It seems impossible to encapsulate the incredibly special life of my father and his tragic death on May 9th 2017 using only my words. How can I fully describe a person whose smile, as I’m constantly reminded, could light up an entire room, but who also wrote “I can’t beat the demons anymore” moments before he ended his own life?
I live in a constant battle in my own mind memorializing one of the most hilarious, talented, brave, hardworking and loving humans that I have ever encountered while also coping with the circumstances surrounding his addiction to alcohol and his suicide. I know those who knew him and loved him alongside me and my family continue to have the same struggle, some of us daily, so I would like to write honestly about one of the most special humans we have had the luxury to know, the immense void we are left with a year after his death, and the battle that ended his life.
It is not lost on me, in my short 26 years of life, that when people pass away, they are often remembered in an exaggerated way for their positive attributes. It seems silly to think of my father as not only one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, or the hardest workers I’ve ever known, but also one of the most romantic husbands and dedicated fathers I’ve heard of. However, I do think of him this way, and I believe many of you remember him with this exceedingly bright light too.
I know that these attributes we are called to reflect upon posthumous are not exaggerated because I have so many clear memories of the genuinely beautiful human John Kivela was. I remember watching my parents dance and flirt around the kitchen on so many random weekday evenings that I thought to myself countless times growing up that it would be impossible to ever get married, because I was sure I’d never find love that compared to theirs. I remember learning the importance of keeping a phone nearby during the night, and to answer it no matter how tired you are because someone’s car might have broken down…and they might be stranded three hours away from you– but for friends, you drive from Marquette to the Mackinac Bridge to get people home safely. I remember the sound of my brothers belly laughs after hearing our fathers after-work stories about pulling daily pranks on his coworkers by hiding their phone in ceiling tiles, or gluing their pen in a way to make it malfunction, or making his Viking-fan legislative aide wear a Packers jersey on the day he signed the contract for his yearly raise.
To the contrary, what I don’t have a memory of is my father ever going to bed before me– he was always pacing around working on something. My father was a self-taught mechanic, carpenter, landscaper, electrician, businessman and politician. He could take an engine apart and put it back together before he was 16; my entire life he was puttering around on different cars in the driveway. When my mom mentioned that she had always dreamed of having bookshelves that covered an entire wall, he built a stone fireplace in the middle of our plain living room and then designed and built the bookshelves that surrounded it from floor to ceiling. He wanted to create a home that was a place to gather, so he and a few friends borrowed a backhoe and figured out how to make an in-ground, heated swimming pool complete with a water-slide. Then he built a brick, four-by-two foot grill into the deck so he could spend summer days filling it with food to grill while looking out at his friends and family enjoying what he had provided for them.
He made a professional level, tiered wedding cake for my cousin’s wedding, and officiated many of his own friends nuptials. He was routinely the top used-car salesman in the county month-for-month, while simultaneously representing the city of Marquette as their Mayor. He was an underdog in his first race to become State Representative, but walked in dozens of parades and knocked on nearly a thousand doors to win the hearts of four counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to become their Representative for three terms. The man truly, hardly ever slept, and was, without exaggeration, one of the hardest working people you or I will have ever known.
Not only did he possess all of these skills, talents and ambition, but he did it all while making hundreds of people feel like they were his closest friends. I have this great memory of talking to a family friend after his funeral who said “I thought I was in John’s close-circle, but I’m starting to realize I’m just a single person in one of his many close-circles.” That’s how he made people feel– like they were one of his best friends, but not just superficially– he’d be there for you with a phone call, or physical presence when you needed him.
I could go on and on– I could talk about the extra time he’d spend with students who were touring the Capitol or when visiting classrooms in his district on his own time, the disputes he helped local businesses get out of unscathed, the over-the-top going away party he threw when his friend moved away, how he made a dying friends dream trip to Lambeau Field a reality, the school project he took so seriously that he axed my idea to make a simple sugar-cube model of the Washington Monument and we ended up spending the weekend building a 3D model of the White House complete with the ability to take each floor apart like a puzzle so you could see the different rooms laid out from above. These stories are endless, they flooded by Facebook inbox from friends and strangers from all over the state starting only hours after he died, and I hope you continue to share them with my family and each other, especially on this day, May 9th, every single year.
