The part that bothers me the most is that I don’t know if my father blew off the right side of his face or the left.

I don’t know what day my father died, or what day he killed himself either. But that part doesn’t bother me much because I have a general timeframe—early May, the end of the first week or beginning of the second. And I know this because I was at the studio that night, not the night he killed himself, but the night that someone in the Ludwick family, my father’s side of the family, remembered the fact that my father has two daughters from his previous marriage and maybe, just maybe, we might want to know that our own father had blown his brains out. That night, one of the Ludwicks finally called my sister Bethany, and Bethany called me.

I was working on a new painting when she called. I was at the studio with three friends. My husband Dillon was in Puerto Rico on business. And I remember specifically that it was Puerto Rico and not Venezuela or Costa Rica or Utah or something because Dillon and I had talked a lot about Puerto Rico. I was supposed to go with him. I usually do. If it’s a good location, I’ll fly out on a Thursday or Friday and we’ll make a weekend of it. But I cancelled out at the last minute because every time I tried to figure out what to pack, or when to leave, or when to return, I became exhausted, physically exhausted. And that’s not like me. That’s why it’s important, to the timeframe, because if grief can transfer, maybe the weight of grief can transfer too.

* * *

I was at the studio with Karen, Nicole, and Shama when my sister called to tell me that our father died. He didn’t die that day, he had been dead for a while, not long, but definitely dead. At that point, his body hadn’t been released from the coroner’s office. Something about an investigation to confirm suicide and rule out murder or vice versa. I think that’s routine.

My painting is important to the timeframe. Not the one I was working on that night, but the one I had finished three days before. The painting was hanging in my studio space on the wall above Karen. Karen’s a writer, and she was curled up in her sleeping bag on the floor, she was on her side, writing in her writer’s journal. My section of the studio is private, but the studio isn’t. I’m one of about twenty artists who work on the top floor of a large warehouse. The studio is above a tortilla factory in the old part of town. The landlord, who’s also an artist, or more like an artist hyphen tortilla maker, rents out sections of the top floor to painters and sculptors.

Renting a section is like having a cubby-hole, but larger. The landlord built tri-fold sections for each space. The tri-folds are like the three-sided mirrors in retail stores. And he covered the windows with newspaper to block out the light because everyone knows natural light ruins paint, so we all bring our own lighting. I’m sure the overhead lights work, the long florescent ones that are in every warehouse ceiling, but I’ve never seen them turned on, and I don’t know where the light switch is. Some of the artists use light stands like photographers use, or clamp-ons. I use the clamp-ons that Dillon bought for me at the Home Depot—they work well for what I’m trying to do.

The part that bothers me the most is that I don’t know if my father blew off the right side of his face or the left.

Nothing in the studio is closed off, but the artists respect each other enough not to step into someone else’s tri-fold section unless invited. It’s okay to look, but it’s not okay to step in and look. Every group, even artists, has their own rules about etiquette.

Karen doesn’t sculpt or paint, but she likes to hang out at the studio with me and write. She says it’s the energy, that she writes better when there’s other artists around, something about the essence of our psyches feeding into her stories. She always brings her sleeping bag because she likes to be on her side when she writes, but she hates feeling the cold cement floor against her skin. So Karen was on the floor in my tri-fold section and Nicole was across the room in her tri-fold section, working on a painting, but I don’t know which one or what it was about or what colors Nicole was using. And Shama was roller-skating.

Shama looks like Peter Pan, but cute and feminine, and because she’s skinny and keeps her hair short and doesn’t wear makeup, she looks like a kid, not a grown woman. Shama skates because she’s an art history professor even though she doesn’t look like one or act like one, a fact she’s proud of. So, Shama was skating because she isn’t really an artist, she’s an honorary artist, and because we have the same size feet. The roller skates are mine. I keep them at the studio because I like to skate when I need a break, I take laps around the room.

That night Shama put on my skates while Nicole rolled a joint. And my three artist friends smoked the joint, but I didn’t smoke. Not because I’m against illegal drugs. Politically speaking, I think marijuana should be legalized. But I didn’t smoke with them because I like being sober when I’m painting. I just like it.

I was at the studio, I was working on a new painting, Dillon was in Puerto Rico, someone finally called Bethany, I learned that my father had shot his brains out.

