by | Jan 10, 2014 | Creative Nonfiction

My father was not insane.

At least that’s what I tell myself. I searched for the word in the Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary at the library. I flipped the heavy pages to “I” and ran my finger down the letters. The entry was short, as if to denounce that medicine would use such a word. Insanity is a legal, not medical, term denoting a condition in which a person lacks responsibility for a crime and therefore cannot be charged. I copied the definition on a tiny rectangle of paper and ducked my head as children scampered by under florescent lights, disappeared into the rows of short books with bright pictures, called to one another as their parents shushed them.

What would they think if they knew?

All the while, I wondered if I should go find someone who might be able to tell me the truth. It was a short drive to the Lititz police station. All I’d have to do was turn right and then left and left again, and I’d be there. All I’d need to do was step out of my car, walk across the street, pull open the glass door, and ask the officers in the brick building if a man who chose to take his life could be competent to stand trial for his act of letting go. And if he couldn’t be, was he mad? Or, maybe worse, was my father sane, responsible for what he did sixteen months ago?

“Sometimes I think of going to the police station and asking to see the report. There must be a report since a policeman found him,” I told my mother as I broke lettuce for salad once I got home from the library. The leaves dripped water, left my fingers smelling like sweet earth. “But I don’t know why. I don’t know what good it would do. I just can’t stop thinking of it.”

“What do you want to know?” she asked. She leaned her hip against the kitchen counter and held her hands away from her clothes. She’d been cooking, tearing chicken from bone. Beside her, a sun catcher hung from the window above our sink, swayed inexplicably. I could see the tulip polar in our backyard through it. It appeared wavy, washed in water color oranges.

“I remember the policeman telling us one of our neighbors saw something or heard something that day. I want to know who it was. I want to know why they didn’t do anything.” The lettuce drooped beneath my harsh hands as I shredded it. Some nights, when I’m driving home down a long stretch of Interstate 322 W, I am terrified that a thin man in a plaid shirt will jump out in front of me and I will be the one who does nothing to stop him.

“I thought he said the neighbors only heard their dog barking,” my mother said.

“I remember him saying the neighbors saw something. Didn’t he? Maybe I’m not remembering correctly.” I rinsed a tomato. “I don’t know. I just want to talk to the people who saw him last, I guess.”

“But we saw him last. That morning,” she reminded me.

That morning, he had sucked in deep breaths between sobs as he lay twisted between my parents’ bed sheets. My mother had told him she would be back from work early. I had said I loved him. All the while, the rising sun slipped diagonally through shuttered bedroom blinds. It seeped through in pink and gold. I cannot forget it.

“Yeah, but we didn’t see him again. Someone else found him.” The globe of the tomato slipped from my palm and rolled onto a plate. “I didn’t get to see him.”

“I can understand, I guess. I have thought of calling the funeral home,” my mother admitted.


“You know, he had this look on his face in the casket. It was the way he used to look right before he’d start laughing.”

I blinked hard and rolled my neck, imagined a hand shoving aside those memories of my father in a coffin, the images I still cannot stand beneath.

“Did they change his expression, or was that the way he looked when he died? Did I show them a picture, mention that look to someone at the funeral parlor? I can’t remember. Can they even change someone’s expression?” My mom still held her hands away from herself as if reaching or frozen.

“I doubt they can move the tiny muscles in the face,” I whispered. I thought of rigor mortis, of wax, of the skin of the tomato bursting beneath my knife and my father’s red beard which my mother could not stop touching even as he lay in the coffin.

“What good can come from talking to the policeman?” my mom asked.

“I don’t know. I really don’t.” I pushed tomato slices off my plate and into the salad bowl. “It’s like if I keep asking about him, I haven’t let him go. He’s still with us.” I bit my lip before covering my mouth with my hand.

My mom gave me the officer’s name the next morning: Officer Neiffert. I wrote it down carefully, closed it in the pages of my notebook just in case. I have taken it out to look at it. I have run my nail over the torn edge of the paper. I’ve pictured myself calling the police station to see if he is there, but I choke when I try to think of what I would say:

“Hi. My name is Aimee Walton. On October 25th, 2011, my father died. You found his body. Can I see the report?”

Perhaps he’d tell me to come in or say I have to fill out some form to get permission first. He might hand me the file eventually, but where would I sit to read it? Would he give me a box of tissues? Would he look at me as if I must be crazy? Would he have forgotten all about my father by now, or has the horror of it all stayed with him?  I might ask him if there are pictures and if he can take them out because I cannot bear to see my father dead again. But then why go at all? So I always put the paper away, put the phone back on its charging station, turn and walk away.

