Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
I’ve never posted like this before. But I suppose I’ve never needed to. If you’ve read the title, you know what to expect, and you can move on if you’d like to avoid the topic. I’ll understand. Grief is a funny thing. Professor Farina taught me that in the first class I ever took for my undergrad, and I never understood it until now.
For my wife, it’s turned into unreasoning anger. She’s downstairs right now, no doubt cursing my name. For me, it seems to have manifested in needing to keep myself busy. But I’ve run out of piles to organize and surfaces to clean, and so I’ve come here to write down the whole story of my son’s life. I apologize in advance for rambling, but it’s all so fresh and raw right now that I need to work myself up to the actual event. My greatest failure.
My idol, Skinner, once said, “A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances.” But I feel I have made a great many mistakes.
When my son was born, it was like I finally had found my calling. Yes, I’d had jobs before. Even what I thought was a respectable and long-term career. But nothing had ever captured my interest, nothing had ever engaged my waking and sleeping mind, like that tiny cherubic face.
We’d planned to leave Isaac with her parents four days a week so that she could soon resume her job and I could continue mine without interruption. But a week of paternity leave was far too short for me, and so I decided that we could forgo some of the creature comforts that two incomes would allow. I decided to become a stay at home dad.
The university wasn’t too thrilled about losing a tenure-track professor, but I was adamant. I’d finish out the semester, and that would be the end of my career in academia. Did it sting a little bit, to abandon my hard-earned degree and former dream job? Of course. But it was the pain of trading a rare treasure for a unique one. Many people have degrees in psychology. Many people hold professorships. But Isaac was one of a kind. Let somebody else be the next James Olds. I had found a higher purpose.
It proved to be a good thing that I had convinced my wife to let me stay home. Isaac proved to have a challenging childhood, and he needed a guiding hand. As a newborn, he had been cherubic. As an infant and toddler, he proved rather less agreeable. Years of studying and even teaching human development classes had not prepared me as thoroughly as I had expected. There were days I wondered whether or not I was fit to be a parent, and I’ll admit now that in my heart of hearts there were days when I regretted my choice to leave my job. Only for short bursts, and always followed by the deepest regret, but there it is. The pure and unvarnished truth: I am not – was not – a perfect father.
When I had just about reached my breaking point – when the thought of another day of tantrums and diapers and bone-deep weariness was too much to bear – Isaac turned a behavioral corner. It came right after a terrible fright – the only real injury he ever suffered in his life. His mother always thought that when he fell and bumped his head so hard he needed stitches, it must have knocked something loose. I didn’t think it was quite so drastic as that, but there was a marked improvement from that day forward. And although I could never have stayed mad at him for long, I was even more lenient as long as he had that hangdog look and those bruised eyes. In fact, having been afraid for even a moment of losing him, I could hardly bear to discipline him at all.
Luckily, I rarely had any call to do so. As the terrible twos faded into memory, Isaac grew into the model child. His tantrums disappeared, and the willful and stubborn young boy became as tractable as any parent could hope. He ate his vegetables, he cleaned his room, he put away his toys, and he made my life as a father an endless parade of delight. Seeing his bright smile first thing in the morning never failed to bring an answering smile to my face.
I was worried, I’ll admit, that he would change as he grew older and went to school. My wife called me a mother hen, half teasing and half exasperated with my worrying. After a year of public school, though, she began to agree with me. Our well behaved son was in danger of reverting into the little hellion who had so exhausted us years prior. I don’t know why she worried about it. After all, I had more than a little experience in education myself, and was perfectly qualified to homeschool. I think perhaps she thought that his emotional and social growth would be stunted if we pulled him from the public school system.
It was not. If anything, he flourished even more as a home student than he had in the years prior to formal schooling. I made sure to bring him often to homeschool groups and social gatherings, and tried to let him maintain those friends he had developed in his year in the system. And in terms of scholarship, he excelled. It was soon obvious to me that Isaac was gifted, and that those gifts would have been squandered in a formal classroom.
