The Power of Sharing Our Personal Stories: Josh’s Death and Creigh Deeds

Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post

Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post

11-7-14 The letter that Anne Francisco wrote to me this week about her son’s suicide has become the second most read blog that I’ve posted, being read by 43,000 on my Facebook page alone and nearly that number on my author’s webpage.

Her letter about Josh’s preventable death is a poignant reminder of how the telling of our personal stories can touch the lives of others.  This week, The Washington Post, published another dramatic example of this that I want to share with you.


By Stephanie McCrummen

The Washington Post: 11-1-2014

HE WAKES UP, and even before he opens his eyes, he can see his beautiful, delusional son.

Gus, Creigh Deeds thinks.

He lies in bed a few minutes more, trying to conjure specific images. Gus dancing. Gus playing the banjo. Gus with the puppies. Any images of Gus other than the final ones he has of his 24-year-old, mentally ill son attacking him and then walking away to kill himself, images that intrude on his days and nights along with the questions that he will begin asking himself soon, but not yet. A few minutes more. Gus fishing. Gus looking at him. Gus smiling at him. Time to start the day.

HE GETS OUT OF BED, where a piece of the shotgun he had taken apart in those last days of his son’s life is still hidden under the mattress. He goes outside to feed the animals, first the chickens in the yard and then the horses in the red-sided barn. He leads the blind thoroughbred outside with a bucket of feed, the same bucket he was holding when he saw Gus walking toward him — “Morning, Bud,” he said; “Morning,” Gus said, and began stabbing him — and then he goes back inside.

Breakfast, shower, shave, mirror. Almost a year. He is 56 now. He looks at the scars across his face, around his ear, along his upper chest and right arm. He gets dressed and goes outside to his truck, and there’s the fence that he somehow managed to climb even though he was bleeding, and there’s the field he staggered across to a rutted road where he was found.

This is how most days begin for Creigh Deeds, a father who had a son with mental illness, who struggled to understand him, tried to get help for him, and was ultimately left alone to deal with him, and who now looks over at the barn where he had so suddenly dropped the feed bucket. “I lost a tooth over there somewhere, a gold tooth,” he says, shaking his head a little, and then he goes to work.

HE TURNS ON THE MUSIC. It’s always on as he drives through western Virginia, and he turns it on as soon as he arrives at his office. He’s still a state senator, as he was on the day of the attack, and he is still a lawyer with a two-room office in Hot Springs, where the music stays on even when he’s on the phone.

“I don’t blame you for wanting to appeal, but I don’t think there’s much chance of that working,” he says to a client as Van Morrison is singing.

His longtime secretary, Rhonda, asks him about an invitation to speak at a convention on mental illness.

“Columbus, Ohio?” she calls out over more Van Morrison, who was often playing in the Deeds household when Gus and his three sisters were little.

“I’m not going to Columbus,” Deeds calls back. “Tell them I appreciate the invitation, but no, I can’t go to Columbus, Ohio.”

When he came back to work a week or so after leaving the hospital, he would walk past Rhonda, shut his office door and turn the music on. She would protect him from all the phone calls pouring in, although one time a call came when she was gone and Deeds answered it.

It was a woman who wanted to tell him, like so many wanted to tell him, that she understood how he felt, because she had a son with mental illness.

“I’m sorry,” he recalls saying as he interrupted her. “Did your son stab you in the face?”

“No, but — ” he remembers her saying.

“And did your son kill himself?” he remembers asking.

“No, but — ”

“Then you don’t know anything about how I feel,” Deeds told her, and hung up.

Sometimes, he would read letters.

“I am honored and thankful to have crossed paths with Gus. He was brilliant and kindhearted,” wrote a young man who knew Gus from college.

“We are all reluctant to be a sacrifice but there are times God chooses us, ” wrote a fellow legislator.

“Dear Creigh,” wrote Bill Clinton. “I’m so sorry.”

“Dear Creigh,” wrote Deeds’s long-ago elementary school teacher who recalled explaining the word “inchoate” to Deeds’s class, and who went on to say that he had seen Deeds on TV pressing for changes in the mental-health-care system and that he was so proud to see him turning a tragedy into something positive.

