Just when you think you’re done…

One of my young cousins just had a baby, her first. Her mom mentioned how they would hover over him, making sure he was breathing, worrying constantly. I did that with my son. Every time he was deep asleep and breathing slowly, I would place my hand on his chest, just to be sure he was still alive. Even when he was a teenager, I would check on him, most nights, before I could sleep, or even waking in the middle of the night, just to reassure myself before going back to sleep. I was always so afraid. So many times I scared myself when he paused between breaths, or when his heartbeat was too calm to feel with a gentle touch, and I would press more firmly, and he would gasp, because I startled him, and I would retract my hand, satisfied that he was ok, and stand back and watch him breathe. And I would think how silly I was. But it didn’t stop me from doing it night after night after night. Until I somehow imagined he was too old for the breath checks, after he turned 18. Even then, although it wasn’t nightly, I sporadically checked in on him. That he died of asphyxiation by his own hand is just some kind of cruel irony, I suppose. And I don’t even know what else to say about that, except that either the universe is trolling me, or that I brought on some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Probably what brought this on was that very recently, I visited a friend who has a baby, who made light of her deep sleep mode, lifting her arm, asking, “are you breathing?” As her limp arm fell unresponsively. It was not funny. Not funny at all. My baby might have been 19 when he drew his last breath, but I never stopped hovering.

Here we go again…

A few days after the second anniversary of William’s death, I slept in. Having his birthday be a week before his jahrzeit makes for an exhausting time, though I’ll not lie, I don’t wake up early much these days anyway, unless I have to. When I woke up and looked at my phone to see what time it was, I saw a message waiting for me, telling me to call my friend Abby right away, and two missed calls from her with no voice messages. I always assume it’s bad news, but I couldn’t have possibly guessed what it was. I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth, and then I called her. She asked if I had been on Facebook. I said, no, I’d only gotten up two minutes before. She said that our friend, Shontael, had asked her to call me to tell me before I had to read it on Facebook. I gasped, “Shontael? What happened?” Before Abby could even respond, I started crying, “No! No! No!”, trying to block out what she was saying, to make it not be heard, even as I knew with the first syllable of Shontael’s son’s name, that she was living out that nightmare that I had tried so hard to avoid thinking about this yahrzeit. And in a flash, it was me and William, playing out again in my head. But this time, it was Shontael and Pale. But it was also me and William. And I shoved it down, as best I could. And I got on Facebook to find out more and texted my girlfriend, Linda, so she could come home and hold me.
(Note 1: If you don’t know the story about Linda, you probably don’t need to know, only that we recently celebrated our first anniversary, and she has been the best thing to happen to me in a long time, and has brought me back to life. Note 2: Abby and Shontael are dear friends that I met in grad school, the best of friends to each other, and who have both been a huge source of strength to me since William died.)

In order to log back into this blog account, I went to a bookmarked post from last year around this time. I skimmed the beginning and before I could get to the vivid remembering of finding William, I was already in tears, and couldn’t make myself read any further, because I do not wish, at this time, to remember that day in such great detail. But the day I found out, I started to remember again. And it hurts. Shontael texted me a few days later to ask if the physical memory would fade, or if she was doomed to physically remember holding her son’s limp body in her arms. As she asked that, I could remember exactly how heavy William was in my arms, so much heavier than when he had last asked me to carry him to bed. Thinking back on the last few weeks, I realize how far I’ve come from two years ago, but I also realize that I’m not finished grieving. I’m not finished being haunted by those painful physical memories. But they do come fewer and further between. And usually, they are not as intense. Though this is an unusual circumstance, because the same thing is happening to someone I love and care about.

More than that, Shontael had asked me, in the last year, for advice for dealing with her son’s depression. And she did everything right. She literally did everything right. And he was getting better, and planning a future, and taking joy from the present. And still her beautiful son ended his life. Forever. He is gone and that hole that he left in the universe can never be filled. And I am so angry. And there is no one for me to be angry at, except Pale. And it’s really hard to be angry at such a sweet, funny, creative kid. So I am angry at the universe because I don’t know where else to direct my rage.

