Trigger warning: Mention of suicide/self-harm
“Because I’m your dad and I said so!” I yell at my son’s sulking retreating form, wincing slightly as the weathered door crashed against its crooked frame. Great, another night of furrowed brows and awkward silence at the dinner table, caused by my pig headedness. Would it really have killed me to say he could stay over at his friends tonight? Maybe.
Just because I’m still miserable, doesn’t mean he has to be. Every Friday night was our family night, it’s the only thing that truly keeps me sane. I pass by the mirror on the way to the kitchen and see my haunted gaze reflected back at me. Christ I’m haggard. Regret is still coursing through me at the instant refusal of my sons more than fair request, and my heart wins out over my inconsiderate fear of being alone on our night.
Sighing, I wrench my red rimmed eyes away from their soul searching, retracing my footsteps along the creaking cottage floorboards before pausing at the still quivering door. Pausing? Since when was I worried about talking to my own son? I snort and knock, though tentatively.
“Go away!”, comes his instant retort. I enter anyway. True to form, his room is a mess. Sheets of attempted and discarded homework were strewn across his bed, which cascaded in harmony as he leapt to his feet angrily.
“Listen Ryan... if you really want to go, you can go. Will Jakes mum still come to get you?” I reply, breathing deeply to control my temper at his reaction, just like the therapist said. The lighting up of my son’s face was worth heeding that sound advice, a balm to my tortured soul. There’s nothing quite like seeing your kids happy, is there?
“Really?! Thanks dad! I hadn’t actually told him I couldn’t go yet, so I’d guess so” he reasoned, before narrowing his eyes suspiciously. “Why the sudden change of heart?”
Fair enough, it was kind of a total U-turn. But how to tell him it was only from a selfish need to have some company on a Friday? Nah, let's go with cool dad response.
“Figured I was just being an idiot. Plus, I can’t have the kids at school saying my son is kept on a tight leash by his arsehole dad” I say with a wink, nudging in to him and shoving him back on to his bed. He launches himself back up at me and does his best attempt at wrestling me, which basically just resulted in a gruff hug and a muffled “Cheers dad”. And that was that. My son was happy, his friends were happy, even I was happy for him. But deep down I was a mess, and that mess could be summed up in to one little, elephant in the room like word: Jade.
She was, in short, the love of my life. Mother to the son that was frantically diving around his bedroom to gather his things, excited thuds echoing through the quiet cottage, each one making me wince as if being struck myself. She was the reason I was so scared to be alone this particular Friday night, when I’d been in control of my grief for months now. Our anniversary. I began to absentmindedly trickle my fingers along my left forearm, shivering as the raised scar tissue brought back memories I would rather forget. It was our second wedding anniversary since her accident, the first being a mere two weeks after she left a gaping hole in my heart which once housed her name. That first anniversary was what caused those wretched ridges on my arm. Well, a bottle of whisky coupled with an empty house factored in to the equation too. My mum had thought she was doing me a favour giving me a night off dad duty, but she couldn’t have been further from the truth. I needed my boy more than ever, he was the only thing that had forced me to keep it together.
Inevitably, my mind was drawn to that night, just like it had been on many occasions since. The bath running as I finally drained the last ounce of whisky straight from the bottle, eyes watering as the burn reached by chest but did nothing to eliminate the pain. The frozen scene of me kissing her after we’d said our vows, paused purposely by me as I discard the DVD case on the floor to revel in her image. Finally, the flash of pain as I make three consecutive cuts vertically along my forearm, the first bit of pain that actually reached further than the loss of my wife had. Water immediately turning red, getting a deeper shade after each pulse of my heart.
Then, the shock realisation at what I had done; it wasn’t just me hurting, it was my boy too. How could I have even thought about doing this, when he needs his Dad? It was all a slight blur after that. I figured I’d somehow called an ambulance, because I awoke being carried down the stairs stark naked, a paramedic calling my name over and over to keep me conscious. Sobs wracking my body sent waves of pain lancing up my arm, as I whimpered her name repeatedly in my sorrow.
