At the Top of the Stairs
My Book: "At the Top of the Stairs"
When I was 12 years old, my 15-year-old brother was taken from me by suicide. Mark and I were inseparable growing up, because he was a part of me. And then, in the cruelest way possible, I found out he wasn’t actually a part of me. He left me. He died. Yet, somehow, I was still alive. Four decades have passed since my brother’s death, but his sinister killer is still out there, claiming more young lives than ever, leaving legions of little girls and boys behind in the same cruel way.
Diary: Friday, February, 6, 1981
I’m so lonely! I miss him. It’s so “empty” I wish it was a dream. I did that thing where you hold your eyelids open to force yourself to wake up from a dream. But it didn’t work. No one misses him like I do. 3 kids came out to talk about how cool Mark was. I am mad at Mom and Dad. I went to school. I have a lot of homework. Melissa wrote me a letter. I practiced piano. Dad drove me. Grams sick. I ate a lot. Kahoteks came over with dinner. It was good. A girl came & showed us some notes Mark wrote her to cheer her up. I watched Hulk, Dukes and Dallas. I worked on my embroidery. I’m sad. Bed 11.
While adults gather in the living room whispering the question “why?”, young siblings sit in the shadows at the top of the stairs, their still-developing minds trying to comprehend that their first partner in life is never coming back.
As an adult, I have dedicated my journalistic skills to answering the “why” that haunts every teen suicide-loss survivor and strikes fear in every parent as their children approach adolescence.
It is this fear, a parent's fear, that motivated me to finally tell Mark's story. I thought I had dealt with my brother’s death, that it was behind me. But the year my youngest started middle school and my oldest high school, the trauma of losing my brother awoke. Watching my oldest daughter get swallowed up by one of the rows of doors of her high school, I was gripped by an anxiety and fear so strong I had trouble driving away and leaving her there.
For most of us, childhood slips away in pieces—often unnoticed.
It happens in the little moments, like when your fourth grader wants to wear nail polish on her actual fingernails. You’ve let her wear it on her toes, so why not her fingers? she wants to know. It’s different, you argue, because people don’t see your feet much, and they’re your feet for God’s sake. Colored toenails don’t make you sexy, you say.
Then she wants to know what “sexy” is. You forgot she has only heard the term in that stupid song her friend played for her because it is fun to dance to. So, to avoid the “sexy” talk, you let her put on the damn nail polish. After all, it’s the color of bubble gum—sparkly bubble gum. It’s just girls playing around, you tell yourself, and, besides, the way she digs around in the wood chips on the playground, it will be mostly chipped off by the end of the day.
So, you give a parcel of her childhood away and let her lacquer over the crescents at the ends of her little fingers. When you later reach for her hand to cross the street in front of school, she pulls away out of fear you’ll smear her newly painted nails, and you feel the sting of tears hit your eyes like a cold wind. You regret your decision, but it’s too late. Your baby girl is a nail-polish-wearing tween and she’s letting go and you are losing her.
I cede this battle and tell myself I’ll be stronger in a couple months when she comes to me with a bottle of polish a shade of red called “Hot Hussy.” Then I will definitely say “No”—I hope.
I’m hanging onto my daughters’ childhoods by their fingernails, because I so cherish my own childhood. I had the perfect conditions to grow up in. I was born into a home with a loving family: an outdoorsman Dad (Frank Edward Cada) to show me how to survive in the natural world, a pioneering mom (Dorothy Ann “Dot” Cada) to show me both the traditional aspects of homemaking (like cooking) and the non-traditional aspects of homemaking (like how to build an actual home), and an adventurous, kind, big brother (Mark Allen Cada) to take my hand and lead me down life’s path.
Not only was the casting of my childhood ideal, but also the setting was straight out of Hollywood. We lived in the foothills, a 30-minute drive outside the Mayberryesque town of Loveland, Colorado. My mom, with a team of workers to carry out the technical aspects of construction, built our four-floor, split-level home from a set of mail-order blueprints. The result of her work is a spacious home with lots of windows, perched like a cubist frog on a bluff overlooking a valley that stretches as far as the eye can see to the north and south. The peaks of Rocky Mountain National Park, including the storied Long’s Peak, command the view from the west-facing deck. In the foreground is an in-ground pool deep enough to cannonball into off the diving board. The pool was enough for our family to be declared “rich” by a particularly outspoken third grader in the red brick school house where Mark and I attended kindergarten through sixth grade.
The view off the back deck was filled with the rocky-ridged foothill that was Mark’s and my playground. Called simply “The Hill,” it provided acres to discover unknowns, build treehouses and forts, and play high-level games of hide and seek. Most evenings near dusk, the elk or deer would arrive and we knew it was time to head down for dinner. Before going in, we would check on our animals—a hutch full of rabbits, a horse in the corral, two dogs at our heels, and a cat disdainfully overseeing it all from the highest rung of the fence.
Inside, we’d warm up by the fireplace during dinner before thundering downstairs to watch TV or play a game of pool. At the end of the day, we would head to our own rooms (mine decorated in pink, my brother’s in blue), although inevitably I’d sneak over to Mark’s for one last rehashing of our day before saying goodnight.
I grew up in a dream that ended in a nightmare from which I’ll never wake up.
Unlike most people, I can say with absolute certainty the day my childhood ended: the last day of January, 1981. I was twelve years old and Mark was fifteen the winter day he took one of my dad’s hunting rifles up on the hill behind our house and ended his life.
Getting the Word Out: Stay
Talking about suicide doesn't cause it, but rather prevents it by letting teens know they aren't alone.
Rocky Mountain Short Takes on Suicide Prevention:
A Sister and Survivor Looks Back 40 Years at Her Brother's Suicide
28 July 2020
I read a column in the gardening section of the Denver Post in spring of 2019 and stumbled on the writer Chryss Cada. In the last two paragraphs she announced that this was her last column that she'd be dedicating the next portion of her journey on telling the story of losing her brother, Mark, to suicide when he was 15 and she was 12. We touched base but it was too early in her journey. Chryss got back in touch when she had finished her writing and we accomplished this podcast.