Friday, October 31, 2014

Meditations on Rope, Part 2

Note: This post contains description that may be disturbing for some readers.

For months, I’ve been haunted by an image of myself standing alone on a beach holding a very long rope that is flung out to sea. Out past the horizon, the rope is attached to my dead son, twined around his torso. Noah floats in his beloved ocean, still tethered to me. He needs me to let go so he can float free in his natural element. I hold on, for fear that if I let go, he’ll be lost to me forever. I hold on to be with him as mother-protector in a way that I couldn’t while his life was ebbing. If I let go, I accept that he is truly dead and gone.

Play with the rope, a therapist urges. What if you let it out? What if you reel it in again? What are your options? Extraordinary questions. I avoid thinking about them for a while.

But the rope I envision is taut; there is no coil of excess at my feet. I am at the end of my rope, as Noah was at the end of his. I am holding on for dear life. The tides tug; his body pulls. The rope he used for death I want to be a life-saver—his and mine. The rope is my hope that I can always feel close to him and love him. I wasn't the kind of mom who could easily let go when he left home, so how can I possibly let go when he left everything behind? 

You’ll let go when you’re ready, my husband soothes.

Why the rope, this horrific thing, as what binds me to Noah? Of course, I see: the rope is his death. The rope lay on the floor as I hugged Noah for the last time. It was the last thing he touched. No wonder I seized it in shock and desperation in my mind. I am holding onto the sight of his dead body, the unspeakable scene of his death, my guilt for not shielding him from his demons. It’s those things I need to let go to leave him in peace and find my own. To say goodbye to my dead, despairing son so I can begin to remember him alive and thriving. I feel lighter after saying this out loud in therapy. I've set an intention, even if it takes years to fully accept that he is gone.

The next day, I tell a story about Noah, age six, to my students as we discuss a children’s book on lost tooth customs. The going rate in our house for the tooth fairy was 50 cents. Once after losing yet another tooth, Noah left a note under his pillow: Dear tooth fairy: $2 or leave it! My students laugh. I smile a full smile, sweet, not bittersweet—at least for the moment.

Meditations on Rope, Part 1

Another Halloween, and this time I am prepared. I take walks through the neighborhood with my head down, avoiding front yards full of gravestones and hanging effigies that stung me last year . This year, no surprises, no tears. How lightly they take death who have not felt its tragic weight. Yet is it any surprise I’ve been thinking and writing about rope the last couple weeks?


You took chances.
So many ways you could have died
on surfboard, snowboard, motorcycle--
just one blindsiding wave, curve, car.
I worried, you scoffed, we played
our parts; you stayed intact.
Disasters I conjured
but never this torrent
swamping your soul.

You took no chances.
You could have set it up
to disappear at sea, plunge
off a cliff, but
a rope over the rafters
leaves no mistake,
no clue,
no you.

*All poetry in this blog is original work-in-progress, unless attributed to others.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Living with Your Mind

“You have to live with your mind your whole life,” teachers once told the novelist Marilynne Robinson . “You build your own mind, so make it into something you want to live with.”

No one ever told me that essential lesson in so many words, but I sensed it and pursued it as a young person. My husband and I never said as much to Noah, but hopefully we modeled it for him and he, too, sensed it. From about the age of 12, he set about building a beautiful mind—curious, passionate, wide-ranging, ready to engage with anyone and anything (also risky, ridiculous, absolutist). I was often surprised by the turns of his thinking, especially when it went beyond his life experience or education. He absorbed ideas effortlessly, keen to learn from people outside his world, like Vietnam vets and a Cambodian chess master, as well as self-made men like his French host dad. He was like a lawyer who didn’t need a brief to argue a case. I felt privileged that he shared his thoughts with me well into adolescence; I could watch his mind shape and shift. I like to think he knew that mind was more than intellect to dissect and critique, but rather a precious instrument for wonder, self-awareness, connecting with others, and creating and doing good in the world. How we would have loved to see where his mind would have gone as it grew past his 21 years.

The mind Noah relied on and identified with--the mind he needed for his friendships and his studies, his travels and his dreams of the future—began to fail him at some point and he panicked. Did he have mental problems first, like trouble reading or delusions, that spiked his shame and anxiety? Or did untreated depression and anxiety (or some other cause) compromise his thinking? Probably all of the above. His family and friends saw he was no longer himself. His mind was clear enough to know there was a problem, but too tormented to conceive of healing and change. 

You have to live with your mind your whole life. Did Noah come to feel he could no longer live with his mind? That the very thing he cultivated, and we as parents tried to lovingly nurture, had been ambushed and destroyed by forces beyond his control? That without his mind, he was no longer himself and life no longer worth living? Is this what others who kill themselves are thinking?

Here’s what we should have told Noah: You have to live with your mind your whole life, so build a strong mind that you can love and cherish and use to affirm life. 

We loved and cherished his beautiful mind. How, now, to understand and honor it?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Missing Atonement/At-one-ment

This second Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement since Noah’s death was intense but easier than last year, when we sobbed together in synagogue under my husband’s prayer shawl. This year, our grief was more silent and contained, more numb than raw. I still cried and shook during the memorial service, especially when invited to imagine being in a room with our loved one and seeing him walk toward us. I wept at the innocent sung promise to pass on the tradition “from generation to generation,” as we have one less stake now in that future. It was still jarring to move between what my husband calls “the hole in our hearts” and cheerful new year’s greetings to family and friends. 
I missed out on the full experience of atonement and renewal that I used to cherish in the Jewish High Holidays. I did not immerse myself in life review, repentance, and tshuvah (turning, returning to one’s better self), either on that day or in the weeks prior. Having struggled with so much guilt, remorse, and anger around Noah’s suicide over the past year, I held back from rehashing it or going deeper. Instead, I prayed for compassion and tried to focus my atonement on one moment: the last words I said to Noah on the last night of his life. 

He had just miraculously run a marathon the day before, despite his debilitating depression. I started by saying how proud we were, what an accomplishment it was, and how it showed he could set a goal and meet it even in the hardest of times. But then I nudged him to set more small goals for himself and start taking steps toward them, like finding a psychiatrist and getting a part-time job. I know now how insensitive this was. I saw his despair, but I didn’t grasp how he was by then incapable of even picking up the phone. I’m sad and appalled that this was Noah’s last impression of me—unless he registered the kiss I blew him later.

Some new verses for my ongoing lament for a lost child :

            How I wish that I had listened
            To the fear behind your eyes--
             All the pain inside your silence
            I didn’t fully realize.

            I want to take back what I said to you
            On that last night of your life
            Words I only meant to encourage
            Must have struck you like a knife*

Without forgiveness of myself, there will be no forgiveness of my child. Without atonement, there will be no at-one-ment with Noah’s spirit.

*Note: All poetry on this blog is original work-in-progress unless attributed to others.