Please use this blog to help us remember Joshua Lee Anderson, who made the tragic and fatal decision to take his life on Wednesday, March 18, 2009. Please post any memories or thoughts you may have in the comments.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

33 Months Later - December 18, 2011

Sometimes I think of the anniversary month in terms of "x" years and "y" months - like 2 years and 8 months. To title this post however, I thought of total months and in doing so, it is 33 - a very special number.  The number that I will forever associate with our son.  The number on the football jersey that is part of his final wardrobe.

33 months - already?  Time is no longer marching but whizzing by - at dizzying speed.  In a few short weeks, it will be January 16th, which would be his 20th birthday.  A few weeks after that, his third-year death anniversary.  So strange to think that it will soon be three years since he left us.  In most cases that would seem like a long time but not with death.  There is a different time frame associated with grieving which I wrote about last summer.  The words still ring true.
It has now been 16 months since Josh's fatal decision. One might think that it has gotten easier with the passing of time. But grief does not travel in a linear fashion. In my experience, the connection between grief and time is better described like an archer's target, with concentric circles around a bulls-eye, representing Josh's death. Each circle around the center corresponds to a period of time, say a year. As time moves on, the distance to the center increases but not by much. Meaning that any memory, word, song, thought, movie, photo or innocent question can bring back all of the emotions of that time. It is never far away. I know that five, ten or twenty years will bring some distance, but I don't think it will be that much.
How can I, thirty-three months later, still be writing on this blog?  Why does each anniversary month still feel significant?  Why does this grief journey, almost three years old, feel like it just started?

In her poignant memoir, My Brother, writer Jamaica Kincaid ponders the death of her younger brother, Devon. He died of AIDS at the age of thirty-three.
It's not as if the whole thing has not happened before, it's not as if people have not been dying all along and each person left behind is the first person ever left behind in the world.  What to make of it?  Why can't everybody just get used to it?  People are born and they just can't go on and on, and if they can't go on and on, then they must go, but it is so hard, so hard for the people left behind; it's so hard to see them go, as if it had never happened before, and so hard it could not happen to anyone else, no one but you can survive this kind of loss, seeing someone go, seeing them leave you behind;  you don't want to go with them, you only don't want them to go. 
And the same thought repeated at the end of the book...
...if it is so certain, death, why is it such a surprise, why is everybody who is left behind, who is not dead, in a state of such shock, as if this thing, death, this losing forever of someone who means something to you, has never happened before.  Why is it so new, why is this worn-out thing, death, someone dying, so new, so new?
I've never thought of it in this way.  Kincaid is right - death is an everyday occurrence, there is nothing new about it.  In fact it's presence is part of our subconscious; we know and accept that mortality is a part of life.  But I know now that this understanding is only intellectual and superficial - it does not hit the heart.  In fact, I am jealous of the un-grieved, those whose knowledge of death is simple theory and whose heart is unschooled.

For when death comes, and for me it was on a sunny Wednesday morning, March 18, 2009 when I found our son, that innocent world is shattered and life can never be the same.  A hard, cold, shocking reality covers and overwhelms every physical and emotional circuit.  The feelings are strange, suffocating and debilitating.  A trauma to the heart and psyche has occurred and full recovery feels uncertain.

One would think that the acceptance of death as a part of life would adequately prepare us but it doesn't.  Nothing can.  I guess what I am trying to say is that Death is a common occurrence but when it happens to you, there is nothing common about it.

I will end this post by sharing about what happened the other night.  There is an end table in the living room on which a large picture of Josh sits sturdily on a photo holder, along with other pictures.  While the girls and I were decorating the Christmas tree, the large photo came out of it's holder and tipped over - enough to make a noise and get our attention but not enough to wipe out the other pictures.  We couldn't understand why this happened for no one bumped the table.  Was Josh saying, "I'm here"?

An all white tree - in memory of our beloved Josh

Monday, December 12, 2011

Quote from Romeo and Juliet

I have two places to decorate for Christmas now: our home, which I haven't done, and Josh's park.  While traveling there this weekend, with wreath and ornaments in hand, I was listening to an audio course on Shakespeare's Tragedies.  The professor was talking about Romeo and Juliet, the famous play about two star-crossed lovers, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

He quoted a passage in which Juliet tells Romeo of the depths of her love:
My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep, the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.
This was written to describe a woman's love for a man but as I was listening, I couldn't help but think that this passage better describes another type of love - the purest, deepest, and most sacrificial ever felt by any human - the love of a mother for her child.  There is no rival.  For how many women begin with the same "Juliet-type" feelings for their own lover that over time, fades and in some cases, disappears altogether?

But a mother could never "file for divorce" from her child.  The notion is preposterous.  Whatever may happen, that bond and love, even if it flows one way at times (especially during the teenage years), is always there.  It can never break.  It will survive and perhaps grow stronger, even in death.

Josh's tree is the only one that still has leaves.  

Peace on Earth ornaments

RIP my beloved son. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Sinkhole

On the airplane today, while traveling back from Charlotte on a work-related trip, I was innocently reading an article in the December issue of Redbook magazine.  Next thing I knew, my eyes were filled with tears which I was trying to discreetly wipe away.  Good thing the seat next to me was empty.

What could possibly have hit me so hard?  Reminded me of my loss and rekindled the grief that lies dormant below the surface, but is so easily awakened?

I have a name for when this happens.  In a previous post I call it a "grief mine."  In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion calls it the "vortex effect".  In Joyce Carol Oates' book, A Widow's Story, she calls it a "sinkhole."  In fact, I will quote the passage:
The widow must learn: beware sinkholes!  The terror of the sinkhole isn't that it exists.  You understand, sinkholes must exit.  The terror of the sinkhole is that you fail to see it, each time you fail to see it, you don't realize you have blundered into the sinkhole until it's too late and you are being pulled down, down...
The guilty article?  A Daughter Lost And Found.  The blurb that made me want to read it?  When Julie Mannix refused to get an abortion, her parents had her locked up in a mental hospital.  This is the story of the child she fought to save - and how they made their way back to each other."

Beautiful nineteen-year old Julie, a Philadephia debutante, gave birth to a healthy daughter, whom she named Aimee Veronica on April 19, 1964.  Unmarried, unsupported and unable to care for a child, she felt there was no choice but to sign adoptions papers after which  "my heart ripped apart.  I put down the pen, turned away and, on shaky legs, I left my baby behind."

After the birth, she was reunited with the baby's father and after marrying him, was disinherited by her family.  These are the words that got to me:
I thought of Aimee constantly in the decades that followed.  My longing for her triggered a series of deep depressions, which would come on quickly and linger for weeks; the passing years never softened them....Every year on April 19th, Frank and I celebrated Aimee's birthday, the date of which we had engraved on the inside of our wedding rings. 
This is a mother who longed for her lost child but because the adoption records were sealed, had no hope of finding her.  "There was nothing to do but pray that she was with a good family and growing up loved."  She did not stop thinking of Aimee - even after having two other children and even after the passing of decades.  And what really got to me was that at the time of her wedding, this young, childless mother wanted to have Aimee's birthdate etched in their wedding rings, despite having seen her precious newborn only once, and that from five feet away.  She never got to hold her, nurse her, sing lullabies and gently rock her to sleep.

I understand this mother.  I understand her grief, pain and guilt over losing a child.  I believe it when she says that time, contrary to popular belief, does not heal, remove or soften these feelings.  And that she thought of this child not just for days, weeks, months or years, but for decades.

This is an example of a mother's love and the depths of the attachment to her children.  Of the bond that exists in her heart long after the physical cord has been cut.  It is a relationship like no other and only a fellow mother can understand it.

