Friday, October 30, 2009

Leif - Sachsen bei Ansbach - Volksmarch - August 5, 1978 - Age 3 and a half

I've written several times about the Volksmarches (hikes) we went on in Germany and now I've found a photo of Leif on the Volksmarch organized by the village where we lived, Sachsen bei Ansbach. It meandered through the farmland and woods beginning about a mile and a half from our house at Am Romer 9.

Looking at this photo I have to marvel at how small Leif looks. Although he was always tall for his age, he was still a very little boy and we got so used to thinking of him as a tall man that these photos are almost startling. He looks so tender and vulnerable, so little.

The day of this Volksmarch it was really hot, hence the lack of a shirt on the boy. The rest of us had to keep ours on.

It's hard to believe that over 31 years have passed since this, our first Sachsen Volksmarch, shortly after we moved to the village.

Can you tell that the tree at left is an apple tree? We had apple trees in our yard there, too.

Tonight I am able to scan photos and look at them with a smile and lots of love, without the sadness and tears I often have. I can remember this day with fondness and delight. How fortunate I was to have it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Leif and a Gecko on his Hand - Tampa - October 7, 2007

Leif took this photo just about two years ago, on October 7, 2007. He's wearing his motorcycle glove and a cute little lizard is just sitting there on it, a very unusual circumstance, since these little guys are extremely fast and also can jump amazingly far and fast. I don't know whether he caught it or it jumped onto him, but he managed to get out his iPhone and take a photo of it.

Leif always liked reptiles, particularly snakes and lizards. He was fascinated with them and with cats in particular. He had pet snakes but I don't think he ever had a pet lizard, though he would have liked to own an iguana.

He had a lot of compassion for animals, and maintained that he had more compassion for them than for people, since he felt people were often cruel and destructive. However, he was far more compassionate about people than he allowed to show in his bravado persona.

This was taken the day after we returned from our three-week trip to China. He had picked us up at the airport and taken us home. It was then that we found out about the sad end to his life with Donna, and although he feigned bravado about that, too, it was clearly hard for him to come to terms with that, as he sank into depression that fall and a month after this photo was taken is when he sent me the email saying that he felt he had no purpose in life and that it held far more pain and misery for him than it did happiness or meaning.

And yet, he was interested enough to photograph a gecko, and rescue a turtle from traffic just days before he died in the spring.

Why Doesn't the President Send Condolences to the Families of Troops Who Commit Suicide?

The link contained in the title of this post is well worth reading, an interview with the parents of a soldier who committed suicide during this second tour of duty in Iraq, and who found out that the President (due to longstanding policy, not a new one with Obama) doesn't sent condolences to the families of troops who commit suicide. That seems wrong to me, and very sad for families who are already dealing with the crushing blow of losing someone they love, someone who very likely would still be alive if they hadn't been in the military, and in a war.

Here is another article by the interviewer, "The War Condolences Obama Hasn't Sent," about the same case.

This young man's story is so like Leif's, only Leif was medically boarded out of the army because of his asthma and therefore wasn't sent to Iraq, only to Bosnia, but if he had been sent to Iraq, I don't think he would have survived it.

The suicide rate in the military and among veterans is climbing alarmingly. They are dying of anguish and their lives have been sacrificed on the altar of war and military training. A RAND study found that 20% of the troops that serve in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or depression, and I'd be willing to bet there are more that aren't detected or don't admit it . . . until it's way too late.

Those of us who don't serve in our armed forces and don't have to face multiple deployments to war zones should be very thankful, thankful there is no draft (but it there were, the burden would be shared), thankful someone else is willing to shoulder the burden and soldier on.

But let's value the lives of those who commit suicide, too. They have served.

I think Leif would feel strongly about this, about honoring the service of his fellow soldiers.

Garretson Family - Katterbach, Germany - November 1978

In the fall of 1978, some agency at the Katterbach army community was offering family portraits so that military families could send them home for Christmas. My recollection is that we discovered it when we were over there for something else and it was only available that day, so we had one taken even though were weren't exactly dressed for a family portrait. It turned out pretty nice even so.

Peter Anthony was going to have his tenth birthday a month after this was taken, and he was in the fourth grade at the Rusam Volksschule in Sachsen bei Ansbach.

Leif was three years old and would be four in two months. He was attending the German Kindergarten in Sachsen.

Peter W. was Chief of Justice (or Chief of Criminal Law, another name for the same position) for the 1st Armored Division in Ansbach and a major in the Judge Advocate Generals Corp.

Katterbach had a military housing area, a commissary, a heliport, a nondenominational chapel and various other services. It was just across some farm fields about 3/4 of a mile from our village of Sachsen and it was where we went for grocery shopping and a few American activities like Boy Scout events. Of course we knew some of the people who lived in the housing area.

When we moved to Sachsen from Fuerth, there were no quarters available there, and that's how we ended up living "on the economy" in Sachsen and sending the boys to the local German schools. We could have sent Peter A. to the American school, but at that time it would have meant that he would have had to ride a bus for an hour to an hour-and-a-half each way and we thought that was cruel and unusual punishment and chose the German school instead.

I doubt that Leif would remember Katterbach at all because we were seldom there and rarely for anything memorable to a preschool child, and Peter A. has few memories of his childhood, though in his case, Katterbach was signficant. He was an altar boy at the chapel and he brought the two communities together in song when he got the Sachsen Kinderchor (children's choir, in which he was a soloist) to sing at the Katterbach chapel at Christmas time.

Peter A. did know some boys in Katterbach because he was in an American Cub Scout den with boys from that community, but as far as I know, that was about the only time he saw them. His friends were from his school in Sachsen.

Leif had friends in Sachsen, both American and German, that he enjoyed playing with, but he didn't know anyone in Katterbach or go over there to play.

The year this was taken was a good one for us. We enjoyed our neighbors and activities in Sachsen, were very pleased with the boys' schools, did a lot of local traveling and Volksmarching, and loved living in "Hanni's house" at the top of the hill with the orchard around us. I'd love to go back to that time with my boys and Peter, sit in the kitchen on the "Eckbank" (corner bench, a kind of breakfast nook set) and make something with them, or look out over the valley from the balcony on the second floor. It would be so good to go back to a time when I had both my beautiful, smart little boys with me and the future looked bright and full of hope for both of them.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Leif & Peter A. - Grafenwoehr, Germany - Fall 1977 - Age 2 and a Half

When we moved to Fuerth, Germany in the summer of 1977, Peter W. was the OIC (Officer in Charge) of the Nurnberg Law Center, and had branch offices in other towns where units of the 1st Armored Division were stationed. One of those was Grafenwoehr, a town in a beautiful wooded area northeast of Nurnberg in northern Bavaria.

