Monday, September 27, 2010

Requiems and Rubicons

On the morning after my father died, I rose early from the pile of blankets where I had passed a sleepless night—I was a starving graduate student then and couldn’t afford a mattress—and rode the five hilly miles in the dark from my apartment to the university. I let myself into the slide library and pulled my professor’s list for his Intro to Rome lecture that week. With scrupulous care, I located each slide and slid it into the carousel. I placed the tray in his box, along with a note on lined paper, written in my fifth grade looping cursive: “Professor X, My father passed away. I will be gone this week for the funeral. If you have any questions, call me at the number below.”

Then I rode home, threw some clothes into a carry-on bag —including a black calico print dress that still hangs in my closet—and flew to California for one of the hardest weeks of my life.  

At that time, I didn’t know that life could—and would—be worse.

This weekend, I was looking forward to celebrating my second son’s eleventh birthday. For me, 11 is a magical year—if I could be any age forever, that’s the age I would want to be, poised in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, with all of an adult’s ability to read and think and reason, coupled with a child’s sense of awe and wonder and innocence. It’s no accident that Harry Potter started Hogwarts or that Will Stanton got his call to join the Old Ones at the age of 11.

Instead, on Thursday night, I got a call from a police officer, informing me that he had transported my son to the children’s psychiatric hospital because the boy had threatened to kill himself.

I have never fully recovered from my father’s death. His absence still hurts my heart with all the pain I felt when the phone rang that night so long ago, when I was in graduate school. In many ways, that innocent betrayal—leaving me like he did, even though he couldn’t help it—has made it impossible for me to trust another man. I can bake cookies and edit papers and sew buttons on shirts and discuss current events with flair and skill. But I do not dare to love anyone again because I am afraid that I will lose him, like I lost my father.

So imagine how I feel at the thought of losing my child!

I get the suicide thing. I really do. As I was driving home from the hospital after my first visit with my son (we played chess; he beat me), I saw one of those emo-kids dressed all in black lying on the grass, eyes closed, face twisted in a grimace of existential agony that only a 16 year old upper middle class kid can know, and I wanted to pull over and say, “Yeah, the unbearable lightness of being really sucks a&$, doesn’t it?”

I’ll freely admit that I’ve wanted to end my own life more than a time or two. But suicide is two things that I am not. It’s lazy, and it’s selfish.

Think about Hamlet, the prototypical emo-kid. His shallow mom knows that “all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.” But Hamlet wastes all this time wallowing in existential misery (the equivalent of mental masturbation), while his father’s kingdom falls apart around him. He’s a selfish, lazy jerk, and innocent people pay the price for his indecision.

Then think about Julius Caesar. How would the world be different if he had fallen on his sword, instead of looking at the Rubicon and deciding to cross it? That decision, one could argue, affected the entire fate of the West. Regardless of what you think of the man’s politics and aspirations, you have to admire his chutzpah.

And that’s life, folks. When you come to a river that must be crossed, you cross it. There’s no way to the other side but through the middle, no matter how slippery the rocks, or how swift the current.

My father loved life. True to his nature, he did not go into that good night without a long and agonizing struggle. When I think of my young son, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the grandfather he has never met—at an age when he should still be casting pseudo Latin spells and saving Olympus—thinking about cutting his own existence short, I am literally struck dumb with pity and fear.

I have never recovered from the loss of my father. I do not even want to contemplate how the loss of my child would affect me. But I realize that I have no control over his choices, that I can only hope to help him comprehend the potential devastating consequences to me, to his father and step-mother, to his brothers and sister, to his grandparents, to all the friends and teachers who admire his quicksilver mind, his impish wit, his skill on the piano or the chess board.

My son is not lazy and selfish. I hope he’ll roll the dice and cross the river—to a life of unimagined vistas and unexplored countries. 

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