It reminds me of the sacred, unbreakable bonds to my own children.  The ones for my three surviving children that give me great joy.  And the one to my lost child, my beloved Josh, whom I will never see again, that produces such sorrow and pain, it is literally indescribable.

In reading this article today, I unwittingly fell into a sinkhole, stepped on a grief mine and was swept up in a vortex.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving Josh

On this beautiful cold but sunny day, perfect for Thanksgiving, while the turkey is roasting, I write a letter to Josh.

Dear Josh,
Happy Thanksgiving!  I can't help but imagine what you would be doing if here.  Let me try.... you came home from college on Saturday, happy to be home but wiped out, and with mountains of laundry.  After giving me the required hug and stooping to play with Buddy and Benji, who would be going crazy, vying for your attention, you would head straight for the kitchen to make sure the pantry and fridge was stocked, giving me a little smile after seeing that it was.

You would then stretch out on the couch with your favorite blanket, inviting the dogs to chill with you and promptly fall asleep.  I would work on your laundry and by the time you woke up, clean clothes would be in your room.  Sleepy-eyed, you would ask me the proverbial and all important question, "what's for dinner?"  Another smile would appear when I said, "Korean food", one of your favorites.

We probably wouldn't see too much of you, between sleeping and hanging out with your friends which would be okay, because you were home.  Then today - one of your favorite holidays because it combines two things you LOVE - the Thanksgiving meal and football (there are some good games on today), you would exude peaceful contentment.  At dinner, you would be your usual quiet self but would interject a well-timed remark that would make us all laugh.  After dinner you would be passed out on the couch again with "turkey coma".  Life would be good.  Let me say that again, LIFE would be good.

But instead of what I imagine in my head and heart, the reality is that you are not here.  At least not physically (I don't want to think of where you are physically).  I hope you are here in spirit.  Can you give us a sign today?  Or does it work best when least expected?  And even though it has been over 2 years and 8 months, I will end with the question that I still ask every day, "Why, Josh why?"


Monday, November 21, 2011

"Send Silence Packing" Exhibit at Active Minds 8th Nat'l Conference

This past weekend, Lauren and I went attended a conference called "Empowering Advocates for Change" at the University of Maryland, hosted by Active Minds.  Started in 2001 by a UPenn student, a year after losing her older brother, also a college student, to suicide, the growth has been explosive (see story).  There are now 370 Active Minds chapters on college campuses all across North America, recognized nationally as the "voice of student mental health advocacy". Over 500 chapter members, advisors and supporters attended the event.  It was inspiring to be amongst so many young people who work tirelessly to ensure that no student is suffering in silence, that they know of available resources and understand, most importantly, that they are not alone. 

We went to this conference because we would like to use the money collected in Josh's fund to bring Active Minds speakers to local high schools, promoting the concept of Youth Mental Wellness.  We would also like to encourage our local school system to imitate Howard County Public Schools in Maryland, which has successfully implemented 5 Active Mind chapters in high schools, as part of a pilot program.

One of the many highly successful programs is Send Silence Packing.  Below are pictures from this powerful, life-changing display, right in the center of the University of Maryland's campus.  We would like to bring this display to Fairfax County.

1,100 backpacks, representing the lives lost to suicide on college campuses every year

Two girls reading Josh's story.  One was crying. 

Another young kid - I was moved because this bag was his actual backpack

Educational signs like this are all over....

These kids believe they are the voice of change.  If you are a college student and would like to be part of this voice, PLEASE join your college chapter, or start one (click here to find out more).

Friday, November 18, 2011

2 Yrs and 8 Months Later - Nov. 18, 2011

Another month has gone by and instead of time lessening the impact of Josh's death, it has become deeper, broader and just "more". What may be contributing to this are the following upcoming events: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, what would be Josh's 20th birthday and the 3rd year death anniversary.  Each of these would be tough - all together, very tough.

As I have shared in a previous post, it is my custom to visit Josh each week and when I am done cleaning off his stone, I sit and write a letter to him.  Here is what I wrote this past week.

Dear Josh,
It is Tuesday afternoon and the time that the park is cleared of all flowers.  This mandatory cleaning ends on November 21st, right before Thanksgiving.  I was late putting fall colored flowers in your vase so you may have them for a week or so, before your Christmas wreath gets placed.   
This is my/our third year without you for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Where has the time gone?  The impact of your death is ginormous, but better seen from a distance.  Just like how viewing the damage from a hurricane is more easily seen the further away you travel.  Up close, you couldn't see that it wiped out most of a town, but a before and after shot from the sky would show the devastation.  
This is how I feel about your death.  As time goes on, the impact is even greater and deeper and wider and broader than at the beginning.  How enormous the impact of your life and your death.  So sad.  
I hope you are at peace.
RIP beloved son.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Media Coverage for FCPS School Board Election - updated 11/11/11

In the past, that is to say "pre-Josh", we did not pay much attention to School Board elections except to notice when they were imminent, evidenced by the multiple signs placed in the busy Route 7 median that runs from Tysons Corners to our home.

But now all that has changed.

The 2008 - 2009 School Board had responsibility over the disciplinary policies that treated our son far harsher than if he were caught by the police.  How can that be?   And in the end, my belief is that the expected decision of his expulsion from high school caused Josh to feel a loss so profound and overwhelming that he could not cope.  His fragile psyche sought a way out - a way that was irreversible and irrevocable.  Death.

After his tragic suicide on March 18, 2009, the School Board and Superintendent had the opportunity to assess the disciplinary policies, determine their effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) and initiate reform.  Yet nothing was done.

Then over a year later, another boy was caught and punished via the same draconian disciplinary policies.  And this poor boy also took his life.  Two death within two years.  And only because of the courageous sharing of the Stuben family, the thorough reporting by Washington Post journalist, Donna St. George, the additional media scrutiny (see blog post), pressing advocacy of FairfaxZeroToleranceReform and increasing outcry from the community, was the School Board forced to address reform in a June 9th vote.  But they did not go far enough.

So it is time for change.  Six of the twelve SB members are not seeking re-election.  Some who are should be replaced.  Josh was our youngest so we no longer have any children in this school system.  But for the thousands that entrust their children to FCPS, just as we did, I hope and pray that the November 8th elections will result in wholesale change.  And that the new group will roll up their sleeves and initiate common sense reform, ensuring that each child/teen is treated fairly, respectfully and above all, with the understanding that he/she is still a kid.

My intent is to keep this post updated with media links related to the upcoming elections.

July 18 - August 8, 2011
Vienna Patch: "Interviews with At-large School Board Candidates" on the issue of school discipline policies. "Discipline reform has become a key issue in this school board race. See how the candidates stack up."

August 10, 2011
McLean Connection: "At-large School Board Race: One to Watch" by Victoria Ross.  "Debates over discipline, boundaries, budgets, standardized tests and sleep have generated Fairfax County’s most closely watched and contested School Board race in the board’s 19-year history."

August 14, 2011
Washington Post: "Fairfax County School Board Races Could Overshadow Other Campaigns This Year" by Frederick Kunkle.  "Stuban is one of several political newcomers whose entry into the normally sleepy School Board elections has transformed them into this year’s marquee event in Fairfax politics in November, potentially overshadowing the races for the more powerful Board of Supervisors, which governs the county of more than 1 million residents."

September 23, 2011
Washington Post: "Fairfax School Board Races: Change vs Continuity" by Emma Brown

October 23, 2011
Washington Post: "Character of Fairfax School Board Rests On This Fall's At-Large Races" by Emma Brown

October 30, 2011
Washington Post: "Fairfax County School Board Candidates" by Emma Brown

November 4, 2011
Channel 9 News: "Fairfax County School Board Elections on Nov. 8" - interviews with candidates.

