Curse You Red Baron: A Father’s Legacy

Today is the 29th anniversary of my father’s death. My father loved to ski and my sister and I learned to ski at a very young age. Snoopy was popular when I was young and I vividly remember passing my father on the slopes for the first time and him yelling “Curse you Red Baron” as I went by. It was a family joke until my sister and I decided it was “not cool Dad”. Last spring while in California with my daughter I stumbled upon an art gallery filled with works from a friend of Charles Schultz. One of them was called “Curse You Red Baron” and when I saw it I told my daughter the story. She convinced me to buy it and it now hangs on a wall on my side of the bedroom. I see it every morning when I wake up next to my husband of 28 years. He is the only other man who has had as much impact on my life as my father. It is hard for me to comprehend that my father has been gone longer than I have known my husband and yet he will always be part of who I am. My father died from a self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head on Sunday October 18th, 1992. My life changed that day but truly doesn’t your life change every day?

My father was born in Boston and grew up in an Irish Catholic family. He was incredibly intelligent and exceedingly curious. He loved to travel and read and he remembered everything he read. He became an orthopedic surgeon and married my mother in 1966. Our life was pretty “normal” for the times until it wasn’t. When I was a senior is high school I came home and learned my father had checked himself into McLean Hosptial, a psychiatric hospital near Boston. It was formerly known as an asylum and that is how it felt to me. My father was my world. I put him high on a pedestal and wanted to be exactly like him. I visited my father once at McLean. I remember the yellow and black dress I was wearing that day and the empty look in his eyes. He told me he hoped I never understood how he felt. I couldn’t go back to see him there.

Mental health care has vastly improved since 1986, as has the stigma associated with it. At the time, my mother did not want us to discuss my father’s illness with people for fear it would ruin his career. She also didn’t want to talk in general. When I graduated from high school, my father was released from the hospital for 6 hours to attend my graduation where I was giving a speech. Our family and close friends knew the true reason my father was in the hospital but to the general public my mother maintained that my father was in the hospital for heart related issues. You know how people with heart issues get to leave the hospital for 6 hours? At the age of 53 I have so much compassion for my mother- at the age of 18 I did not.

My father was diagnosed as bipolar and was subsequently released from McLean after four months. He went back to work and there were plenty of good days and weeks over the next six years, but there was always an unspoken worry. I realized later that part of the reason my first semester of college was so difficult was because I was scared that something would happen while I was gone. That something did finally happen on a beautiful fall Sunday in October of 1992. The week before one of my cousins was married and the entire Collins clan attended. Everyone made it to that wedding and we took a fantastic photo with multiple generations together. It is a photo I still treasure. I’m glad my father was able to spend a glorious fall Saturday with all the people who loved him. I wish I had my father on this earth for longer and I know there was nothing I could do to alleviate his deep pain.

For awhile after my father died I feared I was cursed to be just like him. I am like him in so many way and I am not cursed. I am intelligent and curious and over the years I have had periods of depression and anxiety. Mental health care has changed so much since my father died and with the help of therapy, medication, family and friends I no longer view it as a curse. Now I am Snoopy and my Dad is the Red Baron. He is always there on my tail wing reminding me that I can always land for awhile, refuel and take off again. Your life changes every day. Some days the changes are small and sometimes they are huge. You have to be present to notice the small ones because the small ones can add up to big ones. My Red Baron is always on my wing trying to get me to notice the small ones. Love you Dad.

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