Memories of my father

Jennifer Unger

My father, Phil Unger, killed himself on November 10, 1990. It has been over 6 years since I saw my father, and I still miss him terribly.

My dad was born on September 12, 1945 and grew up near Queens, New York. When he was young, he liked to play stickball in the streets with his friends and collect coins. He was a good student, especially in math. To encourage their bright son to excel, his parents pressured him to bring home perfect grades, and he rarely disappointed them. He was very concerned about pleasing his parents, and getting good grades was the best way to win their approval.

He continued to excel academically at Johns Hopkins University, where he met my mom at a fraternity mixer. After graduation, they got married on August 13, 1966.

They moved to Chicago to get their Ph.D.'s (dad at Northwestern, mom at U. Chicago). My dad got his dream job at Bell Laboratories soon after I was born, and we moved to New Jersey. Again, his success gained him the approval of his parents, which was so important to him.

My dad would do anything for anyone. He couldn't stand to see anyone in pain, in need, or even inconvenienced. He spent his evenings and weekends doing chores and helping me with my homework. He never had any hobbies of his own, because he was so busy driving me to activities, keeping the pool clean and the lawn mowed, and running around trying to keep the whole family happy. He could never say no to anyone, so my sister and I had TV's, phones, and all the toys we wanted. Every holiday, my mom got a beautiful piece of jewelry.

I didn't know it at the time, but when I was about 9 my dad had an affair with a woman at work. Knowing my dad, I don't think he intended to do anything wrong. I think the woman had a crush on him, and he didn't want to hurt her feelings. He just couldn't stand making someone else unhappy. I'll never know what really happened, but I can picture my dad rationalizing to himself that he could make this woman happy and keep his family happy, and then no one would be disappointed. He continued this affair until he got a job at AT&T and moved our family to Colorado. The other woman was so angry at him for leaving that she called my mom and told her about the affair. My parents almost divorced, but some marital therapy and a lot of apologies kept them together.

After that, my dad's emotional state went gradually downhill for the next 10 years. He was advancing in his career and adored by his coworkers. He had two kids who were doing well in school and not getting into any major trouble. My mom, although she never forgot the affair, was still in love with him. His parents were extremely proud of him and bragged about him to their friends. Yet, for some reason he never really seemed happy. He always felt that he was letting everyone down, that he wasn't doing enough to make everyone else happy. Whenever anyone was upset, he thought it was his fault. He would apologize for things that were completely out of his control, like the weather. Even therapy couldn't cure his depression and anxiety. Finally, I think we all just got used to it. It was just the way Daddy was.

My senior year of college, my mom called me with some shocking news--Daddy might lose his job. He had been charged with sexual harassment by one of his employees. She had a list of accusations about all the lewd and suggestive comments he had made toward her. I found this hard to believe, because he was such a shy, mild-mannered nice guy. He was a computer nerd, not a sexual harasser! If he said anything suggestive to her, it was probably an awkward effort to compliment her, not to harass her.

Unfortunately, the company's investigation concluded that he had acted inappropriately and should be fired. He felt like a complete failure. He couldn't talk to his parents or to me. He felt like he had let everyone down. All he wanted in life was to succeed and make everyone happy, and now he had disappointed everyone.

He told my mom that he wanted to commit suicide. She sat up all night with him talking about it and made him promise that he wouldn't do it. Little did she know that he already had a gun hidden in his car.

On the morning of November 10, 1996, he gave my sister some spending money, dropped off my mom's dry cleaning (always thinking of others), and shot himself in the head in the parking lot of the dry cleaners.

Since then, my mom, my sister, and I have been rebuilding our lives without my dad. It has been the most difficult ordeal that I've ever survived. I still get depressed when I realize that I'm never going to see him again, and it pains me when I experience a personal milestone and he's not there to share it with me. I'm angry at him for leaving us, but I can also sympathize with his emotional torment, and I realize that he must have thought suicide was his only way out of the mess he had created. He said in his suicide note that we would be better off without him. Of course that is completely false, but I don't think he could understand that we loved HIM, regardless of his accomplishments or mistakes. We could have forgiven him for the affair. We could have survived without his income. We would have given him another chance. Unfortunately, he didn't know that, so he chose to make a quick escape. I wish we had been able to convince him to stay.

You can send email to Jennifer at: [email protected]
mail welcome

anniversary date 11-10-90
date of post 12-03-96

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Crisis, Grief, and Healing: Tom Golden LCSW