Though I love being from Kansas and strongly identify as a Kansan, it has been a while since I've been back. Over the past week, I've been reconnecting with my former hometown, Lawrence, and my dear, old friends and surrogate families who are still in the region. It has been glorious - lovely reunions, home-cooked meals, late-night talks of love, life and what it is like to embrace the edges of both.
However, I wasn't planning on being here yet. As I was mapping out my route, I was hoping to head North through the Dakotas and into Montana and come-back through Kansas after I had done more of the project; after I had talked to more men and felt 'more prepared' to go to Wichita.
Throughout my life, I have experienced a wide range of personal ups and downs in Wichita. My parents' life and love started here; therefore, I did. It is where I played with my cousins and got to know my family. It is where my father killed himself. It is where I fell head over heels over a woman who both expanded and broke my heart. Let's just say, it is a loaded zip code for me and one that has been delicate for me to revisit. I always want it to be 'the right time' and never feel it is.
Well, sometimes you choose timing, and sometimes it chooses you. With the mechanical headaches of late, it became apparent I couldn't go North as I had hoped. It became increasingly clear that now was the time to return to my homeland. For better or worse, winter was making its presence known in the mountains and so it was time to head South and to explore how I would answer some of the questions I ask of the men who participate in this project.
As I type, I'm in an old haunt that I used to visit here with my uncle and godfather. Aptly named 'The Vagabond,' it seems appropriate that I take my first stab at sharing what the past 48 hours have yielded for me. I hope to edit this down and make it more cogent when my heart and mind are less jumbled, but ultimately I just need to capture some of the rawness of what I feel before it escapes me.
Brace yourself, dear reader: Some of what I'll get into in the following lines may be troubling for you.
You see, my mom always told me how my father died, and I'm grateful for that. From three years old, I spoke of how he took his life when people asked. Ever since then, I've been trying to understand why, what happened and what the details - the facts - were. I've also been trying to learn about who he was as a person, how he grew up and who he was trying to become.
Often when my mom and I would visit Wichita, some three hours away from where I grew up, we would stop at three key spots: Her parents' house, my uncle's house and my father's grave. As I got older, we went less and less to the grave. Not intentionally or to hide who was interned there or memories, but because, for me, it didn't seem necessary. Most pointedly for me, I really dislike being there - his ashes reside in a poorly-lit, stale mausoleum across from Wichita State University's football stadium. Not the most inviting place for me to pause, reflect and do whatever else I'm supposed to do there.
It wasn't until I was in high school that I recall my mom and I talking about where he died. Over the years she would give me more details of my father, his greatness and his shortcomings. She would share age-appropriate information. Eventually, we talked of exactly where he died and she drove me to my father's family's house and pointed-out the room he killed himself in.
From then on, this became an essential stop for me on my Wichita trip. I would often go alone and not tell anyone. I would park across the street and stare, knowing his father was inside and maybe some relatives. My kin, if you will. (I won't go into that tumultuous relationship here.)
When I was 25 or so, I met his father, my biological grandfather, and my aunt. It was a fall day and my uncle drove me to their house and dropped me off. That visit was our only meeting and it wasn't pretty. We fumbled through attempts at pleasantries and they didn't land well. I opted to just go to the room where he died and tried to 'connect' with him there. I was so flustered by the conversation I had with his father in the living room moments before that I couldn't shake my anger. What I hoped to be a moment of deep resonance, of profound love and clarity of some kind, was a big fat dud. I left with a sour taste in my mouth and felt more disconnected and confused than ever.
Ten or so years later, my grandfather has since passed and there is a new family in their house. It is located in a historic area of Wichita - full of expansive homes with a noteworthy breadth of architecture. I thought of the house and realized it must of changed ownership as I rode through Kansas. Somewhere in the gorgeous Flint Hills of Kansas, I made a commitment to myself to do all I could to get into the house - try to return to the room where my father took his last breath.
So, yesterday I went by the house and saw a woman in the backyard raking up leaves. While I turned-off my bike, I turned-on my charm and approached the fence with an ear-to-ear grin. I harnessed all of my Kansan, good 'ol boy-self and the manners my mom instilled to connect with the current tenant. We made small talk and I told her that I had played as a kid at the house and would appreciate the chance to look around. Miraculously, she loved the idea and invited me in.
She gave me the overview of her remodeling efforts and how the weeds and poison ivy attacked her skin as she worked to expand her garden. The conversation turned to the history of the house and over the next 20 minutes I played Bob Villa, asking thoughtful, open-ended questions as best I could. She generously answered and would happily elaborate.
As she gave me a tour, I bifurcated my experience. My analytical self was placating the conversation as needed. Populating appropriate questions with dashes of charm to keep her going. Meanwhile, my heart was getting heavier swiftly sinking. The lump was raising in my throat. I walked slowly, forcing us to move gently, methodically through the house. I took a few photos and commented on what seemed like nice, new enhancements.
