The day that you took your own life, you were 17 years and 6 days old – a mere 18 days older than I was when I became your father. For your first 48 hours, I was both your biological and legal guardian, and when that time was up, I gave up my responsibility to the one part of that equation that I had any say in. In doing so, I relinquished the vast majority of responsibility for your well-being to a beautiful family who wanted that responsibility much more than I did. None of us had any idea what a pernicious concoction of mental illnesses we’d passed onto you, and what the very act of adopting you would do to compound those illnesses. For my part, I was relieved that I was not going to be the one doing the hard work of finding those things out.
I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot in the past couple of weeks. I’ve been thinking about how difficult it must be to go through your adolescence in a virtual space, with so few social barriers to keep you from interactions that may be harmful. In this weird virtual space, I saw you struggling – with an ex-girlfriend, with suicidal thoughts, and with a deep and horrible self-loathing. And as I have during other times, I thought – “he’ll get through this. He’ll come out the other side stronger.” And maybe you would have, had you given yourself the chance. But the weight of the pain and anguish that came with this particular breakdown – layered upon past breakdowns – proved to be too much for you.
Though I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, the truth is that there were a great many times when I’ve forgotten about you. And now I can’t help but wonder – did I forget about you on accident or did I forget you on purpose? You haven’t been part of my story for a long time, nor have you been a part of the story I tell others about myself. I determined at the age of 16 that there was no place for you in my life, and I determined later in my life – either for convenience out of care for my own self-image – that there was no place for you in the narrative of my life either. I moved on, I carried on.
But you sought out connection with me via social media. I kept track of you, and I wondered what you saw when you looked at my Facebook profile. What I hoped you saw was a vision of a possible future for yourself – your biological father who made it through a difficult adolescence to find a semblance of happiness on the other side. But now that you’re gone, I wonder: Did you just see another family that had no place for you? Did you see a life that you had been deliberately excised from? Did you see someone who made the choice to move on from you after 48 hours, and was better off in your absence?
“It’s OK to touch him, you know.” My Dad and I were standing above you in the delivery room as you lay helpless in the newborn crib. Nothing had prepared me for the feeling I would have when you were born. And when you were lying there, I didn’t know what to do. My Dad put his hand on you – how small you were! – and told me that it was OK for me to do the same. I still needed that at that point in my life – I needed someone to tell me that it was OK. I know that up until your last hours, you had many people in your life doing the same for you. They told you it was OK, that you would get through this. They told you that leaving everyone behind was the wrong choice, that you were loved and that the pain would be too great for everyone to bear. But how could they have possibly understood the kind of pain that makes someone end their life the way that you did? How could they possibly be seeing the same picture as you? How could the pain you were dealing with – over, and over, and over again – possibly be worth enduring for any longer? They didn’t understand. I didn’t understand.
I remember when I was your age, I went on a date with a girl and was subsequently refused a second date. So, I did what young men do, and I showed up to her house unannounced. Right when she opened the door, she said, “please don’t fucking cry.” She was familiar with boys my age. So of course I fucking cried. I ended up crying over every girl who gave me so much as a tender look without subsequently agreeing to be mine forever. I didn’t know that shit was practice. I didn’t know that I’d be practicing for 10 more years before I felt even remotely OK about myself. And that’s not to say that people didn’t tell me- of course they did! But another highlight of being that age is that the emotions we feel are so intense, so visceral – that a calm explanation of the realities of our situation doesn’t hold a candle to what’s burning inside of us. What a mess I was – and there wasn’t a single person on earth that could tell me that those peaks and valleys would level out. That I would find some degree of contentment, eventually. That it was worth sticking around to find out what lay on the other side. I had to make that decision on my own.
It’s easy to become convinced as we’re growing up that there’s certainty all around us. Everyone just seems to know what they’re doing. The world we live in promotes the “fake it till you make it” mentality writ large. There’s church in everything. People are conditioned to gather in large groups and vocalize their certainty of purpose. We’re told that God has a purpose for us too, and that if we say it often enough, it will become true. But what does that mean for those of us who are struggling to find our place? What does it mean when when everyone tells us that that we are supposed to feel something at a particular moment, but find only emptiness? It’s oppressive – and at a young age it’s impossible to convince ourselves that problems lie anywhere other than within ourselves.
One of my favorite movies of the past year was Arrival. The movie itself centers on the loss of a child. The central question it asks the parent is: If you had this all to do over again, would you? Would you choose to bring this life into the world knowing that it would eventually be taken from you? It was beautiful, poignant, and it helped me deal with losses that my family has already endured. For those losses, the answer was clearly yes – of course we would make those choices again. But what’s the answer with you, Thomas? Would I make that choice again, knowing that the person I brought into this world would exit it 17 years later, a tortured soul full of pain and self-loathing? Did you experience joy often enough to make the pain worth it?
There’s no playbook for this, Thomas. I’m not your Dad. But you were very much my son. The things that you couldn’t control in yourself were the things that I couldn’t control creating within you. The pieces that were broken inside of you were pieces that I gave to you. Some of them were pieces that were mercifully dormant within me, and some were pieces that I broke by the very way in which you were created. Yet I passed them onto you nonetheless. So what’s my role in this, now? How do I grieve a son who wasn’t really my son? How do I say goodbye to a son I barely knew?
I just… I thought you were going to call. I was waiting for your call. I wanted to talk to you. I wanted to tell you that there’s a place for you in this world. That there’s a level of rationality in looking around and saying to yourself “this is incredibly fucked up, I can’t do this any more, these people are all fucking crazy.” You weren’t wrong in thinking those things. But we live in a big world, in a big country. And I know that there was a place for you within it, somewhere. I know that peace existed for you somewhere outside the confines of the town and the church that you were raised in. And I wish you would have given yourself time to find it. I wish I had done my part in helping you get there.
On Saturday, I will join your family in carrying you to your final resting place. It wasn’t my choice nor was it my responsibility to carry you to term, like Holly did. It wasn’t my responsibility to bear the burden of raising you, as Randy and Laura did. Much like you, I chose the path of least resistance. And now the only weight I will be helping to carry will be that of your casket. The weight of the choices I have made. The weight of the pain you endured during your short time on this earth. It’s not enough, and it’s much too late. And for that I’m so, so sorry.