I took a deep breath to stop the slight shaking in my hand, whispering my affirmation on the exhale, “I’m ready for this, I’m ready,” before sliding the blue-lined notebook paper out from its envelope. It was finally ready to read my dad’s suicide note.
It took me almost two years to get to this point of acceptance and readiness. Two years ago I was known as a bright, energetic girl who was ready to take on the world. Having just finished High School as the class Valedictorian, I was following in my father’s footsteps and received a full-ride scholarship to his alma mater where I would also compete nationally on the Women’s Track Team. All of this was possible thanks to the support of my favorite person in the world, my Dad.
Growing up, as far back as I can possibly remember, it was just me and Dad. He had told me that my mother had given in to her drug addictions, and walked out when I was still an infant. He always told me I look just like her, which I can verify by the pictures he showed me. That being said, he never was able to find her, nobody knows if she is even alive.
My dad didn’t hesitate to be the perfect dad, regardless of losing my mother. “You and I, we’re a team,” he always told me, “Together, there’s nothing that we can’t handle.” And that was true. Every day, he’d take me to school and head straight to work, just to come home and shuttle me to all of my extracurriculars, and still make time to help me do my homework and studying. Okay, so sometimes he forced me to do my homework, but it always got done before bed.
Dad was genuinely my best friend, our bond was something most other girls just couldn’t understand as they constantly fought and argued with their fathers. Not me though, we were a team, there was nothing that we couldn’t handle. That is until there was no “we” anymore.
That weekend, we spent all Saturday moving my things into my new college dorm. I remember that day like it was yesterday. We talked and laughed all day as we unpacked and set up furniture together. We could only avoid the inevitable for so long though, as night fell and Dad still had a 3-hour drive home. Finally, we both broke into tears as we said our goodbyes.
“Remember, we’re a team,” he told me, choking back his tears, “Together, there’s nothing we can’t handle,” I finished for him. And with that, he climbed into his pickup and drove off. I cried myself to sleep, thinking about how I had never gone more than a day without seeing my dad and now I was supposed to live on my own?
I woke up early the next day, still wearing my jeans from moving day. Realizing that I hadn’t stayed up to get the text from my dad ensuring he made it home safely, I picked up my phone to check for his text, but naturally, the battery was dead. I connected the charger and got the coffee pot started while I waited for my phone to charge.
By the time I got back to my bedroom, the phone had enough juice to turn on. I put in my passcode and went straight to the messaging app, but there was no message from dad.
I immediately had a bad feeling about that, it seemed so unlike him to not send the message when he got home. My mind started jumping to all of the “what-if’s.” What if he had been in an accident? What if he was in the hospital, or worse?
I called, hoping he would pick up the phone and calm my anxiety, but the call went straight to his cheery but sarcastic Voicemail he hadn’t changed in years.
“This is Derrin, sorry I missed your call! Leave me a message and I’ll probably call you back, but no guarantees!”
“Hey Dad, this is Erin. Sorry, I fell asleep, just wanted to know you got home okay. Call me, Love you.”
“I’m sure he just fell asleep and hasn’t got up yet,” I told myself out loud. I continued to try and reassure myself that nothing was wrong, but it didn’t help, I just couldn’t quash that feeling that something was wrong.
An hour had passed, then two, then three. I must have called at least a dozen times, but every call had the same result. Straight to Voicemail. By the time it was noon, I knew something had to be wrong, very wrong. If my dad slept until 7:30 AM, that was “sleeping in” for him, even on a Sunday.
I did the next thing I could think of and called my Uncle Dan, who lives only 25 minutes away.
“Hey, Uncle Dan, sorry to bother you but have you heard from my dad? He never called to say he was home last night, and well, he hasn’t answered his phone.”
“Oh I’m sure he’s fine, he’s probably just sleeping in. He’s an empty-nester now, Or maybe he’s just working on that old Camaro. Maybe he’ll finally get it running,” Dan said with a chuckle.
“Look,” I said while pacing my room, somewhat annoyed by his lack of concern, “Can you just please do me a favor and go check on him?”
