It’s a little oval box. Perched atop the dark, hardwood lid is a little turtle, carved by a skilled hand. Its head is raised, straining from under the shell as if to get a slightly better view.
A gift from me, I found it again when we were going through the things in his apartment. It was the perfect vessel for the scattering. The dark recesses of its rough-grained floor are still lightly dusted with my son’s ashes.
SUNDAY, MARCH 12
The voice on the phone is strained, rasping, almost inhuman. It is a voice frantic with misery, forced to speak yet choked with agony at its own sounding. It’s my ex-wife’s voice and, to my horror, I know immediately what it is saying.
“He’s dead,” she says again, her voice lowering to a strangled whisper, the unexpected intimacy of which redoubles its impact. The room spins. I grab for the edge of the table.
I’m outside myself, watching and listening to myself as to some other person, in some other time and place. I see myself look at my watch. Ten minutes to eleven. I feel my mouth begin to move and hear my own voice echoing in some other room. “What’s happened, ’Laine? Tell me from the beginning.”
The barest movement of wind brushes her honey-colored hair as the late afternoon sun washes a stand of pines at the far edge of the field, the golden grasses dreamy beneath the green boughs. We are both sixteen, stunned by the amazement of finding a fellow creature to whom we can pour our hearts out.
“I don’t know,” she says, and begins to cry. “A policeman came to the door and said I needed to call a number and he gave me a piece of paper with the number written on it. When I saw that it was Anna’s number I knew that something terrible had happened.”
He’s clowning with my lime-green ski hat pulled down over his two-year-old head, twirling in the middle of the living room floor until he falls down laughing.
She pauses to gather herself. “The policeman told me he would stay while I called. Anna answered and said, ‘He’s gone, Elaine.’ But I couldn’t understand that. ‘What do you mean he’s gone? Where has he gone?’
“Then Anna said, ‘He shot himself, Elaine. He shot himself and he’s gone.’ And I still couldn’t understand that. Had he shot himself and then left? Had he driven off in his truck? Where had he gone? What did that mean, that he’s gone? Anna just kept saying that he’s gone, he’s gone, and I just couldn’t understand that.”
“Then you know that now for sure? He didn’t drive away?’
For a second, I, too, am clinging to an absurd shred of hope that maybe, somehow, he’d only wounded himself and then stumbled out, that maybe by some miracle he’d be okay.
“No, he didn’t drive away.”
He turns to look at me from the bow seat of the canoe, his blue eyes grinning under the yellow visor of his Oakland A’s cap.
I take a breath, if only to shake myself clear of that crazy millisecond of hope and brace myself somehow for another wave of the truth.
“So who is with Anna now?” The words are like animals in my mouth.
“The police are there, and her brothers are with her. The ambulance just took him away. Oh, Rick, I can’t believe it.”
She begins to sob again. “Oh my God, Rick, they took him away! They took my boy away!” Her voice trails off into an anguished wail that cuts into me like a long, jagged blade.
I feel the weight of the pistol in his hand. It’s black. Snake smooth. Cold.
“And what about Jackson, is Jack all right?”
She pauses to compose herself again and I can’t help feeling a desperate impatience to know if our three-and-a-half-year-old grandson is safe.
“Apparently—I don’t know how—apparently he slept through the whole thing. He didn’t even wake up when Emily took him to Anna’s parents.” “And where are you?”
There’s a long moment of near silence. She is whimpering, attempting to stifle herself. “I’m at home,” she says. “I need you to come right now.”
All that was fifteen years ago. It can still feel like fifteen minutes.
I had been dreading that phone call. Over months, years, I’d watched my twenty-three-year-old son, Oliver, sink deeper and deeper into drug addiction. An excruciating, slow-motion train wreck.
I had already played his suicide in my mind, anticipated it as a dread possibility, but the event still ripped through me like a giant bomb in the basement. Unbelievably, the walls of the building above still stood, though the internal structure was completely blasted.
