Retired dairy farmer takes his life — (The Detroit Free Press)

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The Detroit Free Press

She sits in the same chair, at the same kitchen table, gazing out a wide window at a scene she’s watched for 35 years: a red barn, a muddy barnyard, vast fields of oats and hay and, on most days, a lush pile of clouds that group and regroup in a panorama of light and shadow.
It is a scene beloved to those who farm. But now her husband’s chair, from which he admired the same view, is empty. At 53, Gloria Schmitt tends their home alone, mowing its big lawn, painting its walls, paying its bills, feeding its dog, Buddy.
“He knew something was wrong,” she says of Buddy, who in the early weeks stayed at her side as she ran her hands through his fur, hanging on to what she could.
“It was Mother’s Day,” she tells me from the table, taking deep breaths, speaking in a whisper, tears wetting her eyes. “It was a special day. I made omelets, and we sat here talking at the table, and he was crying.
“We were both crying. I was depressed, too. I missed the cows, too. I knew he was depressed, but he got the crops all in, earlier than usual, and he was talking about getting the hay in.
“I thought it would get better with the spring.
“I done the dishes and folded a load of towels, and he came out of the bathroom and his face was covered with beads of sweat, and his shirt was wet. I knew he must have been sick again.
“I told him I was going to barbecue ribs for dinner, to make it special. Then I was only gone for an hour, to run some papers to my brother’s. When I got home, his truck was here but I couldn’t find him. I was putting my shoes back on to go outside and look around when I saw the door in the laundry room open to the garage.
“Only about this wide.” She lifts her hands from the table and holds her palms 6 inches apart.
“And I could see him.
“And I screamed and screamed.
“I guess I made phone calls, but they told me all I did was scream.
“Do I remember anything? All I could do was scream.”

Keeping on

Today, it will have been 441 days. Each has been a victory for Gloria.   Life goes on in farm families, regardless of weather, crop loss, dead animals or any of the other challenges tossed their way.
Gloria lives on 160 acres of farmland, worked now by renters, about 9 miles east of downtown West Branch. Her downstate cousin, Jackie Steere, suggested I meet Gloria on my summer travels because she is surviving what many others find too heavy to carry.
Bob Schmitt’s suicide on May 14, 2006, when he was 57, stunned his wife, the way a stroke of lightning singes and shakes a tree. But it didn’t knock her down.
Gloria has taken one step after another to heal, although she still endures days soaked with tears. “Everybody tells me I look good,” she says, “but that’s on the outside. On the inside it’s killing me. It’s a pain that will never leave me.”
Although she was frightened at first, she sees a therapist in Saginaw. “I was scared to death they were gonna lock me up and put me away.”
The therapist, Mary Jo Hall, helped her recall without panic the moment when she found Bob sitting on the garage floor, leaning against the wall, his head bent, his hands at his side, his .357 Magnum at his feet.
She swallows each day a minimal dose of Zoloft, an antidepressant.
Last fall she started volunteering, six hours each Thursday, at the West Branch Regional Medical Center, to keep busy and to “give back,” she says, to the people of West Branch who have helped her through.
Most mornings she walks with a girlfriend. Many evenings she cooks for Kenny, her older, unmarried brother. He’s her date now, she jokes, to weddings and graduations.
She got rid of Bob’s gun collection, and last November, for the first time in 30 years, didn’t go hunting, as she once did with Bob. “I didn’t want to sit there with a gun in my hands knowing what can happen, that you can snap.” That she could snap, dangling as she was between optimism and despair.
Most significant to Gloria, she is spending perhaps $20,000 of her own money, including $3,500 in donations from Bob’s funeral, to build a log chapel in his memory. It will stand on M-55, the main highway through West Branch, on the 38-acre grounds of the Pioneer Power club. That’s a club that celebrates, in effect, the way things used to be on farms.
Each July, when the club stages a four-day festival, Bob would drive over atop one of his vintage red, restored Allis-Chalmers tractors, standing proudly at its side all day, a quiet man answering the questions and accepting the accolades of strangers.
Last weekend, during what the club calls its Pioneer Days, Gloria worked four days in a row, 7 a.m. till noon, in the kitchen at the fair, serving about 6,000 people and aching for just one.
She still goes to mass each week at Holy Family Catholic Church, up the road from her home, the church where both she and Bob were baptized. Around her neck she wears a pendant with Bob’s picture, a gift from their son last Christmas, which she kisses each time she makes the sign of the cross.
And, she has dared to explore possible answers to the big question, the Big Why.

