"Twelve good years," I tell myself. "At least I had 12 good years with my dad." Some people don't get any. But when I think of the things I shared with my father, I inevitably come to all the occasions he missed—my college graduation, all the family parties, even helping me and his siblings through his parents' deaths. All of this was stolen from him, and stripped from me by his suicide.
Most people are surprised by suicide. I can't decide whether they're the lucky ones. Before my dad's demise, I first was forced to watch him deteriorate under the weight of depression and alcoholism. Constantly I waited for that phone call, the one telling me I had to plan a funeral.
Finally, around 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 17, 2003, the phone rang. It was my mom, divorced from my dad for more than 20 years, calling to tell me that my uncle found my father, Robert Sharwarko, dead in his home. It was one of those particularly brutal winter nights in Chicago, but soon my howls overcame those of the wind.
I'm no longer ashamed to say that relief overcame my grief at that moment. Months of suffering ended for him that night. But my own turmoil simply changed. No longer did I have to endure his downward spiral. Soon enough, however, the relief was replaced by guilt, heartache and so much anger.
I have never been angrier with anyone else in my life than I was with my dad. After those 12 good years he inexplicably set down the serenity of sobriety and once again picked up a bottle. What followed was a whirlwind of confusion and the realization that I never again would have a normal conversationwith my dad.
During this time, I was completing my bachelor's degree. Kids sometimes lose track of their parents, instead focusing their tools on building an independent life. Before I knew it, my dad again had become a full-blown drunk.
He and I talked about his relapse, and I urged him to get help. He said he would. I know now he already had given up on himself, though I don't know why. After almost destroying himself once, he clawed back up to have a good life. A lab technician and safety director for a paint company, my dad was successful and well liked. He had a beautiful home and was intensely proud of me and my brother, Sam.
When no one heard from my father after several weeks, a group of family took a trip to his house. My mom and I met three aunts and two uncles, and we steeled ourselves for what we might find inside.
After continuous days of consuming nothing but alcohol, he was on the brink of death. He could barely stand. We called an ambulance, and once at the hospital, my dad slept for nearly a week. While a tube fed him intravenously, the terribly insensitive doctor explained that the alcohol literally had eaten holes in the frontal lobe of his brain.
The result was almost total short-term memory loss, reduction of inhibitions and a general disorientation. "Dad" as I knew him was a deeply thoughtful person. Now he could barely keep a thought in his head.
My dad's impetuousness and dreamy nature were both the best and worst things about his personality."
For the next year, my father's new residence was a despicable nursing home. I wish I could have put him in a nicer place. I wish I could have taken him in. I've thought about it, and I could not have done either of those things. He needed constant supervision, 24-hour care. If only money didn't dictate the level of care people receive in our country. Just before Christmas in 2002, the nursing home got a new social worker. Having fought with the previous staff member over her lackadaisical approach to securing Medicare for my dad, I hoped this new woman would be more attentive.
Her energy was admirable, but she made a big mistake. My dad fed her a line, and she fell for it. They convinced one another my dad could go home and live on his own.
"Don't do this," I said to her over the phone. "He'll start drinking again."
"Bob, will you start drinking again?" she asked my dad, sitting in her office.
"No," he said.
Perhaps it was her naïveté, but she didn't believe me. I knew my dad was convincing. Even in his impaired state, his intelligence still allowed him to tell a realistic tale. She released my dad. He returned to his home with no outside support set up, with nothing to do but drink. Within a month, he was dead.
After most deaths, but especially after suicide, the survivors often feel a tremendous amount of guilt. They feel remorse for what could have been, things they should have said or actions they failed to take.
Now, three years later, I feel I am only moving through the typical stages of grief. Now that the shock, guilt and anger have subsided, I'm left to mourn. It seemed the process took too long. But grief is so unique. No one can tell you how, or how long, to do it.
Little things—a song, a TV show, an idea—make me long for my father. I valued his perspective on life. Often when I was having an issue, something I was forced to figure out, I would ask advice from my mother, then my father, and then split the difference. It was a good system. It was our system.
My dad's impetuousness and dreamy nature were both the best and worst things about his personality. He lived to stray beyond the beaten path. In his 20s, he traveled across the country with my mom in a van. Later, he took me on driving trips to archeological sites and historical points of interest, always taking the back roads to get where he was going.
The best nights were when boring TV watching turned into spontaneous trips to downtown Chicago, to walk Navy Pier, listen to some jazz or just drive around and watch people laughing under the city lights.
Music was an ever-present fixture of those trips. From Talking Heads and Eric Clapton to Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker. And so much jazz. My dad was a jazz nut. The complicated, moody music suited him, and I used it as a token to honor him last year at the Out of Darkness Overnight. AFSP's 20-mile walk for suicide awareness strode into Chicago, and I was determined to take every last step.
I trained for weeks while I appealed to family and friends for their emotional and financial support. A co-worker helped me organize an ice cream sundae fundraiser, at which I raised more than $250 -- just on $4 all-you-can-eat sundaes. What's more, as I collected the money, I found people really understood what they were supporting. So often we pass one another in hallways with only a nod. But that day, everyone knew who I was, and why I was there.
Several people told me how suicide had impacted their lives. For one, it was a brother. Another, a cousin. Someone's friend. A common thread among their comments was a lack of communication. Society sweeps suicide under a big rug of denial. Friends and co-workers hailed me for my openness.
My personality and my penchant as a writer makes honesty come naturally for me. I tell people when they ask. I tell them, "My dad died by suicide." I'm not proud; I'm positive this sense of frankness can change attitudes.
At the Out of Darkness walk, I didn't have to say anything. My presence, and the beads around my neck showed I'd lost a father and an uncle—my father's brother—to suicide. Three-quarters of our way through, it was time to line the luminaria. We wrote messages on white paper bags, lit a candle inside and set them along the lakefront. The sight, as you may have seen in the AFSP newsletter that followed, was so overwhelming. Hundreds of lights blinked for loved ones lost. On my bag, "For the love of jazz and fried chicken. I miss you, Dad." It's part of my effort to remember my father, to recognize the way he died, to keep my own light burning, and to encourage that light in others.
Carole is a magazine editor and writer living in the south suburbs of Chicago.