There were two memorial services, for friends and family in the two regions he knew as home, and we went to them both. Poor Shontael was just numb, exactly as I was at William’s. I knew just what she was going through, and in hindsight, realize the busy-ness can be a good thing, to give you time to get through it at first. But there is the emotional exhaustion, too. You just can’t cry any more. You get to a point where you think you can’t handle one more tear-stained face coming at you, purportedly to give you a hug, but in actuality, to get a hug, to take comfort by hugging the person who is most affected by this tragedy. And yet, there I was, making a fool of myself with my incessant tearing up from about 30 seconds after we walked into the door at the first memorial. The second memorial was better. I only cried when Shontael got up to talk. I was a dismal failure at being remotely comforting or giving her strength in any way.

To cut this long story short, I don’t know what to do for her or her family. She has four daughters who are also horribly bereaved, and I want to do something, but I don’t know what to do. She has family nearby, thankfully, or I would have staked out a tent in her backyard. I am in so much pain that I don’t even know how to be sensible about this. But I suppose that is the same thing that all of my family and friends felt when William died. It’s everyone’s tragedy. But none so much as those who loved Pale best. Shontael asked me if it was like the scab had been ripped off from my healing of William. (She is so much more emotionally smart than I am.) It is like that, but, as I told her, at least it has let me know that there has been healing. And maybe her knowing that I have been able to heal some will help her know that she can too, when the time comes.


I’m not afraid to be tortured. I’m not afraid to die. I’m not afraid that there might be a hell, or that, if there were such a dimension, that by some readings of religious texts, I should be bound there forever. My religiousity-filled relatives annoy me, because they can’t seem to grasp what living in the here-and-now means, and they can’t seem to understand what kind of deep, unconditional, and unjudging love the diety they worship purports to offer. Do people like this even love their kids, I wonder, or would they sacrifice them on an alter of zeal in order to save their own wretched skins? And they don’t get that the after-life, if there is anything after you leave this life, is the thing that comes after, you know, living, this life, the best that you could. “Hell is real!”, proclaims a billboard along the highway I take to visit my kin, but they don’t need to advertise that fact to me. I know hell. I know what it’s like to revisit all of your life’s choices and re-evaluate them in light of how things did turn out. I know what it’s like to feel the weight of a thousand devils on your chest. I know what it’s like to be tortured, to have to re-live the very worst thing that you could ever possibly imagine, over and over, and over, and over. To replay a handful of minutes, like when a dvd skips and shows you the same scene, and you wish you could tell the characters not to go into the basement, but they never listen, and you know it is going to end badly, but, instead of some over-paid, poorly-trained teenage actors, it’s your son, whom you love more than the world, and his pain, his suffering, his end, are real, and permanent. And what’s worst, the monsters in the story are him and you. He is the monster who took your child’s life, and you are not only the monster who drove him to it, but the incompetent soul who tried and failed to save him.

I know what hell is. All others who think they have any right to judge or condemn either don’t comprehend hell or are sadists who belong there themselves.

I’ll see you in hell.

legos versus bionicles

I had promised my dear friend that I would bequeath William’s transformers to her son, who was only two and a half years younger than William, and who counted him one of his best friends for most of his life. I had forgotten that promise until a couple of days before his 18th birthday. Suddenly, the idea recurred to me, and I dug through storage to retrieve them so that I could give him something truly meaningful for his first adult birthday. He still plays with transformers (as do most 18-year-old boys whether or not they admit it), and thought it would be nice to be able to play with his friend again even though he is no longer here. They used to lend and borrow transformers back and forth between the times they saw each other, each having acquired a new one that was of interest to the other between times.

So, I went to my storage bin and located the tote that contained most of the s, as well as grabbing three totes of legos/bionicles/assorted toys that I had promised to other friends of William’s, who, like him, still actively played with their favorite childhood toys, and who had shared this pastime with him in better days.

