Welcome to An Examined Life. Occassionally I delude myself into thinking that I understand some part of my life (or life in general) and I thought it might be a hoot to share those thoughts with whomever happens to stumble across this. I hope you find something enjoyable here. If I'm really lucky, I'll make you stop and think for a moment.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Aftermath Part 4: What I’ve Learned

I got no rules to recite except love each other; God, if you’d all only do that, you wouldn’t need no other rules at all, not one.

- from Godbody
- by Theodore Sturgeon

As 2011 drew to a close I was feeling pretty good about my life. I was coming off a sabbatical during which I’d launched a new research program, one I was excited about. I’d settled into the single life again, I had a group of good friends around me, Benjamin and I were spending some great time together, and Jonathan was spreading his wings, preparing to soar. I felt that 2012 was going to be a very good year.
All of that changed in the space of a couple of minutes on the afternoon of March 1.
I often talk about my sons in class. My first psychology prof at George Mason often talked about his girls in class, using stories from their lives to illustrate some point he was trying to make. That left a lasting impression on me and over the years I began to see why he did it. I’ve learned so much from trying to be a good parent to my kids. So, recently I found myself thinking about what I’ve learned from Jonathan’s loss, what about this last story of his life I could share with future students.
The first, most insistent thing to come to mind was this: you’re not safe. Not even at home. You can go about your day, doing your work, talking to your friends, and then go home and die simply making dinner in your own kitchen.
But I don’t think that Jonathan would want that to be the meaning I took from his death.
The next thing I thought was that life is fragile. I’ve known that intellectually for a very long time. But no amount of reflection, no amount of reading and studying can prepare you for how easily a life can be snuffed out and for everything that person knew, everything that person felt, everything he loved and longed for, to simply be gone. I could never share my feeble attempts to explain that with a group of strangers, especially those in their late teens or twenties. I’ve only tried with a small group of my friends.
And at that point several things came together in my head. I was the last person to talk to Jonathan on his cell phone. I may have been the last person who ever talked to him. I’d been trying to reach him for a couple of days to see if he could take in my mail while I was away at a conference. He called me while I was on the road to the conference with my colleague Anne and a group of students. We talked briefly, but I was driving and about to go through a tunnel, so I couldn’t stay on the phone long, even though he wanted to tell me about a new project at work. Just a few hours later I got the call from City Hospital that he was gone. On the long ride back to Shepherdstown that night I replayed that last conversation with Jonathan over and over in my head. I usually end phone calls with the kids by saying, “I love you.” But in that last call I was rushed and I couldn’t remember actually saying it. So, it meant more to me than I can say when I mentioned to Anne some time later that I might have been the last one to talk to Jonathan and she responded, “That’s so nice because the last thing you said to him was, ‘I love you.’” That brought me almost to tears.
The reality is that life is fragile. To deny that is to deny part of what makes life so precious, so worth clinging to. Life is, in a cosmic sense, difficult to create, it is impossible for us to bestow (except in that most sacred intimacy between men and women), but it is ever so easy to destroy. Every time you walk away from a loved one there is a chance that you will never see each other again.
And so this. It is hardly an original thought; others have said it before and others will no doubt say it again. But this is my lesson: don’t ever waste any opportunity to tell the people you love how you feel. It may be the last thing they ever hear.
Benjamin, I know that I say I love you a lot, probably even in some situations when it’s a bit embarrassing (like a blog post on the World Wide Web). I hope you know that doing that isn’t just a habit and that I mean it every time I say it.
Mom, Dad, I doubt that either of you knows that I even have a blog. I’m pretty sure that neither of you will actually see this, but I love both of you, too. The same goes for my siblings: Jeff, Kim, John, Judy, Troy, and Nickie. I don’t think we say “I love you” often enough in our family. I hope we can change that.
Heidi, Anne, Joe, Chris, and Richie: I love you guys. I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with or a better group of friends. Your confidence in my leadership abilities is a constant source of amazement to me. Thanks for being there, thanks for listening to some things I know weren’t comfortable to hear (some of them actually having to do with work), and thanks for not treating me as if I were irreparably damaged. I really appreciate it. A special shout out to Anne; your help and support got me through the worst night of my life. I might not have made it back from Pittsburgh without you.
Stephanie. What can I say? I love you, my friend. If I have even a shred of sanity left (which is highly debatable), I owe it to you. Our lunches have meant a great deal to me, and helped me get through divorce and to begin to deal with Jonathan’s loss. You’ve listened when I needed to talk, you’ve talked when I needed to listen, and you always seem to know which one to do. That’s a rare gift. You know, you’d probably make a great psychologist. Up for a career change?
Mike, you, too, have been a great friend. Some of my favorite memories are centered on the courses we taught together, the discussions we had over lunch or in the reading group. Because of them, I think I’m a better chair, a better psychologist, and a better person. You should know that your talk on Constitution Day made me laugh. For the first time since Jonathan’s death, a deep-down, heart-felt laugh. Thank you, buddy. Love ya.
To all my other Shepherd colleagues (faculty, staff, students, and – yes – even the administration), you all are amazing. Over the years we’ve butted heads, we’ve argued, we’ve struggled with budget cuts and a changing academic environment. But, we’ve also laughed, and joked, and we’ve taught a lot of students, and we have, I hope, learned a thing or two ourselves along the way. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but the reality is that we humans are social critters. It takes a village for us to live. You all are my village. Thank you for being so amazing; I love you all.
This is, I think, the last of the Aftermath postings. That’s not to say that I’ve recovered, or healed, or whatever. I don’t think you ever recover from the loss of a child. I’ll be dealing with the aftermath of Jonathan’s death for the rest of my life. But, as I typed this entry I could sense a door somewhere in my head closing, and I could hear a single word, “Finis.”

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