Last November, WCCO-TV news anchor Randi Kaye’s father took his own life. He died from a disease she never knew he had—depression. At least 70 percent of all suicides are caused by untreated depression, and the U.S. Surgeon General estimates depression affects at least 19 million people a year. She shares her touching story with the hope that it may save another life, somewhere. Anywhere.
“If I ever get like that, shoot me.”
These were my father’s words, repeated to me often as he watched his own father waste away in a nursing home. I heard what he said, but I didn’t think much of it—until my father shot himself last November.
One day I hope to forgive my father for taking his own life. I may never fully understand why he did it. After all, a rational mind cannot comprehend the irrational.
But as a suicide survivor, I am faced with the challenge of trying to make sense of such a tragedy before I can tuck it away. I want to put what happened in a neat little box and bury it in my attic, but I’m not there yet. I struggle now with defining who my father was and how I want to remember him. I hold on to the days when we hung signs together around the neighborhood for my missing cat, Misty. I remember how he’d tuck me into bed when I was a little girl and kiss my nose. I can still feel what it was like riding on his shoulders at the Jersey shore. And I will be forever grateful to him for driving me around the country trying to find the right college for me to pursue my broadcasting degree.
Drive. That’s something my father had a lot of. He was a workaholic, a go-getter, a doer. All of his self-esteem came from his job as vice president of manufacturing and distribution for Hartz Mountain, the pet supply company. To him, life was not about enjoying, but about expanding his knowledge. He loved to learn. Once, my mom woke at 3 a.m. to hear him practicing his breathing techniques for swimming in the bathroom sink. He had to master it. He was obsessed with staying active and fit. He played tennis, sometimes twice a day, and 36 holes of golf on weekends.
1996 My father’s greatest fear in life was retirement, and in 1996, it hit him like a ton of bricks. The company to which he’d devoted 32 years of his life, 12 to 15 hours a day, showed him the door. He was 62, nowhere near ready for the golden years. Panic set in. Literally. Anxiety attacks began. It was his fear of getting old, growing bored, and losing the ability to keep his mind sharp. We didn’t know it at the time, but depression wasn’t far behind. A doctor prescribed Paxil. It was a Band-Aid on a fatal wound.
1997 One year after retirement, my parents moved from New Jersey to Florida. The Paxil was helping. Dad now told my mom early retirement “was the best thing that could have happened.” He was playing tennis every day. He was club champion. His golf game was improving. There were new friends to be made and the stock market was up. Life was good.
1998-2001 My dad kept taking the Paxil but never went back to his psychiatrist. He was never professionally evaluated again. He often went on and off his medication without consulting anyone. We found out later how damaging this can be.
2001 The “golden years” were losing their luster. My father was gaining weight rapidly and even suffered through liposuction in an effort to keep his aging body from losing its shape. He was overeating, which was so unusual for him that it should have been our first clue something was really wrong. He developed sciatica and spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal canal that puts pressure on vertebrae, which put an end to golf and tennis. He became disgusted with how he looked and it showed. His moods went up and down, but mostly down. Still, the situation did not seem dire enough to require medical treatment.
Feb. 2002 My father came to visit me in Minneapolis. He complained about not having enough to do at home and about losing money in the stock market, but we still had a lovely visit. We dined at the Dock Cafe in Stillwater and lunched in Uptown. We crossed our fingers together, hoping to experience a big snowstorm while he was here. I hated to see him go, and when he left I thought about how much he’d aged. The man once so agile had trouble walking up the stairs in my house. He didn’t always remember my pets’ names or the computer shortcuts he’d learned just minutes before. I cried after he left, wondering how much more time we’d have together.
This was not the first time I’d asked myself this. Each visit was getting more difficult, feeling more desperate. Still, I always imagined I’d lose him to old age and natural causes.
April 2002 I went to visit my parents in Florida. It was the last time I saw my father alive. It was not an easy week. My dad was angry and frustrated. He was playing tennis again but was forced to play with the worst players at his club—men much older who could barely move on the court. Some days he was in too much pain to play and could only watch from the tennis deck. Being club champion was a distant memory. He was in so much pain he had to hold onto countertops to get around the kitchen. There were days he just watched the stock market at his computer and never left the house. He didn’t want to go to lunch or dinner, or even play with his grandkids. There was more talk of money and his fear that he wouldn’t have enough to live on through retirement.
