Sailing Over the Horizon

I don’t know how long I have been preparing for my mother’s death. It has been for some time. The first inklings came by way of my father.

My father had suffered—“struggled” is too valiant a word; he suffered from the diminution of his physical abilities, of a stutter, and drugs that knocked him out—with Parkinson’s Disease over the last ten years of his life. He insisted on driving, even when the autonomous reflexes that make safe navigation of country roads at high speeds had abandoned him. We—his family—worried that his end (and someone else’s end) would come on the road. It did not.

Before the disease, my father sailed. He began when I was 11, and I took lessons with him. He sailed on the Chesapeake Bay, spending weekends looking for wind. When he retired from full-time work, he began to sail on the ocean.

Everyone who has sailed on the ocean has a story of a near-miss. Some idiots sailed onto a reef, and lost their two million dollar boat. Cargo containers, my father’s persistent concern, floated like metal icebergs and ripped through the fiberglass hull of a ship. There was a boat whose hull breached when it was nudged by a whale—“Once the water got into the cabin, the keel pointed it to the bottom. Like an arrow.” Any number of unforeseen accidents could turn a gentlemanly jaunt across the waves into a disaster. Even without the gales and following seas, sailing, for all its trappings, is a dare.

When I sailed with my father, I was folded into the fraternity of casual, privileged risk. It is a different bargain than that made by those who forswear safety for a higher cause. Only a fool invites disaster, tempts it, for what? A dare? An assertion of meaning and purpose? A sunny destination? All those and more. We may have been foolish, but we prepared for the worst.

He was prepared too. He confessed that his trips on the ocean might have to end. He told me that he was contemplating selling his sailboat and buying a motorboat to “gunkhole” around in the Chesapeake Bay. A signal of its own.

And then in 2002, cancer—non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—struck my mother. She was not pleased, just as she had not been pleased with my father’s illness. Disruptions were anathema to my mother. However, her illness stunned my father. Whatever else in his life was uncertain, my mother’s tenacity was inflexible. I drove from Baltimore to the Philadelphia area to take her to chemotherapy sessions, sparing him as much as comforting her. After a few months, her doctor thought she had gone into remission, but then a second wave collapsed on her. Her liver swelled to the size of a football, and her blood became the consistency of maple syrup. We girded ourselves for the worst. And then it passed.

Six months later, my father slipped on a wet dock, fell into the water, and drowned.

Because of this, for the past 18 years, death has been a sometime presence in my relationship with my mother. My mother was nearly 72 years old when her husband died. He was diseased and at risk; the reef was hidden under the waves. We knew the odds.

My mother was halfway through her 88th year when she died. Otherwise, she was not a halfway kind of person. She was a pistol—full of energy and ready to go off in an instant.  She was fiercely independent—a characteristic that could make her difficult, but which also fired her painting. She started making art in her forties. Painting was a source of independence, stability, and consistency in the second half of her life.

While others made paintings that were representational and, well, let’s be honest, commercial, she stuck to abstraction. A quick word about abstraction: while some might imagine that abstraction is easy—just smear some paint on canvas—my mother found a challenge in getting a gesture onto the surface, and then a further challenge in adding a color, a second gesture, then another color. She labored over maintaining control of her gestures and palette and took solace in the layering of decisions that created a finished work.

If you had ever seen our house and its spare, precise decor, you could have seen how she battled chaos. Add to your imagination the rambunctiousness of her three sons, and the knowledge that we were forbidden from several rooms of the house until we were older and more settled. Her artistic life stood against the (self-invited, self-created) disorder of the outside world. She did not take to sailing—to the unpredictability of wind. She would retreat to the cabin when the boat heeled on a beat. She poured a glass of scotch, finding ballast and balance where none existed.

