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
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.