Peter W. was familiar with Grafenwoehr from training Reforger exercises held there in the fall that he went to with the 1st Infantry Division from Fort Riley, Kansas when he was stationed there. Grafenwoehr was at that time a large training area for US troops during the Cold War.

I think we drove to Grafenwoehr that fall day partly because Peter was visiting the branch office there and partly because he wanted to show us the area.

It was a crisp fall day and the boys had a great time running around in the woods. This is one of my favorite sets of photos of the two of them. They were at such beautiful ages and usually really loved each other and got along well.

Peter W. took a look at these photos and asked why I got Leif those "awful pants," and I had to laugh. The 1970s styles look pretty ridiculous to us now, but at the

time, everyone was wearing them, even Peter W. It was the day of plaid pants, leisure suits and double-knits. Just wait, someday they will be back, just like the platform and wedge heel shoes for women.

Peter A. was eight years old when these photos were taken (going on nine in a couple of months) and was in the third grade. Leif was a little over two-and-a-half years old. We are so used to thinking of him as the giant of the family it's amazing to see him looking so small, sweet and vulnerable.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Grief is universal, yet solitary

Today I was reminded again that while we feel our grief intimately and alone, and often hide it from the world, we are not alone in suffering through those feelings of loss and sadness.

I was going down the street delivering notices about our annual homeowners' association meeting to people who live on my street whom I've either never met or just met once, and rang one doorbell to find a woman whose husband had just died five days ago. They had been married 59 years. She was remarkably composed and she invited me in; she wanted to talk. I was glad to be there with her, to hear her story. She kept saying she shouldn't be "bending [my] ear," but it was good for her to talk and good for me, too, to be reminded that death is part of life, part of love, part of the human condition, and that I am not alone in losing someone I love.

She spoke so lovingly of her husband of 59 years. Think what it must be like to be alone after 59 years with a beloved companion. We shared other things in common. Both of us are military wives. Both of us had children who served their country in the armed forces. Both of us had lived in Germany, albeit at different times. And we even both use Macintosh computers. I was amazed at her composure and bravery, how she spoke of her memories and what she needs to do for her future.

She kept saying, "we," referring to herself and her husband, and then said, "I guess I have to stop saying 'we.' People won't want to keep hearing about my husband."

I said, "No, keep saying 'we.' Your life for 59 years was 'we' and that doesn't go away. That's who you are. The 'I' begins now, but your past will always include your husband." I hope she realized what I meant.

I know I can't erase Leif from my life. I will talk about him whenever I am reminded of him, whenever I remember something that fits into the conversation. I think it's the sadness and the weeping that people don't want to see, after a time. They understand it in the first few months after a death in the family, but then they just want it to be over, for you to move on. But suppressing grief is one thing, and pretending someone didn't exist and not talking about them is quite another. That's like denying their life, denying its value.

We had Leif for 33 years. It wasn't enough, but it was precious, and I am grateful for those years. In writing this blog, I spend a lot of time looking through, scanning, and repairing photos of his life, and it keeps him fresh in my mind, bringing back memories of times we seldom thought about as well as times we often told stories about. I keep him bound in my heart. I treasure the memories.

When all is said and done, what do we have from life but our family and friends and our memories. They are the true measure and riches of our lives. My life was infinitely richer because of my two sons.

And, of course, it's the loss of that richness, that treasure, that hurts so much.

This photo was taken in our quarters in Honolulu, Hawaii, in April 1984. I no longer remember why Peter W. and Leif were so tired that they sacked out on the couch together, but as usual I was there with my camera to capture this sweet picture. Leif was nine years old.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Leif & Peter A. - First Day of School - September 1978 - Sachsen Bei Ansbach, Germany - Age 3 1/2

When we moved from Fuerth to Sachsen bei Ansbach, Germany in the summer of 1978, we decided to send the boys to the local German schools. Their school schedule is very different from the American one, and Peter A. actually went to the last few weeks of third grade there, even though he had finished third grade at the American school in Fuerth.

In the fall, Leif started going to the Kindergarten, which I've already written about, and Peter A. started fourth grade.

This photo was taken hastily the morning of their first day, as they were heading out the front door of our house at Am Roemer 9. You can see that in early September it was already chilly in the morning, and unfortunately, the sun was right in their eyes so they are squinting and aren't particularly happy with me for making them stand there for a photo. I wish I had a better one but at this point, I'm just glad I have one at all.

Both boys have their "Rucksacks" on their backs. Backpacks for kid this young had not yet caught on in American schools, but German students needed to bring things to and from school every day and a Rucksack was a necessity. The style of their school backpacks and pencil cases was also different from the American ones.

They had to take a snack with them each day, and that was one of the things that went into the Rucksack, along with books and "Hefte" (composition books) for Peter Anthony, who also had his pencil case and items such as a drawing compass.

Peter knew where he was going since he had already spent a few weeks at his school, the Rusam Volkschule, and we had taken Leif to see the Kindergarten when we enrolled him and had a tour. He had been in a Montessori preschool in Fuerth, so it wasn't his first school experience, but it was the first time he would be immersed all alone in a German-speaking environment where he would be the only American, English-speaking child. I wonder what he thought about that first day.

Peter Anthony was almost ten years old and Leif was three, going on four in four months.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Leif & His Dad & Peter A. at Manoa Falls, Hawaii - August 1983 - Age 8

What memories do we hold most dear? Is it the family holidays like Christmases spent together? Birthday celebrations? Trips? A special time making something together, like Leif and I often did, whether it was a Western town created with popsicle sticks, a giant R2D2 cookie, a papier-mache Daruma-san, or pancakes?

Or was it the day trips and outings that we took so often, going somewhere to see something new, see a movie, take a hike?

I don't think it's possible to choose, though there might be a special memory among any of those things. Photos are such a treasure, a wonderful way to preserve at least a piece of those memories, and often, the photo will bring back so much more.

Like this hike we took up Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu. This was shortly after we moved to Hawaii in the summer of 1983. As usual, I was busy reading as much as I could about our new surroundings and what we could do there, and I found out about the trail that went up the valley to Manoa Falls.

When we went, it was a hot, sticky day, and the hike through the "jungle" (it was practically a tropical jungle) was humid and there were some pesky mosquitoes, but it was truly beautiful, with incredible philodendron vines and so many new kinds of trees and plants. New for us, anyway. The trail was very wet and we got quite muddy.

At the end of the trail was a lovely, clear pond formed by the falling water, and Manoa Falls. You could swim in the pool and we peeled off our clothes (bathing suits on underneath) and plunged in. I took this photo when Peter W. (in the navy blue outfit) and Peter A. (in the green shorts) were just starting to get ready for a swim. Leif, in the dark blue trunks with the stripes on the side, at left, was all ready to jump in, true to form. There was another family there and you can see them in the background.

