October 28, 1999
On October 13, 1960 Kay and I went to the hospital where Ken was born and saw him for the first time. He was our second adopted son. We were overjoyed, felt fortunate to be able to adopt for the second time. He was colicky, and Kay remembers during the November election of that year, walking him, comforting him, while listening to the returns of John Kennedy's victory.
Ken was a beautiful child, slippery as an eel, never wanting to be held. He was a slow talker, and because of that he was often frustrated and pointed to what he wanted. He was very agile and would not stay in his crib and even climbed over an extension on the side. When we went to department stores with him he would often disappear from our view if we just turned our heads for a split second. But with his built-in antenna, except for once, he always managed to find us.
In grammar school he had difficulty reading and when we took him for psychological evaluation he was diagnosed as having "minimal cerebral dysfunction", a perceptual deficit, or what later was considered, dyslexia, or by today's standards attention deficit disorder. He was extremely hyperactive and his pediatrician prescribed ritalin. Ritalin had a diametric effect on him, and made him even more hyperactive. When Kay and I approached his teacher about Ken's dyslexia she shrugged her shoulders and replied, "Well there are those who are worse than he is."
We decided to place Ken in a remedial school. When we announced this to the school principal he simply said, "Just make sure to tell the office." At the private school he functioned much better in a small classes with teachers with special training and his reading ability improved rapidly.
Because we felt he would not do well in a high school with crowded classes we sent him to a private boarding school. When evaluated Ken was found to have an above average I.Q. In small classes he did very well. Ken was particularly talented in woodwork and made a beautiful butcher-block kitchen and cocktail table. He also excelled in math. During this time he worked part-time at a convenience store. One night as he was walking back to the dormitory he was hit by a car driven by an elderly woman. He was injured in one of his knees, which became a chronic problem and resulted in frequent visits to an orthopedist.
After completing high school he enrolled in a technical school for automobile mechanic training. When he completed the course he got a job with the Philadelphia Transit Company. He was on the 3 to 11 shift, in a bad neighborhood, and one night as he was leaving work some hoodlums attacked. When he came home he made light of it, but the next day we realized he had a broken jaw. He was hospitalized and his jaw was wired, and until it healed he was only able to sip liquids through a straw. When he returned to work, a few months later he fell and injured his "bad knee." I cannot remember the ensuing details, but he was hospitalized, developed a resistant staphylococcus infection, and was on his back in the hospital for one month until the infection was eradicated.
During adolescence and early adulthood he had several girl friends. One of them was a pretty redhead, Janice, who was often at our house. She was a troubled girl from a broken family. Her father, an alcoholic, and her mother, separated from her husband, paid little attention to her. Her mother had moved in with a man who apparently supported her. Because Janice would not always comply with her mother's wishes, she left home and got a job in a nursing home and moved into a room in the home of an elderly couple. The relationship between Ken and Janice was often stormy.
One day I got a call from Janice's sister who was living with her father. Her sister told me she'd received a telephone call from Janice telling her she'd overdosed. Quickly I drove to the place where Janice was living. The elderly residents of the house told me that someone had sent the police, but they told them there was nothing wrong. I dashed up the stairs to Janice's room and saw her lying on her bed, almost semi-comatose. A half-empty bottle of beer or hard liquor was on the side table and a partially filled bottle of pills, some strewn were on the floor. I pulled Janice from the bed in her limp state, dragged her down the steps, out into my car, and drove to the E.R. of a nearby hospital. Her stomach was pumped and she was kept in the hospital for several days. When I visited her, her mother came all bedecked in fashionable clothes, and did not appear to be at all perturbed. Soon after that incident Ken's relationship with Janice ended.
He had another girl friend, Darlene, whom he was still seeing on the day he died. I often wonder whether they were "breaking up" on that fateful day when he took his own life.
There are many things about my son, Kenneth Lyle, that are too personal and painful to reveal. He was a kind, giving young man, but not perfect. His rashness sometimes got him into trouble, often because he took the blame of a friend's misconduct. Once he was falsely accused of stealing a boy's radio, which he could not have done, since at the time of the accusation he was in a Thanksgiving Day parade.
