I find something quietly gratifying about balancing my checkbook. There is one right answer. Reconciling the statement with the register, finding the discrepancy, correcting an error (usually my own transposition of numbers), then everything tics and ties. It’s my favorite constructive avoidance technique. That and laundry. A few blessed moments of balance, and I take a long inhale. Then everything gets messy and out of whack again.
There was a murder-suicide in our town a few weeks ago. Here’s all I know: firefighter-husband shot sheriff’s-deputy-wife at their home; he then dropped off their only child, a young boy, at grandma’s house; dad next radioed the first responders to let them know that they would find a dead body at the house but there would be no danger to them; and then he shot himself. Tragic and heart-breaking.
I’m at the very fringes of the tragedy, and I’m shaken by its magnitude. We experienced only a small fraction of this trauma. One of my sons was the same age and grade as the young child when he lost his father to suicide. Everything else is different. I do not even know how to begin to get a toehold to climb that mountain of grief.
I have said before and I’ll say again, For as bad as it was, it’s as good as it gets. Sam left me a note. He did not kill himself at home. There were witnesses to his jumping, but the boys and I weren’t among them. The police feared that he had attacked us, but he didn’t. The boys had each other and me, loads of extended family, and friends who feel like family. We clung to each other, and we didn’t change our address or elementary school or doctors, although we stopped attending church altogether. We were inundated with condolence cards and casseroles, but no paparazzi or news commentators parked in front of our home. We had a lot of stability, but we were still hurt and angry, hostile and confused.
Even so, I defended their father – not what he did, but who he was.
My dearest friends were still infuriated. One said, “All I know is that when I get to heaven, Sam better be ready to run, because when I catch him, I’m going to kill him.” I have this mental image of all the girlfriends who rallied to my side – and there was a legion of them – chasing after Sam in eternity. Part of me is amused and grateful for their protectiveness, and another part of me still rallies to guard Sam from the lynch mob. And the two biggest reasons to do so are our sons. These boys are graced with grandfathers, uncles, male teachers, coaches and role models, step-brothers and a step-father who loves them dearly, but none of them replaces Sam.
These tragedies shake us. Not only because we are profoundly sad at the violence and senselessness of it, but because we cannot ignore that the oneness of this person includes the capacity for both service and injury. We prefer the wholeness of a man to be singularly good, both for his sake and ours. If we are honest, it also forces us to look at our own inner darkness. Real human beings are multi-faceted, and some of those faces are scary and ugly. The task becomes to embrace the whole man, which is not to condone his terrible acts, but to accept his weakness and vulnerability as part of his humanity.
It’s easy to love perfect people, or at least the ones who indulge in the same bad habits we do. Loving imperfect people is a bigger challenge, especially the people we have loved and been betrayed by, or people we trusted and wanted to emulate before they lost their minds and hearts and self-control. It can be harder still to look with tenderness into our own darkest fears, our jealousies, insecurities, bitterness and self-righteousness.
Sam’s suicide will certainly color his sons’ perception of him. The cloud of his death distorted the view for a long time, but eventually, with healing and perspective and resilience, that fog begins to lift and a few rays shine through. We take a step back, and begin to see that the shadow does not define the man.
On about the second or third night after Sam’s death, when the reality of his death was sinking in, and his absence weighed heavily on our hearts, one of my favorite people in all the world burst through our door with her signature energy and announced, “I’ve come to fix everything!” Her eyes were brimming with tears, her arms laden with grocery bags containing about seven gallons of ice cream in dozens of flavors.
Of course, ice cream doesn’t fix anything. Not even Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia or Haagen Dazs Coffee. But the companionship on the journey is everything. So we sit together, choosing our favorite flavors, even though they melt faster than we could possibly eat. We cry, we talk, we sit, we call Sam names, and we mock his favorite flavor.
And so starts the process of coming to terms with the dimensions of this man who both jumped off a parking structure and liked vanilla ice cream. It doesn’t quite add up, but there you have it.
It is counterculture, counterintuitive and downright offensive to extend compassion toward the man who killed himself, but his child needs this tenderness. The man will always be his father. Nobody can be replaced. I cannot imagine the road that lies ahead for the young boy who lost both his parents. I hope he has a community of courageous and gentle people in his life who will help him grieve and heal and provide a larger perspective on his father than that imposed by one tragic evening, that this terrible act not be the entirety of a father’s legacy for his son. I pray that there are men and women in this young boy’s life who remind him of his father’s good qualities. Clearly, he had some. The man who shot his wife and himself is the same man who took measures to protect his son and his fellow firefighters. These aspects of the man are in deep conflict with each other; what he did was horrifying, but who he was is more complicated.
I believe that no matter how dark our despair, anguish and misery, light ultimately finds a way through. I have faith in radical forgiveness, redemptive love and a ridiculous sense of humor. I have hope that peace will surpass our failings, remorse and self-loathing.
During mass the week after this murder-suicide, I was grateful to hear both wife’s name and husband’s name read among the people for whom we should pray. The beginnings of grace.
And so I pray.
I think about husband and wife, and it is hard to hold so much love and suffering in the same prayer. But I have done this before. At the center of my petitions for mercy, for peace, for forgiveness, is the child of two imperfect parents, united in love for their son. May the boy be held securely in the arms of divine Love, may he find a path of healing and a life of light, resilience and joy. May he be blessed with steadfast friends who enter into his sorrow and loneliness with stories and photographs and silence and sweetness and presence, because ice cream doesn’t fix anything but it means everything.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And hope greater than conflict.