When I am least guarded, I don’t need pictures to imagine my dad that morning. Once my mom and I left for work, he pulled himself out of bed and got dressed. I picture his long fingers sorting through the bullets and shells in my brother’s old desk, the metal clinking together as he pulled one out. Maybe he carried the gun carefully down the stairs. Maybe it was the gun my brother got him for his birthday the year before.  The dogs next door must have barked when they saw him, a thin, blonde man in jeans and a t-shirt on a morning when the trees still spun themselves in gold beneath a large, blue sky. Whenever I hear them bark now, I shiver. I run to the windows and search for someone in trouble, for my father after he decided. Perhaps he cried on his way into the forest in our backyard. Maybe his hands shook.  But I cannot write the rest. I cannot except to say that during hunting season, the gun shots echoing through my house make me shudder, make me want to curl up on the floor in front of my bed, press my hands over my ears, go mad with grief.

I cannot speak of what my father did either. I begin to say, “He killed himself,” but my throat squeezes, and the words will not unfurl.

One night, my fiancé’s mother shook her head as we watched Law & Order: SVU. “This TV show is depressing,” she declared as she walked away.

I wanted to tell her she has no idea what depression is, but I pressed my lips together because she doesn’t know about my dad. I have kept the cause of his death from her and her husband, terrified that they will ask me, “How could he do such a thing? How could a man who was really a Christian do this?” I have no answers, so I have let them think my father’s heart failed.

Didn’t it?

And yet, I am fixated on language, on the words I cannot put into my voice. Words are everything to me. They are a concrete foundation I depend on. They are all I have.  I go over the parts that make up the word, crazy, which means mentally deranged, insane, intensely enthusiastic. It comes from the old Norse word, kraza, meaning to shatter.  A crazy person is full of cracks. Insane means utterly senseless or of unsound mind. It comes from the Latin words, in, meaning not, and sanus, meaning healthy. An insane person is literally not healthy. In the 1550s, though, the word came to describe a mad person. We have changed its meaning, twisted it just a little bit to use however we will.

I think of the meaning of insanity, of craziness, and my foundation shifts so that I slide right off it. I sift through library books and online sources, compare these words and their meanings to their histories. I believe them one moment, toss them aside the next because I do not want my father to have been insane. Law no longer dictates that people who attempt suicide be imprisoned. Still, one afternoon at the library, I paged through every dictionary, gulped each letter, hoped to find out if my father could have been competent to stand trial had he outlived himself. Finally, I closed the large books and rubbed my forehead with my fingertips before giving up and going home. The question is moot. Suicide is not a crime anymore. It is no longer considered murder as it was in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds when “self-killer” was the accepted term and “suicide” wasn’t even in the dictionary. Yet, how can suicide be a sane act? I have written these words on scraps of paper too, tucked them away inside a notebook as if I need to pull them out to think of them.

I do not tell most people that my father suffered from Major Depressive Disorder.

Even my grandmother says, “Jay was such a happy little boy” when she speaks of him, and it seems to me she cannot wrap her mind around what he did. She probably remembers his wheat hair and cornflower eyes and the freckles that dotted his pale cheeks and shoulders when he was a child. He was skinny and mischievous. I have seen pictures of him standing next to his sisters, eyes squinted against a sun hidden from view in black and white images. His grin never changed. He always looked like that little boy up to no good.

He became sad in 1978 when he came back from his service in the army. His mother, my grandmother, noticed the way his eyes changed, but he did not speak of it except to say, “Pray for me, Mom.” I don’t think she asked. By the time he met my mother, he was lively again, a joker, a man who winked at my mother when he met her in her hometown of Lima, Peru. After they married in 1984, though, his sadness returned and lasted throughout their first twelve months of marriage.

When I was ten, another depressive episode weighed him down. (I do not quite know how else to describe him in his pain except to fall back on that word I associated with him as a little girl: sad.)  For months, each time we went to the library, my favorite place as a child, my mother turned toward the shelves with movies.

“This looks funny,” she said, holding a collection of Red Skelton episodes.

“Who’s the Red Skeleton?” I asked, picturing red bones clacking as they danced.

“Red Skelton,” she corrected. “He’s an old comedian. He’ll make Dad laugh.”

I thought of my father laughing so hard that it shook his shoulders and threw his head back, and I scanned the shelves for more. “What about this one?” I offered her I Love Lucy.

“That’s a good one too!”

I clung to the idea of my father laughing. It was that simple. I knew that if I read funny stories to my father, his cheeks would crack and a gentle smile would tilt his lips as he looked off into the distance. I became familiar with TV shows too old for me to remember: Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, The Andy Griffith Show, The Ed Sullivan Show. I knew the word, “depression,” and I knew we had to make him grin again.

