30 April 2012

The Day My Dad Died

            The day my dad died I was one month shy of my nineteenth birthday and six months pregnant. I’d spent the day with my husband, whom I would divorce three years later, driving around Lake Winnisquam, looking for a place to rent so we wouldn’t be stuck in our second floor, two-room stuffy apartment in Laconia. I’d grown up on Lake Winnisquam and needed a place with fresh air where I could walk outside with my baby, barefoot, maybe even see the lake shimmer in the distance. If really lucky, we’d find a place where I could sit under a tree by the water and wade in to cool off on hot muggy days.
My brother and I at the lake
            We drove all afternoon and found a place, a small two-room cabin just down the road from my parents on Hill Road, across from the right-of-way that gave everyone on the opposite side of the road access to a swimming spot. The right-of-way, as we always called it, held memories of neighborhood swims and my first kiss from an out-of-town boy called Punk. When I needed space from my family or a retreat from a fight with my dad, I’d slip down to the right-of-way and sit under a big pine to daydream, cry or cool off.
            The day my dad died, we rented that cabin, relieved to find a place we could afford. I thought how lucky I was to be near my lake when the baby came. As we drove down Hill Road and approached my parent’s house, something happened that I’ve only been able to describe as a flash of light, as if an old-fashioned camera bulb had popped in my face and blinded me for a moment. I clutched at my rounded belly and said, “We have to stop. I need to see Dad.”
            I’d been taking Dad to the VA hospital in Vermont, checking on him for my mom when she was at work, but being so wrapped up in new-found love and baby making made me blind to how ill my dad was.
Dad, me and my brother Kent picking beans
            My husband didn’t like my father, so he drove past the salmon-colored ranch-style house that my father spent years remodeling, my life-long home only six months earlier. As we pulled out onto the Route 3, I glanced back at the house where my dad had tended his garden and raspberry bushes, a house that he insisted was “salmon-colored” not pink. The tiny porch wasn’t big enough for a chair, but it was a good place to get out of the weather and take off boots, to greet guests, to sit on the steps as a little kid with a friend or my brother or sister. I remember window boxes, having always had a soft spot for them, but I’m not sure they existed.

Kent, our Beagle King, Wendy & I
 Aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and co-workers would pass through that front door for parties, holidays, and summer gatherings. Christmas was our favorite holiday because mom always over did it with presents and Dad would complain that she was driving him to the poor house. When I think of my dad, I picture him sitting in his recliner, smoking Winstons, eating his Bridgemix and reading a book, if he wasn’t watching our new color television, the cause of one of my parents’ biggest arguments that left them not speaking for days and put us three kids on our best behavior because one thing we never doubted, even through the bad times was the great love our parents had for each other. I may have doubted my dad’s love for me at times, but I never doubted that my parents were in love.

Me with my mom and her sister Vera on our "porch"
            When my fights with Dad started, it was normal teenage fare, the whole unfairness of life. Why couldn’t I ride in cars with my friends? Why did I need to be home at that hour? Why couldn’t I hang out at the Tony’s Pizza Parlor? That’s when I became the cause of their arguments. Mom wanted to give me more freedom; Dad didn’t. Mom said the reason Dad and I fought was because we were too much alike. Dad said it wasn’t me he didn’t trust; it was boys.
            After leaving Hill Road, after deciding not to fight with my husband about stopping at my parents’ house, we drove in silence and when we reached our two-room apartment in Laconia, I trudged up the outside stairs, wanting to go back. We had just entered the apartment when the phone rang. My husband answered it, then handed the receiver to me.
            “Valerie, this is Dr. Robinson. I’m sorry. Your dad is dead. He shot himself.”
            I screamed and dropped the phone.

