After my son Daniel’s death, when I was at Daniel’s mother’s house in Saratoga Springs, NY, I immersed myself in all arcana related to my boy’s life and death. I wore his clothes and slept in and in his bed; I went through photos, pored over his drawing books, sorted through his toys, piled his stuffed animals on myself as I read his books. Memories were evoked. Tears were cried. Secrets were discovered. Clues unveiled. And a strange comfort was achieved.
A spiritualist friend of mine advised against this immersion, believing that the negative energy of his death could somehow engulf us if we aren’t careful to create a little distance between the “us” and the deceased’s “things.”
She was probably right, but I was so grief-stricken and my world had been so upended by my son’s death, that I’m not sure I could have refrained from the slightly macabre rituals…it felt right and I know it has cross-cultural corollaries; humans need this connection in order to assert our eternal love for the deceased, to understand the profundity of the exit and to grapple with our own mortality. Our culture has done much to separate us from these natural processes and the important cognitive and spiritual connections essential to our humanity. I’m not alone in my desire to see this change.
I took many pictures of Daniel’s room, the art his mother was going to hang on to, and of his myriad things. One photo I keep coming back to is of his hospital birth armband next to the tag that denoted his ashes– The first and last human written “documents” of his existence on earth. I titled the photo “Our Paper Trail.” It seemed to capture so much.These were the tags that were issued to prevent him from disappearing into obscurity, from being accidentally confused with other babies, or from ending up being buried in the wrong hole in the ground. In both cases, the absence of these simple but essential tags could lead to massive alterations in our earthly and maybe even cosmic journeys.
My son’s death coincided with an important cultural marker in my own life, that of reaching mid-life. Birth and death are inalterable occurrences. They can be mediated by some interference, but they simply happen whether we want them to or not. What happens between them, though, is where we have immense possibility to change courses. Daniel’s death has reminded me so much about what we can and cannot control. His premature death was a tragedy of epic proportions, and while I know he made a choice to leave when he did, as a parent I will be eternally tormented by the guilt of thinking, “I could have done more.”
But it has also reminded me that those of us who do not suffer from such profound mental anguish can examine our lives and alter their courses. We who possess the essential life force of hope can imagine things differently than as they are, and can attempt to move towards that imagined future.
One year and a half after my son’s death I found myself paralyzed. Fearful. Hopeless. Overwhelmed by a sense of finiteness of experience. It cut across all facets of my life. It seemed like nothing could give me great joy ever again. That I would never love as deeply; that my professional accomplishments were diminishing and that creatively I would never reach the heights I had envisioned. Aware of this spiral of negativity, I felt like I was teetering towards a nervous breakdown. It was a summer from hell, a sense of self-defeat that I hope to never experience again.
I sought professional help. I became active in boxing and took up yoga. I talked with my partner…a great deal. Without her and her mental health expertise, I’m not sure where I’d be now. Slowly some things started to unfold and the powerlessness I was feeling eased a bit.
I realized I had coincidentally experienced a bunch of blows, in addition to the mourning of my son’s recent death — financial challenges, relationship turmoil, professional disappointments, and a two-year marker in my drug-free life. It was a perfect storm, and recognizing the multiple car pile-up I was experiencing helped me dig out a little.
In the wake of the darkness came an explosion of creativity. I had been having trouble writing music since Daniel’s death. Everything felt trite, but mid-summer this year, songs began dropping in my lap from the gods. Maybe not the best work I was capable of, but the muse had returned from a long vacation.
The link for creators between feeling creative and mental well-being is documented and almost cliché. We don’t feel “right” if we have a block or are unable to “make.” Conversely, we often feel more alive and lighter when creation blooms.
And the creative spell continues. Thank you gods — Lakshmi, Ganesha, Zoroaster, Buddha, Mohammed, Yahweh, Jesus, et al.
And, of course…Daniel.
His ending made me call into question my future. It has become a beginning in my life — the beginning of life without my son. The beginning of sorting out what is really important and what is bullshit. It is an opportunity to retune my art, to restructure relationships and priorities, to decide what to do with the second half of my life. I wouldn’t be maudlin enough to call it a “gift.” I didn’t choose the status of suicide survivor, but the cards dealt have forced some big choices and changes. And I get to decide who I want to be for the rest of my life.
I end with a great F. Scott Fitzgerald quote sent to me by my band mate and collaborator of 20 years, Trent Norton, as he and I discuss our next creative move. It resonates well right now.
For what it’s worth…it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever who you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you can make the best of it. I hope you can see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you have never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you are proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald