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The Joshua Poems: Coping With a Child’s Suicide

Our mental health coverage in 2024 is made possible by the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health.

Our family lost Joshua, my youngest child, on September 14, 2020. He was a film director in Los Angeles. I created a book of poems that he inspired. These are a few of them, as well as part of my introduction to the book.

 

The truth is we lose our children the moment they are born. We trust they will be present at least until we ourselves leave the material world. I mourned the times I said goodbye to Joshua when he would go off to school, off to overnight camp, off to live on the West Coast. I dreaded the time we’d have to part. I’d come home and cry and wander in and out of his room, looking for him. On September 13, 2020, the day before he left us for good, he apologized first, told us he loved us. We hadn’t heard from him in months, and he had hired an attorney to forbid us from getting in touch. After we talked, I told him I’d call him tomorrow, feeling so relieved he’d broken the silence, thinking we’d check in. We did not imagine he’d be gone on September 14.

These poems are about him. He rejoiced. He suffered. Both/and.

There are names and medical diagnoses that partly describe him according to current analyses, but they do not fully define him. He was described as having bipolar disorder and addiction, but he convinced us he was “fine” without the usual prescription medications. He tried talk therapy briefly, but said he was “under control.” He used alternative methods of self-discovery, from marijuana to ayahuasca to kambo. They further confused his fragile brain chemistry.

Those who knew him thought he was one of the best people they’d ever known: compassionate, empathetic, funny, musical, brilliant, kind. All true.

Only a few people saw him in a full-blown manic episode. Thank you for your patient kindness.

These poems are also for you, the readers, for the ones who will cry and for those who can’t. It’s also for our entire family, all of whom are very, very brave, despite deep pain.

Someone asked me at a reading, “What should I say to you?” Hold Joshua in your heart and mind, even if you didn’t know him in person. Hold all those close who, like Joshua, find the world too painful to endure. Talk to those who are suffering. Secrets and pretense can be lethal. Never give up. Where there’s life, there’s hope. The empty space in my soul where Joshua lived will never be filled. Yet, I am immensely grateful the world gets fuller every day with loving people, rich and radiant.

 

I’ve Never Written About the Joy

I’ve never written about
the absolute joy of each one’s birth—
Stephanie born on an April day
when I wore ribbons in my hair,
Randy born on a bright May day
after the arc of a scarlet sunrise,
Joshua born last to surprise me
when I expected a girl.
I’ve never written about the joy,
spying Joshua in the field of four-year-old faces
at four fifteen, after a long day of teaching.
At last! Full of aching guilt, I’d cry
when he leapt into my arms and we,
both anxious to hug and sniff and kiss,
drove home to the swaying, black fluff
of a dog whose tail beat a solid rhythm against our legs.
I’ve never written about the joy
when after days of planning and cleaning
for my daughter’s twelfth birthday,
she smiled and said, “Oh, Mommy!”
in a grownup voice, standing on a stool
to peek into the floral bag
and then, unable to resist, tore open the paper
of a bouquet of white flowers, all for her.
I’ve never written about the joy
as I watched them all
finally not fighting over
who got the extra cookie,
but instead constructing
Lego spaceships, castles and cars
all three children together,
quietly, on the orange shag rug.

I’ve never written about the joy
when I heard “Thank you,”
or “You’re a good cook,” or “You’re nice.”
When they asked questions like “Is God in walls?”
or “Will you play with me, Mommy?”
When one night our whole family madly rode bikes
around Lake of the Isles, competing to see who could go
farthest no-handed and were bombarded by bats.
I’ve never written about
the joy of caring for their needs
with Band-aids, long lectures
and new clothes.
I’ve never written about
the joy of having both boys and a girl—
the thrill of watching small bodies grow.
I’ve never written about the joy of reading
stories at night while rocking them,
tucking in their sleepy selves
tiptoeing past their curled shapes
to turn out the light,
certain I’d see them again in the morning,
all fuzzy with hair sticking out
and stale breath, wanting breakfast.
I’ve never written about
the joy of learning
each other’s inconsistencies
and tantrums, rantings and whims,
and at the end of the day
be all kisses and hugs
adoring each other anyway
because—well, just because.


Letting Go of the Last Child

We circled round the issue
until with gentle brutality
you tell me to stop grilling you,
that you’re old enough now—
old enough to stop answering questions
about your whereabouts,
how much you had to drink,
who was at the party.
Old enough to slip into our room
after dark and say goodnight
without my knowing or caring
about the time.
Old enough to lean down to embrace
my stiffening body and soul
to drive to your lessons,
auditions, and ski meets.
But am I old enough, youngest child
to let you go, finally, to stop
wanting to kiss your dimpled cheeks,
to tell you the truth about life?
Will I ever stop this longing
to reach into your childhood again,
to stop time, to keep you from
driving away, without driving you away?


Cars and Trucks

“What kind of sheets do you want for college?”
“I don’t know, Mom.
Let’s go look at some.”
He picked out Cars and Trucks.
“Really?” I said.
Joshua held fast to childhood,
the boy who claimed he wasn’t sentimental.
Sweet, sweet child.
I kept his cars and trucks sheets
for twenty-five years
and with misgivings handed them
to the cleaning lady
who tore them up
and folded them into a plastic tub
to use for rags
to wipe clean the dust.
We have no more Josh
except a small hand-carved
box of ash, the remainder of life
now driven away.
And now I want his sheets—
the bright red car,
the fat yellow truck,
the happy blue dots.
I want him back.
his smile, his face,
his heart,
his lovely, lovely soul.


Sometimes

“I wish he were here,” says his brother.
He would have cheered me up.”
What would he have said? I ask.
“That I always land on my feet.
That it will get better.”
“Sometimes I reach in the basket
where I keep his old tee shirts
and I just smell his smell,” says his sister.
Sometimes I wrap his necklace around my neck.
His ashes taste less bitter now,
in the third year. I hope
they last the rest of my life.
I kiss his photograph on my dresser.
“I think of him all the time,”
says his father, choking on sobs.
It’s an all-the-time thing.
It doesn’t go away.
We don’t move on.
We live with him
inside out. Day in. Day out.
At night when we least want to.
In public when it surprises us.
Some times truly is
All The Time.


Living and Dying

You’re on a solo journey, like it or not.
On a lucky day you’ll find someone who amuses you.
You hitch a ride on their sixteen-wheeler.
You share a word or two.
It’s comforting in the dark, watching
telephone poles speed past, night warriors.
From the warmth of the cab you’re fooled
into believing it will be like this forever.
Soon one of you changes direction.
Blame it on the rhythm of your breath.
You hop off and say your goodbyes cuz
s/he’s going to a darker place. Call it death.
Everything hurts all over again.
You find another who matches the tone of your ring,
whose voice trembles or bursts into laughter
at exactly the same time, same thing.
One thing for sure: Nothing lasts.
You write and you read, searching for just the right
words, constellations to illuminate.
The lesson repeats: Carry your own light.
When your hands lose their grip,
and you lose track of your last race,
it’s your soul that maps out the route
and your soul that marks your place.


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