“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
The banality of condolences. No matter how sincere the speaker is, my reaction is numb after hearing it for the umpteenth time. But what else are people supposed to say? My muted response may be disconcerting but I am grieving. My son Raymond is dead after hanging for four days at the end of a noose on a stairwell at the back of a church.
His band Civic Duty is performing tonight at the Knights of Columbus as a tribute to Raymond, the lead vocalist and chief lyricist. My wife and I are at a table to the side. The adults mingle at the bar in the back while the kids, many of them Raymond’s former classmates, dance at the stage in the front. The band has been doing covers for about an hour, but the members said they would play some of Raymond’s original material. He finished his album just before he disappeared. We listen to it frequently, keeping Raymond’s voice, his presence with us.
A woman with an artificial sheen to her face extends her sympathy. Raymond went to a private Catholic school but we struggled to make the payments. He had internalized some of our anxiety about paying for college. Did he think he was a financial burden? He didn’t leave a note. He seemed happy, his friends say. Excited about starting college, finishing the album. You’ll never know why everyone tells me. The helplessness is overwhelming. A major tragedy has occurred and there is nothing to do to abate the sorrow. No action will change the outcome; my son will still be dead.
The band starts a song that everyone knows and two teenage girls holding hands skip to the stage. That should be Raymond up there, feeling the rush of playing his guitar in front of adoring fans. He loved to perform. “He has the rare ability to convey emotion with just the sound of his voice” is how I explained it at his service a couple weeks before. But I also told the audience I had failed them. I have failed them because I did not make Raymond realize how much a better place the world is with him in it. In my eulogy, I finally told the world my dark secret, that every day is a struggle because of my OCD. Perhaps if I had been bolder, more forthright about my condition, maybe Raymond would have been more forthright about his demons.
Afterward, people told me how moved they were by my eulogy. How important it was. Wonderful; my peak moment is an oration while my son’s ashes rest in an urn in front of me. My son was the brave one. Pouring his heart out on stage while I write stories that I am too scared to show anyone. He sounds like a mellow Kurt Cobain, whom he idolized. A week before Raymond went missing, the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade were in the news. Now the news is filled with reports about a SeaTac airport employee who crashed after going on a joy ride with a passenger plane. Some people online romantically call him the “Sky King,” marveling at the way he went out in a blaze of glory. In my mind, the incident is as glamorous as a heroin overdose or a body putrefying after four days in the summer sun. The online admirers must have missed the point when the amateur pilot told the air traffic controller, “I’ve got a lot of people that care about me and it’s going to disappoint them to hear that I did this.” Raymond abandoned his pain, bequeathing it to me to dwell on for the rest of my life.
The dad of the new lead vocalist is at the front waving a cigarette lighter, reliving a moment from Monsters of Rock in the 1980s. The throng of teenagers are laughing and flirting. On the stage, Raymond hasn’t been mentioned yet. There is no logical reason for me to be upset with this. Jesus said, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Still, I sit inertly in the back. Sadness is the constant background radiation in my universe. Once, while he was missing, I woke up and for a split second I forgot that anything was wrong before reality collapsed back on me. My wife is crying all the time. She will be driving and start sobbing. I ask her to let me drive and this upsets her. I wonder when my first genuine laugh will be; if I will ever forgive myself. At this point, forgiveness does not seem like an option.
The band plays a few notes that I recognize from the new album. Finally feeling the giddiness of the rest of the audience, I rush to the stage to record the song with my phone. They belt out Raymond’s words: “You will never find it, the door way to the sun.” Raymond struggled with doubts about God’s existence. I discovered this from reading his file at the outpatient clinic he attended after he was caught high at school. I struggle with the same doubts; it’s at the heart of my OCD struggles. I never told him that. I never talked to him when he told my wife he might be gay. I figured he would tell me when he was ready. I made sure I told him that I thought the New Testament does not condemn homosexuality; Matthew 19:12 says accept eunuchs who are born that way as they are. But it was always an intellectual matter, never personal. My days are filled with empty speculations; what if I had done this instead of that? The song is too much. As it finishes, I exit to an empty room to the left, sobbing. I skirt outside to recalibrate.
I look to the clear night sky. I keep hoping Raymond will communicate with me somehow, come to me in a dream and tell me I did the best I could. That he does not blame me. But there is nothing tonight. I wipe the tears from my face as a young couple amiably talking walks by. They glance but say nothing. Do they know who I am? Does it matter? Do I need another perfunctory “sorry for your loss?” I take one more fruitless look at the sky before returning to the concert, to a world where my son no longer exists.