I’ve often wondered what is our fascination with masks? At Halloween we often hide behind a mask of some hideous creature in order to frighten and alarm an unsuspecting friend or neighbour. At Christmastime in Newfoundland & Labrador there is an old tradition to rig up in the weirdest costumes you can find and mask your face so no one would recognize you then go from house to house in search of the drink, music and a dance or two before heading on to the next house; the art of mummering. We use beauty treatment masks to help “improve” our appearance and we spend hundreds of dollars a year on makeup to change the way we look which in itself is a mask of sorts. But what about the mask some people wear every single day of their lives? This particular mask doesn’t change their appearance, you still see their eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, chin. Sometimes that mask is a smile. What hides behind that simple mask can often be alarming, hideous, unimaginable terror, sadness, dread, and a sense of hopelessness.
It’s been a year since my brother in law, Tony, died by suicide. He wore the ultimate mask, a disguise so magnificent and unassuming that when he died many people including close friends and family were dumbfounded and speechless at the mere thought that someone so funny, happy-go-lucky and personable could’ve died in such a tragic and unthinkable way. Yet he did. However, the story of how he got to that place is not mine to tell. His wife, my sister, came to me and asked if we could collaborate on something as it was coming up on the one year anniversary of his passing. Margie wished to open the door and shed some light on his life so we could try and start to understand why things unfolded the way they did, how we can help others who are struggling and may need help and to remember Tony for the brilliant, kind, intelligent man he was.
“Today while walking I was thinking or worrying that I might start to forget things about you…your laugh, your smile, things you used to say, your voice, your sense of humor. The loving way you cared for me and the girls. I want people – family and friends to continue to talk about you, say your name. It brings me comfort. ” – Margie
Margie had been writing her thoughts and feelings in a journal that a close friend had given her. Experts say it’s good therapy to put pen to paper. She recently handed the spiral-bound hard cover book over to me. It was blue and had a daisy on the cover with the word “Hope” embossed on it. I knew the words inside were anything like the cheerful and bright image that was depicted on the cover. I waited to be alone, then I sat down and opened the cover: “Tony was the love of my life”. I could tell from that very first hand written sentence that she was apprehensive about the journaling process because of the way she literally put pen to paper. The ink colour was light and you could tell the pen was not pushing hard onto the paper. It took a couple of tries to cross the letter T. Soon, however, the thoughts and feelings poured out of her and onto the page. Quotes, underlines, arrows, asterisks, paragraphs were scattered throughout. I easily recognized Margie’s handwriting, after all, she is my sister. There were times though where the handwriting was a little less familiar, like the words were being rushed as if she’d forget what she wanted to say if she didn’t hurry along. Some of the pages were stained with coffee, which I knew were written early in the morning as that is her routine. Coffee first, everything else after. Some of the ink was smudged, likely from tears that fell as she was reliving the last 12 months. Entries were written in pen, red ink, blue ink and pencil. Here are some of her words:
Tony was the love of my life. He was a wonderful father and would do anything for his girls and did everything to keep them happy. He made their favorite meals, offered advice, and he was very calm and patient; rarely raising his voice. He was very level-headed when it came to them. He loved when they brought their friends around; he was very accepting of everyone. He stood by me when I was diagnosed with leukemia just six months after we were married. He often told me how strong I was, and when he was struggling, I was his savior.
Tony had many interests. He loved to read, was an animal lover, and he was one of the most intelligent people I knew. He could talk about any topic and could easily recall facts, dates, and information. He loved cooking; it was one of his favorite pastimes. He made it look effortless and never complained. Every time I turned around, we had to go to the grocery store to “pick up a few things.” He loved trying new recipes, and he had a collection of our favorites as well. In the weeks before he passed, he ordered many different spices online that he couldn’t find in nearby stores. He bought jars, labeled and organized them, and he started making these delicious curry dishes. I often said it’s hard to find a restaurant that makes meals as good as Tony could.
Tony’s pain began at a really young age when he was described as being “bad” or “idle” when he was a child, and he suffered from depression. During high school, a teacher told him he was as “smart” as so-and-so if only he would apply himself. From what I’ve observed, through conversations and time we’ve spent together, he likely had undiagnosed ADHD (primarily inattentive type). I often wondered if he had received the support he needed, would things have turned out differently? Unfortunately, people always felt they were complimenting Tony when they said, “You can be anything you want; you’re so smart.” I’ve probably said that to him as well. In fact, comments like that only served to make him feel like a failure, like he didn’t reach his potential. He said he felt like people thought he was lazy because mentally and physically he wasn’t able to do what others could. He felt he was a burden.
Tony had been medicated for anxiety and depression for many years. About 7 months before he passed he decided to stop his medication to “see how it felt to be unmedicated.” Under medical supervision he slowly weaned off the meds…it was six weeks of hell for him. When withdrawal symptoms finally wore off, his whole personality seemed to change. He seemed manic, like he could feel again. He was like this for part of the summer then the anxiety and depression crept back in. That, coupled with his many physical ailments, doctors appointments, physio, massage therapy, sleep apnea, all began to take a toll. Very few people knew how much he was suffering, especially those last few months. Early November 2022 he visited his doctor and began a new medication to treat his anxiety and depression just a few days before he died.
I almost feel like that last summer he knew his eventual fate. We tried to go for walks to some of his favorite places and did some of the things he loved to do. For some reason, I took random selfies of us so much that summer. I often wonder how long he planned his death. I should’ve known what he was planning especially when I think back on our conversations in the days leading up to his death. I really think he thought we’d be okay without him. I don’t think he realized that life would be so unbearable without him.
