This is a guest post by Jessica Caudle.
At any given moment, our lives can be forever altered. For some people, life seems to unleash its fury at birth like a matchstick boat fighting its way through crashing waves. For others, catastrophe seems to find them unexpectedly, like an unforeseen rock smashing against your windshield. Either way, it feels the same. For me, it seemed to hit almost instantaneously.
My mother was only fifteen years old when I was conceived. Her pregnancy was a difficult one, though I never knew just how difficult it had been until I got older. I came into this world on July 1, 1982, weighing only three pounds, four ounces with a collapsed lung and a slim chance of survival. My mother said it felt like a nightmare from which she could not wake. She remembers the hospital staff telling her that she needed to see me before they whisked me away to an awaiting helicopter because she may never see me alive again. I was delivered in a small hospital in the Southeastern tip of Oklahoma. The hospital did not have adequate resources to keep me alive, so they transferred me to Oklahoma City. She said she screamed in agony with tears streaming down her face as she heard the helicopter lift from the helipad taking me away. All the while my father, Roy Lynn Caudle, stayed right by her side. He was barely a man himself at just eighteen years old.
I was released from the NICU at two months old. By then my parents had managed to get an apartment and jobs. My mother quit school and began working for Tyson’s Food; my father got a job working for a local tire shop. They were only married a short time but remained friends and did the best they could to raise me. I spent the first seven years of my life going back and forth between their two homes. Though this wasn’t an ideal situation, I always felt loved and safe with him. My mother eventually remarried and started a new life, and my father slowly deteriorated behind his beautiful smile.
On the morning of May 9, 1990, our lives took an abrupt and devastating turn. Life as we knew it was forever changed. I woke to my mother screaming and crying hysterically. She was on the phone, and whatever was said was not good. I walked into her room and saw my stepdad wrestling my mother trying desperately to console her. When he noticed me, he looked at me with shear panic. They sat me on the couch and began to tell me words that branded themselves into my heart and mind. My father was gone. He had taken his life a few hours earlier.
My mother told me that I didn’t have to go to school that day, and that I could stay at home with them. I asked her to please take me to school. I could not process it all. I was seven years old and in the second grade. The world seemed to be spinning too fast around me, and I wanted to wake up from the nightmare. Perhaps I thought going on with my regular routine would bring back some normalcy or that he would return. I remember sitting at my desk in Mrs. Hannah’s class when it began to sink in. I could not focus on anything going on around me, but knew I had to let it out. I walked up to Mrs. Hannah’s desk twice. The first time she hastily told me to “go have a seat.” The second time I found the courage to utter the words, “My dad died last night.” I had never seen the soft side of Mrs. Hannah before, but she grabbed me up in her arms and cried like a baby right there with me in the middle of class. She took us to our first track meet that afternoon and I ran as fast as I could around that dirt track. I ran so fast that it hurt.
The next few days weren’t much better. Mom placed me in a pretty dress and took me to the funeral home. I was too short to reach the book, so she picked me up so I could sign my name. I remember blurs of conversation of them trying to prepare me “Babe, he will not look the same . . . shell . . . heaven . . . not him.” They were right. He didn’t look the same. His funeral was held in a little white church just down the road from the house where he lived; it was also the church in which my mother and father were married. So many people came to pay their respects, that it was a standing service only with people lined up outside waiting for their opportunity to come inside.
After the funeral, my Grandmother took my hand in hers and walked with me down the gravel road that led to the cemetery behind the church. The road seemed so long back then, but when looking at it today, it really is not. I can still remember the sound the gravel made as it crunched under my feet, and how the rain felt as it began to fall lightly upon my face. At the graveside, the tiny hand my grandmother had been holding was replaced with a single long stem red rose, and I was told to release it into the grave. I did as I was told and let it go; I watched it fall into the ground and land on the casket where my father lay. That day changed the lives of all who knew him.
It has taken many years for me to process his loss, but even now I find myself asking the same questions over and over again; the biggest question: Why?
Suicide is a death unlike any other, and the ripple effects that it has on those left behind are devastating. I spent several years searching for answers; I did not want to believe it. To this day there are people who say that it was an accident, or that he was murdered, and I want to believe them. When I was thirteen, a police officer from that small town asked me if I wanted to see my father’s file. He knew I needed closure. Everything in the report stated that my father had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The officer himself told me that he hesitated for a long time before asking me if I wanted to see it because he knew it would be a double edged sword either way. He was the father of my best friend, and it pained him to disclose that information to me, but he knew I needed to know the truth.
Sadly, suicide is something about which people do not feel comfortable talking about. My father never told anyone of the pain that he was in, nor ever gave any indication that he was contemplating taking his own life. Those who knew my father only recall his bright smile, his contagious laugh, and his kind soul throughout his last days on this earth. That is what made the situation so incredibly difficult to believe. I wish he would have reached out to someone.
Last October, I got involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and became an advocate for this cause. It took that long for me to let go of the grief and try to find something positive to do with the loss of my father. I have been blown away by the overwhelming number of lives that have been impacted by suicide, even on the TCC SE Campus. I worked extremely hard to bring the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to TCC last fall and was able to successfully do so through the Gay-Straight Alliance Student Organization on the SE Campus. Together we organized an “Out of the Darkness” Suicide Awareness Walk and held the event on April 19, 2014, on the track behind the campus. Two hundred sixteen people were in attendance; among them were faculty members who took the stage to speak openly about their own personal losses. In total, $6,429 in donations were raised for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Fifty percent of those proceeds were disbursed to the Texas Chapter to benefit our state by providing counseling services for families who have lost loved ones to suicide and for individuals who may be contemplating taking their own life. I have learned that even through life’s devastating blows, no matter what they may be, that there is a way to use those experiences to make a difference in the lives of others.