WEEKLY WRITING CHALLENGE: I REMEMBER
I remember very well the week leading up to my son’s death. It was Easter of 2008. He called me on my cell phone as we were driving home from Cracker Barrel, where we had our usual Sunday breakfast. After some trivial chitchat, his tone turned serious. “I’m coming over today. I need to see you guys.” I told him that was fine, never actually expecting him to show up. I had been disappointed so many times.
James was 20 years old that Spring, and he had been troubled for quite some time. He had decided after high school to move in with friends and try working for a while before college. He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known but had the affliction that many intellectually gifted kids share. He couldn’t function very well in the real world.
Eventually, he turned to drugs to cope with the mental demons that tortured him. First it was just a little pot to calm down and focus. Then it was cocaine at parties. Finally, he turned to heroin. I would pick him up sometimes to take him to dinner and watch as he nodded slowly back and forth, his eyes rolling back in his head. At the time, I thought he was just staying up too late, overextending himself. Little did I know.
James drifted from one friend’s home to another with his pathetic little cardboard box of possessions: a few movies, some pictures, and some old letters and birthday cards. He rarely worked any more because the drugs had such a hold on him. When his welcome wore thin time after time, he would move on like a leaf caught in a summer wind, stopping for a moment only to be picked up and carried to the next spot. And he rarely visited home. I think that under the facade of the carefree clown he was hurting and embarrassed.
That Sunday afternoon I was amazed when he opened the front door and walked into the living room wearing his black puffy ski jacket, sleeves rolled up to the elbows. He always wore that silly thing, even when it was warm outside. I was hugely pregnant with my youngest child, and he immediately came over to touch my belly as he always did. He loved babies and children and was really looking forward to being a dad someday.
James stayed for a while, but I could tell that he was restless and antsy. He could no longer go more than a few hours without a “fix”. While the rest of the family watched “American Gangster”, he sat alone in the back bedroom, typing furiously on the computer. He was typing a letter to the girl who had finally had enough of his addiction and let him go, the only girl who had ever really reached him, if only temporarily. Losing her broke his heart, and in retrospect, I believe he was writing a goodbye letter.
We were still watching the movie when he came out and announced that his ride was on the way. He sat next to me on the couch and put his head on my shoulder like he used to when he was a little boy. We stayed that way until the sound of a horn blowing in the driveway broke the spell. He got up to leave “I love you Mom.” He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed and just held on. I remember thinking that something was off; he was being uncharacteristically vulnerable.
I didn’t hear any more from James that next week. My husband and I were busy making preparations for our new baby, who was now almost 10 days overdue. I finally gave birth to a 10 pound, 1 ounce baby girl on Friday and spent the night in the hospital. Although I had tried for a home birth, I ended up having a fourth C-section. When I came home on Saturday, I was exhausted and in pain.
By Sunday, after a few sleepless nights, I put our new baby in bed with me so she could nurse at will and maybe, just maybe, I could finally rest. It worked. I slept like a rock that night, barely regaining consciousness for feedings and diaper changes. Then, at 3am, I woke with a start, heart pounding and eyes wide open. I wasn’t having a nightmare. I looked over at the baby sleeping soundly beside me. I sat up on the edge of the bed and a sense of dread washed over me. I wasn’t sure at the time how to define the feeling, other than to say that something felt terribly wrong.
The next morning, everything seemed normal again and I chalked my odd sensation up to exhaustion. My husband and I spent the day with the baby, taking her in for her first doctor’s appointment and just enjoying our time as a family. I felt happy that day. I had waited so long and suffered so much to have one more child, and now she was here. Nothing in the world could have compared in that moment.
The phone rang at about 7pm that Monday night. I was getting tired, so I ignored the call. But the calller was persistent, and the ringing kept on and on. Finally, my husband answered. I could hear my sister’s frantic voice on the line. “Where is Lisa? Is she holding the baby?” My husband told her that I was. “Don’t let her stand up with the baby. Make sure she’s sitting down!” I knew instinctively why she was calling. I didn’t need to hear anymore. One of James’ druggie friends had found her number in his phone and remembered visiting her. He called her in a panic. James was dead, his cold lifeless body on the living room floor. His addiction had won.
Looking back at that week, I know now that James meant it when he said “I have to see you”. He knew that it would mean a lot to me someday that I got to hold him one last time. He once told me in a rare candid moment that he felt like he had lived out his entire twenties even though he was only 19 at the time. The weight of bad decisions and wasted opportunities had become too much to bear.
Shortly after James passed away, I would come to find out why I woke from a dead sleep that fateful Sunday night. A piece of my soul had just been ripped from me. His time of death was 3am.