Ten ~ 1

In a few months, it will be ten years since my son’s death by suicide.  I might have some things to say.

I have a good life; don’t get me wrong.  We live in a beautiful home in a wonderful neighborhood ~ historic houses, walking distance to almost anything you might want, lovely people.  I have work which, at least some of the time, is meaningful and deeply satisfying.  Our living children have done well in the aftermath of trauma. One can survive, and even thrive.

I wonder, all the time, who he would be now.  I imagine whole lives for him.  That MBA from Chicago, a business career, a home in Hyde Park, a cottage on a lake.  The ballerina wife, the adopted Asian children.  Or the loans paid off, the desertion of the corporate world, the worldwide pursuit of photography, the life on the road.  Or the return to summer camp, the job with the farm and maintenance crew, the cabin in the North Carolina mountains, the wife and tow-headed children loving hikes and kayaking. Who knows?  None of it will ever be.

I loved being the mother of three small children.  I thought, at the time, that life could not possibly get better.  It turns out that I was right.  There will always be someone missing.

It hits me like the proverbial ton of bricks sometimes, usually inconvenient times.  A conversation, a glimpse into another life, a scene on the television, an article in the news.  I think I will die, but I never do.

Parts of me are missing.  I see friends losing parents; I see their lostness, their deep grief.  I don’t have access to those feelings anymore.  I have been saddened by my father’s death 18 months ago, and I often miss him, but his death from illness at the age of 85 was not for me an experience that in any way resembled the shock and horror and excruciating pain I felt in every nerve of my body after the death of my son.

I am not an easy person to be around, or to be.  I have no patience for the sentimentality that pervades so much of our culture of death.  I try not to mar others’ experiences of comfort, so a lot of the time I muster a meaningless smile and endure until a conversation or event passes.

I do hope, but it’s hard.

 

 

 

Holy Saturday: The Day After and the Day Before

It was the summer after my senior year of high school, and I was living with my maternal grandmother and her husband down in Cincinnati, so that I could work in a nearby motel.  There was little in the way of summer jobs in my small hometown an hour to the north.  Early Saturday morning, wearing my white maid’s uniform and sneakers, waist-length hair pulled back into a ponytail, sitting at the formica table in the kitchen, I eat my cereal. I am basking in the pleasure of having the house to myself for the week-end, while D&K spend time at his cabin in Kentucky. 

When I answer the phone my father is on the other end.  My stepmother, on vacation at Chautauqua with her daughter and grandson – the husbands to go up the next week-end – has somehow died in the night.  Late forties, healthy, excited for weeks about the anticipated time with loved ones in a favorite place.  Dead.

My uncle arrives a few minutes later to give me a ride to work.  I have changed into jeans, and tell him that he needs to drive me home instead.  We are silent, silent the entire way.  I see a tear run down his cheek, and I am surprised, but then I realize that he is remembering a similar drive ten years previous, when my mother, who was his sister, had been killed in a car accident, along with my baby brother.

. . .

At home, sitting in the kitchen.  A few people, family and neighbors, are milling about, making phone calls, making coffee, making lists.  The air is leaden, with a sense of doom being replayed.  I am not quite eighteen, and I watch them in wonder.  Each seems to have a role to play, and each seems to know his or her part.  It occurs to me that they have all done this before, ten years ago, and they know how to do it.   My role is to watch and learn, so that I, too, will know what to do someday.

. . .

We are crammed onto the back porch, which is really little more than a square brick entryway, crouched and sitting and standing, we six kids, who have seldom all been in the same place at the same time since our parents married.  July afternoon, warm, sunny.  Death has finally brought us together. My youngest stepbrother, almost thirteen, had found his mother.  He describes the scene, again.  My stepsister, 22 and a fairly new mother, says, “It’s so weird.  It’s so weird.  One minute, someone is alive, and the next, she isn’t. “  Later, she and I will return to the Chautauqua cottage and circle it like stealth reconnaissance agents, trying to reconstruct the events of that July night.

She looks at my brother and I as we sit on the porch, legs dangling over the grass.  “You already knew about this,” she says.  I always remember her tone as one of accusation, although I am sure she did not intend it that way.  But it was true.  We did know.  We had known for most of our lives.  One minute, someone is alive, and the next, not.

Holy Saturdays.  Bitter Saturdays. They happen to us all.  As more than one friend has noted this year, the anguish is not erased in three days.  And once you know that things are one way one minute and another the next, you cannot unknow it. 

No Hospice Time

Trigger Warning: Parental Death

Several of my friends have lost or are in the process of losing parents, parents who have been or are in hospice care.  I admit to being a bit envious.

When my dad was diagnosed eighteen months ago with lung cancer for the third time, he and my once-stepmother-back-together-again immediately began looking at treatment options.  The initial information was sobering — multiple lesions in his lung — and the news became more dire as a scope was recommended and then not, due to a tumor wrapped around his pulmonary artery.  I was surprised that he was considering chemo, as the brutal death of his fourth wife, from lung cancer treatment as much as from the cancer itself, had caused him to swear several years earlier never to fall victim again to such medical excess.  But the impetus to live is strong . . .

I went down to visit for a couple of days while he awaited further testing which he had inexplicably rejected a couple of weeks earlier.  I said that if the cancer had spread beyond his lungs, he might want to consider wrapping up in a sleeping bag and spending his remaining time sitting on his deck, enjoying the woods and creek below, and the birds visiting his feeder.  It was November and he was nearing 85; it seemed like a plan to me.  He seemed to hear and not to hear.

My stepmother told me later that they were hoping that the chemo would eradicate the cancer as quickly as it had appeared, and that he would have several good years left.  I decided to remain silent, and headed home, beginning to work out in  my head how I might arrange my schedule to accommodate several trips to their home four hours from mine, as I had been able to manage when my previous stepmother was dying.  I had read about tumors encasing pulmonary arteries, but I permitted myself to imagine that it would be a privilege to care for my father, if there were time in which to do so.