The boys had a great time splashing each other and cavorting around. The water was wonderfully cool in the damp, tropical heat. It was a treat.

Eventually we had to get dressed and head back down the trail to "civilization" and home.

I wonder if either of my boys remembered this hike, or so many of our other outings. Our experiences make up our lives, but how many of them can we recall?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Leif "Most Improved in Spanish" - Antilles High School - May 1991 - Age 16

Leif was able to grasp things so quickly that he thought he didn't need to study, and for most classes, he didn't. Because of that, he could be a lazy student. He didn't take notes and he didn't do homework. He didn't study. He was usually able to learn everything he needed to succeed in a class by listening in class.

There were two glaring exceptions and he never really learned to deal with them. They were foreign languages and math. The problem he had with math was that he could quite clearly understand the concepts when the teacher was demonstrating them, but since he didn't do the homework or study, when it came time to take a test, he couldn't remember the method of solving an algebraic equation, for instance, or a formula he should have memorized.

With language, it was the drudgery of memorizing vocabulary and things like verb conjugations, the bugaboos of most foreign language students. It was clear that Leif had an aptitude for foreign language learning as he learned German amazingly fast when he lived in the German village of Sachsen bei Ansbach, where he played with German children and went to a German Kindergarten. It was truly learning by "immersion," and he caught on quickly and in four months sounded like any German child in town.

However, learning a language in less than a hour a day in class is quite another matter and requires a lot of study, which Leif was not willing to do. Just as he did with math, he could understand what was being said or taught in class, but when it came time for him to reproduce it in a conversation, presentation or test, he wasn't able to do it.

Leif didn't care a lot about grades. He said he'd rather "have a life." He aimed for a B average because that's what he had to have if we were going to let him drive and pay for car insurance. He could have been a straight A student with a couple of hours a day of effort, but he wasn't willing to put that in. Most of his academic career he was pretty good at hitting his mark with the B average, but when it came to Spanish and math, he miscalculated what he could get away with.

I wasn't successful at convincing him to take notes or to study, and his grades in both subjects fell when he was a sophomore in high school. I was shocked when I got notices from his teachers that he was in danger of failing both subjects. It was clear that he wasn't going to be able to change his lackadaisical ways enough to bring the grades up without help.

So, I insisted that he sit down with me every evening after dinner and do his math and Spanish homework with me as a tutor. He wasn't happy about it, hated doing it, and complained plenty, but he did it. I made sure he did very bit of it and quite often I had to relearn it myself to be able to explain things to him. All those years since I had taken second year algebra were a definite handicap, but we made it. The Spanish came a lot easier to me, as I had once been fluent in Spanish and it came back more easily.

The result was that by the time the report cards came out, Leif had brought both grades up to a B. By the end of the school year, he got an award from his teacher, Mrs. Dent, for being "most improved in Spanish." He continued to get decent grades in Spanish the next year as a junior, but I continued to have to push him to study every night.

What surprised me was that he didn't pick up more of it from his environment in Puerto Rico. Although the classes at Antilles High School were all taught in English, most of the students there were Puerto Rican and spoke Spanish among themselves when they were out of class. I guess maybe enough of Leif's friends were from the US mainland and his Puerto Rican friends all spoke English that he didn't have to learn it.

Unfortunately for Leif, he didn't take Spanish his senior year at Manhattan High School and by the time to started taking it to satisfy his language requirement in college, he had forgotten nearly all of it and had to start over. He decided maybe German would come easier to him since he had once been so fluent in it (way back when he was five years old!), so he took German instead. This was not a good choice. He didn't remember it, and German proved far more difficult for him than Spanish. I spent a lot of evenings tutoring him so that he could get a decent grade in German. After one semester of struggling, he went back to Spanish, which still required a lot more work than he (or I) wanted to put in, but was easier for him than German.

Some people said I should have just let him fail those classes, that it would have "taught him a lesson" and that he would have "learned what he had to do" to pass. I disagreed with them and I still do. I disagree with any parent who makes that choice, because most kids that age don't realize how important their academic record is to their future, and kids like Leif simply didn't have either the self discipline, the desire, or most importantly, the right study skills, to succeed if left on their own.

It's critical not to do any of the work for them, but tutoring and teaching them, and forcing them to do the work provides several valuable lessons in addition to getting the schoolwork done and the grades raised. First, it shows the parent's commitment to the child's success and their future. It shows that the parent is not going to accept poor grades or failing work. It shows that the parent is willing to invest time and effort to help the child succeed.

Second, it teaches the skills the child needs to learn. These include HOW to study; the methods that work in order to not only learn but retain the concepts, words, etc., or memorize material that can't be learned any other way like language vocabulary or math formulas. It includes learning to sit down and spend an extended period of time slaving away at it. It includes the lesson that sometimes the only way to accomplish a task involves real work and that you can't get away with sloughing off . . . that even if you want to, your parent won't let you.

It did take a lot of my time. I'm glad I did it.

Bravo to Leif for being the "most improved in Spanish" in May 1991. The photo was taken at the Antilles High School awards night on Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Leif was sixteen years old.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Leif and Nikko - Thanksgiving 1995 - Age 20

Today would have been Leif and Nikko's fourteenth wedding anniversary if their marriage had lasted. Even though it didn't work out, they still cared about each other and stayed in contact. Leif was proud of her military service. He would wish her well now, as she prepares for a new assignment, and so do we.

I think this photo of them was taken at the family Thanksgiving celebration at my mother's house on Pottawatomie Street in Manhattan, Kansas, in November 1995, shortly after they were married.

He was only twenty years old when they were married, too young to be ready, but so much wanting love. They were divorced in October 2002.

I wish I could have continued to see that radiant, rascally smile on Leif's face.

Leif With His Hair in One Great Spike - Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico - Age 16

Speaking of Leif's sense of humor and fun . . .
and a bit of silliness . . .

These photos were taken in March 1991 when we were living at Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. Leif was sixteen years old.

I no longer remember what he had in his hair that allowed him to make it stand up like this in a point, but it wasn't something he wore out anywhere. It was just a silly and whimsical thing he did for fun at home and then washed it out. He had fun posing for the photos.

I don't know why he was wearing the ring on the chain around his neck, and I find it rather surprising to see him wearing a cross, as he never professed to be a Christian.

Of course, the sunglasses are his favorite Oakleys.

He always had a sense of mischief and fun and he didn't really want to grow up, if growing up meant he had to behave in a staid and boring way, though he learned to act professional when he needed to and came across as a very calm, clear-minded person in a crisis. Yet, in one way he never really did grow up, and that was being able to control his spending.

