Saturday, December 28, 2013

When Did the End Begin?

I’ve had a hard time with endings since our son died. When making a scrapbook of Noah’s life, I couldn’t face writing the year of his death or figuring out what to put on the last page, because there shouldn’t be a last page to your child’s life. Books, movies, TV episodes leave me teary even if they aren’t that sad, simply because they are ending. I start to get upset as I sense a story moving toward its ending. It reminds me of how we didn’t know that our family was moving toward an ending. What we thought was the beginning of getting well was the beginning of the end for our son. We thought he was coming home from college to get better; he knew he was coming home to die.

When did the end begin? When friends stopped answering his calls, when he stopped smiling, when he had his first anxiety attack and didn’t tell us, when he lost a good friend to suicide and almost lost another? When something else happened that we’ll never know? 

Those contemplating suicide have the end in mind, obscuring everything. We survivors-- blindsided by love, worry and our own limitations--can’t seem to see the dead end till it’s over. 

The first anniversary of Noah’s suicide, which will be March 19, 2014, has been looming for a while. But the next few months could be even worse, marked by little anniversaries of the steps leading to the end—how he fell apart, how we failed to help or even recognize the full extent of the danger. Reliving each step in our son’s decline makes me wonder if anyone could have intervened to change even one thing, whether Noah might have been diverted from his path. Instead of those steps leading to the abyss, they could have led him, no matter how circuitously, back to life. 

The mini-anniversaries hurl me back into the pit of what-ifs, could-haves, should-haves, if-onlies. There is no end to these as we move toward the anniversary of an ending.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Don't Let the Light Go Out

We are in the season of light, linking solstice, Christmas, Chanukah, and New Year. Since Chanukah got swallowed up (literally) by Thanksgiving this year, I want to dwell on it a bit longer.

At my Jewish meditation group, we did a candle meditation in front of the fully lit Chanukah menorah. What should have been calming and inspiring agitated me and I had to leave the room. I couldn’t focus on the promise of the lights, the task of tending the flame of our inner light. All I could think of was my two boys at an elementary school holiday program years ago singing:
Don't let the light go out
It's lasted for so many years
Don't let the light go out
Let it shine through our love and our tears
Noah’s light was gone now, snuffed out by his own hand. In truth his light went out some time before as depression overtook him and wiped out all feeling or connection. 

I’m grateful to Noah’s photography professor who told us how passionate he was in her class a few months before his death, how she would look up from lecturing to see his face glowing. Somehow that class reignited him; his flame rallied. I wish I could have witnessed that last firing up of my son’s spirit.

I wish I could say to the loved ones of depressed people everywhere what I now understand better: Don’t let the light go out. Be alarmed; don’t hold back out of deference to the person’s privacy or autonomy. Intervene before he or she is too far gone to be reached. 

“We are holding Noah in the light,” Quaker friends wrote after Noah's death. I tried to hold him in the light with prayer and healing energy when he was suffering. But it’s hard right now to summon light around the thought of my child in a box in the ground.

The days will be getting longer. I think of my family and fellow survivors of suicide loss feeling bereft this holiday season. Will we be more ready as time passes to let in more light? To tend the flame both of our loved one’s memory and of our own lives?

Friday, December 13, 2013

What is Left

All the sweetness is gone. Those wide, all-seeing green eyes. That full, springy head of hair and loping gait. That vitality, curiosity, and marvelous conversation. The promise of my younger son growing into his adult self while I grow old, bringing more life into mine. 

What is left is the cold of the glass in picture frames when I try to kiss Noah’s head like I used to, the absence of smell where there should be smoky-fresh hair scent. A few T-shirts packed in zip-lock bags to seal in his scent, still there, though every time I open them I dread their decay. Desperate writings mixed in with his college notebooks, full of despair and poetry I never knew he had. A small box of mementos that he sorted through a few months before his death, lingering over it for hours--contemplating the end? 

