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April 16, 2011

Today, I’m taking a break from other types of posting, to talk about George Tateosian.

George was my brothers’ dad and my step-father. 

Exactly 29 years ago, this date fell on a Friday.  George and my mother were in the process of getting a divorce.  George had taken an apartment about 5 miles from the house where my mom, my brothers and I lived.  I was 11 years old, my brother, John, was 7, and our youngest brother, “Butch,” was 4.  I was supposed to spend the night with a couple of friends from junior high, and my brothers were supposed to spend the weekend with George.  Early in the day, George called my mother and said that he couldn’t take the boys for the weekend.  My mother knew something was wrong, because he would never refuse to have us over.

29 years ago today, George committed suicide. 

My mother had feared that this day would come.  George had tried to kill himself a couple of times before, including once when he still lived in the house with us.  Not until well after George died did my mother explain that a bleached spot in the carpet in the master bathroom was an attempt to get blood out of the rug.  Because she knew that George might try something, my mom tried to get other people that knew George, friends and co-workers, to go check on him.  No one would go.  Eventually, my mother got worried enough that she decided to go check on George herself.

Under pretext of going to pick up McDonald’s for us for dinner, Mom took off for George’s apartment.  I had my overnight case & sleeping bag ready to go to my friend’s house as soon as we ate.  Time passed, and my mom didn’t come home.  Pretty soon, my mother’s business partner, Susan, showed up.  She looked tense, and didn’t say much.  She just said that my mom had gotten held up, and that mom would explain everything when she got home.  She fixed us something to eat, saying that there was a bit of a problem with McDonald’s.  Minutes turned into hours.  By 7:00, I had recognized that my mom wasn’t going to be able to drop me off and I had to call my friends, to tell them that I wouldn’t be able to come over. 

The phone rang, and I picked it up.  I could hear my mother yelling George’s address at someone, and I could hear sirens.  She returned her attention to the phone, and told me she wanted to talk to Susan.  Still, Susan wouldn’t tell me what was going on.  I started to panic.  In my eleven year old brain, I figured that George had tried to hurt my mother.  I knew that George wasn’t stable.  I had spent several hours during my weekends with him, begging him to get help.  I worked in the school counseling office as a student assistant, so I was well acquainted with folks that offered help in times of trouble.  Susan tried to reassure me, telling me that my mom was fine.  Pretty soon, a police car pulled up to our house.  The police officer got out and started asking me my name, who my mom was, etc.  Susan intervened, sending me back into the house.  She talked to the police officer for a while longer, and then he left. 

Susan put my brothers to bed, but let me stay up. 

Finally, at about 10:00, another police car pulled up, and my mother got out of the back of the car.  She looked terrible.  She’d obviously been crying, and just seemed…broken.  She clutched someone’s jacket or sweater around her, and as was typical, wasn’t wearing shoes.  She came right up the front steps, took me by the shoulders and walked me upstairs to her bedroom.  She sat me down on the bed, and told me that there had been an accident.  She said that George had died. 

At that moment, everything slowed down.

I remember hearing a wailing sound, and realize now that it was me.  My mother rocked me back and forth, kissing the top of my head.  I cried so much that I remember getting a terrible headache.  We eventually made our way back downstairs.  Suddenly, I bolted for the front door and took off.  I headed down the driveway with no shoes and no coat on.  I had gotten about four houses down the street before Susan caught up with me.  She put her arm tightly around my shoulder and steered me around the block, recognizing that I wasn’t going to just turn around and go home right away.  As we marched along, Susan holding me firmly, I started to cry again.  I also started to talk.  I know that I was angry, and I kept repeating, “Why?” 

I didn’t sleep much that night.  I know that my mother didn’t sleep at all.  Much later, she explained that she had gone to George’s apartment, and had been the one to find him.  When she’d called the house, she’d been at the fire station down the street from George’s apartment.  She would not answer many questions, except to say that he had shot himself in the chest.  I have always doubted this, as I remember a comment that George had made one time, while we were watching a movie together.

We had been watching the movie, “Gallipoli.”  There’s a point in the movie, when the Aussies are getting ready for the last fatal charge.  One of the officers places a whistle in him mouth.  I think that George thought it was a gun barrel, based on the way that it was shaped.  George said, “That’s the way to do it, if you’re going to kill yourself.  A bullet to the head.  That way, you know you’ll be dead.”  I think of that statement often, when I remember the day that he died.

