Reaching into the darkness
In the black and white photo, my father stands in an Oklahoma cemetery in his dress blues, arms crossed in front of him. Next to him is a solemn-faced boy cradling the triangle of a folded flag. The back of the snapshot says Bobby was eight years old when it was taken at his father’s funeral in 1968.
My father was there as military escort for Bobby’s father’s body, returned for burial in his home state. I don’t know who took the photo. I wasn’t there, but I was there the day Bobby’s father died.
Bob and his family lived next door to us in base housing, an Air Force family like ours. They had four sons. Bobby was the oldest, and the youngest was an infant.
I was about five, closer to the ages of Bobby’s two middle brothers. As military neighbors do, Bobby’s mom had been babysitting me that morning while my mom was at a doctor’s appointment, and my dad was working. When she returned, my mother stayed awhile to chat over coffee. Bob was home, and my mom remembers he seemed carefree, enjoying his wife’s homemade donuts.
Soon after my mom took me home, she heard sirens. Someone pounded on our door warning us that shots had been fired in our neighborhood, telling us to lock the doors and stay low. I remember lying on the living room floor looking up at the sun streaming through the windows, cradling our little dog as my mother cradled me.
Worse news would follow. We learned that Bob taken his own life and the lives of his two middle sons. It must have happened shortly after we left.
After the danger was past, Mom let me play in our yard. I hid behind a tree when I saw a uniformed man walk into our house carrying an unconscious woman. I knew it was Bobby’s mom, and as a child I thought she might be dead too.
When I asked my mom about this memory, she told me the poor woman had to be sedated after seeing the bodies of her husband and two little sons. Paramedics brought her to our house to sleep so she would not be alone.
If this happened today, she might have been admitted to the hospital. In 1968 she was left with a 20-something neighbor – my mom – and a bottle of sleeping pills.
“When she woke up it was horrible,” my mother said. “She would just hang on to me and say, ‘Why, why?’”
But there was no note, no answer. What explanation would suffice? Perhaps Bob had convinced himself that his wife would be better off without him, but what quantum leap of logic led him to end his sons’ brief lives?
I talked with a friend recently who has been to the edge of suicide and back. I asked Diana what pulled her back from the precipice. Her answers included her husband, good therapy, a tenacious friend and the knowledge that her little children needed a healthy mommy.
Even for someone who knows the dark side of depression, the thought of taking one’s children’s lives as well is incomprehensible, but it was my conversation with Diana that reminded me of Bob and the tragedy he brought to his family.
A depressed person may believe “My family will be better off without me,” Diana said. “The bottom line is that it’s not true … Let’s not add to the distress and the despair. It’s absolutely not true.”
Diana’s story did not end in tragedy, and she reaches out to those who are still walking through depression. She shared some of her hard-won wisdom with me.
"Suicide is dark. It’s been swept under the rug, and it’s dark under there,” she said. “Depression is an unforgiving weight few feel capable of carrying alone and yet most feel obligated to do just that. And they shouldn't have to when it is the weakest feeling time in their lives."
Next week’s Spouse Calls is all about my conversation with Diana. She generously shares the story of some of her difficult experiences and her thoughts about depression, suicide and recovery.