Sunday, September 2, 2012

Be Careful what you ask for part 2

My sleep that night was interrupted by short bouts of quiet sobbing. Kate is a good listener, fortunately, and after she patiently endured a rambling account of my day, I eventually slipped off.  The lack of fog and relentless sun gradually brought me to consciousness the next morning. Reluctant to give up my blankets and sheets, I thought of  Elizabeth  Kubler-Ross and her five stages of accepting death.  I was certainly past the denial phase and the manner of Christian's death left little room for bargaining.  Ironically, it was Christian who had shown me a hilarious but slightly profane U-Tube video about a giraffe mired in quicksand as he worked through the stages.  I shook my head as I filled the coffee pot with water and decided it was a bad day to change my routine.  So I leashed the dog, performed a brief inspection of the beach, and returned with a newspaper.

Kate was still asleep but Andy had just emerged from the spare bedroom and we said our "good mornings" while passing each other in the hallway.  I surprised the hell out him (and myself) by suddenly giving him a brief hug.  It had been a long time since I had hugged anybody but my wife.  He handled it well, but I wasn’t finished.
So I turned back.

"Can I ask you you a favor, Andy?
He shrugged and managed a sleepy smile.
"I've decided to attend the memorial after all.  Could you give me a ride back to the valley?  Kate never really knew Christian, and I want her to have the car while I'm gone."
He paused at bit then smiled broadly, "Sure, John." 
I chuckled to myself.  Though barely out of bed a few minutes, I probably shocked him with both a hug and my weird request.

During the trip back to the valley we discussed random subjects, mostly about the music he blue-toothed into his car stereo.  There were also silences reflecting an unspoken agreement not to talk about Christian.  So we didn’t and he dropped me off at my empty house.

I spent the rest of the afternoon on edge as is I usually do before  funerals and memorials.  I polished my shoes, debated about what to wear and worried about how I would handle myself that evening.  Not that I was afraid about losing control.  Knowing how  successfully I stuff my emotions, I was more afraid I would seem cold and uncaring to people who capable of overt and public grief.  But I remembered Andy telling me once that I tended to "over-analyze" everything.  I resolved not to think so much, especially about myself.  So went out and worked on the lawn and considered various stories if forced to share that night.

But the memorial was easy, mostly due to Andy’s exact planning.  And when he came to me asked about how to execute the next activity, I surprised and a little unnerved.  Everyone was supposed to write a message to Christian on a helium balloon and once outside, we would release them.  But he wanted my advice on how and when to do this.  At first I thought he was merely being deferential, nice to the retired teacher who only knew less than 10 of the hundred or so students attending, but decided he really did want some guidance.  I did what every teacher does when faced with an unpredicted outcome—I made something up.  We went outside and released our balloons one by one after sharing and explaining our message.  I went first to ease the way, explaining how Christian had enabled me to something very helpful but slighltly illegal with software that I had not actually purchased.   Later, when I sensed the sharing was going downhill,saw what I perceived to be a problem I gave him some unsolicited advice and suggested that we wind things up.  I went on to share more about myself (speaking only to bring events to a positive conclusion) and people started to leave.

I returned home that evening so excited that  Icouldn't wait to call my wife.  I told her how smoothly things went, how so many students had shared, indicating that my humorous story about how he had helped me with a computer problem eased the tensions and eased the way so many could share.  Tell about sharing intelligence and weird habit of helping people install wifi and how it lead to some very startled reactions when he popped up live on their computers or phones.

 Andy buisy, wanted him to share, how it had helped me but worried about how it might dampen the convivial spirit.  I even debated telling him to lighten it up a bit but decided otherwise

Tell how he read, quote it,  tell how I softened with light hearted assurance that Andy was okay, and at that point the memorial was generally over.  I was very pleased with myself, probably a bit manic.
But that only lasted until 2:30 when I was visited by the multiple demons of personal insecurity.
what they said, how I reacted, resolved to call.

