My mother never had a moment’s doubt.
On the morning of the Fourth of July, 1973, I was broken, exhausted, and drugged on an emergency room table in my hometown of Southfield, Mich., impaled with an array of needles and tubes. Soon I would be on the operating table to restore my T12 and L1 vertebrae and relieve the compression on my spinal cord.
Having fallen 20 feet out of a tree, I was unable to move or feel my legs the moment I hit the ground. I was 18.
I heard my mother talking to a nurse. She said, “He’s not the type to let something like this stop him.” Beyond the sadness in her voice, I could tell that, for her, this was a given, though I’d never heard her actually say anything of the sort.
My father had never expressed such a thing either, but he’d been showing it all my life. I’d worked in his drugstore since I was 8, at which tender age he had trusted me to run the cash register and front checkout counter on my own (where I indulged in all the free candy and Coke I could, and snuck regular peeks at the Playboys kept under the counter). He supported my interests in music and photography, and I never doubted that he believed in me with equal sureness as my mother.
So it was beyond my capacity to imagine that, 13 weeks after my injury, the day before I came home from rehab, my dad, Samuel Karp, would take his own life.
My two older brothers and I were told he’d had a heart attack. He was found slumped over in his car, they said, on the side of the road on the way to his new drugstore, due to open in two weeks.
It made sense. He was under tremendous stress. After 25 years of filling prescriptions and selling milk, cigarettes, liquor, and sundries in a working class community in outer Detroit, he’d been forced to sell his store in the face of the neighborhood’s rapid economic decline. He had been the classic corner druggist, an anchor for many over the years, a friend and advisor. His customers were also a source of his sense of self and pride. He was forced to give all this up. He had never faced loss and change on that scale in his life. Add his history of high blood pressure, and I had no cause to question the heart attack story — odd as the timing was.
Six years later a close cousin, thinking I already knew the truth, let it slip. It took a trip to the county records office to see the word “suicide” on the death certificate for me to really grasp it. As a pharmacist, my dad had an easy solution. He checked into a motel along the route to the new store (making sure his car would be visible to the inevitable searcher) and took a careful mixture of drugs that put him gently to sleep.
Who Was My Father?
There are so many profound questions about my father’s death about which I can only speculate, but in the ensuing years I’ve tried to piece together what I can, draw whatever lessons I can from his loss, try to bring some meaning to what he did.
The first question was as basic as “who was my father?” That he could do such a thing had been entirely beyond my conception. The strong, confident, always in control man who I regarded — with a touch of fear — as my hero and model, was actually a man who also wrestled with deep and chronic self-doubt.
I’d been basing my own notion of manhood on his example — and feeling failed as I fought my own inner demons. In a way, learning of his suicide took the pressure off — he didn’t live up to his own image of himself! I found myself feeling more compassion for him, understanding at last that he was fragile — fully human — after all. As truly painful as this was, the revelation made my father more real for me.
But the timing! What did it mean that he did this the day before I came home? My homecoming had to be a factor in his choice, more than he felt he could handle. Even though I had excelled in rehab, had largely kept my spirits up and was enthusiastic about getting back out there and beginning architectural school, he clearly was unable to form a vision of the very full life I have lived in the 40 years hence.
Perhaps more accurately, he was unable to form a vision of how he himself was going to relate to my paralysis. This is not a matter of speculation. A week or so before I was released from rehab, I was let out for a first overnight at home as a little trial experience. At bedtime as I was undressing, with both of my parents on hand, my father reached down to try to help me remove my socks. My mother swatted his hand away, rightly reminding him I could do it myself. The great shock of it for me wasn’t so much that he had tried to help, but that I saw him in a state of confusion, literally not knowing his place. I’d never seen him like that, unsure and disoriented.
It leaves me believing that my dad was operating on a very negative set of beliefs and assumptions about what it was going to mean for me to live with paralysis. My mother confirmed that he had these doubts — once I revealed that I knew the truth (which I didn’t do until some years later, but that’s another story).
