No way did Granny have enough money to spoil him, but Bucky never stood out at school as a Raggedy Andy, like some of the other dirt-poor farm kids.
With no other children near the farm, Bucky was without playmates but not without responsibilities. A tiny boy with short legs and wide chest and shoulders, Bucky could heft two 50-pound buckets of feed by the time he was 12. He was proud of that then, and he is proud of it still. He was a gentle, vulnerable boy who always adopted the runts from the farm animal litters. Usually, they'd die or be killed by their parents or siblings or the old man. But if Bucky got them first, he'd nurse them and protect them. And when he walked across the farmyard it was with a menagerie of yelping, quacking, squealing runts behind him.
One animal stands out in his mind: a crippled Black Angus steer that couldn't bend his front knees. Bucky, 9 then, was walking in a far corner of the farm in the first cold of early winter when he came upon the newborn calf with its mother. She was cleaning him with her tongue, her breath rising in the chill, and nudging him to stand, but he couldn't. Bucky knew the calf would die if left overnight, so he bent down on one knee and lifted the calf, probably 50 pounds, and draped its legs over his shoulders. Then, with the mother mooing ominously and bumping him as he walked, Bucky trudged back to the barn. The old man took one look and started out for his gun.
Bucky begged him not to kill the calf. "I'll raise him, I'll take care of him," he pleaded, giving the kind of promise suburban kids make about hamsters and goldfish. Reluctantly, the old man relented, and the Black Angus, which came to be named Benchleg, lived, learning to use his front legs like a spry, elderly man uses a walker, hopping along on them in synchronized motion. And for years, wherever Bucky went on the farm, Benchleg, 900-pound Benchleg, hopped along behind, more like a dog than a steer. "Lord, I loved that animal," Bucky says.
Bucky was 13 when his grandmother died. She'd been sick, but, deep in his child's world, Bucky hadn't understood the gravity of her illness. When she died, he was struck with a deep guilt. At the funeral, he recalled a gift she had given him as a young boy -- a Navy uniform with a white cap and a whistle and a red string that hung over the shoulder. He'd seen it in the Sears catalogue and coveted it immediately. One day it just showed up. He'd taken it with glee, of course, probably even said thank you. But it wasn't until the funeral, when it was too late, that Bucky realized that Granny had likely paid a month's wages for that Navy uniform. And all the other gifts: shoes, pants, shirts, toys that he'd taken without a thought. Why, only days before she died, he'd asked for spending money, and she'd given him $2. It was her last $2, Bucky knew that, but he took it anyway. Suddenly, Bucky realized that the things she'd given him, things he'd taken thoughtlessly, had been wrapped in Granny's love, silently, without display. Her love was not in the items themselves, but in the sacrifices she had made to give them.
It was a keen, empathetic insight for a boy entering his self-absorbed teens. But to Bucky the lesson wasn't that he was only a child, as Granny most certainly knew, but that he was ungrateful and, in his own word, worthless.
"Besides Ruth, my grandmother was the only person who ever loved me," he says, "and that's how I repaid her."
Bucky left the farm after that and moved to Prince George's, where he lived with an aunt and uncle he knew only vaguely. "They were good to me," he says, "but they really didn't have time for me. They had a family of their own. I was just a pain, another mouth to feed. Nobody is going to help you."
Bucky grew to be a muscular young man, short, 5 feet 8, but strong, especially in his upper body. He was outgoing and popular, a leader of the hot-rod gang he hung with, seemingly confident, even cocky. He dressed sharply, liked nice cars and had plenty of girlfriends. And he followed a hard philosophy: "The only person I can trust 100 percent is me. I trust me. The only time I've been hurt is when I trusted someone 100 percent."