Seeing how much he enjoyed learning warmed my educator’s heart. While other children tolerated school and lived for cartoons and video games and reckless play, my boy loved nothing so much as sitting and reading, exploring whole universes with the same eagerness as some children explore dirty puddles and dangerous forests. And not just mindless novels or frivolous adventure stories: he read books of history, of poetry, of science. Isaac enjoyed learning for learning’s sake. He was everything I had ever hoped to find in a student, and I cannot express how glad I was that such a student could be crafted from my own flesh and blood.
As the years wore on, my son continued to develop into exactly the man I had hoped he would be. He never drank, never smoked, never tried drugs, and only very rarely rebelled at all – a few times staying out after curfew, a brief dalliance with a local girl. Of course, a little youthful rebellion is a normal thing, and I tolerated it as a necessary price for him to have a well-adjusted adolescence. My wife and I would listen with horror to the stories our friends told of their own screaming fights with hormone-riddled teenagers, with children who had become strangers to them, and nod with feigned sympathy. More than once, on the ride home from whatever dinner or gathering we’d been to, she would turn to me and say simply, “We are very, very blessed.”
When Isaac was beginning to think about college, he initially considered working towards a psychology degree. I was . . . unenthusiastic about the idea, and he noticed. I know that he considered it a high form of compliment to want to follow in my footsteps, and I took it as such. But I told him frankly that I had found my degree to be so much wasted time, that it was a meaningless piece of paper, and that he would be better served working at a McDonalds where at least they’d teach him a few employable skills. He took it as well as could be expected, and threw himself into a physics degree with a gusto.
My wife was surprised that he had stayed at a local college when he had so many offers from prestigious schools all around the world, but I explained the logic in it to her. Why spend all that money to go to another part of the world and be so busy with schoolwork that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it? Better to stay at home, save some money, and go on a well-earned trip around the world when the degree was earned.
Even if his field of study was not my own, he continued to echo my life in every way that counted. A brilliant scholar who reached the top of his class early and stayed there for all four years, he earned distinctions and accolades the way that lesser students earned demerits and police reports. By the time he was done with his junior year, he had all of the subject-area credits he needed to graduate, and had taken most of the available electives besides.
Maybe that was the cause. Could it be that his own enthusiasm, his own overwhelming urge to learn, was the reason for everything that came later? I hope not. Dear god, I hope not.
Whether or not it was, my son had his senior year to fill as he saw fit. Maybe it was a lingering thread of his earlier desires. Maybe it was a desire to emulate me still further. Maybe it was a pure accident of fate: a pretty girl mentioning a class she was taking, a coin flip, a split-second decision. Whatever the reason, he took a psychology elective this spring. A class about substance abuse. By the time I heard about it, it was past the period to drop it easily, and he was unwilling to put a blemish on an otherwise spotless record. And I was unwilling to force the issue. Of course I tried to convince him, to cajole him, to drop the class. But when he pressed me for reasons why he should bother, I had none to give. So I let the matter rest.
I have never made a worse mistake.
I heard all about the class for the first few weeks of the semester. For his whole college career, Isaac had been more than happy to spend time with his mother and I, and to regale us with stories from his time at school. We were so proud of him. I was so proud. But in February, something changed. His talks grew shorter, and colder, and soon stopped altogether. By early last month, my son seldom left his room while at home. When he did, any conversations we had were stilted and awkward. A wall had grown between us, and I couldn’t understand it.
My wife dismissed it as senioritis, or a long-overdue display of teenage pique. I was not so sure. My boy was perfect. He was beyond such things. She and I agreed that, if it continued past spring break (the first spring break he had ever spent away from home), we would talk to him about it. We WOULD get our son back, she said. And I believed her. I really thought I could do it, that no matter the problem, I could overcome it.
But Isaac never came back from spring break. All that came to us from those sunny southern shores were frantic phone calls, a police report, a cold body, and sealed letters. My wife and I laid him to rest in a small private ceremony a week and a half ago. As I gave the eulogy, I couldn’t help but cry about what we had lost. Not just my son as he was – the light of my life – but the man he might have been.