They say the loved ones we’ve lost live on in our hearts and memories. Maybe so with those who die naturally in old age. When a child of 21 dies by suicide, the pain, confusion, and emptiness can block our way back to the sweetness. At least from this point on the mourner’s path, nine months on.

The pop singer essence nails it in the song, Shape of You:

 Is sorrow all I have left of you
Besides the wall your name is carved into?
I’m not tryin' to get over, I just gotta get through
All I've got is a hole in the shape of you . . .

Or in the words of an old English ballad, here adapted from sweetheart to sweet child:

Once I had a sweet child and now I have none
Once I had a sweet child and now I have none
He’s gone and leave me, he’s gone and leave me
He’s gone and leave me to sorrow and moan.

Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see
Last night in sweet slumber I dreamed I did see
My own dearest child, my own dearest child
My own dearest child sat smiling by me.

And when I awakened I found it not so
And when I awakened I found it not so
My eyes were like fountains, my eyes were like fountains
My eyes were like fountains where the waters do flow

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Comfort Food

My husband has been making apple cake just about every week for the past few months. He’s not much of a baker, so he’s been experimenting. It started with a bumper crop of Fuji apples on his parents’ tree and a quest to recapture the moist, Old World simplicity of his grandmother’s apple cake. There were pie-like and coffeecake creations, from barely to super sweet, from the Jewish New Year to Thanksgiving, till he found the taste and texture he wanted. The apples have a fermented tinge that melds with the richness of the dough and the char of roasted nuts. Wherever we went recently, we brought an apple cake, and people marveled over it, as if reminded of their own grandmothers.  
Our son, Noah, loved to cook and to eat. He practiced flipping crepe-like Norwegian pancakes at age eight. He got serious with French bread and tarte tatin as a teenager, when smitten with all things French. I picture his tall, skinny frame hunched low over the kitchen counter with some delicate operation, like overlapping apple slices just so, giving it his full attention. He and his cousin devised elaborate pizzas, and he perfected the art with an Italian friend. He made pizza, omelets, dumplings and pasta dishes for friends at college. He was almost as good as his dad at making latkes, the fried potato pancakes of Chanukah—most memorably on an outdoor grill on the deck of his host family's houseboat near Paris, where he lived as an exchange student.

A few hours before his death nine months ago, Noah made himself a toad-in-the-hole toast and egg breakfast. My husband couldn’t see why someone who was planning to kill himself would bother.

Maybe my husband has been channeling Noah’s spirit spending so much time in the kitchen. Or maybe it’s part of his deep need to nurture and connect with living things, stronger now than ever. Since losing Noah, he’s spent a lot of time gardening, picking apples, canning, cradling our chickens, and hiking with the dog. Noah would have adored his dad's apple cake, just as his brother does.

Meanwhile, I feel listless in the kitchen these days. I’ve botched some dishes I’ve been making for years with careless mistakes.  I don’t have the patience for new recipes or even for my usual improvisations.  Everything seems way too complicated.

When Noah was at home the last three weeks of his life, I tried to make nice meals as often as I could in the hopes of pleasing him or inducing him to linger over dinner. He seemed mildly moved to be at Shabbat dinners on Friday nights with wine, challah bread, candles, and blessings; there was a glimmer of feeling on his face that we hadn’t seen for months. Once, I convinced him to make felafel together, but I couldn’t get him to try a new baguette recipe or do much of anything with me in those weeks. He was already too far gone, from me and from life’s pleasures. So it’s no wonder I’m avoiding elaborate operations in the kitchen; they remind me of my beautiful boy and all that we couldn’t share at the end of his life. 

What I would give now just to sit down to a simple meal with him . . .

Tonight, we will bring an apple cake to a potluck of suicide loss survivors as part of the Recipes for Healing theme of the event. I’m looking forward to the comfort food and stories that others have to share. If you’d like my husband’s apple cake recipe, it is here ; use a little less sugar and pass it on. And feel free to post your comfort food recipes and stories.