After Ruth and Bucky married, she stayed home with the kids and he worked as a carpet-layer. Bucky earned $8,000 in 1955, had a company car and an expense account. But Bucky always wanted to be a fireman, and the next year he took a $3,720-a-year job as a rookie with the Arlington fire department. By then, though, he and Ruth were used to the big money and to make up the shortfall Bucky worked side jobs, as many as four in 24 hours. He laid carpets, worked in a factory, drove a limousine. Then he'd go off and drive a taxi in Arlington, not only for money but also to learn the streets so he'd be a better fireman. He started a house-painting business. On the side, he got his high school degree. Nobody ever accused Bucky Jenkins of being lazy.
But Bucky's ambition also meant he wasn't home much, and when he was home he was exhausted and short-tempered. Bucky was not naturally at ease with kids bouncing on his lap. He hugged them, told them he loved them, played with them, but somewhere deep inside he felt uneasy showing his emotions. They hinted at dependency; taking love implied that a man needed love, needed others, needed even to trust others, perhaps 100 percent. Bucky was the kind of man who enjoyed giving gifts, but who squirmed nervously when it was his turn to receive them. It was never easy for him to accept love. It still isn't.
He was a calm, steady man, but Bucky also was a man with a boiling intensity. And if his gentle words weren't heeded quickly, they were likely to become loud, blunt commands, with his firemen or his children. But kids have a way of not listening, of being beyond precise control. And Bucky remembers that most of his time at home was spent disciplining the kids or asking them to leave him alone because he was so tired. He'd lose his temper a lot in those days, snap, go into a rage, break a dish, threaten, spank the kids, order them to their rooms. "I was wrong in most cases," he says. Then Bucky would feel bad. The next day, he'd go out and buy them a gift or an ice cream cone -- offerings always wrapped in his love, silently, without display. It became a pattern that Bucky now regrets.
"I didn't understand," he says. "I just knew my children, my wife, my family had to have a home, a place to hang their hat, which I never did as a boy. If I came home with $10 in my pocket, I did good. No matter what it cost me. The children don't understand. They just know you're not there. I tried to buy their love. It was always monetary, trying to buy my way through life. Ricky was smart enough to see through it."
Bucky was hard on himself as a boy, and he is hard on himself today.
RICKY WAS DIFFERENT FROM THE other kids from the start. At 8 months he climbed out of his crib. His folks installed crib extenders on the sides, so he climbed over the ends. At 2, he wouldn't go to sleep. He'd run around the house until midnight and then just drop over on the floor. The doctor gave him sedatives, but they seemed to make him worse. By the time Ricky was 3, Ruth had four kids, but Ricky took more out of her than all the others.
"Sometimes I thought I'd lose my mind," she says.
Nobody thought Ricky had a problem then. He was just Ricky, as everyone in the family came to say. "That's just Ricky." He was always in trouble. "I know he got a lot of spankings," says Ruth, "but they didn't seem to have any effect on him." Ricky turned out to be the smartest of the kids, talking very early and acquiring a twinkling curiosity that only meant more trouble. And he was stubborn, no surprise. Ruth was stubborn, demanding that the kids keep their rooms meticulously tidy, nagging them about small failings. "I thought all you had to do was work at it and you could be perfect," she says. "Just work at it -- and make everyone else work at it." And Bucky, well, Bucky was stubborn by everyone's account. But Ricky was the worst.
"If he didn't want to do something," says Ruth, "he didn't."
They called him Dennis the Menace. He was so cute, small and sensitive, like his father had been, and outgoing, precocious and popular. He was an intuitive boy, and it sometimes seemed he could read people's minds, or at least their emotions. He was always quick to notice if someone was angry or sad, quick to cheer them up. He brought home wounded birds galore. But his sensitivity also gave him a way to put things over on people, and he was relentless at using his charm and brains to get his way.
Ruth and Bucky tended to see their children's behavior as a reflection of themselves and they often tweaked the kids' guilt when they misbehaved: "How can you do this to me?" they'd ask. In no time, quick-witted Ricky was tweaking his parents' guilt. He once brought home a stray dog and Ruth made him take it back. For years after that, whenever they argued, Ricky would suddenly say, "You made me take my dog back!" Ruth wasn't able to see this as artful manipulation. "I felt very bad, an inch high," she says. "Ricky always knew how to push the right buttons."
