By Leslie Cappiello, Ph.D.
His death was unexpected and sudden. He seemed happy and grounded at this stage of his life. He was preparing for his 12-year-old daughter’s arrival to live with him. He had not seen her in five years because he was either using or in jail or in another toxic relationship. However, things appeared to be turning around for him.
He began working right away after he was released from jail for the last time. He was saving up for an apartment. I was blinded by hope; in hindsight, he was hiding his return to drugs and his girlfriend who was also an addict.
As his mother, I could only pray and encourage him to make good choices; to stay away from others that brought him down; to see himself worthy of a healthy relationship. He had a lot to offer with a big heart and a forgiving spirit. The depression that cloaked him in darkness was a daily battle. I encouraged him the best I could with positive affirmations and offers to send him to a psychiatrist, but he always said, “Mom, I’m fine. I’ll be okay.”
I lived in fear, but believed somehow he would find his way out of the cloud of discouragement. But in my hope, I missed the signs. Could I have changed the course of his final day? I wrestle with this question and sometimes find myself screaming at God. I know that we all make our choices, but oh, how I wish it had been me instead of him.
He had an older sister and three other brothers who were all close and supportive of one another, but it wasn’t enough. He missed his father. He went to live with him as a teenager. Little did I know that his dad would bond with our son through drugs. When it became obvious what was happening, it was too late. He was 18 years old and now a father himself.
The responsibility of his choices closed in. I did the only thing I knew to do, hit the floor on my knees in fervent prayer. Hadn’t God promised that he’d keep those we love safe from harm, if we believed for what we asked for? I held on to the belief my son would be okay.
After his dad’s death, the depression tightened its deadly grip. He couldn’t shake the pervasive longing for his father, though he knew their relationship was unhealthy. He chose to hide his mental instability by becoming the life of the party. And abdicating his role as a father.
As the years sped by, so did his drug use — continuing the revolving door of incarceration. Though he had many close friends who encouraged him to go back to school, he couldn’t let go of his sadness and move forward. When they started graduating from university, getting married, buying houses and having children, the truth of his choices became glaringly obvious.
We encouraged him to seek help for his depression. Instead, he pushed his pain and dreams into one more shot of either tequila or heroin. The ache of loneliness over the death of his father accompanied his fear of following a simpler path. The temptation to use one more time before his daughter’s arrival, a last-ditch attempt to fill the chasm of depression, finally closed the door to what could have been.
But the real story of who he was deep inside was known only to us, his family. From an early age, he grappled with anxiety and depression, though he was the class clown in school. I made sure I was home afternoons, holidays, and summers and encouraged his love of reading.
His beautiful brown eyes and sweet smile energized a room like a power surge of optimism. He met no strangers and never complained, even in the depths of his addiction. His friends, drawn by his charisma and wit, never knew he buried his dreams within. He was made for more, but he couldn’t see it. He masked his sadness through humor, consealing his pain but sealing his fate.
He lent his light to those who took but never gave. His heart whispered, urging him to own his voice, his desires, instead of chasing others’ ideas of success. The beam of his truth flashed briefly then was quickly covered by doubt and fear. My son chose to anesthetize his hurt, but his real story remains. He was kind. He was love.
I wish I would have talked to him more about his depression and anxiety, maybe one more time could have altered the course of his life. But I can’t turn back the hands of time, I can only offer his story in hopes someone will seek help, or to know they’re not alone in their grief.
So, for now, I fold into my grief. My amputated heart throbbing with the weight of memories. The mirror tells my story of the unimaginable — the loss of my first-born son. I am a stranger to my own reflection. My hair turned white overnight. The anchor of despondency pushes me to the floor; where I gladly want to remain.
I know I must get on with life, my other children and grandchildren need me; so, I rise and wobble on wooden legs like a puppet floundering for the stage floor.
I carry his smile, his voice, his dreams. He enriches my life, though I will never be the same. Nothing is as it was. His story teaches me to be kinder, gentler; fearless to be honest about mental illness and substance use.
Life has put me on a path that I never chose nor wanted. To honor my son, my lacerated heart must forge a new trail of living. Walking now with a limp, I press on.
Leslie Cappiello has her Ph.D. in Education and is a 20-year Certified English and is a monthly OP-ED contributor for the local newspaper. She lives on Galveston Island and spends many hours walking the beach trying to find solace. Leslie has three living adult children and two grandchildren.
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