April 7, 2008

(Un)Certain Future

My parents came over for dinner on Sunday evening. They're prepping to redo another room in their house (they seem to have an endless supply of rooms that need to be redone) and stumbled across assorted buts of my life they thought I'd like to have. Report cards from elementary and junior high schools which were surprisingly good (except math), much high school transcript, letters of recommendation for my first job - those kinds of things. While it was all vaguely interesting in a This Is Your Life sort of way, one thing stuck out. A letter. I'm sure I'd seen it before but I have no recollection of it. It was addressed to me and my parents. I've redacted a few of the more personally-identifiable things but it's otherwise represented below as written.

October 19, 1984

Dear [mom's name], [dad's name], and Chris,

It will be quite a while before I am able to show you how much I have appreciated your company over the last few years. That is because I do not know how to express it even in words.

Each of you has one person or thing to lay to rest. For you, Mr. [last name], it's [business associate] and any corrupt fat cats you find down there. For you Mrs. [last name], it's the legacy during the changing of the guard to where my mother is on top. For you, Chris, it is a new grade with new material and new teachers.

But for me it's the uncertainties of the future. I do not have a complete understanding of my role in the future; I only know that there is indeed a role for me. I know that I can count on your encouragement and support at all times while I am feeling the future out.

By the way, I regret that I am unable to share with you my art history report. I have not yet gotten it back yet but it should not be lower than a B. I'm personally hoping for an F myself (note the sarcasm).

You will always be my friends.

A month and a half later, Steven loaded a shotgun, shut himself in his parents' room and killed himself.

I've written about Steven before. Steven was autistic, insanely bright and wonderfully talented. Given a choice, he would have simply told jokes - in that nasally voice and somewhat disconnected gaze he had - all day long. His autism was very much a part of who he was yet he managed to transcend it, to avoid being defined by it. He attended one of the most prestigious high schools in the state of Texas yet it was his success and the need to keep up with life's unrelenting pace that, we think, drove him to take his own life. He was born unlike the rest of us yet assimilated into the world so successfully that he was eventually crushed by its pressure.

Steven's death affected me. I was a kid. I'm not sure how it couldn't. The fact that he did it the day after my birthday didn't help. I learned early that taking your own lives takes little pieces of life away from everyone else you know. Opening and reading the letter, I was reminded that Steven was a person, not a concept cobbled together from memories over the past 24 years.

Revisiting Steven's death through the lens of the letter doesn't clarify or change anything. I'm not sure what triggered the letter but it does seem to come from a kid who's conflicted. Concern about legacy yet hope for an uncertain future. A future that was, in his case, a month and a half long. He'd be 42 years old if he'd lived. He might be a father. He'd definitely be telling jokes. But he probably wouldn't have the complete understanding of his role in the future he mentioned. None of us do.

Posted by Chris at April 7, 2008 8:27 AM

It's Autism Awareness Month. Interesting connection. And another view of why we need to get something done about autism. I'm scared, scared for the future of our world. My son is autistic. I live with autism on a daily basis. And as much as I love and adore my son, autism needs to be addressed. Thanks for the opening.

Posted by: Tera at April 8, 2008 7:43 AM


Posted by: jen at April 8, 2008 7:43 AM

What a tragedy. I clicked the link and read the back story. You are so very right, a parent should never outlive their child.

Posted by: Mymilabean at April 8, 2008 8:17 AM

What you wrote: I learned early that taking your own lives takes little pieces of life away from everyone else you know.

Captures the feelings I had about suicide but could never verbalize it. Thank you for doing that. Thank you for sharing Steven with us because now I can put my big girl panties on and deal with the petty things I have to deal with this week. I have a good life, you reminded me that in the big picture I have a lot of joy, the issues that I am facing right now are temporary and will go away.

We can honor our friends...and I hope that you place that letter some place special so its not lost for so many years. Memories are a gift, even if they are hard some times. We can always learn from them and like this when you share, you encourage others to look at their lives.

My life is good...I was throwing a pity party...but now the party tone will be different I will be celebrating that I am still here!
Hugs Chris

Posted by: gypsy at April 8, 2008 9:00 AM

Parents shouldn't outlive their children, no matter how the children go. One of the hardest things for me to accept about my friend's death in 2002 was that his mother, who battled incredibly aggressive breast cancer, had to bury her son. I'm pretty sure she would've switched places with him in a heartbeat.

And...yeah. I don't know what else to say. It's all true. We never know the impact our lives have on others. And we can definitely never know the impact our lives have on those left behind after we pass on.

Posted by: Sparkle Pants at April 8, 2008 9:01 AM

Losing my fiance to alcoholism was a huge turning point in my life. I had no idea that I would be so angry/confused/sorrowful/relieved? And that my life would change so drastically.

But in my selfish grief, I've forgotten that his daughter is still here, still affected and will be forever changed. I don't get to see her anymore - she has a great mom and step-dad, but your post has reminded me that I need to continue to pray for her. The children are the ones that remember the most.

Posted by: k8 at April 8, 2008 9:04 AM

Amazing post.

Posted by: Sarah at April 8, 2008 9:12 AM

chris, the sentence of taking ones life takes away pieces from everyone else you know...my first husband committed suicide...and even tho we were divorced at the time (due to his being suicidal) i spent years trying to harden myself to the fact that i would read his death notice.. and even though it was 14 years later...i was devastated...and when i found out he had remarried not even 6 months before... i wrote a letter to his wife to let her know it was NOT her fault...

Posted by: the unicorn at April 8, 2008 9:15 AM

I'm crying at my desk.
I needed this today.
Thank you.