* * *

I can see the forest. Skinny, tall trees. I see this because I was told he killed himself on some land he owned, some place he used to go to for hunting trips. I can see the wooden structure nestled among the branches of a tree. There is a thin, wooden ladder leading up to a circular hole that was cut into the floor of the tree house. Inside, my father sits perched on a stool. He is next to a tiny window. He holds his shotgun up to one shoulder, leans toward the window, peers through the riflescope, and aims at living things.

Bird’s eye view. Shoot to kill.

But that part probably isn’t true. The part about the rustic, wooden tree house because knowing my father, or rather, not really knowing him, but finding out how much money my father had and how much he liked comfort . . .

It wasn’t always this way. My father and I used to know each other, sort of, in a small way, in that daddy-daughter kind of way. He left my mother when I was four and Bethany was six. He left us in Texas and moved back up to Michigan where the Ludwicks were known for their procreation and glorification of God. And as broken families go, we functioned well enough—at first. School year with my mother and summer vacation with my father and the rest of the Ludwick clan.

If I had to pick a point in time when the Ludwicks started to dislike me, I’d say it was when I hit puberty, but that’s not entirely true because everyone knows that relationships don’t change suddenly or at one specific point. It’s more like a break and seal or break and glue and break and break and glue, until it’s just not worth the energy to try and maintain what never really worked in the first place. But puberty is when the differences between the Ludwicks and me became obvious. That’s when my face thinned out and the woman I was becoming started to show in my features and gestures. I didn’t look like the Ludwick women—short and compact, the thick-waisted Dutch descendents with thin lips and square jaw lines. Instead, I looked like a clone of my mother—fluid and strong, a peasant and imperial blend from Native American, Asian, and English descendants with four lines that traced back to the Mayflower. Even though my father never said anything directly to me about it, I know he must have felt like he was looking at a souvenir from hell each time he looked at me.

And puberty because that’s when I started questioning the authority, and sense, and sanity of those in control.

It was silly, the first thing I did that made the Ludwicks start hating me. It was a silly thing about a boy in my Sunday school class who had retracted his love for me and shifted his affection to the prettiest girl in our Bible class. And of course she liked him back. Pissed me off.

During church service, I sat in the middle pew between my father and my grandmother, holding up a hymnal and shooting the finger at the preacher. And of course, the preacher told on me. But it was more of a silly misunderstanding than anything else. I didn’t have anything against the preacher, I wasn’t telling the preacher to fuck off. I was just hoping that he might be able to deliver the message to God because apparently God had stopped listening to me. I mean really, what was I supposed to think? I’d been told my entire life that God controls all things, that everything happens for a reason, and it’s all a part of God’s plan. So following that logic, God took that boy’s love away from me, and on top of it, He gave it to the prettiest girl in our Bible class. Like she needed it, like she didn’t already have one-up on the rest of us.

For punishment, my grandmother washed my mouth out with Old Spice deodorant soap. Another poor choice on their part. I hadn’t said fuck you, I had signed it, so they should have been washing my hands, not my mouth. Unless, of course, they were hoping that the hygienic purification would somehow seep from my mouth up into my brain cells, the true culprit of my transgression.

The finger-at-the-preacher misunderstanding happened the same summer as the pagan misunderstanding. The Ludwicks were hosting the after-church, lake-side picnic, and I overheard one of my father’s sisters call my mother a pagan. I assumed pagan meant whore because the way she said it sounded like whore to me. I went through junior high and high school believing pagan meant whore. I even called Nancy Thompson a pagan to her face when I found out that she had given my boyfriend a blowjob. I didn’t learn what a pagan was until my sophomore year of college. Finding out the truth felt disappointing, it didn’t make sense. Truth disconnects belief.

The worst part was it had been my father’s soap. The Old Spice, it’s what my father always used and so from then on I associated love and betrayal with the scent of my father. It’s like Lean over Fat instead of Fat over Lean, when the top layer of paint dries before the first one does, and then the entire image cracks. I couldn’t handle the fissures. I stopped visiting him. I stayed in Texas. I stayed with my mother. I stopped being his daughter. He was just another Ludwick, just Richard Ludwick, and after a while, we didn’t even know each other anymore.

So where were you? Where were you? When you first heard that your father committed suicide, where were you?

I think that’s when my father stopped hating me, because you can’t hate someone who no longer exists to you.