I've gone along for several days without being down in the dumps or crying until yesterday. It was one of those unexpected triggers that brought tears welling up in my eyes. Peter W. was reading some of those cute sayings you see on everything from hand towels to magnets in boutique stores and we were getting a laugh out of them. Then he read that whenever a child is born, a grandmother is born, too. I don't know what about that got to me, but even typing it again brings a reaction. Maybe it's that I will never be "born" a grandmother again with Leif's children. Maybe it's just missing Leif. I'm okay. I'm not staying sad or depressed, but the emotions come welling up at unexpected times.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I loved his sense of fun. I loved his sense of humor. I loved the rascally things he would do or say.

I miss them.

I miss him.

Right now, there is nothing more I can say.


These photos of him were taken at a playground in Greenbelt, Maryland in June 1990. He was fifteen years old. The little girl is his cousin, Jacquie.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leif & His Dad by La Creperie - Quebec City, Canada - August 1989 - Age 14

Yesterday we saw a classic car show and of course we couldn't help talking about how much Leif would have enjoyed it. There were the usual assortment of muscle cars and 1940s and 1950s classics, lots of Corvettes, and some cool trucks, but it was the DeLoreans and the Jaguar from the 1950s that really caught my eye as something Leif would have appreciated. Those and the drag racers. I wish we could have shared it with him.

Knowing we can no longer share our travels and such events with him makes all the photos of the times we did terribly precious, so photos like this one are important, with each of the memories that go with them.

This is another photo from our trip to Canada the summer of 1989. We really enjoyed all of it, but especially Quebec City, where we marveled at the Le Chateau Frontenac and the magnificent view from the bluff over the St. Lawrence River.

It was there that we saw a musician playing a "glass harmonica" made from glasses filled with different amounts of water. The sounds was quite beautiful and magical. He was selling CDs and I've always wished I had purchased one. Leif found the instrument and the musician fascinating. It was one of the things he photographed in Quebec City.

Quebec City was the place we got a parking ticket because we weren't able to accurately read the signs in French, which apparently gave some reason for not parking there. Leif found that quite amusing. Of course, he didn't have to pay the fine.

This photo was taken outside a restaurant we particularly enjoyed, La Creperie.

Leif was fourteen and a half.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Leif & His Dad - Quebec City, Canada - August 1989

Here's another photo of Leif and Peter W. on our trip in Canada. They are posing in front of the Cafe de la Paix, a restaurant we particularly enjoyed in Quebec City.

I think one reason this trip was especially interesting to Leif was the European qualities of the Canadian cities and the French language in Quebec. Although Leif lived in Germany from when he was two-and-a-half until he was five-and-a-half, his memories of it were fleeting. We moved from there to Japan and then Hawaii and then to Illinois, so his cultural experiences had been vastly different. The only time he'd been back to Europe was our brief, five-day trip to Germany in May 1988, just the year before we went to Canada.

Leif enjoyed dressing up and wearing a tie, unlike a lot of boys and men, or at least he did when he was younger. He always liked going to really nice restaurants, and his dad joked (not without reason) that Leif would always order the most expensive thing on the menu . . . unless we gave him a price limit before he ordered. He enjoyed good food and drink and elegant surroundings.

I'm so glad we had the chance to take him so many places. We had been thinking of trying to take him on another trip or cruise in the two months before he died, but he had no vacation left and couldn't afford to take leave without pay from his job, nor did he have a passport. How I wish he had lived to travel with us again.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Leif in Montreal - August 1989 - Age 14 and a half

Someone recently asked if I'd been to Montreal. That brought back memories of our trip across eastern Canada in August 1989. It was just the three of us, Peter W., Leif and I. Peter A. was at the Air Force Academy. As you can see in the photo, Leif was already towering over his father (and, of course, me, too), tall and slender.

Although a lot of kids at this age might not have appreciated a long car trip with their parents, away from their friends, Leif really enjoyed the trip. He took a lot of photos, particularly of interesting architecture, liked the museums, the scenery and the food. We visited Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, and smaller towns. In many ways, these Canadian cities reminded us of Europe, partly because of the architecture, and partly because of the food and outdoor cafes.

This photo was taken in front of Brother Andre's Chapel in Montreal.

We also visited Niagara Falls, which impressed Leif mightily. He took a lot of photos of the falls from every viewing angle.

Leif remembered this trip with a lot of interest and fondness, and when he was later stationed in Fort Drum, New York in the army and we drove there to visit him and Nikko, we all went to Ottawa so that we could experience it again and show it to Nikko. It was then that we found the Zaphod Beeblebrox Bar that they posed in front of. The two of them went back again to "party."

A Further Thought

But how could Leif have ever thought it would be understandable or acceptable to his family and friends, his decision to take his own life? He had resisted his desire to do it once before, because he said he knew what it would do to me. Why didn't he think about that this time? Why didn't he think about how he felt, how he felt like he had died when he lost the women he loved? The pain he felt. He left that to me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Leif the Social Darwinist?

Sometimes I have odd thoughts that seem to be from Leif. Don't misunderstand me; I don't think Leif is talking to me, but these are fleeting thoughts that are the kinds of things he either did say or might have said, given what I know of him.

This morning I was thinking about him and his death while we were on our daily six-mile bike ride and this thought, which seemed so like him, popped into my mind, "Why are you so concerned about my death? We all have to die sometime. You're going to die. Dad's going to die. It's just a question of when and how. I chose mine."

Of course, that is true, but it avoids the painful question of WHY he chose that death and why THEN.

I continued on in that mental "conversation" and the answer came back, "I was tired of all the shit."

That seems like a poor reason to die to me, but it's the same one another person I know who once found himself with a gun in his hand contemplating suicide said to me about Leif's death, "He didn't really want to die. He just wanted all the shit to be over." This person put the gun away and didn't do it. Leif did.

I have no way of knowing what went on in Leif's mind, whether the thought it out or did it on impulse, whether he thought of us and the impact it would have on us or whether we were far from his thoughts, whether he was sad or angry, defeated or determined. All of those things could be possible.

Leif purported to be a rabid social Darwinist and he often held forth in conversations about conflicts and war with the opinion that you can't stop them and people will fight until one side or the other gets tired of the whole thing or is defeated. Although he knew himself to be far more intelligent than the average person, it was also obvious that he was not able to make life work to his expectations and although he tried very hard to pursue happiness, only at rare and brief times did he really succeed. So then the thought comes to me, was it, at least to him if not to us, what he considered a rational choice? Why bother with life if it was going to be misery without purpose?

Yet Leif, for all his blustering about social Darwinism, was compassionate and I don't think he could have hurt or killed any of the unfortunate beings he railed against. He never did. He was the only person he pulled one of his many triggers against.