“Nothing can make a more complete and fulfilled life than creating good from evil,” the teacher wrote. “You may now remove ‘inchoate’ from your vocabulary.”

It was one of the few letters to which he felt compelled to respond.

“I’m not complete,” Deeds wrote back.

* * *

HE’S GOING TO LUNCH. He smears prescription-strength silicone sunscreen over the scars. Then he takes out a tube of SPF 60, closes his eyes, and smears that on top of the silicone and all over his face.

“The doctor wants me to keep this on,” he says, eyes closed, rubbing it in a bit impatiently, so that there’s still a film of white when he walks out of his office into the bright noon sun of western Virginia, the place where he grew up and raised four kids, and which he has represented in the state legislature since 1992.

He walks fast.

“Hey, Creigh,” a man says through the rolled-down window of his truck.

Deeds nods his head and keeps walking, crossing Main Street in Hot Springs.

“Hey, Creigh,” say two men working on a car. He waves but keeps moving, finally ducking into Lindsay’s Roost Bar, a dark dive where he sits and puts on his glasses, glancing over the menu.

Before the attack, he mentions, his prescription was 1.75, and after, the doctor told him he needed 2.75s. He takes his glasses off and points to one of his scars.

“This one got my eye socket,” he says.

He reaches behind him to find another scar.

“The first two times I was stabbed in the back,” he says. “He punctured a lung. I think it was back there, probably on the lower left side, the lower part of the lung.”

He touches his dress shirt and tie.

“Then he got me multiple times in front here, across the collarbone,” he says. “The face is what most people see. I don’t take my shirt off.”

He stretches out his right arm and touches those scars.

“I’ve lost some feeling here,” he says.

“I’ve got no feeling in the right side of my face,” he says, touching his right cheek, lip and gum.

“My right ear was pretty much cut off,” he says, touching his ear.

“This was the longer slash over here,” he says, pointing to the left side.

“I don’t know what happened, but a chunk of my tongue is gone,” he says. “There is enough damage to the inside of my mouth that it could have been cut off.”

He feels for the spot in his mouth where he lost the gold tooth. He’s not sure how that happened, either. He was in shock, he explains. There are only some things about that morning he can remember.

He remembers saying into a cellphone to Siobhan, his second wife, whom he’d married in 2012, “I’ve been stabbed.” He remembers limping away, and all the blood, and being found on the road. He remembers the ambulance coming, then the helicopter, then a voice on a radio saying the words “second victim,” and the crowd of nurses and doctors meeting him at the hospital.

He remembers waking up after surgery, and the tube that was in his mouth. He couldn’t speak. He remembers the nurses hurrying to remove it, and he remembers what he said, the first question, looking at Siobhan and holding out his arms.

“I just said, ‘Gus? Gus?’ ” he says, holding out his arms again.

* * *

HE IS DRIVING, window down, arm out in the warm passing air. He can count most days on having some time alone in the car, winding through the Appalachian Mountains that Gus loved.

“Whatcha gonna do,” Van Morrison sings in the truck.

“ ‘Whatcha gonna do,’ is right,” Deeds says back.

He passes the church where Gus was baptized, the river Gus fished, a camp where Gus learned music, the schools where Gus excelled, and the green football field where Gus played in the band, and now, on a clear fall afternoon, he sees the band out there practicing.

“Probably someone is playing one of Gus’s trombones,” he says.

He gave them away. He decided before he left the hospital that he didn’t want physical reminders of his son. He would have the memories he chose to have. So he asked his family to clear out Gus’s room at home, where he had been living, and they hauled off his clothes to Goodwill, his pants and shirts that had become increasingly colorful and large as Gus had gotten sicker, heavier and more delusional.

They gave his electric drum kit, an electric organ and his two trombones to the Bath County High School band. His acoustic guitars, his squeezebox, harmonicas, a left-handed fiddle and a banjo Gus made out of a bucket and wood were sent to Nature Camp, where he had been a counselor.

