I didn’t recognize my son at first. I peered into his newborn eyes, seeking our first connection. We don’t know each other yet, I whispered, but I have so much love to give you.
Rejection started with my breast, then progressed to pacifiers, teddy bears, naps in my arms. I’d hold him close to snuggle, but he’d put his chubby hands on my chest, arch his back, and push himself away until he nearly bent in half.
He carried a blanket, but not for security. It was his superhero’s cape; parachute; magic carpet; mysterious cloak of invisibility. A blue fuzzy extension of his intense and endless imagination.
My son attended the first years of elementary school, standing up. A counselor suggested he might have an attention hyperactivity disorder. We took him to a pediatrician, who diagnosed him as predicted and prescribed medications to help him concentrate.
Still, he almost failed middle school. We hired evening tutors and struggled to limit his obsession with video games. When he showed a spark for astronomy, we explored the universe with books by Brian Greene and Stephen Hawking.
My son disliked the way the medications made him feel. One time he took a handful of sleeping pills, to see how they felt instead. His father found him sprawled on the living room floor, and rushed him to hospital.
As my son’s curiosity for substance experimentation grew, there were detentions, expulsions from school, car crashes. We left work countless times for emergencies, frantically rushing to his aid, then trying to settle life back to some semblance of normal.
In an act of desperation, I sent a plea to Stephen Hawking himself. “If you would write to my son, he might follow his passion for science and physics.” My letter went unanswered, around the same time my son lost all interest in learning. He quit high school, left home, and then reached the age of legal majority. Now unreachable.
A vicious cycle of employment instability began. Without an income, he couldn’t maintain an address, and by extension, possessions or a phone. He was repeatedly absent from family birthdays and holidays. We tried tough love; setting boundaries; removing boundaries; second chances; twentieth chances.
It was impossible to know the difference between unconditional love and enabling.
My son drifted. Shaved his head. Had conflicts with the police. I slept poorly, physically nauseated by the fear my son would not only seriously harm himself, but some other innocent person.
Our family was torn apart, changed. We ached to know an experience of calm. His father and I divorced, remarried; his brother graduated from university, then proposed to his girlfriend. We expanded the world of love contracted in the chaos.
The last time I ever saw my son was at my husband’s memorial service. My son miraculously showed up for the gathering, wearing a respectable button-down dress shirt. He stayed long enough to pose for one last family photo. I think he was high. But, he was there.
I can’t recall my son ever saying he loved me. But showing up in the button-down shirt that day, I think he did.
Months later he was arrested for property and weapon offences, and incarcerated on his 24th birthday. His served sentence provided an opportunity for rehabilitation, but first he had to stay clean for a week, and willingly sign himself in.
Instead, he put on his cloak of invisibility and disappeared.
The next crime he committed was stealing a car. He was arrested in another province and sent back to jail. I only know this because I read it online after he died.
I don’t know where he went or what he did in the last few days of his life, but it ended with an overdose of heroin. His heart stopped, his brain died, and the last unbreakable atom of hope I’d carried within me since his birth, split.
This is only a glimpse, a condensed version of my son’s complex life. In many ways, a story of omissions and selected truths. The version I default to when I think about how he died.
If I shift my focus, I can recall happy family adventures: camping, fishing, and riding bikes under the moon; Taekwondo meets, Saturday soccer games, and swimming lessons; building tree houses, backyard bonfires, and mighty snow fortresses. Evidence my son was once engaged in the world, curious and alive.
I could close my eyes and remember what it felt like to run my hands through his toddler curls while he was sleeping, smell the top of his head, feel his pudgy fingers entangled in mine, and have love instead of drugs soar through our veins, making us blissfully euphoric.
I could, and I do, and it softens things.
Except for not ever knowing, what exact small choice might have changed his destiny.
In his wake, we are traumatized, heartbroken, and silently exhaling. His absence leaves a dark and vast hole full of unrealized hopes and dreams for the little boy in the Spiderman pajamas, who once asked why the moon was so mysterious, and if God made the world, “why couldn’t he break it, too?” “Because he wouldn’t want to,” I’d assured. “But he could if he wanted to,” my son had asserted.
People try to offer comfort. Someone suggested my son might have been an Indigo child, born with a vibration too high to adjust to life on earth. I don’t know. Maybe.
Another friend offered a different perspective, shaped by her own loss experience with addiction. “He was so much more than the way he died.”
That felt right to me.
Steven was so much more than the way he died.
He was a fiery, once-in-a-lifetime blazing comet shooting across an inky black universe full of faint and twinkling stars. He was here, for a short disruptive time–a brief history–and then he vanished.
I try to tell myself: I did the best I could.
One day, I might believe it.
This essay was originally published on January 18, 2020 in Sky Island Journal, Winter 2020, Issue 11. It was one of 32 pieces selected for publication from 1,295 submissions.
This essay also earned First Place for Nonfiction, in the 2020 Write On! Contest by the Royal City Literary Arts Society.