Yes, we are all going to die, but why is it that for most of us life is precious and we struggle to hang onto it at nearly all costs, and to others it is a burden to be discarded?

This is another of the photos Leif took of himself on Thanksgiving 2007.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Fun at Waikiki

In July 1983 we moved from Japan to Hawaii. How fortunate we were to have four wonderful and interesting places to live in a row; Virginia, Germany, Japan and Hawaii.

Peter A. was fourteen-and-a-half and Leif was eight-and-a-half.

When we arrived, we had to wait for quarters (for you civilians, that's a dwelling, place to live) and lived for a few weeks in the Hilton Hawaiian Village right on Waikiki. Our room was on the eleventh floor, which was fine until the Great Oahu Blackout of July 13th, when we discovered that walking up and down that many flights of stairs was no fun and quite exhausting, plus no air conditioning, no water (it all has to be pumped up there) and no restaurants open weren't much fun, either. I've written about the blackout before.

What WAS fun about it was that in the evening, everyone was out walking and being sociable because there really wasn't much else to do, and although some parts of the island didn't get power back for two or three days, we only went without for a day.

The rest of the time we stayed at the Hilton, there was a lot to enjoy. Waikiki is beautiful but as beaches go it's not even in competition for the best of Hawaii. That didn't keep us from enjoying it, as the boys are doing in this photo. They had a good time setting it up as a kind of trick photo. Leif is nowhere near as little as he looks here.

We enjoyed trying out lots of restaurants, and the boys were quite fascinated with a fancy drink that had dry ice in it so that it was pouring out mist all over the place. We explored the shopping centers, which were quite a hit after spending six years in foreign countries where the shopping was lots of fun and often exotic, but where they couldn't read the labels. They especially liked the Ala Moana Shopping Center and the Longs Drug stores, which stocked plenty of things like toys.

We also found the video game parlors, where we spent a lot of amusing hours together, and took a spectacular (and somewhat hair raising) helicopter tour over the island.

There was a parrot in one of the hotel lobbies that talked . . . when it was in the mood. When we were going or coming from the hotel, the boys liked to stop by the parrot's perch and see if they could get it to talk. Once in a while, they did.

It was a happy time for us. I hope Leif remembered it.

Shocking Suicide Statistics

Tonight I heard of yet another family devastated by suicide, again a young man, again in the spring. I don't know this family, but my heart goes out to them. I know what they are going through.

It seems like an epidemic to me, and I read that the suicide rate is increasing in the USA for the first time in over a decade. The website cites this statistic:

Survivors (i.e., family members and friends of a loved one who died by suicide): 
       • Each suicide intimately affects at least 6 other people (estimate) 
       • Based on the 766,042 suicides from 1982 through 2006, estimated that the number of survivors of suicides in the U.S. is 4.6 million (1 of every 65 Americans in 2006); number grew by at least 199,800 in 2006 
       • If there is a suicide every 15.8 minutes, then there are 6 new survivors every 15.8 minutes as well 
That is a very conservative estimate, because they don't count all those who committed suicide prior to 1982 (like my dad in 1960) and after 2006, so I believe it is way more than double that number, meaning that it's more like one out of every 30 Americans who has been directly affected by the suicide of a family member or friend. 

The most recent statistic I could find was for 2006, and that was 33,300 nationwide. That same year, the deaths from auto accidents were 38,648. I don't think most people (certainly not me) had any idea that the suicide rate was that high or that close to the number who died in auto accidents. The rate among our soldiers and veterans is frightening.

We can read that, but what can we do about it? We have suicide prevention programs, but do they work? Do those who commit suicide want to be prevented or are they so miserable they just want it all to be over? Sometimes their problems are acute and with time would heal but for others, the misery seems to go on for years and years, especially those with severe clinical depression, bipolar syndrome, or PTSD.

I know that our family is forever changed. We will go on. We will learn how to live with it, but how can we look at a photo like the one above, of my joyful-looking fourteen-year-old son and not forever wonder how it all went so wrong?
The photo of Leif and Jerri was taken in the old stone house in Manhattan, Kansas in July 1989. At the time we were living at Fort Sheridan north of Chicago and Jerri's mother was living in the old stone house. We made a trip there that summer to visit. Leif was fourteen.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Eighteen Months

Yesterday it was been eighteen months since we discovered Leif's body. It's hard to comprehend, still, that we will never see him again. He still is a looming presence in our lives, both his life and his death. I'm sure he always will be.

Each passing month since April 10, 2008, I've marked the day on the blog, on his MySpace page, and on his Facebook page. Each month I've shed new tears. I am trying to look at this year-and-a-half as a time to get focused on all the other areas of my life, to move on, if just a little, from the grief and sadness. It's getting easier.

On Thursday evening we enjoyed the German-American Club's Oktoberfest dinner-dance and sat with a table of people we had never met before, congenial people who helped make our evening fun, though the best part was just being together, Peter W. and I, dancing, and smiling at each other.

Yet even there I was reminded once again how widespread the problem of suicide is, how many of us are suicide survivors, having experienced the suicide of a family member or friend. One of the men at the table lost his seventeen-year-old daughter to suicide years ago. His wife, who told me she had to break the news to him, said no matter how many years go by, you never really get over it. She echoed the same sentiments as my friend who said she will eternally ask why, always wonder whether she could have done something differently that would have mattered, but none of us will never know.

In thinking about this eighteen month marker, I wanted to use a photo of Leif that shows more of what his mood must have been like when he decided to end his life. This photo was one I found on his computer, taken with the computer's internal camera, on November 22, 2007, which was Thanksgiving. He was with us for Thanksgiving dinner, and seemed to enjoy being together, though Thanksgiving as a holiday never meant much to him. I don't know why he took this photo (and others he took at the same time), or whether he took it before or after coming to our house for dinner, but he looks so serious and solemn. Was that just a pose or was that how he really felt? It seems to look like the discouraged email he wrote to me a few days earlier, and other photos he took that month. He took a lot of photos of himself that month when he was so down, both with his computer and his phone. Why?

We have missed Leif now for a year-and-a-half. He lived less than half of a normal lifespan, but he had an enormous impact on our lives. We will always, always love him.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Leif's Giant Chlorophyll Molecule - Highland Park, Illinois - Early 1989

I looked and looked for a photo of the giant chlorophyll molecule Leif built in the eighth grade and had given up. I was sure I would have taken a photo of it, but I couldn't find it. Then, voila! I found it in an envelope.

