Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu Recalls His Father’s Suicide

I was visiting the Xiu Xiu website, since every now and then Jamie Stewart will write something of interest: either dramatic life stuff, or fun silliness, and came upon a really intense post about his father’s suicide which occurred 10 years earlier. Here it is in full:

On November 13th, 2002, 10 years ago, my father, Michael, killed himself. He may have actually died on the night of the 12th, but my mom found his body on the 13th. Her own mother had died only 6 months before. I have never told anyone my entire experience of those days or of the funeral.

At the time I was working at East Side San Jose Child Development Center. The student population was largely impoverished or near impoverishment, the facilities were run down and the majority of the staff had almost no experience. It was an incredibly difficult and exhausting place to work.

I was commuting from Oakland 4 days a week which was about a 50 minute drive with no traffic and an hour and half with traffic. Most days I took a nap in my car during my lunch break.

On the day of the 12th I was sleeping and woken up by what felt like an electric shock. In my mind, beamed from God, was the thought, clear as bell, “call your father right now.”

His mental health had been deteriorating due to years of drug abuse (at the time mostly morphine) unrelated manic depression and perhaps, I never knew is this was true or not, a mold growing in his lungs. My doubts were cast by him telling me one day, “I don’t want to work anymore.” A few months after that, this mold appeared and he worked on and off from home for awhile. then he stopped going to the office all together.

At home, he concentrated on writing a computer program that I could not understand when he explained it to me but that he claimed could change the world of code writing.  He was an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person so it seemed plausible that this could be true. I think now but do not know that this program was the beginning of his losing his mind and was a drug fueled obsessive rabbit hole of graphics exploration and a slow, self induced decay. This is hard for me to admit.

He spent most of his time in bed now and was unpleasant to be around. He would appear at family dinners on occasion, say something aggressive or strange and then go back to his room, with the lights out, looking at his screen. At the time I did not understand how far gone he was, I just thought he was being a weird pain in the ass. I feel incredibly guilty about not seeing this. Once in awhile he seemed fine. my sister had a baby and he, my sister’s husband and my mom were living in my grandma’s old house together.  He was nice with the baby so I assumed things could not be so bad.

When he picked up the phone I said “Dad, I just wanted to tell you that I love you.”
“No you do not,” he said. There was the sound of weeping and he hung up. This was the last time we spoke. I had come to expect and ignore comments like that from him. He was not always like this and that even though he was in a crazy period, i knew that he knew i loved him. I feel this even in retrospect.

He had been telling me for the previous 2 years that he wanted to kill himself. It was more than I could process and I never told anyone. I never told anyone even in my family until several years after his death that he had been telling me this. When it happened I was not surprised. In a small way I was relived to not have to worry about when it would happen and relieved that he was free and that I as free.

His heart had been over burdened from the time he was a small boy. His parents were extraordinarily physically and mentally abusive. His mind was plagued by metal illness and addiction. He had at times great success but had at times been fucked over mightily in his work life. His health was poor and he had been falling apart from a youngish age due to poor diet, drugs and smoking. He was a man whose body and mind were in constant pain. I remember as a child hearing his wailing cry from the shower and running out to the yard to try and get away. Despite this, he made it clear he loved me and i know in my soul, tried his best not to repeat the horrors of his childhood on my siblings or me.

In order to have more time to work on music, I was trying to find a job that was not as stressful and had fewer hours. I was applying for work as a baggage handler at the Oakland airport. Everyone applying there was massively tall and massively built and I am, well, not. I wondered if I could take the pace of the work. After filling out my forms I was told to go to another office for other paper work.

On the freeway I turned my phone on for the first time that day. I had taken to turning it off at night as whomever had my number before must had really fucked up their credit as every night around 1am a bill collector would call for them. There were about 20 missed calls from my sister.

I called her and she asked if I was driving and said I should pull over.  In that one second, the first thing that came to my mind was that her infant daughter had died. She sounded really upset but was making sense. Oddly I thought, well, her daughter is so young she has not had enough time to really become attached and therefore she could not be too distraught.

“Dad is dead. Come home right now.” I turned my mini van around, left a hysterical message on the voice mail of my work and drove back to my place to get some clothes.

I lived in a warehouse apartment above AK press. Next door to me was a dildo factory that made sex toys in the shape of Moses, Jesus, God, Santa Claus, Satan and Death. I had one of the Death ones. The one time I tried to use it on someone they immediately yelled, “take it out, take it out!” The neighborhood was in an incredibly dangerous part of Oakland. Murder, rape,  drugs, homelessness, car jacking and mugging were rampant. I have no idea why or how I lived there. It sucked in every possible way. My roommate, Adam, was home and I told him what happened and that I would be gone for a week. He looked freaked out and gave his condolences.

It took almost 2 hours to drive to my family’s house in Sacramento. I have no idea what I thought about or felt on the drive but when I pulled up my mom was out side waiting for me. She looked like a zombie. I tried to make some small joke which she would normally indulge me but she just wrapped her arms around me and we went inside.

