As part of my grieving i wanted to write about my son’s passing. This post will be a work in progress that i will iterate on, as I am inspired to write.
I read a book back in summer of 1992 called On the Death of My Son. It was an interesting book which tells the real life story of a father’s experience with his son’s death, and a series of insights and connections to the meaning he got from that experience (including a sense of connecting to his son and hearing about the afterlife). As much as anything, the title of the book has stuck with me and it is with a sad heart that as of Feb 29th of this year 2020, i have experienced the death of my youngest son Caetano. He was 16.
My wife and I and our son Carlos put together a memorial site for Caetano Key, which has been visited 10k+ times by over 3000 visitors in its first weeks. The many lovely text messages, emails, notes, flowers, food, and other expressions of love and caring for our family have been incredibly uplifting and we feel part of a larger community. And yet, we are devastated. We miss Caetano in so many ways we couldn’t possibly document or convey.
We are however, ok. I’ll let my wife and son tell their own stories on their own channels. I am ok because i’m feeling many intense feelings, but i’m making good progress feeling them, and understanding my grief. These include:
- I’m angry. I’m angry at Caetano for trying drugs and not taking the risks of illicit drugs seriously. When he was 11 i had a long conversation with him about all drugs that I could name, and their effects, their joys, and their risks. We did this together in the car while driving to Whistler to ski. His brother was with us. I talked about tobacco, alcohol, psychedelics, stimulants, and depressants like opioids. I told him it was likely that he and his brother might at some point in their lives experiment with drugs. I tried to impart to him a strong boundary with addiction, and risky behavior when under the influence that could lead to physical or emotional harm. I shared with him some of the trauma in my own life that came from family members and my own personal experience with certain drugs. Caetano experimented with drugs: too many of them, and too often. His teenage brain didn’t appreciate the risks. He thought he had it under control. He didn’t. We sought help for him from specialists. He became a nicotine addict (thanks Juul, you bastards), he became a frequent pot and psychedelics tripper, and then the gift of the Sackler family to america, the nefarious opioid epidemic got a hold of him and he became a statistic, one of ~70k people dying a year in america. But this anger has been healing as well. Because being able to feel the anger, but then surrender to it and understand that i didn’t cause his addiction, i couldn’t control his addiction, and I couldn’t cure it… i’m ok with it. His addiction was his. I can only work on my feelings, and being angry is a waste of emotion and time–i want to direct those cycles to doing good in the world for myself and others.
- I have tons of regrets. At work i often talk with my colleagues about “if you don’t have any regrets about how you did things in the past, then you didn’t learn anything”. There are 16 years of regrets in my relationship with my son. Prime among them, i wish i had been a lot more emotionally in tune with him and empathetic to some of the ways in which he experienced the world. Caetano was brilliant and funny and kind and a type A personality that wanted to try everything at least 1 time, no matter the consequences. He was also more anxious, and sensitive to how others perceived him, than i understood or could directly relate to. He and i shared real moments of connection where we were together and really emotionally bonded–i regret there weren’t many, many more of those moments. There are also tactical regrets–i wish i hadn’t given him access to an ipod touch and later an iphone, at the early age of 4th grade. I wish that we had gotten him better psychological support and more consistent support, earlier in his life. I regret not having learned CPR, so that i could have maybe saved his life when he went into cardiac arrest in our home at 3am, from a overdose of street purchased Fentanyl. These regrets make me feel sad and anxious… but they also make me feel ok, because they remind me of the many ways that i’ve grown and learned, thanks to my time with Caetano.
- I have no regrets. I’ve read many Greek tragedies where fate dictated horrible outcomes, inescapably, for the protagonist. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by one of my favorite authors Gabriel García Márquez, was a frustrating experience to read — i constantly wanted to step in and save the character from his fate, as the very title of the book tells you that the main character will die. But even in a tragic ending, the story is full of redeeming life moments that were worth living. Caetano died at the age of 16. I am glad he was a part of my life for those years I had him: through the joyous moments, the maddening/frustrating ones, and ultimately through to his tragic end. I never thought his challenges in life would lead to such a sudden end; but now that they have, i feel at peace with some cosmic purpose and destiny. It is and was, by definition, his journey in life.
- I have a very strong sense of peace that comes from my material atheist faith. I believe Caetano is one with the universe. Literally, i believe his essence and spirit and physical self are all, now, inexorably intertwined with all matter and all beings, in a peaceful way. I’m not worried about him.
But mostly i’m just sad. I’m sad because of the lost opportunity to meet and befriend the adult Caetano that was yet to come. I imagined years of continued work on our communication and relationship, of good times and bad times. I wanted to see the 2nd act in his life, post teenager. To continue to learn from him. To watch from afar and follow his journey with curiosity and fondness and a father’s love. I had many plans for me and the adult Caetano, including:
- We had such a good time visiting Japan together for spring break when he was 13, just the two of us. We traveled on trains, ate adventurously in restaurants, marveled at large and fanciful Buddhist temples, took a okonomiyaki cooking class, shopped for manga and other J-curios, and bathed in a onsen near mount Fuji. At the time i thought we would have a dozen such trips together, father and son, in our lives. That was our last 1:1 trip.
- One summer i convinced him to train with me for a 10k race. At first he had a hard time committing to train, and complained. But then he found that runner’s rhythm and became a fast and long runner, completing a 14k training run on his own and letting me know via text message. He was proud of himself. I was proud of him. We had a great race day together, and i remember how happy he was at the finish line as we crossed together in a feverish sprint. I thought we would have many more races together… not now when he was a surly teenager, but perhaps in 5 or 10 years. We never ran together again.
- Most of the quality time we had spent together in the last 18 months was in therapy. We had family therapy weekly, and it wasn’t always a joy or even productive. But some times it was… sometimes it was really great. He and I and his mom and brother all went to therapy individually as well, and we would convene as a quad-team to share what progress we were making individually, and as a family group. It was hard work. But it was rewarding. It has changed me profoundly, allowing me to grow emotionally in ways i haven’t ever before in my life. I was looking forward to more years of discussing our individual work, and more sessions together helping each other to grow.
I’m sad. I’m happy. I’m angry. But mostly, i’m ok. Taking it a day at a time, and a week at a time, and know that Caetano will be with me the rest of my life.
I love you Caetano, always.