November 8, 2011
Washington Post: "Fairfax County School Board Control On Line But May See Little Change" by Emma Brown

November 9, 2011
Washington Examiner: "Election Pumps New Blood into Fairfax School Board" by Aubrey Whelan

November 10, 2011
Washington Post: "Even in Defeat, Fairfax School Board Candidates May Force Change" by Emma Brown.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

October 18, 2011 - 2 Years and 7 Months Later

Tim and I just got back from a week in Palm Desert, CA - just what the doctor ordered.  A golfer's mecca, he played every day while I played twice.  On my five non-golf days, I practiced at a local Bikram (hot) yoga studio - challenging but good.

A strange, or not so strange thing happened while driving back from an Indian restaurant.  We ended up on some back roads and lo and behold, one of them was called Joshua Road.  What are the chances that we would find ourselves on that road in a part of town that we never travel?  It was Josh - just letting us know that he is always with us, wherever we are.

This reminds me of what happened to our son, Tyler.  Like many other large families, we owned vans.  Useful vehicles to cart kids, sports equipment and mountains of groceries.  As the kids got older, each had their turn to drive our last van, affectionately dubbed "Big Red" while Lauren had it at UVA  The upkeep was just enough to ensure it passed inspection.  This meant that when the air conditioning went out, it went unfixed.

Big Red then passed to Gillian and then to Josh.  We felt more comfortable with him driving a big van rather than a smaller car and besides, it was an Anderson "right of passage" to drive a car in Virginia without air conditioning.  After he died, Big Red was due for a safety inspection.  We did not think it would pass, so gave the car to Tyler because in Georgia, where he lived, there is no such inspection.  Surprisingly, the van held up for quite a while.  But then Tyler decided to trade it in for more reliable, fully functioning car.

While driving away in his new car, he felt sad because Big Red had been a connection with Josh.  He decided to check out Pandora and completely unexpected, the first song that played, which should not have based on how the app works was "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.  Played at Josh's funeral, this song will forever remind us of him.   Tyler said this was like Josh saying, "it's okay, I'm still here."

While I am at it, one more thing happened recently.  I was typing an email for work and instead of the person's name, my fingers typed "Josh".  I just looked at it, shook my head and smiled as I deliberately deleted each letter.  I wasn't thinking of him at the time but maybe he was thinking of me?  Or wanted to make sure that I still remembered him?  I don't know but with these three incidents I want to believe that his spirit is alive and well.

RIP dear Josh and keep letting us know you are okay.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Denial vs Disbelief

It has been a little over 2.5 years since Josh has left us and I have been thinking a lot about two words: denial and disbelief.

Denial is one of the 5 stages of grief noted by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her landmark book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969.  These stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) were originally applied to those facing death from a terminal illness.  The audience was later broadened to include those who suffered a catastrophic loss.

Webster-Merriam's definition of denial is simple: refusal to admit the truth or reality of something unpleasant.  This is not me.  Not when Josh's absence is evident every day and the last interaction with my beloved boy is now over 2.5 years old.  The memories of a frozen seventeen year old are etched in my mind and branded on my heart.  And as I look to the future, that number will only get bigger and bigger and perhaps more painful, not less.

Words that describe disbelief are amazement, astonishment and incredulity.  This is me.  I am still amazed that our son took his life.  I shake my head in disbelief.  I know it is true but my mind has difficulty comprehending the fact.  This picture is by my computer.

Sometimes I stare at it wondering how the unthinkable happened to Josh, to us, to our family, to me.  How could it have happened?  How could it have gotten so bad in his mind?  How could a kid with everything get to a point where nothing mattered except finding a permanent way to deal with his loss and pain?  Maybe part of this disbelief is wrapped up in the constant, unanswerable question of why?  But if I knew why, would it be easier to believe?  I don't know.

This picture was taken in 2003, six years before "IT" happened.  I look at our smiling faces, totally oblivious to the impending doom of which we are now survivors.  It is hard to write these posts as I am forced to face my thoughts and feelings head on.  I am still so very sad that he is gone.  I still feel a mother's guilt which is now mixed with self-pity - a strange concoction.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Life, Death and Phone Calls

We received happy news in the family - a new baby!   My sister-in-law had gone into labor and without knowing what happened, I went to bed.  When I woke up, I grabbed the phone and called my mom.  You know times are different when your 75-year-old mother's first response was "Oh, didn't you see the email?"  Then, "she had a healthy baby girl!"

My journal entry later that morning:
Pre-technology revolution, pre-email, it would've been phone calls to family members.  We had our list of people to call after each of our kids were born - strange - just remembered it is the same list of who to call when someone dies.  At birth and at death - the first people you call are immediate family.

I had to call Tim - after I found Josh.  Poor guy - he was on the Beltway and had to drive home after hearing the news.  After the worse was confimed, we had to call our children.  Tim did that.  What do you say?  How do you tell your children that one of their siblings is no longer alive?  I don't know.  I am glad that I did not have to make those calls.

I did call my mom and practically screamed the news to her - "JOSH IS DEAD...HE KILLED HIMSELF."  I let her tell my brother and sister, I think.  I then had to call my boss and tell him why I couldn't go to a client meeting that day and why I wouldn't be back to work for an undetermined time.  Being a father himself, he was full of compassion.

Within several short hours of these calls, our family began rallying around us.  And now, over two years later, we have a new baby in the family whom we will surround with love and support.
This is what happens in my journal.  I begin writing about one thing and then my thoughts flow to memories that still reside close to the surface.  Tears flowed freely as I recalled that horrible day and the phone calls made.

RIP Josh.  I wish you were hear to see your new baby cousin.  You are forever loved and missed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Remembering Josh - 28 Months Later

Where has the time gone?  It is hard to believe that another 18th is here, another summer sans Josh (our third) is almost over, and that his friends are leaving for their sophomore year in college.  Time relentlessly marches on and all I can do is move along with it.

And despite the fact that it has been over 2 years since Josh has left us, his memory still burns brightly in the hearts of family and friends.

We just got back from a trip to visit Tim's parents and below are pictures of a bottle of wine they received.  When my mother-in-law drew my attention to the bottle, I just focused on the wine type - pinot noir.  Then she said, "look at the name."  When the beautiful script "Josh" registered in my brain, a very strange feeling occurred which happens periodically when I unexpectedly hear or see something that reminds me of our beloved boy.  Every cell, muscle and organ in my body stops - for one millisecond - as the memory of his death washes over me.

The same thing happened when I was sent these pictures from the moms of two of Josh's friends, who had recently gotten tattoos - in his memory.  One of them shared the reason:

 I got this tattoo of Josh's initials and date of death on my back because he always had my back and near my heart because that's where he'll always be.  

This beautiful arm tattoo has Josh's nickname and his football jersey number. 

RIP Josh - forever loved and always remembered.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Thoughts from "A Widow's Story" by Joyce Carol Oats

I read this moving memoir in May and wrote a post soon afterwards with the intent of writing more.  I journaled extensively while reading so have my "notes" from which to write a post - which I've attempted numerous times.  Why so hard to get started?  As I sit and ponder this question, no answer comes to mind, only possibilities.

Maybe it is because I only have a set amount of emotional energy and since reading the book, I have taken a job at another company and have been supporting my parents through my dad's recent health issue (two surgeries to address a leg aneurism).  And while I like my new job and my dad's recovery is going well, both situations have been prolonged and stressful.

Or maybe this task, for some unexplicable reason was one that I could not do at the time I tried. When this happens, I've learned the important lesson of being "kind to myself".  The last thing this grieving mother needs is additional undue pressure.

Another example where I've not pushed myself is with regard to Josh's room, more specifically his desk and closet.  My self-prescribed task is to go through his things meticulously, with a fine-toothed comb, looking for clues.  You'd think this would be one of the "must do" tasks, completed well within the first year of death.  Maybe for another mother, but not for me.  And I cannot explain why, only that I can't.  It is not time, even though almost 28 months has passed.  I am not ready.  For what? For the possibility of finding out why our funny, intelligent, athletic, well-liked son took his own life?  For fear of the anticipated flood of emotions as I look through his personal items?  I don't know.