Deeds still has one banjo he’s not sure what to do with. The day before the attack, he had become so worried about Gus’s behavior that he obtained an emergency custody order to have him taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, and Gus had been playing the banjo on the front porch when the sheriff arrived. He had seemed calmer when he was playing.

He has most of his son’s books, also — encyclopedias he’d read at night when he was a kid, and so many novels, histories, books about Gaelic mythology and anything Irish.

“I’m not sure I’ve met anybody like him,” Deeds says. “He was all the things I wanted to be. I’m not smart, not good at anything, not coordinated, can’t sing, no musical-instrument ability, no gift for languages, and he had all that. I don’t have any of the confidence he displayed at every moment.”

All of which made it more difficult for him to understand his son as he became sicker, Deeds says, driving along.

“What did I miss?” he asks, and here come more questions, the questions of a father wondering when he should have begun to see his son as a person who was becoming ill. “What was there that should have tipped me off? What should I have seen?”

There was Gus’s first year at the College of William and Mary, when he was serious about a young woman from Colombia, went to visit her there and came home dramatically heartbroken. Was that unbridled love, Deeds wonders, or the beginning of his unraveling?

He was making the dean’s list, and seemed proud of that. He took a semester off in the fall of his junior year to campaign all over the state with his dad when he ran for governor, playing banjo along the way, and had seemed happy doing so. Was he not as happy as he seemed? Was the illness already taking effect?

After Deeds lost the campaign, he and Gus’s mother split up and Gus took off on a road trip across the country, writing bad checks along the way and later saying he was baptized on the Oregon coast. Was that delusional behavior or a youthful search for meaning?

“I thought it was strange but not that unusual,” Deeds says.

He took another semester off in the spring of 2010 to work in Gary, Ind., coming home at one point with a young woman, and coming home at another point but leaving his clothes and banjo in Gary, and coming home for good to live with his mother when Indiana did not work out. Was that Gus being eccentric or erratic or both?

Finally it was too much to ignore, and Gus’s mother had him evaluated. Gus was given a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and at some point that Deeds cannot remember, he was told about it. His son had a mental illness.

“I never wanted to believe that about my son,” Deeds says. “I just wanted to get him back.”

He kept trying to get him back. He helped Gus get a job washing dishes at the Homestead, a sprawling mountain resort in Hot Springs, because surely the structure of a job would help, but then Gus got fired after some sort of fight Gus never explained, and in June of 2011 he moved in with his father, the two of them together in the old white wooden house in Millboro.

Deeds would go to work. Gus would garden all day, planting vegetables by hand, and then go out hunting coyotes at night. He had always been interested in weapons as a kid growing up in the country, but now he had a closet full of homemade knives, bows and arrows. Once Deeds came home and Gus was sitting at the table in shorts, no shirt and bare feet, holding a homemade spear. He started burning things in the outside furnace, old yearbooks, photos, one of his banjos. At that point, he was all skin, muscle and bones.

“I said, ‘Gus, what’s going on?’ ” Deeds says.

“He was having delusions, and I was under the illusion that things would work out. I’m optimistic. Sometimes I’d say to Gus, ‘Come on, pull yourself up.’ For a period of months, he had this book, ‘Confederacy of Dunces,’ and I said, ‘You’re like the hero in the book,’ ” he says, referring to the brilliant, eccentric, philosophical but also slothful main character. “I said, ‘Come on, Bud, you’ve got to do better than this.’ I said, ‘Gus, what’s the plan?’ ”

He shakes his head at how he reacted.

“I just didn’t know what to do,” he says.

He had no information. Gus was an adult, and so his medical records were private.

“When I’d ask him about it he’d just say, ‘That’s a private matter, Dad.’ ” The one psychologist who did talk to Deeds said Gus’s bipolar disorder was not typical, that he would eventually get off his medications, and Deeds believed that.

“I believed in Gus,” he says. “I believed he would snap out of it.”

