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.

Birthday Developments

It’s Sam’s birthday again, and what dawns on me is that this fact does not take our breath away today as it has in years past. It’s like this: The boys went to practice and school as usual, and I’m home addressing a little plumbing issue. I don’t mean to minimize the problem, the “backup” is definitely the most urgent and offensive matter I will resolve today. I wonder aloud whether Canadian homes are on sewers or septic, because the answer to this question might inform my next decision. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the emotional significance of the day is not weighing us down.

And then there’s this: I’m standing in the garage while the rooter works on the obstructed pipe, and I start cleaning out a box we had stuffed into the garage years ago. We crammed quite a lot into boxes and tucked them away because we just couldn’t deal at the time, and then we got distracted with life and kids and lots of good stuff, and the boxes seemed to multiply while we weren’t looking, and now, much to my chagrin, there is a veritable mountain of crap in the garage, most of which needs to be shredded or donated or trashed. It’s not a particularly enjoyable project, so we often avoid it, but the task is more appealing at the moment than my plumbing problem, so I take a deep breath and remove the lid from the box.

I find some costume jewelry that I had forgotten about, an old photograph of one of the boys with Santa, and the check register from the weeks shortly following Sam’s death. Some of the entries are exactly the same as my current on-line bill pay records: telephone, water, gas, electricity, the pediatrician. Others are much less routine: one for the mortuary, and another for the emergency room doctor who signed Sam’s death certificate. These two entries are in my mother’s distinctive cursive, her protective hand evidenced in this careful detail. Friends, too, leave their supportive marks in my check register. For example, one check reimburses a friend for the groceries she bought and put away in my kitchen, and another check reimburses a college friend for gifts she had purchased on my behalf. What is not evident from the face of the check, but what I know, is that she had spent an entire week with us before Christmas, cooking for us, shopping for us, wrapping gifts and decorating, leaving her own very young sons in order to care for mine, and for me. She has recently won a national science award for her work in mechanical engineering, but in our house we know her for the egg noodle soup she made when we were under the weather. We still make the soup that we call by her name when illness strikes. I put the check register back in the box. It suddenly seems too precious to shred.

Meanwhile, the plumber finishes his work, and I am released to resume my normal programming. I stuff the entire box back in the garage for later.

But there’s also this: My husband Tim has taken each of our four sons on a college visit for their 16th birthdays as part of our family undergraduate motivational plan, and now it’s the baby’s turn. Each of the older boys remembers his college tour with dad fondly, and so far the plan seems to be working. Our oldest is now a college graduate and living on his own, putting him squarely in the lead for favorite son. The diploma and the independence also make him the envy of his younger brothers. All part of our plan.

So today, on Sam’s birthday, Tim is picking up the so-called “little one” immediately after school and heading straight to LAX to catch a plane for the weekend. It is undoubtedly the best gift we could offer to Sam.

The boys are living with joy, determination and love. They are looking forward much more than they are looking back. They do not forget Sam, and in fact, they often think about his academic path and which parts they would like to imitate (as well as which parts I would prefer that they didn’t). They wonder what he might think or what he might find amusing, but none of this hinders their progress. Our boys move onward.

While Tim and one son are en route to the mid-West, I am at home with another of our sons. We raise a glass to Sam and eat one of his favorite meals.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And birthday celebrations.

Inevitable

It will not be avoided, Christmas. It’s coming. It’s practically almost here. We are racing through December and heading quickly to the 25th. I’m inching my way through. I thought maybe I could get through the season without waxing eloquent on the season (which might be the case nonetheless), but then I was felled by a nasty bug. Some might say it was my annual bout with the Bah-Humbug, but it sure looked like a virulent stomach flu.

There comes that moment, when in the midst of the queasiness and misery, the only thing to do is to lie perfectly still, inhaling and exhaling slowly. It is dark and lonely, my feet are cold and my forehead is hot. I don’t even have the stomach for my morning coffee, and the caffeine headache alone might do me in. I adore curling up in bed with a novel, but this is decidedly not that. I cannot focus on a single printed word without inducing fresh waves of nausea. The closed book remains disappointingly just beyond my reach. The hours pass slowly, and I breathe.

