Creative Commons License
Super Friends by Whitney Holwadel Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at Super Friends: A father's words

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

A father's words

I have been in the unfathomably desperate situation of having to write words to read at Whit's memorial tomorrow. Lest there be any doubt about the beautiful soul of my son, and for those who cannot be there, I would like to post it here. It's another way to be keeping the blog alive, I suppose.

A short time ago I was part, without taking part, of a memorial for a young girl who was taken from her parents and family. It hurt me to the core, and still does. I now know part of the reason why that is so. It’s not only that I have always been constitutionally unable to keep from going straight to the hurt of others and absorbing it. It’s also because I have always known the loss of my son or daughter would be the greatest tragedy of my life. And here I am.

Since Saturday I have been speaking of my son Whitney in the past tense. I would of course rather take my own life than to acknowledge so actively the reality of what has happened with my own speaking voice, and it would be a far easier thing. But today is the day which has been chosen to honor his life, since that is now the only thing left to us to do for him.

There are often remembrances that provoke kind, poignant laughter at a memorial. I will not be the one who is able to provide that, but I know, and am grateful, that others will.

Whit’s life was painfully short, and it was painful and short. But it was only the last half that was so full of pain. Whit was a curious, fun-loving, sensitive and kind boy. There is scarcely one of you here who knew him personally, and perhaps even some who did not, who was not at one time or another the recipient of a random act of kindness from Whit. This began in his earliest life, when he bestowed these unexpectedly and in various forms on his parents. Cards, notes, even a card I found recently with 15 cents taped inside, given I suppose when he was 7 or 8. He loved to surprise with expressions of love and gratitude.

He loved animals, and was devastated when he had to see our first dog struck and killed by a car when he was quite young. He and his grandfather fashioned a cement grave marker with a big heart fingered into the unset concrete. I still have a mouse pad made from a photo of him sitting happily on a chair, holding the next dog, his beloved Milli Vanilli.

I cannot begin to tell of all the ways, large and small, in which his generous, caring and yes, in some way fragile, spirit shone through. His life was a crooked path. It can be said, depending on your views about these things, that he made bad choices, and that they were his to make. Or that he was compelled to make them as part of his nature no less than the beautiful, non-self-defeating side. First of all, I tend to see those choices as an aspect of his inherent creativity. That he did things that were considered hurtful to his family, and later ones violated the norms of society, all came, I believe, as a surprise to him. Not that they were hurtful, but that, in retrospect, he had done them. He was never able to understand why, as hard as he tried. And it was not because he didn’t try. He was exquisitely thoughtful and self-aware. And part of what always hurt me was to see how helpless he felt from that inability to understand it himself. There were some who considered his self-defeating actions, even the extreme ones, as nothing more than willful self-indulgence. I always knew better.

I was always the one who gave him the benefit of the doubt. It was not that I couldn’t or didn’t see the consequences his actions had on others, and that they were hurtful to himself as well. But as for his early life, you only need to listen to the others who will speak in both his and their own voices, to understand what it was I saw.

His continual, honest search for identity at some point brought him to prison, once and then again. Rather than be discouraged by the actions that brought him there, I somehow was always able to see even that in the context of a whole life, knowing with absolute certainty who he was in his core, and what he had the potential to become. Every single word in the thousands of letters he wrote to me, from Dayton and then Terre Haute, was painfully honest, insightful and indisputably genuine evidence of and justification for my faith in him. Today a comment was posted on his blog, from someone who didn’t leave a name, which reads: “I came across this blog today while doing research for my job. I have been reading these posts and they have brought laughter and sorrow. You son was brilliant, creative and intelligent. I only wish that I had found these writings sooner. My heart is with your family.

Which brings me to Whitney’s blog. Last November he told me he wanted to write one, and asked if I would set it up for him. Since he has no access to a computer, he hand wrote each entry and mailed it to me. It didn’t become an overnight success, but it has grown to hundreds of regular readers from all over the world. And the numbers have grown exponentially since Saturday. It will remain the most publicly visible and successful manifestation of and testament to his beauty, honesty and depth of soul. I have to say in this context that I am personally ambivalent about the meaningfulness and significance of memorial services like this. I find it too easy to try and reject reality as not real and not true, and find only abject irony in being forced into this situation, as if remembering my son could do anything for him now. Which is ultimately the only thing that matters to me, even now. But at the same time, for whatever reasons, whether of any ultimate meaning or not, I am compelled to wish the entire world would read his words and hear his voice. I myself cannot do so without the pain of disconnect, but others can.

I find it tragic that his place and condition dictated that some of his most creative expression had to come from writing about his utter pain, frustration, depression, and the inherently inhumane conditions under which he was forced to live. Yes, of course that’s all he had to write about, and of course it was in part the extremity of his existence that made his writing so powerful – though not only, because he wrote well and beautifully of many things throughout his life. One of his readers described his writing once as “seriously vivid,” and while there are many equally apt descriptions, I’ve always liked this one. And had it been allowed to be just a stage of development, fodder for something to come later, I would feel less angry and cheated – for his sake and all of ours – by the necessity of the subject matter. But that cannot be changed, and we have this permanent record of a beautiful voice calling out from one of the worst places on earth. He uses humor often, even as a basic device; that is because he has a natural sense of humor, and because it is the only way he can get even a little bit of distance from the pain and horror.

The world is not a very nice place. But Whit’s very existence was an infinitely beautiful thing for me. And the world is at least nice enough, and Whit’s soul such an incomparably beautiful one, that he deserved more life, but he also deserved better than what life gave him. I will believe with absolute certainty, for as long as I have left to live, that had the prison system not broken him, he would have come home a whole person and made the world a better place. He was finding his voice, and his true, beautiful self was winning the internal struggle. He was ready to come home. He had plans and ambitions.

