Sunday, March 22, 2009

And Now a Rant After the Unspeakable

I’ve wanted to say something about Shannon’s funeral, and yet I haven’t wanted to. I have no desire to write something full of pathos and tears about suicide or how parents might live with that once the funeral is over. I’ll just get that part out of the way and say even though I didn’t know Shannon’s parents, I thought that day they must be the strongest people I’ve ever seen to stand there beside their daughter’s coffin and receive people one after another. And when her mother hugged me hard enough to break bones and told me to “hold on tight…so tight,” it seemed to me that if a mother’s love had already created that child’s body and filled it with life one time, then shouldn’t she rise right up out of that coffin and stand beside her mom and her dad again? If only the power of a mother's love could do such things.

I thought we were only going for the viewing, which was from 11:00-1:00 at St. Helen’s. Elvira thought the funeral was private. So we got there a little after 11:00, after we picked up Elvira’s best friend, Katrice, and another friend, Jade. We met up with a group of their friends in the parking lot, and then we waited for my Girl Scout co-leader, Gina, to get there. Shannon had been in Gina's troop when we combined our troops, but she stopped coming. The whole group of us went in together, and then Gina and her daughter left.

Here’s the weird thing. Gina and I were the only moms there, and after she left, it was just me. A bunch of teenagers came and went. Another group of 7 or 8 stuck around. Our group of 10 or so did too. All these other kids who went through in twos and threes came with no parents at all. Am I crazy to be astounded by that?

Turns out the funeral wasn’t private, so the kids all wanted to stay. They sat in the sanctuary for a while, then they went outside to smoke and mingle. I wasn’t really hanging out with them, and I felt kind of funny being the only mom there--with them and not with them at the same time. I didn’t want Elvira to feel weird or embarrassed about her mom hanging around.

I sat in the sanctuary for a long time after they went outside. (The funeral didn’t start until 1:30, so we had over two hours to wait.) Every once in a while someone would come back in. Katrice hadn’t said what she wanted to say to Shannon when she went through the first time, and she wanted me to go back with her. So we did that. Jade came back in and she was confused because she felt angry, and so did Shannon’s best friend. She wasn’t sure if it was OK to be mad at Shannon. I told her it would be strange if she didn’t get mad at her for leaving this life like that. One of Elvira’s guy friends broke down after he was called into service as a pallbearer and carried the casket to the hearse. He’s a kid who’d probably cause some adults to cross to the other side of the street, with his crazy-colored Mohawks and his gauges. People think they know something from hair and piercings and tattoos, but they don’t. He’s not like that. But he’s had some tough times in his life, and he’s usually pretty controlled emotionally. No seventeen-year-old is prepared to lift his friend’s coffin into a hearse though. I don’t know why his mom wasn’t there to hold him while he cried, but damn it, I think she should have been. I didn’t even see Shannon’s best friend, Maggie’s, parents there, but Elvira told me later they were. I just saw her by herself most of the time. Maybe they were helping out with other things.

Where were all the other moms (and dads) though? I don’t get it. These kids were dealing with something we never master no matter how long we live. Death hurts like nothing else and it’s confusing and it strips us of the lies we tell ourselves about our own mortality. What the hell has happened to our society that we don’t support our kids when they’re going through something like this? They can only do so much for each other. Dealing with death takes experience, and if you don't have it, then you need to be guided by people who have been through it before.

When my dad died, he was only 46; I was 24, the oldest of five. LtColEx and I were stationed in Georgia, living on base. I talked to my mom on the phone before we left to drive to Atlanta and catch our flight to Iowa, and I told her I didn’t want to come home. I knew they were all waiting for me to get there and somehow take care of things and I didn’t know how. She said I had to come; they all needed me. I couldn’t even imagine how I was going to deal with it all, but somehow I did: my siblings' grief and confusion, all the people, the food, the coffee, the thank you cards.... Sometimes you’re thrown in the deep end and you survive the drowning.