The End and Days of Hell
On July 5th, at 11:00 PM when Ken came into the house I saw a strange look in his eyes that frightened me. I knew he'd had a bad day, a series of upsetting events. But the message that emanated from him was something different, something that I had never seen before.
"What is it?" I asked, "Did you kill someone?"
He had called me at work during the day. He was unable to get to his job at the Philadelphia International Airport where he was a bus driver transporting passengers back and forth from the parking lot. That day his van was in the shop being repaired and he had no transportation to the airport. There were some other incidents that had troubled him - a misunderstanding where to meet his girlfriend and the loss of his keys, and two driving tickets with one of our cars which he wasn't supposed to use.
"No," he said cryptically to my question. "You'll see, you'll see in half an hour."
I followed him to his room, his pad, in the downstairs recreation room. He took a sheet of paper and started to write. Looking over his shoulder I saw the words "love" several times.
When I took the telephone to call his girl friend to find out what was going on. Ken snatched the receiver from me before I could get an answer.
Terrified, I ran to the corner store where there was a public telephone and dialed his girl friend's number. The line was busy. I ran back into the house, down the steps. Ken had a sawed-off shotgun in his hands. "Ken, Ken," I screamed, "What are you doing?" He didn't answer. I ran up the stairs to call the police.
I shouted, "Ken, no, no! Don't. I love you."
He said, "I love you, too, Dad." They were the last words I heard from him. His voice was stilled forever.
There was a knock on the door. The police arrived. Almost simultaneously there was a pop from the recreation room. The police came in, flew down the steps. Kay ventured halfway down the steps, but couldn't see what was going on.
When one of the policemen came upstairs I asked, "How is he?"
The policeman replied, "We're working on him." It was a lie. Ken was dead. He had placed a pillow against his chest to muffle the sound of the detonation, then shot himself through the heart.
When the coroner came it was already August 6, 1:00 AM. Ken was pronounced dead.
My mother, 86 years old living with us, was in a state of shock. Kay who has always had more presence of mind was able to keep her equanimity more than I was. When my son and daughter-in-law arrived we all held each other. Jeff, my older son said, "Why didn't you call me? I could have talked him out of it."
I don't remember much more of the next few days. Mechanically I called his workplace and told them he wouldn't be in, that he had killed himself. I called my workplace, told one of my co-workers that Ken had shot himself. When she asked, "Is he alive?" and I told her he was not, I heard a gurgle from her throat.
At the funeral parlor the next day Kay and I went to select the coffin. I could not go down to look at the coffins. I wandered aimlessly around the floors of the funeral parlor. Someone on the staff asked me what I wanted. I simply replied, "My son is dead."
Because we could not have the funeral until the next day there was nothing to do but go home and call people.
The only place I called was the Suicide Crisis Center. When I told them my son had just killed himself and I wanted to volunteer to help prevent suicides, the woman on the line did not reply for a moment, then said, "Oh, my! It's too early for you. It's too raw! Wait about six months."
The funeral was a nightmare. We had not decided whether to have an open casket. When I saw Ken in the anteroom of the funeral parlor, he looked so beautiful that we decided to leave the casket open. I kissed him and said, "Goodnight, Ken. I love you." When people came to the front where we were sitting to offer condolences, I looked at them blankly, and I suppose I thanked them for coming.
At the shivah (the mourning period at home) I had a difficult time dealing with the people who came to offer condolences. The purpose of the shivah is to give solace to the survivors. Often it becomes more of a party with people laughing and socializing. For me this was intolerable. I could barely speak. Kay, in much better control of herself than I was, put on a "face." Most of the time I retreated to the bedroom, doing endless crossword puzzles and acrostics. When the Rabbi from my mother's synagogue came to the house she was very embarrassed because I didn't come downstairs. When Kay's supervisor came, sat beside me in the living room and started to ask me questions about my job, I barely managed to answer. When my cousin and his wife came and asked the details of the suicide I was silent. My mother gave a brief, sketchy account.
One week after Ken's death I was back at work. My co-workers were very supportive. My supervisor with whom I had worked for ten years looked at me and said nothing. He never did. One of the women gave me "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." As she walked away she remarked, "Dave, the best thing for you to do is to forget it."