Now to the book.   There is so much that I could relate to which tells me that when it comes to the sudden and tragic loss of a loved one, be it Oates' spouse of 47 years who succumbed to a hospital contracted staph infection, or a seventeen year son who died by suicide, the feelings are similar.

Much of Oates' writing is via stream of consciousness, which allows her thoughts to flow uncensored to the page (or so it seems).  On the night her husband died, she was sleeping peacefully at home, anticipating Ray's release in a couple of days.  Then the phone rang. She left for the hospital in the middle of the night, obeying the speed limit and traffic lights (why?) and did not make it before he died, which was on February 18, 2008....exactly 13 months before Josh.  Now, dates are always relative to March 18, 2009 - always.
That I was sleepting at the time when my husband was dying is so horrible a thought; I can't confront it....And so I'd been eating when my husband had succombed to that terrible fever that precipitated his death - the thought is repulsive to me, obscene....It was the most horrific thought - my husband died among strangers.  I was not with him, to comfort him, to touch him or hold him - I was asleep, miles away.  Asleep!  The enormity of this fact is too much to comprehend, I feel that I will spend the remainder of my life trying to grasp it.
I, too, slept, woke up and showered, and was working in my office while Josh as dead in his room.  By suicide!  My baby!  The beautiful, happy boy that is in all the pictures on my fridge, all over my house.  How could this be??  Over 2 years later - that question is as fresh as the week after it happened.  Like her, I will spend the rest of my life trying to grasp it - make sense of it, comprehend and understand it which will probably never happen.

On the death certificate:
I will discover on the death certificate noting that Raymond J. Smith died of cardiopulmonary arrest, complications following pneumonia.  12:50 am.  February 18, 2008.
I have not seen Josh's death certificate....Tim has.  He told me, "No need to look."

On getting perspective with what really matters:
The minutiae of our lives: telephone calls, errands, appointments.  None of these is the slightest significance to others and but fleetingly to us yet they constitute such a portion of our lives, it might be argued that our lives are a concatenation of minutiae interrupted at unpredicatble times by significant events. 
This rings true.  I was attending to such minutiae (which escapes recollection), on that fateful morning when life was turned upside down, when a part of my soul died, when a hole was formed in my heart that only Josh can fill.  Such tasks now, compared to the overwhelming loss of a beloved child, are nothing....just necessary nuisances.

Oates' thoughts on the hospital vigil which I can relate to because of my dad's recent hospitalizations:
There are two categories of hospital vigils.  The vigil with the happy ending, and the other.  Embarked upon the hospital vigil as in a small canoe on a churning white-water river you can have no clear idea which vigil you are embarked upon - the vigil with the happy ending, or the other - until it has come to an end.  Until the patient has been discharged from the hospital and brought safely home.  Or not discharged, and never brought home.
Her husband wanted to be cremated.  While Joyce was at the funeral home making arrangements, with no advanced warning whatsoever, she was asked to identify Ray's body.  Completely unprepared, she elected not to do so.
I will regret this moment.  I will regret this decision.  I will never understand why at this crucial moment I behave in such a childish way, as if my husband whom I love has become physically repulsive to me.  How ashamed I will be, at this decision: like a child shrinking away, hiding her eyes.
Those in our immediate family were able to say "good-bye" to Josh on Friday night, before the funeral service the next day.  I remember walking across the parking lot of the funeral home with a pit in my stomach thinking over and over, "I don't want to be here....I don't want to be here."  It was inexplicably hard, requiring tremendous courage, but so very necessary - to provide a sense of closure.

Oates's grief analogies which I found interesting but did not quite understand:
Advice to the widow: Do not think that grief is pure, solomn, austere, and "elevated," this is not Mozart.  Think of crude coarse gravel that hurts to walk on.  Think of splotched mirrors in public lavatories.  Think of towel dispensers when they have broken and there is nothing to wipe your hands on except already-used badly soiled towels.
What I wrote in my journal:
Think of emotional pain so deep that it hurst physically.  Think of more tears than what you thought possible for a body to produce.  Think of waves - relentless, constant, pounding with no relief in sight.  Think of being inside a pressure cooker - to the point of explosion.  Think of driving on a straight, narrow road with nothing but dead, brown grass on either side and a completely grey sky.  There is no end in sight as the road goes to infinity.
Think of a powerful, swirling vortex or whirlpool where you are caught helpless, swirling around and around, eventually swallowed up.  Or think of a piece of debris whirling around and around in a never-ending, violently strong tornado.  Or think of a roller coaster that shakes you so hard that you are scared, sick and end up with a terrible migraine.
I will end this post with quotes from two of her friends:
Grief is exhausting and requires the strength of an Olympic athlete.

Suffer, Joyce.  Ray was worth it.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Thoughts from "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote

A highly recommended book published in 1965 which is hailed as the first in a new genre: the non-fiction novel (see post on reading blog).

Two men brutally murder an innocent family of four in December of 1959 in a small farm town called Holcomb, Kansas.  Capote spends the next four years following the story: leads on the murderers, the eventual arrest, the trial and ultimately, the sentence - death by hanging.  Due to his fame as a literary star, he was given unlimited access to the prisoners.

One of the murderers, Perry Smith is empathatically portrayed in Capote's book as his was a sad and sorry life, touched multiple times by suicide.  Because I am a survivor of suicide, I was moved by Smith's story and wonder if I would've felt the same reading this "pre-Josh" - probably not.

One of four children, Perry had a very unstable childhood.  Upon his parent's divorce, he lived with his alcoholic mother who eventually died of alcoholism (slow suicide) when he was a young teen.  His father was out of the picture which meant he was placed in various orphanages where he suffered abuse and torture as a bed-wetter.

Tragedy followed his family. His brother Jimmy, the eldest with the most promise, married but was obsessively jealous of his wife.  She shot herself and when Jimmy found her, he shot himself - a double suicide.  Perry's favorite sister Fern, drank heavily and went out of a 15 story window - another possible suicide.  In a family of six, when three are dead by their own hand, the psychological affects must have been tremendous.  Barbara, his only surviving sibling was also interviewed by Capote and revealed fears about herself and her family.
The eldest, the brother she loved, had shot himself; Fern had fallen out of a window or jumped; and Perry was committed to violence, a criminal.  So, in a sense, she was the only survivor; and what tormented her was the thoughts that in time she, too, would be overwhelmed; go mad, or contract an incurable illness, or in a fire lose all she valued - home, husband, children.....They shared a doom against which no virtue was a defense.
When a family has been touched by horrible tragedy, the feeling of vulnerability is pronounced.  I admit to having crazy, irrational fears that in another moment of deep darkness and sheer desparation, someone else in my family will choose suicide - something, "pre-Josh", that I would never have considered.  But now, it is a possibility. 

I desperately wish I had this awareness in early 2009, while we were going through everything with Josh.  If so, would I have been more dilligent?  Not taken "no" for an answer?  For I did ask the question, almost embarrassingly, "have you ever thought about hurting yourself?" which Josh shook off like it was the most stupidest question ever.  And I accepted his answer because I thought the same - a stupid question - of course, he would not do anything.  I didn't think he cared enough to be suicidal. 

