Thirty years ago today my world turned upside down. Two phone calls bracketed that beautiful late summer day. The first was at just after 0600 and woke me, so my answer was surly and aggravated. No one said anything, and I hung up. Almost twelve hours later, the second phone call came from my mother with the three words that echo in my head almost every day.
“Your Daddy’s dead.”
My life hasn’t been, couldn’t be the same after that, and suicide doesn’t just affect its perpetrator. It alters every family member’s trajectory. Some of us take acute vectors into too many drugs and too much alcohol until we get reeled back to earth. Some of us take it on as a burden we never discard. All of us take on the guilt. Well, unless, of course, you’re incapable of accepting responsibility for anything and blame everyone else, principally your own children.
Therapy is a blessing. Don’t ever hesitate to avail yourself of it. It’s life-saving. And that was my father’s final gift to me.
That first phone call of the day? That was my father. I checked the phone bill after his death. My mother and brother were still asleep, so he was the only one who could have made it. I also live with that every day; not just the cranky way I answered the phone but the fact the last person he chose to call was I.
Here is something I wrote for today, because writing is the only way I handle these things, and I thank you for indulging me.
For someone born into privilege, he had a tough life—losing his father as an infant, being farmed out to cousins when his stepfather didn’t want children who weren’t his in the house, betrayal when he married young, going to war as a teenager, having his back broken in five places after World War II was over so he didn’t get a Purple Heart, being told he’d never walk again and defying every doctor who told him that, and much more. He did, however, get to live his dream—having a large, productive farm where he could raise his children and experiment with methods of farming at which the agriculture establishment scoffed.
My father was a brilliant man who could create things from metal and wood and coax amazing crop yields from the soil. He could make a dog or a horse do exactly what he wanted it to do but rarely could achieve the same with his children. We took after him too much for that to succeed. He was astounded by my writing and bragged to his friends I was a pilot. He professed to disdain my brother’s racing career but quietly made certain he had the funds to pursue it.
When you’re fifteen years old and your family has money so you don’t have to work, you resent the fact that you have to spend Saturday afternoons hauling a hay wagon or a silage cart. When you’re twenty-five years old and starting your own career, you appreciate that lesson in hard work.
When you’re a sixteen-year old volunteer for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, you argue with your father over race. When you’re in college, you see him bring a black man he grew up with and his family to work for him when the man had no other place to go.
When you’re in college protesting a war, you argue with him, the career soldier, over that. Years later, someone tells you he stood alongside the Veterans of Foreign Wars to block American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell from being buried in a Nazi uniform in a national cemetery. And you remember he fought to make certain you had a right to protest, even though he might not agree with why you protested.
I have now been half my life without my father. I hear his voice, have heard his voice every day since he decided he could no longer be in this world. Sometimes I listen to it; many times I don’t, and those are usually the times I should have listened. I missed him particularly on the day I retired from the U.S. government, for he was the one who taught me duty and service and love of country and to question everything.
He was a simple and flawed man who wanted nothing more than to be a farmer and have a family to raise. I was privileged to be one of his children, and, though I sometimes resented the attention he gave troubled youth, I was never so proud when some of those young men he turned from a life of crime called after his death to tell us, “I would never be what I am today if not for Mr. Duncan.” He was far from a perfect human being, but he was a good and decent man and an unwavering father when it counted.
And I miss him still. Every day.