He was not at home when he killed himself.
The ringing on that October Sunday practically rattled my parents’ landline wall phone out of its cradle. I considered not answering it, but as my annoyance grew at our otherwise peaceful weekend being interrupted by a series of electronic yelps, I picked up the receiver. I didn’t even think to speak first or introduce myself.
“Is this Whitney Saleski? We need to speak to her,” the voice demanded.
“Why?” I asked.
“This is the Baltimore police.”
Instinctively, my fingers jumped into denial mode (my brain trailing behind), and I think—although I can never be certain—that I immediately hung up the phone. I dismissed it as a telemarketer to my mother, but of course, I faintly understood the blind fantasy of that statement.
Again, without contemplation, I announced that I would call my father, Stanley Andrew Saleski, on his cell phone to see what was really going on. As a major league scout for the San Francisco Giants, he was stationed in Baltimore, Maryland, for the 2014 playoffs. I thought, perhaps, that he had lost his phone and a kind soul had found it and turned it in. I thought—at worst—that he had sustained injuries in a car accident on the way to or from a game. After all, traveling for work kept him on the road nearly 90 percent of the year.
IT UNFOLDED THE WAY A PLAY WOULD: THE AUDIENCE KNOWS WHAT IS COMING; IT IS THE CHARACTERS, MIRTHLESSLY TRAPPED IN CONFUSION AND CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN DESTINIES, WHO ARE OBLIVIOUS.
Mom and I took turns dialing his work number. On my own phone, I kept hearing the joyful, repeated chirp of his voicemail. Eventually, my mom made contact with an unknown voice, and she shrieked into the receiver. I rushed to her. My body felt gummy.
In the heat of fear, I crouched into a queasy ball on the floor of the breakfast room as my mom mirrored my actions in the kitchen. It unfolded the way a play would: the audience knows what is coming; it is the characters, mirthlessly trapped in confusion and caught up in their own destinies, who are oblivious. And stupidly so.
If I’d been an audience member, I would’ve smacked myself and said: Come on, don’t you get it now? Do you see what’s happening yet?
Instead, my mother wrote my lines for me as she interrogated our mystery caller: “Excuse me? Who is this? Who are you? Why are you answering my husband’s cell phone?”
She paused as she listened to cold information.
“I’m sorry,” she began, “are you saying something has happened to my husband?”
I waited. Later that day, she would map out how the next few beats of the conversation transpired:
“Are you saying something has happened to my husband?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the caller responded.
“Is my husband okay?”
“Is my husband alive?”
On the eighth floor of his Baltimore hotel room, my father had taken his life sometime between the night of October 11th and the morning of October 12th. He had phoned us briefly the evening before. He sounded fine—relaxed, even. I was bored and complaining (an old and oft-used standby of mine). As he listened, patiently, I rambled on about how ridiculous it was that I’d had to work on a Saturday. After telling him I loved him—and as he was responding to me—I quickly handed the phone over to my mother and left the room. My rant complete, I went on selfishly. On a lark—a breath of a decision—I signed over my dad’s last few words to crackling static, and then, to nothing.
To this day, I don’t know what he said. Most days, I do not want to. Currently huddled in self-protection mode, I do not allow myself to reflect much on that time.
Conscious and thoughtful memory of that period in my life is spotty. In quick succession, every piece of the reality I understood melted away. Mom and I were left swallowing a fear we hadn’t previously tasted.
ON A LARK—A BREATH OF A DECISION—I SIGNED OVER MY DAD’S LAST FEW WORDS TO CRACKLING STATIC, AND THEN, TO NOTHING.
I sometimes remember, and not in this particular order, flashes of the following:
My mother and our family friend rushing me to the emergency room as I experienced my first psychotic break. As I sobbed and they took my phone and put me on a bed in a small room, I asked where my father was. Some of the nurses cried.
Soon after my own hospital admittance and release, my mom following. Simultaneously rigid and shaking, my mother’s body allowed itself to fully experience shock. Her sadness—once muted—had surfaced.
A ring of friends surrounding the bed that Mom and I chose to live in as life swirled around us. They helped us talk to important doctors and officers on the phone; when we couldn’t wash ourselves, they carefully led us to the shower.
In our respective cycles of grief, my mother and I breaking down and crying at very different times. In a seemingly never-ending emotional relay, we spent our days hashing and rehashing just how terrible we were and what we could’ve done to prevent this.
I recall going back to my job about a week after my dad’s death. I could hardly concentrate, so at first, typing and sending a single email was satisfactory. Of course, eventually, my coworkers expected me to work. Adding to that awkwardness was my growing habit of starting or completing sentences with “My dad killed himself.” I alienated myself from my family, my friends, and from everyone. I made people feel uncomfortable. I tore at heartstrings until they broke. I felt sorry for myself. I self-harmed. I tested everyone’s patience. I became an expert in negative thinking.
SIMULTANEOUSLY RIGID AND SHAKING, MY MOTHER’S BODY ALLOWED ITSELF TO FULLY EXPERIENCE SHOCK
My diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder—as well as my near-lifetime anxiety and depression—began radiating, painfully, in waves. I saw no need to come up for air. Pain was the familiar default.