Bethany stayed in touch with him. She was the good daughter, good and obedient. She didn’t question the rules, or authority. She didn’t back-talk or shoot the finger at the preacher. She was always a better Christian than me, she still is. Bethany has a level of forgiveness that is foreign to me. Even after our father found a new wife and his wife gave birth to two sons and he started taking his new family on vacations and holiday cruises and he neglected to invite his daughters and even after he moved his new family into a luxurious, lake-side house and the boys grew older and drove foreign sports cars and I drove around in my shit-used beater car and Bethany struggled to pay back her student loans. Even then, he remained her father, and because she knew how to forgive him, she was able to love him.

I hadn’t spoken to a Ludwick in over fifteen years. Even if one of them had suddenly remembered my existence, they couldn’t have called me. The Ludwicks didn’t know where I was, or who I was, or how to find me. Without Bethany, I may have never known. It’s possible. It’s an absolute possibility. Without Bethany, I wouldn’t know that Richard Ludwick owned a country estate, that he had a collection of guns, that our father died alone.

* * *

Yellow. That’s the color of paint I had on my brush when I got the news about my father’s suicide. Yellow. And not a green-yellow like the earth, and not a blue-yellow like the sea. I was using a golden-yellow like the sun. And I was with Karen, Nicole, and Shama. And Dillon was in Puerto Rico.

Shama was skating and she ran into one of the tri-folds on the other side of the studio, and she must have hit it hard because it was loud enough that I stopped painting and looked over my shoulder. And Nicole said, “What the fuck out, bitch. I’ll kick your ass for that.” And my cell phone rang.

I don’t think Nicole meant What the fuck out, bitch because What the fuck out doesn’t make any sense, it’s not a coherent sentence. I think she meant to say, “Watch the fuck out, bitch” or “Fuck! Watch out, bitch.” But sometimes incoherence is needed to get the point across. It’s like what Karen says about language, that sometimes meaning can’t be expressed through the established form of our language and that it’s the sounds of words, not the actual words themselves, that create meaning and significance.

And what Nicole said, she didn’t say it out of anger, she was just saying what one artist says to someone who messes with another artist’s work.

I had stepped over to my purse and was kneeling down, when my cell phone rang again. And Shama was yelling back at Nicole, telling Nicole that she’d have to catch her first if she wanted to kick her ass, and I switched my paintbrush from my right hand to my left because I’m right handed and Nicole said, “I’ll tackle your ass, bitch.” And I dug my cellphone out of my purse and looked at the screen and the screen said “Beth Home,” which meant Bethany was calling me from her home in Nebraska and not “Beth Cell,” which is her cellphone or “Beth Cell2,” which is her husband’s cellphone, and the phone rang for the third time while I was holding it, while I was reading the screen, and Shama skated by laughing. And I clicked the green button and said, “Hey, Hey.”

But Bethany didn’t say “Hey” back, which is what she always does. And she didn’t go into a never-ending monologue of the most interesting thing she just did or just thought of, which is the other thing she always does.

“Where are you?”

Not Hey, not the never-ending monologue, but Where are you. And maybe that’s part of why I remember exactly what I was doing, why I remember what color paint I was using, and why I knew, even before she told me, that something was wrong.

I think that part is normal, the process of memory. Like where were you when Kennedy was shot, where were you when the Challenger exploded, where were you when OJ hid in the back of the white Bronco. It’s not important where you were the exact moment the events took place, even though that’s the actual question, but it’s the implied question that matters. It’s the implied question that’s actually being asked. Where were you when you first heard the news? That’s what the question means. Because that’s the point where truth modifies belief, and you change. It becomes part of you—the rage, the shock, the sorrow, even the shame—it becomes a part of who you are.

So where were you? Where were you? When you first heard that your father committed suicide, where were you?


“Where are you?” she asked, and I knew it was bad. It was going to be bad. And my first thought was my mom, and I told Bethany I was at the studio. Then I thought it might be Jake, but it couldn’t be Jake because Jake is her husband and Bethany needs Jake. It could not be Jake. I was with my friends, I named each one, Karen, Nicole, and Shama, it was important to tell Bethany each name because if she thought I was alone, then she might not tell me right away, she might tell me to go someplace first, or she might hang up on me and call Dillon so that he can come get me. But Dillon’s in Puerto Rico. And I thought it was my niece, Bethany’s daughter Madeline, and I was praying, not Madeline, not Madeline, not Madeline! and I don’t know why, but I told her again. I told her I was at the studio, I was with Karen, Nicole, and Shama. And at some point I must have covered up my left ear with my left hand, so that I could hear her better, so that I wouldn’t miss a word of what she was about to say to me. And I know this, that I held the phone with my right hand and must have covered my left ear with my other hand, the hand that held the paintbrush because I ended up getting yellow paint in my hair, oil-based paint, that doesn’t wash out right away, that was still there, in my hair, when I went to my father’s funeral and the only way I could have gotten paint in my hair like that was if I pressed my left hand against that side of my head to cover my ear.

