Kentucky Man Shares Brutal Truth About His Grandfather’s Suicide
I can't tell you how many times during my childhood and adult life that I heard my grandfather point to his gun rack and say, "One day, I am going to get one of those guns down and blow my head off." On Wednesday, August 19th, 2020, he finally did it.
I feel like I need to tell you that this is not going to be easy to read. Honesty and suicide have an unfortunate, common characteristic. They can both be brutal.
The first time I ever saw a dead body was with him. If there's one thing Russell Adams loved to do, it was fish.
Most of our quality time together was spent around a lake or inside a boat.
It was on the way to one of those fishing trips at Rough River that we noticed something strange by the roadside, just past the Black Cat, a tavern outside of Whitesville, Kentucky. As Russell drove slowly toward it, we noticed that the strange something was a body. There was a man laying by the road, his skull just shy of the pavement. He was dead and had apparently been there lifeless for a while. We didn't know who he was or how he got there. We just knew we were among the two or three people that first discovered him.
I remember staying in the truck as my grandfather walked over and talked to the other man who happened upon the scene at the same time we did. Then, I remember him coming over to the passenger side of the truck, opening my door and making me get out. He said, "Come on. You need to see this. You need to make stuff like this your business." At that time, I had no idea what he meant. I'm not even sure that moment became full circle until I walked into my grandfather's house three years ago- after he fulfilled his self-appointed destiny of getting a shotgun off the wall and using it.
I had fallen asleep on that August day and I was startled awake by my husband. He rushed into the house frantically and told me that I had to get up. He said, "Chad! Your mom has been trying to call you." I looked at my phone and she had. Over a dozen times. I asked Kevin, "What's wrong? What happened?"
His answer was simple. Quick. "Your grandfather killed himself."
I sat up on the couch, tried to comprehend the gravity of what I was just told, then said the first thing that came to my mind. And, remember. Honesty can be brutal and I suppose my reaction was. I'm not necessarily proud of it, but I'm not exactly ashamed of it either. I said, "Honestly, I'm surprised it took him this long."
See, a neighbor noticed that Russell's lunch delivery was hanging on the screen door in the front of the house. He took it inside and saw my grandfather sitting in his recliner. He also saw what appeared to be a cane resting between Russell's legs, but knew he didn't have a cane. The neighbor then realized that what he was looking at was a 20 gauge shotgun. One from the rack on the wall. My grandfather had used his legs to steady that gun. He placed the barrel to his neck and pulled the trigger.
A day or two later- I don't remember- I went to the house with my mom. I suppose it was time "to make stuff like this my business." I combed that room, the scene, like a detective and was immediately struck by three things.
First, his recliner was gone. There was no salvaging Russell's favorite chair because of what he did to himself in it.
I suppose there's some cosmic irony in the fact that his favorite chair went with him. But what really struck me was the second thing I noticed- the collection of people who were looking over his shoulder from the wall.
My grandmother, who passed about ten years prior. My mom. My aunt.
The rest of us were on the other side of the room, to his left of the gun rack.
My grandmother curated that wall. It was quite the collection, albeit a borderline tacky one- of photos of their grandchildren. Three years later, I can't shake the notion Russell was looking at us- all of us- as he sat down in that recliner for the final time. He had walked to that wall and pulled a shotgun off the rack. Was he even paying attention to the fact that we were facing him as he loaded the shells into it? Did he realize his entire family was witnessing this- his wife and daughters over his shoulders and his grandchildren directly in front of him as he situated the gun up underneath his chin? Did that occur to him? Maybe. Perhaps, in Russell's head, he left the world surrounded by his family. If so, I suppose there's something poetic about his death. Or maybe we didn't occur to him at all.
As I continued to walk around and survey the room, I noticed the third thing that struck me as odd. To the right of my grandfather's recliner was a wood burning stove that stood on a brick hearth. I noticed a cassette recorder.
I also noticed that empty cassette case resting on top it with a handwritten label that read "Bedtime Prayer by Russell F. Adams." Out of curiosity, I hit play, but immediately realized that the cassette had played all the way through to the end. Hmmm. That's interesting. So, again, making stuff like this my business, I rewound the tape a bit and hit play again. Nothing. I rewound it some more. I hit play. This time there was something. I could hear my grandfather speaking. And then it hit me- like a bullet.
I immediately turned to my mother and said, "Mom, you have to get out of here now. You have to leave."
She said, "Why? What's wrong?"
I told her, "I think there's a possibility that he recorded his death." Was my grandfather capable of that perverse level of histrionics? Yes. Yes, he was. I knew, as agonizing as it was going to be, that I had to listen to that tape from start to finish. I also knew that she nor my aunt couldn't be anywhere near it.
So, my mom walked out into the garage, closing the door behind her. I rewound that tape all the way to the beginning, sat down and pressed play. My grandfather started to speak.
It's taken me three years to write this. I am a person who can articulate virtually anything. But, when it comes to incredibly personal matters, I am much better at processing my own emotions if I can write through them. Thirty-seven months later, I am able to do it. I am finally sharing some of the details of what happened- the day of Russell's suicide and the days that followed.
Yeah, I sat there- for what seemed like an eternity- and listened to that tape. I was convinced, at any moment, that I was going to hear his talking interrupted by the explosive power of that 20 gauge shotgun. What would it sound like? What would he sound like when it happened? Thankfully, Russell spared his family that and instead recorded a love letter to his favorite dog. That was Pepper. She had passed away years before.
Shortly after listening to the tape, I reached for a cookie jar that was sitting next to the fireplace.
That cookie jar (the 'Cookie Jug') was one of my favorite things at my grandparents' house. As I carefully picked it up- it's ceramic- I noticed that it had my grandfather's blood on it. The impact of that shotgun shell literally blew his blood across the room. My hand had found its way into the middle of some of it. I was literally and figuratively wiping away remaining evidence that Russell had shot himself just feet away.
That cookie jar now sits in my house. I love it, cherish it. It's at the center of many wonderful memories of my childhood. But it's also at the center of one of the worst memories of my adulthood and that's the first thing I think of every single time I look at it.
Everyone in my family has different feelings about what happened on August 19th, 2020. I know my aunt was in shock. I know my mom was furious when she arrived at that house. She recalls calling him a "son of a bitch" and a "coward."
For me, that's where I am torn. I realize that some people view suicide as an act of cowardice, a self-serving brand of escapism. Personally, I don't know whether to be angry with my grandfather or be proud of him.
He was 91-years-old when he decided to do what he had talked about for decades. He went out on his own terms, I guess. Are we supposed to understand it? Be happy for him? Be furious with him?
I don't know. But here's what I have come to realize. Though it's been three full years, I think about Russell all the time. Not the grandfather from my childhood, but Russell the day he killed himself. Some part of me drifts back to that house, those moments following his death, every single day. I love him. I detest him. I miss him.
Ultimately, that shotgun shell didn't take away anything.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please remember the Suicide & Crisis Hotline. Help is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The number to call is 988. Share that number with anyone you think needs it and, if you think you need it, call it now.