April 27, 2021
When I woke up this morning fifty-eight years ago, in the upstairs apartment of a two flat we rented on Ashland Avenue in Detroit, there was no one there. It was Saturday morning. Both of my parents should have been there, but somehow I sensed they were not.
I got out of bed and went to the kitchen, where they’d be, waiting for me to wake up to go to Faith Lutheran Church to spend part of the day at confirmation class and choir practice.
The kitchen was empty. It was the back room of the apartment, facing the back yard and a garage we never used. If dad had a car, which was infrequent, he’d park it on the street.
Something drew me to the windows facing out over the backyard. Looking down, I saw my mother, surrounded by several Detroit police officers. She had her arms crossed in front of her and she looked lost.
My father, as it turned out, was inside the garage, and in his car. Well, his body was. He had left this world, on his own terms.
Later, when mom had come back upstairs and told me, she said she wanted me to go to church and see my friends. “Uncle Tom will pick you up afterwards,” she said, “and take you home to Aunt Norma.”
Pastor Scherer was waiting for me at the front door of the church. He took me inside and gave me a hug and told me to come to his office if I needed to leave my friends for some quiet time.
In choir practice I remember sitting alone before others came in and for some reason I had a nickel I was fiddling with on the little desk attached to the chair’s arm, and looking at the floor. Paster Snyder, the choir director, came up to me and gently pushed the coin back to me, causing me to look up and see him. He had the kindest smile and it made me feel a lot better.
When I left the church, there was Uncle Tom, getting out of his car and wrapping his arms around me. In the car was Diane, my cousin, six months younger than I and my best friend in all the world.
I called my father “Daddy” for all the twelve years of my life that he was alive, and yet, when I talk about him now, it seems childish to call him that. When I refer to him these days, as a seventy year old, I always call him “Dad.” That seems wrong, somehow, since I never called him that when he could hear me.
When mom and I moved to Kentucky several months later, to be near my grandmother, there were no Lutheran churches in Muhlenberg County. Mom had grown up in Unity Baptist, anyway, out in the country, so we went to First Baptist Church in Greenville. There, I tried to reconcile my confirmation learnings with Baptist dogma, and fit in with my new friends. But when the preacher, Brother Erwin, told me my father was in hell for his act of suicide, my long, deliberate slide to atheism began.
Brother H. Curtis Erwin died a few years ago and I looked for his obituary. I was able to get a bit of satisfaction when I signed his online memory book. “Bro Erwin, my father committed suicide when I was 12 years old. You told me that, for his act, he could not get into the kingdom of heaven. When you meet up with him in hell, please give him my love.” The funeral home has never taken it down.
It’s taken me a lifetime to reconcile the act of suicide, and its pragmatic role in the world, with the personal grief I feel for my father. But I strongly believe that we have the right to end our lives on our terms, when we decide. I’m sad about my father, but I respect his decision.
For all his faults, and all the shit he put my mother through, my dad was a lovely man. And a great dad. He loved me fiercely.
In memory of Raleigh Evan Hamby, January 1, 1918 – April 27, 1963.