How My Father's Suicide Taught Me To Live For My Daughter
The facts are these: On July 8, 1980, my father, John Larry Brantley, put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I was 13; my sister was 9. He was one month shy of his 37th birthday. My father’s life ended in a shitty little trailer in Conroe, Texas. He’d moved in there only a few months earlier, after my mother had finally had enough of his raging and lying and philandering, and kicked him out of the house. He did not leave a note as such. What he did was call Mom at approximately 9:30 that evening. She recalled later that Dad sounded like he’d been drinking. She’d received lots of these kinds of calls in the months since they’d been separated and was about to hang up, when my father uttered these words to her:
“I want you to remember this sound for the rest of your life.”
She heard what she described as a loud, flat bang. Mom was raised on a farm and knew a gunshot when she heard it. Before she dropped the receiver and ran for the door to the carport, she remembers hearing one other sound: There was music playing in the background. Later, as police and forensics people were combing through Dad’s meager earthly possessions, they saw a 45 record on an old turntable. A detective made note of the song, a popular country tune at the time, sung by George Jones, He Stopped Loving Her Today.
13 Years Old
I punched a hole through my bedroom door. That was my first reaction upon hearing that my father was dead. I’m pretty sure I was screaming when I did it. Hard on the heels of that came my second reaction, the one that stayed with me until adulthood: This is my fault.
Mom and Dad separated at the end of my seventh grade year. There’s nothing like going into summer vacation knowing your family has just blown up. Dad moved into the aforementioned shitty little trailer across town; Mom, my sister and I stayed in the run-down house. I went to see Dad as often as I could, but it was difficult; he worked the night shift at the carbon black plant. He’d come back to his trailer very early in the morning, spend 30 or more minutes in the shower, washing off the grit and grime of his job, eat a quick bowl of cereal with me and go to sleep. Not a lot of quality time.
The first major holiday coming up that summer was Fourth of July weekend—which we traditionally spent at my aunt’s ranch in Marble Falls.
I decided that I wanted to stay with Dad over the long weekend. I could tell he was changing—and not for the better. He’d started drinking more. He’d started hustling at a local billiard hall, something I later learned he’d done as a younger man, but given up after marriage. (He even took me along one very uncomfortable evening.) I thought that making the choice to stay with him would show him that I wasn’t taking sides, that he was my dad and I loved him no matter what.
I’ll never know if he was genuinely touched by the gesture or not. When I told him that I wanted to be with him for July Fourth, he informed me that he was working shifts straight through the weekend, that we’d have no time to do anything fun, and that all my cousins were going to be at the ranch, anyway. I reluctantly went with mom and sis down to Marble Falls. And four days later, Dad blew his brains out.
1980 was a big year for news. Operation Eagle Claw (the failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran) had literally blown up. Mount St. Helens also literally blew up. John Lennon was murdered by a fucking fan. And Pac-Man was unleashed upon the world. But nobody in Conroe was talking about any of that shit. It was too far away (at least until the first Pac-Man game showed up at Pizza Towne on Frazier Street) and too far removed from daily life in a small Texas town. What wasn’t too far away was the provocative and scandalous news that, over the summer, John Brantley had killed himself in a trailer, and now his wife was a widow and his children had no daddy.
When I showed up for my first day in eighth grade, I was famous—for all the wrong reasons.
I had cemented my place in the public school hierarchy all the way back in third grade, and it was a title I wore with pride: Class Clown. I was the funny guy in school. Not the bully, not the troublemaker. I was the antics guy, the zany, quick-with-a-witty-riposte guy. My classmates (for the most part) liked me, and so did teachers. But when I got off the bus for my first day as an eighth grader at Travis Jr. High, the faces that greeted me did not have the “We can’t wait to see what crazy thing Larry does now” look. Mostly, it was the “Oh shit I hope he doesn’t talk to me” face. I learned quickly that if I didn’t want my friends to scatter like rats off a sinking ship every time I walked up, I’d better be funny. Once I started clowning, everybody’s sphincter relaxed—and we didn’t have to talk about The Thing That Happened. And the whole time, I was carrying a 100 pound albatross of guilt around my neck; I was shocked nobody could see it.