I left Florida thinking how hard my father was working to find a purpose for himself. He had invested in all kinds of businesses and talked constantly about trying to start a company. He was 67 and in no shape to run a business. Looking back, I think he knew time was slipping away. I could see it in his eyes. Why couldn’t he just enjoy doing nothing like so many other retirees? He had earned this time.
Aug. 2002 My father fell off his bicycle while riding around the neighborhood. Twice. One fall was so bad he needed a skin graft on his leg. He used a wheelchair for a month. A nurse came every day to dress the wound. My mom would call me from her cell phone while walking her dog: “Your father’s in bad shape—he’s so depressed.” What could I do from 2,000 miles away? I’d call him and he’d tell me he’s fine, that it’s my mother who’s down about living so far away from her grandchildren in New York. My dad and I were always honest with each other. I trusted that he was doing all right and that his injury had him feeling a bit down. Not once did he tell me he was depressed. When I asked, he flatly denied it. End of discussion.
Nov. 12, 2002 I received an e-mail from my dad, addressed to all four of us—me and my brother and two sisters: “Just a note to tell you all how much I love you.” I wrote back telling him I loved him, too. That I hoped he was feeling good and that he shouldn’t worry about money and retirement or anything else. To enjoy his time. That a smile was all we needed from him.
Nov. 15, 2:30 a.m. My dad woke up and lost his balance on the way to the bathroom, walking around the house in the middle of the night. He shattered a crystal vase on a nearby table. He punished himself for it all day. He canceled his plans for that morning and never left the house.
10:30 a.m. I called my parents from the car on my way into Uptown to run errands. My dad sounded down, and was slow in his delivery. He asked me how to change a phone number in his cell phone but grew frustrated with my explanation. I told him we’d do it together when I get there. (I had a ticket to fly there in two weeks. My dad told me he was “marking off days on the calendar until I got there.”) I rushed him off the phone to finish my errands. It was our last conversation.
Today, I ask myself, did I tell him I loved him? Was I patient with him? Did I give him a chance to tell me how he was feeling? Why didn’t I stay on the phone with him longer?
11:30 p.m. I just got home after doing the late news at WCCO-TV when the phone rang. The caller ID told me it was my parents. The time of the call had me concerned. I answered. It was not my parents. It was my mother.
My father was dead. Through tears, my mother told me she had been to the ballet, and that, alone in the house, my father had loaded his gun and shot himself in the bathroom. She found him. No note. No goodbye. With her crying in my ear, I ran to my computer, convinced my father had sent me an e-mail telling me he loved me and how sorry he was for leaving me this way. My in box was empty. I was crushed. My father, my friend, my teacher was gone without a word.
Nov. 16 I checked my in box every hour on the hour. Still nothing. Even called to be sure the e-mail server was working properly. I was sure he wouldn’t have left without an explanation. I booked a flight to New York for his funeral.
Nov. 19 My birthday. This was a birthday I would not celebrate. Instead, I filled the emptiness in my house with music and purged myself of pain through writing poetry. “What happened, Dad? How’d you lose your way?/ So lost, so troubled. You couldn’t stand another day?/ I wish we had talked, one last time./ Maybe I could have saved you, kept you as mine.”
Nov. 21, New York We buried my father today. I eulogized him. There was so much pain and so many questions. I told myself that my father was in some big fancy office in heaven with a seat on some important board of trustees, that he found his purpose again and was at peace. Returning home to Minnesota was difficult, to say the least. I wondered how I’d cope without my family here.
Dec. 14, Florida I went back to Florida as I had planned more than a month ago. This visit was supposed to have been fun family time; instead, I spent it with my mother, cleaning out my father’s office. I found audiotapes about helping build your memory. It was obvious my father was struggling. I found bills he had paid twice. (I later found out forgetfulness is a sign of depression.) I also realized my father’s paranoia about his finances was unfounded. It’s comforting to know my mom will have enough to live on for the rest of her life. I just wish he could have been here with her. If he had been able to think clearly, he would have seen there was nothing to worry about. He had convinced himself he was broke and too frail to go on living. He was neither. But my father was as hard on himself as he was on us kids. Failure was not an option, and in his mind, growing old offered a future of failures.