“I’d love to, but I’m at the lake right now, having myself a nice quiet fishing trip. But tell you what, if you haven’t heard from him by later this afternoon, I’ll stop by on my way home and smack him for you.”
“Alright, thanks Dan,” I said before hanging up, not even trying to hide my disappointment. I couldn’t understand how Dan could just blow off the fact that Dad hasn’t called me. I knew my dad better than anybody, and this wasn’t normal.
I called the Highway Patrol next and asked them if there had been any accidents involving a 2006 Chevy Silverado, thankfully there had been none. After that I called the local police for my dad’s city, asking them to file a Missing Persons report or to do a wellness check. They blew me off the same way Uncle Dan did, telling me that “He’s an adult and has no obligation to check in with his teenage daughter,” and recommended that I wait a couple of days.
By 2:00 PM, still, with no phone call and nobody that would take me seriously, I grabbed the keys to my dainty maroon sedan and started driving. I drove fast, I couldn’t help it, but I made it home in just 2 ½ hours, cutting 30 minutes off the usual 3-hour drive.
I felt my heart speed up, and hit a little harder, as I pulled into my neighborhood, anxious to get some answers. As the garage door opened, I could see the Chevy Silverado in the garage, next to the rusty old Camaro with parts and tools scattered about. Feeling a little relieved, I took a deep breath in, and let my chest push the air back out.
“DAD?” I called out as I walked through the door. His keys, wallet, and cell phone all lay in place on the old, beat-up, brown shelf next to the door. “DAD, ARE YOU HOME?” There was still no answer as I peeked out into the backyard.
It seemed as though the home I’d known my whole life had never been so quiet. It was usually filled with the sounds of conversations, laughter. music, or the sound of sports playing in the living room. Tonight, however, the silence of the house was so muted that each stair creak sounded like the house was moaning in pain as if it was being forced to tell a dark secret.
“Dad?” I called out, a little softer this time, scared to disturb the leering silence. I gave his bedroom door a soft knock, then twisted the doorknob and pushed lightly, encouraging it to slowly open with a drawn-out, squealing creek. That’s where I found him.
The first thing I noticed was the blood. The headboard of his bed had a deep red, almost black in the middle, spatter of blood. It looked as if someone had filled a large water balloon with blood and launched it at the headboard. The splatters of blood projected upwards from the headboard, leaving long streaks of blood up the wall, and even onto the ceiling. Laying on the bed was my father, thankfully slumped in a way that I could not see his head and face. Next to him, I could see the deep brown wood stock of his 12 gauge shotgun.
This is an image I can’t get out of my mind. The harder I try to not think about it, the more I think about it. It haunts me, every day and every night. I frequently have nightmares, where I watch a dark figure place a shotgun to my dad’s head and pull the trigger, sending blood and brain matter flying throughout the room. I always try to stop it from happening, but I’m unable to move.
That evening, I experienced what shock truly is. It’s as if the part of my mind that controls how rational people should act simply broke. I know I called 911, I know I told them someone was dead, but I barely remember anything else from the ensuing events until the funeral, and the time the detective told me that my father’s death had been ruled a suicide.
Detective Tilly was her name, I always kept her card in my nightstand. She handed me a Ziploc bag, inside was an off-white envelope, that was once sealed but had carefully been opened. On the outside, written in black ink, my name was written. “It’s addressed to you,” Detective Tilly said, “We had to process it for evidence, but the case is closed and this belongs to you.” The next thing she handed me was her card, with a soft touch on my shoulder and a promise that I could call any time, under any circumstance.
Over the following 18 months, my life can only be described as an absolute mess. I was hospitalized twice. Not for physical injuries, but psychiatric ones. I would simply forget to eat, and ended up severely underweight. Another time, I was apparently found by police walking down the highway at night, barefoot, wearing only shorts and a tee-shirt. I don’t remember that, but needless to say, I did not end up following through with college.
