January 26, 2014

Saving Grace

The essay below was written by my 14-year-old daughter. She didn't tell me she'd written it, or that she submitted it to teenink.com, a website that selects and features the work of talented teens. This weekend, her essay was voted the website's #1 memoir. It also received an Editor's Choice award. I'm proud of her courage, her honesty and her willingness to share it.

By Sutton Smith

I don’t know how to do a lot of stuff lately. I don’t know how to write this paper. I don’t know how to cope with the fact that my father tried to kill himself. I don’t know how I’m supposed to somehow act like an adult for a month while my father is away. I just don’t know anymore. And sometimes, it’s okay not to know. It’s okay that you don’t have every bit of your life planned out yet. It’s okay that you don’t know what tomorrow will hold, and it’s okay not to try to figure it out.

As soon I saw my mom sprint to the car and speed off down the road in her bathing suit, I knew something had to be seriously wrong. I had just been sitting down on the dock, enjoying a lake day and talking trash about my father. He was supposed to have been at the lake by then, and I was just having a jolly old time talking about how irresponsible and immature he was to be running late yet again. Once mom left without even a glance in our direction, I knew something was wrong. 

I ran up to the house to confront my grandmother, who happened to be walking down the steps coming to meet me. A completely calm expression was spread on her face, as if she didn’t have a single worry in the world. 

“Mimi, what’s going on?” I questioned her, worried and out of breath. 

“Well, the neighbors went to the house to check on your daddy, since he hasn’t been picking up the phone. They think that he accidentally took too many sleeping pills, so they called 911.” Mimi must’ve seen the pained expression on my face, for she quickly tried to cover up what she’d just said. “But honey, he’s gonna be fine. The ambulance picked him up a few minutes ago. They’re just being safe.”

I brushed past her without another word and ran into my room. I went into the bathroom and turned on the shower to keep Jackson and Manning from hearing my sobs. I dropped down on my knees and pleaded to God with everything I had to save my daddy. I knew it was because of what I had said about him only a few minutes ago that this was happening. I hardly knew what was wrong, other then he “accidentally” took too many pills. I knew about the depression that my dad struggled with. Accidentally taking too many pills sounded like a bunch of bull to me. I still knew that somehow this was punishment to me. He was going to die, and it would be my fault.

I sat on the bathroom floor and tried to pull myself together. I couldn’t let my younger brothers, Jackson and Manning, suspect that anything serious was wrong. I washed my face and tried to calm down. I went up and told them that Dad had been sent to the hospital for “accidentally” taking too much medicine. The thought that he had done it on purpose was gnawing away at me, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. After reassuring Jackson and Manning, all I wanted to do was to go back to Auburn so I could see Dad. But Mimi’s orders were to sit tight until we got a call telling us we could come in.

After about three and a half eternities passed, the call finally came. We loaded up and sped back to Auburn, only to be sentenced to an anxious day of sitting at our house. Finally, I got a call from my mom. I answered the phone with a shaky voice and sweaty hands. Mom told me that Dad would have to stay in the hospital for a few days, but he would live. I suddenly blurted out the only thing that I really wanted to know. 

“Did he do it on purpose?” I asked. At this point I was starting to feel light-headed.

“Baby, we don’t know for sure yet, but it’s looking like it,” Mom said.

I’m not really sure what happened in that moment. Mom told me it was okay to be upset, or to be mad at Dad, but I wasn’t either. I just stood there, stunned. I hung up the phone when I felt the tears spill over. I wasn’t upset exactly. I felt like I was detached from the whole situation, like an “is this really happening to me” kind of thing. But I knew it was. I knew this was real. I knew what he’d done. I could feel the weight of it bearing down on my chest, cracking my bones and making it hard to breathe.

That first night Dad was in ICU, and then the crazy people part of the hospital for a few nights after that, so I wasn’t allowed to see him at all. I talked to him on the phone one time for a few minutes. The sound of his cracking, shaky voice nearly drove me insane. I had never heard him like that. He was supposed to be the man of the house, strong and courageous and overprotective. Instead he was broken, a shell of a man. He was vulnerable and scared.

Those few days my dad was in the hospital were incredibly hard for me. Jackson and Manning had no idea what was going on. For them, this was just a minor bump in the road. At home, I had to be a big girl and play pretend like everything was fine. In the evenings when Mom was home from her beyond stressful day spent at the hospital, I couldn’t bring myself to burden her with my feelings. I locked everything up inside and threw away the key.

All people kept telling me was how loved I was, and how they were praying for us, and how everything would be okay. I appreciated their kindness, but it got to the point that it was completely monotone and too overused to mean anything. They said that once Dad came home, all he would need was to be loved on. Deep down I knew that was true, but parts of me didn’t want to love him. He deserved to be punished, and he deserved to feel the pain that I had felt that week. He deserved to know that he was the reason that that awful day had been the worst of my life.

But I was wrong. All he needed was love. That’s all anybody needs. That’s all anybody wants, really. They want somebody else to want them. They want to feel like they belong somewhere, like somebody desires to be with them and be around them. That’s all Dad wanted, so that’s what we gave him.

Now, he’s on the road to recovery. The only explanation that I have for how he has recovered so quickly is this: Jesus. Our whole family has been so incredibly blessed. Now I know what it means to rejoice in your sufferings. This ordeal has restored my faith in humanity and in the power of prayer. I have seen the hand of God work right before my eyes.

Dad returned from a clinic a couple months ago with new medicine and a new reason to get out of bed in the morning. His blog on his depression has gone viral, and it’s helping people all over. He’s an inspiration to so many people, and I’m proud to be his daughter. 

That doesn’t mean that any of us have healed yet, or that we will anytime soon. I still don’t think I’ve fully comprehended exactly what happened. But I do know that love is powerful, and my God is bigger than any problems that I or anybody else may face. We’ll get through this and every other hardship together, as a family.