The world of the early ’70s was still a very unfriendly one for chair users. Curb cuts and blue parking were just beginning to appear around Detroit. You couldn’t count on finding a usable bathroom, and I had to be carried up and down a lot of steps, go in a lot of back doors, often separated (read “segregated”) from the people I had arrived with. The state-of-the-art ride was a 50-plus-pound Everest & Jennings chromed folder. For my father to have become so utterly devoid of hope, my impending life on wheels must have looked terribly hard to him.
I could only remember one figure in his life who was paralyzed. Sid Kaplan was my father’s brother’s wife’s brother (I know, you need a moment to work that one out). Sid had been shot in the back after closing his drugstore (there were a bunch of pharmacists in our world), robbed of the day’s cash on his way to the bank. He didn’t do well at all with spinal cord paraplegia. How much was Sid the model for what my dad imagined for me?
There were no positive role models, very few wheelers out and about in daily life. Any media portrayal was entirely in the extremes of tragedy or inspirational human-interest stories. My dad’s notions of disability had to have been informed by the stereotypes of the day (barely changed today), and mostly negative ones at that. My mother somehow managed to embrace a vision of potential, but couldn’t bring him around to it.
The moment I was back in the community, it was clear to me that people had no clue how living with a disability worked. I saw the fact of my disability override people’s ability to see me for the person I still was, unchanged in the ways that really mattered. I saw that the prevailing stereotypes of disability were thoroughly disconnected from the person I was, someone who had adapted. And it was a profound shock to discover — years after his death — that my own father had fallen prey to these skewed beliefs, that he wasn’t challenging them for my sake, and that they had played a major role in leading him to the ultimate level of despair.
What it Means to All of Us
Familial suicide can be seen as an extreme expression of our inaccurate cultural beliefs about living with paralysis. Paralysis is hard enough on a family without being amplified by notions of a guaranteed life of suffering that simply aren’t true. How much unnecessary emotional pain do people endure because they have bought into these exaggerated notions of the horrors of life with a disability? And how many people who believe that only the rare, exceptional person can succeed, end up rendering it less likely to happen by failing to even try, convinced of its impossibility?
There is no data on family members who commit suicide in response to traumatic change such as SCI. These stories are never that simple. I don’t believe my dad took his own life purely in response to my paralysis. He was under tremendous pressure, and his life was a mess — at least in his view. Paralysis is seldom the direct cause, but it might be one factor.
When my first book, Life on Wheels, was published in 1999, and I began my career as a speaker, I hadn’t realized at first how much my father’s death drove my sense of mission. I wanted to set society straight about the disability experience. Eventually, I realized that I’m on a quest to bring some meaning to what my father did. I want everyone to remember Sam Karp — and all of the others we don’t know of — and think twice before surrendering to doubt and despair when a loved one acquires a disability. I want their memories to prompt people to be willing to believe that anyone can prosper — given the resources we all deserve, like sufficient rehab — and to stick around to see it for themselves. And be part of it. Everyone deserves that chance. Many who don’t believe they can succeed, do.
But we never got the chance to know what was up with my dad. My family didn’t communicate in any truly intimate way. We were clueless about each other’s internal lives, thoughts, feelings. My brothers and I lived in our own worlds, expected to conform to a proper Jewish, middle-class, suburban lifestyle. My parents played their respective roles of mother/housewife and father/enforcer. I think that’s what my dad thought he had risked his life for in World War II. A simple, secure life.
They were all there at the hospital and rehab center to support me every day. I remember a prevailing spirit of support and hope. What a horrible contradiction it is to know that my father may have been contemplating his own death at the same time. What an immensely sad thing it is that people are so capable of hiding such existential suffering from the people they are supposed to be the closest to.
Many people think that holding back their feelings during times of traumatic change is how to “be strong” for each other. The person dealing with recent disability should be protected from the “burden” of other people’s emotions. I understand the intuitive impulse to do this, that it comes from our compassionate nature and desire to do the right thing.
But I would put to you that my father’s story suggests a profoundly different approach. Families need to not be so afraid of letting each other know what’s going on in their hearts and minds. It’s not a contradiction to say, “I will believe in your ability to deal with this, even if as a matter of faith. I’m also in so much pain for what you are having to endure, and am afraid for you.” Those things can co-exist. Having that conversation can save a life. It could have saved my father’s.