March 1 to April 28
Graham Connors is thirty years old and has previously been published in wordlegs magazine, 30 Under 30 (both e-book and paperback editions), Allegory magazine, Under Thirty magazine, The Bohemyth, The Lit Garden, Link magazine and long-listed for the Doire Press International Chapbook competition. He is the founder and editor of Number Eleven Magazine as well as contributing editor for the Dublin Informer newspaper. He successfully staged his first play, ‘The Mortal Pitch’, in both Wexford and Dublin. He is from Gorey, in Co. Wexford but has lived in Dublin for the last ten years. Someday he’ll find his way back home.
Ger unfolded the two A4 sheets of paper he had stashed in his top pocket and glanced over them, skimming the words but not reading. He refolded the pages, pressing them between his clammy palms and listened to the sounds of the crowd filling the auditorium. He closed his eyes and took a moment, letting the noise of the room wash over him and asked for a little strength, just enough to carry him through this. Silently and almost unknown to himself he started to pray, a quick run through of the Our Father. He crossed himself and turned around stepping in behind the heavy curtain of the backdrop, ready to take his position with the other members of the panel.
With all of them now lined up, Ger took a moment and peeked through a crack between the curtains out at the auditorium. Two hundred people or more had taken seats with ushers placing an extra line of chairs along the edge of each aisle and one more row at the front. Janette, the coordinator, flitted forward and back across the room, checking little details. She watched as one usher busied himself fixing a large banner that lined the far wall. It sagged in the middle, almost folding over itself, obscuring the words. The usher released one cord and pulled on a second, straightening the lie of the banner, trying to get it flush against the wall. Ger caught his name, ‘Ger Donohue’, in big bold letters on the bottom of the banner. He never thought he’d see the day where people would come to hear him speak. Of course there were others too, parents and psychiatrists and experts in various fields lined up on the panel just like he was. They wore impeccable dark suits, finely polished shoes; the women with their hair neatly bunched to the back of their heads, the men with cleanly shaven faces. Ger was dressed out of Penney’s; the only thing not new was the 10-year-old grey corduroy jacket that was now a little tight across the shoulders.
Janette took to the stage, the crowd hushing themselves as her shoes clicked across the floor. She spoke for a few moments, welcoming everyone, introducing each speaker as they sat on the panel. Ger was last. He thought of Darren. He thought of him regularly, every day, maybe several times a day and as he pressed his palms flat together, his folded up speech between them, he hoped that his son was thinking of him right now. Studying the auditorium Ger saw that the ushers finally had everyone seated and the banner the way they wanted it. The Annual Conference of Suicide Awareness and Education it read, in beautiful white letters on a light blue background.
Each speaker, and there were nine of them, spoke for fifteen to twenty minutes, some taking questions from the crowd. Ger was a parent, as was the woman in the middle of the panel and they were here to speak about their sons and daughters - their own experiences. The woman, June was her name, spoke about her daughter Heather. As she spoke the crowd nodded along with her, agreeing and sympathising with everything she said. She cried twice as she spoke, taking a moment or two to compose herself, apologising to the crowd in strained, tearful sobs.
The water bottles on the table shook as June finished speaking; a wave of applause rolling across the auditorium and she thanked the crowd, her eyes red and puffy. Ger looked down the line as she sat and caught her eye. He smiled wanly, not knowing how else to say, ‘Well done, I’m sure she’s proud of you.’ He hoped she knew what he was trying to say, that he was not congratulating her on speaking well, just on speaking in the first place.
The speakers rolled on, Ger caught between listening to them and trying to recall as much of his speech as he could from memory. He had said these words a hundred times in practice, talking about how his family coped, remembering quotes from journals and various statistics. Looking down at the folded up piece of paper clamped between his palms Ger suddenly thought ‘what’s the point’ with statistics and quotes - Darren was gone and to anyone who did not know him, his passing was nothing more than just another statistic, another number.
Ger nearly missed his name as Janette introduced him. The Guidance Counsellor beside him nudged Ger politely with her elbow, motioning with a slight nod of the head to the podium. Janette stood waiting, a soft smile on her face, as she turned to the microphone.“And now ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ger Donohue, our final speaker of the evening.” She squeezed Ger’s forearm as he stepped up to the podium, his hands resting on the edge before unfolding his speech.
