We lost Max a year ago last week, lost being a poor euphemism for his death. We actually don’t know when we lost him, when our 21-year-old son, our middle child, our two daughters’ only brother, began to slip silently from our embrace. It is the largest of the many unanswerable mysteries he left behind.
We know that he died on Feb. 22, 2015 in the icy, turbulent waters of Lake Ontario near Rochester, N.Y. We assume that he put himself in the water. He put himself on the end of the Charlotte Pier on what may have been the worst night of an endless winter. That is all we know. The rest is logic, connecting dots, coming to the rational conclusion that revealed an irrational act.
My wife and our daughters have forged four different paths to the triage center. I focused on understanding that Max suffered from mental illness. He had been forever an introvert. The people equipped to help him — doctors, therapists, his parents — he didn’t tell of his pain. The friends in whom he confided didn’t help him.
I have tried, and not always succeeded, to refrain from playing the “if only” game. If only I had spent more time with him, if only I had gone to see him more at college, if only I had called him more in his final weeks, when I felt him retreating from us.
I grew to understand that mental illness is not just a euphemism. Illnesses can threaten life. That’s what I focused on, and that’s what worked for me. Weeks turned into months. I went back to work. “I get it,” I thought. “Max was sick.” I felt as if I processed his death. Check that box. Ready to proceed with my life.
It turns out that understanding death is a poor palliative for grief. The pain of loss patiently waited for me. The pain, no longer camouflaged by the shock and trauma of the event, by the ministrations of friends, by intellectual exercise, had nowhere else to be. I know that Max was sick. He’s still gone. The football season that distracted me for six months is over. Max is still not here.
I miss my son.
I miss his quick, mordant wit. I miss his earnest effort to do what he was supposed to do. I miss how a hairbrush never commanded that thick head of blond hair. I miss his bony, angular embraces. I miss him when I see a new flavor of Cap’n Crunch, when I see any reference to the new Stars Wars movie. I can’t believe he didn’t stick around for that.
Sometimes I wear his shirts. He loved thick, plaid flannels. Sometimes I wear his watches. Mostly, when I am hit with a longing for Max, I gird myself until the pain subsides.
The death of a child upends the life of a family. It is not a tornado, with a path of destruction visible from NewsCopter 7. It is an earthquake, an upheaval that begins in the epicenter of the nuclear family and spreads outward; from the four of us, to Max’s three grandparents, to his 14 aunts and uncles and his 19 first cousins, to neighbors who watched him grow up, to teachers and friends within the community, to the friends he made in college and online of whom we learned only after he died.
Earthquakes buckle walls and leave crockery in shards on the floor. We are still trying to repair some of the broken pieces of our lives. Some we have put back together with visible scars. Some we haven’t started to fix yet. Some we just swept the debris away. Nothing is as it was.
We are aware of and engaged in the good things that continue to happen to us. Yet the colors of the palette are not quite as vivid, the tones of the instrument not quite as rich. It feels as if we are watching our digital lives on an analog set. There is no antenna to detect the sharper signal. We live our lives with rabbit ears, trying to pull in the daily richness of life through the static.
We nurture the memories we have of Max and live in fear of their finite nature. Time will erode them, as it does all memories. But we have no new ones with which to replace them.
The anniversary of his death stirred up memories of a different sort, returning us to the nightmare of his disappearance (Lake Ontario did not surrender him for 54 days). We departed the New England winter to forestall some of those images. But the calendar is inexorable. I can tell you that my wife will never watch the Academy Awards with the same enthusiasm again.
And so we grieve, trying to maintain our balance as the ground heaves beneath us. A passage from Edward Hirsch’s poem of grief, Gabriel, about his late son, has provided safe shelter.
I did not know the work of mourning
Is like carrying a bag of cement
Up a mountain at night
The mountaintop is not in sight
Because there is no mountaintop
Poor Sisyphus grief
We have learned over the last year that a good number of friends and acquaintances have borne the death of a sibling or parent quietly for years. They have served as confidants, as examples that we can forge ahead, as reassurance that, shattered though we are, we are not alone. We are grateful for the solace they bring, as well as for the many kindnesses, small and large, that have been done for us. Even as the anniversary of Max’s death has stirred painful memories, it has provided one small comfort. Only by looking backward can we see that our scars have begun to fade.
I carry my bag of cement.