Dec. 15, Florida Alone in the house, I went through my father’s closet, again searching for a note. I knew nothing it could have said would have made me feel better, but I wanted to know he was thinking of us. That there was relief in the end—maybe even a feeling of euphoria. A note may have told me whether his suicide was selfless, or selfish. I guess not knowing allows me to answer in my own mind. I tell myself my father left this world to protect us from the pain of watching him grow old. He was a proud man. I never found a note but I did find, hidden in a bottom drawer, two boxes of bullets. My hand opened one box before I could stop it. I let one bullet fall into my hand. I squeezed it tight. It made me sick to my stomach. I wrapped the boxes up and disposed of them, without my mom ever having to see them.
Dec. 16, Florida This was the day I would say goodbye to my dad. I knew it would take me a few days to find the courage to stand where he was when he took his final breath. I knew I’d have to step inside that bathroom to find closure. After spending about half an hour outside the bathroom door in tears, I went in and closed the door. Immediately, I noticed the hole from the bullet in the door frame. I felt nauseated, and leaned against the wall with my eyes closed. The hole told me my father was sitting on the chair in the bathroom when he died. I found peace in that. I touched my finger to the hole in the door frame and said goodbye. I imagined him alone that night and wondered how long he’d sat there. If only the phone had rung, or the doorbell. Those thoughts were too painful. I left the bathroom a moment later and never returned.
Jan. 2003, Minneapolis Some of my father’s things I packed up in Florida arrived at my house. On my desk are his glass tennis ball and letter opener. Sometimes when I open my mail I catch myself squeezing the letter opener tight. Once I even smelled it, hoping to remember what my dad smelled like. This is what you do when you lose someone close. I also kept his desk chair. It’s now my desk chair. And every day when I sit in it, it’s like getting a hug from my father.
The number one cause of suicide is depression. Across the country, 500,000 people kill themselves each year. In Minnesota, 500. And white men over 65 are the second largest population of suicides.
Some of the signs are obvious, like putting one’s affairs in order or calling people to say goodbye. In my father’s case, the signs would have been obvious only to those trained to look for them, but I will spend the rest of my life beating myself up for not realizing how much he needed help. The bottom line is, my father didn’t want help, and wishing that he was still here is selfish of me. He was in pain—scared, lost, and confused. He thought he had nothing to live for. The disease deceived him.
My father’s depression and suicide has changed me. Losing a loved one to suicide is torture. There are so many unknowns, what ifs, and why nots. Often, suicide survivors express a desire to die, too. For some months, I felt like death was perched on my shoulder, that I was next. My father’s death has changed me forever.
I struggle now as I read some of the sadder news stories on the air. I feel closer to the grief of those families. We don’t cover suicides in the news. That’s because media organizations believe these people “chose to die.” I’ve come to believe they didn’t. Death chose them. Depression and other demons inside their mind made them powerless against it. Awareness is so critical. Maybe if we paid more public attention to suicides there would be fewer of them.
My appetite for learning has increased. Maybe my dad passed that on to me. He loved to learn new words, and now I have committed to learning one every day. He’d love that. Certain scenes are still painful. I avoid the parking lot where my dad and I had our last conversation. Seeing fathers and daughters hug brings me to tears. And when I see men my father’s age or older at the gym or the dog park, I want to ask them, “Hey, how did you get through it?”
I find it difficult to make small talk anymore. It seems such a waste of time.
It’s impossible to talk about things that hardly matter when my world has been forever altered. I am more patient with people and more giving of my time and money. I am quieter and more reflective than I have ever been.
Like my dad, I have always feared growing old, but somehow, his death has made me less afraid of dying. My dad and I shared a love of tennis. We’d rehash major tournaments long distance—I can still hear his play-by-play. I use his tennis bag and one racquet now. The other I buried with him. My game hasn’t improved much since his passing, but he’s still out there on the court with me, cheering me on and yelling at me to move my feet and pull my racquet back.
The world, for so long defined for me by my dad, is so much bigger now. So much lonelier. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him in that final moment. Did he cry? Was he calm? Did he think of me? Didn’t he know how much we still needed him? Was he angry? Why did he have to hurry death?
When I was in pain, I turned to my Dad. Now there’s just emptiness where he once stood. On many occasions, I’ve gone to call him. There’s no getting used to his not being here. I wasn’t ready for this hole in my heart.
I guess I’m lucky to have had such a special relationship with my father. I know in my heart he knew how much I loved him. I miss his voice so much, and his laugh. I miss the way he’d call me “Randall” and all those other nicknames he had for me. I miss the way it used to be, when my family was whole.
Reprinted with permission from Randi Kaye and the May 2003 issue of Minnesota Monthly.