“Hello,” he said, taken aback by how loud and booming his voice sounded across the room, realising he’d never spoken to a crowd larger than the U-14’s football team he once trained. “Hello,” he said again, “my name is Ger Donohue, as Janette just said. I am here today with my wife, Sharon. I am not used to speaking in public, so please bear with me as I might take my time over big words.” This drew a soft, almost inaudible laugh from the crowd and Ger smoothed out the pages across the podium.
“Myself and Sharon and our daughter Linda lost our son, Darren, a little over two years ago.”
Ger watched the room, watching faces and hands and the cracks in the carpet. He felt a nervous breathlessness rise through him, struck by the profound silence that several hundred people can make. And so he started to speak, quietly at first, scanning each line of the pages before him.
“Young lives are so fragile. Darren, my son, was twenty-four years old when he took his own life. He was the first of the family to go to college and get a degree and I thought he was just brilliant. But, on August 28th 2010, he told his flatmate that he was going for a walk, that he’d had a hectic day in work and just wanted to clear his head. He never came home. Selfish, that was my first reaction. This young healthy man had thrown it all away. But Darren was not selfish, I knew him and I struggled with losing him, with this thing that I just couldn’t believe.”
Ger searched for the water glass again, taking a sip this time. He sat the glass down beside him on the podium and tried to find his place again on the page. His vision was cloudy and he could not find the paragraph he had ended on. He took a deep breath and folded over the pages, slipping them under his glass before lifting his head and looking out across the sea of faces before him. He cleared his throat and leaned into the microphone.
“I had a speech prepared about coping mechanisms, stuff I’d researched but it doesn’t seem right that I should discuss my experiences through other people’s words.” Ger paused, scanning the auditorium before continuing, “I miss him every day,” he said, five achingly simple words that made him pause once more. “Listening to the other speakers, I realised that losing someone affects everyone differently; no one can tell you that this is what you are going to feel and this is what you have to do to get over it. There’s no way to get over a suicide; you just have to cope with it as best you can. You build your life around this person when they are born and you care for them, you love them, encourage them and then all of a sudden they are gone, just gone,” Ger said, unconsciously snapping his fingers to emphasise the point. “There’s nothing that I can say to let you know how I felt, or how I am feeling right now, it’s just impossible,” he said as he blinked away the budding tears in his eyes.
“After his funeral I became very angry, angry with a lot of things, God, myself, Darren – why did he do this to us? I took down all his pictures, I couldn’t look at him and it nearly destroyed us as a family. My wife Sharon had lost her son too, Linda, our daughter, had lost her big brother and slowly they were losing me as well. But I couldn’t help it, as I didn’t understand. That was the first stumbling block. You see, when you lose a child or a husband or a wife or a friend, it’s not about understanding why, that may never come; firstly you have to accept it, something that I found very hard to do. I realised, while looking at a blank wall where once hung his Graduation photograph, that I had not only lost him but was now, through my own anger, losing his memory. It is very hard to forgive but I had to; if I kept on being angry then Darren would be nothing but anger to me.”
Ger shuffled in a little closer to the podium, changing the angle of the microphone slightly.
“Darren suffered from depression, had done so since he was a teenager but he didn’t run away from it or ignore it; he stood and faced it. He told me once that depression changes things; it makes the highs so much higher and the lows so much lower. He took every day as it came to him, one day at a time, one smile at a time as he knew he had to fight for every single one.” Ger paused, allowing his words to move about the room, watching as they landed amongst the crowd, feeling that they made sense.
“In the end he must have been so tired of fighting, seeing himself as a burden on all of us around him. I can only think that this is what made him do what he did as he felt that we, the people who loved him, would be better off without him. This is what I meant earlier when I said that you have to accept something before you can understand it. How can you possibly accept that?“When I was told that Darren was gone I didn’t believe it. No, my son Darren is going to walk in through the door for a cup of tea before heading to football training. I was wrong though. When I looked upon him the evening before his burial, as I touched his hair and face I knew that this was real and that I would never see him again. That is the hardest thing in the world to try get your head around.”
Ger took another mouthful of water, these words heavy and hard in his throat. A woman in the front row was crying.“I found the silence the hardest thing to deal with; this missing person has taken so much out of your own life that you think it will be impossible to ever be normal again. It was here that I did a lot of thinking, vented a lot of my anger and came to the conclusion that Darren was a very honest and a very brave young man.
