May 24, 2004, is a day I will never forget. It’s the day my childhood ended. It’s the day I realized the people we love can choose to leave this world. It’s the day I fully grasped what it means to die. On that day, my papaw died by suicide.
Jimmie Lynn Campbell was born on Feb. 19, 1947. He married my nana, Cathey, and they had two children together, Carri and Doug. Papaw Jimmie loved NASCAR, Walker: Texas Ranger and yard sales. My most treasured memories come from yard sales. On Saturday mornings, Papaw would wake me up by tickling my feet and then he’d take me to breakfast at Old Tyme Burger Shoppe.
Over biscuits and gravy, we’d look at the yard sale listings in the newspaper, circling the ones we wanted to check out. Then we spent the entire day going from home to home and making someone’s trash our treasure. One Saturday, I found a Christmas ornament featuring a mouse in a Santa hat holding onto the word “love.” Papaw bought it for me and I’m so grateful for that. Every year when I visit my hometown for Christmas, I see Papaw’s love for me on display.
Like most of us, Papaw had his problems. He loved to drink and smoke, probably more than he should have. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he stopped. He spent his last years on this earth stone-cold sober and skinny as can be. The chemo took its toll on his body. The doctors said he was in remission, but he must have known something they didn’t. His autopsy showed cancer all over his body. It started in his lungs, but you know how cancer is. It eats away at you, slowly and then fast. It changes you.
For a long time, I’d tell people Papaw died of cancer. I was worried what people would think if they knew the truth, and it was half-true anyway. The cancer did kill him. He didn’t feel like there was any other way out. He always said he wanted to die at home. The signs are clear as day in hindsight.
It would be easy to completely blame the cancer, but Papaw made a choice to die. He had his own personal demons, like we all do. He thought it would be easier to take his own life than to die of an illness that had taken so much from him. He made his decision and the rest of us have had to live with it for 15 years now.
I thought I had come to peace with it, but I learned recently you never fully come to peace with something like this. While working on a story about the Stolen by Suicide Memorial Scroll, I heard the stories of other people who have lost loved ones to suicide. The stories they told resonate so deeply with me. There are so many conflicting emotions; you want to honor the memory of your loved one, but you can’t quite understand why they’d leave you. You want to remember the good times, but they are overshadowed by the worst time.
It came to a head for me last Wednesday. I was driving home after interviewing an incredibly brave 16-year-old girl who shared the story of her dad’s life with me. She spoke so articulately and with such conviction. She said people will keep dying by suicide if we don’t speak out about it. The world won’t change until we do. She told me she’s happy to talk about her dad if that means it helps even one person.
Driving past the Kings River bridge, I broke into a sob –– the kind of guttural sob you see in Oscar-winning movies. It felt like everything was crashing down around me for a brief second, but then I took a breath and realized I hadn’t thought about Papaw in a long time. How could that be? I guess I got accustomed to living without him somewhere along the way, even though that seemed impossible 15 years ago. I still can’t quite grasp how that happened.
Talking to others who had experienced that kind of loss reopened a bunch of old wounds. Once I got home and stopped crying, I realized that was exactly what I needed. Our loved ones live on if we remember them and that’s why the Stolen by Suicide Memorial Scroll matters so much.
It keeps people alive. It creates a community for those who need it. It shines a light on just how many people die by suicide each year. It shows us that we can change things if we speak up and make ourselves comfortable talking about decidedly uncomfortable subjects.
From now on, I vow to talk about suicide and mental illness a lot more. I hope you’ll join me.