The Gun Room was strictly off limits. Perhaps that’s why I was so drawn to it. That’s where Dad kept cameras, family photos, film equipment, special sentimental pieces from his childhood—and his guns. He told us the only time we were allowed in the room by ourselves was if the house was on fire so that we could safely save the family 8-mm movies. Despite his orders, whenever I saw my dad in the Gun Room, I couldn’t help but ask to join him. Maybe it was my promise to not touch a thing, or maybe it was because I was his “Peaches”, but I somehow gained access to this forbidden place. While he worked away on this or that project, I would explore his private sanctuary with marvel. I would put my hands behind my back, holding on tightly to my wrists, just to make sure I did not touch anything, wanting to avoid the risk of inadvertently grabbing for something and causing harm.
One of the items I often sought out was a stuffed bird, about the size of my palm, with wild ostrich feather plumage glued onto it. Dad kept it secured away in a glass cabinet, and I was completely mesmerized by its feathery splendor. I thought it was so odd to see this delicate piece of fluff surrounded by items dedicated to hunting and killing animals. I imagined stories about why this fragile object was set apart and displayed only for Dad’s eyes to see. Was it a gift from a princess he had rescued from the grips of a ferocious dragon? Was it a piece of treasure he had found while hunting with Indians?
On Saturday before Father’s Day, with my vast four-year-old wisdom, I decided that, since Dad liked that bird so much, I should give it to him again. Lucky for me, when I had this idea Dad and I were already in the Gun Room, so I had access to the sacred bird. When Dad was not looking, I tiptoed over to the display case and carefully opened it. Slowly, I reached in and snatched the sacred stuffed bird. Holding it in my tiny hands as if it were precious jewels, I fled with my stolen booty to my bedroom. Hiding my plunder, I left my room to bring back newspaper and masking tape, certain that Dad would be thrilled the next day with his Father’s Day present.
After our Father’s Day dinner, Mom and Dad were having their coffee and my brothers ran out to play. I hurried upstairs to retrieve his special gift, and when I returned, I ceremonially offered him my carefully wrapped package. He looked at the crumpled ball of newspaper encircled with bands of masking tape and pulled me up into his lap so I could have the perfect view of the unveiling. As he carefully unwrapped the mound of tape and paper, he revealed the soft, fragile stuffed bird I had taken from his glass cabinet. He paused and smiled.
“I love it,” he said. “Thank you for the perfect present, Peaches. This is such a cute bird. I’ll keep it forever!”
After he smothered me with hugs and kisses, I strutted away as if I had just been awarded a national medal for being the most loving and awesome child of the year.
Later that summer, we began preparations to celebrate Dad’s birthday in September. He never wanted much of a fuss, but we enjoyed honoring him the best we could. Just when I thought I couldn’t out-gift Father’s Day, it hit me: I birdnapped the feathered masterpiece again! When the time came for presents after Dad’s birthday dinner, I made sure I was at the front of the gift-giving pack. Dad, once again, scooped me up onto his lap, along with the gift, wrapped in my now token method: a ball of newspaper and masking tape.
Once I was settled and comfy, he opened his present.
When Dad saw the plumage and beautiful colors, he never once let on that he recognized the bird from his own glass case. Instead, he made a fuss over me and my re-re-gifted item that had belonged to him since before I could remember. He made me feel like I had offered him the moon and it was the most special gift he ever received.
“You are the most perfectest Dad,” I squealed. “And I have the most perfectest life ever!”
* * *
Years passed and life changed. Dad and Mom divorced. My brothers moved away, and I went from Dad’s Gun Room treasures to roller skates and prom dresses and then on to a husband and children. Dad was still just as important as ever, but in a different way. I’d call to chat sometimes, just to see what was new in his world and share the wonders in having a new family of my own. As often as I could, I’d travel the four hours to see him in his new home, to get that special hug or smell that familiar scent I always found when I nestled my face into his shirt. No matter what was going on in our lives, we always made time for each other, especially on special days—birthdays, holidays, anniversaries.
On Dad’s 51st birthday, I couldn’t wait to call him and hear his voice. Over the past few months he had been a bit sad and withdrawn, but this time I knew I could pull him out of his funk. I had a lot to talk about: weeks earlier I had given birth to a baby girl. But when he answered his phone, instead of the usual, “Hi Peaches!” he answered sullenly: “Hi, Rob, how are you?” I couldn’t ever remember him ever sounding so distant.
“Dad, why don’t I come out and bring you back with me so you can meet my new baby!” I suggested, hoping to cheer him up. I even added he could sit outside and soak in the long rays of the fall sun; nothing could cheer Dad up like a cool, brisk day in September. He paused, then with a mournful voice said, “No honey, not now; maybe another time. But know I love you very, very much. Talk with you later.”