Posted by: Caitlin at April 8, 2008 9:16 AM

"I learned early that taking your own lives takes little pieces of life away from everyone else you know." That describes it perfectly.

It's been almost five years since my friend Leo killed himself. I don't think about him as regularly now, but it still hurts when I do, and even more when I think about everything that he has missed. He never got to meet his son or see how wonderful and special he is. He was the love of my friend's life, and now she's married to someone else. Whenever we all get together, he's not there. I'm sorry he was in so much pain that the only way he saw out was to kill himself, but I wish he'd been able to wait to see if life got better in the future.

Posted by: bad penguin at April 8, 2008 9:21 AM

I guess that was Steven's goodbye letter to you, although there was no way of knowing that at the time.

I am a high school (math - sorry Chris ;)) teacher. Suicide rocks our school community like nothing else. We also have a number of students with autism in our school who I find really interesting. I am glad we are more aware of the contributions that these people make to our community rather than stigmatising them for their differences.

Posted by: Jacqueline at April 8, 2008 9:25 AM

If life were a person, someone to whom you could ask simply, "Why?", I have a feeling that all he would do is shrug his shoulders and reply, "Why, not?", and no one would have a good answer for him. That's just the kind of guy he is.

Posted by: You can call me, 'Sir' at April 8, 2008 10:03 AM

Wow. I remember in middle school trying to help out a girl I knew who attempted suicide but was unsuccessful. I never really GOT what suicide attempts do to the family around the person until my SIL attempted it years later. Even to this day, thinking about it makes me sad and angry all at the same time.

Here's to Steven.

Posted by: C-Rah at April 8, 2008 10:08 AM

I know what you mean about little pieces of life being taken away. A good friend committed suicide just over a year ago and it still hurts. One of the things that hurts the most is that despite a loving family who were involved in his life and a crowd of friends, there were few of us who could even guess his pain.

Posted by: Susan R at April 8, 2008 10:34 AM

Well said, Chris.

Posted by: GreenCanary at April 8, 2008 11:54 AM

I'm sorry Chris. I know that although times does help to heal, you never truly forget. And that kind of death makes one want to scream "Aw, fuck!" I send hugs to you today and peace.

PS:Please join me tomorrow, April 9th for a celebration on Dackel Princess!

Posted by: Maribeth at April 8, 2008 1:17 PM

This is a timely post, Chris. More than you know. Last night one of my youngest son's good friends shot and killed himself last night. He was 14 years old. This kid was loved by everyone. He was a good student and a superb athlete. Wise beyond his years and the kind of social skills that made him approachable and respected by teachers and peers. He was a teddy bear of a kid who was the first one on hand to help his friends and they were legion. No one had a bad thing to say about him. Yet, his outgoing MySpace message asked if there was anyone out there who loved him. So, if this kid didn't know that he was loved...what chance do most kids his age have? We are reeling and heartbroken. He left a note and gifts for his friends. This was no impulse act. It was thought out and planned. The community here is in complete shock and as I write this there are counselors at the middle school dealing with grieving 8th graders...my son is among them. If 25 years later you can still think about Steven...I know others will be thinking the same thing about this boy.

Posted by: apathy lounge at April 8, 2008 1:31 PM

Usually all those old paper bring back fond memories, it must have been a blow for all of you to stumble upon this.

I've always thought of suicide as the upltimate in selfish acts, but you description is far better.

Posted by: Mandy Lou at April 8, 2008 1:50 PM

This was a good message to see today. And very true.

One of my coworkers lost her sister to suicide, and she has spoken often of how it has devastated her family and friends.

I've found letters from friends among my high school papers, and one brings absolute shivers to me now. I wish I knew then, what I know now, as one of my friends was screaming for help in a way I couldn't understand at that time.

She suffered greatly, at the hands of a family member, although I couldn't see it when we were both so young. It only looked like basic teenage angst at that age.

If only I had given that note to an adult, then.

Posted by: RC at April 8, 2008 3:54 PM

Just came home from a long frustrating afternoon at a clinic full of specialists. My son is Autistic. Thank you for this. Sometimes some of my family members are angered by the label that says "not normal". But all I know is that as a parent, it's my job to pay attention. And to act. Applies to almost everything in raising kids. Pretty simple in concept, hard as hell in execution. I think recognizing that you can't always have the answers is even harder.

Posted by: OS at April 8, 2008 5:12 PM

Just came home from a long frustrating afternoon at a clinic full of specialists. My son is Autistic. Thank you for this. Sometimes some of my family members are angered by the label that says "not normal". But all I know is that as a parent, it's my job to pay attention. And to act. Applies to almost everything in raising kids. Pretty simple in concept, hard as hell in execution. I think recognizing that you can't always have the answers is even harder.

Posted by: OS at April 8, 2008 5:12 PM

That's some pretty crazy stuff there, Mr. C. At least you know how important you and your family were to him.

Posted by: Zandria at April 8, 2008 9:16 PM


As the spouse of a person who suicided more than seven years ago, I can say the pain never goes away, we just learn to live with it.

An angel, God, someone or something with tremendous power and some type of amazing grace, guided my current husband in to my life, and we were watching Lord of the Rings a few days ago. He began to tear up during the scene where Frodo hangs at the edge of the ledge, over the volcano, and whispered something. I asked if he was okay and he told me he sometimes felt like Sam, offering his hand to me to pull me back up from the sadness of having lost John, and how the weight I carried sometimes seemed like Frodo - no one can carry it but me.

Sorry you had to learn that lesson so soon. Sorry these souls have to suffer.

be well,


Posted by: dianne at April 9, 2008 3:20 PM


Posted by: Aimee Greeblemonkey at April 11, 2008 12:29 AM