Thursday, June 25, 2009

The World Through the Lens of Experience

Each of us views life through the lens of our experience. The longer we live the sharper our lens becomes, the more able to focus, and the more it has been shaped by our lives and the life-changing events we have lived with and through. Sometimes we aren't even aware of the importance of certain experiences, or that they are life-altering, until later, and sometimes we know our lives have been forever changed in a flash.

Finding Leif dead was such a moment. Finding my father dead was another. Until my father died, i was a child who look my parents for granted . . . and children should be able to do. They should have that stability and confidence in life. My father's death was as though someone had completely pulled the foundation out from under my life and it had collapsed, as though there was nothing I could trust in any more, and I was afraid to love again, for fear that anything I loved might be taken from me. Although three of my grandparents had died, and I loved them, I was never close to them and only saw them once a year for a few days. They didn't do things with us grandkids they way we do with ours. I missed being able to go and see them, but they were not in the daily fabric of my childhood life. Life went on. Dad's death was different. He had always been there, our daddy, and then, suddenly, he was not. Not only was he gone, it was by his choice, a choice a child cannot understand.

It took me years to come to terms with my father's death and be able to risk loving again, to stop fearing (as me and my siblings did) that we would somehow lose our mother, too. It took me years to be able to give my love wholeheartedly and be willing to risk the possibility of tragic loss. I was immensely fortunate that I fell in love with Peter W., and that for the 44 years we have been married, he has been the foundation of my adult life.

On that foundation, we built a family, and our two sons meant and mean everything to us. We all know there is a chance we will lose those we love to death, and I knew there was a greater than average chance in Leif's case because of his propensity to ride his motorcycle like a demon and drive his car like he was in the Daytona 500, because of his fascination with and ownership of guns. I knew that, but knowing that does not prepare one for death. Nothing prepares you for the death of your child.

The lens of my experience taught me 48 years before Leif died that you can never count on having the people you love always be there, alive. You never know what might take them from you. But nothing prepares you for the death of your child, and nothing prepares you to deal with their suicide. No matter how many times I worried about Leif getting killed in an accident, while I could feel fear, I could never feel grief. That only comes with death, and it is far worse than anything you can imagine.

Peter W. asked me once how long it took to get over my father's death. I told him I didn't remember. I think in part there is a problem with the phrase "get over." If it means the point at which I stopped obsessing about his life, death and loss daily, the point at which it not longer was raw and immediate for me, I can't say with certainty but I think it was around ten years. If that is true, I think it will take longer to get to that point with Leif's death, but because has hard as my father's death was for me, as hard a lesson as his loss was, it pales beside the loss of my son.

Why should the loss of one's child be so much harder to bear than the loss of a parent? I think the answer lies in how much of myself I had invested in having and raising Leif, how hard I tried to bring him up right, give him a good childhood, a good life, how much I loved being a mother and the role I played in my son's lives. I had spent far more of my life caring for Leif than I had spent with my father, and i was responsible for him for over half of his life in ways a child is never responsible for a parent.

Being a parent at all changes the lens of one's experience forever, makes you realize what it means to have another's life in your care, and that's part of the terrible heartache of Leif's death, that all our love and care did not give him the fulfilling and happy life we wanted him to have, that our love and care did not prevent his misery and suicide.

I know that Leif's death is not my fault, not our fault, but it still feels like a monstrous personal failure, that I could not save me son, indeed, didn't know when he was going to take his life. I know he gave no indication; neither had my father. That doesn't make it any less heartwrenching that somehow we didn't know or have a way to save him.

Now the lens of our experience has changed again. Now there is almost nothing that happens in my life that doesn't remind me of Leif, or some experience with him, or some thought about him. It's amazing to me that nearly everything becomes related to him in some way . . . the words to songs, characters in movies, vehicles, belongings, stories.

For instance, yesterday we went to Disney World's Animal Kingdom with Madeleine and Aly. I remembered that three years ago when we took the grandchildren to Disney World, Leif had enthusiastically recommended that we take them to Animal Kingdom and they had loved it. While there this time, we saw the "Nemo" show, a live musical show featuring puppets that retold the "Finding Nemo" story. We had seen the movie about six years ago with our grandson, Marcus, who loved it. Then I enjoyed it as a beautifully animated, heartwarming story about a loving, protective father who was willing to swim across a whole ocean to find and save his son, and a darling little clownfish with one smaller fin who proved he was capable beyond his father's dreams.

Today I found it not only a beautiful story, but for me, inexpressibly sad. We, too, loved our son and wanted to teach and protect him. We, too, were willing to go to great lengths to do so, but unlike in this story, we were not able to find our son alive. We were not able to save him. We had no happy ending. "Finding Nemo" is no longer the same through the changed lens of my experience.
The photo above was taken of Leif on January 1, 2007 at our home in Sun City Center, Florida.

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