Sorting through the transformers and pulling out the extra bits of legos and other toys to set aside was difficult, but i had waited until the last minute, so the time crunch was a bit of a blessing. I mostly stuck the other toy pieces into a shoe box to deal with later, though I did take some time to go through the journal that William had kept when he was 5-6 years old, and was once again amazed by the rate of his development from drawing 2-dimensional figures that were composed primarily of lines to figures that resembled 3-dimensional shapes, with articulated joints, and his sudden ability to write strings of letters that resembled English words. For example, this exchange:

Der Mom,
I love you. Ples clen my room.
Love Willam

Dear William,
I love you too, but I will not clean your room for you. I will help you clean it if you ask nicely, though.

Going through his things has dragged me back to where I was a year ago. I don’t know if that means that I have not been grieving properly, or if this is just a normal hiccup on my own development, but it is hard. As I sat there, trying to sort bionicle from lego as I used to do when I would help him clean his room, not so very long ago, it occurred to me how horribly unfair it was, that here was an adult child who could not decide on the difference between bionicle and lego, yet, he thought he could choose between life and death, and made the wrong call, and now so many are affected by his choice. It’s just so unfair. To William, who still had so much promise ahead of him, to his friends, who still want to play transformers and legos, and to me, who has to sort through the remaining toys, without being able to ask, ‘do you want this in the lego or bionicle box?’

erasable ink

The worst thing lately is that I forget. I knew this day would come. I have lost other important people in my life, and have forgotten them. And I knew that I would forget William. That I would go on about my life, and not remember exactly what he was like, who he was, what it was like to have him be a part of my life.

All of me, who I am, has changed for having had him in my life, but it is not the same as what I want it to be: that is, holding him in me, as part of me, as part of my life.

What do I mean by this? I want, so, so much, for him to continue existing beyond the short time and space that he occupied in his short life, but I am not at all convinced that there is any kind of after-life, that aside from the mark he has left upon this world, that there is any William left in the universe, or outside of it. I want to believe in a soul, in something ever-living, that he will continue to affect the world after his premature departure from it, but it seems like so much wishful thinking and my own projections.

But even so, if, as my therapist suggests, we have an after-life, in the minds and hearts of those we have touched during our lives, and if that is all that there is to us after we are finished breathing and doing in this world, then what kind of a homage, what kind of an afterlife am I giving to William, if I cannot even remember who he was, to those who I am closest to, to those who he was closest to?

I fail him again. And again.

His memory is like a writing in erasable ink, that has been rubbed over, and only the outline of the bold parts has been preserved. And as I search for the outline of where he used to be, I get lost, again and again, as the story is re-written over the old script.

The blue caboose

When I was a kid, riding in a car with my grandmother, she helped me and my siblings to patiently wait out the train crossings by telling us to try to figure out what color the caboose was going to be. (On a side note, I am very disappointed that they did away with cabooses, for many reasons, but most especially the disappointing denouement that is the end of a train with no caboose to herald the end.)

Whether she was trying to train us in some kind of sixth sense, or hone our powers of deduction, or introduce us to statistical probability, or most likely just get us to sit through the train crossing without hitting, spitting, or breathing on each other, it was actually a valuable lesson that I did not fully understand until today.

The first several times we played this game, I was actually successful at guessing the color of the caboose. After a while, however, I was overwhelmed by my desire to see a blue caboose, because I felt that they were underrepresented and because blue was my favorite color.

(Another side note: in the second grade, my teacher was taking some interesting education classes, and they tested us to see what our “power colors” were. They made us hold our arm out and push back against a downward force to see which colors made us strongest. I got blue and yellow. They then let us decorate our desks with construction paper with those colors. I have no idea if it helped, but I appreciated that they were willing to dabble in strange methodologies to help us out, and I learned that I really, really like the color blue.)

The lesson, that I should have learned then, but did not appreciate until now, was that if you are too busy wishing for something to be just the way you want it, you are less likely to perceive what is coming down the tracks, and less likely to appreciate what is actually in store for you. It is not until you let go of any expectations of what the universe has in store for you that you can begin to get a sense of where you are going. And it is not until you give up trying to make it be the way you want it to be that you will learn to appreciate what you actually get.