Not surprisingly, Perry admits to having suicidal thoughts throughout his life.
As a child he had often thought of killing himself, but those were sentimental reveries born of a wish to punish his father and mother and other enemies.  From young manhood onward, however, the prospect of ending his life had more and more lost its fantastic quality.  That, he mush remember, was Jimmy's "solution," and Fern's, too.  And lately it had come to seem not just an alternative but the specific death awaiting him. 
And while incarcerated, he saw it as a way to escape fate:
...despite the jailer's precautions (no mirror, no belt or tie or shoelaces), he had devised a way to do it.  For he also was furnished with a ceiling bulb that burned eternally, had in his cell a broom, and by pressing the broom-brush again the bulb he could unscrew it.  One night he dreamed that he'd unscrewed the bulb, broken it, and with the broken glass cut his wrists and ankles "I felt all breath and light leaving me," he said, in a subsequent description of his sensations. "The walls of the cell fell away, the sky came down, I saw the big yellow bird."
What about those who knew the murdered family?  Of specific interest to me were the friends of the kids for two of the victims were high school students, Nancy (16) and Kenyon (15).  Nancy's best friend, Sue Kidwell (who actually discovered the bodies), talked to Capote about the days right after the murders.
We were like sisters.  I couldn't go to school - not those first few days.  I stayed out of school until after the funeral [just like Josh's friends].  So did Bobby Rupp [Nancy's boyfriend].  For a while Bobby and I were always together.  He's a nice boy - he has a good heart - but nothing very terrible had ever happened to him before.  Like losing someone he loved.  And then, on top of it, having to take a lie-detector test.  I don't mean he was bitter about that; he realized the police were doing what they had to do.  Some hard things, two or three, had already happened to me, but not to him, so it was a shock when he found out maybe life isn't one long basketball game.  
Mostly, we drove around in his old Ford.  Up and down the highway.  Out to the airport and back.  Or we'd go up to the Cree-Mee - that's a drive-in - and sit in the car, order a Coke, listen to the radio.  The radio was always playing; we didn't have anything to say ourselves.  Except once in a while Bobby said how much he'd love Nancy, and how he could never care about another girl.  Well, I was sure Nancy wouldn't have wanted that, and I told him so. 
From Bobby's point of view:
Everybody - his parents and every one of his seven brothers and sisters - had treated him gently since the tragedy.  All the same, at mealtimes he was told again and again that he must please eat.  No one comprehended that really he was ill, that grief had made him so, that grief had drawn a circle around him he could not escape from and others could not enter - except possibly Sue. Without her almost constant presence, how could he have withstood such an avalanche of shocks...Then after about a month, the friendship waned.  Bobby went less frequently to sit in the Kidwells' tiny, cosy parlor, and when he did go, Sue seemed not as welcoming.  The trouble was that they were forcing each other to mourn and remember what in fact they wanted to forget.
These passages remind me of Josh's friends - those who did not go to school for a few days after.  The many who came to our home to join us in grief, sorrow, and tears; the sharing of memories, looking at pictures, and writing good-bye notes to him in a treasured journal.  I can't begin to imagine what is is like to lose a close friend at such a young age.  How does the teenage mind process this?  How do they cope?  I just hope that our "open-door" policy at the time of  Josh's death helped his friends.  Witnessing the uninhibited outpouring of love and emotion certainly helped me.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

New Job - New People: The Question

After Josh had been gone a little over 18 months, I wrote a post on "The Question."

Over two years later, I am still struggling with this.  I started a new job two weeks ago where no one knew about Josh, his death, his suicide.  I am reluctant to share about what happened for fear of instant judgement.  If they knew I had a son who chose to end his life, would they view me differently?  And is there a part of me that likes to be with people who have no idea?  With whom I can pretend that "it" didn't happen?  That I am just like them - raising kids the best way we can?

Last week, while at the regional office, I was asked to fill out a contact sheet with the names of my spouse and children.  Immediately, my mind began racing - what do I do?  What do I write down?  Do I write Josh's name with a (D) for deceased or (3-18-09)?  I know what that means but would others?

After sitting for a few minutes, pen poised above the paper, I did what felt right at the time and put down Tyler, Lauren and Gillian.  After turning it in, I was filled with doubt and even worse - guilt.  Now, when my new colleagues see it, they will think I only have three children.   Am I deceiving them?  Am I taking the easy way out?  Am I betraying Josh's memory?  Or is it okay that I know the truth and that I am sparing them the awkwardness of a very sad and tragic story in which there is nothing to say?  If Josh could see what I did, how would he feel?  I still don't know if I did the right thing.

I made another trip to the office this week and while in the car going back to the airport with a colleague and the CEO of the company, he asked me point blank, "How many children do you have?"  This specific question has only one answer - four.  I said, "That's a hard question" then realized how stupid that sounded.  It is not a hard question at all.  It is simply a number.  I quickly said, "Three surviving and one who has died."  I then talked about T, L and G.  There were no follow-up questions.  It was awkward.  As I look back on it, I am not sure they heard, but of course they did.  Now it's out there.  But I realized something - that in the general course of the day, people do not want to hear about death.  I got out of the car and wondered if I should've said something different....but what?

So I am damned if I do and damned if I don't.   This bothers me.  I am even a little mad at Josh for putting me in the situation where I feel guilty either way.

But I want to be fair to myself.  I want people to get to know me before knowing what happened to  Josh.  This shows me that the stigma of suicide is alive and well.  I don't know how people will react.  I don't have complete trust in their reaction.  I need to get to know them before imparting or sharing about my beloved Josh. His life and my memory of him is a precious treasure that I cannot entrust to just anyone.  I need to get to know them - are they worthy of this knowledge?  With they hold it in confidence or go blabbing as a juicy piece of gossip?

So now I've gone from feeling like I have something shameful to hide to feeling protective of Josh.  Only the most empathetic, kind-hearted soul will learn of him.  Only those who have suffered loss and are hurting - those whom my story may help will learn of him.  This is how I feel now.

Through my writing, I see how fragile I still am.  How wounded.  Sore.  Thin-skinned.  Vulnerable. How easily, so easily the tears can flow.  How crushing the loss still feels - as if he died recently instead of over two years ago.

RIP beloved son.  You are still missed so very, very much.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

"The Catcher In the Rye" - Chapters 11 - end

The last post left off with Holden impulsively taking the train into New York City. As we follow him through the next 48 hours, his current depressive state is reinforced by random thoughts, what he sees and smells and events that occur when roaming around the city.

Random thought:
The more I thought about my gloves and my yellowness, the more depressed I got.
After being out at a bar, he comes back to the hotel lobby:
The whole lobby was empty. It smelled like fifty million dead cigars. It really did. I wasn't sleepy or anything, but I was feeling sort of lousy. Depressed and all. I almost wished I was dead.
He was solicited by a the elevator man/pimp:
It was against my principles and all but I was feeling so depressed I didn't even think. That's the whole trouble. When you're feeling very depressed, you can't even think.
While hanging the prostitute's dress up in the closet:
I thought of her going into a store and buying it, and nobody in the store knowing she was a prostitute and all. The salesman probably just thought she was a regular girl when she bought it. It made me feel sad as hell. I don't know why exactly.
Nothing happened and she leaves.  It is almost daylight.
Boy, I felt miserable. I felt so depressed, you can't even imagine. What I did, I started talking, sort of out loud, to Allie. I do that sometimes when I get very depressed.
The prostitute and elevator man/pimp comes back to Holden's room, wanting more money.  He resists and gets punched in the stomach.  After they leave, he takes a bath and tries to sleep.
What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it, too, if I'd been sure somebody'd cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn't want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory.
I wrote these quotes in my journal because they describe how Holden's sad and lonely feelings spiral down a dark path to suicidal ideology.

My questions:  Is this how it feels to become deeply depressed in a relatively short period of time?  Is this what Josh felt that fateful night?  Can a teenage boy who was seeing a counselor for a year and never diagnosed as "depressed" become situationally depressed? And if it is acute enough, can the mind and body take the leap to suicide?

