I don't mean this to be a downer but it's been on my mind so I might as well deal with this.
There can be no greater shock than to open the obituary section of the daily newspaper and see a photograph of your son staring back at you.
Such was the terrible backlash I experienced on the morning of December 27, 2016, two days after Christmas, three days after Jamie's very sudden death.
Mind you, I'd been prepared for the newspaper revelation. Well, as much as you can prepare for something that disturbing.
My son had died in his sleep on Christmas Eve. That morning, his wife Alexie – my daughter-in-law – had screamed into the phone that she could not awaken him. "Call an ambulance right away!" I cried out, feeling less than helpless 250 kilometres way.
But it was too late. Jamie was gone.
He had died the way all of us want to: in our sleep, without pain.
His heart had simply given out.
He was 34.
My wife at that time and I, dealing with shock and trauma, hurriedly dressed and ran to the car, ready for life's saddest journey. Christmas carols rang out on the radio but I had to mute it when "All I Want For Christmas is You" emerged.
Tears clouding my vision, my shoulders heaving in anguish, I feared hitting vehicles in the oncoming lane. But I pressed on.
"Why?" I kept asking. "How could this happen?" "What the hell's going on here?"
Later on, I would add to these unanswered interrogations, "What good comes of this?"
I never did get answers.
Two long, aching hours later we arrived at my son's house in the city. Other family members were already present along with two police officers who stood by silently in the corner. Apparently until the coroner arrives to confirm a death, the police are required to hang in and ensure there is no foul play. Really? I was irritated at their attendance at what is surely the most personal of family times.
But one of the cops approached me cautiously and expressed his condolences. Then the second officer did the same thing. Suddenly, I saw their sad job in a different light. I expressed my regret that
they would have to endure such misery on Christmas Eve. The peace was brokered.
Alexie was beyond grief. She could barely talk. But she managed to tell me that Jamie's body was upstairs, awaiting the coroner, whose visit would be followed by the undertaker. (Alexie is a lawyer, after all, and despite her anguish, she'd managed to make the right calls to the right authorities.)
I knew I had a terrible decision to make. As Jamie's father – and how we'd enjoyed such a close, loving, warm relationship – I so wanted to say goodbye. Yet, knowing myself as I do, and accepting the reality that
I am a visual person, I puzzled over whether I wanted the last view of my adored son to be him lying on the floor, stone cold dead. It would be a haunting image I'd carry forever...
The first cop who had approached me saw my unsureness. He came over and whispered, simply,
"Peter, is there anything I can do?"
I stared at him. "Bring my son back," I wanted to say. But I stifled my thickheaded thought and told him about the dilemma I faced.
"No one can make that decision but you," he stated softly. "Still, you may be best to keep your last memory of him something more joyous."
"Joy!" I moaned. "Jamie was so full of joy! He just Facetimed me yesterday morning, early, so Addy could see the puppies..."
Indeed, what will exist for all time as my last memory of Jamie – so full of life and so very much in love with his enchanting eighteen-month-old daughter Adeline – is the telephone delight we had shared just 24 hours before where dear, sweet, Addy wanted to see my two rescue dogs who she absolutely adored. Jamie knew they slept at the foot of the bed and as I turned the phone's camera to show them off, I could hear her squeals of delight as her daddy egged her on. "Look Addy, there's Molly... look, there's Macy. The puppies are so happy to see you." We closed by expressing our love for each other and Jamie told me he couldn't wait for the three of them to come up to stay with us for several days right after Christmas. "We'd like to ring in the New Year with you too if that's OK, Dad." OK? Are you kidding? I couldn't imagine anything more divine.
But it was not to be.
Those would be the very last words I would ever hear from my son.
As I write about this, I'm mindful that I, as a 60+ writer, have been asked recently to comment on the kind of wisdom that comes with age, selecting from one of these themes:
Fear and Courage
Struggle and Success
Love and Loss
While Love and Loss stand out, all four apply.
Witness that in the two-hour drive from my rural enclave to my son's urban residence, fear fought sadness throughout. The sorrow piece was obvious. It was fear that rocked me. I was afraid I'd never be able to deal with this tragic happening. How would I make sense of it? How would I carry on? And more than how, could I carry on? I feared I would not be up to the task that all of this would demand. And I feared for poor Addy, having to grow up without her daddy.
The courage segment came into play as I summoned up my guts to carry on. Truth be told
, life had been getting me down recently, and now... well, the walls just seemed to be tumbling
in on me. Only two months before, my wife had expressed her desire to leave our marriage and return to the urban paths we'd previously shared, which I'd been happy to leave behind. I had readied myself for her exit (indeed, she would go on walk out in April of the new year... I can assure you, gentle reader, that losing your child and your spouse within four months of each other is not something you'd wish on an enemy!). And I can only label my resolve to keep on keeping on – a determination that was sorely tested – as lionhearted. Courage, indeed.
Similarly, as I struggled to bring any kind of meaning to Jamie's death, I knew I'd have to come out of this on the other side, somehow victorious, successful. It's now two years later and the well of tears has finally run dry. Though I think of Jamie every day, my thoughts have progressed to those of the jubilation he experienced in life, not the tragedy of his death. Success!
Have I learned any timeless knowledge about love? Sure.
I loved my son more than you can imagine. He was my hero. And yet, there were times he could drive me to distraction (and I'm sure vice versa). So, here's the sagacious wisdom on the subject I will share with you. Love can make us happier than we've ever felt. But love can also make us sadder than we've ever been. To love is nice. To be loved is nicer. But to love and be loved : man, that's the gold standard! And I can only hope it greets me once again.
Moving on, I can't bring myself to talk much about loss. I suppose if you're reading this, you'll understand my feelings on the subject. Pretty simple: I've lost my son. I've lost my spouse. It sucks!
All of which bring us to Human kindness. Now here, we're talking about dimension. I can't imagine where I'd be without the generosity of spirit displayed by friends... those kind confidants whom I'd expect to show up and who did, and those who surprised me by being there. (And others who amazed me by not showing up at all, or not staying around... but that's another story for another time.)
OK, we're approaching the end of my time with this subject so let me use the last basket of digits to contribute some wisdom that's guided me in recent times. In doing so, I'm mindful of a book I wrote, "Why Being Happy Matters" (in which I interviewed people from around the world on the subject of happiness). In the midst of my grieving, a friend suggested I ought to re-read my own book.
And my own words remind me of three really important points which I'm happy to leave with you:
1) We are each accountable for our own contentment in life; it’s up to us to take control of how we feel. We have the power to choose well-being for ourselves. Or not.
2) Don't focus on what you don't have. Rejoice in what you do have and be grateful for it.
3) Keep those whom you love – and who love you – close by. They are the ones who will make all the difference.
And that, dear readers, you can take to the bank.
BTW, to say my Jame was well liked and respected is no over-statement: 650 people attended his memorial service at Mount Pleasant, the second largest turnout they had ever experienced (the first, I was informed, being for a hockey star. How Jame would have liked that!)