Last Saturday night, we were invited to a small party in honor of our son’s best friend who had recently graduated from college, as had mine. For us, it was a celebration for all of our sons – four in total – of a tight-knit group who actually only became friends because of our boys and the unbelievable bond of friendship they share. Over the last eight years, their relationships spread to us and we often spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and even Summer vacations abroad together, so synchronous was their friendship and our ease with one another. Last weekend would be no different, and perhaps even easier than ever before; the hard part was done, we were all relaxed, caterers and bartenders had been hired and all we had to do was sit on the expansive deck in the perfect Southern sunset and enjoy our wine and conversation.
Before the sun said its goodnights completely, at which point the boys retired to the pool below as we held our position at the candlelit tables above, I sat with the four of them and discussed their pasts, their futures and genuinely soaked in the joy of each of them and the power of that as it was multiplied exponentially by the concert of their camaraderie. I am blessed to have the son I do, and he is multiply blessed with these friends for life. Privileged? Perhaps. All of them products of a great private school in a well-known Southern enclave, each with parents whose cosmopolitan diversity and success is surpassed only by their respective love for, and devotion to their children. Indeed, it could be this above all that bonds us: to have experienced and enjoyed all that we have in our lives, we are parents first, above all else.
That night we stayed with our friends as we now always do, given the distance between the cities we currently call home. The boys, too, stayed the night, five of them in total squished together in a human puzzle on the large, field-size sectional sofa of the theater room, just as they had so many weekends when they were in high school, and so many holidays when they were in college. When my friend and I made our way downstairs around 11 the next morning, still in our PJs, coffee cups in hand, all of them were up and playing, save one who had arisen early and made his exit. He is our favorite – we all admit it – the happiest, most open, loving, free-spirited among them, and we bemoaned the fact we did not have the chance to bid him a proper farewell and enjoy our tight “other mom” hug.
My son and I drove home later that day, both of us a bit hungover, but recharged with humanity for having spent time with true friends rather than merely existing among those who think they know us but are aware of only what we are prepared to present or they willing to see. We need that, we humans, more often than it is availed and far more often than we admit, especially in the increasingly inhuman and virtual times in which we live. To be reminded that we are not alone, that even those who appear most perfect have issues and frustrations and things they would rather not drag into the light of day, but occasionally do when they are in the rare company of those of kindred spirit and unwavering trust.
The next day at home we started the ugly business of moving as we prepare to return forever to the rural shores of our beloved Wales. It has long been my dream and a promise I made to my son, so to have it come true has infused us both with a heady tonic of tolerance and determination for tasks we might otherwise find tedious and tiresome. But whereas I awoke alert, energized and ready to tackle whatever obstacle needed tearing away to reveal the view of our long-imagined future, my son was subdued, quiet and averted my gaze. I went through the day going from conference call to packing and back again, and he said that he was merely tired and would recover once he’d enjoyed his daily run. He headed out around 2 in the heat of the day and returned shortly after 3, a smelly, humidity soaked mess. He stood at the bar of our kitchen stretching and sweating as I dabbled and chatted, but rather than seeing that the veil of funk had lifted as it usually did post-cardio on days such as these, I detected a heaviness which could not be heaved loose by mere physical jostling. He looked at me directly and said without affectation, “Alex’s mom died.” I replied, stunned, “What? When? We were just with him Saturday night. He was perfect and happy and…”
“This morning, apparently. I don’t know anything more except that it was the result of some addiction,” he said.
Alex is the lovely kid; our favorite, the lightest of heart and most nimble of mind. The one who arose early Sunday and darted from the house before we could say goodbye. My son was mistaken as a result of the shock of the news and we later discovered that she had indeed be found on Sunday morning by Alex’s sister while he was still slumbering between his friends, safely downstairs, below and protected by others who love him as their own. That anything had been wrong at all, I would never have known. That something so dire had transpired left me and our circle in a state of uncomprehending disarray.
We never knew. It had been going on for a number of years. You never know.
These are the perfect people in the perfect houses with the perfect lives. What a load of crap. That need, that pressure, that expectation. That pursuit. That’s what leads people to seek refuge in the synthetic, to escape the reality that never was real. To numb the pain of the pressure of banality.
I do not pretend to know her specific pain as I knew her less well than any of our boys’ parents, always on the periphery she remained, waving from across the pool as we dropped our sons off for the various parties and milestone events they hosted at their enviable home. What I do know is that she was not alone; that her family loved her as much as any could, but that they had – we now know – some time ago laid down their swords in the battle against her addiction in order to save themselves. But before the addiction, when the pain was new and the need in its infancy, who was there then? I suspect no one, but more so because her battle was private, internal and invisible as it is for so many who toil in despair toward a life that brings empty solace.
I’m forty-seven and as of June 26th, I am checking out, having decided more than one month ago to make our dream a reality, and one we chose rather than one that was juxtaposed upon us by the shallow expectations of an unknowing but judging society. I will still write – in fact probably more – but will strive to live my life comfortably between the lines of contentment rather than constantly careening toward the edges of extremes in pursuit of the ever-illusive rainbow. This is for me, for my son, for my sanity and my family and my friends. Being driven is too often the result of an “all or nothing” character, someone who risks it all and accepts nothing less than complete domination in all that they do, but that is not life. Those of us who tend to exist entirely in black and white are missing out on the comfort of gray. The in-between, the middle, the comfortable space where most of life is actually lived. That I made this decision before I knew about Alex’s mom is poignant to me now and has also reinforced my decision and hardened my resolve.
I am not an addict and in fact have tendencies which lean heavily to the inverse, but I do possess a darkness born of someone with an artistic soul and inquisitive mind. My son does as well and if I can do anything to ease this journey for him, to light the path, lighten the load and enlighten his perspective, my life will have been a success by my definition and on my terms.
It breaks my heart into pieces made up of unspeakable sadness that we could not help Alex’s mom, but what scares me more is how many others like her there might be. Out there, feeling alone, increasingly isolated, just sure that no one else is suffering their specific sort of pain or that no one could understand their particular type of mental torment. I want them to know they are wrong. Even within the vast spectrum of sadness and despair, there is a commonality that could save so many. Simply saying, “Some days, my life sucks, too,” isn’t asking too much as an icebreaker, is it? Or the more truthful, “My life was my kids and now that they’re both gone away, I have no identity because I spent too much time crafting one that looked like what everyone expected it to be,” which we speculate was the case with another now-deceased friend.
We’re doing this to ourselves; to each other. Surely if it’s self and peer-inflicted, it’s also in our best interest to bring it to a screeching halt against an impenetrable barrier of understanding, openness, honesty, and love.
I wrote this in fifteen minutes as an offshoot of a thought, so I hope it makes sense, but more than that I hope it resonates, I hope it penetrates. I hope it makes people talk and that in doing so, it encourages people to both give and receive help.
*Alex is a pseudonym used to protect privacy.