Nature can help us understand so many things about life. Our son took his own life in the fall of 2011. As a mother, no matter how many counselors, doctors and friends tell you suicide isn’t the parent’s fault, you can’t help but wonder what you did wrong. Didn’t I cuddle him enough? Should I have been stricter. Was I too strict? The bottom line: I felt I had failed as a parent.
Our 1st Christmas without our son
The first Christmas after his death was especially heart-wrenching. Over the years, I had bought an ornament for each of my three children every year since they were babies to decorate their own tree when they left home. I couldn’t bear to even look at at Derek’s ornaments. We scaled back on holiday decorating, and decided to get a live tree, a black hill spruce, in Derek’s honor, that we would plant in the spring. I looped a strand of lights on it and hung a handful of ornaments.
The spruce looked beautiful when we planted it in our front yard. I was so pleased. The following year, we had a landscaper move it to a temporary location on our property when we put an addition onto the house. In the spring, it had lots of new growth and looked healthy. We decided in the fall that we’d move the tree to my daughter’s property where there’s plenty of acreage for it to grow magnificent, tall and full.
Something went wrong
Mid July, 2014, my husband accompanied me to a writer’s conference in Texas. When we returned a week later, the tree looked severely distressed with brown needles and brittle branches, as if parched. I was shocked. How could this have happened so fast? The landscaper suggested we water it daily and hold off moving it till the following spring, if it survived.
I watered it every day, but it continued to drop needles, and every day I felt more distraught. I had neglected Derek’s memorial tree. I had failed to take care of it properly and now it was dying. The metaphor was obvious. It seemed almost fitting that the tree would die under my care.
In August, just by chance, my husband happened upon an article in the Detroit News about a spruce decline throughout Michigan. The needle cast and branch dieback that began seven years ago has reached epidemic proportions, and that year’s weather had made them especially vulnerable to canker diseases. The article stated fungicides are generally ineffective. All you can do is remove the infected branches and hope for the best.
I ran out to look at our son’s spruce and saw blue fungus on the trunk. It had a disease. I hadn’t neglected it after all. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent it from succumbing.
Our son didn’t like taking medication, and you can’t force feed a 32 year old, although we did strong-arm him into the hospital once. After that, his depression seemed to improve, but it never went away. When he moved out of state for a new job, we hoped it would give him focus and a new outlook. He even found a new doctor he liked.
Then, for whatever reason, he stopped taking his antidepressants and quit his job. We were distraught and, I have to admit, a little angry, too. Didn’t he know better? What was he going to do now? End up living on the streets? If we helped him, were we enabling him? As his mental health declined, my husband and I sought the advice of a counselor, who told us to take him to a hospital to have him evaluated. We knew he would be furious with us, but we had no choice. We made a plan and headed out to Ohio, a three-hour drive.
We were about 12 hours too late.
However, there’s no way of knowing if we could have helped him. Maybe the doctors could have put him on different medication, but, once left to his own devices, he might have stopped. There’s no guarantee that he wouldn’t have tried to commit suicide again. The psychic pain from his illness was too great to bear.
Just like the spruce, it’s a sad truth that you can’t always prevent everything, and you can’t blame yourself.
By the way, every Christmas I decorate a little tree just for Derek with all his ornaments.
Angelica Schirrick wonders how her life could have gotten so far off-track. With her two children in tow, she leaves her felon husband and begins a journey of self-discovery that leads her back home to Ohio. It pains her to remember the promise her future once held, that time before the disappearance of her first love, and the shattering revelation that derailed her life and divided her parents. Only when she finally learns to accept the violence of her beginning can she be open to life again, and maybe to a second chance at love.