I've written before about this project. When Leif was in the eighth grade at Northwood Junior High in Highland Park, Illoinois, one of his science assignments was to build a model of a molecule. The other students picked simple molecules but Leif was inspired. He determined to make chlorophyll, a very complex molecule with a large number of atoms of oxygen, nitrogen, magnesium, carbon and hydrogen. The chemical formula is C62H70MgN4O5, according to what is on Leif's model.

He designed it using styrofoam balls which he painted to color-code the atoms, using acrylic paint. Then he put the whole thing together with toothpicks and glue, in one sitting, refusing to even stop to eat. As I recall, it took him about five hours.

When it was all done, there was no way it could be transported to school. It was impossible to pick it up, and it was six feet long. I finally found a large carton that a filing cabinet had come in. We cut it open and used two panels of it for a backing which the two of us slid underneath the molecule. Then we fastened it to the backing and added the labels.

The next morning we loaded it into the back bed of our Maxima station wagon and I took him and the molecule to school. The kids were all still outside as the bell that allowed them to enter hadn't rung yet. The amazement on their faces when the two of us carried this giant molecule in was a delight to see.

Leif's science teacher was so impressed that she asked to keep the molecule and hung it on the wall. It was also in the eighth grade that he did the science fair project on gear ratio effect on battery life and speed with a radio controlled model car, a project that took him all the way to the state science fair.

He had such a terrific mind for science and showed such promise, it's too bad he didn't become a scientist. It was the math that deterred him.

This photo of Leif was taken at about the time he constructed the molecule, in early 1989.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flaming Out Young

This morning, the conductor of the Women's Chorus I sing with shook her head when we opened up a piece of music and said, ""Mr. Chopin. So many of the great composers died young. They lived hard and burned out, like Mozart. I'm surprised Mozart made it into his thirties. They were brilliant but maybe that worked aganst them."

Someone in the chorus chimed in, "That's still true today," and people started mentioning names like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, and others.

I was thinking about Leif. Those people were immensely talented and they achieved great success, so we know about them. But how many more of our brilliant young people who live hard, trying to experience something, trying to figure out how to use their talents, and end up dying young? I've heard too many stories of young men in their early thirties, like Leif, who took their own lives or died of the consequences of their dangerous lifestyles.

Mozart was 35 when he died of a serious fever with rashes and swelling, which at least one medical sleuth says was probably rheumatic fever. Chopin was 39 and died of tuberculosis. Without modern medical care, it may not have been so much their lifestyles as the inability to treat contagious diseases that took their lives. We have to wonder what glorious music they might have continued to give us had they lived a normal lifespan.

We worried about Leif from the time he was about 21 and bought his first motorcycle, driving it like a demon. He admitted to me that he reached speeds over 100 miles an hour. We worried about the way he drove his car, too. I was always glad to know, each and every day, that he was all right. When we all got cell phones about five years ago (Leif had one since 1993, long before most people got them, and paid for it with his salary), I always kept mine with me, including at night on my nightstand, in case something happened to him. More than once, it did. We feared he would kill himself or injure himself terribly in a crash. It was a daily fear.

He had two minor motorcycle accidents and two minor car accidents, a car accident that totaled his Dodge Stratus and hurt his neck, and then the motorcycle that shattered his collarbone and required surgery. Ironically, that one was not because he was speeding. He was on a street in Tampa, near his apartment, going back to work after lunch and a white Cadillac swerved in front of him. To avoid ramming into the back of it, he had to lay the bike down and he hit the pavement instead. How well I remember the phone calls. How glad I was he was not severely injured and disabled or killed.

Leif did not die directly of disease, like Mozart and Chopin, but he suffered from asthma and depression (and possibly bipolar disorder and PTSD). Without those, he might have been able to sustain his life and deal with all the disasters, disappointments and loneliness. With them and a gun, he succumbed.

He was so bright and talented, had so much he could have given the world, if he had ever found out where and how. How sad that none of what he had to offer remains.
This glowing and joyful photo of Leif was taken the night before his brother's graduation from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado on May 29, 1991. It was a great evening. He was ecstatic. He was 16 years old. He lived to be only 33.

The Essentials of Happiness

The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love and something to hope for.
- Joseph Addison

I've written about this before quote before, and it is so true, and worth reading again and again. I am fortunate to have all three. Leif, sadly, had none of them, that is, if you define "something to do" as something your feel is worth doing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Endless Questions

Yesterday I was talking to my friend who lost her son to suicide with a gun four-and-a-half years ago. She told me, tears sliding from her eyes, that she still can't bring herself to look at all the family videos, the photo albums, and boxes of mementos. She still doesn't feel like decorating for the holidays or celebrating them. She met a long-time friend who asked her whether she had stopped asking "why" and she said the would never stop until her eyes "closed for the last time." She said that it took her three years, but she got to the angry stage where she asked why her son thought it was all right to do this terrible thing to his family, to leave her anguished for the rest of her life . . . and then felt bad about her anger, because for him to take his life, he must have been so unhappy.

I told her that I had thought a lot about that question of why, and I, too, will be asking it forever, but unlike her, I don't think that finding out the answer will bring any closure or make me feel any better, because no matter what the answer would be, it would just raise MORE questions, the whys behind that answer, and many others. I don't think we can ever really come to grips with the why of our sons' deaths, because I don't think there is any reason that will be truly comprehensible to us. The only thing that would be, would be to walk in their shoes and experience what they did, to feel what they felt, and I don't want to do that, even if I could. I don't want to experience a life that would make me want to end mine.

Four-and-a-half years, and we will be coming up on eighteen months in just a couple of days. Those months seem at once endless and so short, to have flown by. How can Leif have been gone from us that long already? It still seems as if he could come driving down the street any day.

I am sad for my friend that she can't look at all those videos and pictures and remember all the good times they had with their son, that it's so painful she would rather hide them away. It's the opposite for me. I want to see every one of them. I want to search them for signs of what his life was really like, what it meant, whether he had real moments of happiness, whether there were indications of his misery. I want to see his face, look at his eyes, remember that he LIVED, and how important he was and is to us. Yes, seeing them makes me cry sometimes, but I would rather see them and cry than avoid them. It's the only contact I have other than my memories, and I crave it. I have come to understand, though, why some people want to avoid all mention of or reminders of their deceased loved ones, because they can't bear the pain. For some people, it's easier to keep things out of sight. There is no pretending they will also be out of mind.

She has no outlet for her grief and her memories like I do with this blog. I am trying to preserve Leif's memory for the world, not that the world cares, but some people in it care, and care deeply. But even if others were not here reading what I write, looking at the photos of Leif and the things he loved, I would still want to do it.

