Perhaps it is the way the light falls across the trees, or the splashes of color we see in the backyard here on Blueberry Lane — signals that our hard time is here again. The sixth anniversary of your suicide is upon us. I stare at those words: “The sixth anniversary …” It feels like yesterday. It feels like a hundred years ago. You should be 23. You are forever a seventeen-year-old high school senior. “… of your suicide.” You? Suicide? Never! How can that be? Skateboarder. Mountain Biker. Snowboarder. Pilot, Handsome- Full of Adventure. Full of Fun. I run my fingers across the letters on your tombstone. JAMES JOSEPH PETA III 1977–1994. How can that be?
The house buzzed like a beehive for a long time. Your suicide turned us into a family of bedeviled detectives. Was it here the clue was dropped? Was this the point that could have changed the outcome? We were relentless. We lay the pieces of this puzzle out and at some unknown point began to face the reality that the picture would simply never be complete. We learn to live without the answers. This just is.
I used to beg to be given just three minutes to ask you questions. Is three minutes too much for a mother to ask? Your silence deafens me.
It was Tuesday, September 13, 1994.
There is a picture on the shelf that was taken for the yearbook at noon that day. You betray nothing. You are smiling and surrounded by friends. Was your plan in place?
It was a half day at school and I picked you up. You were sitting on the curb and you waved when I pulled in. Did you know what you would do? You called and made an appointment to get your hair cut on Thursday. Did you plan to keep it?
I left for work at the hospital at 3:30. Your last words were: “Yo, catch ya’ later, Mom.” Did you mean it?
You called Dad at work at four o’ clock to follow up on a college application. Were you planning on college?
Bev spoke to you at 4:45. You left me a note on the counter. “4:45 Bev called. Call her.” Bev said you “never missed a beat.”
The gun you used was mine. About five years before we were getting the Christmas decorations from the attic and you asked about it, hanging there in the case. I told you it was a rifle from my days living in California and I used it to target shoot in the desert. You asked if it “worked.” I told you I doubted it. It was probably rusted after twenty-five years in the attic without being shot or oiled. You never mentioned it again. We left it hanging there. There were never bullets in the house, but after you died I found the box of bullets hidden in your electric pencil sharpener. Your note said, “Don’t look for who gave me the bullets. I bought them myself.” When was that James? I have heard so many admonitions about unsecured guns in the home. I never thought the admonitions had anything to do with us. Our kind friends assure me that you would have found another way. Maybe. But you shot yourself with my unsecured gun. I must claim responsibility. No one can comfort me away from that truth and I am so sorry.
The Lifestar helicopter brought you to me in the Emergency Department at the hospital at 5:30. As the supervisor that night I was all business—trauma and neurosurgical teams gowned, gloved and waiting when they wheeled you through the doors. I handpicked every person in the room. If there was a chance to save you, they would be the ones to do it. Your dad was at the house when the helicopter flew you away. He told me later you were breathing and on the way to your mother and all her colleagues at the hospital. Their specialty was reversing crisis. It did not occur to him that we would not save you. When your dad arrived at the hospital, we went into a room alone and I told him. My mind could not comprehend the words that my lips forced out. “We’ve lost him, Jim. James is brain-dead.” Did you hear his anguished sobs?
The Robinsons went to get your sister at Wesleyan. Dad and I told her together. Did you hear her? NoNoNoNooooooo.
We called in the Organ Procurement Team. There were people fighting to live. Your kidneys and liver and heart gave four of them a chance. Brenda, your heart recipient, wrote many letters to us. In one, she said, “You know something? Your son still lives and will continue to live inside my body. He has a lot of energy and his heart beats strong.”
The house buzzed like a beehive for a long time. Your suicide turned us into a family of bedeviled detectives."
Fast forward to today and at last I can say I am glad to be here. Each day that passes moves us further from that horrific event. Each day that passes soothes. Each day that passes allows us to mend, with tiny, fragile stitches, the gaping hole in our life fabric. It has not been a “fast forward” for any of us. Your death, as your life, touched so many. It has been a daunting journey for us. Imagine the biggest, tallest, fastest, scariest roller coaster in all of heaven and earth. Imagine the plunges between the peaks. Imagine the lurching stomach, cold hands, bile in the throat, screaming brain, pounding heart. Imagine someone strapping you in that seat against your will and starting the ride and not ever letting you get off. Imagine the fear and the angst and the tension and the fatigue and the chaos. Imagine the track always changing. Upside down? Right side up? Try to catch your breath. Hold on tight. We have ridden that roller coaster every day. James, did you not know we would have moved mountains to stop your wild ride? Could you not send a signal? Could you not scream your pain?
Your sister graduated from college. She lives and works out West. She rides the roller coaster.
Dad and I facilitate a support group for survivors of suicide called Safeplace. We are a family of the heavy hearted. We in the group talk about how hard it is, living without all of you and how sorry we are for the choice you all felt you had to make. Most of us acknowledge that we just do not get it. Most of the time, it does not compute with what we know. You, Caitlin, Tommy, Phillip, Randy, Michelle, Sam, Matt, Eric, Deirdre, Will and all the rest — do you comfort each other there as we comfort each other here? There are so many of you. There are so many of us.
I am on the Board of Directors for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention-New England. This should not have happened to any of you. This should not have happened to any of us. AFSP works hard on research, prevention and education. They minister to survivors. We look to them to help us complete the puzzle. How does the brain work? What is the combination of forces that cause someone to self-destruct? There is no time to waste.
The roller coaster ride is slower, James. We know the topography of this wasteland—the peaks are not as scary, the plunges are not as deep. We cannot leave our seats, but it now makes frequent stops. It gives us time to sigh and catch our breath and assume a more comfortable position. We try to be good to ourselves and each other. We recognize our strength and renewed confidence. We stand tall. We laugh. We stretch. We will not be overcome, We will survive.
Dad and I saw Dr. Patrick Hynes for almost a year. I used to call it “my check up from the neck up.” He asked me once if I could erase any memory of you would I do it? I told him, “Absolutely. This pain is too searing and I want it gone.”
I’ve since changed my mind. I have wonderful memories and stories that are flip and funny and bring a smile to my face. You filled the house with joy. For us, seventeen years was not nearly enough.
In this universe we share, we trust that you are safe and know we miss you and that our love for you will never end. Never.
Yo, catch ya’ later, James.