When I visited her with my family in 2014, a copy of Derek Humphry’s Final Exit ( a handbook for assisted suicide) was on one of the side tables. She was 82 and fully in remission, but arthritis made walking painful. She was sending up a flare of dissatisfaction. She had watched her mother linger and die in a nursing home. If my mother was a pistol, her mother was a blunderbuss, sour with nostalgia for a time before her marriage—the good old days. My mother did not want the end she had witnessed there. She put the book out to warn us: I am unhappy, and will not fade out of control.

The intervening years have unfolded with a number of slaps—like a cat playing with a mouse. Small strokes and other ignominies took small but noticeable bites out of my mother. When she gave up her studio—located in a community art building about 20 miles from her home—it was a keen signal.

 The past year she has navigated toward an ending, and I have been, as I often was with my father, a helping hand on the helm. It has been a strange duty. I encouraged her to work because I knew and shared the value of daily work with her. But I also listened to her dissatisfaction. “When I go to the studio, all I do is nap,” she told me. She told me more and told others more as well. She did not withhold complaints.

Last year as my mother began to make this final journey, I had started to date a woman. I told her about where my mother was, and what she asked of me. Rightly or wrongly, this woman noted the possibility of “unhealthy” and retreated. I cannot disagree or blame. I took the helm for my mother the same way I did for my father when he—foolishly, dangerously—kept to a schedule despite the weather. If, in telling the story of my mother’s death, I have returned to my father and his end, it is because they are intertwined—bookends spaced twenty years apart.

I ended my brief graveside eulogy for my mother, “She leaves us with this legacy, and with a vision of how to thrive in the garden of challenges that faces us all. Even this challenge. We go on, making our marks, as she taught us.” While many of my posts have been about my father, my mother was also my teacher. The lessons—both fortunate and unfortunate—that I took from them shaped me and prepared me. For what? For his death? Hers? My father once asked me if I could bring the boat home without him. He was prepared for disaster. I answered, as I must, as was true, “Yes.” These are the sailing lessons.

Echoes of Suicide

Here there be triggers…

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain set off klaxons across all media. People—friends, family, and experts— shared memories, formulated reasons, and dispensed advice. And in my little corner of the world, I quietly melted down as I revisited the suicide that upended my life.

I drove my friend, Jennifer, home on the night she committed suicide. She was more than my friend, she was also my supervisor, colleague, and minister at the church where I work. After her death, I went into crisis mode, helping my congregation as best I could through what was, for some, a challenging year. Because of the timing, no minister could serve our congregation for the year (a neighboring congregation lent us their minister on a once a week basis, and she checked in on us). I talked with a counselor about the events. Friends checked in to make sure I was in reasonable shape. I was.

In a moment of anger, one of my friends suggested that she must must have known it would have been him or me who would have discovered her. I knew then, as I know now, that such calculations or considerations are never present in any meaningful way in the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness strong enough to cause death. However, that never stopped me from playing and replaying the conversation we had on the night I picked her up from dinner (her car was in the shop) and drove her home.

My rational mind has assured me, and continues to assure me, that nothing I said could have caused her to do anything—or for that matter caused her not to do what she did. I was in the company of a person whose decision—insofar as any decision was actually possible—was already made. And yet over the past few days expert after expert says, “Reach out. Talk. You could save a life.” So my imaginative mind scurries relentlessly into every corner of possibility. “What ifs” pile up like bread crumbs in a tower to rival Babel. And while my rational mind wins the day, I realize this conflict has been with me for years.

The hardest thing I grapple with is the knowledge—certain and horrible—that either there was nothing I could do for my friend, or that I missed an opportunity to do something. The second choice leads to a horror show of self-recrimination. On most days I avoid that. The first choice leads to other struggles, primarily, what difference can I ever make with anyone?

Surely, this is not true. I am reassured repeatedly by the evidence of my experience that I do make differences. Routinely, daily, in the lives of those I teach, of those with whom I work, and of those I love. And yet I daily face unilateral behaviors and actions from people surrounding my life about which I can do nothing. And every time, there is a little (or not so little) twinge. Driver heading two blocks the wrong way down a one way street? Twinge. Student refusing to do work? Twinge. Congregant refusing to meet volunteer obligations? Twinge. I am leaving out the big ones. They are there too.