When I wasn’t an in-patient, I stayed with my Uncle Dan and Aunt Molly who kindly took me in, and handled basically all of the affairs. Over the past 6 months, thanks to the help of Uncle Dan, Aunt Molly, my psychiatrist, and my therapist, I’ve made progress enough to finally start feeling like a normal person again. I’d been weaned to low dosages of the pills that help me sleep, and my therapist and I had decided that I was finally in a place where I could, and should, read the suicide letter addressed to me.
I want you to know that I’m sorry and that none of this is your fault.
Ever since your mother’s death, the only thing that brought me happiness was being your dad.
Now that you are off on your own, I don’t feel as if I have any reason to live.
I Love you,
I paused, staring at the words, letting them sink in. My fist slammed on the desk before I even realized I was angry, knocking my pen holder over. I grabbed the pen holder and threw it across the room. I heard it crack on the wall, followed by pens and pencils landing In every which direction.
“What the fuck?” I said out loud, as my sight blurred slightly from the accumulating tears. This letter was supposed to provide me with closure, not more questions. What did he mean by “my mother’s death”? My father had always told me that she left, and he didn’t know what happened to her after that. And why is it that he couldn’t continue to be my dad after I left college?
I took a deep breath in through my nose and pushed the air out through my lips. I took a couple more deep breaths until I had composure over myself. I started picking up the pens that I had thrown everywhere. They were all the blue-capped ballpoint pens, the only pens I would write with. That habit was one of the many that I picked up from my dad.
That’s when the oddity of the note struck me, something I hadn’t thought of until now. The note was written in black pen, my dad only ever wrote with blue pens as if he had some sort of paranoia with using any other ink. I rushed back to the note and looked at it more intently. The black ink on the paper didn’t seem right, and not just the color, but the lettering as well.
I rushed to the closet and pulled out the old orange shoebox that contained every card my dad had ever left me. On top was the card he had given me along with my graduation gift. On the top front, written in blue ink, was my name. I placed it next to the suicide note written with black ink.
It was different. The handwriting was close, but different. My dad wrote the E in Erin with straight lines and sharp points on the graduation card, but on the suicide note, the back of the E was curved. There were other small differences as well, such as how on the note, the handwriting was slightly more slanted than on the cards my dad had given me.
Over the next few hours, I pulled out every single card and analyzed the handwriting, comparing it with the suicide note. The more I read, the more I became convinced that the suicide letter was written by someone else, but who? Was my dad Murdered?
I approached Dan as soon as he got home, holding the letter in my hand. “Dan, umm, there’s something that I’d like to talk to you about,” I said, standing in the doorway of his office with my free hand anxiously pulling at my hair.
“What can I do for ya, Erin?” Dan replied with a smile, but still looking down at his computer.
“My dad’s Suicide note, I read it. It says here that my mother died, but my dad said that she left and he never knew what happened to her. I’m, I’m just confused.”
For a moment, just a small moment, a look of surprise came over Dan’s face, as if he’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Just as quickly as it appeared, that expression left and was replaced with a kind, caring, look.
“I’m sorry, honey, I don’t know much about your mother, only met her a few times myself.” He paused for a minute, to remove his reading glasses and set them on his desk. “I’m sorry to say this, but I think it’s also fair to say that there were a lot of things your dad kept to himself. I wish he’d opened up about his struggles, we all do.”
“Okay, I’m sorry to bother you,” I said, starting to walk away.
“Hey hey, don’t leave yet, is there anything else that is bothering you?”
“Well, the thing is, I- I just….” I trailed off and looked down at the ground. I didn’t know how to say it, that I thought my dad was murdered. I started doubting myself and was worried that after all of the problems I’ve had that I might sound crazy.
“It’s okay, Erin, you can tell me.”
“I don’t think my dad wrote the note. it’s not his handwriting, It doesn’t match,” I spat out.
“Erin,” Dan said, sounding clearly disappointed,” I thought we had this all behind us. Did you take your meds today?”
“Yes, I took-“
“I’ll call Dr. Z first thing tomorrow, we don’t need you to have another mental break. I’m sure the therapist can get you in for an emergency session as well,” he said while scribbling down some notes on his post-it stack.