At first the assuring light of morning made everything I had thought about myself nothing more than a bad night.  But accusing voices continued became more agitated.
Tell about the calls, even the hotline.
realization one: this is what Christian must have felt every day and every night.
realization two: Besides his natural generosity, this was why he went to all the trouble to make it possible to pop up on their screens.  He desperate for human contact, affirmation as a person, and this was his brilliantly weird attempt to get some,  this his call for help.  And perhaps because many of us were in awe of his talent and intelligence, we never considered what was going on behind the mask.

Be Careful what You Ask For

The steep part was over.   I let go of the cable, planting my feet on a relatively level section of trail, and looked down at the beach two hundred feet below us.  Deep but quiet breaths so Andy wouldn't realize how old and out of shape I was.  He soon caught up with me, and I took a moment to look left and right, admiring the miles of blue breaking waves, punctuated by wild prehistoric looking rocks.

And not a living thing in sight. Well, not exactly, I could still see the cove where we came across the vultures busily devouring the carcass of an infant elephant seal.

     "But why do they die? It just doesn't make sense."
     "Sure it does, Andy. The young are more susceptible to 
      disease, accidents, random predators. You know, 
      survival of the fittest and all that Darwinian stuff."
     "What?  No, I was talking about Christian."

     "Oh, Christian."

We had spent an unusually mild north coast afternoon at a new found beach access, lounging, reading and fooling around with our digital cameras. And I had done my best not to think about the death of Christian, a student in Andy's film class and the last psychology I had taught before retiring.

     "No idea, Andy."
     "But it's stupid, so pointlessly destructive and incredibly    
      cruel to others--the people like us who cared so much  
      about him."

I was grateful for the several hours of easy companionship with my friend but not ready to pursue this subject.

      "I agree. It baffles the mind. Perhaps only someone else  
       severely depressed could begin to understand the  
       why's of it all." 

Even while saying this, I knew my simplistic, dismissive  answer was a crock of shit.  After my father died, I had spent weeks wallowing in bed going out only to acquire more booze. But on the Sunday of my second week of hiding out from the world, I glanced beyond the shelter of my covers.   My wife stood very tall before me and spoke words that were both loud and direct, leaving no room for misunderstanding.

    "All right, that's it. No, I can't imagine what it's like to lose   
     a parent, never been there. But two weeks of feeling 
     sorry for yourself is enough, John. Get showered, 
     dressed and be ready to eat dinner with the kids in half 
     an hour. And plan on going to work tomorrow."

Though my wife is loving and usually quite tolerant, the forceful intervention she leveled at me that day was her greatest gift. I'll admit that I was certifiably depressed during those weeks, but at no time did I actively entertain the option of suicide. Unless maybe I was trying to do it gradually in a "Leaving Las Vegas" style--which is actually more common. Still, it bothered me that I had taught psychology for thirty some years, but when it came understanding the mindset necessary to take one's own life, I was as clueless as the young teacher behind me. 

I once saw a bumper sticker claiming that "Old Guys Rule," but I have long since realized that they don't--and never will--have all the answers. Not that I was going to admit this to someone not yet out of his 20's.

     "Tomorrow is Christian's memorial.  Andy, are you sure 
      you can drive back and get everything arranged in 
     "Nothing I can't handle," he said, stopping to put  
      away his video camera. 

Ah, the confidence and energy of youth, I thought. The trail was taking us up through pungent sage, sweet smelling mint and the occasional, but easily avoided, incursion of poison oak.

     "Well, let me know if you need any help."

Then the path leveled out, and we ducked out from under the last of the shady oaks. The afternoon was warm but comfortable like the friendship that had gradually developed between Andy and me. Beyond the next stretch of chaparral, sun sparkled off my car's windshield. Death and sorrow seemed far away.

(Names changed obviously and unfinished.  Still not ready to share the rest of it)