... A seasonal orchestra in Breckenridge, Colorado needed musicians. It was our very first professional symphony gig, with earnings that included free lodging in the resort town.
Stopping in Ohio to store our meager belongings with Dave's family, we talked excitedly about the opportunity to make music in the mountains. Job prospects beyond summer were as yet uncertain, yet my father took care to lavish paternal attention upon Dave. Calling him “son,” he listened to Dave talk through resume and interview strategies.
Dad’s emphysema prevented him from coming to hear us perform in the summer orchestra. The thin mountain air would have been disastrous for his weak lungs. Tearfully, he put Mom on a plane to Denver and arranged for a cab to drive her to Breckenridge, mourning that his days on earth were numbered. Into her suitcase, he packed a parcel for me: Fresh ears of corn from the garden at home. Also, a twenty dollar bill.
The orchestra was full of young professionals like us. We made fast friends with other couples. During a break in our schedule, Dave flew out to an interview at the Duluth campus of the University of Minnesota. En route to the airport after the interview, he was offered the job. I quickly inquired about work there, and was hired to teach lessons. Dad chortled over the phone, “You’re on your way, kids!” The rewards of sobriety were unfolding in the opportunities to be a musician and teach horn. Miraculous, given how awful things had been only a short time ago.
Duluth, a port town, connects to its twin port town of Superior, Wisconsin. Soon after settling with Dave in Duluth, I received a call from the department chair of the music department at the University of Wisconsin Superior. The horn professor had sustained a heart attack, and the department needed a substitute teacher for the entire fall term to cover his course load: Studio brass, Conducting, Brass Pedagogy, and Music History.
I left a voicemail for Dave let him know I was driving across the bridge to Superior for a job interview. Then I called my father and asked him for advice. “Dress up, carry a briefcase even if it’s empty. Lie if you have to, but tell them confidently that you can teach anything they ask! You can figure out how to teach that stuff on the job.” In no time, it seemed, I was driving back home across the bridge with my first college job. It was Friday afternoon, and my new job started on Monday morning.
The teacher who'd had the heart attack left no lesson plans. Most days, I was only one lesson plan ahead of my students. During my undergraduate studies, I had skipped nearly a month of classes in Music History when the topic of study was opera. At that time, I felt certain that opera was completely irrelevant to my future as a hornist. To my dismay, my new department chair showed me the next unit of study scheduled for the course in music history: Opera. Ruefully, I set about the task of learning a subject that I had so foolishly dismissed.
One day in my office, it suddenly dawned on me that I had been studying for nearly three hours without a break. How ashamed I had been in graduate school, when my reading attention span fizzled after only fifteen minutes. The realization of my mind’s restoration brought Dickensian tears of joy, like Scrooge exulting on Christmas Day, “it’s still here!” Moreover, I was amazed to discover that I actually liked opera. And then, the conductor of the Duluth-Superior Symphony hired me to substitute for the ailing horn professor, who was also the Principal Horn of the symphony.
This time, Dad got on a plane, determined not to miss another milestone in his daughter’s life. He and Mom, along with Dave’s mom, flew out from Columbus to Duluth in the spring. All three were pleased, proud parents. But I could tell that my father was struggling mightily to breathe. A lifelong smoker, his punishment was emphysema. He should have been hooked up to an oxygen tank. Nope. He did not want to appear feeble in front of his daughter, as she proudly introduced him to her new colleagues and friends. Proud of David as well, my dad patted him on the shoulder and asked him about details of his teaching duties in percussion and jazz band. Dad so admired my husband, ever aware of how tough it had been for Dave to lose his own dad when he was only twenty.
The first major test of my sobriety came over a year later. My father committed suicide, desperate to be free from his illness. Every breath had become both a miracle and a curse. I knew he wanted out, but I could not ease his suffering.
A week before the suicide, I had flown from Minnesota to Ohio to visit my father in hospital. He told anyone who listened that he wanted to check out. The rest of the family tried to calm him away from such thoughts, assuring him that his suffering wasn’t that bad, that his condition would improve.
I recognized in my father the warning signs of suicide. But I could neither prevent it nor convince the rest of the family of it. Living in Minnesota, I was an outsider who hadn’t tended to his illness like they had. Relegated, too, to the status the baby of the family, I bore no credibility of an adult perspective. I was scolded for being to immature to understand such matters.