So eloquent was little Ricky that they often joked that he could talk you out of your last dollar. Among his friends he was known for getting reluctant pranksters to ignore their better judgment. His reputation for being in trouble got him accused of pranks he hadn't even committed. He was always rounded up with the usual suspects. Like so many kids of the type, Ricky was an underachiever and his grade school report cards inevitably included a teacher's remark: "Richard does not work to his full potential."
Ricky soon came to see himself as others saw him. On his mom's birthday card he once wrote: "I know I've made it hard over the years, but I love you for putting up with me." And in a childhood will and testament in which he left his eyes to science, he wrote: "Maybe someone can use them to see things the right way."
The first two Jenkins kids, Lee and Linda, made it through childhood with the usual bumps and scrapes. Linda was a "goody-goody" and not very rebellious, though she did go off and get married early. Lee and Bucky had some rough times during Lee's teens, with a lot of yelling and a little shoving. But Lee also had his father's ambition. Always, he had a paper route or a job. Like his dad, Lee tended toward the know-it-all, and they clashed plenty. But Lee had a quality that made life easier: He'd back down, not push every minor dispute to the wall. Ricky never backed down. As a boy, he often refused to say, "I'm sorry." Says little sister Janet, "Ricky was never afraid of my father, and that used to drive my father crazy."
It wasn't until seventh grade that Ruth and Bucky began to take Ricky's troubles seriously. The Catholic school he attended insisted that Ricky go for counseling, and the counselors reported that Ricky was like a "clenched fist." That shocked Ruth and Bucky, because Ricky seemed so lackadaisical. He didn't take anything seriously, rarely finishing projects. To Bucky, he seemed like a quitter. It was recommended that Ricky be given more responsibility, at home and at school: He was on too tight a rein and chafing at the bit. Ruth talked to the principal about that advice and was told that Ricky was a troublemaker who would conform or be out. Ruth now believes that a strict Catholic school wasn't the best place for a boy looking for any petty rule to resist.
At home, they tried to give Ricky more responsibility. They hadn't entrusted him with much because he handled it so badly. They had let Ricky's older brother and sister baby-sit at his age, for instance, but not Ricky. After the counseling, they tried: The experiment ended with Ricky's little sister calling her folks in tears -- Ricky had held her down and sat on her.
The Ricky stories just went on and on. At 10, he and a friend stole beer from the refrigerator. He once got caught climbing on the roof of his school. Before he was old enough to drive, he took a car out for a joy ride. When he was old enough to drive, he had a series of accidents and tickets and lost his license. He once called his father to say he'd gotten the family car stuck but didn't remember where. Bucky found it axle-deep in a field of mud; it had to be lifted out by a crane. In high school he would run away for days at a time and return for the inevitable guilt-inducing lecture from his parents: "We love you. Why did you put us through this?" In fourth grade Ricky had scored as high as the 92nd percentile on his achievement tests, but by high school his scores had fallen drastically. He dropped out of school with two months to go.
"I just can't hack it," he said.
And the glue he had begun to sniff years before was now a daily ritual. Modeling glues then were a cheap, mildly hallucinogenic high. But the toxic chemicals in the glue -- now removed from most glues -- also can contribute to depression and aggressiveness. Because Ricky built models, his parents for a long time didn't suspect. But when they learned, a battle that lasted a decade ensued. There were raids on his room, ultimatums, counselors, psychiatrists, drug rehab programs. Ruth stopped buying brown paper lunch bags, because Ricky used them to sniff glue. Nothing stopped him.
"I just like it," he'd say.