When I came back to Georgia after 10 days at home helping my mom, none of my friends knew what to say or do, so they didn’t say anything. I was crushed under the weight of this brand new grief I’d brought back with me, but I was absolutely alone with it. One of my friends said, “We don’t know what to do or say. We don’t know anything about death. We’ve never experienced a loss like yours.” I got through it. There wasn’t a choice.

About three months later, seven of the guys in our wing were killed when their B-52 flew into a mountain in Utah. There are no survivors in crash like that. There aren’t even any bodies. It was the last flight for the pilot. He was going to be flying a desk in DC. We’d bought his lawn mower because they were moving to a town house. All of the wives were waiting on the runway with champagne to celebrate, but the plane didn’t come home. Our neighbor two houses down was on that plane. He was 25.

I took a big can of coffee down to his widow Rosanne’s house, because I remembered how much coffee we had to make the days before and after my dad’s funeral. I don’t remember if I saw Roseanne that day, but the day of the memorial service, afterwards, she called me and asked if I’d walk with her. I hadn’t gone to the memorial because I was still awfully raw from my dad’s death. LtColEx was TDY in England, and….sometimes you have to know what you can handle.

Rosanne and I walked a long way that day. She said she called me because everybody was being terribly nice and she appreciated their help, but none of them knew what she was going through. She wanted to be with someone who had experienced death too. She wanted to know when she would stop hurting like that. I told her I was still grieving and it still hurt just as much, but I was surviving. I’m not sure why that helped, but she said it did. People tend to tell you a lot of bullshit about time healing all wounds because they’re uncomfortable with other people’s pain. Maybe it just helped that I didn’t lie to her. Some things hurt almost unbearably for a very long time.

Back to Shannon’s funeral. Finally we went in for the funeral and took up most of a row, our little group. I haven’t been to a Catholic mass in a very long time. Most of Elvira’s friends never had. They were upset that most of the service wasn’t about Shannon at all. Her brother gave a heart-wrenching eulogy at the beginning. Otherwise, it was about Jesus and how Shannon was in a better place where she would find the love she didn’t find here. The young Indian priest got her name wrong in his homily to the family, and I felt the whole row of them stiffen in outrage. The teenagers in front of us put the kneelers down and put their feet on them, and they weren’t dressed in formal clothes. Elvira said she almost smacked them and told them to behave themselves. They were both fascinated by the service and disappointed. I think they wanted the funeral to be meaningful to how they remembered Shannon. It wasn’t for them. But I could tell it was for her family.

I was so impressed that everybody knew their parts. Methodists use books or let the minister do the talking. These people knew their lines cold, throughout the entire service. It was like going to Rocky Horror Picture Show with people who are there for their 152nd time. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I thought it was powerful theater. I have to say, I was also grateful for Mother Mary, who held court over the candles. I’m glad She was there. I wanted to light a candle, but I wasn’t sure of the protocol.

After the funeral, the kids wanted to go to the graveside services, which were held in…..Springfield. So we loaded up my van and a couple of the kids rode in another car. The final service was in a small chapel that happened to be right next to the grave. It was short; in fact, it took much longer to drive there. But that’s OK. We all walked by, dipped our fingers in holy water, and touched the casket. And then we went outside. I don’t know how Shannon’s mom left that little chapel, knowing what would come next. If it were me, they probably would have had to drag me out. It was hard enough for our little group of teens to leave.

But we finally did after more hugs and more tears. I drove the other kids where they needed to go. Elvira, Katrice and I got home about 5:00, and her dad picked them up an hour later. Wednesday night is her night with him. I rehearsed music for Sunday’s service for about three hours with a couple of my friends. Elvira came home a little after 10:00. Life went on…for us.

The next day Elvira came home from school and told me Don had asked her to tell me he was sorry for breaking down and crying on me for so long. She said to him, “Donovan, don’t ever say you’re sorry for crying on my mom. She’s a mom. That’s why she was there. We all needed a mom there.” (See? Elvira does have a softer side. She just hates to show it.)

I told her she’d said just what I would have said. And I told her I had felt kind of awkward, and I hoped she hadn’t felt like her overbearing mother was hanging around embarrassing her. She said she was really glad I was there, that they needed a mom there with them, and she couldn’t believe more parents weren’t there. And she said the other kids were glad I was there too. OK, I don’t want to make this about me, because that’s not my point.