I would like to finish now by reading the last thing I wrote to my son. It was a birthday card, and I am not even sure whether he received it. The sentiment on the card reads:

“Your journey has molded you for your greater good, and it was exactly what it needed to be. Don’t think that you’ve lost time. It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now. And now is right on time.”

And inside I wrote:

“I may not be Zen-like enough to buy into the first sentence, or at least the second clause, but I have always tried to embrace it, and it would be well if you’re able to. I know: it’s hard not to wish there had been a different, less painful path taking you to the same destination. But as for the rest of this view, I’m definitely a subscriber. I know who you’ve always been, who you are today, and I see who you’re becoming, and I could not be more proud. So no, don’t think that you’ve lost time. Look at what you’ve been able to become and accomplish in such adverse conditions, and then imagine how it will feel to take that and run with it in a world that’s wide open to you. Hemingway wrote: The world breaks everyone, and afterwards some are stronger in the broken places. That’s you.

So as you turn 25, don’t dwell on the past but take what you need from it to carry with you into the future. Some of it comes in the form of a burden, but never forget how many people are walking beside you, eager to help you carry that part until it can be put down and left behind.”

I was always proud of my son. There was never a moment when I lost faith in him. I hope every one of you comes away from this understanding why he deserved that.


cieldequimper said...

Hmmm. :-)I'm sure he knew. I really wish I could be there.

Ginny said...

Whit's words made an impact on me and those around me. He was a very talented writer and changed his little corner of the word through his words. Thank you for creating the blog for him. His words will live forever.

I only wish I could have worked with him more on his studies to keep that writing momentum going. I will miss his words and working with you, too, Jeff.

My thoughts and prayers are with you and the rest of your family.

Ohio University
Academic Advisor

Nina the Internet sleuth said...

It's beautiful Jeff... :)

SLS1981 said...

Very beautiful ... I wish I could be there or could have been there for Whit. I share his blog with everyone I know as his writing has been a highlight of my day since Nina shared it with me ...

Anonymous said...

Oh Jeff I see more now than ever how you have so much of Whit in you or vice versa. You have a way of making words into beauty. You just painted your son in a way that will forever be etched in my heart.

You’re an AMAZING father and even though he's not here physically he will shine through you and speak to us through you. You’re now his podium to share with us what he could not.

What you shared with Whit in his card now stands true for you. "but never forget how many people are walking beside you, eager to help you carry that part until it can be put down and left behind.”

All my love and respect to you Jeff.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jeff, for this beautiful tribute to your son, and for the truthfulness of your words.
I can only imagine the pain, yet I must tell you that I am inspired by your determination to keep his spirit alive in his words - and now yours.
This "publication" of Whit's writing - and especially his original voice - already feels so powerful. I sense so many ways his writing will do good.
Love, Kathy W.

Anonymous said...

I am so sorry for your loss. I know that no words will help to make this better or to soothe your pain, but you and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.

I am a part of the PTO community and unfortunately only found Nina's comments about your son's blog and his unfortunate passing late last night. As I began reading his first blog, I was immediately stricken with his eloquence and the power of his words. I was so drawn to what he had written that I could not stop reading. I laughed until I cried at times. As I got further into the blogs, I again found myself in tears. Not from the humor this time, but because I could see and feel his growing pain in the writings. It is very seldom that even through humor someone can relay such emotion as well as he did.

It is too unfortunate that the prison system could do this to such a bright individual. If he only knew what an inspiration he could be to other individuals behind bars and their families. May he Rest In Peace.

I believe a publication of his letters and blogs, etc is an excellent idea. I immediately thought of printing these out and sending them to my husband, who is incarcerated. I am sure that he'd enjoy this as much, if not more than, I did. Your son had a way with words and that should not be kept from the world.


Jenny said...

Hi Jeff,

You are all on my mind and in my heart this morning. I will be holding a West Coast memorial at one of the parks in Nob Hill. It has an amazing 360 view of the Bay (where the Blue Angel's crowd gathered) and to the other side, the long stretch of the Sunset, and downtown. Also there are hoards (flocks? covens?) or parrots that sit in the fragrant Eucalyptus trees and yammer at each other. It is one of my favorite solitary places in the city and a regular spot where I wrote him so today at 11:30 our time (2:30 yours) I will light a candle in Whit's honor.

Much love to you.

cieldequimper said...

Whit, as the evening is now slowly becoming night, I just wanted to tell you that I've spent a long moment with you, just contemplating the flicker of a candle in silence. I've even taken a couple of pictures, you know, that's what bloggers do, I just couldn't help it. Jeff, Take care of yourself and please stop thanking me.

li-shan Ni said...

hi Jeff,
I'm glad I went to the memorial service, coz learnt what's the real unconditional love. you're a great father! :)


SLS1981 said...

I have been here a million times today trying to think of the right words to convey what I'm thinking/feeling. They aren't coming and everything seems highly inadequate ... please know that Whit will be remembered and respected ... loved and cherished ... by many many people, I'm just one ~

Anonymous said...

Im sorry for your loss.I find my self taking your sons death very personal.As I have a brother spending a life sentence in prison,I find that after 15 yrs already served that my brother may become like Whit.I pray that god will walk every step of the way with my brother.Its not easy in prison thats for sure.Im so glad your such a loving father to Whit even though hes a angel now.It shows how important family means to our loved ones in the system.Stay strong and may god bless you and be with you through your loss.