The next morning, my mother had to tell my little brothers that their daddy was dead.  To this day, I am haunted by my brothers’ faces.  They were so little, and to a certain extent, didn’t really understand.  If there was any way to go back in time, I would try to shield them in that moment…

Over the next couple of days, family descended, and we got ready for the funeral.  On Monday morning, I rode the bus to school, and ran straight to the counseling office.  The receptionist, a sweet, motherly woman named Petey, took one look at my face and rose out of her chair.  “What’s wrong?”  “My dad died on Friday.”  She wrapped me up in a fierce hug, and then marched me into the first counselors office.  She hurried back to her desk and started dialing the counselors.  They typically got in a little bit later than the first busses.  This was before cell phones, and she didn’t catch anyone at home.  The first counselor in was not Mrs. Fitzpatrick…the lady that I’d been talking to due to my parents’ divorce.  Mr. Harris came in and gently began questioning me.  By this time, I think that shock had set in.  I don’t think there was any crying, and I was on auto-pilot.  I was in there for maybe an hour or so, and then I went to classes.  I told each teacher that my dad had died from “heart trouble.”  I couldn’t quite choke out the word, suicide.

I was out the rest of the week.  My aunt Denny came up, and brought my cousin, Rachael.  We’re a year apart, and she was a saving grace to me.  Nobody can make me laugh like Rachael can, though I’m pretty sure that my laughter that week was tinged with hysteria. 

At one point, my aunts had to go to George’s apartment, to get a suit for him to wear in the coffin.  I insisted that I be allowed to go.  The apartment was silent, and my aunts went busily to the master bedroom to get the clothes.  I slowly moved into the kitchen.  The gun case was sitting on the kitchen table.  George had never owned a gun, so I wasn’t sure where he’d gotten the one that he used.  In the kitchen, the birthday cake that I had baked for George’s birthday the week before sat untouched.  That hurt.  I am by no means Betty Crocker, but I had tried hard to make his birthday nice.  In his bedroom, the bed was stripped of its sheets.  The afternoon sun cut through the blinds, and dust motes floated in the air.  My aunts wouldn’t leave me alone in there, and watched me carefully as I opened his dresser.  I found a box in the top drawer, where he kept his tie tacks.  I took the one that was shaped like a dove.  That was it.  That was all that I have from George.

The day of the funeral was sunny and bright.  My brothers and I were dressed up, but not in anything black.  I can’t tell you much about that day, because I had a migraine.  I couldn’t see things, thanks to the aura blocking out parts of my vision.  One thing I do remember…after the service, which was full, I walked up to the coffin.  It was a light blue, metallic casket, and it was closed.  I put my hand on it, and was shocked at how cold it was.  I’m not sure why I was surprised; but, I had never really thought about coffins, and had never been to a funeral.   People came back to my mother’s house, and I’m sure that there was food.  My aunt drove Rachael and I to a movie theater and bought tickets for us to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”  To this day, that’s still one of my favorite movies, as I associate it with being a sort of lifeline.  I could lose myself in the story and not think about what our life was going to be like from that point on.

My mother remarried later that summer.  The pictures of her wedding to Ted are painful to look at.  A couple of years ago, my mom and I were looking at them.  We all looked like we were in shock.  We have these painfully hopeful smiles on our faces.  Truth be told, I have no idea how their marriage survived.  They had to deal with George’s suicide, Ted’s psychotic ex-wife, and combining families with four kids.  Eventually, Ted became the father figure that I longed for.  He is the one that kicked my ass (figuratively) when I was screwing around & blowing off my first year of college.  He is the one that walked me down the aisle when I got married, and he’s the one that my kids adore and call “Grandpa.” 

George missed out on all of that. I have two really amazing brothers, and one of them looks exactly like George.  In fact, I haven’t seen John in a while.  My mother recently sent me a picture of John & Butch together, and it was startling, how much he resembles George.  They have never seen Ted as a father, and have always suffered the loss of their dad.  For many years, on the anniversary of George’s death, my mother would find something for the four of us to do together.  We’d either go to the zoo, or find some way to spend a quiet day distracted from dwelling on such a sad event.  I went through all of the typical emotions you would expect…sadness, anger, guilt and back to sadness.  When I was pregnant with my son, Ben, I had to choose the induction date for his delivery.  I was due right around the middle of April.  I chose the 17th, so that he wouldn’t have to share such a sad event with his own day.

Tonight, I am stretched out on our bed with my son, remembering George.  I will finish this post, and then spend the rest of the evening wrapping presents for Ben’s birthday.   I am grateful that tomorrow will be spent celebrating something so wonderful in my life; but, somewhere deep in a back corner of my heart, I will grieve for George.

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