Copyright 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
Paris, winter, 2016. We are here in the French capital again, my spouse Raymond and I, visiting dear friends for most of the month. Ray, who has an extensive history of European travel to his credit, has made this journey many times; I, however, have been in Paris on only four occasions. That said, if imagination counts for anything, then I have been to the storied City of Light innumerable times. For just as the Danish author Isak Dinesen purportedly claimed, I (too) have been a mental traveler. Just so, I have visited this city more times than I can recall. That is because Paris has captured my fancy for as long as I can remember.
As much as I hate to admit the cliché, I attribute my insatiable appetite for Paris to the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s: “An American in Paris” (1951, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron), “Lili” (1953, Leslie Caron), “Daddy Longlegs” (1955, Fred Astaire, Ms. Caron) and, of course, “Gigi” (1958, again with Caron). Those movies–set before a hungry kid living in the boondocks of pre-Disney central Florida–presented a full menu for this American’s Parisian dream; that would be Paris as the ultimate expression of everything graceful, romantic, cultured, nuanced and brimming with the understated permission to just be. The kind of place, in fact, where an oddball like me might not seem so out of place at the table.
Later in adolescence a particularly charming high school French Teacher, Mme D, encouraged that notion by regaling us, her students, with tales of her previous life in the French capital, and by recounting the tragedies and triumphs of her favorite contemporary French cultural icons: French General and statesman, Charles de Gaulle; African-American expatriate singer and entertainer, Josephine Baker; and most especially, the legendary Edith Piaf, regarded at the time as France’s national chanteuse. How delicious it was, following Mme D’s animated direction as we sang along with the recordings of France’s “Little Sparrow,” warbling in lousy French the lyrics of “La vie en rose,” “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and “Milord.” Only by attending to Piaf, Mme D maintained, could we (yokels all) hope to remedy our atrocious twangy accents, not to mention our choppy, elision-less phrasing.
Several years later, another artist’s work served to further whet my appetite for all things Parisian. I was a junior at the University of Florida in 1969 when Judy Collins released her wonderful album, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a collection so mesmerizing–truly, every song is a gem–that I must’ve played it a thousand times that year. But in truth, there was one track that moved me more than the others. Collins’s “My Father,” a haunting homage to her coal miner patriarch’s poignant dream of escaping to a romantic life in Paris, carries me away to this day:
My father always promised us / That we would live in France / We’d go boating on the Seine / And I would learn to dance
It should go without saying, I expect, that such romantic notions as these rarely find a place at the table in real life. That is because day-to-day living serves up an endless banquet of distractions and competing priorities–enough of them sometimes to make us fat and lazy, or to see us waste away. And yet somehow the persistent fantasy of a different life in Paris–one where even a skinny southern misfit like myself might achieve selfhood–has simmered in the back kitchens of my consciousness all these years. Over time, it has become something of a favorite dish, one whose flavor I summon in imagination whenever real life offers only fast food.
Granted, there is a good case to be made that a recurring diet of make believe is nothing more than high calorie self-indulgence, and that to invest energy in imagining a life in Paris, or London, or New York, or, for that matter, in envisioning how we’d dispense our Power Ball lottery millions, is simply a waste of time. But to those arguments I would counter that my Parisian dream has kept me from starving to death countless times, has nurtured me through many a famine–through losses of employment and property, friends and lovers. Through losses of life.
Which brings me back to this current stay in the City of Light, coming as it does after a year of personal upheaval that culminated in a cross-country move, as well as the deeply troubling outcome of a nasty and soulless U.S. Presidential contest. How satisfying it has been in these times of uncertainty and seeming global scarcity to rediscover that my Parisian dream has some basis in reality. Which is to say that the city has lost none of its power to sustain me.
As when in my morning jogs up Avenue du Général-Leclerc, I experience real satisfaction and a sense of belonging, however temporary, in successfully dodging native pedestrians and piles of doggie poo (Merde happens. Even in Paris!) on my way to les Jardins du Luxembourg. Likewise, there is the pride and sense of personal investment I take in the majestic mansard-roofed apartment buildings (palaces in which I’m unlikely ever to reside) that line Avenue de l’Observatoire, and the terraces, balustrades, parterres, and tree-lined promenades of les Jardins.
Granted, there is nothing in my pedestrian reveries of Paris that comes close to the Hollywood magic that first inspired my yearnings for the city those many years ago, not even a soupçon of the grace of the Gene Kelly choreographed ballet set to the iconic symphonic poetry of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”. But I’m not sure that it matters if the most grandiose iterations of our fantasies ever find expression in real time, for surely there is room for economies of scale even in make believe.
Which is all by way of suggesting that perhaps the real measure, the real value of our most cherished imaginings, is their ability to feed our souls when the larders of life seem to hold nothing more than a few stale croutons.
