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Father of the Suicide

I was shopping at Safeway when I spotted Stan Balfour pushing a cart up the cereal aisle. I turned and went the other direction. I’ve felt bad about it ever since.

Stan Balfour was my assistant coach on a Little League baseball team when our sons were ten years old. Adam Balfour was a small, soft-looking boy with cherubic cheeks and a shock of black hair. He played third base tentatively and batted weakly because he was afraid of the ball. He seemed a pleasant enough kid, though, which came as something of a surprise because I’d been hearing negative reports on Adam from my son Joe since they were in first grade. Adam poked me with a pencil, Adam swiped one of my lunch cookies, Adam stomped my foot in the four-square line, Adam called me fat. That sort of thing. My wife tried to make a case for Adam, saying maybe he liked Joe and was trying to get his attention in the only ways he knew how. Adam came to our house a few times for group events like birthday parties, and my wife found it interesting that he would stand in the kitchen and talk to her while the other boys rough-housed in the back yard.

We live in a tightly knit neighborhood, so we heard things about Adam from other parents, including teachers who worked at the boys’ school and had kids the same age. Adam didn’t do well in class. Maybe he had learning disabilities. Maybe he had attention deficit disorder. His temper was explosive. His behavior could swing abruptly from sweet (he was the first-grade teacher’s pet) to obnoxious (more than one classmate wound up in the principal’s office for whacking him after he insulted them).

I braced for attitude problems when Adam landed on my minors baseball team, and I was a bit wary when his dad volunteered to help coach. Stan turned out to be soft-spoken and reserved, although capable of the occasional wry joke. A government accountant by trade, he was pleasant if not exactly Captain Warmth with the kids, and he knew a bit about baseball. He made an okay assistant. And Adam never caused any difficulties. He didn’t play particularly well, but he didn’t stomp on any feet or call anyone fat. He seemed, if anything, as reserved as his dad. One day while we sat in the dugout during a game, Stan told me Adam didn’t hear out of his left ear, and his parents thought that triggered many of his problems. Adam felt stupid if he asked people to repeat themselves, so he ignored what he didn’t hear. This rubbed others the wrong way. Frustration over his partial deafness and clashes it provoked led him to act out. Yet he was embarrassed by the deafness and refused to tell people, especially other kids, about it or let his parents do so.

We won a bit more than half our games that year. The next year, Joe and I moved up to Little League majors. Adam quit baseball, and his dad quit coaching. I thought of it as natural attrition. It’s tough to keep playing a game you’re not very good at, and why coach if your kid doesn’t play?

I saw Adam around as the boys moved into their teens. He and Joe attended the same middle school, moved in the same social circles. Adam played rec league basketball and was on Joe’s team for a while. He took too many shots, Joe and other teammates complained. I had been Joe’s basketball coach for a few years, but by the time Adam joined the team I had surrendered the reins to another dad. Adam’s gunner tendencies weren’t my problem. After a season or two on the team, he gave up basketball.

When the boys started high school, Adam dropped from sight. His parents enrolled him in a high-powered prep school on the other side of town, several miles from our neighborhood. It was an expensive private school with a reputation for snobbery, but it offered a special program for kids who struggled to learn. The program operated as a “school within the school,” with pupils attending classes on the same campus as the general student body but segregated for academic purposes.

I wondered when I first heard that Adam Balfour was enrolled in the prep school whether he would prosper there. I thought his penchant for irritating people might be exacerbated by mixing with 14-year-old snobs. And if he couldn’t bear to be labeled partially deaf, how would he feel about being shunted into “special” classes at a school that bragged about how many of its graduates went on to Ivy League colleges? When I bumped into Stan on a neighborhood sidewalk, though, he said Adam liked school and seemed to be prospering.

Then came the morning in late winter when we heard from a neighbor, the wife of a doctor who lived across the street, that Adam Balfour had shot himself. The doctor helped treat him in his hospital’s emergency room. Adam died without regaining consciousness.

The story circulated quickly in the neighborhood. School had turned sour. Adam had been unhappy. He arrived home one afternoon while his parents were at work, went into their basement family room, took the .22 rifle with which his dad had taught him to shoot and fired a bullet into his brain. Stan found him when he came home that evening. He called an ambulance, but doctors were unable to save the boy.

Joe, my wife and I attended a memorial service for Adam at a local Presbyterian church. It was a strange scene. The place was packed with ninth-graders, the boys and girls who had shared classes with Adam for years before he transferred to the private school, and their parents. The parents seemed stunned, for the most part, lodged in “There But For The Grace Of God” mode. The kids, on the other hand, seemed energized by what had transpired. They said “poor Adam,” they said “he had everything to live for.” They gathered in little clutches and whispered and shook their heads. They pulled long faces. A few girls even shed a tear. I couldn’t help but think: these are the same kids who disliked Adam, who found him annoying, pushed him away, ridiculed and belittled him. Now they are getting some kind of vicarious thrill out of his death. It was as if he were James Dean or Kurt Cobain, and THEY HAD KNOWN HIM. At a reception in the church social hall after the service, I spoke briefly to Stan and his wife. They seemed curiously upbeat, although I put that down to shock and, in all likelihood, tranquilizer drugs. They were pleased to see so many kids and parents in attendance. I didn’t comment on the weird vibrations I felt filled the church.

Adam was the Balfours’ only child, and his death cut them off from the kid-oriented social set of our neighborhood. They no longer crossed your path in the hallway at back-to-school night or shared a bleacher seat at basketball games or carpooled kids to birthday parties. I hadn’t seen Stan in years when I spotted him at the grocery store.

Why did I avoid him? Why didn’t I walk up to him between the Cheerios and the Wheat Chex and say hello? I’ve been trying to figure that out.

Was it because I was afraid if I said “how’s it going?” he’d actually tell me? The Balfours still live in the same little brick house, and every time I drive by I imagine what it’s like for them inside, where their son’s bedroom lies empty and the basement still echoes with the sound of a rifle shot. I envision the house as dark and gloomy inside, a place bereft of dreams, optimism, hope.

Was it because I felt guilty somehow, as if I should have done something to help Adam? Joe said once, months after Adam died, that the guys on the basketball team felt bad for yelling at him about shooting too much. They wondered if he quit basketball because they griped at him, and if having basketball buddies to mix with outside of school might have kept him alive. Perhaps I should have called his house that first spring he didn’t sign up for baseball and invited him to come play. Was remorse my problem?

I finally concluded, though, that what really sent me scuttling away from Stan Balfour was an unwillingness to confront the fragility of a life as child-centered as the one I, and many people like me, live today. If so much of what we do is aimed at protecting a child, making things go right for him, smoothing the way, giving him the training and education and moral support it takes to turn him into a happy and successful adult, what does it say if that child chooses to kill himself? Did we parent badly? Did we not pay close enough attention? Did we pay too much attention, unintentionally smothering what we sought to protect? Is it crazy to invest so much in our children? Should we just view them, as many 19th Century farmers did, as livestock bred to help with the work and little else?

Stan and his wife were good parents, as far as I know. They seemed to go about the job of parenting much as my wife and I do. But their son killed himself. Talking to the father of the suicide would have brought me face to face with so many questions about my own existence, I was afraid to try.


words: David Jordan, Oregon (Writeright)
image: ' reflect/absorb' - Karyn Eisler, Canada (about the photo)


a sister text: After the funeral (#11)


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BluePrintReview - issue 23 - (dis)comfort zones