I Want You to Know

Here’s what I want you to know about my husband’s suicide:

I didn’t see it coming. In retrospect, I can read some of the signs differently, but at the time I did not know he was so close to the edge.

It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t his parents’ fault, or his kids’ fault, or his cousins’, or his sister’s or his friends’ fault. It wasn’t his doctor’s fault, or his boss’s fault or any of his colleagues’ or clients’. It wasn’t entirely Sam’s fault. It just was, and I cannot explain the why of it any more than anyone can explain why some people develop cancer or multiple sclerosis and others don’t.

It wasn’t for lack of love. His death is not a reflection on our capacity to love him. Or his capacity to love us.

Sam was not bi-polar. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. He was not in any sort of treatment or taking any medications. He had a prescription for Vicodin for his back pain after multiple surgeries, but he refused to take it.

I don’t know what would have happened if he had lived. Whether our marriage would have remained intact, whether he would have been hit by the proverbial bus or an actual one, whether he would have survived another back surgery, whether we would have gone to family camp for another twenty years, whether we would have moved to Colorado or Canada, whether circumstances might have pushed the boundaries of our patience in ways we hadn’t yet been tested, or whether we would have lived happily ever after until death did us part when we were in our 90’s surrounded by our children and grandchildren. Or whether that last scenario might just be a story I read once upon a time.

I will never know exactly what happened and every why detail. The not-knowing is part of the deal. I know this now.

 

Here’s what I want his children to know about their father’s suicide:

You were the greatest gift of your father’s life. You were his joy, his light, his inspiration. This does not mean it was your job to save him. Your role then – as it is now – is to be yourself. Be your funny, spirited, smart, wonderful, glitchy, imperfect self. His death cannot take you away from you.

Your father loved you with all of his heart. His death is not the end his love for you.

He would never have left you willingly. Not in a million years. I know it looks like he chose to leave, but I promise you with every ounce of my being that if he was in his right mind, he would not have left you. No way. The only way I can reconcile the fact that he took his own life with how much he adored you is that he must have been gravely ill. Somehow in the warped operation of his mind, he was convinced that you were better off without him. This makes no logical sense. I hope that, as you navigate the course of your own life, you will be able to come to terms with this paradox.

You are not destined to repeat your father’s path. Be alert. Suicide and depression run in families, but they do not own you. Know yourself. Ask for help when you need it. Trust that you have resources and agency.

You didn’t deserve for your father to die. Life is not about what we deserve. Do your best to let go of life’s injustices and to hold on to moments of grace.

On the night your father died, I sat with each of you tucked under my arms. You were small enough then that the three of us fit in one armchair. I told you something that is as true now as it was then: Your father’s love for you will always be with you. Always. Forever.

 

Here’s what I want Sam to know about his suicide:

Your death caused us more pain than you could possibly have imagined. We forgive you and love you anyway.

To be unnervingly honest, I do have several friends who have no intention of forgiving you. I’ll just say that when they get to heaven, you’d better get ready to run.

You must have been experiencing more pain that we could possibly have imagined. We hope you forgive us and love us still.

The little baseball team you coached was devastated at your death – not because of your academic or professional accomplishments, not because you were the greatest baseball player or coach, not because you were somebody’s daddy, but simply because you were a kind man who cared enough to spend time with them on Tuesdays and Thursdays and every Saturday afternoon. I want you to know that your goodness is what we hold on to.

We are creating lives that would make you proud. We live with joy and passion and faith and integrity. We laugh and sing and run and play. We shout and swear and sweat. We have traveled to places you never got to go, and I’ve let the kids go places you might not have wanted them to visit. For the record, they loved it. We had your favorite comfort food for dinner last night, turkey meatloaf with garlic green beans and spaetzle with parmesan. We raise a glass to you on your birthday, your deathaversary, on holidays and random days. Sometimes it really irritates me that you believed that we could live full lives without you, but more often I am grateful.

I fell in love. I didn’t think I would ever do that again. He is handsome and kind and funny. He loves me, and he loves our sons as his own. Tim was also widowed, and he has two sons whom I love with my whole heart. We have created a family together, and I cannot find the words to explain how beautiful this life is.

I want you to know that we are happy.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And perspective.

Conviction

You might never have known what she’s been through when you see her in your weekly yoga class, arriving on time every Tuesday, appearing, as she consistently does, to be so well put-together, a tall pretty blonde, donning the Lululemon yoga pants and corresponding black lycra jacket favored by stay-at-home moms and PTA presidents, freshly pedicured, a mother with the means to work out (and maybe work, depending on whether she prefers hiring a nanny to take the children to the zoo and Music Together classes or taking them to the park herself, but definitely with the seniority and flexibility to take them to the pediatrician when the cough lingers too many days or the fever spikes too high); no, you might not expect, based on her warm smile and the sturdy, effortless look of her Warrior II, that she had grown up with loving parents but ones with a strong German penchant for stoicism, an inflexible puritan work ethic and demand for perfection, that she had been directed her entire life, when facing grief, sadness, anger, or fear to go into her room and come out when she could be a good girl again, a childhood that would render her unprepared for the maelstrom of emotion she would experience by being widowed at the age of 39 when her husband committed suicide by jumping from a parking structure, the classic stock broker’s death on a gorgeous fall day following Black Friday, leaving her with two young sons, ages 6 and 8, and the monumental task of parenting them as a single mother while grieving her own loss, and that it takes every ounce of her concentration to hold the stance, grounded in her feet, steady in her legs, arms outstretched and parallel to the ground, eyes resting just past her outstretched fingers, inhaling and exhaling and trembling, repeating the mantra to herself, “I can do this, I can do this.”

