A friend posts a link on Facebook, 5 Ways to Donate/The War Photographer’s Retreat. I take note for a few reasons, not the least of which is that she’s a wonderful poet and photographer herself whose son happens to be in the service. I don’t have a son in the service, but I am a mother and no stranger to the grip of anxieties that can take hold when a grown child leaves the fold even for places and circumstances that would (in theory at least) not seem fraught with danger.
My sister-in-law calls, her voice slow and thick. A good friend’s son, twenty-four years old, has died, in his sleep. He was in recovery for drug abuse, assumed to be clean. The body can only handle so much, even less, it seems, when you play with fire.
Now Amy Winehouse, all of twenty-seven. The same age, ironically, as Jim/Janis/Jim (Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix within two weeks of each other, Jim Morrison some nine months later). I was younger than they were when they died, a big fan of each, distressed at the triple loss, not just with its reminder of how hard they played at life but with its cautionary implication to a generation casting caution to the wind. When you’re in your early twenties, processing the death of individuals (forget that they’re rock stars) just a few years older than you, it places you smack in the presence of your own mortality. And when you’re sixty-something, processing the death of twenty-something-year-olds, you feel those fingers around your throat, the lump that rises. Some father has lost his daughter; some mother has lost her son.
Something has upset the order of things, something no parent ever wants to contemplate. Does any mother or father ever get past it? Or do they just go through the motions? Take Pearl, a friend of my family when I was growing up, two sons, one dead from smashing a car into a wall. Think gorgeous, in an Elizabeth Taylor kind of way, and you can see Pearl in an instant — the large, sparkling eyes, stylish clothes, incandescent smile. Until her son’s death, which triggered a downslide from which she never recovered, her best friend now Valium or whatever it was that kept the demons at bay. I can still hear my mother’s voice — It’s the worst thing in the world, losing a child — anytime we saw Pearl at any family gathering. Even if my mother didn’t actually whisper the words, I’d hear them. That’s how imprinted the notion is.
It’s exactly what my sister-in-law said when she gave me the news of her friend’s son. It’s exactly what I think when I see the photo of Amy Winehouse’s father spotted at JFK on his way back to London after getting the news.
And yet . . . we do the best we can as parents, guiding our children when they’re young, sending them off into the world with the hope that they’ll make (mostly) good choices. Sometimes it feels like one big balancing act — one day you’re on the high wire walking that tightrope between holding on and letting go, the next day you’re on the ground, safety net at the ready. In David Grossman’s exquisitely poignant novel, To the End of the Land, the main character is a mother who does what would seem counter-intuitive when her son, recently released from the Israeli army, voluntarily returns to the front for a major offensive. Rather than wait at home and risk that knock on the door from the “notifiers,” she embarks on a journey. In the hands of a gifted writer (haunted by his own son, killed in Lebanon barely two weeks before his twenty-first birthday, uncannily while Grossman was working on the novel), a deceptively simple premise – bad news can only come if you’re home to receive it – becomes a complex narrative that touches on the futility of war, not to mention the power of love and redemption.