I was sitting in the far northwest corner of our back deck sipping a cold one while feeling both melancholy and reverent, watching the full moon slowly inch across the sky. It was late, at least for me, and the house remained as dark and deserted as it had been three hours earlier when I’d wheeled my bike into the garage via the access door.
Early October is usually beautiful in Eastern Iowa and today had risen to that standard. Thanks to the blanket of clouds that covered the sky on the eighth, the temperature overnight had stayed a dozen degrees above freezing and by the time I’d slipped my bike out of the garage to cycle merrily to work the temp had climbed another ten degrees. The clouds that moderated last night’s lows had shown a few chinks in their armor and by the time I left for work the mercury had climbed to the upper fifties, perfect for a mid-autumn bike ride on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
Though the weather had been ideal for bike commuting my noon to 8:30 Thursday work shift had been a bit of a letdown. I’d hoped to travel with Jean to Ames and lend support to our son Sean as he attended the funeral of his friend Aaron but work precluded this. Sean had been hit pretty hard when Aaron’s father had died of a heart attack eight months earlier and Aaron’s subsequent suicide had changed our usually sonny son into a child as morose as a rainy day. At least, that’s what Jean told me. With Sean over a hundred miles away in Ames my communication with him was minimal. I did know he was hurting though.
First Dan Brewer, Aaron’s father and Sean’s former Hiawatha Kids League baseball coach, had died of a heart attack and then Aaron had overdosed. Not the sort of circumstances that make for happy times.
“Really?” Jean had asked on Tuesday when I’d called from work and told her I couldn’t get Thursday off. “They couldn’t give you one day off to go to a funeral? In October? Jesus.”
“It’s Home Show weekend,” I’d answered. “Both Derek and Don are going to be out of the store; that leaves us pretty tight.”
“Whatever,” had been her curt reply.
“The weather should be fine. It’s less than two hours from here.”
Jean had exhaled sharply. “It’s not the drive. It’s your son. He’s hurting.”
I’d sighed, closed my eyes and replied, “We’ll go see him soon. Next weekend?”
“Whatever,” Jean had repeated.
I’d wished her a safe trip before she headed into work this morning. Her demeanor had been cool and remote as she’d kissed me goodbye.
My bike ride to work had been pleasant but my ride home had been exquisite. Though thoughts of Jean, Sean, Aaron and Aaron’s mother Katie dragged me down the big, beautiful full moon in the now cloudless sky buoyed me. With no one home I’d decided to extend my ride just a bit and wound my way through neighborhoods beneath an incredible full of wonder harvest moon. Life was good, why would anyone kill himself? Especially an anyone who had barely reached a score of years?
The moon had been above the trees as I’d clipped into my pedals and it inched ever higher as I meandered. Instead of riding north towards home I traveled west, traveling by Hiawatha’s Nixon Elementary where our sons had gone to school. I continued on Northwood Drive until I hit Robins Road which I took southward. I turned right at the Go Daddy parking lot, a cut through that allows easy access to the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.
Arriving at the Nature Trail I stopped. Home lay to the north but the trail southbound beckoned. It was late, I was tired, and, after turning my body from the west 180 degrees to the east and nodding to the moon I sighed, turned back to the west and headed north up the trail.
I followed the Nature Trail until I reached Robins Main Street where I stopped and again debated with myself. The trail continued northward an additional fifty miles, the night was perfect and no one was home. I debated, and in the end common sense won. I turned east on Main Street, south onto Mentzer and rode with heavy heart to my empty house, thoughts of life given, life surrendered and life wasted pulsing through my head.
Home alone I baked a frozen pizza, ate it and stepped out onto the deck. Our house faced due south, the deck north and the moon was to the east. Pulling a patio chair to the far north west corner of the deck I could just glimpse the moon as it rounded the corner of our roof. I sat, captivated. Jean texted me. ‘Home in 90 minutes. Sean coming with. Love you.’