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And resolve.

Deathaversary IX

Another year passes
since the unthinkable.
We still think about it, of course.
And you.

Your picture stays,
a constant on the mantle,
soft brown eyes, no aging wrinkles,
no additional gray.
Same, steady smile.
Nothing to betray the passage of time,
other than a little dust around the edges of the frame.

Your sons’ pictures tell a different story.
Birthday celebrations,
athletics, concerts and travel.
Photographs accumulate, line the walls, accent end tables and bookshelves,
fill boxes and scrapbooks,
and cover the baby grand piano, marking accomplishments and moments.
Formal portraits,
Casual family gatherings,
Graduations,
Football teams,
School events,
Baptisms and confirmations,
Days at the beach,
Ski weeks,
Fishing trips.
Smiles, laughter and silliness.
Brotherhood in many forms.
They move through their young lives,
With growing confidence.

I see glimpses of you
in his brown eyes, of course,
in the angle of his chin,
in his stoic expression, succumbing hesitantly into a quiet grin.
I see hints of your influence
in his gentle interactions with his little cousins,
in the instinctive, confident stance he displays at the podium
and also in his awkward gait.
And yet they become uniquely themselves.

They have lived more years now without you
than they did with you,
even the “little one” is taller than you.
They live their lives,
with love, integrity and joy.
You remain in their hearts, if not at their sides.
The long shadow of your death too ephemeral to dim the light of your life,
a light in their lives.

Volume Control

When our boys are bickering over whose turn it is to play on the xBox or take out the trash or use the car, or venting frustration over whatever the latest unfairness might be, our frequent response is: “You are 100% responsible for your 50%.” Meaning that you cannot control everything (or anything, really) that other people do (particularly if those people happen to be your brothers), but you can control yourself.

Needless to say, this concept has little appeal to the kids. They are far less interested in changing their own position than they are in transforming their siblings into compromising, understanding, selfless individuals. When they groan that the coach or the teacher is unreasonable, they would prefer to change the grading rubric than to get an early start on their training schedule or summer reading. Our refrain frequently falls on deaf ears.

These are among the many parenting occasions when I long to transform my children into rational human beings who appreciate the wisdom in maternal advice. Instead, I am reduced to following my own recommendation. The trick is figuring out what constitutes my 50%.

I have a pair of friends from college who are like the brothers I never had, in all the ways that older brothers can be. They were protective and helpful, showing me around campus and introducing me to friends. They also taught me how to play quarters and corralled my roommate and me out to a country bar to learn the Texas two-step. Bobby and Earl were a pair, and if you met either, you likely knew the two of them. In fact, once you knew them, it was awkward to say one of the names without the other. Like milk and cookies. Or maybe not quite.

Earl and Bobby devised a system for the music on their road trips — this was before iPods and satellite radio — to keep the tunes playing and promote relative harmony in the truck. One took over the dial for the tuner and the other controlled the volume. We went to school in Texas (I mentioned the truck), and there was a lot of ground to cover between our little school in Houston and their respective homes. That’s just a lot of time on the road. Their arrangement worked well: When the “tuner” liked the song, he kept that station playing, and if “volume control” didn’t care for the song, he turned the volume low. The tuner would then change the station, and once he found something they both liked, the volume came way up. Simple, but effective.

Sometimes I like to be reminded that even when I don’t have complete power over a situation (and in fact, I never do), I can still exert control over something. I can turn the volume up, down, or even off. I am a girl who finds comfort in silence, so that helps.

I tried a new yoga/pilates class on my vacation. The instructor brought a lovely energy to her practice, and she used words like beautiful, strong and yes. She said, “I love this pose!” so enthusiastically so many times that we laughed, which was another way she brought smiles to our faces, even while she was treating us to additional ab work in the form of a plank. I think she genuinely loves that tortuous chair pose and was strong enough to have sat there for the duration of the class. Her joy became contagious.

I don’t know why her class made me think of Bobby and Earl, except that hers is the kind of exuberant soundtrack that they would have tuned into and cranked up the volume on, exactly the consonance I want to invite into my life. I cannot control the “haters,” as my sons call them, but I can choose to turn the volume low on their disheartening messages of inadequacy, fear and inertia.

As a parent, I cannot control everything my sons do. After all, that is their 50%. I bring the boys to church and serve them veggies, but it’s up to them to find their own inspiration and eat broccoli.

Humbled again, I turn toward my own 50%. I love and cherish my sons and their father. I eat brussel sprouts (Roasted at 425, olive oil, salt & pepper. Better than potato chips. Trust me!). I try to be kind. I read inspirational books. I walk the dog. Some days farther than others. I take a deep breath. I listen.

From time to time, I participate in a friend’s Wellness Camp exercise program. It’s kind of like a a 40-day boot-camp-style exercise program, only completely unlike boot-camp. We train hard, but we also meditate daily. She motivates with words like strength, balance, joy, healing and grace. I turn the volume way up on her messages of health and wellness. One morning while we were working out at the track, we heard another instructor (he-of-the-drill-sergeant-style) bellowing at a group of boot-campers to “Run like a Rottweiler is chasing you!” I am so grateful my friend never yells at me to run like a dog is hot on my heels. Life is hard enough. For the long haul, I’d prefer beauty, light and love to power me through.

I don’t have complete control, of course, but I do have some. And I exercise my choices thoughtfully, adjusting the volume on the incoming messages up or down or off with intention. Just enough to keep the peace on my journey.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little volume control.