My son Jason was born three months later. I never doubted I was having a boy, even from the beginning. After Dad died, I was even more convinced it would be boy. I don’t remember picking out a girl’s name, although I know we did.
            Jason looks uncannily like his grandfather and has his wicked sense of humor and wit, his mannerisms, his work ethic, his sense of responsibility, but thankfully no health problems. I think my dad would have loved him. Or, would the two of them been too much alike and rubbed each other the wrong way? I don’t know.
Mom and Dad
            My dad was responsible right up to the end. On the day he died, he bought a new license and tags for the dog, made sure there was enough paint for one of us kids to finish the garage, and went to the barber for a haircut. He told mom all this in a letter he left, including letting mom know was no suicide clause in the insurance policy. The letter glows with his great love and adoration for my mom. He didn’t want to be a burden on the family and knew the way it was going, he would be. He included a p.s. to me, saying he was sorry he wouldn’t be there to see his first grandchild and, to the end, tried for humor by writing he hoped we wouldn’t give our baby his middle name, Horace.
            Our family still carries on his insistence of having manners, table manners being high on his list: elbows off the table, sit up straight, slow down. Dad would often say, “Don’t eat like your mother,” meaning the English way with knife and fork reversed and fork piled high.
            But this is also a man who sometimes did not eat what mom served for dinner, instead breaking Saltines into a bowl of milk after a day of working outside in the heat and humidity. He ate slowly, chewed each bite over and over, driving us kids crazy. This kind of control extended to the way he raised us. When he couldn’t control us and we fought him, he’d punish. “You might not love me,” he said once, “but one day you’ll respect me.” He was wrong. All I really wanted was to love him and be loved back, but he was a hard man to please and he took my rebellion personally.
            I have grandchildren now and, if I lavish them with love, it’s because sometimes all a teen needs is a hug and a “It will be okay. You’ll get through this.” Many times my fights with my dad might not have happened if I hadn’t felt judged and shamed, if I hadn’t felt my emotions being negated by a parental need to be perceived as in control and being seen as a perfect family.
            Don’t get me wrong. I’m not kidding myself here. Teens have their emotional needs and drives that often supersede anything parents can provide. Guiding teens through their teens is probably the hardest job there is as a parent because they’re competing with peers and hormones. Dad had two more children coming up fast behind me and I’m sure that crossed his mind as we battled and he grew more ill.
            And he was ill, more than I knew. He battled rheumatoid arthritis and prescription pills, and was unable to work toward the end. The only way out for him, as he concluded, was suicide. He did what he thought was the responsible thing, plus it would end his pain and sense of powerless. In his besieged mine, the only way our family would survive would be if he didn’t become a bigger financial and medical burden. I don't doubt that that indeed would have happened.
            Yet on the day he died, he didn’t realize he exchanged those possible burdens on us for bigger, emotional ones.
            Time has given me perspective and knowledge of suicide. Time has given me an understanding of how a need for control can also cause a loss of control. Some have said to me that suicide is the ultimate show of control, but I don't believe that in my dad's case that's true. If he hadn't been ill, he would have never given up. But when he couldn't be the husband and father he wanted to be, needed to be, he couldn't fake it anymore.
            Time has also, above all, shown me that perception should never overshadow love. I don’t care what others think about what my family goes through. We all have problems and I choose to be friends with people who share them and exchange knowledge so we can help out each other. The generation of our parents living in a “keeping up with the Joneses” and “what will the neighbors think” culture better be over because they’re faulty paradigms and destructive on so many levels, especially for a writer like myself who was conditioned to keep a lid on everything of importance and has had to fight to be free and express myself truthfully.

Kent and I in snow
            A few days ago, Mom said to me on the phone, “I wonder what our life would have been like if your dad had lived.” I couldn’t say. I couldn’t imagine it. I hope she visualized something sweet and carefree, something that, like in an act of creating fiction, she formed in her mind while erasing sickness, lack of money, a crazy political world that would have turned my dad apoplectic. I hope she saw her and Dad, retired by the lake, him fishing, her reading or talking on the phone. Maybe they even hold hands while sitting in chairs on the dock. 