Eventually, inevitably, there comes that moment when gratitude rears its impish head. It might look like a phone call from one of my sons, reporting a recent success or asking for guidance. It might be the gift of an audio-book from my dearest friend. It might be the silly dog’s ridiculously hopeful wag. Gratitude sneaks in with a smile and just half a mug of steaming hot chicken broth. I take it all in. I look out the window, and I am smitten by the beauty of twilight, the black outlines of the palms and the pines against the last bit of bright blue background before the sky goes dark. It gets me every time.

If Advent is about waiting, then maybe that’s what I’m doing. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. I think about Mary and her journey toward Bethlehem. At what point during the process – while riding ponderous miles astride a donkey, while settling into the stinky stall with the pigs snuffling and the hay poking into her back, while catching her breath in between contractions – did Mary reflect upon her Yes, turn to Joseph and wail, What the hell was I thinking? Or maybe that’s just me. But I think it’s okay to acknowledge that the Christmas experience is not all goodness and light. Yes, there is much goodness. Yes, there is extraordinary light. But there is also a fair (or unfair) amount of darkness and pain along the way. Ignoring my Christmas angst seems only to exacerbate it. For me, it is easier to embrace the radiance and joy when I acknowledge the yucky parts. And then, when the light and love arrive, it is breathtaking.

I can barely remember the first Christmas after Sam’s suicide. I could not tolerate the idea of having our traditional celebrations without him, so we did something different. Tim can barely remember their first Christmas just two weeks after Debbie’s death, but he thinks he tried to keep things consistent for the boys. There is no right or wrong answer to this challenge. There will be tears. There will be laughter. There will be gifts and treats and long, fretful sighs. It’s all part of the package.

I was scheduled to speak at an evening of remembrance hosted by a local bereavement group this week, but the flu bug got the best of me. I was terribly disappointed to miss. I was looking forward to the event, a special evening honoring our human capacity to feel love and loss and hope in all of its complications and mess and loveliness. I had presented at this event previously, but last year I had thought about canceling about a hundred times, because I didn’t know how beautiful and healing the evening would be. I was delighted to be asked back, and I was prepared to be insightful, inspirational and funny. We were going to laugh (because I’m hilarious), and we might cry (because life is hard, and I’m a sensitive girl). Plus, I was going to wear a cute outfit. I love cute outfits.

I was going to talk about finding light in this sometimes dark, heavy world. The kind of light that comes from inside ourselves, the light we remember when we sit quietly and wait for morning’s sunrise. That internal light we realize we still have when the sun continues to rise every day – in that comforting and infuriating way that the sun does. I was going to talk about the light that our friends and family shine on us in all their myriad ways with the warmth of a summer day, bearing casseroles and baked goods and greeting cards. The friends who urge us forward through the miles, sometimes literally, and the friends who rally to our sides when we need to sit. The many – some friends, and some strangers – who shine light in our direction with their prayers, their encouragement, their songs and their stories. And I was going to talk about the light that still shines from our loved ones, even the ones we have lost. Like the stars that shine in the darkest night’s sky, drawing our attention upward, the light from the lives of our loved ones still shines.

Personally, I was looking forward to remembering both my father and my father-in-law at the gathering. It has been a difficult year for my little family, and we are feeling the loss especially during this holiday season. And yet. And yet, their light still shines in our lives.

These days our December gauntlet looks like this: Debbie’s birthday (she would have been 50 this year), her deathaversary (9 years), her stage-4-cancer-diagnosis day (the moment that changed everything), her favorite holiday (Santa Central). She is much in our thoughts and hearts. Our Christmas celebrations looks like this: Christmas Eve with my side of the family, Christmas morning with my husband and our children, Christmas breakfast with Debbie’s parents, dinner with Tim’s side of the family, and – thank God Sam’s parents are Jewish – one night of Hannukah. We exchange stories and gifts. We might cry. We certainly laugh. We eat.

The Bah-Humbug might have taken me out for a week, but it will not deprive me of the light of this season. I went for a run this morning with the silly dog, and it was such a joy to get out and move. I have the wherewithal to eat cookies again. I love Christmas cookies. Cookies don’t fix anything, but they mean everything. Especially from that dear friend who wants to mend your broken heart with chocolate and pecans, or oatmeal and dried cranberries, or cinnamon and sugar. There is no wrong answer when it comes to cookies.

I even baked Tim’s favorite Christmas cookies, and we hid them from the kids, Scrooge-style. Our newest favorite holiday tradition.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your holiday path. And joy!