BY JEFF LEE, M.D.
I recently saw a couple of videos on the same day, a few hours apart. They were created to celebrate the lives of two great kids, both of whom I’ve known for many years. They were pieced together from old home movies, set to nostalgic music, and presented to big gatherings of adoring family and friends.
It was all there: the first breaths in the delivery room, the saggy-diaper waddle across the kitchen floor, and the sleepy little angels curled up with their siblings in bed – like kittens in a cardboard box. There were vacation scenes on the beach, and family portraits by the lake. There were those awkward pre-teen years, and that miraculous metamorphosis into beautiful young adults.
Two amazing kids. Two wonderful, loving families. Two vibrant communities, gathered together to celebrate their lives.
But there was one difference. One film was created for a bar mitzvah party. The other was for a memorial service.
The girl who died had lost a long, tortuous battle with addiction. It was the kind of story you might hear about secondhand, and sadly shake your head. You might speculate what kind of abuse or neglect or character defect must have led her to such a horrific end. But I knew better.
This was a kid with as much life and light in her as I’ve ever seen in one human being. I knew her since she was 10, and every memory I have of her is full of joy. She was smart, and creative, and talented, and kind. Her parents and her sister are the sweetest, loveliest people you’ll ever meet.
So what happened? That’s what you want to know, right? What rare and awful force seized such a beautiful child and wrenched her away from the life she should have had? I wish I knew.
If there was something I could offer you, I would – some comforting explanation why her story was destined to veer off on its own tragic course, leaving your kids and mine to sail safely through their happy lives. Believe me, I’ve looked for one. But all I come up with is confusion and grief – and of course fear. Plenty of fear.
We parents act as if we control our children’s destiny. We like to think that the safety-rated car seats, and the healthy organic snacks, and the carefully choreographed play dates will inoculate them against pain, and terror, and despair. We like to pretend that we can protect them from all the cruelty of the world with the invisible shield of our love. Not because that makes any sense, or because we really believe it – but because the alternative is too frightening to consider.
The problem is, bad things do happen. Sometimes horrible things. And every time they happen to a child, their parents sift through the wreckage for days and gather up blame. They live with the guilt, not only of survivors, but of failed protectors. They look in the mirror every morning and ask themselves: “What did I do wrong? Where the hell was my invisible shield?”
There’s an old Yiddish saying: “You can never be happier than your least happy child.” Eventually, bad things happen to each and every one of our children, and we feel every arrow that slices through their hearts as if it pierced our own. If we look hard enough – and we always do– we find a way to blame ourselves for their suffering. Sometimes rightfully so. But ultimately, if we want to be any real help to them, we have to learn to forgive ourselves.
Don’t pull out your long list of parental failures and count them as you toss and turn in your bed. We all have a list like that, but it’s not as long as the list of the ways we loved, and the ways we tried. And in the end, neither list is inscribed with our children’s fate. Sometimes bad things just happen to good people. Sometimes they happen to good people’s kids.
The day after the bar mitzvah and the memorial service, I took my own kids out to a movie. It was a quirky, goofy comedy, but I spent most of it on the edge of tears. I kept sneaking peaks at my daughters’ faces as they laughed and giggled in the flickering light. In my mind, I tried to cast an invisible bubble around them – around all of us.
Not so much to keep out the darkness. More to keep in the light.
For Mike and Penny and Molly, with much, much love.