Article - Autumn 2022

Averted Vision

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Seeing the world anew in the aftermath of family tragedy, through the lenses of physics and theology

By Daniel O’Neill | September 1, 2022
Illustration by Hokyoung Kim
Illustration by Hokyoung Kim

“There is no theory that is not a fragment of some autobiography.”
—Paul Valéry


I was in my 30s and engaged to be married when my father drove to the junction of two backwoods roads, pressed the muzzle of a shotgun against his throat, and pulled the trigger. A classic workaholic, the dynamo at the heart of our family myth, my father was nonetheless a softer, sweeter presence in the household than my mother. While she could flip in an instant from gaiety to red-faced fury, he held to a calmer, steadier course, though often one he seemed to sail alone. We had been business partners until a few years before his suicide, building and leasing shops and office space in and around Charlottesville, Virginia, where we lived. When an unexpected offer materialized, we elected to sell the projects, taking back a share of the rents, which gave me a modest income. I left the business and started to work on a novel.

My father found other opportunities and ended up borrowing heavily to invest in them on his own. These went poorly, the loans were called, and at the age of 67 he found himself facing bankruptcy. One day I found him slumped in a chair in his study, head dropped, shoulders heaving with sobs, his big, cupped hands hanging useless at his sides.

A psychiatrist put him on Prozac, and within a couple of weeks, we began to see results. His spine straightened, his eyes cleared, and he began to speak in nearly his normal voice, leaving behind the old man’s quaver that had so alarmed me that first time I had ever seen him cry. Then one morning he drove to the fork in the road, took from the trunk of his car the single-barrel 16 gauge he had bought in a neighboring town (my mother had hidden the guns at home), and closed the file on his recovery.

The death of someone you love leaves a hole in you, but with suicide there is something more—a squirming bewilderment at the heart of the wound that keeps the wound from healing. My fiancée and I had been planning a new family, but the shock of that day blew me back into my old one. In the months after the funeral, we clung together—my mother, my sister, and I—a little clutch of three, pledged to the desperate search for some meaning in the thing. We read books on suicide, books on death and dying, and book after book on grieving. We had ceaseless talks—fevered rummagings through things my father had said or done in the weeks leading up to the act, things said to us by the therapist we saw together, things we had said to each other, or to ourselves. We wept and raged and even laughed together, but of course we found no meaning. And in time I came to see that it wasn’t meaning we were searching for. We were searching for him.

Slowly, for my sister and me, the deep troughs of desolation began to space themselves further and further apart, and by two years out, we could feel ourselves returning to something like normal life. It was clear that our mother had not made it all the way back. She still needed the long talks on the phone, the rehashing, the groping for sense. She called anytime she had something new to tell. Something from his childhood that had been told to her by his brother in Michigan, with whom she had spoken the day before. An article she had read linking depression to eye color. I admit that I started to dread the sight of her number on the caller ID. But we knew she was still fragile, so when she called, we picked up.

One night my sister phoned to tell me she had not been able to reach our mother all day. This was unusual. The two of them typically talked several times a day. By then, I was working as a real estate agent (having abandoned the novel), and I had an appointment the next day to show a farm not far from the mountaintop house where our mother still lived alone. I said I would check in on her after my showing. It was past three o’clock that hazy September afternoon as I drove the winding country roads toward her house. I was worried, but my sister and I had been worried before, and things had turned out all right.

As I pulled into her driveway, I scanned the rock ledges at the far end of her yard that looked out over the Shenandoah Valley. She was a lifelong bird watcher, and I thought I might see her there with her binoculars, checking the sky for migrating hawks. But no one was on the rocks, and I didn’t see my mother’s car parked outside. Some months before, after changing the locks on the house, she had given me not a new key but her spare garage door opener—saying she would always leave the door from the garage to the kitchen unlocked. I parked at the far end of the yard and, taking the transmitter from my glove compartment, stepped out and pointed it at the closed garage door.

In the instant before I registered what I was seeing, there was a little space of silence, as my mind tried to make sense of the scene before me. There, inside the garage, was my mother’s Subaru station wagon, with the engine still running. I stared through the tinted rear window and made out a slumped shape in the front seat. In that moment, my whole existence seemed to flutter helplessly, like a sail in stays as it undergoes an irrevocable change of course. Then my legs gave way, and I found myself on my hands and knees in the gravel, sobbing.

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