Some days, I try to figure out which is worse. Is it that he is not here, living his life to the fullest, that life in which we had invested every square inch of our own beings, everything we had to offer? Not enjoying a family, not succeeding in his work, not taking photographs or making pottery?
Or is it that he is not in this world, sharing his multitude of gifts? At only twenty-four, he was fluent in French, a comfortable world traveler, a gifted writer, knowledgeable about history and science and literature. I glance at an article about desperate need in French-speaking Africa and wonder why he is not here, lending his talents and expertise to creating solutions. I see a new architectural design and imagine that he might have participated in its development.
Or is it that he is not here with us? Not here to add his considerable wit to the political predicament in which we find ourselves? Not here to share his young adulthood with his twin brother and their little sister? Not here to help us as we age, become less able, falter, and die?
Sometimes, in the course of my ministry, I meet elderly men and women who tell me how close they are to the brother or sister with whom they have shared eight, once even nine, decades. I smile and say something encouraging. I want to hollow out the landscape with my cry into the nothingness that is left.
I remember little of the first years. Some things. The suffocating, nauseating guilt. The icy rejection which slammed me against a brick wall. The feeling of falling, falling, falling . . . of stepping across shards of glass. The way my joints, and back, and head, and gut, and everything, hurt. The way I went to classes and wrote papers and looked at the grades . . . always good grades, always gracious comments, always such a disciplined and even sometimes insightful student . . . with no recollection whatever of having written those pages. The way I walked, and walked, and walked, wondering if I might simply walk right into the stratosphere. The questions people asked me . . . isn’t it time to focus on life? don’t you feel wiser, more compassionate? don’t you find comfort in your faith? . . . causing me to understand that I had moved to Jupiter, or perhaps little Pluto, not even an official planet anymore. Pluto. That sounds about right.
It takes a long time. A recently widowed parishioner wrote me a note this past week, mentioning that she believes that the American tolerance for grief lasts about three months. I can understand how it is that no one knows about this. I look at my friends, reeling from the deaths of children six, seven, eight, nine, ten years and more ago, and I see how productive and engaged and filled with joy we all are . . . and yes, we are, filled with costly and hard-won joy, for we know, if we did not before (and I, actually, did . . . I’ve known since I was seven . . . ) that it can all be erased in a second . . . but I also see the things which are not so visible. The shadow which crosses a face standing in the crowd at a wedding. The smile and slight shake of the head when a baby is offered as a gift from a beaming mother. The step out the door and onto the porch when the laughter over the antics of small children echoes throughout the house.
The last couple of years have been much easier. I don’t know why. I suppose the wavelengths of grief stretch and become more flexible, given enough time and practice. That did not stop me from twice bursting into tears at my desk during the most recent Christmas season, grateful to be the only one in the building when an unexpected letter arrived from a high school classmate, last heard from 45 years earlier, who has lost one of her own sons, and when a FB message appeared from one of my son’s roommates, silent since the shocked condolence letter written years ago, and now a husband and father in his home country, France.
Who, I wonder would he have become? Would he have continued with his corporate career; would we have returned to Chicago for a B-school graduation? (Unlikely.) Would he have left that life behind and begun to nourish the artistic gifts he resisted, begun to write and travel, relaxed into the world that beckoned him to so much? (More probable, given enough time.) Would he have become a husband and father? That woman, or another? Would he have been tormented by episodes of depression, or would he have found hope and possibility where it one night seemed that none existed? Would he be up in Canada right now, or out on a soccer field, introducing a small son or daughter to the world?
I live my life. I do good work, important work. I extend myself for my family. I do love this world.
And there is not a day on which I do not breathe, Come back. Come back to me. Come back.
Our son Josh died by suicide on September 2, 2008.