“Our father is dead.” And then she said it again. “Our father is dead. He killed himself.” And I didn’t understand, and that’s when Bethany said, “Richard is dead.” And maybe she said his name, said Richard is dead, because she thought I didn’t know who she was talking about, because I had stopped referring to our father as father back when I was in high school, and I had referred to him as Richard ever since. But that wasn’t the part I didn’t understand. The part I didn’t understand was that it had happened at all. And then, because she was saying it, she couldn’t stop saying it. Bethany said, “Our father, Richard Ludwick, is dead. Our father is dead. Richard Ludwick. Our father killed himself. Richard Ludwick.”

And now my father’s suicide is a part of who I am.

* * *

There are certain ways people are supposed to die. This is not one of them.

Richard Ludwick was a wealthy physician. He was married to a nice woman who gave birth to two good sons. Richard Ludwick believed in God. Richard Ludwick loved them. I know this. Richard Ludwick was a Vietnam Vet. I know this much about Richard Ludwick. Richard Ludwick left behind two suicide letters. One letter was to his wife and sons. The other letter was to his parents. Richard Ludwick drove three hours to his country estate, he had a cabin, he hunted. Richard Ludwick killed things, including Vietnamese, including our relationship, including himself.

Shoot to Kill. Bird’s eye view.

Richard Ludwick. Air Force Pilot. Christian. Father. Physician. This is what I know. This is what I know about Richard Ludwick. He used his own gun. He used his own hands, he used his own mind, he made his own decision. It was not a logical decision.

There are certain ways people are supposed to die. This is not one of them.

* * *

My painting, the one that was hanging in my tri-fold section above Karen, it’s a painting of my father. It was the first time, the only time, I had ever painted my father into one of my pieces, and I’ve been painting for years, for twelve years, I’ve been painting. But my father was never in any of my work. This is why the timeframe is so important, because of when I painted it and why I painted it and what I was feeling.

I started painting that piece in March, and I finished it three days before Bethany called me. I was painting an image of my father the months leading up to his suicide. I had never painted an image of my father before. Please understand this. This is why the timeframe is so important because I don’t believe that his suicide was sudden. It’s like the break and bend, the break and glue and break and break and glue of things that rupture and split. And while he was breaking, I was painting, and somehow who he was and what he felt showed up in my art.

In the painting, in my painting, my father is standing up on a bed, he is wearing burgundy boxer shorts. His chest, and this is the part that frightens me, his chest is split open. There are his ribs, and his skin, and his muscle and his blood and everything is torn and split. In the corner of the painting, reaching out to him is a hand, my hand. I had painted my hand into the portrait, and his chest is split open, split open because when I was painting, when I was painting the piece, I felt the overwhelming desperation and grief, his desperation and grief. I felt that the only way to feel joy, the only way to release his desperation and grief was by splitting open. For three months, I worked on nothing but that painting. He couldn’t feel anything else. For three months, leading up to Dillon and Puerto Rico and overwhelming exhaustion. He was just trying to feel something else. And I couldn’t even go to Puerto Rico with Dillon because I felt it. Somehow I had felt it. Leading up to my father’s suicide, I felt the weight of grief. I felt my father.

This is something I cannot explain.

* * *

When Bethany told me it was our father, that it was our father who had died, I felt a rush of absolute relief. Nothing but absolute relief. And I thanked God. I thanked God that it wasn’t Madeline, and I thanked God it wasn’t Jake, and I thanked God it wasn’t my mother. Even though I didn’t believe in God, even though I stopped believing in God more than a decade ago, I thanked God because faith has a way of resurrecting itself through fear and release.

* * *

“I’m sorry, Bethany. I’m so sorry.” I said it as if what was happening wasn’t happening to me. As if what was happening was happening to her because she had been his good daughter, she had been his only daughter. I wasn’t ready to forgive him. I still wasn’t ready. I had been trying my whole life not to love him. Trying so hard not to love the man who abandoned his first family, the man who had betrayed us, the man who had replaced two daughters with two sons. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Bethany.”

* * *

That night my artist friends stayed with me, not because I was grieving. They stayed because there are reasons, reasons beyond grief, to hold onto someone.

