I ask everyone in my life, and my community, and my work…to lean into being human, into vulnerability. In return, I have always promised you mine. That’s why I need to share with you that for the past week, I have been in the midst of grappling with a bone-deep grief.
I've never experienced grief quite like this, this endless hammering in my chest, the feverish sweats, the inability to sleep, the listlessness, the bottomless tears, the sudden sobbing, and desperately trying to drown out an alarm in my head that keeps screaming "DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING!"
I know that all of this is a sign that I am very, very lucky, a sign that at nearly 36 years of age, I'm only just having my first encounter with the Deepest Grief of the Soul. I don't feel very lucky.
These are photos of a Precious Boy - Our Little J - that I took years ago, when he was 19. We made some photos and then I made him dinner. It involved broccoli, even though he claimed he hated it. He liked what I made. Around his neck is the green cord and the compass pendant we got him before he left for college. To remind him to remember that his soul knows the way when his mind seems to have lost its way.
How do I explain that we feel like we've just lost our only child, when he wasn't our child by blood or by name?
I find myself desperate to quantify it - scrolling through years and years of endless text exchanges. I want to scream that he had a key to our house until we left for Montana, that his family has our phone numbers, that we know all the names of every single one of the important people in his lives. That I've slept for fewer than 4 hours for each of the past two nights, that Eliot and I both know it has been exactly 6 weeks since we last spoke to him on the phone or Facetime. Going through old call logs, counting the number of times we have fielded those midnight 'crisis' phone calls and stayed up for 3 sleepless hours on a work night, then woken up just four hours later, bleary eyed, worried and frustrated over coffee, but ready to send a check-in text.
As though quantifying it will make greater meaning of this moment. Will make someone see our particular pain, will make a difference.
How do you quantify unconditional love? How do you quantify a relationship that isn't reciprocal, that requires nothing in return other than the well-being of the other person? How do you quantify the loss of unquestionable giving, of inexplicable connection?
I've seen others posting about J, about how he was always smiling, always laughing, always happy. That's not true. J wasn't nearly as simple as those things. Eliot and I have spent nearly 8 years trying to teach J that he was worthy of love and belonging and healing and joy, ALL his parts. So I want to tell you about the J that I know.
I met him when he was 15 - just a child - through a show I was working on, and I looked into his eyes, and I saw something troubling and hard...just there, behind those big brown pupils. I asked the director for permission to spend time with him working on shared scenes during down-time. In reality, I spent the entire time helping him unfold his youthful self-loathing, gently grabbing his hands and teaching him to unlock his balled up fists when he "messed up" and grew irrationally infuriated with himself. I didn't know that this was the beginning of it all. I didn't know how quickly he would imprint on the part of me that was made to nurture and protect. And on Eliot shortly thereafter, too.
It took us three years of effort to fully earn his trust - of endless dinners at our house, of phone calls and visits and always showing up - for him to allow us to see him crying, or hurting. I can't explain our level of love for our J - just that it has never seemed optional or negotiable to us. We didn't do it to be Good Samaritans or saviors. I can't explain it, imprinting is the best word. He just belonged. In the toughest moments, we've shrugged and said, "Well. He's our kid." And rolled our eyes, or sighed deeply.
J has long specialized in isolating himself, in self-flagellation. If you're one of the ones that have known him especially well in recent years, you know what I'm talking about. He covered all this with a smile, and an obsessive attitude that looked like motivation but was so often driven by sadness and need. As he has gotten older, we've talked about the ways that he tied self-worth to achievement. We watched him evolve slowly away from his obsession with Being the Best, and our hearts have soared for him, with pride and trust. We've talked with him through every single major life decision he's made since he turned 18, except for three. Those are the three scenarios in which he knew what we would say and he didn't want to hear it. One of those scenarios is the one that we’re in now.