Today I was driving down the street to our house and thinking as I often do that Leif drove there. When he lived here, he drove it at least twice a day. Later after he moved to Tampa, he would drive down for dinner or to come help us out with something, or to see his brother's family when they were visiting. All those places associated with him in some way. All those things we used to be able to ask him about, get his advice, like car repair. I had to have my mother's car fixed today and they were recommending a service I knew nothing about, didn't know whether it was a good idea or not. I would have asked Leif about it, and he would have given me good advice, just as he would about anything electronic or mechanical, and I miss having him there to ask.

Peter W. was going through a box of photos and papers and found the "coupon" I scanned above. Unfortunately, I don't remember when Leif made it or gave it to me, and no date was written on it. I think it must have been when we were in Japan, because he wrote his name in cursive and was still going by the name "Leif" instead of the nickname "Alex" he switched to when we moved to Hawaii in 1983. He probably was in second grade, although I don't remember them teaching cursive that soon, and I'll bet it was for Mother's Day.

You can see that Leif was not particularly careful about coloring it. Coloring pages was never one of his chosen activities. Drawing, yes, but just the drawing part, not coloring it in. He was more interested in line and function than color.

The coupon says,
"To Mom from Leif
This Free Coupon Good For One of Your Choice: (Circle One)
Breakfast in Bed
Be An Angel for a Day"
There's nothing circled, and that makes me wonder if I ever even got this coupon, because surely I would have used it.

It strikes me that these choices are hardly equal and certainly moving upward in difficulty for a child to fulfill. What would I have chose, from an earnest little boy? I'd give anything for a hug now.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Something missing in yesterday's post

Part of my post on hopes, dreams, wishes and goals was truncated and missing yesterday. There was some kind of problem with Google suddenly restricting the number of labels a blog can use and I got an error message, which apparently other Blogger users were experiencing, too, but it looked as though it had posted the whole text. However, when I looked this morning, the end was missing. I will try to reconstruct it today, so if you are an interested reader, be sure to check yesterday's post for some new "bullet points" at the end. I hope Blogger allows me to add them. Unlike wiser bloggers who compose their posts in a word processor and then copy them to their blogs, I compose right in Blogger, so if something goes wrong, it's gone. Foolish, yes.

NOTE later today: weird, now what was missing is mysteriously back without me doing anything.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wishes, Hopes, Dreams, Goals

I was thinking this morning about the difference between wishes and goals, between hopes and dreams. I guess I could look up the dictionary definitions, but I don't think it would really get me any closer. A friend wrote on her blog that there's nothing worse than not having a dream and I replied that the only thing worse was not caring if one had a dream.

Of course, that applies to those of us lucky enough to be able to dream and not have to spend every waking minute just trying to stay alive, and perhaps dreaming of having life's basic necessities of food, shelter and safety.

But beyond that, what? In America our kids are so often brought up with the idea that they can be anything they want, which has as a kind of corollary that they must then be able to have everything they want. It's a part of the disillusionment of growing up to find out that isn't true, and that even getting a part of what one wants, or to be what one wants, requires effort, sometimes Herculean effort, with no guarantee of success.

Maybe the life we led when our children were growing up was too good. Maybe it looked to them as though we had a lot without real effort, which certainly wasn't the case, although we had much good fortune. What makes one child strive for goals and another float along without them?

To me, a wish is something we would like, maybe even fervently want, but haven't translated into real and achievable goals and put the effort into achieving them. Wishes are like the ones we make when we blow out the birthday candles . . . it's a desire for something, but it doesn't connote action.

Hope takes wishing a step forward, as though one has a reasonable expectation that the wish will come true. Hope looks to results in the future but it doesn't act to achieve them.

A dream is something larger, a more global wish, so to speak, something which, if realized, would be transformative, something which would change our lives. To me then, a dream is a "big" wish, and it might or might not be accompanied by the hope that it would come true.

But goals, that's where the action is. That's where the achievement is. That is in large measure, that and a modicum of luck (which no matter how we might like to deny it is also necessary) is what's necessary to get beyond the stages of wishes, hopes and dreams to accomplishing them. To get there, goals have to be specific and achievable, though they might require extraordinary effort. The famous lines from Robert Browning's poem "Andrea del Sarto,"

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? 
sound wonderful and inspirational but in truth, goals that are beyond one's grasp will result in endless frustration. The difficult key is in knowing not only what one can be capable of, with enough effort and dedication, but also what goals are worth that effort. This is one of the key problems we all face in life, what goals to pursue. And, actually articulating those goals instead of just going through life responding to the outside world and not really thinking about what we are trying to do with our lives, or the effects on those we love.

I look at the people I know, my family members, my friends, and look at the goals people are pursuing, whether it's completing an education, trying to stay financially solvent, raise children well, find a new career, complete an artistic project, and whether they state them outright or not, they have goals and are working to achieve them.

Leif, it seems to me, had many wishes, hopes and dreams, though at the end of his life I think he had given up hope they would come true, and at times he had strong goals and worked hard to achieve them, but too often that modicum of luck was not with him (such as when he lost his military career to asthma and never had a chance to be an Air Force pilot because of his eyes), but sometimes he focused on goals that he couldn't really MAKE come true and left those he could, things that would have immensely bettered his life, slide until they ruined it.

Although Leif had many career setbacks, he never set a real career goal for himself and set about reaching it. He would get a job, do it well, hope for promotions, and then be disappointed when they didn't happen . . . as would any of us, but he didn't work hard at finding better jobs or new career opportunities. All that paperwork and searching was not his cup of tea. 

Although Leif talked a lot about budgeting and managing his money better and made some efforts in that direction by terminating things like online gaming and cable tv subscriptions, he would then go and spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on things like a motorcycle, computer, or gun. Then he would be depressed because he had a hard time paying his bills and didn't have enough money to eat.

When he was in junior high and high school, he had project goals that he pursued with a vengeance, whether it was constructing and modifying radio-controlled model cars, constructing a giant chlorophyll molecule, designing and making his own electric guitar, or earning a black belt in judo, he excelled and would not quit until he had accomplished his goal. I used to say that he was like a train speeding down a track. Nothing could divert him from a goal he had set, and if he ever got that kind of interest in a life goal, there would be nothing to stop him.

But that never happened, and I still think there are three main reasons for that. The first one was having his original goals knocked out from under him by his physical limitations, which must have been hard blow for a strapping, strong young man to accept. The second was losing his love and companion. The third was the depression that set in following the other two. 

It is extremely hard, if not impossible, to set and work toward goals when you are depressed. Depression creates hopelessness and apathy. If you don't have hope that your can achieve your goals, there is little reason to really pursue them.

