Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Curating My Son's Legacy

I took on this job without being asked. I fell into it, as if it were meant to be. I became the curator of my son’s legacy, his spokesperson to the world now that he can no longer speak for himself. This task has often consumed me in the past three months, giving me something to do that keeps me connected to N but at times overshadowing the grieving process.

It started within a day of his death when I copied a passage from Kay Jamison’s book on suicide, about how love for and from others is no match for the inner demons of mental illness, and showed it my fellow mourners. People were grateful; we all needed an explanation of a senseless, inexplicable act. I would later come to regret this hasty grab for explanations that labeled my son as inevitably mentally ill, and to question whether Jamison’s description represented N’s experience. But I was already framing his life and death for others.

It happened again a week or so later in dealing with N’s friends and staff at his college, when they were planning a memorial service. I was fielding dozens of e-mails a day: Would we allow the college to name the death as suicide, to quell rumors and allow the community to deal with it honestly? (Yes, absolutely.) Did we want the Jewish mourner’s prayer as part of the service? (Yes, we were reciting it daily, though it had no meaning for our son.) Was there a quote or poem for the program? (Only the simple Jewish saying: May his memory be for a blessing--again more from our world than his.) Where would we like to direct donations in N’s memory? (Two organizations that reflected his interests plus one for suicide prevention research.) Students kept me posted on plans to create a slide show, an exhibit, a dumpling dinner, a web site; I dutifully e-mailed them my thanks not only for their efforts but for being N’s friend. I felt the need to say something reassuring to everyone, given than N hadn’t said goodby to anyone. 

And then there were the long weeks of trying to reconstruct a fuller picture of N’s history by talking with his close friends and therapists in three cities and perusing his personal writings--private jottings never meant to be seen by others, much less a prying parent. With everyone, my husband and I had to represent our son’s personality, his relationships and habits in the fractured way of parents who increasingly knew less and less about their child. As curator, I dutifully compiled N’s history in a six-page chart of life events, behavior, therapy/treatment, and excerpts from his writings so we could show it to professionals for a psychiatric autopsy. Like any curator, I had to know my subject and make choices of what to include and what to leave out. Will I regret these decisions, too, later when I see things differently?

How N would have hated his mother speaking on his behalf and crafting a story of his struggles. He was a 21-year-old desperate to be independent. But when they leave us like this, it’s the needs of the living that take precedence. They have obliterated their pain; it’s we who are left with pain and longing for the rest of our lives. It’s not about how N would want to be remembered; we can never know that. He left no note, no instructions; after all, he sought oblivion. Now it’s how we the living need or want to remember him.

So in choosing paper for his memorial scrapbook, I look first at the bold, geometric prints that he might have liked. I think he might not have liked any of them and would have just opted for plain white paper or even black and white designs, which feel too stark to me right now. Then I realize I’m the one who will be making this book and looking through it the most. I choose mostly papers in the softer colors and subtler patterns that I find pleasing.

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