HEWN, No. 348

Content warning: death

I got the phone call Monday night that every parent dreads: my son was dead.

Isaiah had struggled for a very long time with addiction, anxiety, and depression. He’d swing back and forth between periods of hope and despair, destruction and promise, dedication and despair.

If you’d asked me last week, I’d have told you — quite honestly — that I thought he was doing pretty well, the general state of the world not withstanding. He was back on Suboxone, he promised. He’d rescued a lost cat and was disappointed when he found the owner — even though he was given a huge finder’s fee; he had applied to adopt another feline. He’d just bought houseplants, happy to find someone selling succulents from the front door of a barely re-opened retail shop.

We’d spoken last Wednesday afternoon and then texted back and forth later that evening. He asked if I could get him a cast iron skillet and a kettle. (He wasn’t sure what kind of tea he’d drink, so maybe I should send some lemon juice and sugar too. The corner store was out.) The final words he typed: “I love you. And maybe buy me some masks too.”

And then, very shortly afterwards, according to the medical examiner, he overdosed. Or it seems likely he overdosed. I don’t know yet. I probably never will. His body wasn’t found for days.

It is unimaginably awful, and it is all I can imagine. He was alone. He was alone.

His father died on August 29, 2005, the same day Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Gulf Coast. Isaiah had just turned 13. We’d spent the previous year watching his dad slowly shrink away. Fucking cancer. In retrospect, I think part of Isaiah died that day too.

At the time, my own rage and grief were enormous. But it felt so small compared to the loss and the injustice in New Orleans. The shared anniversary has always reminded me that each tragedy is both deeply personal and deeply structural. None of this had to happen.

None of this had to happen.

It is so strange to be mourning again at this moment. It’s a different grief than 2005. He was my baby after all. But it’s unsettling that so many people seem to have decided they don’t care about one hundred thousand dead from this pandemic. They do not see. They do not believe. There is no “we” in America right now who mourn our losses. There is no national collective whatsoever, so those of us who mourn mourn alone.

And literally, with stay-at-home orders, we are alone.

So many of the rituals we typically perform around death have been interrupted, put on hold, canceled; and those rituals we enact together are how we stop from coming undone.

I am coming undone. I have been unraveling watching my son struggle for fifteen years.

But now, no one can come over with a casserole and sit with me to reminisce. No one can hug me. No one can squeeze my hand. I will have to hold Isaiah’s memorial service on Zoom, and fuck I fucking hate Zoom. “A tragic, sordid phrase that wouldn’t have meant anything just a few weeks ago: ‘Zoom funeral.’”

It’s not just the rituals of death that are different; our rituals of departure and absence have been painfully altered too — for months now. I haven’t seen my mother in over a year; she’s in Canada taking care of her dying sister. I won’t see my aunt Audrey again. The last time I saw Isaiah, the day before Kin and I left Seattle, we stood six feet apart as I handed him all the condiments and frozen food from our fridge. We gestured at one another, arms outstretched, but we could not hug goodbye. “I’ll see you when this hell is over,” I told him.

This week’s Columbidae is a mourning dove. (Image credits) And the pigeon for weeks to come…

Yours in struggle,