In the aftermath, I became obsessed with finding the truth. How had we come to this? What might I have done to prevent it? The need to know was the need to breathe.
I became insatiable, desperate to find the clues from which I could piece together some semblance of an understanding. I pored over his journals and letters. Ransacked drawers stuffed with ticket stubs, bank slips, and photographs. Sifted through his clothes, his shoes, his CDs.
Combed through the junk that littered the cab of his pickup truck: the miscellaneous tools, sweatshirts and mismatched gloves, torn and wrinkled maps, spent cigarette packages, boxes of roofing nails, crumpled invoices, empty iced tea cans.
The flip side was a raging intolerance for everything false and superficial. I wanted no silver linings, no sugar-coated platitudes, no phony feel-goodism. I couldn’t bear to hear all the expressions of sympathy. Oliver has “passed away.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “He’s at peace now.” Say it straight, call it death. He’s dead.
Maybe knowing more of the truth was going to hurt, but I wanted to hurt. I wanted to salt my own wound, if only in some crazy way to be with him. I wanted to hold the gun.
I wanted to shoot myself.
It wasn’t fear of killing myself that led me to a psychoanalyst, but the burning need to know. To know something about Oliver, and about what led him to kill himself. Also and maybe above all to know something about myself. About my part in the whole catastrophe.
The moment felt all the weirder for the fact that I was no stranger to analysis, though mostly only theoretically. It was reading Freud as an undergraduate that prompted me to set aside the dream of becoming a doctor in favor of a major in philosophy. In those days, study of Freud had already drifted out of medicine and into the humanities. The better part of a half century later—it sometimes seems a bit strange even to me—the intersection between psychoanalytic theory and contemporary philosophy has remained the focus of my career as a college professor. But this was no academic exercise. In the aftermath of Oliver’s death, I was bleeding to death myself.
This book is about a father’s attempt to stanch the greatest possible wound with some measure of understanding. Putting down the phone that night, my world no longer made sense to me. I had lost the primary thing, the one thing I would unhesitatingly have given my life for.
In fact, I felt like I was already dead. Just still walking around.
It was that desperate need for understanding that drove me into the terrible silence of an analyst’s consulting room. It was the beginning of a long period of nausea, in which the only thing greater than the pain of talking was the torment of saying nothing. It would be a long period of relentless questioning, very much including obsessively questioning my own questions. My son’s death plunged me into a long and anguished period of self-interrogation.
But then, after some years of being crippled by grief, something surprising happened. I seemed again to find myself, and to refind life, almost against my will. This unexpected but deeply revitalizing result was in large part a hard-won fruit of my time in analysis. The painful prerequisite was realizing that I was not the person I had always taken myself to be.
The strangest thing of all is that what finally gave me some feeling of peace and a renewed sense of life was coming to accept what I didn’t know, what I could not know. It was an outcome I would never have predicted, a result especially unlikely for a philosophy professor, someone for whom the pursuit of knowledge and understanding has been a lifelong passion. In fact, it was a shift that pretty much took the knees out from under my whole philosophical outlook. It was a step away from the satisfactions of theoretical clarity toward tolerating, even embracing, my own uncertainties. And yet I can only think that it was an improvement. Making some peace with my own void of unknowing left me with a new feeling of calm and a completely unanticipated sense of richness and rebirth.
This book is an attempt to tell that strange story.
SUNDAY TO MONDAY, MARCH 13
Hanging up the phone, I glance across the room at Rebecca. Her eyes are wide with alarm. “He’s killed himself,” I blurt out, choking back tears, shocked at what I myself am saying. “Oliver shot himself.”
Her breath catches and her hand claps over her mouth in an involuntary reflex of horror.
The thought absurdly flashes into my mind, as though I’m lecturing to one of my classes: “This is the very face of panic, the quintessential expression of stunned terror. It’s the standard face on posters for B-rated horror movies.” A gaggle of such faces flit into view—Joan Fontaine or Tippi Hedren in cringing, wild-eyed grimaces. This must be a movie. You’ve seen this before.