This may not be entirely accurate, I have never asked exactly what the sequence of events was, but I believe that my dad had taken several dozen of a variety of pills and died during the night. My mother was sleeping in a different room at the time and discovered him early in the morning. I suppose then she told my sister and her husband who lived there as well. I don’t know what my sister did, I really need to ask her. When a person dies, they usually void their bowels and bladder and as there were so many pills, in this case, vomit. My brother in law cleaned up after him. I will forever be indebted to him for this. They called the coroner and he was taken to the morgue for an autopsy which is standard in suicides.

My mother told me that she thought something might be wrong that day. She went to go get donuts from krispy kream and asked my dad what kind he wanted, he blurted out, “All of them! bring me All of them!” I can hear his crackling voice say this and it is making my stomach hurt and my eyes tear up.

I went into the bedroom where he died; on the bed was a clean white sheet. On it, Dead center, was a single, ghostly pill. I asked my mom if that was there before. She said it was not.

I went into my dads office, which looked like a mad scientist laboratory. On top of his computer monitor was a copy of a record from the band I play in. He had come to see us a couple months before. The only time he ever saw us and he was very sweet, unusually lucid and encouraging. There is a song on the record predicting his suicide from pills and his disintegration. It was unopened but I was glad to see he put it up. While I was looking at it, it fell to the floor as if knocked down.

I found myself calling everyone I knew to tell them. Most people did not pick up the phone. I left a message for someone who I thought was my best friend but she never called me back. This revealed a lot to me about her and I think I have never forgiven her for it. Someone who I was basically just using for sex called me over and over to try and console me but I did not want to talk to her. She was being truly kind and I ignored her I think to exert some sort of control over my feelings.

My brother lives in New York and got on the first flight he could, arriving the next day. When you have a death win the family you can get a discount on same or next day flights. He said that when he heard he started to throw up. He was at my moms for 3 days before he found out it was suicide. Everyone assumed someone else told him. He seemed totally shocked and angry for a moment and then said he was glad. He was glad that my dad had some agency in his death and had not just faded out.

My mom and I slept in the bed where he died each night until the funeral. We did not really discuss it but it seemed necessary. My mother works at a cemetery and all the preparations were taken care of by her colleagues. We all met at the funeral home to talk about what the arrangements would be like. I kept trying to make jokes, a common response to stress, but people just stared at me or smiled painfully. My favorite one was referring to this event as DAD/11. I took a photo with my infant niece, dressed in black, sitting on Santas lap during this week. It is on the back cover of a xiu xiu LP.

At the funeral, my uncle and his sons sang the jimmy cliff song, I can see clearly now. It will make me cry for the rest of my life when I hear it on the radio. My god mother told me that I looked like a business man dressed in a suit. I was asked to give the eulogy. I broke up a bit while I was doing it but muddled through. I regret having mentioned in it that my childhood household was difficult. I noticed my mother nodding her head and looking away as I said it. I wrote it out quickly in pencil before the service and have it in a drawer. One night I must have drunkenly crumpled it up and then tried to smooth it out as the pages are wrinkled but flat.

The funeral had an open casket and initially I said I did not want to see the body. But after the service I went to say good bye. He looked totally normal. Not even asleep, just normal with his eyes closed. I put my hand on his chest, expecting to feel something, but it was like touching a cardboard box. There was NOTHING there. He was gone from that body and far far far away. In someways it was terrifying and in some ways I was glad he made it out. My godmother gave me big hug after this.

My father had 3 or 4 children out of wedlock with women other than my mother. One of his sons came to the funeral. We looked at each other very closely in the eye and then embraced tightly and did not say anything. This is the only contact we ever had.

After the funeral I drove my sisters friend, Jason, home to San Francisco and then listened to the book on tape, memoirs of a geisha. I drove all over oakland trying to find some porn magazines but I could not find any.

For some reason I don’t think I drank a drop of booze that whole week. If this were Now, I am sure that is all I would have done. Across from my house was a homeless shelter. A man came up to me when I got home and mumbled something. I gave him my black puffy coat. I might have manufactured this memory but, I think there dozens of shooting stars that night.

My fathers body was cremated. He had asked us to mix some of his ashes in paint and together as a family, paint his ash into a picture of a rhinoceros. My mother gathered us together at Christmas and pouring his remains from a paper cup, we swirled it into the colors and made the rhino. The ash had chunks of bone in it about as big as dime. I was surprised. I thought it would be like sand. I have piece of his bone in the drawer where the crumpled eulogy is. It is wrapped in tin foil. My sister has the painting over her fire place.

I will always love you and I will always miss you.