This happened during the summer after my family had traveled to China to bring home our second daughter. My friend had been at her birthday party in May, and had joined us at my birthday party in June. Jennifer died in July. By November my wife and I began separating. I moved into my own place in April. It was a full year. I am aware now how tangled each and every interaction I had that year, and in the years since, have been with those feelings of guilt and powerlessness–a raw and indefatigable impotence and ineffectiveness.

One of the members of my congregation recently asked how my move was going. I am leaving the congregation I have served for eleven years, and the school where I have taught for nine, and heading to a new school, and no new church, at least not right away. We conferred briefly on the feeling of being in control of the process, and how that was appealing to me. He said that he understood. I too knew it was important, and knew I had felt out of control for some time. My church, by the way, has had six ministerial teams over the eleven years I have served them, with the immediate prospect of two more in the next three years. And we are moving to a new building—a good thing. Still, that twinge, what some might call a trigger, is so wrapped in my in church life, and my life here in Norfolk, that is is nearly impossible to continue.

I know people will tell me, in the most anodyne fashion, that control is an illusion, and that I need to let it go, practice a little Buddhist non-attachment, and set myself free. Or that I need to get tough and face my feelings with Spartan fortitude. And for god’s sake don’t talk about them. But I do not seek detachment, even when the consequence is suffering. Suffering is fine. And I can try not to feel too attached to my feelings, but really, who thinks saltpeter in the milk is a solution? I would rather deal with the struggle. Even four years later. Even forty. In the end, the struggle makes me stronger.

As for sharing? What the hell. I write. This isn’t a cry for help. And it is no “J’accuse!” unless I am accusing myself. I usually wait to write until I have teased out the germs of an idea or feeling until it has grown into words. I admit that here on the blog, I let some unpercolated thoughts trickle in. This one has been in my head for days. Or years. With any luck, the words will be a bridge between us, and not a wall. And with even more luck, perhaps these words will help someone build a bridge in themselves to something they haven’t imagined yet.

The Soundtrack of my Life

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Sky Full of Stars: 

Remembrance

When my daughter is in the car with me, she makes musical requests. Last year featured a month of Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” Sometime this past winter she settled on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Often the second song she requests is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” She exclaims “Wow!” when the bass beat kicks in twice in the song. “It goes BOOM.” She laughs loudly as I sing “Boom! Boom! Boom!” to the beat. She doesn’t see me cry. I keep smiling. I keep going, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

I started listening to this song in the days after my friend, Jennifer Slade, committed suicide. It reminded and still reminds me of her. Jennifer was someone who “light[s] up the path,” as the singer says about the person in the song. She was a brilliant minister: insightful and collaborative; just what a co-worker who had worked with four different ministerial teams in six years needed. She encouraged me to explore my gifts as a minister, and even if I did not choose the path she walked, she helped me think more deeply about the work I do, and to accept it as ministry.

Her death, coming in July of 2014 shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday, shocked me. I drove her home on the night she took her life, and can painfully and clearly recall our conversation on the way. She apologized for asking me to pick her up—her car was in the shop. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the drawbacks of living away from home (she lived in Durham, NC), was that she did not have friends. As a minister she was careful about making friends in the congregation. Her work—ministers never have forty hour work weeks—and the circumstances of the year (she and her husband had taken the first steps toward divorce) had made her feel isolated.

I told her that I was always happy to help, that it was my “job.” I felt that as part of the team at our church that we should always have each other’s backs. This was amazingly important to me, because I had been on less than supportive teams at my church. I had been open with her about this, telling her that I had planned to step down from my position, but after working with her and feeling the change that was happening at the church, I looked forward to what we were building. “I’ll stay as long as you are here,” I told her. Besides, I think of my role as a “guy” as a “job,” and part of that job is answering the call. But I said “job.” I did not say, “Are you kidding me? We are friends. You can always call.”

