"When I held Sam alone for the first time..., I was nursing him and feeling really spiritual, thinking, please, please God, help him be someone who feels compassion, who feels God's presence loose in the world, who doesn't give up on peace and justice and mercy for everyone. And then a second later I was begging. Okay, skip all that shit, forget it - just please let him outlive me."
Anne Lamott, Operating Instructions
Anchor Books, 1995
(Random House deems this quote falls within the realm of fair use with no permission needed to use it.)
It's not the natural order of things for a child to die before his or her parents. But our son Paul did. He was afflicted with bipolar disorder in his early twenties and after suffering through three major episodes of mania followed by deep depressions, he took his own life in September 1999 at the age of twenty-seven.
In the Jewish tradition, the dedication of the gravestone ceremony marks the end of the Jewish year of mourning, but mourning wasn't over for me after just one year. Even though I made much progress in that first year toward surviving his loss, official or not, I was not through mourning for Paul.
Even now my whole being reacts to the thought that Paul is really dead and that I'll never see him again. I feel an emptiness in my gut, I feel my heart racing, I feel my neck and shoulders tightening up, I feel my face quivering, I feel my throat constricting, I feel my eyes flooding.
So when I arrived for the cemetery for this little dedication ceremony, I kept thinking he shouldn't be here. He doesn't belong here in a plot surrounded by old, old dead people. I kept thinking he has too many things to do and places to go yet and that he couldn't do any of them because he is here.
I also had misgivings about where his grave was located. He was too close to the freeway. I could hear the noise of the cars and I worried that the noise would disturb him. He was so sensitive to noise and the music and voices that played around in his head, and I had chosen to lay him at rest in a noisy place where he couldn't concentrate on his music.
I had more guilt about cremating him and placing him in this cramped plot of miniature graves at the back of the cemetery. I was brought up in the conservative Jewish tradition that didn't allow cremation. And even though our rabbi told us it would be okay and that the Jewish cemetery where we chose to bury Paul allowed it, it made me feel uncomfortable. What would my Jewish relatives think? Would people think I didn't care enough about him to spend the money on a regular gravesite? I couldn't help wondering what they thought of where he was.
But I had been so rushed, so pressured about what to do when he died. The decision was excruciating. It was exhausting. It was hasty. Of course we weren't prepared. What parent is ever prepared for the details and aftermath of a child's death? I wasn't supposed to make those kinds of choices for my son. He was supposed to make those choices for me.
Bob and I decided to have Paul cremated as a compromise. Bob wanted cremation and just a simple ceremony to scatter his ashes - that's what he wants for himself. I agreed to the cremation if we could bury his ashes and have a memorial service. I wanted him in a tangible spot where I could go visit whenever I wanted. I didn't want to look out to the Pacific Ocean and think with uncertainty, "Oh, he's out there somewhere."
And, we do visit his gravesite - twice a year - on his birthday and his death day. When I'm there I still think how out of place he is surrounded by all those old dead people when he should have had so many years of living left.
Causes Madeline Sharples Supports
Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center, Culver City, CA
Vistamar School, El Segundo, CA
Crossroads School, Santa Monica, CA (Endowment in...