Sam always liked to sneak a pickle or two or three before family dinners, and the author catches her in the act during a Super Bowl party we had at our house in 2014. (Bob Fenske/Tribune)

The lesson of Sam’s suicide is to be there for anyone hurting

It's been five years and so much has changed, but columnist still misses step-daughter

It’s a phone call that is seared into my mind.

My wife at the time and I were on our way to Mason City, and it was a little after 10 p.m. on Nov. 20, 2014.

That night, I had put my eighth-grade travel team through a pretty hard workout, and when I arrived home, Teresa was frantic. She couldn’t get a hold of Sam.

“I’m going over there,” she said. “I’m sure it’s nothing, but she’s not picking up her phone, she’s not answering my texts and I just need to make sure she’s OK.”

Sam was going through a tough time — boyfriend troubles, money issues and the end of her final semester as a North Iowa Area Community College nursing student — and the day before, she had called her mom in tears.

Teresa, though, was working one of her 14-hour shifts as a dialysis nurse in Charles City, and there was just no way she could get away, but she reassured her daughter that everything would work out. Teresa’s advice was threefold: Do your three-day stretch of clinicals, come to New Hampton on Sunday and spend a few days with us.

The following day, Teresa tried to get a hold of Sam, and for much of the day, she didn’t fret over the fact that her daughter wasn’t responding; after all, Sam was doing her final rotation of clinicals.

But as night fell and there was still no word from Sam, doubts began to creep into Teresa’s mind, and while Noah and I were at basketball practice, she called the floor Samantha was supposed to work on that day.

“I didn’t see her,” the unit clerk said, “but it’s busy, too.”

By the time I got home, Teresa was beyond overwrought.

I figured Sam was just being Sam. She could be maddening about returning phone calls and texts. It wasn’t uncommon for days to elapse before she replied; in other words, she was a typical 21-year-old.

Still, I couldn’t let Teresa drive to Mason City by herself.

“Boys, I’m going to go with her,” I told Josh and Noah. “You guys get to bed. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I need to go.”

FIFTEEN MINUTES into our drive, the phone call came.

It was Zach, Sam’s boyfriend.

Teresa answered the call and almost immediately began wailing a cry that I’ll take to my grave. She handed me the phone, and I could hear Zach crying and saying “she’s gone, she’s gone.”

I told Zach we’d be there in less than a half-hour, and I stepped on the gas.

In Charles City, my phone rang.

“Bob, I need you to listen to me very closely,” a Mason City police officer said, “but it’s bad — really, really bad. Be careful, don’t speed, there’s nothing you can do to change what happened.”

As we neared Mason City, I couldn’t or wouldn’t give up hope. Your mind plays tricks on you in situations like that. No, you heard wrong, everything’s going to work out, it says to you.

And then we took the left turn on South Pierce Avenue, and from three blocks away, I knew I had heard right and this time everything wasn’t going to be OK.

I PARKED THE car and two police officers met us as we raced to Sam’s apartment, one she was so excited to move into a year and a half before.

“Can I see her,” Teresa pleaded over and over and over.

No.

Instead, they brought us into the living room and told us the awful news.

“I am so sorry,” Mason City Police Officer Steve Klemas said, “but it appears that Samantha took her own life.”

“I need to see her, I have to see her,” Teresa said, and Klemas, who had played on Mason City High School football teams I had covered years ago looked at me and shook his head. “Teresa, you don’t want to see her like this. That’s not the last memory you want of her.”

The rest of the night flew by like a blur.

A chaplain from the hospital came to sit with us, we said our goodbyes to Sam when the body bag came out on a stretcher, we drove home in absolute silence, we debated waking up the boys at 2 a.m. to tell them what happened, we talked with Teresa’s brother, Scott, who was a godsend that night, Sam’s sister Alyssa arrived and Josh woke up to the sound of his step-sister’s voice and immediately knew something bad had happened.

“What the hell’s going on,” he asked me from the top of the stairs, and I walked up those 14 steps to tell him the awful news.

We went to bed around 5 and if we fell asleep, it was the most restless slumber of our lives.

A couple of hours later, I went into Noah’s room.