It’s easy to write those stories, because they fill my heart with pride and joy. What isn’t easy to talk about are the circumstances around my father’s death, and the dark moments we were not apart of. My father killed himself after his second arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol. He wasn’t “too drunk leaving a party” where he “should have used an Uber.” He was drunk while driving somewhere on his commute from Marquette to Lansing because drinking in his car was one of the only escapes he knew. It is not easy to be honest about, but our family agrees about how important it is to the community that we are transparent about his addiction and depression as a way to lessen the stigma of these illnesses, and potentially save other families the pain we have been suffering.
When my dad was arrested for his first DUI in 2015, he came out to his family and the community as an alcoholic and admitted that his addiction had been a well-hidden problem for the entirety of his adult life. As I think back to my dads behaviors for many years, I can now see signs that we were blind to and that he had kept hidden. Although he rarely overdrank in public, or even with his friends at small gatherings, he always had a case of beer in the house or garage, and I would occasionally see him sleeping in a recliner with a bottle in his hand after a particularly long day. I realize now, having lived through the “outing” of my fathers addiction, and also moving away from the community I was raised in, how normalized alcohol abuse is, especially in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Binge drinking is normalized and drinking and driving is sometimes normalized. The lines between “addiction” and “having a good time” are easily blurred when living in an environment like this. It wasn’t until I had moved to the East Coast and my father came to visit me a few months later that I started to question some of his behaviors around alcohol and see them as abuse. Two months later he was arrested for his first DUI. He then started to become more honest about the depths of his abuse and how drinking wasn’t just a “good time” for him– it was triggered by a siren blaring in his head encouraging him to indulge all of the time.
My father worked diligently on his sobriety for the next two years, with a few relapses, as many people in recovery experience. He thought the motivation of wanting to be a better husband and father would be enough motivation to stay sober, but continued to learn that the disease of addiction has the power to beg to be fueled even when you are motivated by the people you love immensely.
I believe in recovery. I have now met many people who have maintained their sobriety for many years– and they are never shy to admit that it is a daily process even decades away from their last drink or use. It breaks my heart that the hardest working, most devoted person I know did not think recovery was possible for himself and that the only way out of the hell that is addiction was suicide.
“To My Best Loves,” he wrote a year ago “I’m sorry it’s got to end this way, I can’t beat the demons anymore. And I know I can’t stop drinking.” What followed was a paragraph about his depression and addiction, followed by two pages of love letter to myself, my brother, and especially my mother and then recognition to his special friends who would help us in the wake of our loss. It is still hard for many people to believe that someone who’s life was filled with so much love would end their own life–this is why we are sharing these intimate moments openly. My father had a life bursting with love between his family and friendships, his skills and his successful and meaningful career. He talked about these things with pride nonstop. However, it wasn’t until he had decided to end his life that he shared in writing about how he’d covered up horrible depression for years, and how when “it kicks up, I can’t say no to the bottle.”
Addiction is not biased to race, gender or socio-economic status. It is my belief that if more people honestly expressed the depths that anyone can be brought to by addiction and the population was more understanding of the desperation brought on by this disease, then people fighting it would have more hope. The purpose of sharing these truths and stories is to show that someone who is beloved by thousands, with a stable and caring family and the charisma to do whatever he wanted in life can still be desperate enough to jeopardize it all because his brain is begging to numb depression by fueling an addiction to alcohol.
There are many aspects of my fathers memory and legacy that are worth sharing and remembering, but if there is one that is most important to me it is that we should create space for people to more freely express their burdens without judgment, and support the resources that can help them stay safe.
Let’s continue to rejoice in the memories we have of my fathers warm smile and the many gifts he brought into our lives. Please support great organizations like Great Lakes Recovery to better our community and lessen the burden of our neighbors who are fighting the same battle my father did. Thank you so much to our Lansing friends and family who have made the John Kivela Legacy Fund a reality, and to everyone that has lifted my family up during this incredibly painful year.
“To think he had fought it all on his own, just to lose the battle and die alone. After so many years of feeling the loss, he finally made his way back home.”