Even his friends, who were as rebellious as Ricky, couldn't understand his habit. "A slummy drug," said one friend. "Disgusting," said another. Glue containers were all over the house, his breath reeked of it, his clothes were spotted with it. His friends rode him fiercely to stop, knowing it was dangerous. Besides, it changed Ricky. Normally, he was outgoing and upbeat, ready for action, even if it was troublesome. He'd do any favor for a friend. He never forgot a birthday and he bought Christmas presents even for mere acquaintances. But after sniffing glue, he was lethargic. Life sucked. It was a waste, no use. And sometimes he was mean, occasionally hitting his high school girlfriend Denise during an argument. Then he'd immediately become "the other Ricky" -- the sweet, vulnerable, repentant Ricky. He'd apologize, swear he'd never do it again, that he'd quit glue, that he'd kill himself if she ever left him. She'd forgive him, but he never changed.
Ricky and Bucky were at each other constantly by the time Ricky reached high school, with Bucky now seeing Ricky's rebelliousness as a taunt. Once, when he discovered Ricky was growing marijuana in the yard, Bucky asked angrily, "Are you trying to make a fool out of me?" It got so Bucky hated to come home. "You love a kid, but you know that you can't come home without getting on that kid," he says. "Every day, you have to come home and say his name in a non-loving way. Every day." It even got physical. Ricky's friends recall that it was always Ricky who tried to slug his father after, say, Bucky had smashed Ricky's glue-sniffing bottle. But Bucky could be threatening too. "I can still kick your ass out the door!" he once bellowed at Ricky. After a dispute, though, Ricky's friends were always amazed that father and son made up so quickly, as if nothing had happened.
Yet for all the anger, Ricky idolized his father. As a boy, he had collected firemen's memorabilia, and every time Bucky won a promotion, Ricky would hang banners in the house congratulating him. To his friends, Ricky often talked about how brave his dad was, about the lives he'd saved, about how he'd made it in the world on his own, without help from anyone. Says Ruth, "He had an unrealistic view of his father." Ricky's close friends couldn't recall a time Ricky spoke badly of his dad. On the contrary, he often talked about how much he loved him, how much his father had done for him -- or tried to do for him. He talked about it so much that some of his teen-age friends thought it was weird.
But Ricky couldn't break out of the descending spiral. His parents were admittedly hard on him, demanding he do better, try harder, straighten up. After all, he had so much potential. But Ricky seemed determined to prove he didn't, that he wasn't worthy of the hope people placed in him. He was hard on himself, unable to behave yet racked with guilt for his failings. To girlfriends -- the people Ricky seemed to confide in most -- he talked about how he was "nothing," how he was "worthless," how he had let himself and his folks down by not living up to his potential. Despite the bravado, Ricky felt powerless. He even dabbled in Satanism, a renegade philosophy that attracts society's losers, people desperately trying to bolster sagging egos.
"You'd better watch out," Ricky once told Denise ominously. "I have powers you don't know." Yet for all his swagger, Denise and Ricky's friends knew he was deeply insecure. Ricky once quit a job when he discovered that a girlfriend made more money in her job. He wouldn't date girls who were taller. He threatened suicide so often in high school that Ricky's friend Charlie Hale finally ignored the threats. Ricky also was horribly jealous, and Denise recalls that after a man once talked to her briefly at a nightclub, Ricky grilled her all night long: "What's that guy got that I don't have?"
Ricky fancied himself a loner, a man who needed no one. It was a philosophy much like his father's, but Ricky didn't have the determination or strength to live it. He was naturally artistic and often drew pictures of a lone wolf howling in the night. He was a musician with a natural ear and he played a decent electric guitar and wrote good lyrics. His songs are full of the lone wolf's cry, of the desire to be free, to get on his motorcycle and go somewhere faster than the cops could go after him. Ricky loved speed, loved to dirt-bike and drive fast. He would sometimes drive 70 miles an hour on suburban streets, scaring his passengers witless.
In time, his girlfriend Denise learned an important clue to Ricky's character: The more she complained or screamed or demanded that he slow down, the wilder he drove. If she said nothing, acted calm, Ricky would soon slow down. It isn't so shocking, really. Ricky gained control by making others, particularly his father, lose control. Chaos was his upper hand.