Teenagers need their moms (and dads) just as much as little kids do. They’re moving into a world that, if they’re lucky, they’ve been protected from all their lives. They’re no different from when they didn’t know the stove would burn them or when they started their first day of school or when their first pet died. It may seem like they don’t want our wisdom and experience, and often they don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to offer it. From what I’ve observed, parents push their teens away far more often than teens push away their parents. They still need to know the safety net is there and that it will come up to support them when they need it. They shouldn’t have to fall before it catches them, because sometimes that’s too damn late. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to catch them.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Musings on the Unspeakable

I had a plan to get through grading almost half of my portfolios tonight even though I didn't get started until after 11:00, but sometimes other things take the front seat. Tomorrow morning Elvira and I are going to the viewing for a friend of hers who committed suicide this past Saturday. We're taking some other friends in the van. I think they need a mom to go with them; I don't care if Elvira is almost 18. They need a mom.

She was surprised, but I wasn't, that she couldn't sleep tonight. She's not sure how she should feel, and it's hard to explain why that's normal for her age. I think we learn how to feel about things we can't understand; we aren't born knowing, and empathy plays an important role. She can't put herself in anybody's place but her friend's, and she can't imagine hanging herself in her dad's closet with one of his ties. What I know is that her friend isn't feeling anything now, but her parents....oh, her parents will never forgive themselves. All the questions they'll never answer: What if we hadn't let the doctor put her on Prozac? What if I'd been there instead of watching the basketball game? What if I.....? They'll never get over this. I'm not sure how I would live if that much of me died inside. I know how to feel about this; she doesn't yet.

I asked Elvira earlier today how she was doing. She said, "Mom, it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. It's a logical fallacy. Wrong thinking." I felt such a flood of relief. The school is trying to keep it all quiet...the reason her friend died. Of course, duh, that's not going to happen. I dread the copycats. I hope not one of them succeeds, but sometimes they do.

I remember about 13 years ago hearing an ambulance siren stop nearby. I looked out the back and saw the lights about a block away, down the hill behind our house. About the time I went to bed, I heard the backup beeps and then the ambulance driving off, this time without the sirens. Later I learned a 15-year-old boy had shot himself with his father's gun. The story was--and who knows the truth?--that Dad had a new wife and they'd gone on a trip and left the boy at home. It was the first week of school and nobody was there to take him to buy school supplies. I don't know if it's true or not. The next-door neighbor told me though, so maybe it's true...a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Several other suicides followed that year.

I still have portfolios spread across my living room floor. I was sorting them, getting the obvious failures out of the way first. They will probably still be there in the morning, and maybe tomorrow night when people come over to rehearse for Sunday morning church music. When Elvira came back downstairs, those portfolios lost their importance for a while. Yes, they represent hard, important work of kids who are almost the same age as my daughter and her friend. As a teacher, I hope I never make a decision that causes....well, I won't go there.

We sat on the couch for a while, and then we went outside so Elvira could smoke. It's the first time I've let her smoke in front of me, and I hate it. The reasons why are another story. It was more important tonight that we sit out on the deck and talk. I had a glass of wine; she had a Bacardi Silver Raz (about as much alcohol as cough syrup) that I finished while I wrote this. The raccoons we raised last summer, Bonnie and Clyde, came up to eat dog food and a couple of bananas. Bonnie was in a playful mood and kept trying to pull off our shoes and bite us. He climbed up into the umbrella and got stuck. Sometimes it's not a bad thing to distract yourself with cigarettes, booze, and crazy raccoons.

Elvira wonders why her friend, who was always so happy, would do such a thing. She worries that she's not reacting the right way. I....I just want to hold on to my little girl--who will be 18 in one week--and keep her safe. Anybody who knows her knows I won't be able to, but just for tonight, an early spring night when we sat on the deck drinking, smoking, and laughing at the raccoons under a clear starry night....just for tonight, she was safe and nothing was OK, and yet everything was just fine.

I wish tomorrow wasn't here already.