[This is a reposting of “The Harrowing” from 2010, in honor of fellow survivors, and their silent struggles.]
That summer, both of my boys stayed with their mother in Chicago, but only Tristan was to return in the fall for school. There was some apprehension about how that would go: we had moved across school district lines, and though his petition to stay with his friends at the other high school had been approved the previous year, when he was a freshman, his second petition had been rejected. I don’t know if this was because of his grades, which were mediocre, or because of behavior issues that never got back to us, but in retrospect I can say that either way, it was his taste for marijuana that seemed to have been behind it. He was pretty upset about the prospect of losing his friends.
During the summer he had met a girl, not the first girl he had been sweet on, but the first he had gotten anywhere with. I later learned that they had had sex, and this had opened doors in him that would never close again. He had been reading Romeo and Juliet for school and had expressed the desire to learn more about Shakespeare.
When he came back, he seemed fine, but there was one moment when we were sitting in the dining room that he started to tear up, very quietly. Being separated from the girl was going to be hard on him. I thought back to similar events from my own adolescence, and while I was perfectly aware of how hard they had been, I had survived, and so would he.
A couple of weeks after his return, they had their first fight. He had told her a story designed to elicit her sympathy (I seem to recall it was about being mugged) which he had made up out of whole cloth. Eventually the deception weighed on him and he confessed, upon which she broke up with him. Though deception is a part of every child’s life as we all recall, it was different with him. He was typically quite dogged in sticking to his story, so the standard ritual of discovery, confrontation, contrition and reconciliation tended to not happen. I didn’t understand this at the time but later did: when you chronically lie to protect someone else you love and depend on (his mother), the incentives for honesty tip the other way. I think he had lived much of his life like a spy in enemy territory, or like a closeted gay man in the bad old days. All children lie; but Tristan was living a lie, and the explosion of his sudden desire to be loved for who he truly was, his sudden desire to be open for once with the one person he thought to receive redemptive love from, was probably a psychic earthquake I can’t fully imagine or understand.
For days he and the girl were on the phone incessantly. I tried to be reassuring, but I had nothing to offer except that it might work out, and that he would survive if it didn’t. Like some kind of galloping idiot, I cited the example of the long separation between me and my high school sweetheart, who I was later re-united with and married. “See, these things have a way of working out,” I said, about his mother, whom he knows I later divorced and, as I imagine it, probably drove to drink.
Toward the middle of one evening, I started to get a seriously weird vibe. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but my natural optimism seemed to suffer some sort of tremor. Something indefinable and spooky had entered the household and settled over it that evening, and I felt fear. Something was not right. I went to his room and knocked on the door, let myself in. He was, for the moment, not on the phone to her. He seemed utterly at peace.
“It’s OK, Dad. She took me back. We’re back together again.”
The spooky thing was still with me though. It was somehow all the inadequacies one feels as a parent, accumulated and present in that moment, this sense that I had done everything I was ever going to do and now it was up to him, and that I hadn’t done enough. I thought of how many times I had focused on his older brother at his expense. I thought of the absent-minded way I had spent my time with him during our visitation weekends, as if there would always be more time, as if just being there was enough. But in the past few years, I had done everything for him. Was it enough? Had I prepared him for the life that was now rapidly unfolding for him, a life I would have no power to control?
“Have I been a good enough Dad?”
A horrible, impossible question. An unfair question. And unnecessary: for it is never enough, nothing is ever enough, no one is good enough. This is just something we learn to accept, and when we see how they survive and cope and come into their own, we gather that it must’ve been enough.
“You’ve been the greatest Dad anyone could ask for.”
I am so grateful for the gift of those words. And I will never forgive myself for feeling relieved. The spookiness was gone. I told him goodnight and went back up stairs.
The next day, I got up with the dawn, as I usually do, and wasted time on the computer until it seemed like it was time to be really up and about. I posted something to Facebook. My wife woke up, and we made coffee, puttered around. Tristan was still asleep.
By nine in the morning we were ready to leave for the farmer’s market, but it was awfully late to let him sleep in (I figured he had gotten back on the phone with the girl and had talked half the night).
“Tristan, we’re going out now.” There was no reply. I spoke some more to the closed door, knocked a few times. From here, some things are now a bit blurry. I tried the door expecting it to open and to find him asleep. It wouldn’t budge. I don’t recall how many seconds elapsed. I remember her saying the word “nonresponsive.” I thought about heart attacks, medical things. Suddenly, I had this bodily sense that decisive action was necessary, right, saving. I threw my body against the door, got it open a crack, pushed myself through it. As long as I kept moving powerfully, decisively, everything would be OK. I knew without forming the words that I was about to save his life.
His body had been somehow rolled up against the door blocking it, so to get the door open I had had to force his body out of the way with the door. Once inside, I could see that he was on his stomach. Something about his legs looked strange, but I didn’t recognize it; I classified it quickly as more indications that something medical was happening. He would need CPR. I had no idea how to do this but I would try. Decisiveness. Action. Saving. There was no time to think that it would be OK; I would make it be OK.
I rolled him over and for the first time saw his face. The thing to understand here is that Tristan was an uncommonly beautiful child and after an awkward, in-between period, had become an uncommonly beautiful adolescent, so it was that face, the angelic face, that I saw. And then my eyes locked on it as if on a target, locked and fixed, and my whole visual field filled with that small, so small point which was the tip of his tongue between his lips.
It was blue.
The universe contracted toward that point. Silence. And for a split second, outrage, indignation. I whispered: not you. More seconds. And you find that your mind has shifted, inexplicably, from first person to second person, and the world has fallen away. Time has stopped. You don’t hear it at first, because it is so far away. It only comes to you gradually, the sound and for a moment you wonder at it, wonder where it is coming from, this awful awful howling noise that has gone from inaudible to far away to filling the world. And it takes a few moments to realize that this howling sound is you.
Later, there are police. They take over the room, the “crime scene”. There is this absurd desire to prove that you are fine, so you act fine. They tell you “he didn’t suffer” and you accept this, while immediately knowing that this is a lie and making a deal with yourself to never think about this again. A priest you know comes and you are grateful for this. You proceed to make a series of inconceivable phone calls which it falls on you to make, all of which begin with “I have some terrible news” most of the reactions to which are not what you expect. And then the police tell you that they are done and ready to take the body, and you ask for one last moment. You rub your palms on his chest as if applying Vic’s Vapo-rub to a sick child, and then stop. And then you are done.
This has happened before and this will happen again. And it happened here, September 13, two years ago, in the morning, as the sun shone through the forest trees outside his window.