From Chapter 14, “18 Months After”
My memory of Wednesday, June 22, begins in the afternoon. I was living at the cabin on White Bear Lake, but I was scheduled to take the last of a series of tennis lessons in Minneapolis at six o’clock. This is a busy time of year at the office, but I remember looking at the clock right at four and realizing I just had to go home. I was tired. Dead heavy tired. I wandered into Dinkytown near campus, in the general direction of the parking lot. Couldn’t decide about the tennis lesson. Couldn’t decide about anything. I bought some frozen yogurt, then went to the car and started toward the freeway. For some reason I decided to stop at a store on the way. I wandered in, bought a Scorpio key chain, I think. Still tired. I thought, well… maybe I should go to tennis; maybe I’ll feel better. So I went to class, played tennis for about an hour and a half, and then drove home, walking in the door of the cabin about eight o’clock. For some reason I called your house in Oregon immediately. Housemate Hal said, “Charles has gone off somewhere…” but there was something in his voice, some concern. “I’ll try again later. Maybe I’ll catch him.” I went to the couch to lie down, too tired even to cook.
One of the benefits parents of young adults get is meeting their friends. It’s a part of parenting I love. You talked of your friends often, and I know how much of yourself you invested in those friendships. Sometimes, in a depression episode, you would speak sadly to me on the phone of how disconnected you felt. Trying to participate in a party, you could tell people remembered all those other good times in your house, such as solstice parties, “before Charles got sick.” I can’t talk about anything meaningful, you would tell me. Part of the negative self-perception that goes with this numbing, debilitating disease. I would hear all the sadness in your voice and I, too, would hurt.
….When I heard Gordon’s voice on the phone at six o’clock the next morning, my immediate thought was that you were back in the hospital. Then there had been something in your voice last Saturday when you called. I felt a stab of fear and sorrow. We had thought you were well, that it would never happen again. But Gordon went on. An accident. Died. I vaguely remember asking questions. A fact like that cannot stand alone in one’s brain, screaming. When? About two o’clock yesterday afternoon. Yesterday! There was no identification; the police had to find an address. They came to the house last night, brought a picture for Gordon to identify. Since then we’ve been trying to find Jim at his house in Corvallis, Gordon continued. When we called, we got his answering machine. Finally we drove up there, to his house, and someone said they thought they were out of town.
Suddenly I am yelling at him: “But where’s Charles?” A silence. “What do you mean?” “Where is he now?” “I don’t know.”
The mother lode. Where is my child? Take me to him. I will fix it.
From Chapter 16, “21 Months After”
The inner courtyard that I see from the large windows in my bedroom is once again covered with new snow. Minnesotans joke about how it always snows the week of the high school hockey tournament, so we are not surprised. Tomorrow night it will be four degrees, the TV news says. March is a push-pull month, teasing with spring-like days, slapping us in the face with the return of bitter winds and biting snow.
Several of my neighbors in the seven-story portion of our building, which I see across the U-shaped courtyard, still have Christmas lights on balconies and small trees. They look cheerful and homey now that everything is white again. Yesterday they seemed left over.
Left over. That’s what some of my emotions feel like. Some of the cold and angry places are hanging around like bad days in March. Grief’s “winter” that lingers, taking its own good time, on a timetable of its own.
Recently I came across a copy of a letter I wrote to Jim and Drew last year sometime. It contained excerpts from an article about grief that a friend sent. Experts on grief talk about stages. These stages may not go in any special order and each may be visited many times, the article says, but probably unless the person experiences each one, she/he will not finish her/his grieving over a particular loss.
That sounds right to me. My own past experiences with “interrupted grieving” are living proof of the need to complete it.
Coping skills is listed fifth, after shock and denial, anger, sadness and/or depression, and fear. No special order, says the article. Well, I think what clicks in first for me—what I do first when crisis hits—is cope. Maybe that’s the mother tape. What we learn through all the mini-crises from that first moment when a totally dependent human being who’s counting on us for everything, slips into our lives. And when he slips out again.
I’ve asked myself if that tendency works to my detriment. Some of the other stages get put on hold, maybe for a long time. “If we get into coping skills too soon for our own natural process, we will need at some point to stop using those skills while we do other parts of our grieving,” the article goes on. Maybe if a person copes too well, other needs—for comfort or help or time—go unmet because you don’t believe you need them. I returned to my job at the busiest time of the year, ten days after your death. I know now that I would never do that to myself again. Ever. (What are you going to do tomorrow? a concerned friend asked the day after your service. Go to work, I said. Good, she said, relieved at this sign of normalcy.) I saw the same thing happen to Jim and Drew, who returned quickly to stressful jobs. Somehow there must be space to heal. I think we all felt like we were walking around on some other planet, all the while making a great effort to appear normal.
Sadness and depression? That must be what hit the first November and December after, when these letters started. When my brain rebelled and wouldn’t pay attention to life’s trivia anymore. When I needed to stay home and be still.
Rage against the illness. Yes, that too.
