Every Christmas Eve, too late, he told me about it again. The eight-year-old PFY had stepped on an old can that severed his tattered shoe. The stab wound became infected with tetanus – even now fatal 10 percent of the time, far more so in rural Ireland around the middle of the century. The nearest hospital was hours away and no one owned a car in my father’s fishing village. Eventually a wealthy man came to drive PJ, but too late: in the back seat, his body already stiff and his jaws locked, PJ died, stiff, sprawled on the laps of my 13-year-old father and father.
Every time my father told the story, I looked out of his eyes at his dying little brother, who was only 8 years old. PJ’s body had become his coffin. That must have been so terrifying. My father must have felt so helpless.
From a helpless boy, my father went from being an intimidating man, partly through determination. He had no control over PJ’s death, and not much over my mother’s. Yet the anger that caused his faint became a motivational energy that turned into physical strength. He managed to work so hard and steadily, to be so selfless and steadfast in saving money, that he paid for my way through an Ivy League college.
Most of all, however, his strength is likely to have proven itself in the way he had to endure his physical suffering for so long. By the time he was 70, he was constantly and unpredictably excluded from upset stomach or bowel problems that no doctor could adequately treat or even diagnose. The persistence of his illnesses should have made me more concerned about him. Instead, he became the father who wept. I couldn’t or wouldn’t put myself in his tormented body; and to the extent that I could get into his thoughts, I decided that his sickness was made worse by his tendency to brood.
It wasn’t until after my father’s suicide that I learned that depression can cause chronic gastrointestinal distress, just as stress can cause back pain or sadness. I doubt any doctor explained this to my father sufficiently. The mere suggestion that his suffering might have had a “psychosomatic” component made him protest that what was happening to him wasn’t just “inside his head”. Of course not. And yet the brain is just as much a part of the body as the intestine. In addition to sensing physical pain, the brain can also help trigger painful physical responses.
If my father had a better understanding of the mind-body connection, would that have saved him? I can not say it. But although I could imagine his emotional or psychological suffering, I was reluctant to empathize with him physically. I could put myself in his eyes as he looked down at his dying brother. But I resisted his aching body. And maybe that’s because we think depression so much in our heads, even though it can be in the flesh and blood and organs too – I tried to get him to change his perception. What I should have urged was better medical care for his body with all the pain.
Maura Kelly is working on memoirs about her father. She encourages anyone experiencing a mental illness to go to an emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website (nami.org).