Ten years ago today my father-in-law left us in a shocking and devastating way. He was a wonderful man- smart, charming, warm, funny, kind, sincere. He was quick to smile, lend a hand, or lighten a mood with a witty retort. He was handsome. He was strong. He could fix anything. ANYTHING. He was French and though he missed living near his close-knit family in France, he fit in well in the community he decided to call home here in the US. He was well known in Wildwood, where he and my mother-in-law settled and raised my husband and his brother. He stood out in the crowd- either despite or because of his unique “Frenchness”. He had a thick French accent but that only served to endear him to the many, many people who loved him. He taught my husband and brother-in-law to be proud of being French, but also to be proud Americans. Though it may have been a struggle for him, he was successful at raising a bi-cultural family that embraced two countries as their own.
I was charmed and delighted by him from the moment I met him (at close to midnight in his kitchen after a long, long drive from Boston that had been plauged with too many detours and delays). I was tired and nervous that first night, but both he and my mother-in-law made me feel at ease. Before I knew what was happening, I found myself seated at their table, with a nice meal laid before me and a smile on my face. Mostly what I remember from that first meeting was laughing a lot. Mostly what I remember from every time I spent time with him was how much I laughed.
A few months before he died, we all went to France to celebrate Christmas with family there. Sitting around his brother’s big dining table in the warm, inviting farmhouse where he had been born, I was asked “so what do you think of your father-in-law?” Though my poor French limited the answers I could have given I wouldn’t have said anything different even if I’d been fluent. I answered simply “he is the best”. And he was.
He was so many wonderful things. I hate that my kids never had the chance to know him in person. Though we try very hard to keep him alive for them by recounting stories and anecdotes about him it is not the same. They don’t hear his voice, they don’t feel his hugs. They don’t see the pride in his eyes that I know would be there. When my niece was born I don’t think there was a prouder Papy in all the world.
I hate that he is not here to share in all that has happened to us since he left. We have made France our second home, we have strengthened the strong bond with his family that he laid the groundwork for. His sister and brothers, nieces and nephews are a very, very important part of our lives. We are committed to making sure our kids don’t lose their sense of being French. It is a big part of who we are as a family. But we have also made a beautiful life here that I think he would have enjoyed being a part of immensely. He would have been the grandfather at the park with the kids, the one cheering them on from the sidelines at their various soccer games, gymnastics meets or school events. He would be at our house fixing a leaky pipe or rewiring something or other to make it work better. He would have been a part of us.
Most of all, I hate that my husband has lost his dad. My father-in-law shared a special bond with his kids that went beyond the normal father-son relationship. I was always amazed at how close he and my husband were. There was a deep friendship, and a mutual appreciation there that I think is rare. I love my own dad more than anything, but I don’t know if we share the kind of connection that they had. I don’t know that many people do.
God, I just hate that he is not here.
Despite all the good and happy things about him, despite his warm, funny, charming, friendly and fun exterior, he was suffering. He was wrestling with demons that we didn’t know existed- or well, we didn’t know how deep and dark those demons were at any rate. We knew he had been depressed from time to time but we didn’t know how dangerous that was. We didn’t know that it was bigger than everything else. Because despite having a loving family, a strong community of friends and a full life, he decided to commit suicide one cold rainy March day. It was a sudden, shocking and acutely painful loss for all of us. We were completely blindsided. Even now, ten years later writing these words makes my hands shake. It is still unfathomable to me. This wonderful man. And I still find myself saying if only…
If only I’d called him that morning, if only we knew, if only he said something, if only it had been sunny, if only, if only, if only. It doesn’t change anything.
What has changed is our awareness of depression, mental health and the possibility of suicide. It affects every type of person, from every walk of life. It is a disease as brutal and debilitating as cancer or any other serious illness. It is not well discussed and not enough is being done to help those who suffer from it. It needs to stop being something people don’t talk about and start being something people really care about. We lose too many people because they don’t know where or how to get help. They don’t know that there IS help. And there IS.
My husband has found comfort and a mission in working closely with the Samaritans (http://samaritanshope.org/), a non profit organization dedicated to providing free services in greater Boston and Metrowest communities that alleviate despair, isolation, distress and suicidal feelings among individuals in the community; by educating the public about suicide prevention; and by working to reduce the stigma associated with suicide. Organizations like this are an integral part of making strides toward understanding of and compassion for people who suffer from depression and other mental illnesses.
This is all we can do after losing Alain: We live. We love. We remember. And we are aware. I think you should be too.