Then Gus started talking about suicide. “He’d say, ‘I just feel like I’m going to end it,’ ” Deeds says. “He’d say, ‘Dad, I feel like I want to die.’ ” Deeds obtained a court order to have him committed to a hospital, which is possible if someone is deemed a danger to himself or others. Was that the right decision?

He thought so, remembering what Gus had told him in the hospital — “He said, ‘Dad, this is where I need to be,’ ” Deeds says — but a few months later, when Gus was talking about suicide again, and Deeds had him committed again, Gus resented it.

“But he was back on his medications,” Deeds says, reassuring himself. “He went back to school.”

He went back to school until the fall of last year, when Deeds started tracking his son’s Facebook page and saw that he was becoming paranoid, writing that professors were ganging up on him.

“I messaged him and said, ‘Is there anything I can do, Bud?’ ” he says.

Gus said he wanted to leave school again. But now Deeds was afraid for him to come home, for a variety of reasons: His son’s symptoms were getting worse. Deeds and Siobhan had a trip coming up to Ireland to bury her mother. He was worried about Gus being alone.

Gus’s mom dropped him off near midnight at the house in Millboro. It was clear he was off his medications. His appetite had become ravenous, and he’d gained a huge amount of weight. He would barely engage in conversation, giving one-word answers. He would look past his father and laugh at nothing in the distance.

“I panicked,” Deeds says, and soon he is circling back to the beginning, trying to figure out how things reached that point.

“He was just a sensitive little boy, a very sweet child,” he says. “No sign of what would happen.”

* * *

HE IS HAVING DINNER. It is just him and Siobhan. They are at a house Siobhan owns in Lexington where Deeds came after he left the hospital.

Over there is the couch where he spent so many days reading. Siobhan took all the phone calls coming in, and he read one book after another to focus his mind — “How the Irish Saved Civilization”; a biography of Robert F. Kennedy. He recited the Serenity Prayer over and over. Eventually, he started reading a journal that Gus had been keeping, page after page in which his son re-imagined his childhood, saying he was beaten and starved for 24 years. Deeds understood the journal entries were a manifestation of his son’s delusional thinking, but they bothered him all the same, and now not a day goes by that he doesn’t need to look at old photos of Gus to remind himself that his son was happy before he became sick.

He has not talked about any of this with a counselor, as some people have urged him to do, although he did talk to a priest. He says he wanted clarification on Gus’s hereafter, and he had some other questions, too.

Mostly, he talks to Siobhan, as he is doing over dinner when he puts his head in his hands and says, “I could have done more,” and Siobhan says, “You did everything you could do.”

He is shaking his head and saying that he didn’t realize how sick Gus had become, didn’t imagine that his son could be violent.

“I should have known,” he says, his head still down.

Siobhan has her hand on his back.

“I probably did know,” he says.

* * *

HE DRIVES TO RICHMOND. He walks into Senate Room B, Siobhan holding his hand. He sits at a long dais and bangs a gavel, facing a room full of mental-health workers, state officials and families assembled for the first meeting of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services in the 21st Century.

“I’m Creigh Deeds,” he says after the other legislators introduce themselves. “I represent the 25th District. You know who I am.”

Before everything happened, his legislative work revolved around economic development, cleaning up a Superfund site, transportation, electoral law and public safety. He supported changes to the mental-health-care system after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, but it wasn’t until the day before Gus attacked him that Deeds fully grasped how dysfunctional the mental-health system could be.

That was the day he obtained an emergency custody order for Gus once again. But at the hospital, the legal time limit to find a psychiatric bed for someone deemed to be in need of commitment — at the time, six hours in Virginia —was reached before a bed could be found, at which point Gus was sent home with his worried father.

Then came January, two months after the attack, when Deeds returned to the state legislature, his scars still raw, his eyes red from crying, knowing, he says, that “it would be damn difficult” for legislators to say no to his requests, which they didn’t. Now, because of Deeds, the legal time limit to find a bed is up to 12 hours, and if no bed can be found, the state psychiatric hospital must provide one.

There were other changes, too, but not enough, Deeds says, and so now he is chairing the subcommittee to study Virginia’s mental-health system.