We remember his weird trendy-hat phase at 17, we remember instructing him to enunciate so we could understand him better on the phone once he went to college. We watched him start understanding his identity as a Black man with the help of new friends at Syracuse, and we remember the moment he sat down between us in the middle of his first year and admitted, for the first time, "I'm having a hard time like you said I might." We've worried about his injured shoulder and temper when he was on UK Cheer, we've shaken our heads at his wilfulness and stubborn streak, and joked with him about all things.
We have spoken to him in loving tones, laughing tones, soothing tones, and yes, we have even yelled at him and lectured him. I know the exact way that he fits into the crook of my arm when I hug him and go to kiss the side of his head. We know the exact way his smile shifts into chagrin when Eliot asks a good question and he realizes we've "got him." He made that face at us just six weeks ago. We always fielded calls together, because two parenting styles is better than one. J knows our relationship better than anyone in this world, because we parented him. Seeing him and Eliot interact made me love Eliot more. Our love for him called us to our highest selves, to our deepest wisdom. Even now, in agonizing levels of grief, we find ourselves calling upon our own wisdom - what would we tell J right now? What do we believe?
For the past three months, as J went through a particularly hard time, we've spent endless nights on the phone, watching him act increasingly belligerent and reckless in his anger. He has said things that are hurtful or thoughtless, and we have felt irritable and frustrated about it, but hey, he's our kid. At one point last month, we upset him by doing something he didn't like, but we did it because we knew it was what was best and safest for him. Because that's what parent-figures do. We know he was upset with us because we haven't heard from him since then, except for a polite text on Eliot's birthday. We had planned to override his distance and talk to him last week; we know that he loves us enough that he wouldn't ignore us. Except we can't do that now. You never think a given moment might be your last chance to do something.
At the foot of our bed is a cool air humidifier/scent diffuser that I've filled with lavender. J bought it for us last month, to thank us for "being there" during a difficult past year, even as we laughed and said "J! YOU DON'T HAVE TO PAY US FOR LOVING YOU." But he really wanted to make a gesture, and we let him. I still have the voicemail where he called to talk about that in a cheery voice, only getting cut off when Eliot called back on the other line.
He is everywhere and nowhere all at once. He is one of five people on Eliot's cell phone...that has settings to override Do Not Disturb, to wake us in the night. Eliot just looked at me numbly and said he removed him. "I can't see his name every time I go to call you." Yesterday at the Grocery Store, I stared dumbly at our Delta credit card, the one we were about to upgrade so we could use the companion ticket to fly J out this summer, because we've never gone this long without seeing him, not since he entered our lives.
At 5:45 AM last Thursday, exactly 24 hours from the moment J’s Aunt Kira broke the news over the phone, I woke with a start and sobbed into Eliot's chest. Afterwards, I couldn't sleep, but I gazed at the wall next to my side of the bed, and an image flashed clearly into my mind. It was a large boat, firmly tied to a dock with dozens of thick ropes, rocking softly in the water. As I looked down at the ropes, I heard an exceedingly gentle woman's voice say "This is where it ends. You have to leave it here." I saw myself slicing through the first rope, as if by magic. I didn't understand what the image meant, so I closed my eyes.
And beneath my closed lids, I saw the boat out at sea, except that suddenly *I* was the boat, and when I looked out behind me, I saw a little tugboat, tethered to me by dozens and dozens of thick ropes, chugging along in my wake. I felt a surge of affection, and my eyes flew open. When I opened them, I saw the dock with the ropes again, and just me, the Big Boat, tethered to the stagnant dock. I heard the voice again. "This is where it ends. You have to leave it here."
And in the days since, I’ve sat for many moments each day, eyes leaking, still as still can be, realizing that I'll have to let go of each of these ropes. Each rope a dimension of my boy, our Little J, each one a bit of what we gave him freely, pieces of all we have known and seen and imagined and dreamed and trusted, things left undone, future things to come....and then we're going to have to head back out into that big ocean without our little Tug in tow, at least for this lifetime.
We have lost a child that felt like our only child. A piece of our small family is gone. I'm not sure where to go in this moment, as I sit in some of the worst emotional pain I've ever known, but I only know what I have told Our Boy, time and time again: that - if we let it - the soul always moves towards healing.