‘OK,’ I texted back. ‘Love you. Drive gently.’
I was sure Jean wouldn’t expect me to wait up for them. It was already ten o’clock, she may have been surprised that I even answered her text, after all I was usually asleep by now, but I waited.
I waited for my son and my wife to return from a funeral in Central Iowa that had been held for a child. Twenty-two is far too young to die and any age is far too young to kill yourself. I sat and I waited beneath the moon for two of the most important three people in my life, hoping, wishing, praying that none of us would ever know the pain of depression, the grief of survivor’s guilt.
Sean and Jean found me alone on the deck, sitting in the dark, my jacket zipped to my neck, my hands buried in my pockets my eyes gazing at the moon now nearly at its zenith.
“Hey,” I say, rising from my chair kissing my wife and hugging my son. “How was it?” I ask, Sean’s grip around my waist tight, my arms around his shoulders returning the intensity of his pressure.
“Rough,” he croaks. “Really rough,” he adds, releasing me and pulling up one of the other chairs.
“Yeah?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Sean whispers. “We know why Aaron killed himself. He must have blamed himself for Dan’s death.”
“Pardon?” I ask.
“It wasn’t his fault,” Sean whispers. “He didn’t do it, but what use is knowing that when you feel the opposite?”
“What happened?” I ask.
“Madre? Will you tell him please? I need a drink. Want one?” Sean asks, stepping to the sliding door.
“Sure, Seany,” Jean replies. “I’ll tell him. I don’t need a drink.”
“Padre? You’re not going to make drink alone are you?”
“Bring me a beer, buddy. But just one; it’s late.”
“I know!” he answers, slipping through the door, “Madre and I were shocked to find you up,” he says with a sad smile before closing the slider against the cool air.
“What happened?” I ask.
Jean sighs deeply. “You know how I told you that Dan had died early this year? From a heart attack?”
“Yeah,” I whisper intensely. “Young, right? Like, early-fifties?”
“Mid-fifties, but whatever. Dan was helping Aaron move. He literally had a heart attack while he was helping Aaron move some furniture. Aaron knew CPR, Jesus, we taught Aaron CPR in Scouts, but it didn’t help. Dan died while Aaron performed CPR on him. Paramedics couldn’t revive him either.”
“Jesus Christ!” I whisper. “We, we told them that happens,” I start to say but then I stop, tears and emotions making words impossible. I inhale. I collect myself. “We always told the kids that, that CPR doesn’t usually work. Oh, my God, the poor kid!”
Sean returns with a doubles glass in one hand and a beer bottle in the other. “Here,” he says, handing me the beer. “You tell him?” he asks Jean.
“She told me how Dan died. Wow, that’s got to be rough. The guilt, the completely unreasoned guilt. Just. Wow. Poor kid.”
“It was rough,” Sean replied, taking a big drink of whiskey. “I’d see Aaron after Dan died and he’d seem okay and then he’d just lose it. Tears, anger, just raw emotions without any warning. He was seeing a therapist but I guess it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t his fault.”
“No. It wasn’t, but that doesn’t always matter,” I answer.
“I just wish I could have done more for him, you know?” Sean asks. “Been there for him?”
“You didn’t know, honey,” Jean replies. “You couldn’t know.”
“No? Maybe. I just can’t help feeling like I could have saved him.”
“Don’t, buddy,” I answer, “don’t do the same thing Aaron did, don’t blame yourself for something you didn’t do.”
“I know,” Sean replies with a heavy sigh. “At least my head knows. But my heart doesn’t. My soul doesn’t.”
Survivor’s guilt can be overwhelming. Despite months of therapy Aaron had succumbed, he had followed his father Dan to the great beyond. A father’s death can torment the soul. I knew that, having lost my father early that year, but what about unreasoned guilt, what torment then?
We sit, the three of us, each, I’m certain, thinking about unreasoned guilt and the pain of surviving.