Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quote from "The Little Prince"

Today as I was straightening up my office, I came across the guest book for our wedding. Inside it was a paper on which I had written a quote from the book, "The Little Prince," by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I no longer have any idea why I wrote it down or what it meant to me at the time, but it is so terribly true.

"It is such a secret place, the land of tears."

Is it ironic that right under the guest book were two cassette tapes which contain a recording of my father's funeral in 1960 and some of his piano compositions? It's undoubtedly a coincidence. They were not "together" in the sense of meaningfully having been placed that way, but they belong together, just as they belong in a thematic way next to the red little metal bucket with the white polka dots that came from Leif's office and holds some of his things.

The land of tears IS a secret place, a place where no one else can really go with us, and from which we can only emerge by ourselves, though often with the help of the love of others.

I'm glad I found this today and not three years ago. Today I can say that I do not live in the land of tears. Today I can smile.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

False Dichotomies - Happiness versus Unhappiness

When we are growing up and learning language, we are not only learning to understand and communicate, we are being programmed, learning how to think and what words to use to think about concepts. We have to learn that to be able to use language appropriately, but if we learn it rigidly, our thoughts, too, will be trapped in rigid thinking.

Today while I was riding with Peter W. on our daily bike ride, I thought once again to myself how when I took this ride in 2006 and 2007, I was happy. I remember thinking how beautiful it was, enjoying the sunshine, the clouds, the flowers and landscaping, the lovely homes. I remember enjoying the breeze and being with Peter.

And I thought how changed that became when Leif died and other family problems intervened, how our perspective changed, our feelings differed.

Then I wondered how one gets back to that place of happiness and what happiness means. Does a level of mild depression become a habit? Does lack of happiness become habitual and defining? I think it can for some people, and they don't know how to break out of it. For those who have severe clinical depression or bipolar syndrome, or brain injuries, brain chemistry or damage betrays them and prevents normal feelings of happiness or satisfaction from returning or staying. For the rest of us, slow healing usually brings back a level of happiness or at least contentment.

But what if it doesn't? Can we consciously work to bring it back? I think we can.

We are taught that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness . . . or sadness, as though the two have no shades or states in between. We "are" either one or the other, as though our attitude and thought patterns and actions have no real effect on those emotions. We are taught that if we are happy, we cannot simultaneously be sad, but I don't think this is true.

I began to think about this and the thought patterns we cultivate in ourselves some months ago and I particularly focused on my feelings about being Leif's mother. I asked myself the question whether I was happy I was his mother, and whether his death overshadowed that happiness. The answer I came to was that I was overwhelmingly glad he was my son and that I had him in my life for 33 years, even though there were many problems during those years. I look at all the photos of his life and at one and the same time I am happy to have them, happy to see his smiling or serious, or sometimes silly face, happy for the good times we shared, happy for all we taught each other and learned from each other, happy for the family life we had; and yet I am sad for his pain, for his problems, for his death, for our loss. The two will always be inextricably mixed.

It's normal after a death to focus on the loss, for it is painful and the impact is life-changing, but it's healthier at some point to make a conscious effort to stop focusing on that loss and focus instead on life. This is not easy to do. It takes courage and determination. It's easier to stay focused on loss. It is monumental. It becomes habitual.

I also learned that happiness and unhappiness, or sadness are not exact states. They are a continuum along which many other emotions can be charted, from contentment and pleasure to annoyance and anger. There are so many more nuances to our emotions, and the other negative ones can become just as habitual if we let them. Emotions can be like any other habits in our lives.

We learned as children that somehow happiness, unhappiness, sadness all come from outside us, from external influences, and surely, everything in our lives does impact and influence those feelings, but just as surely, in many cases, we are internally influenced by how we choose to think about them, by our attitudes.

That I learned from listening to my Great Aunt Victoria wail about things in her past for years that other people wouldn't have felt were worthy of remembering, and learning to joke about situations in which we could take things with good humor or understanding, or "be like Aunt Vic" and cultivate our hurts and unhappiness. I think unhappiness can even become one's identity, or a part of it, and then it is even harder to let it go.

There are times when we are plunged into the depths of unhappiness, sadness, grief, whether from the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship, or some other catastrophic change in our lives, from interpersonal problems or difficulties in work or career, and then we experience the full measure of what unhappiness means. At that time, at least for a time, attitude doesn't matter. We cannot escape it or climb out of the black hole of despair, but we can try to find other connections, other things to believe in, focus on.

