On the 28th anniversary of your suicide I climbed a mountain. Not figuratively. Literally.
I hiked to the top of Mount Cheaha, the way you might have done.
I was in town for a writing gig. Traveling solo. My wife was back home, cleaning up dog poop, giving dog baths, and feeding our dogs so they could continue to make more poop.
I had an entire day to kill. So I checked into the Holiday Inn Express in Talladega. I drove into the undiluted wilderness. And I hiked a mountain.
It was beautiful. Quiet. Nobody around for miles. I arrived at the first overlook, walked to the edge and was overawed.
The world looked like a tiny train model set. Lots of trees. Tiny ribbon-like roadways, cutting through forests. Lakes that looked like puddles.
Cheaha Mountain stands at 2,413 feet above sea level. It is the highest natural point in Alabama. Which means that, at this exact moment, I was standing closer to heaven than anyone else in the Twenty-Second State. Not figuratively, literally.
And I thought of you. I thought about the day you left us. I thought of your red hair. Your freckled skin. And the way you smelled when you would hug me.
You smelled like Speed Stick Musk deodorant. After you died I started wearing your deodorant brand, just so I could smell you all day long.
Then one day, the supermarket quit selling your particular scent. They only sold Speed Stick “Regular,” or Speed Stick “Ocean Surf,” whatever that is. And you were gone forever.
Many years later, I was wandering through a Dollar General when, by chance, I found Speed Stick Musk on a shelf. I didn’t even know they still made it.
I bought it. When I got to the parking lot, I removed the lid and smelled it. I wept like a child.
Now it’s the only scent I wear.
Today on the mountain, I was thinking about all this. About how you hated coffee. How you loved black licorice. How you went all out when decorating for Halloween.
About how you used to cut my hair. You used army surplus horse clippers and cut my hair using the eyeball method. And after every haircut I looked like an extremely young naval officer.
I remembered how you used to whistle while you hiked in the mountains. You were a terrible whistler.
I remember how you used to smoke cigarettes when you didn’t think anyone was watching. I remember your favorite beer. Your favorite movies. Your favorite ballplayers. Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. Your favorite Bond movie. Your favorite book. “Chesapeake Bay” by James A. Michener.
So these are the things I thought about while I was climbing a staircase of rocks on Mount Cheaha.
I spent the whole day hiking upward. Remembering. Replaying your life. A life that ended when you pulled the trigger.
And then something happened to me.
Deep into the afternoon, I was getting tired. I was nine miles into the trail. My foot slipped. And I fell down a staircase of rocks. I broke my fall with both hands, and tumbled onto the ground.
I was bleeding, but not badly. Covered in dirt. My hands were scraped. And I was embarrassed.
So I just laid on the ground. Gazing at the sky. I don’t even know why. I should have gotten up, but I was too stunned. The blood on my hands and hip was seeping through the fabric of my clothes.
Then I got off the ground.
I think all that matters in this life is that you get up after you fall. I know it sounds trite, but it’s true. And even if you fall again, you keep getting back up. That’s the deal. That’s what it means to be human.
You fall. You bust your butt. But you stand up again. Repeat.
Somehow, just by doing this, you start to learn stuff about what it means to be a person. You get stronger with each disaster. A little wiser. And less afraid of falling again. A little less anxious.
I dusted myself off. I wiped the blood with my T-shirt, I took a sip of water, and I kept hiking.
Because today is an important day. Today is the day I remember the gift you inadvertently gave me when you took your own life.
Today, I am no longer the little boy whose father died by suicide. I am a man now. A man whose life ambition is to help others who have fallen. The way others have help me. And that was the gift your suicide gave to me, John Dietrich. You made me want to be a helper.
I don’t know if I’m actually helping anyone or not. But do you know what? I’m not lying on the ground anymore, and that’s something.
Today I climbed a mountain. Not just literally. But figuratively, too.