Ricky's great dream was to be a rock star. He could almost see himself onstage. He wrote: "Now I'm all grown up, playin' in a rock 'n' roll band/ All those schools didn't even give me a hand." But Ricky didn't have the fire. A musician who played with him said he was good, but lazy. He played rhythm to a dozen or so simple rock songs but refused to take on the hard job of learning lead guitar. Ricky was tossed out of one band after only two practices because he insisted on playing songs the band didn't play.
Yet mixed in with Ricky's rebel tunes were sad ballads that cried out for love and conformity. He wasn't always Ricky the rebel. He envied his older brother's success, for instance, and craved a house, a good job, a wife. When he and one of his girlfriends once moved in together, Ricky insisted they get plants, a cat and a dining room table. And then the shocker: He insisted on place mats. During the last year of his life, Ricky dated a woman named Connie, and she recalls that he often talked about the nice things they'd own someday. This, at the same time he couldn't keep a job. Toward the end, the fantasies may have become too fantastic even for Ricky.
To Ruth and Bucky, though, Ricky's life at 22 seemed better. The horrible arguments had stopped a few months earlier. Connie had laid down the law about the glue and Ricky had taken a stash of tubes outside and tossed them away. He seemed calm and relaxed. He was talking about going to computer school. "Everyone just seemed so happy," Ruth says.
But if Ricky's life looked brighter on the outside, it was more of the same on the inside. A week before Ricky's death, his old friend Charlie Hale had fired him from Charlie's house-painting business. Charlie and Ricky had learned the painting business in high school from Ricky's father, and Charlie had started his own company after graduation. Bucky had tried to give his house-painting operation to Ricky -- including clients, trucks, equipment -- but Ricky had refused, saying he wasn't going to be painting houses all his life. Now he was painting houses for Charlie. But Charlie had gotten lots of complaints about Ricky's work. He would talk to Ricky, who'd apologize and cheerfully say, "I guess I missed it." Ricky was even bucking for a raise. Then Charlie found him doing glue on the job, and that was it.
Ricky also was having trouble with Connie, though nobody knew it. He had promised her he would stop the glue, but he hadn't. Once, they were vacationing in the mountains and she found Ricky's hidden glue stash. She didn't say anything. But she too had had enough. She could no longer bring herself to say "I love you," and Ricky was very upset by that. When he called, she often found herself too busy to see him. She denied to him that she was pulling away, but looking back she knows that she was. And if Ricky was good at anything, it was reading emotions. He most certainly knew.
There were other pressures too. One of his oldest friends had told Ricky he didn't want to see him again until he stopped doing glue. Ruth and Bucky, adjusting to the kids' having grown up, were having marital troubles, and Lee and his wife, whom Ricky adored, were separated. Ricky also was having trouble finding modeling glue that contained the chemicals that made him high, because stores had taken it off the shelves. Bucky had even found Ricky sniffing automobile lacquer in the basement one day.
Yet perhaps the greatest hint of Ricky's desperation was that just before his suicide he made a pass at his younger sister, who rebuffed him. For several nights before his death, Ricky asked her to come to his room to talk. She refused, afraid he'd try again. She felt that he wanted only to get closer to her emotionally. But she says, "That's not something I should have to put up with."
Nobody knows what went on in Ricky's mind, because he apparently told no one of his plans. He had gone to his girlfriend Connie's house at 5 a.m. a few months earlier, shaking and crying, saying that he had gone to the shed to commit suicide, but that he couldn't. He told her that all he could think about was how much his family loved him. And he couldn't do it. That morning, for the first time, Ricky told Connie that maybe he needed help to overcome his glue addiction. Certain that Ricky had scared himself out of suicide, Connie told no one.
God knows why, but on that last night, Ricky showered, put on clean clothes and a gold necklace, and, without doing glue, drugs or booze, killed himself.
RUTH WORRIED THAT BUCKY WOULDN'T live through it.