And then, just like that, his depression lifted. I thought it had simply drifted away. I was so certain of this that, years later when I was assigned a ten page paper on an illness for my tenth grade biology class, I chose to write about depression. I paged through a Mayo Clinic manual on every disease and disorder I could think of until I reached the “Ds.” Depression stood out in bold, black letters. Even then, thinking we were past it, I paused before copying down the facts. The word was a brick, and for an instant, I wondered what my teachers and friends would think if they knew about my father. Would they look at me with furrowed brows, take a step back? Would they think my dad was crazy, that I was fragile?

It was all over, though, so I wrote about case studies and short accounts of depression published in a Christian magazine named Guidepost. I talked to my father too, wrote questions to ask him on note cards, carefully documented the date and time of the interview and the name of my source: Jay Walton. I have looked everywhere for these cards, but I can’t find them. I only remember asking him one question.

“What did you do to help yourself feel better when you were depressed?”

We sat in our unfinished basement, the same straggly, orange carpet we’d had in the first house I remember as a child still tickling our hands. Pencil poised, I crossed my legs on the floor, leaned over my paper. He sat beside my mom with his legs stretched out, toes wiggling.

My dad looked up into a corner as he always did when he thought. “I took a lot of walks. The doctor said that would naturally improve my mood.”

I recalled standing on tiptoe as a little girl and peeking out the big windows in our living room. He stood in the front yard, hands jammed into jean pockets, head tilted back so he could look all the way to the top of the trees in our front yard. My father stood alone, a silhouette, a shadow at the corner of our big yard. I thought he was praying or soaking in the sunshine, surrendering to the emptiness that must have filled him up.

“I also watched funny movies. They helped get my mind on something else, and laughter was good for me.” His khaki pants swished as he shifted his legs. “I tried to think about others too. If you stop focusing on yourself, you get a new perspective. It helped to pray for other people instead of just praying for myself.”

I jotted it all down, remembering the way he locked himself in his room and prayed for hours the year I was ten. I could hear his fractured words stumbling down the stairs and into the kitchen. They pleaded, demanded, whimpered for God to listen and heal.

But I told myself I was very certain and comfortable because this was a past tense conversation: He used to, he was, he had to. I thought it was done even though I had read that people who recover from a depressive episode will almost always suffer a relapse, and the more episodes they experience, the more likely they are to commit suicide. Those people, however, were not my dad. Nothing bad could happen to us. You never think anything bad can.

My dad’s depression returned in 2010. Perhaps it started earlier and he kept it to himself the way he did the very first time, fought the weight of guilt and self-criticism and a sense of failure that is so common to this illness. He could not point to his leg and say, “This hurts,” so he said nothing at all. Maybe he couldn’t manage to lift his heavy arms, press his hands over his chest and the pit of his stomach and say, “I ache right here” because there were no bruises or cuts on his skin. Perhaps he didn’t speak about it because he worried that voicing his sadness would make it real, something he couldn’t push away anymore. It seems to me that this is the scariest part of depression. It is a getting lost within. There are no words for it, and we have no other way to communicate.

My mother tells me Dr. Gerard explained depression to my father this way in the year before he died:

“There are different kinds of depression. One is physical, chemical. The other is circumstantial. And there are many reasons for depression. One, as I suggested, is due to the brain. It’s not your fault. It’s not a result of what you’ve done or haven’t done. And you can’t pull yourself out of this kind of sadness. It’s not a matter of determination. The fact is, the chemicals in your brain aren’t working right.”

He’s a thin, young doctor with brown eyes and brown hair, a gentle voice, more knowledge than you’d expect. I picture him straddling a black stool in our family doctor’s office as he looked into my father’s stormy eyes. I don’t know if Dr. Gerard said this many times in the last month to many different people, but I know he treated my father with patience. My father who thought the depression was his fault, that he was not a good enough Christian, that he was somehow, in many ways, not enough.

“Now, unfortunately, as much as we do know about the body, we don’t know all that much about the brain,” Dr. Gerard continued. “It’s very complicated, so medication is really a matter of trial and error.” Maybe he spread his palms here, shrugged his shoulders a bit helplessly because what he was saying is that this was all a chance, a great game, a roll of the dice. “We can start you on a small dosage and see how it works. If you respond well, we can increase the dosage.”