The next night, Holden was getting drunk in a bar.
I was crying and all. I don't know why, but I was. I guess it was because I was feeling so damn depressed and lonesome.
To clear his head, he filled a basin in the bathroom with cold water and dunked in his head.  Then he went outside in the freezing cold and walked to Central Park.  He sat on a park bench and began obsessing over the possibility of getting pneumonia and dying. He thought about his brother's death and how he was not able to go to the funeral, due to his hand.
I have about fifty aunts - and all my lousy cousins. They all came when Allie died, the whole goddam stupid bunch of them. I have this one stupid aunt with halitosis that kept saying how peaceful he looked lying there.
Reading this passage reminded me of Josh's funeral because he did look at peace.   Tim and I had never organized a funeral before - so many decision to make! And within 24 hours!  Trying to make good choices while in shock is indescribably difficult. Thanks goodness we had a close family friend and Tim's brother helping us out.

The funeral director suggested that we have an open casket for the public viewing. I knew a lot of Josh's friends would be in attendance and was concerned for them. How would they react, seeing their friend in a cushion-lined box...dead?  He said that it would be important for them to see Josh and say their good-byes. A part of me wishes I could've witnessed this rather than accepting condolences in the lobby. But it probably would've been unbearably difficult.

At the private viewing the night before, one of our daughters could not do it. She ran out of the room where Josh lay, surrounded by flowers, down the stairs and to the car, sobbing. I was in no condition to help her and thank God, one of our dear friends comforted her.  They talked and after a while, she was able to come back in.   So with Tim and I on either side, she said her good-bye to her brother, touched and kissed him - one last time.  It was hard, but in retrospect, she's glad she did it.  It makes me wonder if some of Holden's issues stem from not being at his brother's funeral.

The novel ends as it begins, with Holden in some sort of psychiatric hospital or sanitarium, telling his story.  We do not find out, however, what happened to put him there.  I wouldn't be surprised if the cause was attempted suicide.

Did Josh ever read this story?  If so, did any of Holden's thoughts and feeling resonate?  I don't know but wish I did.

RIP beloved son.  I wish you could've survived that terrible, dark night.  If so, maybe you would be here now.

Monday, June 13, 2011

"The Catcher In the Rye" - Chapters 4-10

In the previous post, I asked the following questions:
  • Holden seems "on the edge" mentally and emotionally. What's made him this way?  
  • He is like a ticking bomb.  How does he deal with his extreme thoughts and feelings?  His MO is extreme action so what does he do next?
  • And will he continue to remind me, in part, of Josh?
Answers are given in these chapters.

At the very beginning of the book, we learn that Holden is looking back in time, recalling and recounting events as best he can.  He is currently in a "crumby place" and plans to tell us, the reader, about all the  "madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run down (nervous breakdown?) and had to come out here (mental hospital?) and take it easy."  My questions in italics.

So his story begins while at Pencey, waiting to leave for Christmas break.  He already knows he will not be coming back due to his failing academic record.  One night he is roped into writing a descriptive essay for his jock roommate, Stradlater.   It is supposed to be about a room or a house but Holden decides to write about his brother's baseball mitt, one of his prized possessions.  It is unique because his brother "had poems written all over the fingers and the pocket and everywhere.  In green ink.  He wrote them on it so that he'd have something to read when he was in the field and nobody was up to bat."  And it is prized because of three awful words: "He's dead now."

Holden was thirteen years old when his brother Allie, died of leukemia and is now telling the story as a seventeen year old.  His description (exaggerated) of Allie:
He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent.  He was terrifically intelligent...He was also the nicest, in a lot of ways.
What did Holden do when this happened?
I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it.
What does he think about that now?
It was a very stupid thing to do, I'll admit, but I hardly didn't even know I was doing it, and you didn't know Allie. 
Meaning - when he thinks of it now, yes, it was stupid.  But it felt right at the time.   He wasn't thinking, just reacting.  And we would also do something stupid or crazy if we knew Allie the way he did.

What was the consequence?
Psychoanalysis and "my hand still hurts me once in a while, when it rains and all, and I can't make a real fist any more - not a tight one, I mean - but outside of that I don't care much.  I mean I'm not going to be a goddam surgeon or violinist or anything anyway.  
The same night that he wrote the essay, Holden ends up in a verbal altercation with Stradlater which gets physical.  The same pattern is initiated:  Extreme thoughts lead to extreme feelings lead to extreme actions.  After the fight, he feels "so lonesome, all of a sudden, I almost wished I was dead."  So what does he do next?
But all of a sudden, I changed my mind.  All of a sudden, I decided what I'd really do, I'd get the hell out of Pencey, right that same night....I'd take a room in a hotel - and just take it easy till Wednesday.  Then, on Wednesday, I'd go home all rested and feeling swell.....besides, I sort of needed a little vacation.  My nerves were shot.  They really were.
And this is what he does.  Packs up and takes a train to New York City.

How did he get from waiting to go home for Christmas, to ending up in a hotel room in New York City??  Is this where he thought he'd be that morning?  No!  Even an hour before?  No!  As he says, all of a sudden, an idea come into his head that seemed and felt right.  So he acted.  But in hindsight, he calls it "madman stuff".

I feel this is Josh.  Did he know Tuesday morning that he would be dead within 24 hours?  I have to think not.  He spent time with his girlfriend studying for a test that he was supposed to take the next day.  He even did his laundry which only happened when he was in desperate need of clean clothes.  These two actions signal he was preparing for the future.

So in the dark hours of the night, I surmise that his mind was filled with extreme thoughts which led to extreme feelings.  And out of this came an idea and a way to be done with all the burdens and pressures, a way to avoid another humiliating School Board hearing and a way to escape from starting all over at another school.  Perhaps this idea came out of the blue or maybe it that had surfaced previously and was tucked away.  But that night, unbeknownst to all who loved him, the idea of death must have seemed so right, so good, so perfect.....that he acted.

Josh - is this what happened to you? 

Friday, June 10, 2011

FCPS School Board Votes on Disciplinary Policy Changes

It was an emotional day yesterday, but a good and productive day - I think...I hope....I pray.  In advance of last night's School Board meeting, where they were going to vote on changes to the current harsh, punitive and draconian disciplinary policies that caught our Josh in its net and pushed him to a point of no return, Peggy Fox from Channel 9 News came to our home for our first TV interview since his death.

She was very nice and easy to talk to - genuinely empathetic.  For she has children and had spent time reading this blog - in tears.  It sometimes surprises me that mothers who do not know us get emotional, but it shouldn't.  For even if a mother has not lost a child, she can put herself in my shoes and feel my pain.

So the interview was hard.  It was hard to re-live the circumstances around Josh's death, over 2 years ago.  It was hard to recount that when Josh was transferred to South Lakes HS, he was not allowed to step foot at Langley HS for a year, and that we had to get special permission for him to play in a football game between the two schools and that if he were to continue to be a referee at youth basketball games, it could only be if Tim were with him.  It was hard to think back to the horrible School Board hearing when our son was treated like a criminal instead of with compassionate understanding that he was a good kid who made a very bad mistake.  It was hard to be asked the question: "If the FCPS policies were different, would Josh still be alive?"

Did Josh do something wrong?  Yes.

Should he have been punished?  Absolutely, but as a non-violent, first time offender.   Josh was not a threat to his school community and did not need to be transferred to another school.  And anyone who came to his funeral and witnessed the over 1,000 students pay their respects and say "good-bye" would know this to be true.

We went to the rally before the meeting where parents wore red, held signs up and spoke passionately about the need for change.  We attended the meeting which was also hard.  It was difficult to hear that in Montgomery County, according to research done by a School Board member, involuntary transfers are used as a last resort.  So does this mean that if we lived in Maryland, our beloved Josh would still be alive?  This is too painful to contemplate.

