One afternoon in April of 1975, I picked up the phone in my office, and it was my mother, who NEVER called me at work.
She said, “Diane. Harry is dead.”
Both of my grandfathers were Harry, I had an uncle Harry, and my father was Harry. I didn’t think my mother would call my father “Harry” if she were telling me he had died. She would say, “Your father is dead.” Grandfather Harry Hunter had died in the early 60s, but I still had my grandfather Harry Weist, my uncle Harry Hunter, and my father Harry Weist. My brain seized for a moment; I didn’t know what to say or how to say it, but I finally asked, “Harry who?” She said, “Harry Hunter.”
My mother’s younger brother had shot and killed himself in his basement, without any of the fanfare of the previous year. The year before, aunt Mary had called my mother in desperation because uncle Harry had gone out into the woods with a rifle, threatening to kill himself. My mother had spent that afternoon on the phone. Uncle Harry had come back inside to talk to his sister on the phone three times. Twice he had gone back out with the gun, but the third time he’d stayed inside. My mother wrote me a long letter afterward, describing that day minute by minute. She ended the letter, “I made manicotti for dinner, and it was delicious.”
From that day, my mother referred to uncle Harry’s suicide as “the family’s first successful suicide.”
I’m older now, and have had some experience with mental illness, and I believe uncle Harry was bipolar. Throughout his life he was alternately exuberant and morose. He had spending sprees, buying power tools, cameras and boats that he would use for a while and then forget about. He built a boat his basement that was too big to get out of the house. And he had a lifelong unspoken understanding with my mother. They had a secret between them, and I’m only coming to understand now that it was the darkness they shared.
Uncle Harry and my mother in the early 1940s. She’s written “My kid Brother and me. I think we’re kind of cute. Don’t you agree”