Three mornings later he was doing laundry just off the bedroom, and collapsed and died. Presumably that wraparound tumor had ruptured the artery. After a mad dash to the hospital and a declaration of death, the paperwork for his donation of his body to the medical school was completed and he was transported to . . . somewhere.  The test results, confirming the spread of the cancer across and into multiple areas, came back a few days later.

I admit to being a bit envious of my friends who’ve had hospice time.  I guess that conversation about the deck and the sleeping bag and the birds was it for us.

 

Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

 

Judywhoknows

A friend just published a post, on another topic entirely, in which she quotes a song from Judy Collins’s album, Who Knows Where the Time Goes?  My friend’s post is about a memory significant to Lent.  She dredged up some memories for me as well.

It’s the fall of my junior year in boarding school in western Massachusetts.  I am “campused” (like being grounded, boarding school style), due to an unfortunate encounter with a teacher who discovered a friend and me visiting the boys’ school five miles away in the middle of the night the previous spring.  Thus I spend a lot of time on my own, gliding around my dorm room or sprawled on  my bed, listening to music, when my friends are away – which means that 50 years later (FIFTY ?!?!) I will still know all those songs by heart.  At sixteen, I have loooong brown hair with red and gold highlights, a romance going very badly, and a stack of English papers to write, having largely given up on Algebra II.

I do not know that some thirty years later, I will have a son who will be a high school senior and living in the same dorm, with the same view of the mountains stretching before him.  I do not know that, like Judy Collins’ son, mine will die of suicide only a few years later, and that her music and those memories will all be wound into one ball of yarn, forever unraveling.

I still like the music, though.

500 Words on Lament

The Bible is filled with words written, spoken, and sung in response to life’s catastrophes.  We can be forgiven for not knowing this ~ even regular churchgoers are primarily exposed only to proclamations of joy (one reason I stayed out of church for months after my son died, even though I was a seminary student), and to a general cultural assumption that Christians are happy-clappy people with neither experience of the darkness nor willingness to go there.  And the sad truth is that many pastors are ill-equipped for that work.

(My brother, several years ago, decided to experiment with a church connection.  How do I get to know the pastor? he wondered?  Go to lunch, I said.  I can do that? he asked. Pastors eat lunch, I said.  What do we talk about? he wondered.  He’ll know, I responded.  He’s used to it.  At the ensuing lunch,  my brother wondered aloud about faith in the context of a mother and brother dead when he was four,  a stepmother ten years later, a nephew dead of suicide only recently.  Wow, you get right to the point, said the pastor.  It turned out he had no idea what to say.)

In fact, volumes, libraries, have been filled with writing about the Bible’s words on grief.  I have allotted myself 500 words as a starter, so that I don’t ramble on indefinitely.  And I’ve already used 227 of them!  Herewith, an introduction:

The Book of Psalms, the prayerbook and songbook of the Jewish people, Jesus’ people, is filled with psalms of lament.  (Google: psalms of lament.)  Many of them are what are called communal psalms, psalms written out of a community’s misfortunes and disasters.  The language is equally applicable to each of us in our individual misery. No glossing over or mincing of words:

Psalm 142: Give heed to my cry,  for I am brought very low.

Psalm 44:23-24: Rouse yourself!  Why do you sleep, O Lord? . . .  Why do you hide your face?

Nearly every psalm of lament follows the same pattern: an expression of horror and sadness followed by an expression of confidence in God.  My favorite is the exception to the rule, Psalm 88, an unremitting cry of anguish.  I wrote a lengthy academic paper about it in seminary, but you don’t need to know Hebrew or history or expository techniques to get it:

Psalm 88:15: Wretched and close to death . . . I am desperate.

There’s an entire little book in the Bible called Lamentations.  There’s the story of Ruth — another book — in which a woman loses husband and sons, and her daughters-in-law their husbands.  I’ve done a study/support group on that one; it’s a moving source for considering the hidden losses which accompany the obvious ones, and the ways in which life goes on and new life can be found  (and especially for coming to terms with the unexpected resources of women who go beyond the usual boundaries of “acceptable” behavior – nevertheless, they persisted).

Bad things happen to lots of good people in the Bible.  Most famously, to Job — his name the title of another book.  People often speak of “the patience of Job” — I don’t know where they get that.  I preached a sermon series on Job once, after which one of my parishioners said, “We all learned that we are never supposed to get angry at God.”

That is NOT what I said.

The Book of Job, in a nutshell:  A good guy, a successful guy.  God gets into a dispute with Satan and terrible, terrible things happen.  Job’s wife says, Curse God, and die. (A good line, that.)  Job has some really bad news friends who come around and ask, What did you do, that all this happened to you? (We all know who they are.)  Job never gives up expressing his rage and his grief to God (Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire? ~ Job 3:11) , who finally responds, in a wild and turbulent two chapters of question cascading upon question, by asking, Do you understand who I am?”

It’s not exactly a satisfying answer, which is perhaps the point: to our understanding, there is no satisfying answer.  (I might add that the ending of Job, in which he gets back a perfect life, is fairly useless ~ even in the era in which Job was finally written down, people were looking for Hollywood endings, so skip that part.)

I’m way over my 500 words.  My suggestion? Read, pray, very slowly, through the Book of Psalms, one or part of one a day.  And/or a chapter of Job a day.

They will not bring anyone back.  But you will discover a treasure of words written down by people who have experienced, one way or another, what you have.

 

 

 


Written for my friend Brigitte, who has lost son and, now, husband.

Nine

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.

 

 

 

 

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