I think this is the song, from the 2002 record, that he mentions predicts his father’s suicide:

I almost never use this blog as a personal blog, really just a thought dump, but I suppose everyone can make exceptions, and I think I’d like to share my own experience with a friend of mine who committed suicide. This happened about a year and a half ago, in April, just before my trip to Arizona. I actually missed his wake because my flight left that very day (I think). My friend’s name was Greg. He worked at the climbing gym I went to, behind the desk. At that point, I had known him for a year and a half, so not long. I probably saw him and talked to him about 2-3 times a week. He was a polarizing character, and could be very curt and kind of like a curmudgeon: if he thought you didn’t know what you were doing, and was trying to pull a fast one on him (and risk killing yourself by not properly adhering to the safety measures), he could be a real dick.

He was also a really bright character, and I often felt intimidated by his wit. I think we had a mutual respect for the other’s intelligence. He was also a great climber, and any time he asked to climb with him, I felt honoured and nervous. The man LOVED climbing…just ate it up. I ultimately think it’s that very love for climbing and alpinism that lead to his downfall (among many other complex variables). At the time of his suicide, he was desperate for money and owed a lot of people. His income was from the gym, and shortly before his death, he was even caught in a scheme to steal money. Which explains why he wasn’t around much in those last days.

One of the last times I ever saw him, was at a party for a mutual friend of hours (also Greg’s best friend). Greg was making some kind of argument about free speech. I don’t remember what it was about, or what his position was, but I asked what he thought about free speech but with laws against hate speech. I can’t remember what his response was…but it came off as condescending. Later that night, he said goodbye to everyone, but stuck around for a long time looking confused. After about 20 minutes, I went over to him (in the kitchen), and asked what was up. He said he couldn’t find his sweater. I started to help him look, and within minutes found it on one of the chairs in the living room. He seemed pretty embarrassed by the whole thing. I sometimes wonder if he was absent minded that night because suicide was weighing heavy on his brain…

Shortly after the party, and probably the very last time I saw him, he asked me to belay him on a hard route. As I said before, I felt very honoured and nervous about it. Greg climbed really poorly that day, and was shaking while making several clips. Again, in retrospect it makes me wonder if these were all signs that something was wrong.

On the day that he died, I received a call in the evening. I had just come home…from something…I can’t recall at the moment…and my friend told me that Greg had passed away in his sleep. I was shocked and started to ask questions when she then blurted out that he had actually killed himself. I was shocked. My friend said that she shouldn’t have told me, that others weren’t to know, and to keep it a secret. I couldn’t stay on the phone and hung up. I shouted something and immediately started balling. I cried for a little while, really powerful angry cries. I couldn’t be alone, and desperately needed to talk to someone in person.

I called my friend Holly, who lived really close and I didn’t know very well. For some reason I didn’t want to call anyone I knew very well. I don’t know why this is. I walked over and just cried and cried…which reminded me of a time in 3rd year university when a girlfriend of mine had cheated on me, and the next day while walking to school, I had to turn around because I was crying too much. Anyways, I got to Holly’s and she was understandably concerned. I asked to go for a walk with her. This was the time around exams, and she told me that she couldn’t talk long since she needed to study for an important exam she had the next day. I totally understand, and just asked for her time for 30 minutes. We walked a circle of several blocks, and returned to her house. I just talked and sobbed the whole time…explaining my relationship to him, how I was confused why I was so upset considering I didn’t know him that well…and all my feelings. She told me about something in her life that was troubling…about her step mom? I honestly don’t remember. Once back at her place, I asked if I could just sit and play Tetris while she studied, which she said was cool. I just cried and tried to play through my tears. Kind of a silly memory now that I think about it.

In the following days, there was several get-togethers of friends close to Greg. I was always invited to these and attended them. I remember sitting at a table where everyone was talking about everything BUT Greg. It really upset me, since I wanted to know more about him, know more about the details that might explain why he did what he did… but I didn’t want to ruin the evening for everyone else. I later sat with my friend Sarah, who was the one who called me the night of his suicide, and we managed to cry and talk about Greg more ourselves. Others joined as well as the night progressed.

That night of the phone call, Sarah told me how he did it. He hung himself in his basement. Read that again. In his basement. That means he suffocated: he did not break his neck. The immediate thought that popped in my head was that he probably used climbing rope to do it. I was told later that he lived with a roommate, who discovered him, and that there was a suicide note. To this day I have no idea what was in that note.

During one of the get-togethers we had after his death, his best friend told me and another mutual friend Heidi about one of Greg’s favourite memories: the time we had Thanksgiving the previous year. I don’t think Greg went to many social events, since he was such a curmudgeon, but I remember having a really great time with him that night. It makes me so happy to think that Heidi and I were part of his favourite memory.

Heidi and I were also one of the first people to collect some of his belongings. Again I’m shocked that I would be chosen for this, considering how little I knew the man. I have so many of his books (which have notes and letters and one has a bus ticket), his climbing gear, and even his childhood pocket knife. How did I get chosen to have his childhood pocketknife?

That’s Greg on the right. I’m sitting opposite him, on the left, not pictured.


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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