“You know what, you’re right, I’m overthinking this all, I’m just going to go get some rest.” I didn’t wait for a response. I turned and hurried into my room, closing and locking the door behind me.
Deep breaths, I thought to myself, deep breaths. I took a few moments to compose myself, before sitting down on my chair. I unclenched my hand, letting the old post-it note that I had swiped off Dan’s desk fall onto mine. The note said, “Pickup prescription for Erin.” The E was written with a curved backline. I placed it next to the alleged suicide note. The handwriting from Dan’s post-it note was a dead match. Dan wrote this suicide note, not my dad.
Hours passed while I sat at my desk, staring at the notes, grasping the new reality of the situation. A dozen thoughts crossed through my mind as to what might have happened, what role Dan had played in my father’s death.
Molly had knocked on my door and tried to coax me out for dinner. I declined, saying that I needed some rest. My therapist called too, undoubtedly he had received a call from Dan. I ignored his call, thinking Dan was trying to make me think I’m crazy. What are you hiding, Dan? I asked myself.
It was 11:00 pm, and I was sure Dan and Molly had gone off to bed. I pulled out that old business card that I had kept for the last two years. On the top, in blue handwriting, the card read, “Tamatha Tilly, detective.”
I pulled out my cell phone, and dialed the number, hoping that she would pick up. Listening to the tone, I couldn’t help but think about that day two years ago, trying to call my dad not knowing he was already dead, laying on his bed with his brains splattered across the wall.
“This is Detective Tilly,”
The voice startled me, I had been so lost in that horrific memory that I forgot about the present.
“Hello, is anybody there?” Detective Tilly asked from the other end of the line.
“Yeah, sorry, ummmm, my name is Erin Mills. Two years ago, you worked my dad’s case, Derrin Mills?
“I remember you, yeah,” she said, in a kind voice with a hint of sadness, “some cases are hard to forget. How are you?” She asked.
“Well I’m a little freaked out,” I said, feeling comforted by the openness of Detective Tilly’s warmth. “The thing is…” I started to pace the floor, not really sure how to say it.
“Go ahead, Erin, what can I do for you?” Detective Tilly encouraged.
“I know it’s been two years, and I know this probably sounds crazy, but I’ve just read my father’s suicide note, and it’s not his handwriting, he didn’t write it.”
There was a pause of silence from the other end of the line, “Are you sure?” Detective Tilly asked.
“Yes, and I’ve compared it to my Uncle’s handwriting, and it looks exactly like his. I know how this sounds, but…”
“I believe you,” detective Tilly said before I could finish, “Look, if you’re right about this, we need to get ahead of the situation now. Where are you? I can come pick you up, bring the note and your Uncle’s handwriting sample, and we’ll look at this together.”
It felt so good to hear her say that she believed me. It had been so long since somebody truly believed in me instead of treating me like some sort of headcase. “Okay, I live at 255 Herring Street,” I told her, already grabbing some clothes from my closet with my free hand, “but I’ll probably have to sneak out, this is my Uncle Dan’s house and when I said something to him about the note, he got really weird…”
“Oh Shit. Erin, you need to get out of there. I’m already on my way, keep me on the line, get out of that house, walk down the street, then start talking to me and I’ll pick you up.
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll talk to you in a few,” before slipping the phone into my pocket, with Detective Tilly still on the line. I quietly slipped my vans on and grabbed a backpack with my computer, phone charger, and a set of spare clothes along with a folder containing the suicide note, writing samples from my dad, and the post-it note from Dan, before quietly opening the door and stepping out.
I jumped a mile at the sound of Dan’s voice and almost fell over while my heart punched my chest from the inside.
“Dan, hey,” I said, trying and failing to hide the obvious fact that I was caught red-handed by the man that may have murdered my dad. “I-I was just going for a walk.”
“With your backpack?” Dan said immediately, taking a step forward.
I took a step backward at the same time, “Yeah, just in case I get hot and need to take my jacket off.”