During the following days I lived and worked in a fog. How I was able to do function is still a mystery. As I sat in my cubicle at lunchtime I cried. About three weeks after Ken died I started a daily journal in which I wrote my thoughts to Ken in letters to him. I have kept this journal, writing every morning and evening for 15 years. This is what I wrote the first day:
August 25, 1984
This will be my diary to you. I will write every day or as often as I can. I will always love you and never forget you, wherever you may be. Tonight Darlene [Ken's girlfriend] came over, and Mom, Grandmom and I went over to the river to watch the boats -- where you used to go. We stayed there for a while, then came back; first stopped for ice cream at Red Lion and Verree Roads. Then Darlene's sister picked her up at 9 o'clock. Ken, let me write down my thoughts from August 23 before I got this book. I went to bed about 10:30 on August 22 and couldn't sleep. About 11:15 I came downstairs and fell asleep on the sofa. Sometime, and I'm not sure when, I had a dream. There was Ken, alive and good as new. I was so happy to see him. I thought, "Thank God, I really haven't lost him after all." He looked so good. His scorpion tattoo was gone and his knees were no longer scarred from all the operations. It was like the last scene from Ingmar Bergmann's "Cries and Whispers", where the three sisters are united for one last time, swinging eternally in time, laughing and gay. If only I could capture a fleeting moment like that with Ken and forever freeze it in time. I will always love you, Ken, forever.
Goodnight, Ken. Sweet dreams.
The Aftermath, Moving On, Reflections
What does a bereaved parent, the parent of a child who has taken his or her own life do after the death? I felt as if I was locked in a microcosm, in a cocoon, walled off from the rest of the world, wallowing, living minimally. In the beginning, in the early days after the horror, I lived in a nether world, oblivious to my surroundings, virtually, an automaton, anesthetized, semi-comatose, devoid of physical sensations.
In the days and months after Ken's death I felt a melange of emotions: despair, guilt, anger, helplessness, as well as physical collapse. I also felt that my love, which I had been certain was invincible and could have protected Ken from all harm, had been only a fantasy. I developed a nihilism, a lack of self-worth, a severe depression, and bouts of anxiety. The inevitable "what ifs," and "whys" were my nemeses, my constant companions. The lack of my foresight in not having investigated his birth mother, the fact that she had been an alcoholic, bedeviled, haunted me. Was Ken a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome? Not that there was any physical evidence, but what if there was an insult to his innate characteristics and behavior?
It was only a few weeks after Ken's death that Kay and I went to The Compassionate Friends for the first time. We were numb, almost catatonic. We could not speak. Why were we at this "club?" We did return for the monthly meetings, and in time were able to talk. At the same time we went to several Survivors of Suicide meetings, but because the facilitator who herself had been only recently bereaved, she had poor control of the group, and we felt the meetings were ineffective.
Nine months after we joined The Compassionate Friends the Chapter Leader announced that she was moving to the West Coast. If there were no volunteers to take over the leadership and edit the monthly newsletter, the chapter would fold. This was a shock for me. I immediately blurted out, "I'll do it." I knew I really wasn't ready. I also volunteered to be the editor of the newsletter. I've been a newsletter editor for almost 15 years of one or two (simultaneously) of the four TCF chapters with which we've been involved. Kay has been wonderful. She's been co-leader, treasurer, refreshment chairman, and has performed any tasks that others shirk.
I suppose I could go on ad infinitum, but now I'll stop. I want to exit with a poem I wrote for a newsletter.
WHO WILL LOVE YOU WHEN I'M GONE?
Who will love you when I'm gone,
Whisper your name when twilight comes,
Long to touch your hand, then shed a tear,
Or write a poem to you
As I have often done?
Who will love you when I'm gone,
Sit in silence in your lonely room
And dream of times when I could
Watch you in your sleep
As I have often done?
Who will love you when I'm gone,
And keep you in his breast,
And feel the gaping pain
That makes me weep
As I have often done?
Who will love you when I'm gone,
And stir up childhood mem'ries
Of sandboxes, swings, and trains?
I will, my son, for we will be
Together in Eternity.