When you let the universe move you without resistance, you go where you will best gain that which you need.


“We own nothing. Nothing is ours. Not even love that burns as bright as baby stars. But this poverty is our greatest gift. The weightlessness of us as things around us begin to shift.”

-Indigo Girls



the memory game

On the first anniversary of William’s death

I keep finding myself standing in front of the door, pausing, hesitating. I knock and there is no response. There can be no response, I know this to be true, even as I allow myself to knock time and again in memory. I stand there, knocking and waiting, afraid to push the door open because of what I will find there, and what it means to the rest of my life, William’s life, my everything. While that door remains closed, William is like Schroedinger’s cat sealed inside the box, both dead and alive. While I allow my memory to stop here, while I am still afraid, I am almost optimistic. I imagine that on the other side of the door, William is seated at his computer, playing minecraft. Or perhaps he’s lying on his bed, reading a book. I listen in memory at the door, and I know it is silent. There is no clacking of keys on the computer, no flipping of pages of a book. There is not even the sound of a phone opening and closing to read text messages. There is no sound of steady breathing, neither nose whistling nor mouth breathing. Though I can remember all of those sounds at one time or another. I can stand there and imagine that William has simply left, except that I noticed his shoes are all by the front door, and he doesn’t leave the house in bare feet. I can stand there in front of the door and imagine all the possibilities, but I prefer to think that he has merely fallen asleep, exhausted from crying and being angry.

When I do finally allow myself to gently push on the door, it doesn’t budge. Many times William has sat in front of his door when he was angry with me and didn’t want to talk, and especially didn’t want to see me or for me to see him crying. I can pause here and remember the times he has pouted just like this, and how each time before had played out, with my pushing in the door just enough to slip inside and his jumping up to try to push me out the door. The older he got, the more difficult it was for me to get in, and the easier it was for him to push me back out. But the wrestling match that would ensue, once I got the door open usually helped to resolve whatever tension there was between us, as I would make my case as he struggled to move my weight, and often made him laugh in the process. Still, I stand before the closed door in memory, allowing myself these optimistic fantasies.

Eventually I have to tell William to knock it off and open the door. I just want to talk. But, of course, he does not relent. And so I am left with no choice but eventually to push open the door. I can stand in front of it for as long as I like in memory, but eventually I must open the door. The resistance on the other side of the door is great, and I can only get it open a few inches. And I can see his shoulder and arm, and I panic as I realize there is no muscular tension in his arm, that he is not holding the door closed. I yell anyway for him to open the fucking door. And I throw my weight against it. And then it is too late. I cannot unsee or undo what he has done. And, without painful suppression and active distraction, I cannot pause the memory as I am thrown into action.


***Trigger warning! Do not click on read more unless you really are psychologically prepared to read about the gory details. I wouldn’t, if I were you. Seriously, do yourself a favor and just leave it.

The point is that I need to stop waiting in front of that door in memory, and allow myself to process the most painful traumatic memories so that they can become less traumatic, less raw, and incorporate them into the rest of my memory. So, on the anniversary of my beautiful William’s death, I am actively allowing myself to remember and feel. And for me, expressing emotions is easier with words because that, in itself, begins the process of abstraction which I desperately need to happen to these traumatic memories.


