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  • Several months ago my father, Lewis, a Minnesotan, a storyteller, a Cherokee and an ironworker, shot himself, twice. Not a shot from the mouth up toward the brain, like most people imagine when you say, "shot himself." No, the chest where his heart hid. "Son, do you ever think about committing suicide?"

    Alone, he loved and celebrated his brain but questioned his heart. His brain had been damaged in a motorcycle accident and his heart had been captured in the 70's by the New Testament. "You know son, your heart and your mind have an interesting marriage. Your life is the counseling you give them to try to keep them together."

    With the first, and only planned shot, he missed his target. Sitting in a dark basement on a cheap sofa, holding a handgun he tried to give to me several times, he was processing and reprocessing images of his sadness, solitude and failures. Images of his family and accomplishments I know were too far out of reach at the moment. "You really only have two jobs in life. Your first real job in life, son, is to manufacture more and better memories for your kids. Then your second job is to be there for them when they need your advice."

    I have never stopped wondering how he could have missed a shot to the heart at point blank. My heart tells me it's harder than you might think. My heart also told me that his heart was a smaller target than we imagine and probably harder to hit. My brain tells me how could someone do this at all? If alive, I know he would have tried to make me laugh by telling me that he had butter on his trigger finger and slipped. "Never underestimate the humor in your mistakes, son. It makes them more bearable."

    I know how angry missing that first shot must have made him. He was a man who strived for precision but seldom found it. This was his last chance at not failing. My mother insisted he was a poor planner and prophetically accused him of having no aim in life. "I know I'm not your mother's favorite person, son. But I will tell you, if you ever hear anyone say anything bad about her I want you to kick the holy snot out of them, you understand? She's a damn great mother."

    He once told me that his parents were always on him about being better, smarter, more like his older brother, Johnny, who died driving my father home from the Navy on a red 1956 Indian Trailblazer motorcycle. My father told me the last thing he recalled his father saying to him before that accident was, "Jesus Christ Lewis, you stupid little fucker, I'm having Johnny drive you home on that damn bike of yours so you don't kill yourself. If you get on that bike without him, I'll kill you when you get home." Twelve hours into that trip my father's brother, my grandfather's favorite son and the uncle I'd never meet, was decapitated by a rusty tailgate of a red pick-up truck full of Georgia cotton pickers. "Son, you never know how or when you are going to go. Only the big guy in the sky knows that. So keep your peace with everyone always."

    After the first .22 caliber pop into his chest, in the basement, on the sofa upon which I'd slept 1000 times, the blood story told us he stumbled up the weak basement stairs, took a hard right through the kitchen, another hard right through the living room and the short hallway to his bedroom where he collapsed into a royal blue velvet love seat where on a table next to it sat a box full of bullets. That second bullet worked as planned. "If there is one thing that I have learned in life son, it's that you never ever leave a job unfinished. If it's important enough to start, then damnit, it's important enough to finish."

    My father was 74. I think he planned and waited to pull this off. His father also killed himself when he was 74. Blew his heart up chopping wood the afternoon his doctor told him his heart would only sustain him for another week or two. "Son, after the accident that killed my brother, my father never cared if I lived or died. I want you to know, I'll spend my last breath singing your praises, no matter what happens. I can promise you that."

    In trying to piece it all together several things have locked into place for me. To me they were both warriors and fools. To me, a father who spares love for his child for any reason is no more warrior than one who takes his life from his family, a fool. I miss my dad about once a week now. It's been almost two years since he killed himself.

    Today, I catch myself saying things to my boys that my crazy old man used to say to me. And every time that happens, a picture of that blue velvet love seat saturated with my father's blood pops into my mind, with me sitting there telling my two boys how much I love them...hiding that .22 caliber handgun down in the cushion just in case.
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