It was hard to hear some School Board members, despite two deaths and the numerous examples of negatively impacted students, still say things like "this policy has only affected 1% of the student population."  What does that have to do with anything? Isn't each child important?  And that "these policies are in place to provide a safe environment for students and teachers."  No one is saying a safe environment should be compromised.  What we are saying is that these policies are flawed because they prosecute students who are NOT a threat to their school community as if they were.

It was clear to us who on the Board has listened to the community, read the stories, talked to parents and understood the obvious - that good kids make stupid mistakes.  They act before they think.  Their immature brains provide faulty justification for dumb teenage actions.  That we are talking about kids, with their whole lives in front of them.  These board members stepped up and proposed amendments to the Students Rights and Responsibilities that outline FCPS's discipline policies.  Several amendments passed and I am hopeful that this will help.  But I am disappointed that a critical amendment, one that addressed parent notification and presence before a child is interrogated or asked to provide a confession/statement did not pass.  Thus, what happened last night is only the first step.  More changes need to occur.

Note to all FCPS parents - because this amendment did not pass, YOU will need to protect the rights of your children by making it clear through written communication that if your child is caught for an infraction that starts the discipline process, school officials must wait until you are present before questioning your child.

As I sat there and watched the proceedings, I kept thinking the same thing over and over, Why wasn't this addressed when Josh died?  And let's be brutally honest, the only reason it is being addressed now is because of Nick's tragic death and the courageous advocacy of his family.  And the in-depth reporting by Donna St. George of the Washington Post.  And the pressure from the grass-roots parent advocacy group.  And the continued spotlight by the local news channels which has now garnered national attention.  It is NOT because of the leadership shown from the Superintendent or the School Board.

So I repeat the question - why wasn't this addressed when Josh had died?  Why didn't someone stand up in March 2009 and say "A student has committed suicide and it is believed to be tied to our disciplinary policies.   We need to investigate this and if there is even the smallest connection, we need to make changes for no other child will end his or her life on my watch."  If Superintendent Jack Dale or the School Board had done this, Nick would be alive.  Shame on Dale.  Shame on the School Board.   They are being shamed into action, which on top of our son's death, is tragic.

Links on the broadcasts from yesterday:

Channel 9 News at 5:00pm:  "Parents of Son Who Committed Suicide Rally for Change"  by Peggy Fox

Channel 9 News at 11:00pm:  "Disciplinary Policy Changes Coming to Fairfax County Schools

Channel 4 News at 11:00pm:  "Fairfax Schools Zero Tolerance Policy Nixed" by Darcy Spencer

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

"The Catcher In the Rye" - Chapters 1-3

First time reading this book by J. D. Salinger and LOVING IT.  The book, like none other, has exposed the mind of a seventeen year old boy to me - Josh's age when he took his life.  (For those new to the blog, my grief journey has led to a reading journey which you can read about here).

The story is told from the protagonist's point of view, Holden Caulfield.  He is brutally honest about what he sees, thinks and feels - about his school, about adults, about his so called friends.  His thoughts are clearly exaggerated (to the reader), but not to him.  It is black and white.  It is his reality and no one can change it.  For me, this book clarifies the progression of the teenage mind and behavior.  The following thought describes Holden and reminds me of Josh.

Extreme thoughts lead to extreme feelings which lead to extreme actions.

Holden's current school, Pency Prep is kicking him out because he is failing four out of five classes. This is his fourth school.  In a conversation with his history teacher, Holden thinks about another school - one that he quit.
One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies.  That's all.  They were coming in the goddam window. For instance, they had this headmaster, Mr. Haas, that was the phoniest bastard I ever met in my life.....I can't stand that stuff.  I drives me crazy.  It makes me so depressed I go crazy.  I hated that goddam Elkton Hills. 
I realize this is fiction but doesn't this happen to today's kids?  That whatever bothers them about life: school, class, coach, team and heaven forbid, family, becomes too much that they just can't stand it and want to quit?  And in Josh's case, the ultimate form of "quitting" is suicide?

Holden is a smart kid - why does he put himself down?
The book I was reading was this book I took out of the library by mistake.  They gave me the wrong book, and I didn't notice it till I got back to my room.  They gave me Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen.  I thought it was going to stink, but it didn't.  It was a very good book.  I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot.
How can you be illiterate and read a lot?  The answer is you can't but this is Holden's reality, his view of himself.

These are my thoughts for now.   As I continue reading, the top questions are:
  • Holden seems "on the edge" mentally and emotionally. What's made him this way?  Why can't he stay in school?  Why does he have such a laissez faire attitude about his life and future? 
  • He is like a ticking bomb.  How does he deal with the extreme thoughts and feelings?  His MO is extreme action so what does he do next?
  • And will he continue to remind me, in part, of Josh?  

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Gorgeous June Day - Letter to Josh

It is my custom to visit Josh every weekend.   I have a box in my trunk complete with garden tools, scrub brush and paper towels.  I also have one of those collapsible chairs that came in handy when the kids were playing sports and bleachers were either non-existent or inadequate.

After doing my usual "chores" such as trimming the grass around his stone, scrubbing the dirt, (who knew how much collects around the letters each week?),  and the occasional bird junk off his marker, I set up the chair and prepare to write my weekly letter to him.   Here is today's letter.

Dear Josh,
I wish you were alive - especially today as it is the most beautiful June day!  The sky is blue - a light blue with swirls of very thin, wispy white clouds - not the puffy ones with edges and definition - but rather, like a very thin layer of frosting on a cake - so thin, the color of the cake shows through.  Or think of a blue canvas, with a very, very light white layer that will change the color of that blue to something lighter - a mixture of blue and white.  That is today's sky. 
The sun's rays feel good - my skin tingles as its temperature slowly rises.  The air is not humid or muggy but feels cool when a breeze kicks up.  This same breeze moves through the big tree nearby and when I look up, the individual leaves move back and forth as though waving "hello".  Sometime each leaf moves, other times, the whole branch moves up and down or side to side.  What if each leaf had its own note?  What a symphony that would be! 
Sometimes I come and it is too hot to sit in the sun.  Not today.  If I had a towel, I could lay down and fall asleep - right here, close to you.  Fall asleep while listening to the rustling leaves, sweet chimes and chirping birds with the sun's warmth like an invisible blanket. 
What I am saying is this: that it is a beautiful, no, a gorgeous June day and you should be here!  Alive!  To experience and enjoy it with me.  It is unfair that you are gone.  You could've survived - it wasn't that bad, was it?  You just hit a bad patch, okay, a horribly bad patch but we could've worked through it.  Couldn't we have?  
 Why didn't you give me a chance to help you?  Why didn't you give me a chance to prove how much I loved you?  What I would've done to ensure you lived?  To ensure that you would've chosen life?  I'm sorry you didn't let me.  No, I'm kind of mad you didn't let me.  Actually, sometimes I am really pissed that you did this to yourself, your family, your friends, and to me.   Why did you take that choice away?
And at the end of the day - at the very end of it all - you actually got your way.  Do you regret it?  Or not?  Is whatever you have now - no burdens, worries or cares - worth it? 
I don't know.   I wish you were here.  R.I.P.  
Love,  Mom

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Poem 561 by Emily Dickinson

Every word in this poem is perfectly chosen and placed.  It says exactly how I feel - even after 2 years, 2 months and 15 days.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing Eyes -
I wonder if It weighs like Mine -
Or has an Easier size

I wonder if They bore it long -
Or did it just begin -
I could not tell the Date of Mine -
It feels so old a pain -

I wonder if it hurts to live -
And if they have to try -
And whether - could they choose between -
It would not be to die -

Sunday, May 22, 2011

When You Sign On To Be A Mother

I have been reading A Widow's Story by Joyce Carol Oates, a prolific writer who, like Joan Didion, has penned her "grief journey" after the unexpected death of her life-long husband.  She struggles terribly and being childless, her loneliness is acute and painful.  I expect to be writing more posts on my thoughts from this brutally honest and poignant memoir.