Good times, hard times

Bob and Gloria grew up on dairy farms a couple miles apart in the rolling countryside near West Branch. They knew each other long before they noticed each other.
“He asked me to dance at a wedding one night, and from then on, that was it,” she says.
When they married, never having loved anyone else, she was 18 and he was 23.
They bought a home that had been in the Schmitt family for decades, in the middle of almost 1,000 acres that Bob and his three older brothers farmed after their father died at 45 of cancer. Most of the land grew oats and hay and field corn, feed for the hundreds of cows they milked twice daily, at dawn and dusk.
Gloria helped, rising with Bob at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week, going to bed by 10 p.m., holding hands as they said their evening prayers. She says, “We always intended to stay here forever and farm this piece of land.”
Years passed as swiftly as clouds. They lost a baby girl, 5 days old. They bore a son, Tony, who married and moved not far away and bore children of his own.
Bob turned gray in his 20s. By 32 he was taking pain medication for arthritis. By 48, he had three hip replacements and diabetes.
Within a few years everything changed. Two brothers retired, and in 2005 Bob’s oldest brother, Dean, who’d been like a father to him, died of colon cancer.
Their visits to the nursing home where he passed his last miserable days were agonizing for Bob. “He always told me he could never go through what Dean went through. He told me he wanted to go fast,” Gloria says.
Bob believed his brother would have killed himself if he’d had the chance. Years earlier, another farmer facing cancer, a friend of Bob’s, set his home on fire then shot himself.
In rural America, it is a compassionate farmer who puts his dying animals out of their misery.

Worsening health

In the winter before that spring, Bob and his brother Jerry decided to retire. Since no one stepped up to take it over, they would sell the dairy herd and the 80-acre main farm, with its 19 tractors.
That March, as the cold gray lingered, the new owner loaded a couple hundred Schmitt cows onto a semi-trailer and hauled them away.
For the first time in Bob and Gloria’s life together, nothing needed doing at 5 a.m. No warm, lowing creatures waited for them. They could not measure the product of their days in gallons.
“He felt like the world ended,” Gloria remembers.
Bob began losing weight, pounds each day. He barely slept. Each morning Gloria washed the sweaty bedding from the night before.
Out loud, he vowed he would keep working on friends’ farms. “I can’t just sit around,” he’d say, but he had ever more trouble walking.
His feet were crippled so badly she had to help him put his shoes on.
Doctors wanted to replace both hips again.
Three weeks before he died, a doctor prescribed Paxil and Ambien, to help him sleep. Three days before he died, the doctor doubled the Paxil.
The evening before he died, at mass, during the prayers for the faithful, Gloria reached over to take her husband’s hand and was shocked to see his whole body trembling.

Pain he couldn’t share

Bob kept perhaps two secrets from his wife: That he thought he was dying, and that he couldn’t stand it.
After he shot himself in the right temple, after she stopped screaming, after she could unfold her arms from over her chest, after she could breathe again and speak in coherent sentences, she visited Bob’s doctor, whom Bob had seen six weeks before Mother’s Day.
“He showed me Bob’s chart. He told me he surmised from his symptoms that he had a malignancy in his stomach or his colon.
“He said Bob was sparing me a very painful death.”
Gloria cannot see what Bob did as a gift to her. “I would have taken care of him,” she whispers, while knowing that’s exactly what he dreaded.
It comes down to pain, she knows, pain of all sorts that in the end smothered his hope. “He pushed himself to his limits. I don’t think he could have walked any further into the garage to do it.”
On the wall there, she has hung a crucifix, and one of Bob’s rosaries.
In the garage is her freezer, holding the fruit of seasons past, and venison, too, from deer Bob shot when he was happy and well.
It is no longer a frightful place to go. Sometimes she lingers, talking to him.
Sometimes she sees him as she saw him last. But it is one memory, and thousands of others live on, as vivid as yesterday, in their home, on their land, in the fields and skies that surround her.
Contact SUSAN AGER at 313-222-6862 or sager@freepress.com < mailto:sager@freepress.com