In Memory of James A. Luff Jr.

Posted on April 14, 2010 by - Also by this author

NO MORE NEW MOONS: This week, Luff shares painful personal details on the effects of depression in his family.
To my readers:
After sharing a personal story on FaceBook yesterday regarding the suicide of my adult son, I received many comments thanking me for bringing the topic of depression to their attention. It would be unfair for me to try to write anything entertaining this week when my head wasn't 100% in the game and this was all that was on my mind.
Four years ago yesterday, my family was rocked and changed forever. I am at peace now and ready to share with my friends all that happened on April 13, 2006 and what lead up to it.
Our son James was 24 years old. He began battling depression in high school. We took him to a counselor. It seemed to help for awhile. We took him to a medical doctor who put him on medication. It seemed to help for awhile. James eventually met the love of his life, Estela, and married her. She loved him, cared for him, and nurtured him. I began to believe things were going to be fine. But James stopped taking his medication. She reported strange behavior including that he had left their home on foot with a gun. My mother intercepted James on a bike path and convinced him to go home. I met him there and took him to a mental hospital where I insisted he check himself in voluntarily. If not, I would have him committed by the police based on his actions. I still remember the conversation, standing in a pouring rain with no shelter on the side of a gas station. When he came out of the hospital, he seemed renewed, revitalized, and back on track. 
Or, maybe I just wanted to believe that. He had a new doctor and new medication. I prayed every single day with all my strength asking God to please walk with James. Please guide him. Please show him the road. Hold his hand and help him get well. Yeah, get well! I realized that depression was indeed a disease like cancer. It was spreading and I could see it taking hold. I made sure to call him almost every day. I told him he could call me anytime. I told him I would leave work if he ever needed to talk. I wanted him to know that along with the rest of his family, I loved him very much. I asked him if he was planning on taking his own life. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” I asked him if he decided to do that, to PLEASE call me just to say goodbye. He said he would. I thought if he did that I could talk him out of it and meet him to save him. I made him say the words, “I PROMISE,” but ultimately on April 13 he would break that promise and shatter my life.
It was about 4:30 p.m. when my daughter-in-law called me at work. She reported that she came home to find a CD playing on repeat and a photo of the two of them propped up next to the boom-box. James car was gone. I knew this was serious so I immediately called the police and the California Highway Patrol. I remained confident that we would find him. I felt like no one knew my son like I did and we had about three hours of daylight to begin searching. My wife and I would head out to places we knew James loved. James loved the outdoor beauty of nature and we knew of places by the river and in the canyon where the river flows that were favorite places to check. Ironically, we were so, so close to where James was ultimately found but not close enough.
We drove back to town in frustration. Nightfall was coming and the thought of James body lying somewhere outside overnight was excruciatingly painful. I had to find him. I called our son Jeff in Wichita and let him know the situation. He asked if we had tried Breckenridge Mountain. I called James’ younger brother Danny in Orange County and he asked, “Have you tried Breckenridge Mountain?” I filled up the tank and headed out. Nightfall was upon us with the biggest, brightest full moon imaginable. It would be as much of a help as a lifetime curse. As we turned on Breckenridge Road from Comanche Road, my wife had the presence of mind as a 911 dispatcher to ask me to reset the odometer to zero so this intersection would become a marker of how far up the mountain we went. Ten miles later, she yells, “There’s his car, there he is!”
My heart was racing as we saw James’ car parked overlooking a meadow and about 10 feet off the road. I pulled in behind it, illuminating his car with my headlights. His car was idling, with the driver’s window down and the stereo playing. I had hope and fear of unimaginable proportions running through my body as I approached the car. I realized my wife was also getting out and I ordered her back in the car until I spoke with James — just in case. James’ car stopped running just as I approached it. I was relieved. I believed that he knew we were there and would drive him home. In reality, the car just ran out of gas at that exact moment I approached, causing a cruel and false illusion. I yelled out, “James, Dad is here. Everything will be okay. Here I am.”
I leaned in to the window still calling out his name as I pulled him up in his seat thinking that maybe he took a nap. Once he was upright in his seat I touched his face. His face was cold and I knew — I was too late. His used gun lay on the seat next to him. I had not saved him. My wife began to get out of the car believing that I was hugging James and talking to him while leaning in the car. I yelled at her to NOT come over here. I did not want her to see James’ dead and lifeless body. 
Reality began to set it. I needed to keep it together. I needed to get help. I needed to comfort my wife. I needed to call James’ wife. I needed to call my parents. I needed to call his brothers. I needed to make arrangements for his body. I cannot fall apart right now, I told myself. I held Hillary so tight in the cold air of the night. She shook from the chill in the air and the tragedy of the situation. I got a jacket out of my truck and gave it to her and then tried to call 911. I couldn’t get a signal so I had to walk around to a nearby rock and stand on it to call 911. Being in the 911 family, my call was answered by a personal friend, Brandy. I told her that I had found James and he was dead. I told her where we were. She said, “Everyone is coming Jim.” It seemed to take forever. I turned the police scanner on when I saw a helicopter in the area. I could listen to them talking about us and it was surreal that they were talking about US. I usually listen to a scanner to keep up with my wife’s day and other’s drama — not my own.
The pilot described the scene and said, “The parents are standing to the rear of a silver Honda about 10 miles east of Comanche.” He left to go guide in ground units and my wife whimpered as the helicopter flew away, “Come back, come back — please don’t leave us, come back.” My heart was aching for her as I watched a woman of incredible strength begin to crumble. Her life as a 911 dispatcher is filled with this stuff. I got back up on the rock and called Jeff in Wichita, Kansas, where he was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base. I said, “You need to make arrangements to come home immediately,” and Jeff simply replied, “He did it — didn’t he?” I told him yes, and that I could not talk. I called Danny next and said, “I need you to come home right now Danny.” Danny began to cry and said, “I will be right there pops.” Next I called my step-father at my parents’ house so that he could drive over and deliver the news to James’ wife and my mother. I called my father.
Every single full moon is a vivid reminder of what took place on that mountain that night under a full moon with James’ face and lifeless body illuminated by the moonlight. Depression is a very serious disease and if you or someone you know is depressed you should obtain immediate medical help, as it is a life-threatening illness.

— Jim Luff, LCT Contributing Editor

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