He introduces an official from the state attorney general’s office to talk about Virginia’s involuntary-commitment laws. He welcomes the new mental-health commissioner, Debra Ferguson, who talks about a system that emphasizes community-based treatment, early intervention and recovery.

“As you can imagine,” she says at one point, “there are tragic consequences if someone needs services that can’t be provided.”

Deeds smiles and looks down at his notes.

He calls on an advocate who says that the mental-health system neglects the small percentage of people with the most serious mental illnesses. He says that such people often need 180 days to get medications to work properly, and that the average psychiatric hospitalization is five days, after which families are usually on their own to deal with a medical condition that can be as complex as cancer.

Deeds calls a few others signed up to speak.

“We had a family member with schizophrenia and spent $10,000 trying to help her,” begins the first woman, adding, “She’s stayed in nine different places. . . . She can’t stay with us, because we are afraid she will poison our food.”

He folds and unfolds his arms. He bites the end of his reading glasses.

“My brother has been diagnosed with schizophrenia since he was 16, and he’s now 33, and we can’t make him take his medications,” begins another woman, explaining that her brother has had three psychiatric commitments in the past six months and there’s nowhere for him to go except jail, where he is now.

People come up to him in hallways with such stories. People write letters and e-mails. One man left a message on Deeds’s official voice mail, crying, saying he was going to kill himself and had already said goodbye to his children.

“This is the story of Sam,” began an e-mail about a 46-year-old man whose body was found in the James River a few days after he told a relative he was delusional, then went to a hospital to get help but was released without any family being contacted.

“Jeff was bipolar,” began another. “A very bright, good looking, well liked and loved, talented in many endeavors, funny man who loved his family dearly, who . . . chose, for only God knows what reason, to take his own life.”

“Kyle was a brilliant and talented man,” began a memorial-service bulletin that arrived with a letter from the young man’s father, a Nebraska doctor who said that his son had killed himself and that he was writing “to ask for suggestions, if you have some, for what I might do here in Omaha.”

“Would you please consider changing the current laws that block parents from knowing what is going on as far as treatment for bi-polar?” wrote a woman who included a photo of her son winking into the camera, the words “a needless death” written underneath.

“My daughter was accosted to the ground and pepper sprayed in her

eyes . . .”

“My son, Joseph . . .”

“My daughter Teresa . . .”

“My brother’s suicide by starvation . . .”

“There were no beds available for

Matt . . .”

“The police arrived and were absolutely clueless . . .”

“You did not fail your son the system did.”

His legislative aide, Tracy, has indexed and filed the mail in boxes stacked in his district office in Charlottesville for him to read, not that he does. Instead, when he goes there for meetings, as he does a few weeks after the Richmond panel, he turns on his music, which is playing at a medium volume through his computer speakers as people arrive for appointments.

“Creigh Deeds,” he says over the singing, holding out his numb right arm to shake hands with two women who run a free mental-health clinic.

“What can I do?” he says to a psychiatrist who wants to participate in reform efforts.

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” the psychiatrist says, glancing at the speakers. “Is this a good time?”

“It’s as good a time as any,” Deeds says, and the psychiatrist talks over the music for a few minutes about problems with emergency psychiatric care. Deeds presses a pen into his cheek and massages his forehead. The psychiatrist finishes. Deeds says nothing.

“So?” the doctor says. “Any questions about what I’m doing?”

“I’ve got lots of questions,” Deeds says.

* * *

HE IS GETTING READY for a parade. It is a hot bright Labor Day in Covington, and he is smearing the sunscreen over his scars.

“Did you put the silicone on?” asks Siobhan, who is dropping him off at the staging area.

“I did,” he says and rubs in another layer, gets out of the car and takes his place near the silver-buttoned Allegheny High School band tuning up in the sharp sun.

“Mr. Deeds,” says a young man, showing him to his spot. “How are you, sir?”

“Just got to keep going,” Deeds says.

“You got a lot of support here,” says a man in a union T-shirt.