Continue reading

Pressing out

As a linguist, word etymologies and cognates across languages have always fascinated me, which is partly why I got involved in linguistics (Also because I jumped two dialect regions when my parents moved me in the 3rd grade, so I had first-hand experience about talking funny and sociolinguistic pressure). As a native English speaker, there are many borrowed words that I use in daily conversation, whose compositional meaning is opaque to me, until it isn’t. When I started learning German, I learned a lot more about English than I ever did in an English class. I have a million examples, but the one I want to talk about is ausdrücken, that is ‘to express,’ in German literally, “to press out.” Yes, yes, I know, that’s what our Latinate borrowed form also means, but it seems more opaque than that when you have been using a word since childhood without ever having had to analyze its composition. And so when you are expressing an emotion, you are actually squeezing it out of yourself, kind of like when you give birth to a child. Perhaps this is why artists feel like they are giving birth to their creation, because they are more in tune with the process of expression. Emotions can stay inside of you, unknown by the world, just like ideas. But until those emotions make their way to the outside, usually requiring some effort on your part to squeeze them out, or at least requiring you to be relaxed enough to allow the pressure that they have built up inside of you to expel them, they are unexpressed. Unexpressed emotions can become suppressed emotions, especially when you are consciously avoiding them. In German, the term for this is unterdrücken, that is literally ‘to press down’ (or under). The Latinate borrowing for this in English is the same. As with expressing, suppressing requires the application of some degree of force, as the offending feelings keep threatening to resurface. Strong emotions and ideas can generate a great deal of pressure.

At the risk of being a little icky, suppressed emotions are like suppressed poop, they can lead to constipation or diarrhoea, or both. To carry the poop metaphor just a little further, as anyone with a food intolerance knows, there is a difference between processing and expelling digestive material. If you have any kind of food intolerance, you can’t digest the food properly, and it gets really uncomfortable as the food sits inside you unprocessed. Undigested matter can be expelled by the digestive tract, and this is pretty unpleasant, although there is some relief when it’s done. But emotions arise inside of you, and if they continue to be unprocessed, no matter how many times you express them, it continues to be unpleasant. If you suppress and don’t process, you have a painful and explosive combination. By the way, to process literally means ‘to advance something’s forward movement,’ even though we often use the term to mean something more decompositional, perhaps more in line with the German verarbeiten, whose literal sense means ‘to work at something until it is finished or becomes very small pieces.’

/poop metaphor

So, I’ve been doing some suppressing and some not processing (what would that be, recessing?) some memories and emotions. And, as you might guess by the tone of this thread, also a fair deal of intellectualizing about my thoughts and memories. German is no help here because it offers us the term intellektualisieren, also a Latinate borrowing. Intellect, of course, is that part of the mind that is responsible for facts and calculations, separate from emotional processes. Well, the intellect can process emotions only slightly better than it can process food. Perhaps that is why I am having such a difficult time of it. I feel stuck.

So, my homework this week, as William’s Yahrzeit (Yiddish for anniversary of a loved one’s death) is upon me, is to break open the vault of memory and let the feelings of despair wash over me. To give those feelings voice and properly express them. To soften the memories by reminding myself that I loved William, to clear the way for forgiveness, if at all possible. My therapist also wants me to try to decide to let go, to decide to accept emotionally what I already know to be true intellectually, and to give myself permission to go on living, to take care of myself, and to allow myself to pursue goals for myself. That is a tall order. And I haven’t decided. But I am intellectually aware that I can’t really properly grieve the loss of William until I fully accept that he is gone and never coming back.

But there are feelings that I just can’t handle. Guilt, the overwhelming guilt, is the primary one that I want to avoid. The guilt feelings make me want to die. I need to approach these memories with the awareness that I cannot claim all of the responsibility. The medication that William was on contributed to the situation, and was probably the catalyst for his irrational behavior. (A warning to others reading this: do NOT give a depressed teenager prednisone. And if you absolutely have to, monitor them closely.) And William was the agent as well as the patient in this event, and thus must be assigned some degree of responsibility. Not allowing him responsibility for his own death is just wrong. Allowing William and the medication some responsibility, I can then extract my role from all this and feel pain for the responsibility that I had. It has to be felt, expressed, and processed. But in quantities that I can handle. Along with the deep sadness and the anger and whatever else comes up. Ugh, not looking forward to this.





I am glad that I did not pick one place to release William’s ashes. For one thing, to leave them in a vault or bury them in one location would make it difficult when the time comes for me to leave this town. And, in my line of work, leaving is inevitable. The same thing with releasing the ashes in one location. No matter how accessible it is now, it might not be in the future. And then there is what William would have wanted. What parent asks their perfectly healthy child what they would like done with their remains? I do know that William adored the idea of a viking funeral ship, lit afire, and sent off into the sea. The logistics of that are pretty much impossible, though one day, I would like to build a model longship and perform this rite with some of his ashes. Simply because he would have loved it.

