I began planning for my son’s visit over Thanksgiving weekend in late August.
It was time we had a heart to heart about some big-picture issues. His upcoming graduation from USC next June. His future after that. Possible grad school. Maybe chuck education and concentrate on golf. He had options. I simply needed to see if we were viewing things similarly. I had become concerned about him.
I’d sent him an email over Labor Day weekend in early September, getting him to commit to come home for Thanksgiving. He’d chosen to go camping that weekend with his buddies instead of spending the three or four days with us.
His mom and I were fine with that. Our empty nest had been refeathered, and we had begun to really enjoy the opportunity to re-focus on one another. We found we not only still liked each other; we liked each other more than before we started a family. We did what I thought was impossible. We segued from parents back to friends.
I was still deeply in love with my wife. She not only still turned heads, but often shoulders and torsos followed. She was as empathetic, loving, wise and beautiful as the day I married her.
Ours was a union that even a whiff of an idea of the concept of infidelity would be gone on the next cross wind. That may sound like denial. Anybody can cheat, right?
Not in our little world.
It wasn’t loyalty that kept us faithful. It was desire. If either of ours had waned, its shrinkage was so small as to be immeasurable. We’d found happiness and had been smart enough to realize it, and wise enough to leave it alone and let it breath. It came so naturally to us that most of our friends marveled at our marriage.
I know I did.
Laura told me one night, early during her pregnancy with Brian that she feared bringing a baby into our lives was going to create a wedge between us. She’d seen it happen with a couple of friends of ours, and she’d started to doubt herself and our decision.
I remember taking her hands into mine, looking at her for a long moment, and telling her that she was right. It startled her. I told her if we did our jobs correctly as parents, then yes, the baby might at times come between us. But if we anticipated the possibility, then when it happened, we’d be ready for it.
And we were.
There was a telling episode with Brian when he turned 13. Though we were Scottish, I wanted a Bar Mitzvah type coming-of-age celebration. I felt 13 was the introductory year to probably the toughest years of a kid’s life. Laura felt that was overblown, and that I was trying to relive my teen years through Brian. She thought downplaying the milestone was more prescient and that 18 was a much more significant accomplishment. Knighting him a man could wait, she felt.
I decided to ask Brian. He quickly realized his mom and I were at odds on it, and backed away from insinuating himself into the middle by taking a stand. “Whatever you guys decide,” was all he said.
Sheepishly, I confessed to Laura what I’d done, and she responded with wisdom and appreciation. “See, he was going to become a wedge between us, by our doing. He put a stop to it. Out of the mouths of babes, huh?” And she’d kissed me.
With Brian off to college, we developed the habit of christening our nightly cocktail hours with a solemn toast to our collective wisdom at stopping at only one child. Our son was the apple of our eye, make no mistake, but we proved wise enough after he was born to realize we’d throw ourselves 100% into raising him well if we both knew he was our one and only shot. And it worked.
We planned ahead and were prepared when he went away to USC. I’d always made a good living over the years as an Art Director at a handful of big ad agencies, the last five as Senior Art Director at Chiat Day. Money had never been a problem. We’d bought this home in Cheviot Hills, a poor man’s Beverly Hills that actually bordered the more famous city on the east. Brian had wanted for nothing. In fact, all of us went without very little. We weren’t ostentatious, but we didn’t let guilt insinuate itself into any purchasing decisions.
Brian’s golf scholarship to USC was unnecessary, but we gratefully accepted. It was more of a bragging point for him than a financial relief for us.
Once he started at SC, I cut back my hours to about 40 per week, and Laura, who’d enjoyed being a mother and housewife, even though our life gave her a lot of alone time, began working part time at a local jewelry store, just to keep from going stir crazy. Then we began to eat into my backlog of vacation. We traveled extensively during Brian’s first two years of college. Paris, Rome, Aruba, and even Tahiti. We discovered an appreciation for both the historic allure of the great ancient cities of Europe, and the heat and serenity of the tropics.
We took up tennis together and got pretty good at it. Joined a club and promptly won the first doubles tournament we played in.
It wasn’t retirement, but neither of us quite wanted that yet.
Life was good.
Then, grad ually but undeniably, in this his senior year, a disconcerting tone began to creep its way into Brian’s weekly emails and occasional phone calls. It wasn’t sadness or depression. It was more like resignation. He’d become obsessed with the flagging economy, and he was constantly hearing horror stories from friends who had already graduated and simply could not find a decent job. It appeared the prospect of leaving his college cocoon was beginning to frighten him.
We immediately placed on the table the option of him moving back home. He seemed non-committal. The offer didn’t appear to generate much enthusiasm.
He called one night, after having a couple of beers, which he freely admitted. He was disconsolate about the future. I told him that working on his golf game was not just an option, but maybe the preferred direction right now. He agreed, but still seemed reluctant.
After soothing him for over half an hour, Barbara and I talked that night about what might be troubling our son.
The dubious job environment got most of his lip service, but there seemed something else behind that fear, something lurking that he had not yet put into words.
That’s what I wanted to find out over Thanksgiving.
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I’d skipped out of the office early. Laura had the entire week off until Friday. Black Friday in the retail world. The jewelry store where she worked would be open then, of course.
We were kicking off the four day holiday weekend by enjoying an early Happy Hour by the pool, comfortably situated under the green canopy, watching the California sun sparkle on the flat surface of the water. Tony Bennett crooned to us. We toasted silently as he began “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”. Brian had been born in San Francisco, just weeks before we moved to Los Angeles. This was our family song.
The phone rang. We kept a land line outdoors by the little wet bar. Sort of a nod to a distant generation. I sighed and got up to answer it, fully anticipating a telemarketing effort by some poor soul trying to make a buck.