With time, we can climb out of the black hole, if we choose. And perhaps this is part of the meaning of letting go. We have to let go of grief and unhappiness itself, not just the person we are grieving for. It's not a quick process. It's not easy. There is even a part of us, of me, that somehow, sometimes, feels it's wrong to be happy after such a tragic blow, that we have to pay the dues of sadness, that it's necessary to prove our love. But how long does it take to do that? When can we allow ourselves to move ahead? At some point, if we decide we want to be happy, choose to find happiness, then we have to realize just as consciously, that we have to give up the identity of unhappiness and reach for a new attitude and focus. I am trying, and I accept that I can be happy and still feel sadness.
This photo was taken in our living room at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, when Leif was graduating from Northwood Junior High School in Highland Park, Illinois, May 1989.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father's Day

I've posted this photo of Leif on his dad's chest when he was three months old in April 1975 before, but somehow it seemed right to re-post it on Father's Day.

Mother's Day and Father's Day always seem to have a sad component for parents who have lost a child. The day isn't whole and complete without all one's children.

I am thankful we have Peter Anthony, our first born, to be a part of our lives this day.

And sad that Leif is not here to be a part of it, too.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Putting a Face on Suicide Project

Mike Purcell lost his young son to suicide in 2008, the same year Leif died, and started the Putting a Face on Suicide Project. He is creating tribute pages for those who have died by their own hand, submitted by family members and friends, and plans to continue this for 365 days. Each photo submitted is shown on a tribute photo page in an album for that day. Leif and my father appear in Day Four. There is a separate album of tribute pages for those who served in the miliary, and Leif appears there as well. He also makes videos of each day, and the videos are available as links from the project video page on Facebook, or from the pafosproject page on YouTube.

Leif and my father appear in "Day Four." The links to the photo album page and YouTube video for Day Four are below.

Putting a Face on Suicide Day Four video

Putting a Face on Suicide Day Four photo album

The project makes composite poster pages from hundreds of the photos submitted, creating a face from faces. These are available as posters that can be used for suicide awareness.

I have always felt, ever since my father died in 1960, that it is important to be honest and open about suicide and it's terrible impact on those left behind as well as the deep need to help those who are in such despair that they contemplate taking their own lives.

If you go to the Putting a Face on Suicide page, you can't help but be struck by the smiling faces that look happy . . . at least in those pictures, at least for the camera, by the misery and grief of those left behind, and by the many projects that families are doing to memorialize their lost loved ones and educate people about this silent epidemic. I thank Mike Purcell for creating this poignant and important project. Only someone else who has gone through the pain of losing a loved one to suicide can understand what he went through and continues to suffer. Creating a project like this is a tremendous way of helping others cope with the loss and emotions they likely have few other places to share.

If you want to know more about Mike Purcell's son and how he died, visit the Christopher Lee Purcell Memorial Page on Facebook, and if you are a suicide survivor, or know those who are, recommend the Putting a Face on Suicide Project to them.

Friday, June 17, 2011

How Much Did Heredity Play a Part?

When I saw this photo of my father when he was about eight years old, I was struck once again by the resemblance to Leif at the same age. My dad's home haircut was a bit more jagged than Leif's, and the color photo of Leif makes it harder to compare the two, but I still see such a similarity. They both are beautiful children, and both have a certain vulnerability about them, a certain tenderness.

Were there any signs, in either of them, at this young age, that their adult lives would end in suicide?

Beyond that, what else did they have in common? Both were extremely intelligent. Both had only one sibling, another brother, six years apart, though my father had a younger brother and Leif had an older one. Both were dreamers and described as moody. Both liked to take photos when they were teens. Both liked music, though their musical tastes only overlapped in a few areas. Both liked pie, good food, stage plays and movies. But most of those things are superficial, things many people share and they aren't connected to suicide.

Leif had a harder and sadder adulthood than my father did, from a repeatedly broken heart to financial difficulties he couldn't solve, from being robbed to being injured in a motorcycle accident. He served in the army, which my father never did. He was divorced, which my father never was. He had no children. My father had four. He had no faith. My father was a professed Christian, though I think some of his views were less than properly doctrinaire.

