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Friday, February 20, 2004

The continuing drama at San Francisco's city hall heightens my anxiety and stirs painful memories of Rick's death. I won't linger on the implications of a parent outliving her young. This has happened to countless others, and brings up the natural feelings of regret and the guilt of survival for each of us, I'm certain.

But maybe this is a chapter on mortality as much as it's a chapter about the loss of my son -- and what sense I've been able to make of it as one without a belief in divine intervention:

It was a day of changes. I'd decided to sell the home in El Cerrito. I'd bought it ten years before in order to accommodate mother's last days. Dad died at 95 in 1987. Mother survived him by six years, to the age of 101. Eventually, she'd passed on and the cost of maintaining "a house that could accommodate the Christmas tree," could no longer be justified. I'm sure that I wasn't alone in this. Many parents continue the myth of being the center of the universe long after it's appropriate to do so.

I'd located a one-bedroom condo in Richmond's Hilltop Village, and was in the process of crating up all the "stuff" that would go to storage when the call came. It was Rick's landlord. "Mrs. Soskin, we haven't seen your son for three weeks, and there is growing concern among his neighbors that ...". My heart stopped for a fraction of a second, and I could hardly catch my breath.

Called my niece, Gail, who lived reasonably close by -- and David (by now hysterical) in Berkeley to relay the news, knowing that I couldn't drive across town to learn the truth. They immediately dropped everything and took over. David still does "'s'ponsible" very well. I sat and waited with a growing feeling of numbness, my body magically preparing to protect itself against what was sure to come.

The phone pierced the silence with a shrill ring and the landlord's voice on the line with, "...I'm so sorry, Mrs. Soskin." I screamed! David hadn't reached me yet. He'd opted to drive to tell me in person rather than to speak those fateful words by phone knowing that I was alone. When he did arrive, we called Bobby, together. David's words now engraved on my brain, "...it's over, Mom. It's over." How difficult, even now, to admit that embedded in the horror and pain of grief lurked the feeling of relief. He was right. It was over.

This wasn't new. There was a familiarity about this strange mixture of feelings. It was a reminder that in 1987 and within three short months, the key men in my life had all passed away. My father first of all, then Mel (my first husband and children's father), then Bill -- the man I'd married at 50 after the first marriage ended. I was at first devastated with grief. I'd been at the foot of my father's bed at the hospital when I heard his last breath being expelled. Bill lay in a coma for months before the end came. Mel died after years of living as an amputee -- living death for a former athlete. I'd experienced his death as merciful. They'd all died in that brief period.

Imagine my surprise to find that, only a few months later, right behind the grief lay the exultation of emancipation. I'd had no sense of my individuality, my womanness. As it is with many women in my age group, I'd been consistently defined by the men I'd loved for an entire lifetime, and without question. I don't think that I'd yet decided whether feminism was a step up or down, and my life as "part of a whole" seemed destined to be.

How many months I lived in that space of silent joyful/sadness I'm not sure. It wasn't something to be talked about. But springing out into the world with new horizons and unfamiliar mountains to climb became all-consuming. Having married at a very young 19, I'd experienced being child, daughter, wife, mother, but had skipped over "woman," without any idea of just what meant, or awareness that I'd not lived out that essential part of myself; nor had I missed her. Tapping into new capacities in myself drowned out the eulogies in a flurry of activities and interests. The need to maximize the second half of life moved to the top of my priorities, and I sensed a new sense of purpose and preciousness of time -- made the more urgent by the loss of those I'd loved and lost.

Rick had been dead on his bathroom floor for three weeks when his body was found. He'd died of cirrhosis from years of alcoholism. He'd died alone. His death followed that of his lover, Gordon, by no more than a year. His death had been one of the longest acts of suicide imaginable; a slow inescapable descent into the hell of self destruction. David was right. Rick's life had never really started. A bright potential had been snuffed out years before for a variety of reasons -- some beyond my understanding. Some not. I'll never know how much I contributed to that despite all the love invested. None of us can ever know that, and it's probably just as well.

But the mystery would deepen in days to come.

Both Bob and David had a sense of having reached Rick a few months before his death, at a time when he was hospitalized in crisis. His blood pressure had risen to dangerous levels and though close to death, he'd survived for the moment. Both younger brothers had spent time visiting with him in the hospital. Bob's approaching wedding (only two weeks later) held excitement for us all. Bob believed that Rick had every intention of participating with us, and that they'd connected meaningfully after a long period of separation. Bob lives on the Monterey Peninsula and has for many years, so their lives rarely crossed at that time. Though we didn't give it words, I suspect that we each knew that he'd not live much longer.

Knowing doesn't soften the shock or finality of death at all. Nor do the lost lives of those who went before. Each loss is all-consuming. Experience does little to prepare one for losing a loved one though, as we age, there is some movement toward the acceptance of one's own ending. A child cannot imagine non-existence. I can. Maturity may be measured by just when we accept the fact that we must die as all beings do, and the emphasis begins to center on just how well we are using and have used the privilege of life. A friend said to me on the occasion of my mother's death, "...remember, Betty, no life is complete without a death." He'll never know how important those words would become in my own struggle with the acceptance of my own mortality. Being all used up before the end, has become a driving force -- an obsession. The growing sense of urgency has added spice to my days and lightness to my step in this most recent decade when life has become more precious than ever before.

Just stopped long enough to scan through the binder that holds the records of Rick's last days and read through the descriptions of the strange events that gave a date certain for his last hours. Will copy them here if only to reinforce the experience and remind myself (and you) of how wondrous is the capacity of the human mind to skip across the limitations of time and space when the need is great enough and openness undisputed.

More later.

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