But beyond that, I have decided to take small quantities of his ashes with me to places that we should have gone together. In a way, making up for unfulfilled promises. Sometimes I leave the ashes there, sometimes they just accompany me there and back. I took William’s ashes with me in the marathon he was supposed to have run with me, strapped into a wrist pack. He also ran with me in a Mother’s Day race this year. He accompanied me to California, and I left him in the wild and stormy Pacific Ocean. He accompanied me to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, and kicked it with me and his best friend and his family in NYC. He accompanied me to the Jersey Shore, where I released his ashes into the Atlantic Ocean, and watched the outgoing tide carry them away. The beach will never be the same to me. Sand is the earthly residue of billions of bodies, whether silicate or calcium based, sons and daughters, all, and sea water is composed of their mothers’ tears. I took some of William’s ashes with me as I jumped out of an airplane, and released his ashes high in the sky, blowing on the wind, possibly across the world.

As I had to share William with others during his life, I have shared and offered to share his ashes with others who loved him. I hope also to bring his remains to places that he loved, to his favorite church tower, where he spend many, many hours, when we lived abroad, for example. I always promised him that we would come back one day. I want to take him to the top of Angel’s landing, where I had made us turn back because of my fear of heights a few years ago. I want to take him to the Danube, where he had always hoped to one day navigate a ship from Germany to the Black Sea. Perhaps I can incorporate the viking ship idea with that same trip.

Each of the times I have released his ashes, I felt disappointed. Perhaps my execution was somehow lacking. Although I expected to feel somehow different, I didn’t have any particular feeling at all, except discomfort at this most awkward gesture, and the same general sadness that pervades most of what I do. I thought maybe I would actually feel like I was letting go, and would therefore feel lighter. Or like it would hurt more because my loss would be more real. As if this very concrete gesture of releasing my son’s ashes, of literally letting him go from my hand would do something for me psychologically. Well, after the third time, I am guessing that this is just what it feels like.

The one thing I am beginning to realize is that the gesture is not really for William, at all. It is for me to come to terms with all of the things that we will never get to do together, all the things that he will never get to experience. And perhaps this process helps to mitigate that in some small way. I can’t bring William to the ocean and watch his amazement or joy or fascination, but I can try to experience it for both of us. I would like it better if I could imagine that William were right there with me, that by carrying his ashes, his spirit could be there too. But even his memory is hazy. I can’t visualize him (without it going back to that horrible day). But every once in a while, it’s like he’s there in the periphery of my vision. When I turn to look, he is gone. But it’s better than nothing, I guess.


snow and rainbows

There have been so many rainbows this spring and summer. And we had way more snow than usual this past winter. I love snow and rainbows. More than most people. This winter I thought it was almost like William was sending me snow in hopes of seeing me smile. But I know that is ridiculous, laughable, and downright foolish. If dead people could influence weather patterns, wouldn’t some kind departed son send his mother rain to ease a drought? William could no more send me snow or rainbows than G_d would punish us with a hurricane. But it could be that I am just more aware of things like rainbows and snow this year because they are now emotional triggers.

Snow and rainbows somehow manage to both intensify and yet somehow soothe my grief. It hurts more because “oh look, here’s something I have to show William” but I can’t, and he will never get to experience a snowfall or a rainbow again, and I will never get to share them with him again. And there is another painful reminder. But at the same time, it’s also a reminder of how he taught me to look at the world, to stop and see beauty where ever it exists, to allow myself to be filled with wonder and amazement. And so that little part of William is still with me.

My therapist says that thinking a crazy thing is only a delusion if you truly believe it. If you know better, but allow yourself to indulge in the thought, it is a fantasy. Maybe I will allow myself the fantasy that William sent me a rainbow today because I needed so badly to be near him, because I have been missing him so much that the pain is overwhelming.

Photo of the rainbow William sent me today

The rainbow William sent me today