That day started out like any other day. I got up before Tony and had my coffee, which he had gotten ready the night before. He got up shortly after and had a coffee with me. We sent a couple of messages in the family group chat that we have with Katelyn and Emily and I did my Wordle. Everything seemed to be OK. I left around 10:30 to run a few errands. Initially, Tony was going to go with me but he changed his mind at the last minute. When I walked out the door that morning I had no idea that it would be the last time I would see him alive. While I was out I sent him a text and then called him and got no reply. Anyone who knows Tony, knew how much he loved his phone. I thought it was strange he didn’t get back to me.The text message was left unread.
Many years ago Tony started giving me angels for Christmas, angel ornaments for the tree or ones to sit on a tabletop or mantle. I had a large collection. Just a few days after he died a package arrived by mail addressed to him. It was one last angel for me, an Angel of Remembrance and she’s holding a cardinal.
Tony was a big believer in the afterlife and read countless books about it, as well as near death experiences. He truly believed that he was going to a better place where there was no more pain and he would be free from suffering.
“A few nights ago I had a dream about you. I’ve only had a couple I can remember. In this dream you had come back to us, you were alive. I didn’t see your face but you were with me, talking to me. I remember asking how we were going to explain to people that you were alive.” – Margie
September 2023 – Emily and I went for a walk down to “Sudder Brook” and she was telling me how Tony would take her there sometimes when she was younger. I mentioned about how Tony and I used to walk there a lot last summer. I told her the story about how last year on November 11th I wasn’t feeling good. I was upset because Tony told me he was stopping his new meds. They weren’t working, according to him. He was on a very small dose and he certainly knew they didn’t have time to work. That was the first time he had started new meds since he stopped taking the other ones back in April of 2022. I was upset because I felt I couldn’t help him. I spent most of the day in bed. He asked me to go for a walk that day and I said “No, I don’t feel up to it.” The next day he was gone.
*Shortly after Tony passed, the clock on our mantle stopped working but for some reason the pendulum kept swinging. The time on the clock read 10:47, the position where the hands stopped. *
After talking endlessly about Tony during our walk to Sudder Brook we got back home where Emily discovered the pendulum on our mantle clock had finally stopped swinging. I like to think it’s a sign from him.
It’s difficult when I’m home alone in my house. I often have a lot of flashbacks. I think about him and the last while he was alive. I’m trying to figure it out. I wonder why he chose to end his life? Did I play a part? What should I have done? Why did he think we’d be better off without him? We had so many good times together – lots of laughs and love. I still look for a note, hoping he would have left me some kind of message or explanation.
I wish I had a cloak of invisibility. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind talking to people, but I just wish the conversations were the same as when life was “normal”, not forced like they are now. I dreaded going out in public, not because I felt ashamed or embarrassed about Tony’s death, but I hated running into people who knew us. It was always the same…I always felt people were looking at me, pitying me, some just being nosey…”Are you living home?” Others asking “How are you doing?” How do you think I’m doing? How do I answer that question? I wouldn’t be able to answer it honestly. Nobody would want to hear how I’m really doing or feeling. No, I’m not strong. No, I’m not doing well. I’m coping, surviving amid the flashbacks, the “should haves”, feelings of guilt, the anxiety, trying to hold on to what’s left of our little family, without the one person who was our purpose, the one who promised me he “wasn’t going anywhere.”
Some final thoughts: Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Just because somebody appears happy on the outside that doesn’t mean everything is OK. People often mask their problems. If medication for anxiety and depression is working for you why would you stop taking it? People often stop taking their medication because they think everything is OK, when in fact it is OK because the medication is doing its job. If somebody is having suicidal thoughts please try to get them to seek professional help immediately.
I know it’s cliché but make the most of every moment with those you love because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
I would never have gotten this far without the protection and loving support of my family and friends. I just wish Tony would’ve realized how devastating life would be without him. He was our world.
So, how does one move on from such a tragic loss? How do they manage to put one foot in front of the other and go on about their lives? Well, they don’t have a choice really. Their world may have come to a screeching halt but the outside world still turns and everyone else goes on about their business. I was very angry about that in the beginning. I’d sit at the window and watch the cars go by, trucks speeding in and out the road, people jogging, people walking their dogs. It didn’t seem fair that they were living their lives and we were suspended in our grief. I mentioned this to a friend of mine, someone who was also deeply affected by Tony’s death, and he said we can’t think that way. Who knows what that person driving down the road or jogging or riding a bike is going through right now. They may be struggling with their own issues at this very moment. That was a light bulb moment for me – to think there are others out there who are struggling or hurting in some way comparable to us, letting us know that we are not alone in the journey, whatever that may be.
I’ve put together a compilation of photos that, I feel, sum up the life of a person whose life ended much sooner than it should have. There should have been more birthdays, Christmas celebrations, road trips, home cooked meals and joys to share, but it was not meant to be. What we have left are the memories that we must treasure and hold close to our hearts when we find ourselves in our darkest moments. Turn up the volume to listen and click on the video below.
Thank you, Margie, for sharing Tony’s story with us, I know it hasn’t been an easy journey for you, Katelyn and Emily. Hopefully, allowing us to access your innermost thoughts and feelings will provide us all with some semblance of peace knowing Tony was so well loved and cared for. Thank you for letting us see behind the mask.
I take no credit for the majority of photos used throughout the blog. Many of the pictures used were from Tony’s own collection and contributions made by various family members, I thank you for that.
If you or someone you know is struggling please reach out. There is always someone there to listen.
Phone 811 – Health Line
Until Next Time!