On October 17, 2016 our only child completed suicide. I am a writer of fiction mostly and often there is the urge to pen a plot with requisite points, to generate something image-rich perhaps even beautiful. But there is nothing beautiful about suicide. My son was 18 when he completed the act nearly seven months ago.
Imagine an intruder in your home has thrown you through a plate-glass window and the soft spots beneath the biceps have caught on the jagged edges so that each vein, every blood vessel drains. Beauty would be if the pain were for your child, if it meant he would survive the intrusion. But of course that isn’t the case. Instead, after everything is said and done, Lady MacDuff’s lines from Macbeth repeat at a frenzied pace over again in the brain. ‘Whither should I fly? I have done no harm. But I remember now I am in this earthly world; where to do harm is often laudable, to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly…’ The context is obviously different; Lady MacDuff and her children are victims of murderers because of her husband’s demerits. But the sense of desperation speaks to me even now, as well as the notion that in this world one’s good intentions are not always rewarded.
For 15 years Mitch was my every thought and first response. I was hyper-aware that I was responsible for another human being, one I hadn’t brought into this world. There was no gestation period with pregnancy, no nesting or reading What to Expect When You’re Expecting, no work or family sponsored baby showers never mind mooning over socks smaller than my thumb. In fact, the whole process was a tangled mess.
When we couldn’t get pregnant, Tim and I had decided on adoption as our best course of action. With that said, we had recently decided against adopting twins of a pregnant mother who was in prison and predisposed to schizophrenia. Knowing this, my boss told us about a friend whose daughter was in rehab and would likely do time in prison for grand theft auto. An aunt who had been caring for Mitch had decided she was no longer willing to grow attached to him if his mother continued to refuse to sever parental rights. This was a tall order even for a profound meth addict, especially one who had the legal right to reunification in Arizona. She didn’t want to lose her son, was clean and hoping for a good plea bargain. As promised, her aunt packed Mitch’s belongings in two garbage bags and sent him back to the Valley with a CPS caseworker who hadn’t anticipated her monthly visit with the family would end this way.
I don’t know why I called his caseworker. The situation was less than ideal and when discussing adoption options with agency professionals, I’d openly resisted foster-adoption in the abstract imagining challenges I wouldn’t be able to handle in addition to the stress of being a full-time teacher. However, to know that a kid was in crisis and do nothing about it if we could seemed inordinately selfish.
On the phone with the woman I explained that my husband and I were both teachers with a home that had been approved for adoption. She iterated that the boy, nearly three years old, was a ward of the state and his mother was making good progress toward reunification. “We understand but if we can help…” She spoke of emergency foster-parenting and we agreed to meet with her once our background information checked out.
Perhaps there are cheery murals at Child Crisis Center in Mesa, the sort you find in a pediatrician’s office but I only recall the space set aside for visitations was scattered with toys. That and Mitch, nearly three, his hair dark and close-cropped, eyes brown, thickly lashed and wide-set. His skin was the translucent tone of the children Renoir was fond of painting and I was not surprised to find out later that his biological father had been born in France.
“Big monkey,” he said noticing an enormous stuffed animal in the center of the pile of toys.
The words came slowly, as if language were new to him. His movements toward the wooden train-set were measured unlike those of preschoolers I’d worked with before. The boys especially tended to dive toward the center of unfamiliar toys with abandonment but Mitchell crawled toward the tracks as though navigating shards of glass. I understand now that his response was fear-induced. One day you wake up and everything you know and love, all the familiar routines are shattered. Too wounded to stand you fall to hands and knees, brush aside what you can to minimize the damage of near invisible slivers splicing through the skin. Proceed a millimeter, an agonizing breath at a time.
Yoga Teacher Training is an activity I embarked upon about two and a half months after Mitch passed away. I have been an active practitioner of Hatha yoga for fifteen years and had been toying with the idea of entering a more intensive program for some time. Christmas was over and it had been mirthless. We’d refused to put up a tree, to string lights. Those who knew our situation had the tact to leave us off their list for greeting cards.
We had driven ten hours to Park City to ski and hole up in a vintage hotel where time had stood still in the early 1960’s. Our room was furnished with twin beds along with child-sized bureaus, and a TV set mounted to the wall. The room was functional and anonymous, exactly what I craved. The continental breakfast each morning included canned fruit cocktail, the pale green grapes bloated with syrup, a rare and shrunken cherry like the conjunctive eye of god perfect–complements to the tepid tea I drank. It didn’t matter what I ate; hours of screaming and weeping had made my throat raw. After work each day I stepped into blue flannel pajamas topped with a soft, sage-toned blanket and stuffed my cold feet into wool slippers. Grief had regressed me and sensing this, a few friends and family members had given me coloring books. I did not flip open a single one; I was skating the edge of being institutionalized in the weeks following Mitch’s death; engaging in activities from my early elementary years might have pushed me over the edge.
