Saturday, July 12, 2008

We all face choices

Yesterday I wrote about Leif's choice to end his life. That fatal choice has affected all of our lives. But we all face choices every day, and we rarely know what the consequences of those choices will ultimately be, no matter how hard we try to predict or consider them.

Even small and simple choices are capable of leading to momentous consequences and changes, a phenomenon well illustrated in the children's rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Foretelling consequences is, of course, the attempt to foresee the future that our actions will bring, something we are usually notoriously unable to do.

In the aftermath of Leif's death, I think of all the choices I made, that we made, that had some part in his life and his death, beginning with the choice we made to have a second child. Leif was a very much planned, wanted and beloved child. When I see the sad end of his life, I find myself wondering whether he would have wanted to be born, if he'd had that choice. I hope that he would. Despite the sadness and the loneliness, there were happy times in his life, and I think his childhood was a good one. Aside from the kinds of normal childhood hurts, Leif's childhood was a very good one.

We gave him all we knew how, and much beyond the given necessities of love, affection, food and shelter. He had friends. He had intellectual stimulation, education, amazing travels, possessions. We fostered his creative ideas. There are so many photos of him showing obvious joy in what he was doing.

That's not to say that he didn't have disappointments, that moving and leaving his friends wasn't hard (though he never complained and seemed to adjust well), but he seemed normal, happy and stable.

Looking back over the photos of his life in one long sequence, though, I now can see a certain fragility that wasn't easy to detect at any one time in boy so tall and strong, and I think he made sure that was so, just as he did in his adult life.

That was another choice he made, that traditional male choice of holding emotions inside, not showing weakness, making sure he looked strong and invincible even while he was desperate for love and a reason for living.

I look at my choices, the ones I made in relation to Leif, and how often I chose either to try to intervene to help him, or chose to leave him alone in the hopes that he was taking care of his problems and his affairs himself. Did I make the right ones? How can I ever know? Could I have helped him save himself if I had seen how bad he felt and insisted he get some psychololgical help? I will never know . . . or even know whether he would have listened. I doubt it.

I have often told both my sons that it is far harder to be the parent of an adult child than a minor child. When a parent has a minor child, she may make many mistakes (and undoubtedly will) but at least she knows what her role is, that she is supposed to be in charge, teach the child about life and morality and love, to be sure the child behaves well and gets an education, to be sure that child has a future, and she doesn't question that role. It's a role with legal, moral, social and even religious backing.

But in our culture, once a child grows up, parents who try to continue in that role are "meddling" and overstepping their bounds. Adults rightly want to live their own lives . . . most of the time. But how should a parent handle it when they see their adult children going down the wrong path? It's very difficult to handle that.

I tried by asking Leif whether he needed or wanted help, and if he said yes, I gave it, and if he said no, I respected that, while letting him know the offer still was there.

But, how much of the "no" was just the strong, self-contained man speaking, not the man inside who needed help? Should I have pushed more? I will never know.

I tried to find ways to give him at least temporary pleasures, take him out to dinner, for instance.

After a disastrous love affair that left Leif deeply depressed, he wanted badly to move away from Kansas, partly to escape the place where it happened, partly to live in a place with more job opportunity and more people his own age among whom he hoped to find friends and a wife, and partly to escape the cold weather that caused his asthma. He wanted to move to Florida, and we did, too, but he was ready to go and we weren't. He didn't have the money to go alone, so we moved up our plans and made it happen sooner. We all hoped that it would offer him a better life and more happiness.

It's the ultimate irony that the move may have indirectly led to Leif's death, or at least a sooner one. His hopes were not realized here. He faced one disappointment and disaster after another in the three years he lived in Florida, from being robbed to having his motorcycle accident. He faced both physical and emotional pain, financial ruin, and the ultimate hurt, the continued loneliness. He never made the connections he hoped to find. He must have despaired that his life seemed in some way jinxed, frowned upon by fate, though he told me once he hadn't committed any terrible sins in his life to warrant bad karma. He must have wondered why.

Could we have known it would turn out this way? No. It's nothing like the hopes any of us had for him. Is part of it because of choices he made? Yes. But much of what he faced was terrible luck, those consequences of choice we cannot see.

I have been blessed with astonishingly good luck in my life, with a few very sad exceptions, and the two saddest ones of all are the suicide deaths of my father and my son.

I know that at some point I will focus less on all the questions, choices, the sadness I feel that Leif was so unhappy. At some point I will have to learn to let him go. I will have to make a choice, when I am ready, to remember him every day and still be able to move on.

When will that be? Will I ever accept Leif's choice? Do I accept mine? Do I have a choice about that?


The photo with this post was taken in July 2004. I love seeing him look so happy. How I wish there had been happy years ahead for him.

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