After many tears and brutal self-recriminations, my wife and I finally opened the envelopes that held our son’s last words to us. The one addressed to me was written for my eyes only, but I’ll copy it here for you. The words are too much for me to bear alone.
My first memory of you is a happy one. You’re holding me tight and comforting me, stopping my tears and reassuring me that everything would be okay. That’s been my memory of you for basically forever: the one person I can turn to who would make everything okay. The one person who would stand up for me and protect me no matter what.
I wanted to be just like you, and you wanted me to be even better. That’s why you pushed me, I think. In some twisted way, I think you honestly believed – maybe you even still believe – that everything you did was for my benefit.
I know, Dad. I know what you did.
Remember how hard you tried to convince me to drop Substance Abuse? I didn’t really question it at the time, even if I didn’t understand. I just wasn’t raised to question you. But I get it now.
The first time we learned about what heroin did for the brain, I was confused. Because that pure rush, that pulse-pounding oh-fuck-yeah euphoria? That sounded too damn familiar. I had it all the time. Every time I cracked open a book. Every time I aced a test. Every time I cleaned up after myself, or mowed the lawn, or did what you asked, I got the exact rush that the book described as a result of an incredibly powerful opiate.
I thought maybe I was making my own natural responses out to be more intense than they really were, so I looked into it some more. And person after person, documentary after documentary, convinced me that I wasn’t imagining it. So I thought maybe I was some kind of freak of nature with a really strong natural reward system. Maybe. But a reward system that favored studying and eating healthy as strongly as heroin and sex? That’s pretty fucking unlikely.
I know you’re probably surprised to see me swearing. I’m surprised to be writing it, believe me. It’s not how you raised me. The thing is, Dad, I’m trying really damn hard not to care how you raised me.
I had a CT scan done, just to check for any abnormalities. And what did they find? No tumor. No overdeveloped pituitary gland. Nothing unusual except for the big damn bunch of wires plugged into my brain.
I called Mom and asked her if I had ever had brain surgery as a kid. I was freaking out, but I wanted to think that I was wrong. That something could explain this. But no, she said. Never. Just some stitches from when I fell down as a toddler. That Dad could tell me more about it, since he was there.
The doctor wanted me to go to the police, or to stay so they could run some more tests. I told them I had to think about it. And I did. But I’ve thought about it now, and I’ve decided something.
I don’t know who I am.
My whole life, you’ve been pressing a button and zapping my brain into thinking it was happy whenever I did something that made YOU happy. Clean my room? Zap! Wash the dishes? ZAP! Did my homework? ZAP! And little by little, you molded me into the perfect little tin soldier of a son.
Am I everything you ever wanted, Dad? Am I as perfect as you hoped I’d be when you shoved this fucking thing in my head!? I don’t know who I am!
I’m your goddamn puppet! You killed whoever I was supposed to be! Whoever I should have been! You killed me, and replaced me with whoever the hell I am now!
I’ I just
No. No more. I don’t know if I’ve ever decided anything for myself in my whole fucking life, but I’ll decide on this much: when to end it.
I hope you burn in hell.
So now you see my pain. I dreamed many dreams for my son. I knew he could be anything when he was come of age. But I never thought he’d be ungrateful.
Everything he had, all of his success, all of the bad choices he avoided? That was because of me! Because there was somebody there to guide him, to steer him away from danger and toward a better path! All I wanted was for him to be as good as he could be. The best him that he could be. All I wanted was to give him a push in the right direction.
And at the end of the day, when I first thought of it, all I really wanted was for him to stop crying so much.
Well, there it is. The cause of all my tears, and all my wife’s rage. I think in his letter to her, he told her what I had done. She burned it, so I can’t be sure, but she came after me with a pair of scissors just after reading it, so he must have told her something.
She’s downstairs now, in the basement. It’s strange – while I was writing I hardly heard her, but now that I’m almost done her cries and screams are almost overwhelming. She blames me for what happened to our son, for what he did to himself. But she’ll understand my point of view in time.
When she wakes up from the surgery, she’ll learn to forgive me.
The author invites you to list to the narration of this story produced by Dr. Dreamtime on YouTube, which you can find here.