Ricky's suicide hit everyone like a Mack truck at 60. It was like an actual physical pain that wouldn't subside, like aching joints or migraine headaches, but a pain of the spirit. So drained were they of joy and optimism that sadness seemed to curl their bodies like bentwood. Bucky was wiped out. He didn't go back to work for two months, and Ruth wondered if he ever would, or if he'd take early retirement. He sat in his stuffed chair in the basement rec room with a box of tissues on the table next to him, and he cried. He was defeated. Not only was Ricky dead, that was anguish enough, but it was also as if everything Bucky had ever believed was suddenly, in a single flash of horrible light, revealed to the world and to himself as wrong and shallow and flawed. For the first time in his life, Bucky was face to face with himself.
For a year, husband and wife were no use to each other. Bucky withdrew into himself, taking no consolation and giving none. Ruth found him crying in the shed one day. "Leave me alone!" he snapped. She ran to her bedroom and cried by herself. Bucky threw himself into his work. He seemed to blame only himself. On the other hand, Ruth was angry at everyone -- Bucky, the kids, the psychiatrists, counselors and teachers. But thankfully, she wasn't angry at herself. She believed that she'd done about all she could to save Ricky, that he hadn't been able to save himself.
Ruth had begun this transformation even before Ricky's death. She'd gone to work against Bucky's wishes and found she felt better about herself if she voiced opinions rather than always trying to keep the peace. Ricky's little sister Janet had developed her own set of serious problems as a young teen, partly as a way to steal the spotlight from Ricky. And when Ruth, who drinks no alcohol herself, took Janet to alcohol counseling, Janet's life turned around almost overnight. Ruth then attended meetings of Al-Anon, a network of support groups for the families and friends of alcoholics, and she was struck by the Al-Anon philosophy that each person is responsible for only his own life.
On the surface, it rang of Bucky's philosophy of self-reliance. But with a subtle difference: If each person is responsible for only his own life, no person is responsible for the life of another. We are in control of no one but ourselves, and to change another's behavior we must first change our own behavior. So that is what Ruth tried to do. She came to realize that she'd been deeply scarred growing up as a child of alcoholics. Like Ricky, she scapegoated, blamed others when things didn't go her way. Her notion of acceptable behavior was narrow and rigid. Ricky had never fit the mold, so she tried to make him fit. She did this not only because she believed it was right for Ricky, but because she needed Ricky's life to serve as an affirmation of her own. This, she came to believe, was selfish.
"I spent 15 years of my life worrying about Ricky," she says. "But I was always quick to judge. Things were black and white. I got my feelings hurt a lot. I expected people to do things my way, and if they didn't, I'd sulk and get mad. Just like Ricky's manipulation of me -- I never thought of it, but it's true. Whenever Ricky got in trouble, all I could say to him was, 'How could you do this to me?' I didn't think of others. I thought of myself."
The last years of Ricky's life, Ruth struggled to break her cycle of nagging and then fighting with Ricky, of trying to guilt-trip him into changing his behavior for her. She told him she didn't want drugs and drinking in the house. If he broke that rule, he couldn't live there and his pickup bands couldn't play there. Then she tried to drop the subject. She'd praise him every chance she got, having gleaned another simple insight from Al-Anon: Praise works better than criticism. Yes, she regretted that she hadn't done this earlier, that she hadn't seen her own manipulative behavior for what it was. Yes, maybe that would have saved Ricky. But Ruth knew intuitively that she wasn't to blame for her painful childhood or her ignorance as a parent. She had made choices and some were wrong, but they weren't mean-spirited. She had tried her best.
In the end, perhaps Ruth Jenkins loved herself too much to take the blame. Ricky's death beat her badly for a time. "It was like an elephant sitting on my chest," she says. But after more than a year, she began to heal. She went to suicide counseling sessions and couldn't hear enough about how people had responded to suicides in their families. She joined a suicide survivor group and eventually became its head. Looking back at Ricky's tumultuous life, Ruth finally concluded that his suicide was inevitable.
