I believe that my son wants me to be happy. My son Charles died on his 22nd birthday on March 16th, 2006. He was suffering from schizophrenia. He saw things and heard voices. Sometimes the voices told him to kill himself. Four times, we saved him—one miracle after another. But the fifth time he succeeded. At the funeral, the only comfort I could think of, to offer to my wife and my three daughters, was that I was sure Charles would want us to have happy lives. That is still, one year later, the only comfort I know. That is what gets me up in the morning and gets me to work.
After the funeral former friends, classmates, and teachers came to us to talk of Charles. They were from the happier years before the disease struck Charles’s mind. They told us about his deep affections, his loyalty, his humor. His third-grade teacher came to the service; she said she saw at least five of his former classmates in the crowd. One former high-school girlfriend drove up from Florida to see us, bringing snapshots from 1999—a smiling young boy and girl, full of mischief, full of promise. Another close friend said she was working on an essay about Charles for a college writing course. I was surprised by this outpouring of sympathy. I had no idea Charles inspired such fierce attachments.
We met with Charles’s therapy group too—seven young men and women who suffered from serious mental illnesses like he did. Again, I was astonished to learn that a new close friendship had flourished within his few short weeks with that group, the last weeks of his life.
For four years, after the disease struck, I worked hard with Charles, to keep a channel of communication open through the noise, through the angry voices, the secrecy, the stigma. We had good times. But even when things were not going very well, he was always happy to see me, to sit in the car next to me, to go to a drive-thru and get a burger. What I did not realize was that so many other people also felt this sense of connection and affirmation from Charles. He spent almost a year in a state hospital, where he was a star pupil in the rehab program. His whole treatment team drove to the interment, to share our grief.
Since his death, I have not been able to pray. I am now able to mutter “Amen” at least on occasion, when my wife offers words of gratitude before a meal. But when I visit Charles’s grave, I am full of faith. I know what comfort and strength he would want to be able to give me, if he could, and that is where I get the strength to go on.
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