Throughout, I had one room in mind: The furthest Northeast bedroom.
As we climbed the stairs, we turned down the hall and though cluttered, something sunk in me. I began to realize how this was the hall that my father went up and down, searching for a gun in the house the night before he took his life. I shuffled my feet through this hallway, thinking of my father's state of mind. What he must of been thinking as he checked from room to room to find the gun he knew his sister had recently got. A treasure hunt that would yield his death.
Once we got to the end of the hall, I knew I was in the room. Though the carpet was gone and the furniture was different, I knew this was it. My body started feeling heavier and heavier. My eyes itched. My heart raced. My palms got sweaty. I could feel the cold sweat on my spine. This is shit that I don't feel, even when speaking in front of thousands of people. This was new for me. This was scary for me.
My guide talked of tearing down walls and expanding this and that. I nodded and smiled. "Just keep her going," I thought to myself.
She did and I went further inward. I took a deep breath and imagined my father there through the night. When did he find the gun? Was it loaded? Did he load it? Did he hold it through the night? Hide it under his pillow? Did he sleep? Did he try pulling the trigger without bullets in it? Did he put it to his head? In his mouth? How long did he hold it there? How many times? Was he wishing we were there so he could take us with him as he had originally planned?
I knew what he ultimately did, but what the fuck was he thinking?! What was his process and how close did he come to faltering? Did he come close to throwing the gun out the window or the ammo down the drain?
"Well, we're thinking of painting this wall here," she said. I jolted back to reality. I was breathing heavily and felt like a blob - I thought of morphing into a gross, green, slimy blob like Chet from the movie, Weird Science.
My mind was all over the place and then I got lucid. It happened when I looked out the windows.
I asked her again about the garden. As she gave me a play-by-play of her hopes for tomatoes, I realized that these four walls, this ceiling, this floor were likely my father's last view. I wasn't sure which one it was and then I looked out of the East-facing window. I hoped that was his last view. On a September morning 33 years ago, he took his life and right there. I was standing in the room where he last stood.
Standing as his offspring, who is often told that I look like him, I reflected on how I have explored this earth longer and much more than he did. There I was, standing looking East and hoping 33 years ago he was watching the sunrise when he pulled the trigger. Hoping he had some brightness to help illuminate the darkest of dark places that anyone can go.
I took photos out of the windows and will cherish them forever. Regardless of where he ultimately pulled the trigger and died, I will carry-forward the hope he had the sunrise to go out to. I just wish he had more strength or capacity to watch and marvel in it, not go towards it.
Before I knew it, she was showing me the bathroom and I was outside meeting her husband and five dogs. Everything after that room was a blur, but a necessary experience. I feel so fortunate for the opportunity and I hope they never know about my father and his death. I hope they paint those four walls radiant of shades and grow copious amounts of tomatoes. I hope children are conceived in that room. That an opus is recorded there. That miracles happen there. I hope that there is nothing but light there, because my dad isn't there and my memory of him and what I will carry forward isn't either. I'm grateful for the clarity that our serendipitous tour enabled.
When were were outside, I asked her husband to snap a picture of me in front of the house. I wanted to it to be a hypothetical one of me and my father, as if I were returning there with him to have a pleasant stroll down memory lane with him and afterwards we were taking a happy, father-son photo.
He would be 65 now. Maybe a fantastic father. Maybe a miserable bastard. Maybe retired. Maybe my business partner. Maybe we would have just worked out some of these damn kinks in my motorcycle.
All I've lived with since he took his life is a never-ending series of questions and 'maybes.' Something about being there, in the room he died in, and having that experience further quiets all of the the 'maybes' and helps me embrace the realities.
While I'm on the topic of reality checks, I just went to the Sedgwick County Clerk's Office and retrieved my father's autopsy report. I've been in some surreal bureaucratic experiences, but waiting for your father's autopsy to clarify how many times he shot himself certainly tops my list.
After a 20-minute wait starring at the American flag, the clerk found it on an old microfiche slide. She printed me a copy. I payed $2.75 and learned that my father shot himself three times, not five, in the chest. The first shot was on his right side, away from the heart. His second shots went straight through the heart - 42 and 43 centimeters from his heel.
I've now have seven certified pages of facts on the ins and outs of how my father died. For a moment, I wished there were other offices I could visit to capture clarity to other questions I have. Then I didn't.
There are no more answers I'm going to get from anyone else. The only answers I'm going to get - and should focus on - is how I want to more fully embrace my own life.
I tucked the autopsy report in my jacket, started up my bike and gave thanks to my father for giving me life and said to him via the ether that I'm sorry he got to the place where he felt the only option was to take his own.
Then I headed West to get a better view of an exceptional Great Plains' sunset.