One day this past week I could not stop thinking “I should have known. Something must have been wrong. I should have seen.” Which day was that? It doesn’t matter because I have this same day again and again. I have other kinds of days too. The “Jesse would want me to be happy” kind of day is one of the better ones. But every so often the “I should have known” day rolls around. What should I have known? I don’t know exactly but my mind says, “I should have been quicker or more observant. There must have been signs and I was not quick enough or observant enough to see them.”
Just for the record, it is now two months after the event and we still do not have a cause of death. We have lots of maddening conjectures and theories but we really don’t know anything except that my son went to bed one night and did not wake up. He had some prescription medications. No other drugs were found in his room.
The previous Sunday, July 31st, I experienced a very intense and horrible premonition. I have gone over that day in my mind a hundred times, and I have told the story to several people who, bless their hearts, have listened sympathetically. But I need to write it down. Maybe that way I will begin to get it out of my system. I feel like there is a clue in that day that I am missing. Here’s what happened Sunday July 31st, one week before Jesse died:
He always came over for Sunday dinner because Sunday was his only day off from work. He also was in the habit of sleeping most of the day Sunday, “to catch up.” All his life, literally from birth, Jesse had sleep problems – problems getting to sleep and problems waking up. I talked to his pediatrician about it when he was little. I got lot of advice. One suggestion was when all else fails, there’s always Benadryl. I may have resorted to that once or twice, but did not like to depend of drugs to get him to sleep. As he got older he developed coping mechanisms to deal with his sleep issues, but it was always a struggle, especially school mornings. With 20/20 hindsight I now wish I had thought to have a sleep study done.
That Sunday morning I texted Jesse about dinner plans, as I always did. I didn’t get a response. Later I called, but he didn’t answer the phone. I tried texting and calling periodically throughout the day, becoming increasingly concerned. By the time he was supposed to be at our house for dinner I felt panic rising, an ominous feeling that things were not right. Just before 7 pm, I decided to drive to his apartment at Churchland Square, about 20 minutes from our house, thinking I might even pass him on the way. When I got to the apartment I saw his car in the parking lot. It was pouring rain that night, one of those Biblical deluges we keep getting around here. I banged on his apartment door.
He lived on the second floor and the outer door opened to a staircase leading to the inner door, so I don’t know how he would ever hear anyone knocking on that door. No one knocks anymore anyway. You just text that you are at the door. But I had already done that and called too and had gotten no answer. All my texts and phones calls seemed to be getting swallowed by black hole of silence. Then I sat in my car for 30 minutes in tears. “Dear Lord,” I prayed, “I just want to know that he’s okay. Just let me see that he’s okay. That’s all I ask.” I had never felt such a sense of fear before and had never prayed so hard and so directly in my life. Tom called and said I should just come home. Dinner was getting cold and anyway Jesse’s roommate would be home soon and he said he would check on him and call us.
A few minutes later Jesse’s roommate Kyle called Aaron, who was on a camping trip, and Aaron called Tom to tell him Kyle said Jesse was sleeping. It seemed a long chain to go through to get information, and I still didn’t feel sure all was well. Around 8:00 Jesse finally called. He said he was sorry, he just overslept. He would be over shortly. I collapsed into a chair in utter relief. “Thank you God!” I said. Everything was fine. I was just crazy. Thank God it was just me being crazy.
A little while later Jesse came over and when I saw him standing in the doorway I felt that same gush of grateful desperate relief I had been feeling all year every time I saw him, except this time more so. I told him I had been worried but didn’t tell him how worried. After all, my worry, I thought, was an unreasonable overreaction. Jesse was a healthy young adult after all. He had just had a thorough checkup in July.
“Jesse,” I said, “Did you take any substance that might have made you sleep extra hard?” “All I took was half a five-milligram melatonin,” he said. “I always sleep hard and I turn my phone off when I’m sleeping.” I felt relieved all over again and let myself be reassured. Then he sat down and we had a long pleasant conversation about this and that – work, his plans for taking online classes, his new campaign for Portsmouth mayor (a little shocking), and things going on in downtown Portsmouth. He showed us the mayor website his friend at work had just created. He seemed happy and enjoying his life.
