Monday, August 18, 2008

Shirts for Worry and Joy

Leif's Dad and I have worried about him for years, particularly since he was so unhappy living alone, in the army in upstate New York, depressed after coming back from service in Bosnia to find his health destroyed by asthma, his marriage over, and his army career in shambles, also from the asthma, and the final blow, his finances ruined. Leif considered suicide then but overcame his despondency, decided to fight for his future, and ended up getting medically retired from the army due to the asthma.

When he came back to Kansas from the army, he was a depressed, morose and broken man. We worried about him immensely. I tried to help him find something to engage his mind, since he seemed to be drowning in misery, by suggesting he start writing a book. He had become so engrossed in science fiction like the Ender series of books and shows like Battlestar Galactica and the movie "The Matrix" that he had some good ideas.

He did start writing a novel about a badly injured veteran of the war in Afghanistan who tried to plug himself neurally into the internet in order to be able to experience directly. It was a first draft and a first try at writing, but it had some real possibilities, and beyond that, it was therapeutic, as I had hoped. I am sad that I can't find the computer files for that book on his computers. I know he had it on an old Gateway laptop that he sold several years ago, but I thought he had transferred it to another computer. He had a laptop stolen in July 2006, and I wonder if the files were on that. To my knowledge, he hadn't printed them out, and I didn't find any printed copies in his things. If there is anyone reading this blog to whom he might have emailed this story for their opinion, and they still have it, I would be grateful to have a copy.

I also got Leif to start working on consolidating his debts and paying them off, and get back into college. Over time, he began to heal and his mood improved immensely. By the time he graduated from Kansas State University, he had a sparkle in his eye and seemed to be enjoying life again, was involved in SCA, spent time with friends, and had hope in finding a good job. How different his life might have been if he had found a good career and a woman to love who would have stayed with him and made a home for him instead of breaking his heart. He had terrible luck in so many ways.

I had been talking for years about the possibility of creating a "" website and finally actually reserved the domain name. Partly it was a joke, and partly it was because I am a worrier, particularly about Leif. I worried about him through his first periods of financial and emotional difficulty as an adult, through his heartbreaking experiences with military service, through his depression at the end of it. When things got better for him, I rejoiced, but there were still many things in our lives for me to worry about.

After he went through the heartbreak of his failed romance in Kansas and moved to Florida, he again seemed to be pulling out of his depression, only to be knocked down over and over again. In the three years he lived in Florida, he had many disappointments at work, three accidents (one that totalled his Dodge Stratus, one minor fender bender with his Suzuki motorcycle, and one with his Honda motorcycle that badly damaged his collarbone last July), was robbed twice (his apartment once, his Suzuki motorcycle stolen another time, endured a painful surgery, and went through another painful relationship. He insisted he was "fine" but I could see in his eyes that he was not.

I didn't start the website, because I couldn't figure out how to make it pay for itself, but in May 2007 I created a CafePress site with a crying-frowning face logo that was a parody of the smiley face and a "Worrier's Manifesto" that was way over the top. It was partly for fun, and partly it was a reflection of my own worries, not only about Leif, but primarily so. I ordered the pink "Worrier's Manifesto" t-shirt above and got a kick out of wearing it. I showed it to Leif and told him why I did it. He laughed.

Last summer, I hoped he was on the way to a better life. He had made some decisions I hoped would have good results. Then in July 2007 came the motorcycle accident that put him in the hospital for the surgery to screw a 9 inch steel plate to his collarbone with many screws. He had no idea how painful it was going to be.

I remember wearing the t-shirt and with tears in my eyes begging him not to ride a motorcycle any more, because I did not want to either bury my son or face taking care of him as an invalid. I could see that my plea affected him, but not enough to stop him from riding. We also had IM discussions about it, and he told me that when he was riding was the only time he felt completely alive, happy and free. I finally told him that I didn't want to take that away from him, but that I still worried. Leif liked to ride like a demon, exceeding any reasonble limits on speed. I worried about him every single day. I kept my cell phone near me at all times, in case I needed to go to him if he were injured.

Meanwhile, I also worried about all of his firearms. He pooh-poohed those fears, too, accumulating more of them and getting a concealed carry license. In the July 2006 robbery, his guns were stolen, but he replaced them.

In November 2007, he told me in email that he was feeling purposeless, searching for a reason to exist. I continued to worry, tried to stay in touch every day, take him out to dinner, find things to discuss. I had more reason to wear my Worrier's Manifesto t-shirt.

He still seemed depressed at Christmas and his birthday in January, but as always, insisted he was "okay." I should pressed him more, insisted he needed help, but he probably would have denied it as he always did.

In February he seemed to be happier, fascinated with the Obama campaign, predicting the Obama would win, and taking an interest in other new things. I was so happy to see him seeming happier that I created another CafePress shop I had been thinking about for months, "Find Joy" (which is on CafePress as FindJoyInspired) and ordered the second t-shirt above. Peter W. liked seeing me in that shirt, partly because it was pink (he likes me in pink), partly because he liked the rose, and partly because he liked the sentiment.

We had two really great last evenings with Leif. In February we met him in Brandon at Sam Seltzer's Steakhouse for dinner. He rode his bike over from his Tampa apartment. We had a good meal and a lively discussion. I remember feeling so glad to see him happier.

He had a setback at the end of February when the VA GI Bill program at the University of South Florida, where he was a part time student using his GI Bill benefits, said the classes he had enrolled in were not the ones he needed for a degree program and cut his benefits, too late for him to withdraw and get his tuition back. He was angry about it, but we didn't realize how much he had counted on that money to stay afloat.

The last time we saw him was at our house for dinner on Easter, March 23rd. He had been a bit reluctant to come because of the cost of gasoline, and I told him I'd pay for it. Little did I know how bad his finances were, and he wasn't about to admit it to us. Since we had rescued him from debt twice before, I'm sure he didn't want us to know he was in over his head again . . . again from purchasing things he couldn't afford to make himself feel better when he was depressed.

We had a nice dinner on Easter, but we had no idea that he had applied for personal loans to try to pay his bills, since he was deeply in debt and couldn't manage. That day we saw him, he was still hoping he would get a loan and be able to somehow make it all work. We had a good visit, a really happy one. I'm grateful that we had good times together at Christmas, New Years, his birthday, and these last two times for dinner, but I'm sad we didn't know what was really going on.

These two shirts are emotionally intertwined with this whole story. They represent my worries about Leif and my hopes for him, and by extension, for me, to find a new hope and joy in life.

On April 10th when we went to Tampa to his apartment because no one could get an answer from him and he had not showed up for work, I was terrified that something had happened to him. I was afraid he was dead, but I tried to hope it wasn't so. I chose to wear the Worrier's Manifesto t-shirt, partly because I WAS that worried, and partly so that, if I were somehow to find him alive and well, I could tease him about my worries. That was not to be. My fears were all too true.

I have not worn either of these shirts since the day Leif died. I don't know whether I will ever wear them again. The Worrier's Manifesto t-shirt is too inextricably associated with finding Leif dead. The Find Joy t-shirt seems to be a mockery. Perhaps someday I will find joy in my life again, but that is a long way off, and this shirt was created too specifically because I felt, on the day I created it and first wore it, that Leif was finding joy, too. Perhaps he was . . . but like every time in his adult life, it did not last.

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