One year ago today, I was backing my car into the driveway when my phone rang. I pressed the steering-wheel button to answer it. It was my son Garrett.
“Dad, I don’t know how to tell you this, but we just found Rana dead in her house. She shot herself in the head.”
I kept it together until I made it into the house. Then I felt as if someone had struck my temples with a heavy object. I felt dizzy; my legs were weak. I found Margaret in the kitchen and told her. It took several seconds for the news to sink in, and then she wrapped her arms around me and held me for a long time.
I don’t know why Rana killed herself. I don’t know what had been going on in her life. She had periods of depression in her teens and twenties. I know of a couple other times when she checked herself into the hospital’s stress center. I know of one other suicide attempt, where thankfully her mom found her just in time and she survived. When she came out as transgender and began to transition, I saw my child turning a corner, becoming who she was, and moving into a happier life. At least, that’s what I thought I saw.
Through Rana’s mom and ex-wife, I’ve learned that alcohol had become a serious problem and was the reason for the divorce. Threats of suicide had become common in the last few years. Yet whenever I saw Rana, she always seemed together and happy. Now I’m left to think that my child created a facade and hid behind it so I wouldn’t know how much she struggled and hurt. I ache that she didn’t feel able or willing to trust me with the truth.
Rana’s mom has offered to tell me the whole story. I haven’t accepted that offer so far. I am not sure how knowing more will help me grieve. I think it will only make me hurt more for no purpose. Rana is gone, irrevocably. That’s pain enough.
Margaret and I had planned a long January a weekend in Chicago. It’s nuts, but we love Chicago in the winter! But days before that weekend Margaret got COVID. Then Rana’s funeral was set for that Saturday.
I really, really did not want to go the funeral alone. My first wife had treated me so terribly that I put her forever in the Not Safe category. I had been in the same room with her only one other time since our divorce. I thought of all of the people who would likely come — her sisters, her husband and his family, Rana’s biological father and his family. What had she told them about me? Did they harbor any ill will? I just wanted to grieve.
So did everybody else, of course. Those I encountered were warm to me. My ex spent a lot of time with me. I think we both wanted comfort from each other, despite everything. She and I had shared Rana for most of her childhood. Her biological father came around from time to time, but I did the day-to-day fathering. My first wife and I are forever connected by raising her child together.
I stayed at the funeral until the very end, and then I drove straight to Chicago. Margaret had urged me to take this trip without her to be “out of my box,” as she said, and to have some time alone to process. “The room is nonrefundable anyway,” she finally said. “No sense wasting it.”
Someone had just given me a Minolta Maxxum 5 with a zoom lens, so I brought several rolls of film and spent most of my weekend walking around the Loop and the adjacent River North neighborhood making photographs. It was wicked cold. I hate the cold. But well bundled up, my camera tucked into my coat except when I made a photograph, I walked late into the night on those streets, trying to walk it off.
The cold finally got to me, so I stepped into a favorite pub that has a selection of excellent scotches. I ate, sipped a favorite scotch, and caught up on my messages. A well-known blogger for whom I edit photos had emailed, seeking work on short notice. I replied that I was in Chicago all weekend, but could do it when I got back. She was online, and she shortly replied asking what brought me to Chicago. I told her about Rana. She immediately wrote back expressing shock and sadness. We emailed back and forth about it over the next couple of hours while I sat at the bar. I didn’t know I needed that, but I needed that. Even though it was good to be alone, I felt my aloneness acutely. She helped me feel less alone, and it was just the right thing at the right time.
I’ve written occasionally this year about my grief, which has been heavy. I’ve also reflected a lot on what it must have been like for my ex-wife to walk in on that scene of her child, and to carry that horrible memory through her staggering grief. I don’t minimize my own suffering since Rana’s death, but my first wife has suffered far more greatly.
Rana was clearly suffering or she would not have taken her own life. In so doing, she’s poured out suffering onto so many others.
Rana would not like it one bit that I told all of this. She was intensely private. I’ve held these details back in my earlier writings about her death to honor her. But I’ve decided that this is my story to tell, too. All of this affects me. I have to work all of this out for myself, make as much sense of it as I can, and integrate it into my life so that I can be at peace.