“I got a lot of things to do,” Deeds says, and soon the parade starts, stretching out of the parking lot, first the band, then a trailer hauling Little Miss Bath County, then the little-league football team, then a jeep flying an American flag, then Sen. Mark Warner, who says “Hey, everybody!” and now him. Here he goes.

“I’m Creigh Deeds,” he says to a woman on a grassy corner as he heads out into the streets of the factory town, where most everyone seems to know him.

“Hey, Creigh. How you doing, man?” says a man on the sidewalk.

He nods, shakes a hand and keeps moving.

“Creigh!” says a man under a tree.

“Hey, Creigh,” says the woman next to the man.

He waves and keep moving, zagging across the street to a man in a John Deere hat — “How you doing, Creigh?” — to the people in front of the craft shop — “Creigh!” — to the parents and strollers on along North Monroe, where a man in a black bandanna yells out “Hey, Creigh!” and a woman, seeing Deeds, says nothing and holds out her arms and hugs him tightly until he says “Gotta keep going” and jogs to the other side of the street.

“How you doing, brother? Been thinking about you!” a man calls to him, and Deeds runs to the other side, almost tripping on a baby stroller, sweating.

“Hey, Creigh!” says a woman with two friends.

“Hey, Julia,” he says.

“How you doing, Creigh?” says a man with her.

“All right,” he says, running ahead, dress shirt drenched, face red and dripping.

Handshake, handshake, nod, wave, run.

“Hey, Creigh!” a man yells. “Good to see you!”

Deeds waves and he zags to the other side of the street, runs in front of a cluster of bagpipers and Little Miss Covington and a group of Warner supporters who stop their chanting for Warner while a man with the microphone says, “Ladies and gentlemen, Creigh Deeds!” and the supporters start chanting “Deeds Not Words! Deeds Not Words!” and Deeds keeps running.

He is out of breath. He shakes hands with a man in a wheelchair.

“I haven’t seen you to say I’m sorry about your situation. I really am,” the man begins, and Deeds says thank you and hurries on, back past the bagpipers to the other side, where a woman yells “Creigh!” and now he is falling behind his spot in the parade, and he is trying to catch up when the same woman calls out again.

“Creigh!” she yells, and starts running after him, a skinny boy jogging alongside her.

“Creigh!” she yells, and Deeds is still running ahead, and she and the boy are weaving through the people, chasing after him.

“Creigh!” she yells louder, and he turns around, and she is waving her arms, and she and the little boy catch up to him, and the three of them stand there a moment as the parade goes on, all of them out of breath, and now the woman is trying not to cry.

“I want you to meet my nephew,” she says, trying to contain herself.

She whispers something to Deeds, and he looks at the boy, and the boy stands straight, smiles sweetly and holds out his hand, and Deeds hugs him, pulls him close, lays his cheek on the boy’s head, and then turns and keeps running on North Lexington.

“Bless you, Senator!” yells a woman.

“Hey, how are you?” yells a man.

“Hey, Creigh!”

“Hey, Creigh! Looking good!”

He runs past the Good News Christian Fellowship church and Halsey’s repair shop. One more block.

“Creigh Deeds,” says a woman on West Pine. “You coming along all right?”

Siobhan grabs his hand and takes him to the car, where he drinks a bottle of water as they drive. He turns on music.

“Robin introduced me to her nephew,” he says after a while. “He’s got Gus’s trombone now. Take a left here.”

They are winding through thick woods and a sparkling river with smooth rocks where people are swimming.

“I couldn’t take it when she brought that little boy to meet me,” he says.

He looks out the window, takes off his glasses and starts massaging his eyes. He changes the music to a singer Gus listened to often, a singer who committed suicide, a singer he says he listens to when he is trying to understand how his son must have felt.

He is still massaging his eyes. He opens his hand and covers his face. He slides the hand into his hair and starts pulling it as they drive along the river.

* * *


He is thinking about Gus because he is always thinking about Gus. When he drives, when he works, when he’s having dinner, when he’s in a parade, when he wakes up and goes to sleep and closes his eyes. He’s always circling back, always with questions.

