On October 1st, 2009, I woke up at four o‘clock in the morning.
A light was on in the living room. My 23-year-old son, Jared, was sitting on the chair in front of the family computer.
I called his name and he didn’t respond. When I tried to rouse him, he wouldn’t wake up. I listened for breath, felt for a pulse…found neither. His skin felt cool to my fingers.
Twenty years previous, when Jared was three, it had occurred to me that I wouldn’t know what to do if he or his younger brother, Nathan, were choking. So I received training in CPR from the Red Cross and became certified. I didn’t imagine that 20 years later I would call on that skill to try to save one of their lives.
I pulled his limp body off the chair and onto the floor as I dredged through the years to remember what to do. It came to me like a series of pictures. I followed each step in sequence.
I checked the inside of his mouth for any objects, pinched his nose shut and put my mouth over his. I breathed into his lungs. His chest rose and fell with each breath.
Time passed like in a dream—out of control—too fast. Such desperation! I was almost in a panic. I trembled as I frantically tried to think what to do next.
But another part of my brain became calm. There, time seemed to pass infinitely more slowly. Colors stood out, details, inconsequential things—I had never really noticed the pattern of the carpet on the floor beneath him, the way the colors twirled and blended together. Was I dreaming?
Chest compressions, then breathing into his mouth again. His chest rises and falls like he’s actually breathing, giving me hope.
How intimate, I remember thinking, his soft, slightly chapped lips against mine. Such a gentle feeling, so loving. So like kissing. How many years since our lips had touched like this? How long ago did he start resisting kisses from his father? Fifteen years? Sixteen?
Is this the moment of my son’s death? Can I save him?
I remembered when he was born. I was in the room when it happened. The nurse had handed him to me and I held him in my arms. I cooed soothingly in the deep, gentle tones I had been using to talk to him for many weeks while he was still in his mother’s womb. He stopped crying and turned towards the sound. I held him close against my chest and murmured gently to him.
And now this. As at that time so long ago, I again felt the awful, mysterious power and wonder of life.
Breathe, Jared, breathe, I cried softly. It was like peering into the face of God. Incomprehensible. Unfathomable. It felt impossible to absorb the truth of what was happening before me.
Breathe… please, please, breathe.
But it was too late…too late I felt it like a gong tolling the moments. He was already gone. I was too late. He was dead. Drug overdose, we learned later. But I already knew that.
In the weeks following Jared’s death I found myself overwhelmed by a kind of disillusionment. Everything that had seemed important faded to a trifling stillness. My life, my concerns, my self-absorption—all glutted with pettiness.
Illusions—what power they hold! We usually think of being disillusioned as a negative thing, something to be gotten over. The goal is to get back to normal, whatever that is.
What is normal anyway?
As the weeks passed I became aware of the many illusions I had been living with. Important-seeming things like my career of over 30 years, and material things like my car, my possessions—are they important? What has my car to do with who I am? Yet it often seems that it does. What of my home, the clothing I wear, the way I think people see me in the world—are these important? They seem so, much of the time.
Normality is living with illusions as if they were real.
Jared, my son, died. The illusion is that he was taken away from me. The reality is it had nothing to do with me.
What happened to Jared is between Jared and God—not about me at all. My life was just incidental to his.
Oftentimes we confuse grief, a healthy, necessary emotion, with self-pity. Look what I’ve lost, we think. I dreamed of a world where my son went to college, got married, raised a family—all a fantasy of a made-up, hoped-for future. He wasn’t my possession.
We talk about living in the moment. The illusion is that there is a future world that contains any of us. Or that there is a real past that actually somehow exists and defines who we are right now, here, in this moment where all things do actually exist.
We’re born, we live for a while, then we die. Take a long, slow breath and absorb that truth for a moment. It’s a comforting, revitalizing thought from a certain honest, fearless perspective.
That’s how I want to live—honestly, fearlessly, blissfully… Free of illusion.
Is it possible? I don’t know. Maybe. It seems important to try.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Wiki Commons