The weeks following Jennifer’s suicide were difficult. I felt dislodged from the world. I argued with my wife and a friend about how I felt and how to respond. I threw myself into healing work at the church. I met with friends who knew about grief first hand, who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting nineteen months before this. I attended services in North Carolina and Norfolk. I saw a therapist. I retreated from the world, and could not retreat from the world; the school year was in the offing—my first full year as principal at my school (my other job). I had a family. And I felt like a shell of a human.

As I listened to this song at astronomical volume in my car, I began to hear Chris Martin’s “you” not as a single specific person, but as a great plural “you.” He wasn’t singing to one person, but to the wider world. Even if there was one particular “you” who tore him apart, he was going to give his heart to the world. In my mind the big bass beat was a heartbeat, a hundred heartbeats, a thousand, a crowd dancing, like the crowds I had danced with in college and grad school. What saves the torn apart heart is a crowd of people, of friends, of love.

Do I think that life is bound to tear us apart? Probably. Do I think that we somehow come back together? Of course. I know that’s true for me. I know that I still shed tears—manly, cathartic tears, but tears nonetheless. I choose to give my heart away, knowing that the risk of sudden, tragic loss or even slow painful loss will not pass. My daughter laughs and says, “Go Boom!” I go “Boom!” I go “Boom.”

 

 

Thoughts on compassion and the wrong response

At some point shortly after Robin Williams’ suicide, someone angrily commented that suicide was a selfish act, which drew the fairly enlightened and angry response, “No, it’s not. Here’s why.” At least that was part of what lit up my Facebook newsfeed last week. And there was anger and there were enlightened responses about depression, the meaning of depression, suicide, and the meaning of suicide.

Not so strangely, I’ve had a bit of time to think about suicide this past month. I appreciate the discussions about mental health and depression. Clearly, anything that takes the lives of 30,000 Americans each year bears serious thought and discussion. All our lives must have come into contact with several people who made this choice. In my life, I have known more than five and less than ten people who have either succeeded or made truly serious attempts at suicide. It’s not that unusual a number.

And so, I can’t help spending more time about those who the parlance calls survived. The leftovers. What is a good response to suicide? Quite honestly, this time around, among my first blush responses were some less than charitable impulses. I stand with Dylan Thomas: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I did not act on these impulses; I had other work to do with people who were struggling as much, more, than I was struggling. Nonetheless, I felt them and tried to manage them, but it was not–is not–an easy task.

I watch people around me take up the cause of suicide prevention. This is a good cause, and an act of unselfish kindness on their part. I understand this also as a way these people work at healing the tear in the universe left behind by the suicide of our bright and generous minister. And this is what we who remain are left to do: work at the tear in the universe.

When the universe is torn abruptly, I can’t imagine a response that does not turn finally towards compassion. I also cannot imagine the possibility of a full throated, “No!” In my case this “No!” was accompanied by many Anglo-Saxon epithets. My father would have quietly said, “This is shitty.” I say, “fuck.” A lot. Mostly in private.

There probably is not, within reason, a wrong response to suicide. But even that “within reason” is a hedge. Surely some Devil’s Night act of savage protest in which the dispossessed, the angry, and the desperate burn a city to the ground is not a reasonable response. Okay, maybe just one fire? But 30,000 fires? One for each suicide in America this year?

Probably not a good response.

Nonetheless, my compassion ends up getting turned toward those who are here, whose work will be to poorly sew back together what has been put asunder. I listen to those who try to make sense of the senseless, to those who rapidly respond: “Fix it, fix it,” to those whose “No’s” bear the added weight of personal struggle with suicide and suicidal thoughts. I even feel compassion toward those who yell and scream, who turn to anger, because I feel that too. I feel a little compassion for me.