February 26, 2018 Emily Moorefield Mariola
PLEASE NOTE before reading, this post does share the story and details of suicide.
It is early morning and Mike and I are arguing. I am packing my van with boxes of pots to take to the studio and I am storming around. Mike is drinking coffee and cleaning up the breakfast dishes. The kids are all scurrying nervously around. They are uncomfortable when we argue, and they skitter to and for between us. It doesn’t happen often, and they sense something is amiss, although we are both trying to cover it up. I want to leave the house and have a few hours to myself. I can’t concentrate on my work, I’m always late, always behind. Mike is working on a new restaurant and is too busy as well. When we fight, it is usually for time or sanity. It has been ten years and our arguments already have a pattern. We have four children, a farm, a pottery/gallery, two restaurants and one more on the way. The phone rings. It is on a hook outside the door of the shop and I have to leave the crazy space we are living in “until we build a house” to get it. I almost don’t. I am angry, and I need to get to work. I answer anyway. Vincy is at my feet.
“Did you hear about grandpa?” It is my brother Josh and he sounds shaky. I am immediately the same. I know.
I wait, I don’t ask.
“He shot himself.”
I am hot. Empty. Without breath.
“Is he dead?”
“Not yet.” Josh keeps talking but I cannot hear. I am sobbing and my stomach is wrenching. All those threats were real. There is no room inside me and I can’t make a sound that works. Josh says he is sorry and I know he wants off the phone with me. Why am I crying like this? I have not spoken with grandpa more than twenty times in the last twenty years. Thirty times in all? I don’t know.
I hang up the phone and walk outside to my car. I don’t know what to do with myself so I stand there waiting for breath. Vincy slips his arms around my legs and lays his cheek against me. I lift him up and he wraps his arms around me tightly. We stay for awhile like that. “Why are you still crying if I am hugging you Mama?” I don’t know, and I don’t answer him. Ian has found us now and his face is scared. He doesn’t know what to do with this, and he awkwardly leans into me. I hug them both but still cannot stop the crying. Now Mike. Mia. Annie.
I tell them that my grandfather has died. I can’t tell them all of it now, although I know already that I won’t lie to the boys. I will withhold from the girls, knowing that by the time they are old enough to understand, it will just be common knowledge, another chapter in the Bob Moorefield anthology. The boys will probably twist and turn the story like all young boys do, and I hope it turns out better than it feels now.
Ian cautiously, confused, asks if I liked him better than my grandma. They have only met them once. Twice? I ask why. “Because you are crying more this time”, he says. My grandmother died semi-peacefully two weeks ago and we all packed the van and left for Virginia to say goodbye after she was already gone. It was a good trip and Mike and I agreed that it was a necessary thing for our family to do regardless of the unexplainable, inexplicable past. I try, in a fumbling way, to explain that it has nothing to do with love. Then I realize I didn’t want to say that. I don’t correct myself.
My grandfather woke early, before dawn on the first of May. May is especially beautiful in Virginia. He put away all of his things. Even without my grandmother there, the house was spotless. As always, there wasn’t a single item on the countertop. He lay a purple blanket diagonally across his bed, set the library books in a stack by the door with a note to return them, took his 357 in hand and walked out the front door of his house to his old farm truck. It didn’t start. He got into the car, the same car he used to drive my grandmother to the Catholic Church just down the street from their house every Sunday morning for mass. He drove to the edge of the Norfolk battlefields. Not a surprising choice for a military man. He tied a note around his neck with the lacing from his shoe. He put the shoe back on. “This is the suicide of Robert G. Moorefield. Do not resuscitate.” He placed a sticky note on the window of the car with the phone numbers of his children. He sat on some clean towels he must have taken from the house, held the 357 to his chest, and pulled the trigger. He was 87 years old. He missed.
He must have struggled some because he ended up on the ground outside the car. We do not know how long he lay there. We know that when an off-duty policewoman saw someone lying beside their car in the parking lot she changed the course of her early morning run and went to him. She rolled him to his back. He begged her not to get help. “I screwed it up” he said. She called for help. She says she told him she had to. It is her duty after all. They came. They say he fought them. Angry. Cursing. They say they could not calm him down; that he was fighting them pretty hard. “Don’t do this” he argued. They gave him a paralytic to stop the madness. They wheeled him into surgery. By the time his daughters were reached they could not see him. They went for his DNR papers and then let things be. He didn’t last long. No one saw him after that.