"They tell people that the person gives you a gift with his suicide," Ruth says. "It's hard to believe at first. Bucky still doesn't want to hear it. But I like myself now. I'm a better person. I'm more attuned and sensitive to others' pain. I take the damn time to listen to people and their piddling problems. I look back and don't like the person I used to be. I believe my new compassion is what Ricky has given me."
It has been harder for Bucky. He wasn't able to accept that Ricky's suicide was inevitable. He struggled to control Ricky and he failed. "I can rationalize with myself that I would never have control over his actions," Bucky says. "But when I say 'responsibility,' I mean your thoughts when you say your prayers in a quiet room. That is what I mean by 'responsibility.' I can accept that I am not to blame. I can say that. But when I get in that quiet room and ask 'Why?' I can't come up with an answer.
"I can't for the life of me let go and say I couldn't have made a difference, because dead is dead. I am the breadwinner. I am the provider. If I don't provide for my family, I can't blame the family. I blame myself. With Ricky, somewhere along the line, I missed something. And I don't know what that is. To be so oblivious to the fact that the kid was going to take his life!"
Ricky's death forced Bucky to face what he and his family always knew -- Bucky wasn't so strong as he claimed. Bucky was deeply embarrassed by his emotional breakdown. A few times when Ruth was having a rare good day, Bucky became so severely depressed that he pulled her back into her depression. Then, with Ruth out of control, Bucky could again regain his control. He would put his arm around her and say that everything would be fine. "This happened a couple of times," says Ruth, "and I decided I didn't like it." It was as if she had to be weak so Bucky could be strong, but she would no longer play.
"I never thought you'd be the strong one," Bucky told her.
Ruth and the kids tried to be understanding of Bucky's remorse, but as it dragged on they began to send the same harsh, stiff-upper-lip message he had always preached to them. It was not helpful. The older daughter Linda called him "pathetic." Ruth flew into a rage. "I want my husband back! I want my husband back!" she screamed, forgetting that her old husband had died with Ricky. They had all lived through the same death, but Ruth and the kids didn't understand that Bucky's grief was more intense than their own. It is a truth: Those with the most ambivalent feelings about the suicide victim -- those with conflicting emotions of love and hate, anger and sorrow -- will suffer the most. As father to a profoundly rebellious boy, Bucky had more to resolve.
He went to group counseling with Ruth, but he couldn't stand it, all those people pouring out their anguish so publicly. "It was not my way of handling it," he says. Ruth and the kids believed Bucky wasn't handling it. But unknown to them, Bucky was doing what he could. He'd sit for hours going through Ricky's belongings, looking for answers. "I listen to his tapes until I embarrass myself," he says. "I feel like a damned fool sitting in the house crying, listening, trying to make sense, searching for a clue. And in some of his songs you can detect his insecurities and his feelings. In one song, he almost tells you how deeply frustrated he must be, how much he hurt. In the words of his songs -- songs I didn't know existed."
Soon after Ricky's death, the family wanted to tear down the shed where Ricky died. Bucky went wild, said that if they tore it down, he'd leave, they'd never see him again. Linda came to see the shed as a monument to her dad's guilt, a reminder that he should never forgive himself. Actually, it was more like a chapel. For two years after Ricky's death, Bucky would sneak off to the shed, close the door and sit. Sometimes he cried, sometimes he talked out loud to Ricky. He always asked why. His family had forgotten, but when Ricky was a boy, he and Bucky had built that shed together. They may have fought constantly, but Ricky and Bucky always worked well together, unlike so many fathers and sons. In the shed, Bucky kept Ricky's favorite tools. He kept a cache of old Redskins posters they'd collected together. He kept a clipboard on which Ricky had estimated a painting job.
But these weren't the biggest of Bucky's secrets. He had a secret that he kept not only from his family, but for a long time even from himself. Because while he and everyone else believed Bucky was angry only at Bucky for Ricky's death, he also was furious at Ricky -- poor, helpless, confused Ricky. Anger at Ricky was an emotion Bucky repressed, one that even Ruth and the kids were unaware of in Bucky. It isn't easy for a parent to acknowledge anger at a child who has taken his life, because the parents are supposed to be to blame. But Bucky finally came to do it.