But with my third Mother's Day without Josh in the rear view mirror, this particular quote struck me.
"When you sign on to be a wife, you are signing on to being a widow one day, possibly."
What about when you sign on to be a mother?  My thoughts below. 
"When you sign on to be a mother, you are signing on to experiencing a love so vast and immense, it is incomprehensible until you feel it - the first time you hold your child.  For until this point, you have felt what you thought was love - for your parents, siblings and spouse.  But nothing compares with this love, a mother's love - overwhelming, fierce and immeasurable.  
You are no longer you - a woman, daughter, sister or wife - no, you have entered that sacred realm of a mother. With a love so feral, you would fight anything and anyone to protect your child. Where the decision to forgo your own life, if it meant the life of your child is ready-made, and if it came down to it, non-negotiable.  No sacrifice is too big, you would do anything."
The only problem with loving your child this much - with all your heart and soul - is that this love, which makes you a good, caring and sacrificial mother, also makes you vulnerable.  You are death, that merciless monster who could take your child away; by illness, accident, violence or in my son's case, suicide.  You never expect to bury your child and when you do, a part of you dies and is buried too.  This is the horrific "cost" of being a mother.

Is it worth it?  Well, what is the alternative?  Protect yourself by not having children?  Or if you do, hold back on your love?  No - these are not viable options.  So you just have to pray, that if the unthinkable happens, that you, with the help of faith, family, and friends can survive the immense grief, a mother's grief.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thoughts from "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

Earlier this year, I read Take the Dimness of My Soul Away: Healing After A Loved One's Suicide by William Ritter, in which a movie called The Hours was referenced (see blog post).   Since then, I have not only watched the movie but have also read and journaled through the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.   And while the story is about how three women's lives are interconnected, despite living in different time periods, one of the major threads that tie them together is suicide.

It is common knowledge (although unknown to me until Josh's death put "suicide" front and center in my mind), that Virginia Woolf died by drowning in 1941, after putting large rocks in her coat and walking into a river. She is the first woman we are introduced to in the prologue of The Hours.  In the note left for her husband, her personal despair is clear as well as her belief that she is a burden to him, especially since she does not think recovery from her growing madness is possible.
"Dearest,   I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we can't go through another of these terrible times....So I am doing what seems the best thing to do....I can't fight it any longer.  I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work...I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.  I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been."   V
The second woman introduced is Mrs. Laura Brown who is pregnant with her second child in the year 1949.  She is unhappy in the role of housewife and mother and being an avid reader, she finds escape through books.  It is while soaking in the beautiful prose of Woolf's book, Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, she thinks, "How, could someone who was able to write a sentence like that - come to kill herself?  What in the world is wrong with people?"

My journal note: Encircled question mark and "How could a bright, healthy, popular, athletic boy, with the whole world in front of him, kill himself?"  This is STILL the unanswerable question that remains in the back of my mind, firmly lodged.  Will it still be there five, ten, twenty years after his death?  Will I ever be able to let it go?  I don't know.

Back to The Hours.  The story moves back and forth in time, depending on the character.  While the prologue begins with Woolf's suicide, the novel places her back in time, 1923 to be exact, when she is actually writing Mrs. Dalloway.  It is difficult work as her mind does not always cooperate.  She often took to walking and used the time to think through the plot of her books.  On one such outing, she muses: "Clarissa Dalloway, will kill herself over something that seems, on the surface, like very little.  Her party will fail, or her husband will once again refuse to notice some effort she's made about her person or their home.  The trick will be to render intact the magnitude of Clarissa's miniature but very real desperation; to fully convince the reader that, for her, domestic defeats are every bit as devastating as are lost battles to a general."

My journal note:  Devastated and desperate, defeated soul = suicide

I will now quote a lengthy passage from the book - of Laura Brown's contemplation of suicide, of life and of what leaving her family might mean.
"It is possible to die, Laura thinks, suddenly, of how she - how anyone - can make a choice like that.  It is a reckless, vertiginous thought, slightly disembodied - it announces itself inside her head, faintly but distinctly, like a voice crackling from a distant radio station.  She could decide to die.  It is an abstract, shimmering notion, not particularly morbid.
It could, she thinks, be deeply comforting; it might feel so free: to simply go away.  To say to them all, I couldn't manage, you had no idea; I didn't want to try anymore."
 My journal note: "Did Josh feel this way?"  Continuing with the passage:
"She could leave them all this battered world....saying to one another,  We thought she was all right, we thought her sorrows were ordinary ones.  We had no idea.  
How could any of them recover from something like that?  Nothing she might do as a living wife and mother, no lapse, no fit of rage or depression, could possibly compare.  It would be, simply, evil.  It would punch a hole in the atmosphere, through which everything she's created - the orderly days, the lighted windows, the table laid for supper - would be sucked away."
My journal note:  Yes - the question to ask is how can anyone truly recover from the suicide of a loved one, be it mother, father, wife, husband, brother or sister?  Is it the absolute worse thing you can do to a loved one?  And yes, when Josh died, I felt like a hole was punched in the atmosphere of my "normal" life and sucked it away.  It is gone and irretrievable.  We must find a "new normal".

Scary quotes on suicide ideation (in Laura Brown's head)
"Still, she is glad to know (for somehow, suddenly, she knows) that it is possible to stop living.  There is comfort in facing the full range of options; in considering all your choices, fearlessly and without guile.  She imagines Virginia Woolf, virginal, unbalanced, defeated by the impossible demands of life and art; she imagines her stepping into a river with a stone in her pocket."
"She takes the bottle off the shelf, holds it up to the light.  There are at least thirty pills inside, maybe more.  She puts it back on the shelf.  It would be as simple as checking into a hotel room.  It would be a simple as that.  Think how wonderful it might be to no longer matter. Think how wonderful it might be to no longer worry, or struggle, or fail.  What if that moment at dinner - that equipoise, that small perfection - were enough?  What if you decided to want no more?"
My journal note:  suicide ideation and fixation.  Where death becomes "wonderful".  Escape.  A solution.  The right solution.  A permanent solution.  Very scary to think the mind, following a certain path, can end up here.  Is this what happened to Josh that fateful night?

(There is a third woman, Clarissa Vaughan living in New York City in 1998.  She is called Mrs. Dalloway by a close friend who is a former lover and poet, dying of AIDS.  I will bypass writing about her for fear of spoiling to plot.)

The movie came out in 2002 and was up for 9 Academy Awards.  I did not see it at the time, deeming it "too sad."  However now,  I was eager to read the book and watch the movie.  This makes me see, yet again, how Josh's death has changed me - in deep, fundamental, inexplicable ways.  My motives in reading or listening/watching any type of media are different. My tolerance level for certain subjects is higher.

I do not fear reading about tragedy and death with subsequent passages on sorrow, grief and pain.  I have felt it.  I am living it.

God Bless

Friday, May 6, 2011

Send Silence Packing:Raising Awareness of Student Suicide

Josh's picture and story was part of a recent tour called Send Silence Packing, a suicide awareness program from Active Minds, which went to 11 college campuses and 2 cities.  The pictures below are from Penn State.  The display began outside and was moved indoor due to weather.

We found out about this program because the daughter of friends is involved in the chapter at her campus.

The goal of the organization is this: "Through campus-wide events and national programs, Active Minds aims to remove the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and create a comfortable environment for an open conversation about mental health issues on campuses throughout North America."

The story of how this group began is particularly inspiring because we would like to find or begin a program for teens with the same goal, as any stigma that exists in college is that much greater in high school.