A Fathers Suicide Sets a Son Searching

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Chris Forhan was a teenager when his father committed suicide. As an adult, he began piecing his dad’s life back together and in the process discovered a man he had never really known.”>

As kids in the 60s, my siblings and I invented a Fathers Day ritual. Early in the morning, we laid sheets of paper end-to-end on the floor of our home, making a winding path that led from one room to the next, the paper marked with clues: directional arrows and big hints (Look in the closet). When our father awoke, we instructed him to follow the path and watched with gleeful satisfaction as he stepped slowly, deliberately, pausing occasionallyWhat a long path! Do I have the strength to continue? and finally made it to the end, where his present awaited. A razor and can of shaving cream? A tie? A handmade card signed by all of us children? I dont remember the gifts. I remember the path.

A few days before Christmas 1973, my father took his own life. He was 44. I was 14. He left behind a wife and eight children and no note to explain himself. Still, his final act was not a complete surprise. He was a successful, hard-working CPA with a sharp and goofy Irish wit, but he was in the habitlike many men of his generationof keeping his problems to himself. He did not speak of how, in his childhood, he had suffered a series of wrenching losses, beginning with the loss of his father, who abandoned the family and vanished before my father could walk. In his last years my father was increasingly unhealthy, both physically (he had diabetes and was not always diligent in treating it) and mentally. In his last few months, he was like a ghost in the house. I rarely saw or spoke to him.

As the decades passed and his death grew more distant, so did he. My father calcified into splinters of memory that I could not make cohere. He lay still within me, in shadows, the vague shape of a man I had known when I was 8 and 10 and 13in other words, a man I had known hardly at all.

Then, as I entered my late forties, becoming older than my father had ever been, the fact of his absence began to nag in a new way. Who was he, anyway? How had he come to be the sort of man who could kill himself, leaving behind a wife and eight children? What happenedin the years, the decades, the centurybefore his death that set the stage for it? I decided to write a book about him, compelled by a desire to break the silence within which he lived and died and to make, perhaps, some peace with his absence. I set down words on paper, marking it with clues, laying down a path, page by page, that might lead me to an understanding of why my father made the final choice he did. Having finished the book, I do think I have a better understanding of that act, but the most powerful and gratifying consequence of my writing is this: in imagining my way into my fathers life, I have come to feel closer to him than I ever did when he was alive.

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