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.


  1. Wow Sutton! You and your dad really have something special. You hold on to him tight and live him through his good times and his bad. I'm proud of all if you for being honest about all if this. I hope in some way it helps and makes things a little bit easier for you. Love you all., Mrs. Elizabeth

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth. We couldn't ask for better neighbors!

  2. What a powerful essay. I know you must be very proud of Sutton. She shows amazing compassion and maturity for her age. You have a wonderful family to support you through the highs and lows of this painful journey. I joined your blog late in the fall, and tonight I had to go back and read all the posts I had missed. Thank you so much for sharing your life with us, and offering hope to so many who have similar struggles. I don't know your wife, but I salute her for her courage and love. I do know your mom, and she is a powerful ally to have in your corner. You and your family will be a permanent fixture on my prayer list from now on. I look forward to reading your book. Helen Young Halton

  3. Proud of you Sutton. You have always had God's special light shining through you from Hoops for Haiti, to compassion for other kids in the neighborhood, and always a polite hello and manners to adults you come in contact with. You are truly letting God served through you. May God continue to walk with and bless your family. Lifting you all up in prayer.

    1. Thank you, Melinda. She is pretty special.

  4. Cindy Lewis PhillipsJanuary 27, 2014 at 1:21 PM

    WOW! Beautiful put, Sutton. Keep the faith and always remember what you said, "my God is bigger than any problems that I or anybody else may face."

  5. Jack:
    Very powerful writing. I recall reading your post that included Sutton's letter to you. I commented to my fiancee, more than once, as I read it aloud that it was hard to believe that letter was written by one so young. I reiterate my astonishment here. Wow! I know you are proud of her. We never know what effect our "demons" are going to have on our children - I struggle with guilt over what, if any, lasting damage my failures may have caused my children. I know I caused them great pain and for that I have trouble forgiving myself. But in the end, I know they love me and forgive me. It would seem you have been blessed with a wonderful talented daughter who possesses maturity beyond her years and whom clearly loves her father. God bless.

    1. Mike, Thanks for your continued interest and supportive messages.

  6. Looks like Sutton got the writer gene. Powerful stuff.

  7. Well done. This post is great. I do want to take issue with people telling you that all your Dad needs is love. He has a mental illness and all the love in the world can't cure it - but all you have to worry about is loving him. You don't have to fix it, or be a good girl, or anything like that. Just love him as best you can when you feel you can. Hang in there.

  8. What a powerful and amazing piece of work- I feel so blessed to know all of you and feel better every time I am around ya'll! Sutton, you are wise beyond your years and like your dad - your writing will serve to help and inspire so many - What an awesome God we serve! Blessings to all!

  9. Helen,
    I appreciate your comments. We are blessed to have strong allies in my family and friends.

  10. Jack,
    I have such faith in you and your wonderful family as I knew them well in Eufaula. Your dad was a special friend and your sweet mom taught me and my identical twin history at Huntingdon in 1961-many moons before you were in their thoughts. Your
    daughter is talented like you and her grandfather. Your wife has been such a wonderful helpmate and support for you. Many mates cannot be so understanding
    and supportive.
    Both my twin and I have had severe clinical depression. It is difficult to explain to
    folks. I like to say,"one feels like he or she has the flu, along with severe anxiety and racing thoughts." For sure, the battle is not for the faint of heart!
    Despite our periods of illness, we both became college teachers and enjoyed our
    professions so very much. I was Auburn faculty in School of Human Sciences and
    Extension and she was Professor Emeritus in Sociology at Jacksonville State.
    Carolyn now lives with me in Opelika. Currently, she is having a difficult time with depression
    and bi-polar. We will keep you and your family in our prayers. We really want to meet some day. Would love to buy your book.
    Wishing you joy, peace, and good health
    Anne Bennett Carpenter

  11. Hey,
    I was Sutton's Creative Writing teacher at AJHS last semester. I loved being able to watch Sutton grow as a writer. This piece was so powerful and touching. You have such a talented daughter.
    -Molly Watkins

  12. Jack and Sutton,

    I have lost a sister and my mother to severe depression. Thank you for sharing your heart so eloquently with us. It is a powerful vehicle to staying healthy, knowing and facing your fears and letting the light shine on them. Blessings and peace to you and your family.

    Angela Crowell

  13. Sutton, that was very touching. You are an excellent writer, just like your Dad.
    I am constantly praying for all of you. Yes, prayers do work!