Poppy day or Memorial Day around 1961
But maybe they would still be attending their American Legion activities, maybe still dancing as they always did so beautifully. I think she can create that in her mind, create her own story for a life they'd live now. I doubt very much that they would have ended up in Florida where she now lives. I think he’d had enough of hot and humid. But maybe, after shoveling snow one hard winter, he'd have been happy to join the snowbirds. Why not?
* * * * *
            I remember one winter day after a storm had dumped a foot or more of snow. Dad was out shoveling the walkway and I was playing on one of those high snow mounds the snowplow had left along the road. I dug a hole, probably one of those “digging to China” holes, and I dug it so deep, I couldn’t get out. When I realized this, I yelled over and over, “Dad! Dad!”
            When he finally heard me, he walked up the mound, looked down, shook his head and laughed. Then he reached down for my hand and lifted me out.
Dad, my mom's mom Nannie Smith holding me, and Mom
In Loving Memory
Albert Horace Brooks ~ April 3, 1916 to April 30, 1970.


Kimiko&Mom said... [Reply to comment]

Val, you made me cry with this one. My dad didn't kill himself, although I think that towards the end, he might have, had he been able to see the distress his illness was causing my mother. (He was never sick in his life until the day after he took early retirement. Is that irony? that's a serious question, btw) I'm sure now that my father loved me, but it always seemed judgmental, conditional love. The condition was being perfect, which we know is impossible. I'm glad I was a real adult when I lost him, and my mother three years later at 64 (dad was 65, just), but I feel I missed so much time that could have been spent closing that gap. This is a lovely story. (btw, again, my counselor always says that suicide is the ultimate act of anger; I can assure you that it is not. It is the act of someone who sees no other way for the people around him/her to be happy and unburdened, at least in my experience)
Lori Orser

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Lori, for your thoughtful comment. And I'm so sad that you lost your dad so early and didn't have that time together either. I know that's a serious question about the irony of him being sick after he retired. So many men/people have their identity in their work and once they're "put out to pasture" as I heard one man describe it, they feel worthless, even though they earned that retirement. Maybe that word needs to change. "Retirement" makes it sound like there's nothing left to do. Here we are, writers, and we don't have the power to change the language that does harm. Maybe we do, but do we need to put up a FB page for every word that needs reinventing?
Thank you again. I'm glad the story touched you.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From KARLA DROSTE via email:
Of course you know that this piece is intensely personal for me, too. I love how good writers can help set us free – and oh, Val, you indeed are one of those writers. This piece comes alive for me, in its heart, in its images; (right-of-ways, Winstons and bridge mix) and in its story. My dad, too, was responsible right to the end, unloading the dishwasher and leaving a detailed note about gardeners and insurance. Unlike your parents, however, they were not in love, anything but, and I think he was ultimately leaving her. He didn’t know any other way to get out of a bad marriage.

I never knew he was an Aries – a warrior, fierce, courageous – combined with the cultures of the military and his generation – of course he would not be able to bear being a burden, or less of a man.
Thank you for sharing your deepest stories, for bearing witness, for helping to liberate me and your other readers from our own burdens.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

So sorry your comment didn't publish. I have trouble with Blogger around that.
And of course you would find this piece intensely personal. I will never forget our ceremony with your dad's ashes here at the house. We had so much to share and experience.
Yes, Dad was not only an Aries, his moon and Venus were in Taurus. Don't know his rising because I don't have his birth time. So now you know.
You are welcome, my sweet friend.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From BARBARA SULLIVAN via email:

Okay, you made me CRY! I read this just after I wrote something for my blog about claiming your page--which you can delete without reading, since you obviously have already done so. I am so happy, for so many reasons, to see you unfurling like this. That's what it feels like to me.
Love you, and proud of you!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