Dan took another step forward, and I took another step backward to keep out of arm’s reach. “Look, we just want to keep you safe. You’ve made so much progress, we don’t need another regression. Why don’t you hand over the note, so we can get past this.” His suggestion sounded more like a demand, and it occurred to me that he had probably been listening to my conversation with Tilly.
He took another step forward, and I took another step backward.
“No,” I said, “It’s mine and it belongs to me.”
“You know, you should remember who took you in, and put up with all your psychotic breaks before you go making crazy accusations about the people who care for you.”
His usually cheerful voice now sounded dangerous and sharp, and he took another step forward. I realized that I was all but cornered, he stood between me and the door.
“Give it to me now,” he demanded, no longer able to maintain the Mr. Nice Guy facade.
He lunged at me. I turned to run, but his hand caught my backpack, ripping me backward. I landed hard on the floor, smacking my head on my chair on the way down.
“GET OFF ME!” I shouted, and started kicking my feet at him, he ripped the backpack away, but I held onto it with both hands on the straps. He pulled again, even harder, and the seam in the strap started to rip. I remembered what my dad had taught me, if I were ever to be attacked by an evil man, to kick him in the groin.
I summoned all of my strength and kicked as hard as I possibly could, placing my lower shin right between Dan’s legs. He let go of the backpack and fell to his knees while I fell backward toward the window.
“YOU STUPID BITCH!” Dan yelled as he started to stand up. I was already pushing the screen out of the window, and just as he rose back to his feet I jumped out of the window, landing in the bushes four feet below. I scrambled to my feet while wiping the blood away from the cut on my forehead created by my collision with the chair. I heard a thud behind me and turned to see that Dan had already made it through the window. All I could do now was run.
I made it about 10 feet away before something hard hit my head. My vision flashed, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground with Dan standing over me, a large rock in his hand.
“DROP THE ROCK OR I’LL SHOOT!”
I looked up to see Detective Tilly standing 20 feet away, her pistol drawn and pointed right at Uncle Dan.
“Look, this is just a big misunderstanding,” Dan said desperately while dropping the rock.
“PUT YOUR HANDS ON YOUR HEAD AND GET ON YOUR KNEES,” Tilly demanded as she walked forward, pistol still drawn. Dan dropped to his knees while I began to crawl away. “NOW LAY DOWN ON YOUR STOMACH,” Tilly demanded, as she carefully navigated behind him.
“She’s having a psychological break, she needs help!” Dan pleaded, but Tilly ignored him. Instead, she grabbed his head and slammed him into the ground, face first, and proceeded to put him in handcuffs while multiple other police cars arrived.
A lot happened in the next few weeks. I spent a couple of days in the hospital, being treated for a serious concussion. Detective Tilly stopped in multiple times to check in on me and keep me updated. The following day, she had the case reopened, to be investigated as a homicide with the suicide note being a key piece of evidence.
Dan was arrested that night for assault, Detective Tilly had heard the entire thing over the phone and witnessed him hit me in the head with the rock. When questioned about the homicide, however, he refused to talk and lawyered up. Instead, they turned to interrogate Aunt Molly. It took her less than an hour to crack and confess to everything.
As it turns out, it wasn’t just my mom who was into drugs. They all were. Aunt Molly, Uncle Dan, even my dad. One night when I was just an infant, things got out of hand while they were using and my mother overdosed. They didn’t want to go to the police, because they would all go to jail, and guardianship of me would have been given to the state. Instead, my dad and Dan disposed of her body and played it off as if she had walked out on us.
They all got clean after that, and my dad made it his goal to be the best dad he could be. The night my dad died, my dad admitted to Dan that he couldn’t hold on to the secret anymore. Now that I was an adult, he planned to confess to the authorities what had happened 18 years ago. This didn’t sit well with Dan, so Dan killed him and made it look like a suicide to keep Molly and himself out of prison.
It was a lot to grasp, but ultimately I feel much better finally understanding the truth. I’ve forgiven my dad, and can finally move on with my life and continue to college. I know that, even though he’s gone, Dad will always be with me. After all, we’re a team, and together, there’s nothing that we can’t handle.
Credit : R. M. Staniforth
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