Thursday, December 19, 2013
No More Goodbyes
And only you could know the pain.
You weren't afraid to face the devil.
You were no stranger to the rain.
Go rest high on that mountain.
Son, your work on earth is done.
Go to heaven a shoutin',
Love for the Father and the Son.
This week I wrote my son's obituary.
It wasn't a task I ever contemplated doing, but when it came down to needing to be done, I didn't want to hand off the memories and words to someone else.
I spent 25 years in journalism and during that time I penned a lot of obituaries. I learned how to word everything from the sudden death of an infant survived by generations of family to the passing of a well known local citizen, remembered as much for the things he had done as for those he left behind. I used the form sent in by the funeral home, or I helped the family figure out what they wanted to say. During the latter part of my career I worked with a wonderful gentleman who specialized in obituaries and had written his own and put it on file at the funeral home. When he died suddenly of a heart attack, all that remained to be done was to fill in a few blanks.
But there are no words to sum up the life of a young man who had so much potential and love and who brought so much joy when he could allow himself to live life. There were no words to explain how it went wrong and ended too soon, how I feel as though I've lost a part of my body, maybe a leg, because I feel as though I'm pulling myself through the days, not walking and running, but dragging along. I couldn't let it go at born on, died on though. The best I could come up with was "He loved video games, skateboarding, his family and friends, and computers." None of that was enough to bring him happiness in this life.
Faced with the questions of what to do in planning my son's funeral, that song by Vince Gill came into my mind. When I looked up the lyrics and remembered why he wrote it, I knew why. I was a country music fan in those days and a huge fan of Keith Whitley, the first person I remember dying from an addiction he could not control. The song was begun after his death from alcohol poisoning as a tribute to him.
Now, a few decades later, it will also be played as a tribute to Ethan whose pain no one else ever knew, whose trouble we could never understand.
The funeral will be today, but I won't be able to touch Ethan's hand one more time and tell him goodbye. It's as unreal as if he had gone to war and they had shipped his body home, assuring me that the man inside the casket was indeed my son who had been absent from my life for months, but who I just spoke to a week ago -- probably only hours before he died.
The fact that he had isolated himself so much in his addiction meant none of his neighbors noticed they had not seen him. It meant family wasn't really surprised when he wouldn't answer the phone or didn't call. Often lost in his alternate reality, he didn't feel the need to respond to a ringing phone or a knock at the door. He never bothered to set up his voice mail account.
It was a note left on his apartment door, still there five days later, that led his grandmother to call police and gain entry to his apartment. He had probably been dead that entire time.
While he always insisted that it was his choice and didn't hurt anyone else, this is the reality of his addiction. I'm facing a closed casket and while an image of my dead son wasn't one I was eager to see, being deprived that last chance at goodbye breaks my heart over and over. No, he isn't there anyway, but the earthly vessel that I bore, the body that carried his troubled soul for 23 years remains and I long to see him one more time and to whisper my love, even to he empty shell where he was.
This is a harsh reality of addiction that no one knows or speaks of. Addicts often die while not under a doctor's care and without an illness that a medical examiner can quickly sign off on. That means an autopsy, which I know he would never have wanted and which, thanks to CSI and too many realistic crime shows, breaks my heart at a whole different level. Isolated in addiction, they may also die alone and despite caring family and friends, that self imposed isolation means that no one knows immediately that something is wrong. They may be dead for days before they are found and compounded with an autopsy, there is not enough of the person they were for family and friends to say goodbye.
That is just part of the price of his addiction that we will continue to pay. I know the picture that I have of him in my mind, the beautiful blue eyes and smile, the big hands and warm hug when he enveloped me in his arms, are a much more precious memory than I would gain from touching his dead body. But there is a part of me that so badly needed to do that, to touch him, to kiss him one last time, to know that this is real and not a bad dream.
It's so damn unfair that beyond all the pain of his death I can find yet another level of pain just because I cannot say goodbye. And yet, somehow I must. Whether I cry to the heavens or weep by his grave, today is goodbye to the earthly part of my son.
And with all the pain and heartache this goodbye brings, it also brings thanksgiving for the child I knew and the lives he touched, the love and blessings he gave as my son before his demons defeated him. It also holds faith in the peace he has finally found and in a future reunion when there will be no more goodbyes.