Silence. Maybe my mother grabbed my father’s hand, or maybe she was already holding it. In my mind, I see him, eyes red, chest deflated. They sat in a room adorned with butterflies or silly monkeys or airplanes swinging from the ceiling by fishing line. They perched on wooden chairs instead of my father lying on the examination table. He probably crossed his ankles beneath his seat and pulled at the legs of his jeans every once in awhile.

“But this won’t be forever,” the doctor assured my parents. Probably his voice dipped here. “When your mood stabilizes, we can eventually lessen the dosage again until you gradually come off the pills. This might take a while, though. It might take months, a year, maybe more.”

In the end, my father, who did not want medication, said yes. He said he’d do it, maybe out of defeat or desperation or resignation. Maybe the doctor told him medication takes time because it makes the connections between neurons (or brain cells) grow, and my father held onto that fact like a life raft while he could. Or maybe he came to understand that, perfectionist that he was, he still couldn’t do it on his own.

He tried Zoloft, but he came off it feeling as if he’d had five too many cups of coffee.  He tried Paxil too, but it made him drowsy, and he was determined to go to work every day. Finally, he balanced Remeron (to sleep) with Abilify (an upper). Still, the little wicker basket on our kitchen counter beneath the first cabinet by the sliding glass door was full of pill bottles. The cabinet itself overflowed with our stash of cold medicines and Tylenol PM and inhalers and natural remedies. Then, some of his bottles crammed in on top of it so that, when you opened the door, you had to put your hand up to keep it all from tumbling down, spilling on the floor, a paint sampler of every beige and white you can think of.

Remeron and Abilify worked for a while, although he lost something deep inside himself. When I think of him in the end, I imagine the way he was the week we celebrated his and my mother’s birthdays in the last month of his life. I drove home with my boyfriend (who is now my fiancé) one afternoon because I’d realized I’d gotten my mom the wrong gift, and I needed to pick it up, drive over to the mall, and exchange it.  It was still warm, even in the beginning of October.  My father stood in our sloped driveway with a hose in his hand. He bent down to turn the old knob on the rusty spigot and waved at me as he stood back up. Then he pointed the reptilian hose at the hydrangeas on the side of our house. Somehow they were still in bloom, violet and blue and pink balloons rooted in earth. I don’t think I smiled when I waved back. I was too annoyed that I had picked up the wrong CD for my mother. He gave me a sad grin, and his pointed shoulders slumped a little bit beneath the grey fabric of his t-shirt. I have not spoken of this memory, not once, but I think of it often, wonder why I didn’t smile at him, stop and hug him. I wonder if he knew how much I loved him, how much I love him still. I think of him this way, and I run out of air.

Still, I cannot reconcile the word, insane, with him. My mother once asked my father’s counselor, another doctor who saw my dad in the year before he died, “How do I know if we need to do something else? If he should be in a hospital?”

“If he can’t function enough to do day-to-day activities,” he replied.

She didn’t know what the doctor meant because my father never stopped functioning.  At least, he never stopped living as far as we could tell. One definition of psychosis states that it refers to mental illness that impairs function, so that a patient’s ability to meet the ordinary demands of life is also impaired. Insane is a synonym for psychotic. I get these words tangled up in my mind. How can my father have been able to work the entire week before his death, how can he have come to church two days before he died, and still be mad? Yet, how can he have done what he did and be entirely sane? I ask myself over and over, take out my scraps of paper and line them up as my neck begins to ache with the heaviness of my head. I ponder in circles until I wish to scratch my skin so that it becomes angry, scratch it until I can shed it and crawl right outside of myself.

I have not come up with an answer. I haven’t gone back to the library or picked apart the letters of that word, madness. I am weary. Yet, a few weeks ago, I told my doctor that I am writing about my father.

“What about your father?” he asked.

“My father was depressed,” I replied.

He nodded, watched me, waited for more.

“His death was not…natural.”

He leaned forward, put down my chart. “I am so sorry.”

“It’s just not something people talk about, you know?” I looked down at my crossed legs, popped my ankle, bit my lip. And, suddenly, I realized I want to string along the slippery words. I want to speak about what really happened to my father’s heart, even though I cannot explain it or him. These words belong before me, not in a dictionary, not congealed in the back of my throat.

The truth popped out before I had much time to think about it: “But I would like to.”




Photo By: Kenneth Hagemeyer

About The Author

Aimee Brossman

Aimee Brossman lives in Mt. Gretna, PA in a forest much like the one she grew up in. She shares a small home with her new husband where she enjoys sitting at her old, wooden desk with a mug of coffee to write. She earned her BA in English and creative writing at Lock Haven University and is working towards her MFA in creative writing at Chatham University. She looks forward to completing her thesis and discovering new things that inspire her to write.