"I am angry at Ricky," he says, his anger and his voice quickening as he speaks. "I can say it to myself. I'm not sure I even told Ruth I have this anger. My feeling with him now is extreme anger. Oh, yeah! And it probably always will be. I was a loving father and gave him a good home. I tried daily to make him take responsibility for his life. For failing to complete these things and failing to be the man I wanted him to be, I feel shortchanged. I never got to see any of it.
"With Ricky it never worked. You had to do things the hard way. He could have had a dozen good jobs, but they weren't his bag. Ricky wanted to be the boss, but not do any of the boss' work. He wanted to walk on the job and say, 'I'm the boss.' But not do the billing or the estimates. He didn't want to work at it. I've done all the nice things for my child. Is this my reward? Ricky never gave me the opportunity to be nice to him in the later years. It was always constant correction. Go down to his room and ask for the glue. He'd deny it. I'd find it. It went on like that every day of his life.
"I think that in his own way, his suicide said to me, 'Kiss my ass!' "
Ricky's suicide touched Bucky's deepest insecurities, those his tough exterior and his self-reliance had long hidden. Bucky was just a young man when he decided upon his hard philosophy of life: "The only person I can trust 100 percent is me." Yet Bucky's pain at Ricky's suicide announced to everyone that he was not an island, that he couldn't always be in control and that, like it or not, he needed the love of others. His very life depended on it. "Bucky really didn't think he needed anybody," says Ruth. "Nothing could happen that he couldn't take care of. Then it did."
Bucky knows now that this is the real message of his anguish. But it is so hard for him to be weak so that he might be strong. He has a 9-year-old grandson, Billy, who reminds him so much of Ricky. But at times Bucky must pull away. To play catch with Billy is to remind Bucky of all the times he didn't play catch with Ricky. To Ruth, Billy is a second chance. To Bucky, he is a reminder that he has been hurt before, that he could be hurt again.
In his darker moments, Bucky still wonders if he is that sad, worthless little boy abandoned by a dead father and an alcoholic mother, that selfish boy who was ungrateful for his grandmother's sacrifices. Sometimes he wonders why his wife stays with him. Sometimes he wonders if he did something, some sin he can't recall, that has caused him to be punished. The power of intimacy still is a mystery to him, and sometimes he thinks about his boyhood friend, Johnny. "He was poor as dirt but with a father and mother," Bucky says. "The father was rarely home, and when he was, he was drunk. And they'd steal money off him. But all their kids lived, prospered and married. And here I am, worked my ass off, sent them to good schools, worked myself to the bone. I could have done better with nothing."
Yet Bucky is not the person he was three years ago, and he knows it. He is less demanding, more accepting, more free with his emotions, less certain of himself. These changes sometimes seem like weakness to him, though he knows they are the first steps toward healing. Sometimes he even feels optimistic: Just recently, he went in for the complete medical exam he had been putting off for years.
After three years, Bucky knows now that he must let Ricky go, accept that Ricky was his own master in life and certainly in death. He knows that if Ricky's suicide was not inevitable -- and Bucky believes it was not -- then his own failings as a father didn't inevitably lead to his death. And he knows now that he is no island, that he needs his family and friends as much as they need him. These are hard lessons, cutting to the heart of Bucky's character, lessons learned at the cost of a renegade son. But most important, Bucky knows after years of struggle that Ricky wasn't seeking revenge, that he couldn't have known how profoundly his suicide would scar his father and his mother. How could anyone have known? Bucky knows all these things. And on his good days, he is even able to believe them.
So why did Ricky do it?
"Ricky just wanted out," his sister Janet said, and she is probably right. "I surrender my will to the wisdom of a loving God." Ricky Jenkins sought redemption. So does Ruth and so does Bucky. They haven't yet found it, but they are trying. God knows, they're trying. ::