He is thinking now about Saturday morning, the attack three days away, when he had just gotten back from the Ireland trip and was reading all the mail Gus hadn’t opened about all the psychiatric appointments he had missed.

“What if I’d been able to put off the Ireland trip?” Deeds says. “We tried to have Grandma check on him, his other friends. Everything just fell apart.”

He is thinking about that evening, seeing Gus take a soda out of the refrigerator, guzzle it down and throw it in the trash. He is hearing himself say to his son, “Bud, you know we recycle in this house,” and hearing Gus say in a voice that frightens him, “You have no right to talk to me like that.”

“I didn’t know what to think,” he says.

He is thinking about reading his son’s journal — this was Saturday or Sunday — where Gus had described himself as godlike, referred to his father as his “dog,” and indicated that he found the two guns in the house. He is remembering how he took the shotgun apart into three pieces, taking one piece to work, leaving one in a drawer and tucking one under his mattress, and how he didn’t worry about the other gun, because it had no ammunition.

“I couldn’t find it to buy,” he says. “I don’t know how Gus got ammo for that gun.”

He is thinking about Monday, the attack one day away, when he got the emergency custody order, and he can still see Gus pacing back and forth in the hospital. He is thinking about how his stomach turned when he was told no bed could be found, and how quiet Gus was on the way home.

“I know he felt I betrayed him when I went and got the order,” Deeds says. “I don’t feel I had a choice. I did what I did to try to save him.”

He is thinking about that night, and the text message he got from Siobhan, who was staying in Lexington. “She said, ‘Get out of that house,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘No, I’m going to stay with my son.’ ” He is thinking about when he went to bed and, for the first time ever, locked the bedroom door, and heard Gus rattling it, trying to get in.

“I never thought he would try to kill me,” he says.

He is thinking about Tuesday morning, and showering first so he would be ready when Gus woke up, and then going to feed the animals. He can feel the bucket in his hand, and he can see Gus walking toward him, and now he is thinking about how Gus seemed to be aiming for his eyes, and he is hearing Gus grunt with effort, and hearing what he said to his son in that very moment.

“I said, ‘I love you so much,’ ” Deeds says.

And then it is Wednesday, and Thursday, and every day since, and the questions are starting and spiraling into the hardest question of all, one he returns to over and over.

Why did Gus stop?

Because that’s what happened. He stopped and walked away without saying a word.

Why did he walk away? Why did he not say anything?

Why did he stop?

He is remembering something his daughter Susannah said to him.

“That once he heard ‘I love you,’ he softened up,” he says, “that he just wanted to prevent me from interfering with him killing himself.”

He is finishing lunch one day.

“Maybe he figured he did the damage he needed to do to kill me,” he says. “Maybe he’d seen enough blood.”

He is in his office in Hot Springs.

“If he had bullets he could have shot me across the yard,” he says. “He could have. Gus was a good shot. He wanted me to suffer.”

He is with Siobhan.

“You said ‘I love you,’ ” she is reminding him.

He is home in Millboro, where he asked the priest to come and bless the house after everything happened, where he scattered Gus’s ashes by an oak tree, by a river and on a mountain his son used to run when he was healthy, one he can see from his yard.

“If you read what he wrote in his journal,” he says, focusing on a passage he read later, where Gus wrote that he would ascend to heaven after he killed his father, “it’s hard to think anything other than he intended to kill me.”

He is getting into his truck.

“I like to believe what Susannah said,” he says, going back to his daughter’s theory. “That when I said ‘I love you,’ that broke through. That he was still delusional, but that did break through, and the old Gus heard that. Not the old Gus — Gus. That those things that had taken over Gus were defeated.”

He is shaking his head.

“I’ll have these questions for the rest of my life,” he says, and begins asking them again. Did Gus want to kill him? Did he know his father loved him? Did he hear him? Is that why he stopped? The questions keep coming, even though by now he has realized the inescapable answer.

“I’m never really going to know,” he says, and once more he is driving, music on, window down, and winding through the woods.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.