Sometimes now, I think that I am relieved with his passing. How will I begin to explain this suicide to my children? I cannot explain it to myself. The accumulation of pain and fear and anger built up inside generations of men is a difficult story to articulate. To say I’m not surprised this was his chosen way doesn’t make the telling any easier. I could use it to explain all of the things I couldn’t understand about him and my father, all the years of pain they caused for everyone who tried to love them. I understand why my father kept him at arms length. There is too much pain when you sit so close. I find myself hoping that as my father put Grandpa’s ashes in his tomb at Arlington cemetery he was putting away the last degree of the hardest of men: one that has taken generations to dissipate. I hope that my own father felt the enormity of the closing and sealing of that door. I hope that each step further away from this man, from his father, from his grandfather is one step closer to a reasonable man: a man capable of hurting, loving, empathy. Simple things, but unattainable for someone born into so much pain. For can the generations erase these things?
I think they do.
I have to.
I have sons of my own.
Although Grandpa Moorefield had warned us many times that he would end his life and when and how he wanted to, we, in the sick way that families deal with someone so unreachable and unreasonable, would half ignore/half joke about the absurdity of his comments. Every now and then my eldest cousin would let us all know that he had secretly indicated to her that he would jump off the Norfolk bridge and sink to his dramatic death in the clear cold waters of the Chesapeake Bay. This was fitting of course, because there were hundreds of acres of shockingly beautiful bayside property and bare farmland ripe for future development that he owned there. He would poison the waters of the very place he would leave behind for someone, so that the gift would come with a little bit of horror tied to it. Bob Moorefield was an incredibly wealthy, incredibly precise, incredibly thrifty man. How long would it take after the authorities fished him out for the estate to settle? No one knew, but it was clear that the old man couldn’t even die without creating a full out war among the people who had tried to love him for so long. My siblings and I had been trained from a very early age to separate ourselves from this part of our family history. We would accept nothing from my father’s parents. Our relationship was strained at best. We only knew snippets of the story. My parents exit from Virginia to Ohio was a lonely one. My sister and I, less than a year apart, don’t remember much from the time before the farm in Ohio. I do remember, now and then, an envelope left on the kitchen table with my father’s name scrawled across the front of it. My mom would indicate the letter with her eyes. “Your mom wrote you a letter.” Nothing. No response. It would lay there until my mother would eventually read it and apologetically respond. It was agony for her. I remember arguments about this, she would beg him to soften. “It’s your mother for God’s sake! She loves you.” Nothing. My father had turned to stone. Regardless, every few years my grandparents would show up in a ratty old car and we would have the most awkward afternoon summer picnic imaginable. After driving eight hours straight through from their home in Fairfax Virginia, my grandparents would pull up around noon as my father stood stone-faced in the driveway. As my grandfather unfolded his long, sinewy frame from his vehicle, my father would visibly command his body to walk forward to greet him. They would shake hands without words. A stiff nod for each in turn. We hung back. They would separate quickly. No words passed. My grandmother Kit would then wrap her arms around her son. It was painful to watch. Dad would stand with his arms awkwardly around her for a brief moment. Rigid. It was all she would get from him until the next visit. Right away, dad would announce he had work to do and he would be gone. Thank God it was over. Kit would watch him go so full of sadness that the four of us would spend the next several hours trying to make it up to her.
If Kit Moorefield was good at anything she was the master at loving men who didn’t show love back. To my knowledge she never faltered. She loved both of those men of stone from beginning to end. I know she loved my father fiercely and without fail. The story is told that only a few weeks before my grandfather’s suicide, as she lay in the front bedroom of my Aunt Joan’s house she asked for my father in her final moments. “Where is Danny?” she asked. Still Danny. Joan promised her that he was on his way. Driving as quickly as possible from Ohio to Virginia. She waited for his arrival and then she slept. We all loved her too. A tiny but fierce Irish Catholic, Kit Carr was a sparkle of light in a very dark world. Kit and my mother would scramble to make the afternoon go smoothly. My mother would have made deviled eggs, brioche, a beautiful salad from the garden, and too many fruit pies. We would sit beneath the maple tree in the front yard on a rag tag mix of picnic benches and old chairs drug from the kitchen. Now and then grandpa would try to speak to one of us. My siblings and I would stand before him with our arms hanging limply at our sides as we were spoken to. We would answer. And tremble. When he spoke to me I remember having the feeling that I was probably in trouble, but he hadn’t yet decided why. I tried to say as little as possible. He spoke with us one at a time about our life goals. Of course we were too young to have such things, and his eyes would begin to drift. Disappointed. Not surprising considering we were the children of an undisciplined hippie. His son was a farmer, a carpenter… a musician of all things. To make matters worse he had married an artist. A potter no less. They had no money, and in his mind, no job at all. He had come all this way to see if anything had changed, and of course it hadn’t. His disappointment was palpable. Which was actually an enormous relief when you put us up against a few of our cousins and my one sister who sat in his favor. To be a disappointment to this man was the greatest gift he could have given me, although I didn’t know it at the time. I, for one, was off his radar. No real potential. My grades were below average, my skill set yet unfound. My father served us well in this regard. “Don’t let him get to you” he would say at the dinner table. “You can’t make that man happy.” He knew from experience that the expectations were rigid and he worked hard to save us from them. After our grandparents left we would reliably receive the “You Can Be Anything You Want To Be” speech. We knew. He had told us a billion times.