Before he left he asked to borrow $100. Since moving out on his own a little more than a year ago, he had never asked to borrow money before and seemed a little uncomfortable about it. His rent, he said, was higher than usual for some reason, maybe because they had gone on a month-to-month lease recently. I gave him $150 and he said he’d pay it back on payday. I said we always help each other when we can and suggested he consider moving back home for a few months to save some money, especially if he was going back to school. He got a strange look in his eye – surprised and, I think, kind of pleased. “I’ll think about that,” he said. Tom said if he ever got short on money not to skimp on food because he could always come to us for help if he needed it. “You’re looking a little thin,” he said.
I spent that week doing the usual things, feeling good about life. A couple times I drove by Shiny Computers on my home from work and saw his car in the parking lot. All was well. Thursday, August 4th, I texted him that we were planning a trip to see his aunt and uncle in the mountains the weekend of the 26th if he wanted to come. He texted back that he’d see if he could get off work that weekend. That was the last time I heard from my son on this earth.
Sunday morning, August 7th, I texted him about dinner plans and did not get a reply. I texted and called several times throughout the day. “We’re having a repeat of last week,” I thought. But every time I started to feel the panic rising I would take a breath and calm myself, remembering how last week I had gotten myself all in a tizzy for nothing.
Tom grilled burgers and he, Aaron, and I sat down for dinner. Jesse didn’t show up. “Should I go over there?” I thought. “No,” I decided. He is an adult. He overslept again. But by the next morning I had not heard from him, and I knew in my heart something was wrong. Later that morning, while I was at work, I called Shiny Computers. The guy who answered said, “Jesse’s around here somewhere. I’ll have him call ya.” Then I “heard” the words – the silent but clear voice that seemed to come from my chest. “Carol,” said the voice. “It was time for him to go home.” The tone was compassionate but firm. My body reacted by melting into a quivering gelatinous mess. My mind went numb to the words.
I called Tom but didn’t tell him about the voice. “I’m going over to Shiny Computers right now,” I said. “I have not heard from Jesse and I need to see him.” Tom said he was heading that way anyway so he would go there and call me as soon as he got there. Thirty minutes later he called. “Jesse never showed up for work today,” he said. “I’m heading over to his apartment.” I was shaking. My body already knew what my mind was denying. A few minutes later the phone rang again and I got the news. That was the single most awful moment of my life. It plays over and over in my head. “Carol (ragged breath), Jesse is dead….” How does one take that in? I had heard that voice – “Carol it was time for him to go home” and this was the confirmation.
It is now two months later and I know it is not fair to Aaron to have a miserable mother. Aaron fills my heart with joy, just like Jesse always did, and I am so grateful for him. He is a wonderful, compassionate, resourceful, talented young man. But we are all sad. I feel the loss of Jesse as a crushing weight. I am quite functional, going about my life, working, writing, cooking, cleaning, only with a leaden weight in my chest that frequently swells and sends stabbing pains all over my body. I have read several books and blogs on grieving and losing a child but I can’t read them long. The gist seems to be that people do not recover from this kind of loss. Five, fifteen, twenty years later they are still sad and a lot of times their lives and families are impacted negatively.
These books are depressing. Most of them will say, rather weakly, that there can be some recovery, a “new normal”, a new way to live with some sense of happiness. One book (Beyond Endurance: When a Child Dies by Ronald J. Knapp, PhD) says that the death of a child is much like a diagnosis of terminal illness. Well that’s a cheery thought. Most experts define a “child” as a young person into the early twenties, but I imagine the trauma is the same for parents who outlive a child of any age. I have about decided that these books are just not helpful to me.
On the hopeful side, I have an appointment with a psychotherapist/grief counselor on Monday and will see where that goes. I owe it to Aaron, Tom, and the rest of the world to do anything I can to live a productive life for whatever time I have left. Tom and I met with our wonderful accountant yesterday about setting up a charitable foundation in Jesse’s name and honor. That gives me a tiny glimmer of joy. I’ll have more information about that soon.