I take another book from the memory box. One of your journals, undated. I recognize some entries from the time in 1982 (only four months after you had excitedly begun your architectural studies in Oregon) when you came home for Christmas in a severe depression episode. Hard to tell exactly when the journal entries begin, but they chronicle that winter’s episode.
Oh God what insufferable pain. It hurts so bad and there is no escape. It follows me everywhere and now I can’t even sleep.
Once again the world of severe depression. The swelling inside my head. My vision slightly blurry around the edges, a strange dream-like quality to my movements, a kind of churning in my stomach. I’d like to vomit but I can’t.
Hang On Hang On Hang On Please God
It Will Pass It Will Pass It Will Pass
How can you say you’re not strong Chuck. One of these is more pain than any person should ever have to experience and you have gone through countless.
I denied each of them to myself when I felt good, I pretended they never existed.
I feel the study of architecture dying inside me. I will always be fascinated by it but I’m not willing to go through the pressure.
Total compulsion—one act and then another, an attention span of 5 seconds.
When I feel I’m thinking the most clearly I think I should just retreat to a quiet place and let the changes happen. Why fight it? I know my head better than any doctors.
Trying to write this is like trying to get a drink from a fire hose. So much is rushing past and only a fraction is making it on paper. The speed of this medium is the hang-up. I would love to be able to have a written printout of it all.
From Chapter 17, “22 Months After” (after a trial about the crash was held)
An entry from Phyllis’s journal: “What I wish I could have said on the witness stand: Charles battled this incredible disease for ten years and none of you understand one tiny bit of what this is about. An insurance company comes in here, trying to save a few bucks, telling you he did something he was incapable of doing. If he had had a heart attack out there on the road and run into someone, which he may have for all we know, it would be readily understandable—and an accident. If he had been drunk or stoned, he would be responsible for an “accident.” But somehow, you are told to believe that an attack of this disease is intentional. How dare you. Explain this disease to these people. Explain this disease!”
From Chapter 19, “An Anniversary, Two Years After”
I’ve been to the lakeshore to walk. You would be amazed at how different the shoreline you grew up on looks. The drought has put the waves out beyond the sand bar that was always under water when you and your brothers played and swam there. The wind, with that certain feel it has when it’s blowing across the lake, was the right mood for today. The sun played with the clouds and behind them was a vibrant blue, the color Heather described in her last dream about you.
It is afternoon, as it was two years ago today, when it happened. When my body knew. When suddenly the enormous fatigue hit and I found myself walking and driving in that peculiarly aimless fashion, coming home, lying down on the couch, and falling asleep immediately, waking only enough to crawl off to bed. Some inner feeling said, “Charles … there’s something about Charles…” and I was so tired. Later, much later, a wise woman told me, “He was using your energy to get up.”
When the phone rang at 6 a.m. and Gordon’s voice said, “I’m calling about Charles … there’s been an accident … died,” my brain heard what my body had already known for fourteen hours.
The breeze blows in my face today, and I remember. Two hours of survival responses, a body moving purely on instinct, calling Drew in Seattle (my god, I woke him at 4 a.m.—why didn’t I wait, give him one last night of sleep?), trying desperately to find someone who knew how to reach Jim before he got on a plane and flew all the way to Boston, only to have to fly right back. Telling Ted at your dad’s office in North Carolina to stop saying anything and just listen. Only enough energy for the essentials, bare essentials.
Until suddenly I bolted, with half a dozen caring friends already gathered in the driveway, a car waiting to take me to the airport. “I need to be with the lake!” I yell. Rushing down the path, to the breeze that felt like today’s, crying out at the sky over the empty lake, “Dear God, take care of Charles!” The sobs stopping somewhere in my chest. If I cried, really cried, maybe that would make it true. And it can’t be true. It can’t be true.
Dear Charles, where are you? A mother is supposed to know where her kid is. I want to connect with you today. I’m willing to have the pain, just please not the emptiness.
It is you who knows the answers to these mysteries now. My cousin Lila Jean told me recently that when her husband, Tom, died twenty-five years ago, she had a deep profound realization: “He knows something I don’t know.”
To therapist Jan, who knows about the experience of death, I make a confession. “This is going to sound weird,” I say, “but those early days, weeks, months, after Charles died, for all the horror of it, there was a kind of beauty, such deep feeling, such a connection. I felt connected to the whole universe, receptive to everything, aware of every wonder in nature. I can imagine someone telling me this is kind of sick, but the truth is, I miss it. Do you know what I mean? Did that happen to you? The look on her face and her nod told me yes.
I’ve been reading your poetry. My heart hurts. So did yours. I think about a phone conversation, when it sounded like you were smiling at your own bewilderment. “Mom, I don’t know anything about writing poetry! Where’s it coming from?”
How have my intentions languished these two years? How have I let that happen? When I felt such a deep sense of mission in those first days and weeks. I remember (and miss) that sensation, too. As if my feet were firmly planted and something came up through them to the very core of me. Something that said, “This is what it’s been about. This is what you are supposed to do, why you are here. It’s about writing.”
I needed to grieve of course. I needed to let time happen. I needed to go back to healing the other unfinished business. I needed to earn a living.
I needed to come to terms with death.