Sometimes it all seems like yesterday, but no, it has instead been well over a decade ago.
In fact, it has been 16 years since The Awful Knock.
It was 4:19 in the morning and my heart was pounding as I listened to the fist on my front door—banging, unrelenting, and as you’ll soon see, inevitable. The house, just steps from trendy Fairfax Avenue, is what Hollywood realtors like to call cozy, just a little bungalow really, and I started praying please, please, please don’t let the baby wake up.
Oh, and one more thing: my partner, my love, was not there comforting me. Indeed, he wasn’t there at all. Do you want to know why?
Well then. I was the woman who had been keeping a secret—this wonderful man who had swept me off my feet so many years before had now morphed into someone I barely recognized. This new and very scary person had terrifying mood changes, often with barely a glimmer of advance notice. At best, they left me unsettled and at worst, saw me literally running for cover.
Once he smashed a rocking chair against our living room wall, just inches from the baby’s head. Another time, it was an industrial sized flashlight, but that was on another wall and the baby was playing in a different room. Then there was the afternoon he told me that life really wasn’t painful at all—words said as he placed a knife on the baby’s tongue.
There were times, too, when everything turned topsy-turvy: he would isolate himself inside the garage for hours, weeping inconsolably, writing notes about what sort of poison he should take. Yet over and over again, he swore he would never, could never, hurt me or the baby, whom he said he loved more than I could ever imagine.
He also said he hated himself more than I could ever imagine.
The night of The Awful Knock, he had left home several hours earlier after an argument so dumb I can’t even remember what it was about. But he had gently closed the front door behind him, leaving his wallet in plain view.
Now, opening the door, I saw a woman in uniform, but she wasn’t a sheriff’s deputy from our West Hollywood station. She didn’t appear to be wearing an LAPD uniform either. Somehow, I already knew who she was before she quietly announced that she worked for the county coroner’s office. I can’t describe it any other way: my voice instantly left my body.
I waited what seemed like a long time but was really only a moment. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” I said, more of a statement than a question.
“Yes,” she said softly. “I am so sorry.”
The man who had just shot a bullet into his right temple would leave an irrevocable void.
Once, he had been my best friend, my playmate, and my biggest fan. He was also really funny, so much smarter than he thought, and an engaging storyteller. I knew I wanted to know him better after he came over to replace an appliance part, just a few weeks after we had met. We had been quietly sitting and talking on my kitchen floor when my almost-always-persnickety cat sidled into the room. Giving him one look, she then laid on her back next to him, flirty, all paws aloft, purring loudly.
His favorite word was “fun”—as in, “What should we do this weekend that will be the most fun?” So, he took me to the very best place to fly a kite in Los Angeles County—he had thoroughly researched it years before. Then there were those starry nights in an abandoned miner’s cabin overlooking Death Valley, first pushing boulders out of the road with bare hands in order to make it in. We also walked through Hollywood in the dead of night—but literally underground, strolling for miles through the newly built sewer line he had discovered after he had stumbled upon an open manhole. One evening, he was astounded to learn I’d never tasted a quince, much less heard of one. “We are going out now and I am going to teach you how to buy the perfect quince!” he announced.
And with his flickering turquoise eyes, lean frame and polite “Nice to meet you Ma’am” smile, he was also—my own mother breathlessly whispered this in my ear upon meeting him—movie star handsome. And yes, there were times, a lot of times, when he was a remarkable father. I still have the snapshots and the sweet notes to prove it. In fact, while I teasingly called him “The Best Man in the Land,” I meant every word.
But my good fortune ran out when his happy moods became bitter and self-loathing.
He hated his work, he hated his friends, and he hated his life. Our much-wanted baby could bring him out of his reverie, but only for snatched moments. One night he kneeled beside her crib for hours, watching her dream, wondering out loud if she would remember him.
No one really knew how to help.
When I finally suggested seeing a doctor, perhaps taking medication—after all, what about those miracle drugs?—his refusals were loud, defiant and adamant. He could take care of himself, he said. Much, much later, I found out just how he had: buying pills from street sources and then washing them down with cheap alcohol.
He never did it to get high—only to stay even and only to anesthetize the pain.
Afterwards, during those awful first few months, the baby saved my life.
Of course, all I really wanted to do was stay curled up in bed, but every parent to a toddler knows this isn’t an option. I also felt guilty that I had not done enough and guilty, too, because I was so angry at him for leaving me. There were even days, but mostly nights, when I wanted to join him because I loved him that much. I made my living working in network television, but having that sort of responsibility – the ability to function on a daily basis—was now out of the question.
Thankfully, most of the time I felt as numb and frozen as an ice cube, and glad of it.
Eventually, I figured out why he had left his wallet on the table when he said goodbye.
Inside a secret compartment were five pictures he had laminated of the baby, ones he had never shown me. I knew, knew, he would never have been able to kill himself that night if he had looked at any of those images, even for a moment. At the memorial service, his ex-wife provided another revelation: his love for our child and for me, she said, had kept him alive. Years ago, she added, he had talked to her about killing himself.
There were other surprises.
Until his death, I had no idea that one in five people who seek no treatment for their depression commit suicide. This seems like an astounding number. I was also stunned by the sheer numbers of those whose lives are touched—derailed is a better word—by suicide. A mom in my daughter’s playgroup told me her father had killed himself. My realtor told me his grandmother had done the same. A friend told me about her high school boyfriend, and another friend told me about a business colleague.
Yet so often, these deaths go unspoken.
Why? Is it shame? Maybe. Is it because it is unthinkable for someone to do away with himself in one fell swoop? Maybe. Is it because survivors believe there is a black mark against them? Maybe.
I do know, for a very long time, whenever a stranger asked, it was easier to say he had died in a car accident. I also learned that when I told the truth, there was only silence. No one really knows what to say, although one man told me he should have eaten peanuts—after all, he said, they cure depression. How does one respond to a well-meaning idiot?
Nearly three years after his passing—years in which I faithfully went to weekly counseling and years that I now barely remember—my daughter and I moved to a new house. The town was also new and several hundred miles away. Then I relocated again after marrying a man who, immediately after proposing, asked if he could have the honor of adopting my daughter.
It is a clean and happy and loving slate, and I have certainly moved on in so many ways. And here, settled in a place my long ago love never visited, never even knew about, there is not even the tiniest reminder of him.
I like it this way.
So now I have finally decided to do something else.
I am coming out of hiding. I am going to tell the truth. I will tell everyone who asks that he loved life so much, that he loved me so much, and oh, how he loved our child to the point of giddiness.
And I will then tell them this: he was depressed and he refused help. He got worse and worse, letting no one in. And then, mindfully and purposefully, he killed himself.
Finally, I will tell them that I did the best I could.
It has taken many, many years since The Awful Knock, but I now know this, too: his suicide had everything to do with him and nothing to do with me.
My only part was that I loved him.