A Life-Changing Event

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 Dad

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.

Quietly Arrayed

For years after my father’s death, I carried a copy of this poem, “Richard Cory,” by Edwin Arlington Robinson in my purse:

Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean-favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich–yes richer than a king–
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

As a writer of prose, I’m hardly qualified to analyze poetry. Oh, in the variety of English and American Lit courses I’ve had, I studied the form and rhythms, memorized and recited poems for teachers who either dozed through 30+ kids reciting the same verses or criticized that the emphasis on particular words wasn’t quite right, presented Shakespeare soliloquies for final exams.

In my earlier post, “Discovering,” I highlighted some other poets and poems that were meaningful to me, and without getting too maudlin about this one, I thought I’d talk a bit about it as another homage to National Poetry Month. (Yes, I’ve been writing about writing a lot lately and not about “politics, society, and religion,” but don’t worry. I’ve got some socio-political religious commentary about burning books and its fallout roiling about in my head. Just be patient.)

I first read “Richard Cory” in high school. The English teacher walked in, put copies of the poem face-down on our desks, then told us to all turn them over and read. As some read faster than others, you began to hear a cascade of reactions. Then came the discussion. I remember one boy asked to leave the room. Apparently, the teacher had forgotten (or didn’t know) his father had shot himself, but in those days you didn’t run crying to your parents at every trauma. You sucked it up and went on.

“Richard Cory” has been analyzed as everything from a socialist take on modern capitalism, to a lament about the Great Depression, to sentimental sop. Some scholars have speculated that Cory must have had a physical issue–back then the only “acceptable” reason for suicide. Others have commented that despite that outward appearance of success and happiness, he led a lonely and empty life, and that’s what drove him to his final act. Since I was in my early stages of Marxism-Leninism, I probably considered Cory some depraved, exploitative capitalist who deserved what he got.

That poem was no more than a high school assignment for many years and forgotten; then, my father committed suicide one calm, summer morning, though not in the way Richard Cory did, not that any way is preferable. I was muddled for weeks after with that perpetual question, why. He left no note, and, of course, my brother and I, separately, decided it was our fault. Then, the poem “Richard Cory” appeared in the Washington Post. I don’t even know why it caught my eye or why I read it, but I did. In those four, short stanzas with the gut-punch ending, a burden left me.

This poem, more than any therapist who helped me, showed me there are some times when there is no answer to the question, “Why?” Theists, I’m sure, are certain there is an answer, but this poem gave me what I needed to go on.

And that is the power of poetry, that expression, so lyrically, of emotions we would otherwise quash or ignore. Let’s face it, some poetry is pap, and what I like someone else might think is pap. But “Richard Cory,” a short, succinct poem, saved my life, and I’ll just leave it there.

If you’re in the Shenandoah Valley on April 20, please join the Staunton-Waynesboro-Augusta Group of Writers (SWAG) for our Poetry Fest at The Darjeeling Cafe in Staunton at 7 p.m. The featured poet reading her work is Sarah Kennedy. Local poets participating in the read include Lorraine Rees, Shea Anthony, Linda Levokove, Lauvonda Lynn Young, Elizabeth Doyle Soloman, and Paul Somers.