The one goal that Leif pursued with all his might, right until the end of his life, was to find love. More than anything else, he needed a lifetime companion, someone to love, someone who needed him, someone to make him feel strong and manly, someone to give him a home. He put all the energy he had into that search, everything he had to give. I will always believe that it was the collapse of that dream, when his finances collapsed and he must have felt he had nothing to offer the woman he had found, that demoralized him fatally.

I don't know what would have happened to Leif if he had been able to get his finances under control and find love. Would he have made it? Part of me says yes. Part of me says that if he had the kind of love he needed, if he hadn't been lonely and sad, he would have found within himself the ambition to work on career goals, if for no other reason than that he would have wanted to shine in her eyes. Part of me says that if he had children he would have found more love and reason to live. 

But part of me also wonders whether it would have lasted. Would he really have been able to curb the bad spending habits indefinitely? Would he have found another career disappointment and fallen into a new depression? And I am absolutely certain that if he had found love and a family, if he had lost love again, he would not have survived.

So often when I think about Leif I come back to my father, who had a family, four children, a PhD and a respected profession, yet he took his own life and it was because he had lost hope. He was depressed and felt he no longer had the mental capacity to advance the research in his field. A man's identity is so bound up in his work and his love. Losing either one, or never having them, is devastating.

I found myself lacking real goals in the past few months, doing the daily things I needed to do but without even trying to complete any of the projects I had hoped to work on when I retired. I realized it was a bad sign and I am working to correct it. It does no good to WISH they would be done. It does no good to dream without setting real goals, and setting REAL goals also means defining the steps to reach them. In this, I am learning from Leif and his life. I had goals before. Now I must work toward them again.

Not long after Leif died, his friend Lorelei said that Leif was teaching us one last hard lesson, and none of us knew what that lesson was at the time. I've had nearly a year and a half to think about it, and although I don't for one second think that Leif shot himself with the idea of teaching any of us a lesson, I do think there are things to be learned. So, what have I learned?

  • A life without purpose, a life without goals, is misery.
  • If you are without goals, hopes and dreams, get help.
  • If you are sabotaging your own life with dysfunctional habits and can't fight them yourself, get help.
  • There are others who care about you more than you know.
  • Taking your life will leave behind grief, misery and sadness that you cannot imagine. Don't do that to those you love.
  • If you are prone to black moods, depression or bipolar episodes, do not drink and do not own guns.
And most of all, 
  • Treasure your time with your loved ones. You never know how long you will have them.
This photo of a contemplative Leif was taken in our living room in Honolulu, Hawaii in December 1983.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Leif and His Aunt Lannay - Greenbelt MD - June 1990 - Age 15

We had such a good visit with my sister Lannay and her family before heading to Puerto Rico. Lannay and Leif had always had a special relationship, and it seems amusing to me now to see him towering over her after seeing all the photos of him as a toddler snuggled up in her arms. It looks like he could just pick her up and walk off with her.

The playground the took his five-year-old cousin Jacquie to (see the last post) was not only fun for her, it was great for him. He was young and powerful and had enjoyed testing himself.

I wonder now how he felt about the move to Puerto Rico. In the end, it turned out to be a place he loved with friends he felt comfortable with and cared about, but at this time, we were all heading into the unknown. Leif never displayed any concern about our military moves, but I later found out from him that he did have worries about adjusting, leaving behind friends and wondering if he would make new ones, and whether he would be accepted. It would have been even harder as a high school sophomore.

Leif was fifteen when these photos were taken.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Leif and His Gargoyles - Greenbelt MD - June 1990

On that same trip to the Virginia-Washington DC area when we visited my sister, Lannay, Leif had a good time playing with his younger cousin, Jacquie, who was five-and-a-half years old then. He was great with little kids and had been popular with the neighborhood kids at Fort Sheridan, where we had just lived, as "Big Al."

The lower photo shows Leif with his first pair of expensive sunglasses, an item that was to become a "trademark item" with him. These were Gargoyles, which I think he was introduced to by an Arnold Schwartzenegger movie. He spent a mint on them, something we certainly didn't understand.

Later, when he decided that Oakleys were more stylish and "cool" he gave the Gargoyles to either his dad or his brother.

These photos were taken in June 1990 when Leif was fifteen years old.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Why counting blessings doesn't really help - and yet how at times, it does.


Tuesday evening at my chorus practice, our director gave us an assignment. He asked each of us to write down five things we are thankful for each morning at breakfast time for the next week. There were a lot of groans among the chorus. It sounded like a class of teenagers complaining about homework, though I think the youngest of us is probably my age. He said it was an attitude-changing exercise.

I didn't object. I've tried this before, several times since Leif's death. I am well aware of all I am thankful for, of I have to be grateful for. The trouble is, even enumerating it doesn't make me FEEL truly grateful when I'm feeling sad about Leif's death. I know what I have to be thankful for, but it's hard, very hard find the joy in all the good things in my life when Leif's death hurts so much.

I read about the stages of grief and I wonder when I will pass this point, when I can let go of grief itself. It's not just letting go of Leif, which is hard enough, but letting go of my grief over his death. It's hard to even remember what it was like not to feel like this, though I look at all the pictures and remember all the good times we had.

I AM thankful for so much, and I have been truly blessed in my life, but that doesn't negate the sadness. It doesn't bring Leif back. Does that make me an ungrateful person who doesn't appreciate what she has? I don't think so. I think it makes me a hurt person who has to take time to heal.

I was working in the yard last week and an neighbor who also lost a son to suicide several years ago said that it's never the same, "You can have good times, but you want to share them and you can't. The loss always comes back."

I fear that. I don't want my life to be like that forever. Somehow, I want to regain that sense of joy I once had, not only for myself, but for Peter W., Peter Anthony and my grandchildren. There are glimpses of it sometimes. I savor them, but I wonder how long it will be before they are more than glimpses, before the tears are not so close to the surface.

Sometimes I wonder how terrible a burden Leif's life was, that he would take his life, how hopeless it must have seemed to him, and I know how much better my life is . . . but that doesn't lessen my sadness. If anything, in multiplies it. It hurts deeply, so very deeply, to know my son suffered like that and we didn't know and couldn't help him.

No, counting my blessings doesn't really help . . . not if it means taking away the pain today, but it does help in another way, which is why I continue to do it. It helps me keep perspective and not succumb to the downward spiral of negative thinking. It helps me to hang on to those blesssings and hope that someday the pain will lessen and shrink away to a smaller corner of my being so that all that's good in my life can shine forth again.

These photos of Leif, Peter W. and me were taken by my sister, Lannay, when we were visiting her and her family in Greenbelt, Maryland in June 1990. We were in the Charlottesville, Virginia - Washington DC area so that Peter could attend the Judge Advocate General's School course for Staff Judge Advocates, and we were in the middle of our move from Fort Sheridan, Illinois (Chicago) to Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.