That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned thinking and fretting about Dad. Drifting off to sleep, I made my mind up to call him again to either cheer him up over the phone, or let him know I would drive the four-hour trip to see him, and no matter what he said, pick him up and bring him back to my new house.
When I woke up, I made an entry on the next day’s to-do list to “call Dad.” If it’s on the list, it gets done. But, early the next day, the phone rang first. One of my brothers, on the other end of the line, said in an alarming tone, “Sit down, Robin.”
Unfazed at first, I said, “Hey, good to hear from you! What’s new?”
“I need you to sit down,” he repeated.
His urgency clicked.
“Buddy, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?” I said, as I took a seat at the kitchen table. “Okay, I’m sitting down.”
“Sis, you know that Dad’s been kinda depressed lately, right?” he said. I nodded yes to myself, bracing for what he would say next. “Well, today he was found dead. He killed himself early this morning.”
”Oh, my God, no!”
Our conversation went on to include particulars, but I heard none of it. One thought filled my 24-year-old mind: my dad had thought of, planned out, decided to and then finally committed suicide.
From all over the country, my brothers and I descended onto our Dad’s home. There were no rooms off limits in his new place, yet I was drawn to investigate behind each door. Everything was the same. Or so it seemed. Closer examination hinted that the place looked a bit off. Dad, for example, had always been tidy but was never concerned with dusting. However, this time, we were greeted with the fresh smell of lemon Pledge.
You must have made a point to dust, so your house would be clean when you were found.
The small bookstand that stood beside his chair held the birth announcement of my five-week-old daughter. Were you holding this announcement and looking at the photo of your newest grandchild when we talked just days ago, knowing you would never hold her?
In the living room was a wastebasket that typically had a smattering of papers in it: never a lot, but always something. When the police had entered the apartment to investigate my father’s death, all of the trashcans were empty except for the one in the living room. In it was one letter, address side up. An envelope addressed to me. Inside they found a short note:
It was nice talking to you the other day. Thanks for the offer to come and get me and take me to your new house. Sorry I can’t make the trip this time. Sorry I can’t see your new daughter. What a cute picture of her. Maybe I’ll see her another time. I hope to feel better real soon.
I love you very much and give my love to everyone.
Was this his goodbye note—left just for me—or was it a discarded momentary change of heart? He was never one to write letters, and he was not one to share his sorrows with others. Was I to read between the lines? In his way, was he trying to tell me sorry, Peaches, but I just can’t take any more?
The rest of his place looked the same with the initial scan. The kitchen was clean and everything was put in its assigned home. There were no dirty dishes; not even his coffee cup. Everything was in place, just like he wanted it. He was orderly in everything he did. His words rang through my head: Every place has a purpose and every purpose has a place.
But I had not yet opened the door to his bedroom; that’s where he now kept all his special sentimental pieces from his childhood—and his guns. I didn’t know what I would find there, but I knew I had to be in the place where my dad had his last opportunity to change his mind.
His bed had been neatly made. I tried to imagine what his last night had been like; tossing and turning, weighing out the pros and cons of the decision he was to make and whether he would be able to be carry out his plan. Did you waver in your decision? Did you ever reconsider? Did you reach out to God? The top of his dresser was clear, except for the glass cabinet that held his small stuffed bird. Beside the cabinet were all of his insurance papers neatly stacked to be retrieved when the police found his body. What went through your mind laying out those papers? Did you want to make this easy on your children? Did you think of your children? Did you think of me? Behind the door, his gun cabinet and rack appeared orderly—except for the vacant slot that should have held the borrowed gun from Great Uncle Cam. It was not there. I could hear his voice. Don’t forget, Peaches, never forget that guns are dangerous if not handled properly. The table beside the cabinet held his shotgun shell reloading equipment. His reloader stood at attention on the front edge of the table with primers and wads close by. The powder and shot bottles were nestled in their holder on the top of the reloader. Did you really think this through, Dad?
What my eyes rested on next was a sight no hero’s child should ever see. In front of the reloader was a single chair, and beside the chair lay a sock nestled into a right shoe. A short distance behind the chair—maybe three feet—was a small blotch of dried blood that had stained the carpet.
The medical examiner said it appeared that Dad had loaded his uncle’s shotgun with a shell that held no shot but an extra wad. Using this type of shell, he explained, caused an intense concussion when the powder was ignited, a force that sent a sharp blast of air into Dad’s brain that could only escape through the orifices in his head. He died immediately.
My gaze froze on the spot on the floor. I needed more from Dad than what he left behind. Where was the author of my perfectest life? What could I rely on when everything that made sense, now made so sense at all?
Then I saw the stuffed bird covered with ostrich feathers sitting in the glass cabinet on his dresser. Had it come from a princess or had it been found while hunting Indians? I would never know; Dad had kept that secret from me, as I would never know the reasoning behind his final secret choice. I can only hope he found comfort in the presence of his feathery companion.