But despite the lack of some strong and obvious characteristic that linked their fate, I believe there was a link. Was it genetic? Was it example? Was it both?

I will never know, but it is so hard to look at these beautiful and hopeful young faces and know that despair ended their lives. Grandfather and grandson who never knew each other but shared a common fate.

I miss them both. My father has been dead for 51 years now, and I don't associate him with Florida and my adult life, so I don't miss him acutely and daily, but I do still miss him and deep down in my heart, when I open that door, I grieve for him. He was only a part of my life for twelve years. Leif was mine for thirty-three, and though he has been dead for over three years now, there is no day that goes by without us talking about him, remembering him, no day that I don't miss him, no day that I don't still ask why.

What was the link? Why did they both take their lives? No matter how many reasons we can give, it is still no explanation. It still doesn't reveal how a man can consciously decide to drink cyanide, or knowingly put a gun to his head and pull the trigger.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Even in Suicide, Soldiers' Families Deserve Condolences From President

Leif was no longer in uniform, no longer on active duty in the army when he took his life. He was medically retired, but he felt close to his brothers in arms, cared deeply about them, and identified with them. He kept his uniforms, boots and dog tags. They continued to have meaning. He often talked and commented about policies that impacted soldiers' lives, and was against their lives being lost in what he felt were needless wars that counted their lives of too little value, no matter how much lip service was paid to our "heroes."

He would have been incensed to know that soldiers who died of suicide to not receive condolences from the President, as those who die in other ways do. He would have supported Gregg Keesling's efforts to make this happen. Read the article by clicking on the title, "
Even in Suicide, Soldiers' Families Deserve Condolences From the President."

Mike Purcell talks about this in a Military Times, Outside the Wire Article titled, "Are Suicides Considered Less Honorable?" (Click the title to read it.) He says, and it is so true, as you will learn if you read the stories of those soldiers who took their lives . . . they were good soldiers and served their country well:

“This Memorial Day please remember those we have lost on ‘the other battlefield,’” Purcell writes. “Their service mattered greatly, as did they. Their families deserve to be recognized with dignity and respect, in their time of profound loss.”

It's now past Memorial Day, but we should remember still.

Purcell is also behind the Putting a Face on Suicide project, a Facebook page with a broader mission to literally show the faces of those who have died by their own hand, whether military (there is a special Wall for them) or not. It isn't possible to visit that page without being affected by all the smiling faces of those who felt life was not worth living and the pain of those left behind.

The photo is one taken of Leif by an unknown fellow soldier. I found it in an envelope of photos he had.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leif in Blue on a Sailboat in the Caribbean

I love these photos. Peter W. took them when we were out on a sailboat when we lived in Puerto Rico in 1991. Leif was such a "Tarzan specimen" then, so tall, slim, muscular and handsome. He was letting his hair grow long, was finding good friends and dating, doing well in school, making his own guitar. He loved the sea and sailing. This was the summer that he went on the teen sail adventure in the British Virgin Islands and came home really looking like Tarzan with his long hair in tiny braids -- not the Tarzan ever actually had that hairstyle, but this was the Caribbean version. :) The memories of that time are good, happy ones. I'm glad he had some good times. Though not all his time in Puerto Rico was happy, I think some of the happiest times of his life occurred there, like his first love, K., and his triumph as Kenicke in the musical "Grease," his sail adventure, guitar playing, his group of friends. How I wish the successes he felt then had continued.

Today was a beautiful day, one that would have been lovely for a sail, a day at the beach, or Leif's other joy, a motorcycle ride. As we were driving down Dale Mabry in Tampa, a silver RX8 was alongside us. It might have been Leif's car. We thought of him, talked about him, reminisced, and how we missed him. BOB (big orange ball) was smiling on Tampa today. I wish he'd been there to enjoy it.

There are always so many reminders of him. I was thinking yesterday, as I was driving home from doing some errands, about this blog, about how I've been writing for more than three years. Haven't I said it all? Told all the memories, some more than once? Asked all the questions? At least all that I can put out here for an internet audience to read. What is left for me to write? And then I'll have a new dream, or something will trigger another memory, or I find a new picture or set of photos I'd like to post, and the blog goes on. I'm glad, for as long as it lasts. It's become a part of me.