“I have to go,” I say, breaking a silence of seconds that feels like eons.
“I know,” Rebecca says, squeezing me tightly to her, “I know, I know, I’m so sorry. Oh God, Rick, I’m so sorry.” The look on her face is one of infinite sympathy. She knew that this outcome was a possibility. We had worried and talked about it for months.
“Don’t think about me. I know you have to go.”
Her arms are around me, and I’m overcome with wordless gratitude. Only later did it occur to me to think about how awkward and confusing it must have been for her, barely a year into our marriage, to give me over to my ex-wife in the middle of the night. And how hard it must have been for her to stay behind, as yet unaware of any of the details of what had happened, unable to contribute anything helpful beyond resisting her own urge to ask questions, unsure when she would see me again. Unsure of everything.
Charged with the force of emergency, I run every red light on the way. He’s dead. The phrase keeps repeating in my head but refuses to register as real.
I fully expect to play the role of the comforter when I arrive. It’s like a mission I’ve assigned to myself. Even when Elaine appears at the threshold and looks up at me, her eyes red and watery, her face pale and quivering, her hair disheveled, I feel fairly steady. But as she throws herself on me, her body convulsed with little cries, I myself break down and burst into uncontrollable weeping. I am crushed by my own sobs.
“I need to sit down,” I say at last, and make my way to her living room.
Settling on the couch, I think perhaps the worst is over, but looking up at her again, her eyes on mine with childlike pain and fear, as if imploring me to do something, to tell her that she needn’t worry, to somehow make it all better, I again completely dissolve into sobbing. I am washed over by the unbearable realization that there is nothing I can do. The worst possible thing has happened, the event from which there can be no recovery, the outcome that makes every further effort useless. I am suffocating. Struggling to regain myself, even to breathe. The growing darkness only deepens.
My shaking finally begins to ease. A strange relaxation settles over me, like the otherworldly stillness after a violent summer squall. I pick up her pack of Marlboro Lights. I haven’t smoked a cigarette in years. I light one and greedily, gratefully inhale. From the very first drag, I am acutely aware of the sense of connection it affords with him. He had an odd, extra-intense way of smoking—pulling a second time on his cigarette while a portion of the first puff would begin curling from his nostrils. Automatically and without thinking, I find myself doing the same thing.
“Do you have anything to drink?”
She has a bottle of vodka, which I take straight, she with tonic water. And thus we sit for another hour or more, smoking and drinking.
The overall effect—produced by the nicotine and alcohol, to be sure, by the gratification of having something to occupy our hands, but above all by the reassurance of simply sitting together in a quiet solidarity of pain—is deeply calming for both of us. She retells the story of the policeman’s arrival at the house about ten-thirty at night, his enigmatic insistence that she call a phone number she recognized to be Anna’s, and her confusion over Anna’s saying, “He’s gone.”
I repeatedly press her for more details, only some of which she knows. We consider calling Anna but reject the idea. Her brothers and sister had come not long after the police arrived. After the body was taken and the police left, she had gone to her brother’s for the night. Her sister Emily had scooped up little Jack from his bed and trundled him off to her parents’ house. Eventually we both fall into a long silence. It is agonizingly clear that there is nothing to be done. Nothing even to say.
“I have to go to bed,” she weakly says at last. She’s obviously exhausted. “But can you please stay with me?”
“I’ll sleep right here on the couch.”
“No. Please, I need you to sleep beside me.” “Of course,” I say without hestitation, oblivious for the moment to the strangeness of crawling into bed with my divorced wife, though I tell her that she might go on ahead of me. I need to stay up a while longer, if only because for me falling asleep will require a good deal more vodka. For her part, Elaine is completely drained. My arrival allowed something in her to release, as if she had been physically clinging to Oliver and now, relieved temporarily by my presence, she can let go for a moment and rest. After calling Becky to let her know that I won’t be coming home, I find myself alone in the darkness.