A note about Barbara Sullivan:
If you don't know her, you should. She has been my enlightened witness for years and has carried me through so many of life's tough times and opened me up as a writer. She's a wise woman with a heart sometimes so big, she has trouble carrying it around.
Visit her at:

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From MARTHA MILLER via email:
Lovely blog post, Val. Thanks for sharing your memories.
This hit me hard -- my darling brother took the same way out when cancer got the best of him. I couldn't blame him, but boy do I miss him.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From DEBBY BROOKS via email:
Val - what a wonderful piece - a very sweet tribute to your dad. Brought tears to my eyes. Some memories just never drift away, beit good or bad. Thanks for sharing - wish I had known Albert Horace Brooks. He would have been very proud of what you have become Val, in spite of your differences.

Love, Debby

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From SAMANTHA WALTZ via email:
I just read this on Facebook. Beautiful and touching, as I said there. Gave me goosebumps.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I can so identify with your post although I was much younger when my dad committed suicide - or the disease of depression killed him - whichever terminology one decides to use. You brought me to tears as I understand the whole 'what if' we carry around. Blessings to you.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From my brother KENT BROOKS via email:
Hi Val,

Debby thought I should read the latest Gobsmacked and I've got to tell you......that was an incredible piece! I could never put into words the feelings and descriptions that you did!

Amazing job. I envy your ability to express yourself in writing!

Love you,

Your Bro

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

From DAN JOHNSON via email:
Hi Val,
I just finished reading the piece you posted in memory of your dad and must say, I was quite touched. Not only was it good clear writing, it was full of 'life' stuff...stuff that early on we think are bigger than we are...but we find our way through these times mostly smiling.

Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I'm sure we would have have found each other soooo funny and sooooo handsome.hahahah I would have loved to meet my grandpa! Reading his suicide letter was one of the most amazing and strange things ever. I love you mom. You are the best mom a boy could ever have. Very moving piece. Love JD

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Yes, the "what if" is always there. I worked with a therapist once who had done research into suicide and the process of getting to the actual act is the same graph of an addict--each hit/thought of suicide creates a peaceful moment, but each succeeding one requires more (bigger hit/start to plan how) to achieve that moment of peace, until the more of the drug/more planning (buying a gun, getting the pills) is necessary for the moment of peace (non-depression). Finally, the only way to achieve permanent peace is to overdose/go through with it. And he said it takes usually around twenty years for the survivors to finish grieving and working through the consequences where, in the case of a car accident, it's about two years average. Of course, that was his research at the time, but it gave me insight as to how someone could come to this decision. We do now know that depression can be treated and can be caused by bodily chemical imbalances.
I don't know if any of that information helps, but I found some solace in it.
Blessing to you, also. And I'm sorry you lost your dad so early.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Jason. You make everything so worth while.
I love you,

Ms. K @ Write On Thyme said... [Reply to comment]

Ok, your post made me cry the first time and now again with Jason's comment! So very sweet. What a beautiful piece, Val! I think my favorite line: 'Time has also, above all, shown me that perception should never overshadow love.' So very true. I just heard Wayne Dyer comment on how everyone's cell phone calls from the towers on 9/11 were to end their lives telling their family how much they loved them. Nothing else. When we even think of the end of our life, we think of the ones we love. And your dad was thinking of you in his letter, probably apologizing for more than what his words spoke.
Happy Mother's Day to you, love! I know you are a wonderful grandmother and we know from your son how great a mom. Your papa's proud!

Sheila Newton said... [Reply to comment]

I just loved reading this. What a great piece of nostalgia and a lovely tribute to your Dad. I adore the photos. You been up in the attic, Val?

Katie Checkley said... [Reply to comment]

What a beautiful story, and great idea for a blog post. I love the family pictures...I might steal that idea! Thanks for writing this.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Steal away, Katie! And thanks for responding. I think the photos tell a story in their own way and readers can relate even better when they can visualize the people of a story.
You're very welcome!