The second time Max killed himself it was too surreal to take in. He was lying in his bed with one knee up and his headphones in his right hand, next to his IPod. When he wouldn’t wake up, I yelled his name sharply in a parental tone, the one I used when he was little. I was so sure I could bring him back. I breathed into his mouth and continued to call his name. By the time the coroner guys arrived, I was getting panicky. I didn’t want them to take him away. I cried and argued with a hulking red-faced man who followed me when I got a scissors to cut a piece of Max’s hair. I looked up at the red face and demanded, “Do you believe in god?” I was planning to issue a mother’s curse, foretelling an eternity in hell. But he threw me by answering “No.”When they wheeled the gurney into the living room, Max was in a blue body bag, unzipped just enough to show his face. He looked peaceful, but white fizz was coming out of his mouth. I kissed his lips and told him that I’d see him on the other side. I once heard him say this to a friend, one of the times he was off to rehab.
The first time Max killed himself was so shocking and traumatic that none of us could get over it, especially Max. I told him later that when he jumped, he took everybody with him. His family and friends, all his loved ones. I thought this would increase his efforts to recover, because he owed it to us. What a stupid and heartless thing to say to a man whose failed suicide attempt had left him with so many physical disabilities. I would like to take it back, along with so much else.
That first time began at six in the morning, with his text message: “Going to jump onto PCH. So sorry.” It took just a moment for me to understand that “jump” didn’t mean jump into his car and drive. I was flooded with horror and adrenaline. I woke up my husband and called Max’s cellphone.
I can’t remember what happened in the next two hours. I think we made some frantic phone calls to Max’s friends. We didn’t think of calling local hospitals. When I got the call from UCLA, the woman on the phone said that they had my son and that he was hurt but alive. She urged me to sit down. She told me that at first, Max wouldn’t give them permission to call his parents but finally he had relented. She was great. You need great people when your son kills himself. You need people who are experienced with trauma.
We found the ER, where Max’s dad was waiting, jingling his keys. He turned to me and said, “It’s just like September 11 only this time it’s real.” On September 11, Max was working at the World Finance Center, next to the twin towers. A morning with a better outcome: Max was fine. Max’s dad, Nick, had grown more repressed and robot-like over the years. His tone was almost jaunty. I fucking hated him. It would only get worse as we moved through this tragedy, mirroring our bad marriage and again trapping Max in the middle.
After a few hours, we were directed to the Intensive Care Trauma Unit, where Max was in an induced coma, with tubes and machines everywhere. I felt only relief. UCLA seemed like a heavenly safety net designed to save my son and nurse him back to health. I didn’t know about the internal bleeding or the broken sacrum or anything else. Max was alive. He was meant to be here. How could he have doubted that?
By nighttime, everyone had gone home except for me and Duncan, Max’s cousin. They were like brothers. A nurse offered us juice and we fell in love with him. His name was Tim. We grew to become seasoned connoisseurs of nursing staff. The good ones, like Nurse Tim, earned our sincerest adoration.
That first night was endless. The blood transfusions and flashing monitors and complex web of tubes seemed reassuring to me. I inhaled the acrid odor of stomach acid that flowed through a tube into a large bag. It was fragrant with life, with Max, like the sour milk he spat up as a baby or his filthy socks as a teenager.
The next day, Max was being prepared for surgery. His attending nurse refused to speak to me and handled Max like a tire she had to rotate. She stood staring at the drip bags as if trying to decipher ancient wall drawings. I complained to the nurse in charge, who scolded me for complaining. I wrote a desperate letter to the head of the hospital, begging for a different nurse and explaining that Max was my firstborn child who meant everything to me. I must have sounded crazy but the nurse disappeared and we never saw her again. It was the first of many times I would beg, threaten or manipulate people whose decisions, to my mind, could either save or kill my child.
