The nightmare began with what sounded like an exploding firecracker. The time was 2:30 a.m., and I had been in and out of bed all night, worrying about Andy. For weeks I had a terrible premonition that something was going to happen to him. Lying in bed for a moment my thought was, no, that was a gunshot. Even though Andy did not own a gun, my next thought was, Andy has shot himself. Getting out of bed, I walked to the other end of the house toward the Arizona room. The Arizona room is located at the opposite end of the house and was designated as Andy's "recreation" room, where he and his friends could "hang out" and have privacy.
Walking through the kitchen, I glanced through the kitchen window into the Arizona room, which also had glass windows. The light was on and Andy appeared to be sitting in his usual place on the sofa, next to the telephone. I continued to walk through the kitchen, to the doorway of the Arizona room. At first glance he appeared to have fallen asleep sitting upright. His eyes were closed, a peaceful look on his face. I then saw the gun resting in his lap. Unable to make myself go any closer, my thought was, "Andy is dead, his pain has ended." In the same moment Andy's presence seemed to be hovering just above the scene, looking at me and at his body. Andy's spirit appeared confused, unable to understand what had taken place.
My first response was to walk back to the bedroom, knowing in my heart that he was dead, but instead I screamed and continued screaming until my husband, Mike, came stumbling to the doorway looking startled. I cried out to him that Andy had shot himself.
What followed is vague in my memory, but I did dial 911. The emergency operator answered within a few rings and I told her my son had shot himself. She kept telling me to be calm, as though talking to a child, which made me angry. She asked if Andy was breathing. I didn't know. Mike checked, and said Andy was breathing a rattling kind of breath. The operator said to get a cloth and press the cloth against the wound. I relayed this message to Mike and he did as she instructed, holding the cloth to his beloved son's head.
An emergency ambulance arrived within minutes. One paramedic asked Mike to remove the gun from Andy's lap. They did not want to touch the gun. To me they seemed to be methodical in attending Andy, apparently in no rush to take him to the hospital, confirming in my mind what my heart already knew. Andy was dead.
The police came about the same time the paramedics arrived. Apparently, 911 operators automatically notify the police when a shooting occurs. The officers were polite and kind. At the time, I was in shock, and felt as though I was outside my body, watching my responses and those of the people around me. The police asked us questions about Andy's state of mind, and what he had been doing that night. An officer brought us a carbon copy of a citation he found lying on the coffee table in the Arizona room. The ticket was for speeding and drunk driving.
Apparently, Andy had been taken to the closest precinct where the police checked his record for outstanding warrants. When none was found he was sent home in a taxi. The driver must have brought him home and waited while Andy picked up an extra set of keys to his car. The cab driver apparently then drove Andy to his car, and in the car was a gun. A few days after Andy's death I spoke to the arresting officer, and he informed me he had seen the gun on the dashboard of Andy's car. When I asked why he hadn't confiscated the weapon, the officer advised me that carrying a weapon in the open is legal in Arizona. Therefore, the gun was left in plain sight in a locked car, for anyone to see and possibly steal by breaking into the car. The officer's logic fails me, but he was very defensive and was reluctant about even talking to me. A month later, when I called to talk to him again, another officer informed me that he had been transferred to different precinct.
Life goes on, but not as I had imagined eight years ago before Andy took his life."
The investigating officers completed the police report about the same time the paramedics finished placing Andy into the ambulance. The paramedics had placed Andy on life support, because he was still breathing. Mike and I drove ourselves to the hospital where Andy was being taken. Emotionally, I was in shock. At the hospital the doctor came in shortly after we arrived and told us Andy was brain dead. In Arizona the medical authorities declare a person dead if there is no brainwave activity. Andy fit the legal criteria for brain death although he was still breathing, and his organs by receiving oxygen were still functioning. The doctors explained to us that the heart and organs would continue to function for several hours without life-support, or signals from the brain.
The doctors asked us if we would consider organ donation. Mike and I took one look at each other and said "yes." In the past Mike and I had talked about organ donation and agreed that if possible we would like to donate our organs when we died. We had never talked about donating our son's organs. In the natural order of things, Andy should be the one burying us. In my mind, donating Andy's organs would provide some good in an otherwise senseless and tragic waste of life. Thinking back, perhaps our decision to donate his organs was a way for us to hold on to him; of keeping him alive. Since that time Mike and I have heard from a woman who received one of Andy's kidneys and is doing amazingly well. (In addition, we met and are now close friends with the man who received Andy's heart. This special experience is a separate story to tell at another time.)