I’d been kept on watch in the hospital, instantly assigned a therapist who I leaked every emotion I had in me to unashamedly, knowing that he would be my salvation from the darkness. He had judged me safe to release pretty soon after. I found out later part of his report included the fact that I had actually phoned for help was evidence that I wanted to survive. Still had to ring him once a day for the first month, coupled with twice-a-week in person sessions, which I hate to admit seriously helped me. Just knowing somebody actually gave a damn outside of my close family was a large part. My mum as an utter angel those few days, concocting a story and keeping my son from the horrible truth as I recovered in hospital. To this day I have no idea what garbage she fed him, but it had worked and he seemed none the wiser.
A honk of a car horn broke me out of my reverie, headlights streaming through the frosted glass of the front door as I descend the stairs, calling my son out of his frenzied packing. God only knows what he had to take so much for one night out; something about split screen not being a thing on games anymore, accompanied by an eye roll at my ‘dinosaur’ comment as he called it. I unlock the latch and open the door as Ryan bounds down the stairs, backpack ricocheting off the banister uncontrollably in his haste. He kept his Xbox reverently tucked under his arm, but the backpack wasn’t his concern.
“Have a good night lad, give me a ring in the morning to come and get you” I hear myself say over the beating of my heart. My stomach had sank over the earlier depressing thoughts of a year ago, and seeing him leaving again with almost the exact same cargo brought it all back again. I wave and smile mechanically to Jake and his mum, who returned the gesture happily. Bringing my arm back down I ruffle Ryan’s hair as he streams past me.
“Thanks dad! See ya!” he yells breathlessly, putting his stuff in to the car boot and wrenching the door open. My heart gives a slight flip as I see him pause getting in to the car and look back. “You will be ok, won’t you dad? Y’know... with last year...”
A choked breath on my part slows my reply and I cough to disguise the wave of sadness that washed over me. Seems whatever story my mum had fed him hadn’t been enough to hide the truth. Too clever for his own bloody good, just like his mum. I chuckle at the stray thought and wave my hand dismissively to him.
“Get gone, don’t you worry about your old dad” I call, giving him the thumbs up as he smiles uncertainly and clambers in to the car. One last wave and I shut the door quickly, not trusting myself to keep composure as the headlights begin to recede from our driveway. The walls begin to close in without even a hint of delay, causing me to stumble in to the kitchen and look deceitfully at the corner cupboard, hands uncontrollably opening it despite my mind screaming not to. There on the shelf is my drink collection, ranging from bourbon to gin to vodka, which stares at me malevolently. It’s not as if I’m an addict, I host parties which I drink it without any problem, aside from the hangover. But tonight I curse myself at keeping the temptation in the house, creating the conflict of interests.
With a monumental effort I slam the cupboard shut, placing my clammy palms on to the counter and gulping deep breaths of air. Breathe in, breathe out, just like the therapist said. I added my own mantra to the counting of seconds, choosing to murmur my sons name between each breath, reminding me why I keep strong, why I keep living. All I do is for him. A peaceful blanket finally wrapped itself around my tired mind, which has struggled for far too long to keep the demons at bay. I look up at the dreaded cupboard and smile grimly.
“Not today” I say firmly, turning away and flicking the kettle on. Systematically I throw a teabag in to the cup, followed by two sugars; the soothing sound of the kettle boiling settling the last of my nerves. There’s nothing a good cup of tea can’t sort for a Brit, even in cases like this. An explosion of breath as I sit down on the sofa, followed by a grunt of contentment as the blessed tea slides down my throat was the only thing that broke the silence at first. Too much silence is deafening, especially with the unwanted thoughts so close behind my walls. I reach over to the side table for the T.V remote, then freeze as my fingers brush the edge of a photo frame. Me and her arm in arm, with Ryan atop my shoulders with his big cheesy grin. I grin back, knowing that dopey looking smile is the one thing he’s inherited from me, then my gaze is dragged back to hers.
I feel my smile quivering as her image becomes blurry, only becoming clear when the tears finally begin to flow. But the demons were behind my walls for now, this was just a man missing his wife on their anniversary. A man who has a responsibility to stay strong. So gritting my teeth, I cuff the tears off my face and take the picture in both my hands, drinking in the entire reason for my existence, contained in one frozen moment. One half was gone, a void never to be filled by anything or anyone in the world. The other half needed me still. So I look back at my wife’s eyes, this time determined, and speak.
“I’ll look after him my love.”