Every night at 7 o’clock, visitors in the ICU had to leave during the change of shifts. The hallways at night were dimly lit and mostly deserted. Duncan and I would sit together in one of the tiny waiting rooms. If he left me alone, or if I tried to sleep, my mind would fill with dread. What if Max died? The thought was literally unbearable. He had to live. My world depended on him. Why would god take him from me? I don’t believe in god but I believe in his vindictive streak. Maybe he was mad because I once lost Max at the beach, when he was only three years old. God wasn’t going to let me get away with this unpardonable sin, even though Max himself had officially forgiven me.
One night Duncan left me alone to make a phone call. I could see his reflection in a waiting room down the hall. The silence was broken by the horrible sound of a woman sobbing. The sobbing rang of uncontrollable grief and I wanted it to stop. When Duncan returned, I asked him if he’d heard that woman sobbing. He paused for a moment and said, “That was me.”
I don’t know how to tell Max’s story without lingering on his time in the hospitals. The hospitals became a progressive nightmare. The ineptitude and carelessness were terrifying. At one point, we took turns sitting with him so that he was never alone with a nurse or a doctor who might kill him. I had absolute faith in my ability to save him, and even boasted about my various triumphs, like getting him moved to a bed near a window. I was the one person who could comfort him. But I had no understanding of what he was going through. I thought it was the story of a heroic mother. I remember stroking his hair and whispering, “Don’t worry, honey. I won’t let anything bad happen to you.” He answered, “It already has,” and he cried for the first time.
At UCLA, Max became delusional. I walked into his room and thought I’d made a mistake. A sweaty old man lay trembling in the bed with his mouth open, not my handsome 34 year old son. I actually said to my husband, “Oops, wrong room.” But it was Max, jerking spasmodically and staring up at the ceiling with wild eyes. He jabbered nonsensically and didn’t know who he was. At one point, he began singing “I’ve been working on the railroad” in a comically strong voice. Maybe he was back in first grade. He waved his hands in the air and clawed at something invisible. Eventually they tied his arms to the bed after he pulled out an IV.
They tried sedating him but his body continued to jerk and spasm. I sat with him in the dark, watching the monitors. I could see that his heartbeat was climbing. A doctor from the psychiatry team stopped by and ordered two mgs of lorazepam every hour. A neurosurgeon came in and expressed concern. He asked me what drugs Max had been given and I sputtered, “Don’t you know? I’m just the mother.” I told him the latest theory, that Max was in withdrawal from klonapin, the drug that had landed him in rehab. “I don’t like the way he’s breathing,” he said darkly, and left.
By morning, Max was deeply sedated. The shift changed and a nurse named Sarah Spendlove was alarmed to find he had no gag reflex when she inserted the tube to clear his lungs. She looked at the clock and hesitated. She announced that she was going to make a decision she wasn’t allowed to make, overriding the doctor’s order. She stopped the lorazepam and slowly Max began to rise toward consciousness.
I remember all the times I thought about sending flowers to Sarah Spendlove to thank her for saving my son’s life. Now it’s too late. I don’t know how to thank her and then tell her that he’s gone, that he took that life because he found it unbearable.
The only other time I saw Max cry as an adult was the day he revealed that he was a heroin addict. He was 20, home from college for the summer. It was a confession made under duress. A friend had given him 24 hours to tell me, and then she would spill the beans. She was the only friend willing to rat him out. The code of silence in his circle was as strict as the Mafia’s.
Heroin addiction was alien to my world. It was still something that William Burroughs did, coughing and spitting in the junk-sick dawn. I had no idea that half the student body at Sarah Lawrence was strung out on heroin. I was shocked to the core but I felt no anger, only concern. “It’s been so horrible,” he choked out in despair. All I could do was hold him and chant, “It will be okay. I’ll help you.” Over and over. For the next fourteen years, I tried to help. I insisted on helping. Keeping Max alive was my engine, humming in the background of other struggles. I didn’t believe in the concept of Tough Love and I scorned every parent or professional who espoused it. The one and only night I practiced it, Max drove himself to a cliff and jumped.