“Brave, it’s strange a thing to say, isn’t it? Before this I heard people speak of suicide as the coward’s way out and I often agreed. But I don’t anymore. I looked this up in the dictionary actually and I remembered it off by heart; brave means to possess or exhibit courage or courageous endurance.” Ger let out a long audible sigh as he tried to look at anything other than the faces of those in front of him.
“Courageous endurance,” he said, finding only strength enough to say those two words. From somewhere deep in the auditorium he heard someone say, ‘it’s okay, take your time’; and he smiled, composing himself before leaning back into the microphone.
“That described Darren perfectly. He had battled his demons for so long but faltered and fell before them and as I had told him since he was a child, there is no shame in failure. Darren was very brave in our eyes because he fought until there was no fight left in him. He took everything that depression could throw at him and still he came back and he came back with a smile. He struggled against hardships I can’t begin to imagine and he did not let it define him.
“He spoke about it the way someone might speak of a limp or a wart; it was just something he had that was part of him, it didn’t make him special or different, it was just something he had to deal with. We spoke about it sometimes and he put it like this, I have depression Dad, but you have red hair – we all have our own problems. He could always make me smile.” And smile Ger did, a broad and beaming grin that lit the room. “It’s these things you have to hold onto, isn’t it, those moments that you have to keep safe?” he said, not looking at anyone, only talking to himself.“Like all parents, I wished that Darren would have better and to achieve more than I ever did. I wanted him to conquer the world because I truly believed he could. I didn’t realise that, of all the things a parent could hope for their children, the most important is happiness. And I don’t know if I ever hoped for happiness for him. I assumed it; mad, isn’t it?
“I often asked how he was, was he okay and how he was feeling. I’m great Dad, he’d tell me and then I was happy, happy in not understanding I guess. Somewhere, in a place he didn’t want anyone to see, he kept his unhappiness locked away as he strove for all the meaningless things that life has to offer; money, cars and success – it’s all nonsense. It was only after we lost Darren I realised that life demands only one thing of people and that is to live.Ger looked off to the corner of the stage and sniffed loudly, watching a piece of paper flutter madly in a draught of air coming from the open door.
“I am sorry if I am rambling. My advice for you, the parents in the audience, is to talk to your children, to listen to your children. Don’t be afraid of things you don’t understand because teenagers will present you with endless amounts of things that you will not understand. Ask your children about their lives, about them as people. Share their enthusiasms, encourage them but don’t push them. You don’t need to be their best friend; that is not your job. You just need to be there.
“Children, have patience. Life is not a race or a competition but it is a challenge, an obstacle course, but there is no limit to the amount of times you can ask for help. As I found in the weeks and months after Darren’s passing, people are amazing. In your darkest hour friends and family, sometimes even complete strangers, line up to help you because there is no pleasure in watching someone stumble and fall. There is only joy in watching you succeed, in helping you get over your problems. You are never as alone as you think you are. There is no place you can go where you cannot be heard. There are no roads you can walk down that someone is not willing to walk with you and there is nothing in this world that can destroy hope. Only we can convince ourselves that there is no hope for the future if we let ourselves. Don’t give up, there will be a hand to hold, there will be a shoulder to cry on. There will always be hope.
“I say these things now as a parent who has accepted my son’s passing. I don’t know at what stage or how soon after we’d lost him that I finally found this acceptance. I was alone in our home and I told my son I loved him, one night in the dark in his old bedroom. I told him that I loved him and that I forgave him. I told him that I did not understand and probably never would but that it did not matter to me now. From that moment on I regained him, I found him again among all the bitter emotions that I had been storing up inside. I found the love that anger had very nearly destroyed.
Ger stumbled over his last few words and wept as he stepped away from the microphone, little streams of tears coursing down his cheeks but he did not care. As he watched the auditorium he heard a lot of things, the clamour of voices, of hands clapping, of people moving about and getting to their feet. But through all this noise, he was sure he heard two things distinctly. He heard his wife, her gentle whisper as she told him she was proud of him. The other, as he stepped back to his seat, the room swirling in what seemed like slow motion, was his son’s voice.
Thank you, Dad.
I thank Graham O'Connor for allowing me to share this story with my readers. It is protected under international copyright law and cannot be published without the permission of the author