In the lonelier, quieter hours of our grief, my mom and I would sometimes run into each other in our dimly lit upstairs hallway. Eyes cloudy with confusion, we would softly babble: “Where is Dad? Did he call earlier? I don’t know. I don’t know.”
My name is Whitney Saleski, I am 28 years old, and I am from the Dayton, Ohio area. When he died, my father was a few months shy of his sixtieth birthday. He was born every bit the burgeoning star athlete to Polish immigrant parents in Worcester, Massachusetts. The pride of his town, he boasted countless trophies and countless girlfriends. He was the beloved troublemaker. You know the type. In fact, you already know this story by heart.
He possessed that magnanimous, constant, near-aggravating tendency to prank teachers in one instant and win their approval with a wink of his mischievous eye in the next.
DUE TO HIS SELF-PROCLAIMED “JOCK” NATURE, HE FREQUENTLY EXPLAINED THAT HE FELT LIKE AN OUTSIDER WHEN SURROUNDED BY THE WORKS OF EDVARD MUNCH OR VINCENT VAN GOGH
After meeting my mother, an American Airlines flight attendant, en route to his next baseball assignment, they clicked.
In the endless analysis following his death, Mom and I have questioned each other on an hourly basis. Did we notice something? Was he depressed and we missed it? Did he tell us something and we forgot it?
The answer is always “no.” If there were warning signs, we did not catch them. His friends and colleagues and doctors alike were just as lost.
THE INSISTENCE THAT SUICIDE IS A RESULT OF A LACK OF WILL AND COMPASSION FOR OTHERS IS BOTH INCORRECT AND EXTREMELY HARMFUL.
With great sadistic pleasure, Mom and I picked at ourselves. We wanted to douse our pain with more pain. Confident that we were failures as human beings and as caretakers, we generally ignored the advice of our well-meaning therapists and counselors. As a suicide survivor, some of your moments can stray toward self-indulgence as you attempt to rewrite history. And in reviewing myself, I lost touch with my father and with life in general.
My father loved art. When I was chasing my political and nonprofit dreams in Washington, DC, he would visit me as he traveled for his own job. Almost always, his trips were bookended by jaunts to several DC art and history museums. Regardless of the exhibition, my dad wanted to experience it all. Installation pieces, found art, paintings, and sculptures fascinated him to the point of absorbed silence. Due to his self-proclaimed “jock” nature, he frequently explained that he felt like an outsider when surrounded by the works of Edvard Munch or Vincent van Gogh (two of his favorites).
I did not turn out to be an athletic mirror of my father. Like my mother, I felt more comfortable with writing and art. If it bothered him, Dad never showed it. He was kind. Early in my childhood, he’d lob Wiffle balls as I clumsily swung my plastic bat. Eventually—mercifully—he understood and replaced my sports equipment with crayons, paper, disposable Kodaks, and a camcorder.
A frequent star in my movies and plays, Dad would embody the random, last-minute roles I assigned him: a crying painter, a Barbie, a member of the ill-fated Titanic. Along with my mother, my friends, and my classmates, Dad was one of the main people I photographed while experimenting with film. In 2001, I begged him to buy me SPIN magazines, which changed my whole perspective on how photos were taken. SPIN’s vibe was rebellious and raw, and I loved researching the photographers and slowly carving out my own signature techniques. My parents also got me issues of LIFE, Time, and National Geographic.
There was no cohesion to my style or perspective yet. When I arrived at college, the typical distractions of school, friends, and boyfriends loomed large, so, unfortunately, I put photography on the back burner. After graduation, I moved to Washington and took up street photography almost exclusively. Sending daily bulletins from the Metro, the street, and the nightlife, I would email my parents the snapshots of my day. Responding with care, my mom would critique each one with patience and love. Responding with humor, my dad would always review them in his faux-conceited art critic persona, but at the end, he’d always say, “good job, Doll.” If not for my parents’ love and time, my interest in photography would have faded.
When he died, my passion flickered, but never completely dimmed. As the months progressed, even as I isolated myself, my only connection to society became the photos I took and the stories I told.
Even in 2017, suicide is engulfed in stigma—it is deemed an act that only the weak commit. The insistence that suicide is a result of a lack of will and compassion for others is both incorrect and extremely harmful. Suicidal people, as well as those dealing with mental health struggles, require our compassion rather than fear and collective exclusion. To eliminate said fear, mental health has to be at the forefront of our social, medical, and artistic initiatives.
HONORING MY FATHER BY NAMING THE PROJECT AFTER HIM, I FELT I COULD UNDERSTAND MY DAD AND THE CONCEPT OF SUICIDE IN A MORE GROUNDED WAY.
It seems as though our society equates vulnerability with weakness rather than strength. The word “suicide” still injects a chill into the air when uttered, and the subsequent alienation—combined with the already difficult grieving process—was almost too much to bear. Despite the consistent support of our friends and family, we assumed we could only talk to each other when it came to the topic of suicide. I had to find a way to connect.
