I knew he was going to kill himself. We all knew. He was 83 years old, and he’d been talking about it for a while. He’d lost my grandmother ten years prior, after a long bout of colon cancer. Towards the end, his whole world revolved around taking care of her. When she became too much care for him, he sent her to the hospital, where she died. He was alone for the first time in 48 years.
We worried about him living alone, but my grandfather, Papa, got himself a dog, a beautiful Golden Retriever he named Duke. He walked that dog every morning to the park and back. In the afternoons, he and Duke would sit out in his backyard garden next to the birdbath, enjoying the sunshine. Papa loved watching the birds flitting around in the water and Duke was the perfect companion for him.
Then Duke died, and Papa was alone again.
As Papa aged, his depth perception worsened. He started getting into fender benders, and my mom wanted to take away his car keys, but he refused. Then one day, he turned left at a light but misjudged the oncoming car, and got T-boned. His car was totaled, and he was in the hospital overnight but came home with only a few scratches and bruises. After that, he didn’t drive anymore.
The doctor told us that Papa had intracranial arterial sclerosis. The arteries in his brain were hardening, and it was causing him paranoid dementia. However, he refused to give up living in his home, and he was still able to take care of himself, so my mom visited him several days a week to make sure he was okay. She also hired a lady to come in to clean his house, make him food, and run his errands. The caregiver was there twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday morning. Papa liked her enough, even though he complained that he didn’t need her help.
My mom asked the family to visit him and check on him too, it was too much for her to do alone. I was thirty years old at the time and had two small children. I never had a close relationship with him; he was aloof and kept an emotional distance. But I loved him and wanted to make sure he was okay too.
I went to visit him once. I arrived alone, and he greeted me at the door. His house was clean and tidy, everything looked in place. When we chatted, he ranted that his neighbor was trying to steal his home. He clenched his teeth as he spouted conspiracy theories about how the man next door had spies watching his every movement. I changed the subject and asked him if he would like me to make him something to eat. He declined but showed me the cupboards full of old dishes. He asked if I wanted any of them; the dishes were my grandmother’s and he didn’t use them anymore. There was a crystal antique pitcher that he insisted I take home. He wrapped it up and put it in a box. I thanked him and took the pitcher home with me.
My mother called me later that day, furious. Papa called her, yelling that I stole my grandmother’s pitcher. When she confronted me, I explained that he’d given it to me. I didn’t visit Papa by myself after that day.
He started giving more of his stuff away. He told my mom that he was tired of living. He missed my grandmother. He had a shotgun in his closet from his bird hunting days, and he’d threatened to use it to kill himself.
My mom became distressed. Every time she talked to him, he’d mention the gun and that he was going to use it on himself. When she attempted to remove the weapon, he became belligerent, so she left his shotgun in the closet.
One day, my mom called me and said that Papa wasn’t answering the phone. It was a Thursday in the late afternoon. Since he didn’t drive, he couldn’t have gone far, I said to her. Maybe he took a walk to the park. She decided to drive over and check on him.
When my mom arrived at his house, it was quiet. She let herself in and called out for him. There was no answer. She checked all the rooms, but everything was in place. Then she checked the closet, and the shotgun was missing.
My mom called the caregiver, who’d been there earlier that day. The lady said that he was there and everything had been fine. My mom drove around the neighborhood and didn’t see him. She knocked on the neighbor’s doors, but they hadn’t seen him either nor heard anything unusual from his house. She called the police to report he was missing, but since he’d been gone only a few hours, they didn’t do anything.
When she called me again, she was frantic. I tried to calm her down, saying that if Papa took his gun with him somewhere, he couldn’t be very far away. Someone would likely spot him. My mom, beside herself with worry, went home.
It was late afternoon the next day when my mom called me. I was a hospice nurse and driving from one patient’s house to the other when her call came in. She was hysterical, trying to talk but was crying and screaming at the same time.
“Mom,” I said to her, “I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
“He’s dead!” she said. “ I found him. He’s in the backyard.”
I drove over to the house as fast as I could. I was the second person there. My mom was in the kitchen sobbing.
“Where is he?” I asked. She pointed towards the birdbath out in the garden.
I looked out the window but didn’t see him. Opening the slider, I walked out to the garden. There he was, laying on the ground, his shotgun next to him. He’d put the gun to his chest and pulled the trigger. I didn’t cry. I think I was too stunned to cry. I put my hand on his forehead and asked God to take care of him.
After that, other people arrived: my aunt and uncle, the police, the morgue, and a kindhearted social worker who showed up to give emotional support to us.
It was pure chaos. With a man shot dead in his backyard, they had to rule on-site whether it was homicide or suicide. My aunt wanted to see him, so I walked outside with her to the birdbath. We stood there, looking down at him, hugging each other. Both of us said goodbye to him before they took him away.
The police quickly determined that it was suicide. After interviewing neighbors, nobody had heard the gunshot.
I can only imagine the torture Papa’s mind gave him. We tried, but couldn’t ease his emotional pain. Nobody could.
That trauma caused my family a rift of grief we never recovered from. We slowly split off to live our lives apart. It was the suicide, but it was also the hole of my grandparents not being gone, and the home they lived in was where all the memories were. Once Papa was gone, the house was sold and
Papa died by his own hand. He was paranoid and had dementia, but he knew he didn’t want to be here anymore. He took his life in the place that gave him the greatest joy, the place where he spent his time with the birds and his dog.
Although I didn’t understand it at the time, I look back at it now, and what he did it makes sense. He ended his own suffering, and that was the way he wanted it.