I believe in keeping garage doors open.
When I was a teenager, my father told me one of his lifelong goals was to live past sixty—the age at which his father, a minister, had closed the doors to his garage, started his car, and ended his life from breathing in the carbon monoxide. That was in 1941.
In 1976, my father achieved his goal of living longer than his dad by marking his sixty-first birthday. There wasn’t much of a celebration, though: my parents’ marriage was disintegrating, and my father was losing his battle with alcohol. A year later, he killed himself as his father had: sitting in a car behind a closed garage door, the motor running.
I remember when I got news of his death. I sprinted across my college quad in bare feet on a November night, running until I thought my chest would burst. After the funeral, I went back to school and got on with things. For years thereafter, my life did not appear disrupted by my father’s suicide, at least not outwardly. Inwardly, it was a different story. After repeated bouts of depression, I began worrying that my paternal DNA had already predetermined my fate: that if the going got too rough for me someday, I also might turn to suicide.
Perhaps in anticipation of that day, I unconsciously began my own version of closing garage doors. From my midtwenties through my early forties, I lived alone in a small tenement apartment, working a succession of low-level jobs despite having an Ivy League education. I frittered away relationships and money, periodically isolating myself from friends and family, and doing my share of binge drinking.
While I never actually felt suicidal, I came to see that I was committing a kind of living suicide—not one in which a life was taken, but one in which life was no longer embraced. This realization came to me after spending years in therapy, going on antidepressant drugs, and experiencing the death of my mother. Once I understood what was happening, I slowly started to open the doors I had closed earlier on my life. In my early forties, I met Barbara and we soon married; we had two beautiful sons in short order and another is on the way. We bought a house and found community in our new hometown. We’ve even agreed to teach a Sunday school class this winter.
I can empathize with my father and grandfather, not to mention the thirty thousand other Americans who take their lives each year. But for the sake of my sons, the family history of suicide I inherited stops with me. To live a long, full life and die from natural causes may turn out to be the best possible legacy I can leave them. I resolve that the garage doors my father and grandfather chose to close on their lives will stay open wide in my lifetime and, I hope, in the lives of my sons.
Doug Andrews works as a technical writer in New York, and lives with his wife and three sons in Glen Ridge, New Jersey.
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