Mike and I decided to have a memorial service for Andy at St. Francis Xavier Church where we attended mass and where Andy had been an altar boy. The memorial service for Andy was held on a Saturday evening, August 6, 1994, just two days after his death. Saturday night was "party night" for the kids, and seemed an appropriate day to remember Andy. He always loved a party, and we wanted his short life to be a celebration. The memorial service allowed friends and family to show their love and respect for Andy and his family.
Tim, one of Andy's best friends, and who had been out with him the night he died, gave the following eulogy:
"There are no words that can accurately describe how much Andy meant to us. He had a big heart and he was always there for his friends. Andy never backed off from helping someone in need and by doing that he brought out the best in all of us. He lived life on his own terms and showed us all what a true friend should be. His warm smile and boisterous laugh will be remembered. Andy's spirit will always be with us, and his presence will be sorely missed. We love you Andy."
–Excerpts from the book, Andy, Why Did You Have To Go?
How did this tragedy happen? After many years I still have no answers and realize that I never will. How can someone with so much to live for want to die? Searching for answers, in 1998 I wrote the manuscript titled Andy, Why Did You Have To Go? A Mother's Intimate Reflections On The Life And Suicide Of A Son. Ralph Tanner Associates, Prescott, Arizona, published the book in July 2000.
The writing of our life together was very cathartic for me, but did not give me any answers. Growing up, Andy had been a sensitive child, and was easily frustrated, yet easy to discipline and fun loving. However, Andy's struggles emotionally really accelerated with the onset of adolescence. When I sought help and answers from friends and professionals they all assured me Andy was simply being a typical teenager and would eventually get on track. I suspected he was suffering from depression, but Andy was very resistant to counseling or medication and his bright smile and easy laugh fooled everyone but me.
I sought professional help for Andy when he was 16 and again later when he was 19. The first counselor just told me "Andy would have to hit the wall." I don't know what that meant, but this unfortunate statement shows how misinformed some mental health professionals are about adolescent behavior, depression and suicide. The second professional was a psychiatrist, and Andy wouldn't go back after the third visit and the doctor couldn't even remember Andy's name. Unfortunately, since Andy's death I have talked with other survivors who have shared similar horror stories.
After searching for answers and needing a purpose for my life, my decision was to fight the stigma and ignorance regarding suicide through education and information. For this reason, in December 1999 I established a non-profit organization, Youth Suicide Prevention Education Programs (YSPEP), www.yspep.org. In addition, I joined other organizations here in Arizona and throughout the United States, such as AFSP, who are working to education and prevent suicide.
Many people who are working to prevent suicide are "survivors of suicide," a term used to identify people who have survived the loss of a loved one who died by suicide. Available statistics suggest that for every individual suicide, there is an estimated six people directly effected by that suicide. Some, like myself, decide to work toward changing attitudes and behavior through education and knowledge related to suicide. My encouragement comes from mental health professionals trained in suicide prevention, who claim that approximately 85 percent of all suicides are preventable, if only awareness was increased regarding suicide. Another serious problem which needs to be addressed is the lack of mental health insurance coverage, which is not on parity with medical health coverage.
Life goes on, but not as I had imagined eight years ago before Andy took his life. He changed the future for himself and for all of us who love him, through one brief impulsive act. I miss him every day, and this will never change. My husband and I lost the future we dreamed of the day our beautiful baby boy was born: no college graduation ceremony, wedding, grandchildren...the list goes on and on. What we do have is wonderful memories of our son, and the knowledge that he loved us. We go forward, striving to have some pleasure in life and to make a difference in the world.
Joyce Gatson, CPC
March 26, 2002
Andy, Why Did You Have To Go? A Mother's Intimate Reflections On The Life And Suicide Of A Son can be purchased through the YSPEP website, www.yspep.org, or by sending a tax deductible donation of $20.00 to YSPEP, 1432 E. San Juan Avenue, Phoenix, AZ 85014. You can contact Joyce Gatson at [email protected].