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.

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 -