They were not related by blood, but as well as my kids and Teresa’s children blended together there was a special bond between Noah and Samantha Jo Vining.

They loved to argue, but they always had each other’s backs.

“If you don’t want to, you don’t have to go to school today.”

“Really, is it snowing or something,” he said and then the room was enveloped in absolute silence as he realized where his father and stepmother had gone the night before.

“Is Sam OK?”

I just sat there, knowing the answer but not wanting to share it.

MUCH HAS CHANGED since that day.

Teresa and I are no longer married, but I will always care about her and I think the feeling is mutual.

Josh was a high school freshman five years ago and now he is a college sophomore. Noah was a middle school kid who grew into a freshman student-athlete at the University of Iowa.

Teresa’s daughters — Danielle and Alyssa — both got married, and Teresa now has five grandchildren.

And Sam remains forever 21.

I visit her grave often — as do my boys, especially Noah — and when I am the lone, solitude figure in the New Hampton Cemetery, I almost always wonder what if Nov. 20, 2014, had never happened?

Where would her nursing career have taken her?

Would she be married by now?

Would this lover of books be reading stories to a child or two?

As I wrote in my column that appeared in the Nov. 25, 2014, Tribune, suicide is a bitch.

IT WAS 4 A.M. on June 10, 2019, and I sat in by bedroom in the big house at the corner of South Linn Avenue and Cleveland Street.

Three pill bottles sat on the mattress, and the mental pain and anguish I felt that morning had just become too much. I shoved the pills — a combination of what had to be 40 Tylenol, sleeping pills and an anti-anxiety medication — into my mouth. I had a “second wave” lying on the bed. I picked up the glass full of water.

I’d like to tell you that I thought of Sam and “I-can’t-put-my-boys-through-another-suicide,” but it hit me that it was a Monday and the first thought that came to my mind was that I can’t leave Dorothy and Nate “a mess” at work on deadline day.

I spit the pills out, went downstairs, got a rag and cleaned up the mess.

I still wanted to die, but sometime during that hectic morning, something clicked. No, I want to live.

Scared to go home, I went to see a friend who works at MercyOne New Hampton Medical Center, and Jenny Monteith and Sheila Kobliska got me to walk down to the emergency room.

And over the next five days of what we dubbed my “vacation,” I had, for the first time since that awful November Thursday night in 2014, an understanding of what Sam went through.

I’ll be honest, there were times when I felt anger toward Sam and the choice she made when she put a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Mostly, I felt sadness, and I asked the same question over and over.

Why? Why? Why?

SINCE THAT WEEK in June, the anger has never returned.

Maybe I had to go through my ordeal to understand the pain and, yes, agony, that led Samantha Jo to pick up that handgun on that fateful November five years ago.

Five years ago Wednesday, we made the most horrific drive of our lives, but today, when I think of Sam, I focus on the good memories — going out to eat with her and after one bite she’d say “I’m full,” watching a Vikings’ game with her, seeing her give Noah grief about the Patriots and remembering the night a couple of weeks before suicide took her life when I held an almost inconsolable young woman as if she were my own.

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m not going to like years that end in 4 or 9. They’re the round number years when it comes to the death of two people I loved dearly. It’s been 15 years since my dad took his last breath, and on Wednesday, it will be five years since Sam died.

So what’s my point?

I’m not sure I have one today unless it’s just a really simple thing like making sure you’re there for your parents, your siblings, your children, your friends and even those that you hardly know when they are hurting.

My regret is that on that Wednesday afternoon, when Teresa told me Sam was hurting, I didn’t drop everything and rush to Mason City.

That drive to Mason City, I know now, was a day late and that fact will always be a punch in the gut.

But Wednesday, I will walk to Samantha Jo Vining’s gravestone, tell her about her brother’s joy about beating Minnesota, how the Vikings pulled off a furious comeback and share the details of the latest book I’m reading.

And as I stand in the New Hampton Cemetery, I won’t be angry but I will do my best to be happy that for a short, brief time I was part of her life.
 

New Hampton Tribune

10 North Chestnut Ave
New Hampton, IA 50659
Phone: (641) 394-2111
Email: tribune@nhtrib.com

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