DOTHAN—There’s a festival on North Saint Andrews Street. Hordes of people. Families. Face painting. Popcorn. Fried catfish. Beer. Bluegrass. Laughter. Kids everywhere.
The Blayne Hardy Barfield Foundation is throwing a Family Fun Day.
The foundation is named after Blayne Barfield, a young woman who committed suicide four years ago. I ask Blayne’s husband why he started this foundation.
“For my little girl,” he answers. “To break the silence, man. I want people to know that they can talk about it. ”
I meet a few who do.
One lady is watching the band, eating coleslaw and hushpuppies. She has cropped silver hair and a bright sundress.
“My son took his own life,” she says. “He was twenty-eight, wanted to be an actor, or anything involved with movies.”
She shows pictures on a cellphone.
A few moments later, I am standing in line for the restrooms. I meet a girl. She is wearing a T-shirt with the word “cowgirl” on the front. She is early twenties, cheerful.
She says, “Yeah, I was the one who found my mother after she… Well… It was bad. I was sixteen, and I’m just now starting to talk about it, my therapist says I should.”
She speaks to me like I am a friend. Because I am a friend.
In fact, I am just like her.
I was twelve. When my father took his life, I was watching TV in another county.
At the exact moment the shotgun blast blew a hole through my uncle’s roof, I was watching the commissioner of Major League Baseball announce that the World Series would be cancelled that year.
The universe has a strange irony to it.
That night, the minister helped my mother break the news to me. He sat beside the fireplace and seemed nervous. I didn’t know what he was about to say.
When he finally did say it, my reaction was delayed. At first I felt nothing. All I could think of was baseball. Then my thoughts gave way to pure shock. My face went white. I began hyperventilating. And I tried to run.
I tried to open our front door, so I could sprint away. But my mother wouldn’t let me. They pinned me down. I cried on the wood floor.
That was a lifetime ago, and it doesn’t hurt that bad anymore.
But I still think of my father. Every day, in fact. I still remember the tiny things about him.
For example: I remember a wedding reception he took me to. I was six. One of his hillbilly coworkers was getting married. There was a party band on a stage.
My father always believed I could sing, I don’t know why. And that night, he was convinced that if the band could just hear me, they would let me sing a few.
When the musicians took a smoke break by the dumpster, my father annoyed them. He made wild claims about how well his boy sang.
Finally, just to shut my father up, they agreed to let me audition.
In the alleyway I sang “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” with as much twang as I could muster.
The next thing I knew, I was onstage, singing for the newlywed couple’s first dance. People cheered. The bride twirled.
But I hardly remember it. All I recall is looking into an audience and seeing him. He was young. Lean. And beautiful. Smiling at me.
“Why did he do it?” That’s the most common question people ask about his death. They have been asking since the day it happened.
“I don’t know” is the answer. My father never left a note, he never entrusted his secrets to anyone. The man went his whole life without ever talking.
A lot of people do the same thing.
So, even though today’s family festival is full of balloon animals, hush puppies, and laughter, there is something more beneath the surface. All you have to do is look around. Which is what I’m doing.
I see a crowd gathering before the stage. People start applauding.
A man with a guitar approaches the microphone and says, “Thanks for coming to Family Fun Day!”
Then, the man welcomes a little girl to the stage. A band gathers behind her and begins to play.
The girl sings with just enough twang in her voice to break your heart. Her father is smiling. Everyone is smiling.
The woman beside me points a cellphone camera at the girl. She turns to me and says, “It’s just too bad her mother isn’t alive to see this.”
It is too bad.
In fact, it’s a crying shame.
Please talk to someone. Anyone. You know who you are.