To reestablish connection, I shared with a few friends my idea for an ongoing portraiture project. I wanted to interview people like my mom. People like my dad. People like all of us.
I named the project the Stanley Sessions.
I intended to photograph suicide survivors—both those who have attempted suicide and those who have lost a loved one to it—while interviewing them about their lives. With this, I wanted to reduce stigma and reach out to others through the universal language of art. Earning the financial backing of my local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter, I was equipped with studio lights and a place to shoot. It was important for me to edit the photos in black and white, as the stark contrast and blank background served to detail and outline the subjects’ features. The human condition is anything but black-and-white, so the style of the shoot serves multiple artistic and symbolic purposes. I also planned to photograph people at various distances and in various moods. Indeed, the subjects were there to create their own spaces and feel comfortable. It didn’t matter to me if they laughed, smiled, or cried, as long as I accurately captured their humanity.
IN THE BEGINNING, PEOPLE WERE VERY HESITANT TO COME FORWARD… THEY WOULD [TELL ME] IT WOULD NOT BE WISE FOR THEM TO DISCLOSE THEIR MENTAL HEALTH FOR FEAR OF LOSING JOBS, LOVED ONES, SOCIAL STANDING, AND MUCH MORE.
Published and unpublished, I have photographed about 35 survivors so far, and my goal is 50. Once we reach 50, we intend to publish a coffee table-style art book featuring the photos and their accompanying stories. Honoring my father by naming the project after him, I felt I could understand my dad and the concept of suicide in a more grounded way.
In the beginning, people were very hesitant to come forward with their experiences. Privately, they would message me and state that while they supported my efforts, it would not be wise for them to disclose their mental health for fear of losing jobs, loved ones, social standing, and much more. But as the number of my subjects grew, the tension eased, and before I knew it, I was booked every month for a Sessions shoot.
The moment I found out that my dad killed himself, my old life was over. For a long time after that, I hid from every perceptible change: I didn’t want to laugh or date or socialize again. I no longer wanted to actively participate in my own narrative. I was done. This project, as cliché as it sounds, gave me a newfound lust for the world around me. I became curious again. Once more, I had a reason to wake up in the morning. For others, I hope it has proven that when united, our souls and our passions are invincible.
I plan to continue to expand the Stanley Sessions. If your message is universal, nothing can contain it. Truthfully, this project isn’t mine—it belongs to all of us. The message I am trying to convey will, hopefully, continue spreading long after I’m gone. If nothing else, the Sessions is a timestamp/warning call to let future generations know that, historically, suicide discussion has been largely forbidden.
THIS PROJECT, AS CLICHÉ AS IT SOUNDS, GAVE ME A NEWFOUND LUST FOR THE WORLD AROUND ME. I BECAME CURIOUS AGAIN.
This project aims to end such ignorance and shows the power of education, kindness, and art: art that my father would, hopefully, love.
I only wish that my father could meet the very people who sit for portraits in his honor. Their stories are relatable, heartbreaking, but above all, optimistic. Their strength and resilience serve as constant reminders of human beings’ ability to cope, manage, strategize, and incite change.
During one of his last visits to my place in DC, he and I toured the National Gallery of Art at his insistence. Hungry for new visions, he wandered from room to room in a daze. Every work of art was met with a smile, a laugh, or a quick scribbling of his pen on a gum wrapper (he always wrote down the artists he liked most).
Toward the end of the day, we happened upon Edouard Manet’s The Dead Toreador, and, all at once, Dad stopped moving. Momentarily, he seemed as though he might cry. I, too, inspected the details of the painting: its dull colors lending themselves to the theme of despair, and on his back, the bullfighter still clutching his muleta. Pooling near his shoulder is blood from the site of his goring. Almost peaceful in his death, we cannot help but reflect on our own mortality in the beauty of Manet’s image. The muleta is always used in the final third act of a bullfight, and the cape serves as a means of hiding the bullfighter’s weapon: a sword.
THIS PROJECT AIMS TO END SUCH IGNORANCE AND SHOWS THE POWER OF EDUCATION, KINDNESS, AND ART: ART THAT MY FATHER WOULD, HOPEFULLY, LOVE.
Breaking free of his artistic trance, my dad began to smile. Unsure of the cause, I smiled as well. I soon realized that he was once again assuming his faux-art critic persona.
“Well, sir,” I began, “you seem to like this one. As a critic, if you could rename this painting, what would you call it? What does it say to you?”
Dad looked at me as he waltzed into the next room of art. Shortly after that, he would be gone. I was forever chasing after him, really—I still am. I was always on his heels as I mimicked his rapid, sportsman’s pace; afraid to lose him as he rounded each corner and disappeared from sight and grasp.
“Sometimes,” he explained, winking, “the bull wins.”
SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES
CALL 1 (800) 273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741-741
CALL Toll-Free: 1-888-333-AFSP (2377)
T: (212) 363-3500
CALL HelpLine: 1 (800) 950-6264
(this is NOT a crisis center. In crisis, people should always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
CALL 877-GET-SPRC (877-438-7772)