This made it all the more difficult when Dad turned to me, after the others had gone, and asked for help. He directed me to go home and bring back various bottles of pills in the pockets of his suits in the bedroom closet. I went home and collected all the bottles, but I put them in a bag and stuffed it under the clean shirts in my mother’s ironing basket.
I will forever remember his expectant look of hope that fell when he saw that I had returned to his hospital room empty-handed.
“Didn't you bring me my pills?”
“No, Daddy, I didn’t.
“Daddy, I’m sorry, but I can’t help you do this.”
(Slumping in disappointment)
“I have to go to the airport now, but I’m coming back in a couple weeks with Dave”
“Well, so then, I guess I won’t see you anymore…”
“No, Daddy, we’ll be back at Christmas. You’ll be home by then I
At that, my father peered deeply into my eyes for a very, very long time. Finally, he turned away and began crying as I left the room. The next time I saw him was in the morgue.
Five days before Christmas, he shot himself in the chest to escape the slow suffocating death of emphysema. He was home as promised, with my mother busy preparing a family meal for the afternoon. Summoning his last bit of strength, he first called my sister Dorothy and told her to drive out immediately to help Mother with the cleaning and cooking. Then he shuffled to the other end of the house and, reaching up to the shelf above his suits, located the loaded pistol tucked under his folded shirts. His exit, so desperately violent, broke my heart.
Mariah and Dorothy had rebuked me, a week earlier, at my insistence that Dad was planning a suicide. They chastised me as being alarmist for sending him a goodbye letter when his condition had begun to deteriorate months beforehand. It was my “just in case” letter, written to let him know how much I loved him if I didn’t get the chance to be there when he died. I have the treasure of his loving letter in response, dated 3 October, 1989:
“My Dear Sarah,
Thank you for that beautiful letter. You are so articulate and so smart.
Mother and I have made an agreement that in the future either of us are hospitalized, even for an ingrown toenail we will call the family
together, so there will be no shock.
I am so proud that you are my daughter.”
I felt no satisfaction of being right about what happened. I felt vindicated, nevertheless, for risking the ire of my sisters so that I could connect with my father on my terms.
Lu and I clung to each other as we entered the morgue to view our dead father. My big brother, so often my ally in defense against the verbal tirades of our sisters, was now just as torn asunder as I was. At the funeral home, a dear woman with many years’ sobriety made a beeline for the two of us. She said something privately to Lu, then held me fiercely and commanded me to stay sober no matter what. I promised her, and myself, to face the tragedy fully sober.
A welcome distraction came in the form of a request from the funeral director, who inquired about Dad’s favorite music. Someone - perhaps Dave - assembled a playlist of his favorite tunes for music prior to the service. Hearing “Hello Dolly” in Louis Armstrong’s voice resounding throughout the church sanctuary made me smile. This was the song my father loved to sing to me.
On the first anniversary of the suicide, I visited my father’s grave and played his favorite Chopin piano etude on my horn. I have not returned to the cemetery. My mother and siblings arrived at their own interpretations of the suicide, none of which agreed with mine. We would never have a frank conversation together about it. Nor would we ever discuss the suicide of my dad's brother, or any family stories too tragic to mention unless they were contorted into funny anecdotes. My appetite for poking fun at that stuff evaporated when Daddy pulled the trigger.
I felt strong for mourning my father without relapsing into drinking or drugs. And although I could readily admit that reaching for liquor and dope to solve problems had been a disastrously bad idea, I remained reluctant to claim “problems” as the reason I drank. There was more to it than simple blame.
My friends in A.A., genuinely and authentically caring people, offered deep fellowship and a safe haven for me to grow up. My music colleagues valued my contributions to the symphony and other gigs, and I was valued as a teacher. Everything in my life had finally begun to steer toward a path of stability.
A horrible dread of unfinished business simmered within me. Unanswered questions whispered about the other blackouts I’d experienced before discovering pot and alcohol. There was a feeling of manic stirring beneath my consciousness, churning constantly. Its nagging, inward hum became increasingly discordant, at odds with everything I was striving to do as a healthy, sober adult. At the edges of the hum, I sensed a distant howling that started to wake me up in the middle of the night. Awake, I could push aside the howling, focusing on my newfound resilience as a gainfully employed and functional sober adult.
What, I wondered, was so wrong with me to be sounding like this? And why did I sense, at the edge of the sinister howl, my mother’s eyes glaring evilly at me?
I was terrified of waking up. To what, I had no idea