And so it went. Year after year. Dad refused any support from his parents, although I know there were times my mother begged him to let them help us. We struggled as a family to make ends meet but my father had severed the rope and there was no way he was going to even tie a slip knot to make things right again. We knew to stay out of it. We knew our grandmother loved us and we knew our grandfather was trying to try to love us. My eldest sister eventually created an almost-friendship with the old man when she moved to the DC area and would drive her own ratty car over to their house to spend her Sunday afternoons trying to understand it all. Later on, my youngest sister would also make trips to Virginia to visit the family still there. My father’s two sisters both had two daughters and they all became friends during those years. If any of the four of us ever got anywhere, it was those two. As always, I was fiercely loyal to my father and decided to let my end of the rope stay untied. And so when the time came, it was he and I who packed ourselves into my husband’s pickup truck the very afternoon my grandfather held a pistol to his chest and went out with a holler. I left my four little children with my husband and his new restaurant. He didn’t hesitate to grant me the time away. He and I both knew we didn’t have the time, money or energy for the trip, but like we always do, we promised each other we would just work harder to make up for the lost time. He would struggle through for the week, I would make up for it upon return. It was our own unhealthy understanding. Dig in your heels. Just work harder. Dad and I took turns driving and sleeping through the night and we arrived in Virginia to see the early morning sun settle on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. There really wasn’t much to do in the three days we spent there. We sat on the porch overlooking the still waters of the bay and told stories. We walked on the beach with the dogs and I drank beer with my aunt Joan. Maybe she drank something stronger, I’m not really sure. She was certainly the one with the strongest ties to the old man. In my mind, she deserved moonshine. A very tired part of me actually wanted to see the body, but it was clearly not going to be an option. I don’t think anyone he knew ever saw him the day of his death. If this is true, it makes me sad. During those few days the family came in and out as I tried to understand who was mad at who and for what. It seemed as if Bob Moorefield had promised money and property and security to a select few and those with cards at the table were finally showing their hands. I held no cards and my father didn’t either. With Grandma Kit gone just two weeks before, I imagined there wouldn’t be much peace for a while. She kept people kind and on their best behavior around her. There were some power plays happening in the family that I wasn’t privy to and I was grateful that my commitment to staying out of the fray left me on neutral ground. We went to the battlefield and I understood immediately why he had chosen the place he did. We were there early in the morning, as he had been. The smell of an early Virginia morning in early May is heavenly. The light is soft and newly warm. If there was a right place, this battlefield seemed fitting. The blood spilt on that ground rivals no other place nearby. I suppose he found some comfort in that. I did not.
The drive back to Ohio happened in the daytime and my father and I spoke more in those 8 hours than we had in years. That road trip home reminded me of something my father had already tried to teach me: that stories can heal. Even the saddest of stories are a chance for us to remember; to use the passage of time to soften things. There were a few stories about my grandfather that I never knew. I am sure that he insisted they were not to be told. They explained the unbreakable fortress he built around himself. Weakness and vulnerability were not an option for him, or for anyone around him. He would not put up with it. The weight that man carried on his shoulders was immense. Too much for one man. He was not taught to distribute that weight and so it crushed him. Unfortunately, it also crushed those beneath him. My father included. I wonder now, if those burdens are finally slipping from the shoulders of this family. I wonder if there is a way to separate ourselves from the burdens of those before us? Aren’t we allowed to say, “No more”? Aren’t we allowed to put the stories to rest? My belief is that the only way to do that is to tell these stories. To get them out in the open. To shout them from the rooftops. They are not secrets. They are stories that include people we love and they include people we have hurt. Here is where I begin to share ‘my truth”. I am not scared of any of my history any longer. My grandfather’s unkind suicide is not a reflection of who I am. It is not a reflection of my father. It is not a reflection of my sons. I am empowered by truth.