“Is this Brian Hope?”
“Yes. Senior, that is. What can I do for you?”
“This is Mr. Waxman from the USC Human Resources Department.”
There was a portentous tone to his voice. I sat on one of the stools in front of the bar and looked at Laura.
“I’m very sorry to have to tell you that your son, Brian Jr., died today, in his dormitory room.”
I dropped the phone. As it fell, it suddenly slipped into slow motion and I could see and almost feel every rotation as it sunk to the ground, mirroring my heart.
It did not shatter when it hit. I put my face in both of my hands. Laura was suddenly by my side.
She picked up the phone. “This is Laura Hope. What is it?”
The poor slob in HR was going to have to do this thankless task twice.
“Mrs. Hope, your son Brian died today on campus. It appears to have been a suicide.”
She screamed and dropped the phone as well. I came out of my painful hunched-over position and held her as she squeezed into my chest.
We stayed like that for several minutes.
I finally picked up the receiver. The man was still there.
“Yes, Mr. Hope, I’m still here. Is there anything I can do?”
“How did he die? What happened?”
“I told your wife, Mr. Hope. He appears to have taken his own life.”
This time I threw the phone into the pool. It landed in the center, breaking the glassy surface, and then surfed slowly back toward the closest edge of the pool like a dolphin backing up, dragged by the coiled cord still attached to the phone base.
Laura had dropped to her knees and was sobbing.
I picked up the heavy, acrylic black phone base, yanked the cord out of the wall, and threw it into the pool. It made a much larger splash and sunk immediately to the bottom.
Some Happy Hour.
As Thanksgiving’s go, Laura and I have had better.
Her family, most of which were also in Southern California, came en masse to support us. I was an only child, and my folks had died in a house fire over ten years ago. One Uncle, from Oxnard, came to the funeral.
The funeral itself, the final symbolic gesture of acknowledgment of a life lived, provided no answers. Confusion reigned. As shocked as Laura and I were, her family was completely bowled over. They had no idea that Brian’s life was anything other than idyllic.
During the week after the funeral, Laura and I tried to figure it out.
We wanted to talk with Brian’s roommate. It was unusual for a senior to live in a dorm, but the golf team, on which he starred, had their own tony digs at SC, and it was free.
His roommate was also his best friend, Nick Fretetti. At the funeral, Laura had quietly taken him aside and asked him to stay a couple of days. He agreed.
Once the lingering mourners had dissipated by the following Monday evening, the three of us sat out by the pool and talked.
Nick was a good young man. Solid parents. Grew up in Brentwood, came from money, and never acted the snob or exhibited any elitist instincts. We had insisted on the same behavior from Brian.
He sat back in a lounge under the umbrella, nursing a beer.
I probed gently.
“Did he talk to you about anything, Nick?”
He took a long pull on his beer, and then sighed. “Besides golf, you mean? Yeah, there was a girl in his life for a while.”
Laura spoke up. “Yes, about three months ago. He mentioned her. Silvia, I think was her name.”
Nick nodded. “She was hot. They got serious pretty fast, probably too fast. Brian even mentioned the M word to me once.”
“Marriage?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yeah.” He finished his beer and got up and went behind the bar and retrieved another bottle from the small refrigerator.
“I tried to get him to slow down, but he said he’d never been this in love before.”
“So what happened?”
“He proposed about 3 weeks ago and she not only said ‘no’, she broke it off with him. He was a mess.”
Laura looked at me for a long moment, before speaking.
“Nick, he never told either of us anything more than that they were dating.”
Nick shook his head sadly. “I think he was embarrassed about wanting so much so soon. He never mentioned talking with you guys, but I assumed he hadn’t told you how serious he was.”
Laura began to cry silently. She’d not had a tearless day since the phone call.
“And Silvia was not at the funeral. We never met her, so we don’t know what she looks like.”
Again Nick shook his head. “No way she could come. She was a mess. I talked with her the night…that night after…after Brian died. You can imagine the guilt.”
“Did you have any inkling he was going to hurt himself, Nick?”
I may have asked a tougher question in my life, but I couldn’t think of it.
“None. He showed no sign. I mean, it was just a relationship that didn’t work out. That shit happens all the time. I knew he was bummed, but he didn’t act devastated. He still was excited about golf.”
And that was as deep as we could get.
To this day, I believe there had to be hidden demons that Brian didn’t talk about with anyone. Some inner poison that was unleashed by this breakup with Silvia.
The finality of suicide has a different flavor than a natural death.
Only one of them involves choice.
I taught my son how to play golf. He won dozens of tournaments during his high school years. Half of our garage was filled with boxes of golf trophies. At SC he’d finished second twice in the Player of the Year voting for the Pac-12 Conference. Many assumed he would try to get his card and go out on tour with the pros.
He was more ambivalent. I backed up and gave him plenty of room to work it through. I’ll never know if he made up his mind or not about pursuing golf as his career. It would have made me a very proud father.
It’s been four years now, since that November 23rd phone call. Laura hardly ever cries anymore. I never cry, in front of her. I often have troubling finishing a round of golf without breaking down, however.
He was supposed to win the U.S. Open and come off the 18th green and give a big bear hug to his old man, and whisper his thanks into my ear. Life was supposed to be one birdie after another. Never a bogey.
These days I hear a lot of whispering.
I just don’t know whose voice it is.
“The loveliness of Paris
Seems somehow sadly gay
The glory that was Rome
Is of another day
I've been terribly alone
And forgotten in Manhattan
I'm going home to my city by the bay.”
“I Left My Heart in San Francisco”
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.