It was Karen who said it. The four of us were sitting on Karen’s sleeping bag and staring at the painting of my father, and Karen said, “Terry Iacuzzo, she’s this famous psychic in New York. Terry says that writers get their stories from the same place that psychics get their visions.” And Karen stopped and looked at me. She reached out and rubbed the back of my head, and just in case I didn’t get what she was saying, she added, “The same goes for painters. An artist is an artist. We’re all connected to the same source.”

* * *

I’ve given up on God. Not that there was much left to our relationship, but it’s official now. I’ve traded Him in for psychics, fortune tellers, and Tarot card readers. I think they’re onto something.

* * *

Nicole and Karen went on a beer run. They came back with cigarettes, red wine, and some fast food. It was going to be an all-nighter because that’s what artists do for other artists. I sucked on salty fries, I called Dillon. Dillon was coming home for me and taking me to Michigan to be with Bethany, to attend my father’s funeral. I was going to be surrounded by Ludwicks. Ludwicks who didn’t like me. They didn’t really know me, but what they knew is that they didn’t like me. And I remember wondering, if I had gone with him to Puerto Rico, would I have used Puerto Rico as an excuse to miss the funeral because I’m good at making complications look like obstacles when I know that there are people who don’t want me around.

If it wasn’t for Bethany, I wouldn’t have gone at all. Maybe because I wouldn’t have even known.

* * *

At the funeral, all of the Ludwicks were politely weird in that stiff way where decorum buffers any threat of intimacy. But it was my grandfather who freaked me out the most because he dropped the Ludwick protocol. He came straight at me. Slowly of course, because he’s old, but with intent. And all I could do was stand there as he shuffled through everyone, locked on to me, his despair feeling something like my father’s. The guests stepped aside for my grandfather, turning to watch, to witness. The Ludwicks did their shifty-eye, tight-mouth look at each other, pretending not to judge, always pretending. And when my grandfather finally reached me, he whispered my name. He whispered my name and held on to me. And at first I thought that I was being forgiven, that my father was being forgiven, but as he held on to me, as his body trembled, as my grandfather wept in my arms, I realized that it was my grandfather who was begging for my forgiveness.

* * *

When we shame our children for their imperfections, or their flaws, or their sins, we teach them how to suffocate parts of themselves. It’s not to fragment, but to eradicate, and it is impossible to love.

* * *

There were over 500 people at my father’s funeral. I was there for three days. Two days of visitation and one day of burial, military style. Three-gun salute. And I listened to the blasts, to each gun fire, and I tried to hold that sound. I tried to feel that sound, to memorize it, knowing that it was probably the last sound my father heard before he died.

* * *

I still want to know. About his face. I want to know if it was the right side of his face or the left, but that’s not the type of question where I can just call one of the Ludwicks and ask, even though it’s only been nine months, even though officially, I’m his daughter, and so officially, I’m still mourning. I know very little about my father’s death, about his life, about the man he was. And what I want to know I’ll never be allowed to ask because grief, like other forms of emotion and language and groups, grief is structured and defined through etiquette.

I don’t even know if he died right away or if he lived for a while and slowly bled to death, crippled, with an eye hanging out of the socket and his jaw shattered into bone fragments, fragments lodged into his brain. Because even though he left two suicide letters, no one found his body for a while. Or at least, that’s part of what I’ve been able to put together. And that just sucks because what if he lived for twelve hours or an entire day, all alone in his cabin, gurgling up blood. I’m trying to hear that sound. I’m trying to hear what wet breathing sounds like. Breath and blood. Because there’s that moment, that moment after you do it, and you realize. You realize exactly what you’ve done. And I know this. This is something I definitely know because in the painting, in my painting, my father is standing up on his bed, he is wearing burgundy boxer shorts. His chest. His chest is split open. There are his ribs, and his skin, and his muscle, and everything is torn and split.

“He died that way, you know,” Shama had said.

“What?” I hadn’t been listening to her. I thought she was talking about my father, and in a way, she was.

“Van Gogh . . . or was it Poe? . . . anyway, he took a gun to his chest, or his heart. I can’t quite remember. But he blew his chest open that way.”

Truth is I don’t know what part of himself my father shot. But in my mind it has to be his face. I cannot accept that I knew something, but failed to understand. Because there is a hand painted into the portrait, and it is mine, I am reaching. I am reaching for my father. I am reaching for my father’s heart.

And this is something I am trying to understand.