Until the very first time I stepped into a therapist’s office—in my mid-20s—I had never told anyone, at all, ever, about my firm belief that, had I just insisted a little harder, and stayed with Dad over the holiday weekend, that he never would have cashed himself in. I never told a soul (not even the woman I was married to at the time) that I believed Dad’s suicide was on me. The inability and/or unwillingness to try and unburden myself of that false belief would have consequences, later.
27 Years Old
I had one hard and fast standard for my life: Don’t be like Dad.
He’d been a short-tempered, brooding, hard-drinking guy who cheated on his wife, then abandoned his children with a country song and a bullet. Not for this guy. I couldn’t tell it at 27, but I was already following in the old man’s footsteps. I went through a series of relationships in high school and after that predictably followed the same pattern: intense affection; deep, soulful connection; sex; followed by my brooding withdrawal, emotionally and physically, until I blew up the relationship altogether for some imagined “you just don’t get me” reason. But I wasn’t drinking; my mother’s response to Dad’s suicide had been to crawl inside a bottle and hide there (though she’s been clean and sober now for almost 15 years). And I wasn’t thinking about the quick exit off the stage. So, I had that going for me.
I spent most of my 20s not thinking about my father’s death, not in any kind of helpful, cathartic way, at least, but living as a reactive to it. I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to have children, or even get married. Then I met a girl. And got married. I insisted that I was never going to have kids, to which she agreed, because my ex was (and remains) the kind of person who can see down the road. She was the one who finally convinced me of the benefit of talking to a professional about something that had undoubtedly skewed my view of the world. The first time I went to therapy, what I figured out was that I wasn’t carrying the guilt of Dad’s death around anymore. Instead, I’d repositioned into a deep, resentful anger at his abandonment of me. My subsequent reaction was to blow up every relationship I was ever in, for a simple reason: Ultimately, you’re going to leave me anyway. It might as well be on my terms.
We were married for 10 years before we really talked about having a child. I learned that I could drink and like it, but not need it. And, yes—I cheated on my wife. Having come nearly full circle, I wondered if it was inevitable. Maybe there was such a thing as predestination, and maybe there was some kind of fucked up god of the universe, whom it amused to see generations of a certain family line keep tumbling down the same destructive path.
And then Boo came along.
36 Years Old
The irony is not lost on me that my daughter came into the world when I was precisely the same age as my father had been when he left it. I did not (and still don’t) see it as any kind of a sign; I don’t even think I realized it at the time. Instead I experienced a seismic shift in my worldview. I wish I could tell you that I stopped being a self-centered prick when I got married, but that would be a truckload of horseshit. But the first time I held my newborn daughter—the first time I realized I was actually responsible for another human life—I became much less of a self-centered prick.
But that wasn’t the seismic shift. When Boo opened her eyes and looked at me, I knew—knew—that I would never leave her. I didn’t make some grand announcement about it, and I didn’t declare myself to be “all grown up.” I just decided then and there that I would never take that road: the one that ended with a fatherless child. I knew that I would fail my daughter in a myriad of ways (and I’ve probably overachieved in that department, actually), but I would never fail her in a way that left her without me.
It wasn’t until Boo came along that I was able to really forgive Dad, and that’s because I often need my daughter’s forgiveness. Because I have failed her; my marriage did end, and Boo has had to deal with the same fallout that my sister and I experienced a generation earlier—with some notable differences. Her mom and I are amicable. We get along, because there’s no reason not to. We’re both very present in her life. Helping her to discover the person she is becoming is uppermost in our minds. And I’m not dead.
The fallout never really stops. I’ve done a shit-ton of research over the last 10 years on suicide. My conclusion is that John Larry Brantley was likely mentally ill, at a time (1980) and a place (small town Texas) where such subjects were rarely even hinted at and certainly never discussed in the open. In the last year, I’ve taken some comprehensive psychiatric tests, and discovered that I have what is now called a major depressive disorder, what Winston Churchill referred to as the “black dog.” So some of that was likely passed down.
That wasn’t Dad’s fault, and I do not refer to his suicide as a “choice.” People in their right minds don’t choose to kill themselves. The itch I’ve never been able to scratch in 35 years is why—and now the itch is gone. I’ll never know why, because I’ll never be certain Dad knew what he was doing, had thought it out, weighed a certainty against a doubt and still pulled the trigger. I don’t fucking know, and I’ll never know. I only know that I’m here for Boo, and always will be.
I only know that Dad was then, and I am now.
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