Throughout our stay, friends texted and sent sweet emojis and and all of it made me cry. I had spoken to my mother briefly on Christmas Day. She wanted to know if I was having a good time. Hers was the forced bright voice of a Fifties actress bringing what little talent she had to a role she never truly desired. I refused perfunctory chit-chat opting instead for truth. I used the academic tone I often take with my mother to mitigate simmering rage. No, I wasn’t having a good time– my child had died in October.
“Well, I know that Lorie but it seems to me if you’re going to travel, spend all that money, you ought to at least try to have a good time.”
I hung up the phone shortly thereafter resisting the urge to throw it against the wall. When people arrived at our home with food after Mitch’s death, she kept hissing it was too much, that I should make it stop.
How could I make any of it stop? I hadn’t planned for never mind ordered catering for this affair. Cogs engaged and wheels turning, I was along for a ride started 18 years before that had reached maximum speed and ironed me flat. Friends and neighbors were bringing food, wine, hummingbird mementos, paintings, books on grieving, anything to fill the hours with comfort recognizing the depth of this loss before we could process its profound and long-reaching effects. We would miss the immediate rites of passage which included Mitch’s first tux for prom, graduation in the colors he wore every season as a Varsity member of his Track and Field team, waving him off to college, as well as the rest that would never come–meeting the girl we knew was “the one”, holding his newborn baby some years later and celebrating the beauty and symmetry of life. I am a hopelessly optimistic person and even if the foster-adopt caseworkers had told us years before that suicide was a likely outcome for Mitch, even if I had known that statistically four times as many adopted people kill themselves each year compared to the general population, I wouldn’t have given up on him. I truly believed that the depth of my love for my son would save him.
During one of our short telephone conversations my mother had said, “Remember, there’s always hope.”
I stopped any further platitudes cold. “No. I don’t want to hear that. Hope is what gets me in trouble every damn time.”
I needed something, some kind of medicine to keep me among the living. In the early days what I wanted most was to die. I’d had a terrible fear of death all of my life–when flying, fear of the plane spinning out of the sky, suffering a heart attack some day or breast cancer. But after Mitch’s suicide, I begged for death while driving home from work each day crying so hard that my mouth was stretched taut like a strip of balloon before it is inflated. My eyes were so blurred in the November light I was essentially driving blind while screaming for God to kill me. It would be predictable if I died in an accident–I am a notoriously poor driver with terrible depth perception and too quick to apply the brakes.
I willed a truck to swerve into the Xterra and crush me utterly, resulting in a painful yet quick death that would then allow release of my spirit which would stand beside the body while my guides gathered round to usher me back to the ethereal world, my soul’s original home. I’d been reading a lot of books on Near Death Experiences and the afterlife searching for information, in particular what happens when a child completes suicide . What did ministers think? Mediums see in their trances? I understand now the lengths to which distraught people seek relief. Some take to drink, to prescription drugs, to sex, to travel—whatever is available to outpace the pain.
I might have judged these people before, might have shaken my head at human foibles and weakness, at the fault that must somehow lie with the parents of a child who completes the act. I was once that uninformed woman who wondered what in the household, in the family dynamics drove a child to suicide? Free-thinker that I tend to be I nevertheless succumbed to priming by school administrators when a middle school student took his life in the district I worked for many years ago. It wasn’t depression that led to the outcome of suicide, we were told, it was “anger”. A depressed person wouldn’t have the energy to complete the act. I see now that we had no right to theorize in this manner. I had no idea what I was talking about when I assumed it was because a family was wealthy and showered a child with material goods rather than affection was the reason for his actions, or that the child who’d shot himself on campus a year and a half before my son passed, was a victim of familial neglect. Those were all rumors. None of us had or have the right to speculate about someone else’s private pain.
On the last day of our ski trip in Park City, I decided that if I had to go on living without my son, I would dedicate myself to deepening my yoga practice.
Less than a week after his death, I had gone to the studio where I practice needing respite from my mother as well as the questions with which I endlessly hound myself–what more could I have said to my son, done for him, forced him to do so that he would still be alive? I hadn’t been out of the house since the Sunday before he died and there was too much light, the Arizona sun exposing me for who I had become–the woman whose son had killed himself, the mother who didn’t have skill or will enough to save her son.
The instructor that day was Aaron, a no-nonsense yoga coach who filled the spaces between asana practice with detailed descriptions about the working of the intercostal muscles with each breath inhaled and exhaled, and the importance of off-setting the sacroiliac joint every work-out. It distracted my brain from the reality of my psychic and emotional pain because my baby was gone and I was burned to ashes too—my tongue dry, my hair stiff as straw and the gray glinting through. I let my brain sponge up all that anatomical-speak for which I have no natural affinity but that Mitch easily understood. I hung on to Aaron’s every word as he taught us how to move and breathe on our mats.
I keep hearing from friends and family members that I am brave but it’s not really true. I am simply learning how to live within this space of after. I cry a lot and anticipate that Mother’s Day and the day my son would have graduated from high school will be particularly hard. For now I step into each day a breath at a time.