Untold times a day I glance at the photo of my son with his sisters, the wallpaper on my phone. His older sister, now employed for four years, a millennial professional with an expense account and a career, stands next to him in cap and gown. She is holding her college diploma, a big smile on her face and the possibilities piling at her feet.
To her left is his younger sister, the high school junior now college junior, the former lifeguard turned history scholar, the camp counselor now preparing for the summer Manhattan internship. She returns the camera’s gaze, her grin as radiant as her sister’s.
And Max’s face remains a mask, staring up and into the distance, away from the camera, the eye he would never meet. Funny — photography was his passion, the most expressive record we have of his life, but only if he were behind the camera.
The girls mature. Our lives evolve. I look at a new haircut and see the gray that had been hiding beneath. My wife, his mother, his rock for 21 years, slowly gets her pins beneath her after absorbing the concussive blow of his death. Max remains in that photo, the earth spinning him away from us with every revolution.
I have visited my son’s gravesite in every season. I have taken a selfie of my reflection in the polished black granite of his headstone, tucked in a corner of our temple cemetery. I have stepped delicately through late-winter mud to add one more stone to its ledges. I have seen green blades of grass stuck to it hours after the mower came through. I have seen autumn leaves scattered at its base.
But the vision of what I saw on a recent visit, a raw January Monday that would have been Max’s 24th birthday, seared itself on my memory. The dates on the headstone have receded. They no longer feel current.
That feeling is new, it is unnerving and it is undeniably true. I had never before visited my son’s gravesite nearly three years after he died. I looked at the date 2015 carved into the stone. I think of how the country has changed paths. Our lives have changed paths. The undertow of time pulls and pulls and takes us away.
I worry that moving on is callous, too black and white, a shrug of acceptance when I should cling to what I can bring with me of my son.
Max would be out of college, presumably, stepping tentatively into adult responsibilities. He never stepped any other way but tentatively. He was accomplished at protecting himself from his fears and demons, until they overwhelmed him at the last.
He tried little that was new. He seldom strayed from the brown food groups. He sat in the same position in the same new chair in our den, cantilevering his pipe-cleaner frame so that his feet rapidly wore a dirt pattern at the edge of the cushion.
I worried that Max would struggle after graduation, that he would not be able to gain traction in the adult world. I projected that he would return to us in defeat, unable to find gainful employment.
That attitude, searching for a word somewhere between ignorance and arrogance, is one of the regrets I continue to carry. It is ignorant of how so many college graduates need time to find the right place to start, arrogant in its desire that he meet a standard that he may have been unable to meet.
I am clearheaded that Max died of mental illness, as lethal as cancer and more difficult to fight. I don’t believe that my demands of him outweighed my support of him. But what I wouldn’t give to have him return to us in defeat. It would beat having him returned to us in Ziploc bags.
Max left out of turn, and the unfairness of his premature death heightened the pain of the loss. We are going forward and Max is not going with us. That is as heartbreaking as it is unavoidable. Our lives go forth without him. We have to live them. To do otherwise, to remain anchored in grief and by grief, would be to lose even more than Max’s death already has stripped from us.
If Max’s death has taught me anything, it is that life doesn’t allow you to remain anchored anywhere. We keep moving, even when all we want to do is remain in a moment, return to a crossroads, undo a regret, say something that would have changed where we stand today.
The third anniversary of his death is here. The first anniversary devastated us. The four of us went out for burgers at a place he liked, ending the night in an ice cream parlor/bakery, where we shared the sugar bombs that he loved and tried to reconstruct the week of his disappearance. Last year, we again made it a family day, the four of us meeting for a quiet dinner.
We will dine together again this year. It is too soon to call it a tradition; the undertow of time will continue to tug at us, separating the four of us as we bob and sway. I am left with my wallpaper. I keep trying to catch his eye. Max continues to look up and away.