On the day after Thanksgiving, the first one since my father died, I decide to drive sixty miles north and visit the spot where he killed himself. I’m not sure what I’m looking for—not closure, certainly, not when we hadn’t had a relationship in twelve years—but I am compelled.
I tell no one where I am going, because, like my father in the last years of his life, I spend most of my time alone. I live alone and I’m single. If anything, I’ll use the ninety-minute car ride to listen to podcasts, feeling more connected to the disembodied voices than I did to my stepfamily at Thanksgiving dinner the night before.
I can’t get comfortable. I keep adjusting my seat, moving my left leg up to place my foot near the steering wheel like an amateur contortionist. Or turning the seat-heater on, even though it’s in the fifties outside.
My father died in a parking lot next to a laundromat and probably the world’s saddest Kmart. The lot itself belongs to neither establishment, nor the bank next door, but lies in parking purgatory. It’s encircled by trees and bushes, off Eisenhower Boulevard in Loveland, Colorado.
Dad—it’s been part of my grieving process to start calling him that again—parked his car facing the trees, in front of a sign that reads No Overnight Parking. I pull into what I hope is the same spot, and look at the other cars: two spots down, in one of those red Nissans that look like a pug’s face, a man sleeps in his reclined seat. This lot isn’t parking purgatory at all; it’s a way station for the weary, and I am so, so tired.
I haven’t slept well since my father died. I average about four hours a night, and a couple of times I got only two hours and had to work the next morning, much to the chagrin of my freshman and sophomores and whatever Shakespearean play I’m teaching. I did not know, could not have known, that grief would turn me into a coffee drinker. My grief is not like my depression: For the latter, I can sleep most of the day but still do things like exercise. For the former, I can neither sleep nor move. I am paralyzed by regrets and hypotheticals and memories.
I don’t tell people that when they ask me how I’m doing. I say, “I’m good,” or “I’m fine,” or “I’m surprisingly happy,” or “I’m great!” and try to remove myself from the situation as soon as possible. The truth is, when someone you love who is insane kills himself, you start to go a little insane yourself. I went through a two-week phase where I thought my blinking bathroom light was my father communicating with me. It was a new bulb, you see, so it shouldn’t have been blinking.
The lot and the embankment before the busy street are covered with litter, mostly half-empty liters of Mountain Dew or Sprite. I wonder if any of the bottles belonged to my father; he had bottles of Mountain Dew and Sprite in his Jeep. I imagine that my father was parked here for a few days, walking around the nearby lake while guzzling drinks that would further rot his teeth. He’d already lost one. I found it in a small, golden pill container in a bin labeled Summer Fun when my mother and I sorted through his car at the impound. The bin, all his belongings (mostly-empty notebooks, seven packs of cards, Ziploc bags of spare change and rare coins, envelopes with family photos in them), and the tooth are now in the closet in my guest room. They smell like campfire. There are two things of his that I keep with me at all times: his Harvard ring that he gave me as a present on a vacation in 2009 when we tried to be a family again, and his driver’s license. In the picture, he’s smiling with his mouth closed and he looks kind of like Snoopy. I keep it in my wallet because we look so alike, and because I didn’t get to see him smile since that trip eight years earlier.
This parking lot is adequately depressing. The lining under the mulch by the trees is visible and torn to shreds. Plastic bags hug bushes and tree trunks. The plants are dead and bare and the trash makes how nothing the place is seem even worse. There’s no view. He picked a fitting spot to kill himself. I fight the urge to get out and clean up the lot, maybe in his memory or maybe just because I don’t like the idea of his messes lingering.
I don’t know how long to stay here. How long is respectful to my father? How long until I feel something other than hunger? Why did I choose this day? I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my father since 2004. I don’t remember the specifics, but I don’t need to. Those holidays with him were all wonderfully the same: the family, in Cleveland, visiting my mom’s friends; Dad probably sat in the living room and read the whole time, never playing any games but occasionally adding to the conversations. On trips when he was in a depression, he’d read in the master bedroom and we’d only see him when he was hungry.
The thought strikes me again how similar I am to my father in that way. Social situations exhaust me, and one of the easiest ways for me to spend time with people without getting overstimulated is to read near them. Or write. Or play a game on my phone. I like the company, I just can’t keep up the conversation. It is entirely risk-free socialization, and that’s how my dad chose to spend time with family and friends. He needed an environment where he was completely in control, and if he couldn’t control it, he’d remove himself from it. I guess that’s an apt metaphor for his suicide. He wasn’t in control of anything, least of all his brain, by the time he decided to buy a portable generator and end his life on a Friday night in June.
I sit and drum my fingers in my lap, then on the steering wheel. I’m not sure this parking lot would be much prettier in the summer. Yes, the trees and bushes might be in bloom, but it’s still on the busiest road in Loveland, a town so unimportant that there’s another Loveland in the mountains, and that’s the only one people know about. At least Dad’s view of the road would’ve been blocked off. I take out my journal and scribble, my handwriting nearly as illegible as my father’s was. He wrote in slanted capital letters, until a manic phase hit, and then he wrote all over the pages, in different sizes and different directions. None of it was intelligible. I place the non-inky end of the pen in my mouth and wonder if he, too, journaled in his car in this spot. The thought makes me shudder, and I toss my journal into the back seat.
The police said the car had just run out of gas by the time they arrived. That his body was still warm.
I wonder if there’s glass from the window of his car in this lot. It would make sense if there were little black crystals scattered about, but it’s so windy that I don’t want to get out and look and, besides, how morbid would that be?
I wasn’t expecting to have a big revelation, but it would be nice to feel something beyond, Well, yeah, I’d kill myself in a Kmart parking lot, too.
I find myself wishing my life were a dumb TV show, because if it were Dad’s ghost would appear and we could have the emotional reunion we never achieved in life.
“Remember when I had my first depression?” I’d ask. I’d hope his ghost would nod, encouraging me to go on. “I locked myself in my room with the lights out for two weeks watching The OC on my computer. You begged me to go to the movies with you and the family. You picked the lock to my door and I cried because you made me go.”
He’d held my hand at dinner. He leaned over a few times to ask me how I was. We split a crème brûlée and laughed about what a mistake it was to eat such a rich dessert before seeing a movie. He didn’t laugh often, but he had this ha-ha that he’d share only with me, his head tipped back and his smile wide enough to see his golden molar.
“See?” he’d said, his hand now on the back of my neck. “This isn’t so bad.”
I’d cry and tell the ghost of my father how hard I tried to do the same for him during the last decade of his life. How every interaction we’d had was me trying to pull him out of his darkened room. How testifying in mental health court was me splitting a crème brûlée. How everything I did was to try and find the man who held my hand when I was at my lowest and encouraged me to continue being part of the world.
If my life were a dumb TV show, his ghost would try to wipe the tears away from my eyes, but as it is, I’m not crying and I feel as if I’ve overstayed my welcome in the lot.
I never get out of my car. I never look around for shards of glass or a missing playing card or a receipt with his name on it. I never recline my front seat and close my eyes and ask myself what it must have felt like to be homeless after a decade of gratuitous spending. I never whisper aloud my regrets.
I drive away, feeling exactly the same as I did before. When I get home, I’ve spent three hours sitting in my car trying to feel something—anything—and it’s in that moment, when I’m reaching down to grab my dog’s food dish, that I throw my back out.
I cannot stand fully upright but I find myself laughing so hard I’m in tears, and laughing hurts just as much as standing. You see, my dad used to throw his back out all the time doing the dumbest things. I tell myself that he’d be laughing about this, too, if he could see it. And that makes me feel such overwhelming relief that I can finally cry.