Max’s delusional episodes in the hospital were mystifying to the doctors and nurses. They all offered different theories. Some of them stuck with Klonapin withdrawal; one suggested an imbalance of potassium. Seeing someone you love staring into space and smiling insanely is profoundly upsetting. His agitation was heartbreaking. Duncan had the most success at calming him down. There were times when we laughed, during his imaginary phone conversation with Michael Moore or his mic check for a gig with his old band. Duncan was the only one who could get Max to put his arms down when he thrashed them helplessly in the air. Duncan was the Max-whisperer.
The delirium passed and Max was serene but confused. A voice from a speaker called for Doctor Something to report somewhere. Max turned to me and asked: “Am I him?” I began to write down his questions and comments, finding his confusion adorable. When he asked, out of the blue, “Does God have any greater insult?” I had no idea how to respond. It never occurred to me that he was serious and rational. “Oh, I’m sure he does,” I told him. Max nodded and said, “Yeah, probably, because he’s God, right?”
Max’s dad came to visit the ICU at exactly 6 pm every night. He is a man who lives by routines. For the first few days, I would confront him outside the security door, and elaborate on how this was all his fault. I made no attempt to contain my rage. I blamed him for screaming at Max on the morning of the night he jumped. I blamed him for every bad decision he had ever made, all leading directly to Max’s broken body on the other side of the door. I sobbed and shouted in his face that every one of his instincts had been wrong. I still believe this but it gives me no comfort. I hear from my family that Nick is a broken man, a ghost of his former self whose life feels pointless. “Then let him blow his brains out,” I always tell them.
I don’t know why I married Nick except as a way to opt out of my own life. He was a daddy figure who would take care of me. I wouldn’t have to make my own way in the world. I had no ambitions beyond the wish to avoid anything difficult. He was controlling and emotionally constricted. There was nothing about me that he appreciated. Later, I would have affairs just to hear someone say that he loved my hair or my hipbones. Meanwhile, I kept a journal and ranted there about my empty marriage. Then Max was born. He was my savior and my gift to the world. He was indescribably beautiful with huge solemn eyes. An old soul, everyone observed. He was so sensitive that he covered his face when a contestant lost everything in Final Jeopardy.
Growing up, Max was physically timid, an observer. He sat and watched as other kids performed risky maneuvers. He was exceedingly gentle with his stuffed toys. He loved books and he loved to sit by the fireplace and watch the dancing flames. When Mr. Rogers said “Goodbye, friends,” Max would cry out fervently “Goodbye, Mister Rogers!”
What am I supposed to do with his baseball card collection? Heavy binders filled with rookie cards, boxes and boxes of random cards and unopened sets. For several years, they were his life. He and his friends spend entire afternoons bartering for cards. I learned to love baseball because Max did. I came to love the avuncular voice of Vin Scully and wished he would run for President. Max joined a small baseball league and earned a reputation as a reliable pitcher with a masterful poker face. Maybe that’s how he learned to keep everything inside. When he discovered music, he began to ponder the dilemma of becoming either a baseball player or a rock star.
Last night I dreamed that Max was alive again, after being dead for two years. It was some kind of medical miracle. I was telling everybody how miraculous it was, emphasizing that he’d been buried all this time and now he was alive. He was in a hospital where his health was being monitored. I told him how great he looked: he looked so healthy, young and fresh-faced. He was pleased. But the next thing I knew, I was desperately trying to make my way to the hospital, fighting my way through detours in a heavy rain. When I finally got there, a nurse told me that Max had died. I was devastated. It was an upsetting dream and yet I got to see Max, and to tell him how happy I was to have him back.
Before the dream, I had been sobbing hysterically, reminded by someone on TV of Max’s taste in music. It hit me with unbearable force that he is gone and not coming back. My husband sat with me and handed me tissues. It hurts him to see my pain and it frustrates him, too. He thinks there should be a time limit to this grief, that I should be ready to resume some kind of purposeful life full of activities. He can’t understand that my light has gone out. I’m not coming back, either.