Which is surely no small thing. Vraiment, pas du tout.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
He wears loss ‘round his neck—
scintilla of ashes, bone, dust—
a steely, encapsulating talisman,
storied against his heart.
His fingers oil the patina
to a shade of smoky-gray.
This grief is a work in progress,
homage to procreative pomposity
and best paternal intentions,
a last-ditch mnemonic
to rhinestone-sparkling vanity
and false hope springs eternal.
All such tinder’d fables
must flare and burn away.
Yet, in the sooted residue,
the smallest spark may show—
to make of loss an artless art
(or so this story goes?)
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
They say being alive is a concatenation of scenes,
the sum of which equals a singular human performance.
So it is no surprise that since yours was cut short,
I find imperfect metaphors on every stage of life.
For your absence has defined me, has bequeathed
the part of a lifetime: I am the man who loses his son
and spends the rest of his life finding him.
Perfect casting, some might say, condign punishment
for lackluster paternal performance. And yet,
it is no easy sentence, no painless penance
chancing upon your likeness. For in a heart-throbbing instant,
you can suddenly reappear: your semblance in a child,
the living, breathing incarnation of perpetual motion
squirming delightedly in another man’s obliging arms;
something of your essence in every awkward juvenile
who trods the boards, thunderbolted youths yet out of sync
with the words and music of adolescent flesh.
Fitting I should glimpse you in the harried barista
whose bean-browned fingers do me service;
in the oleaginous youth sweltering fast-food heat on my behalf.
Rightful that the wearied waitperson standing witness to another’s appetite
should mime your resign-ed face. For you are serviceable
across every oeuvre, come comedy or high drama,
like a shooting star doomed by careless management
to overwork and early burnout, your billboarded similes are ubiquitous.
And yet, no comparison can do you justice. Even so, I find them out—
the mixed metaphors of your abbreviated life.
For such is the role of paternal grief—the daily re-discovery
that no likeness can enliven enduring loss.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
I’m through talking to you,
she said, in her best aggrieved
spousal tone—this before launching
a litany of worst-case marital woes.
Quite a list it was, and accurate;
something about ambivalent husbands
making emotionally fragile wives.
Meanwhile, outside the kitchen window,
a blizzard of plum blossoms settling
into pink petal snow drifts
on the Spring carpeted earth.
Which aroused precipitous notions
of marriage as a seasonal feast:
Spring’s timorous first candied kiss
flaring to Summer’s hot-chili heat,
a can’t-get-enough-of-you stew
that’s breathtakingly delicious—
until autumn’s befalling,
and the first wintering frost.
Just so my simple-minded epiphany
collided with my wife’s intermission.
I don’t know why I keep trying,
she said, lapsing toward lingering silence.
But that was but one of many bare-faced lies,
if surely the dearest ever told—
just enough for a few more seasons.
But all this was many moons ago;
and so, perhaps convenient fiction—
the last words between wishful
‘Though that surely belies
the simple truth.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart (500 words)
Call me crazy, but I like to fantasize about meeting god,
about hooking up with the über one for a face-to-face
encounter. Nowadays, that takes some real-time imagination,
what with virgin births and second comings scarce,
not to mention deity’s long holiday from humanity.
I mean, what’s up with that anyway—two thousand years,
practically incommunicado? Who gets that much time off,
I’d like to know? Luckily, I’m a creative type myself
(why should god have all the fun?), a natural at conjuring
divine stand-ins which, despite those old testament chestnuts,
[think “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”]
I believe totally justified given the big kahuna’s gone AWOL.
But whatever. Meantime, I’m finding icons of the digital age
make a godly substitute. Like one of those action genre divinities
all muscled up to the high heavens for the wide-screen,
or a Silicon Valley entrepreneur with a P.S.A. trending on YouTube®.
Could even be a teen queen streaming country hits on Spotify®.
You get the picture. There’s a million possibilities out there.
That said, I won’t go out of my way for any “B-list” imitators.
No proselytizing, baby-kissing politicians (god forbid!),
Nor minor T.V. luminaries either. No FOX News® anchors
umbilically attached to their teleprompters; nor manscaped
celebrity chefs sporting au courant hair. No sitcom bombshells
hawking Spanx® and wrinkle creams on QVC®, et cetera.
I’m talking strictly superstar material here, a genuine icon
who’d be worshipped anywhere on god’s green earth
and seven continents—six if you’re of European persuasion
where they combine the Americas, excepting the contrary French,
who ignore Antarctica and thus, have only five (lord knows,
we humans all want to re-create the world!). But I digress.
To continue, my fantasy god stands in plain sight streetside;
could be the Champs-Élysées or a squalorous alley in old Bombay.
Could be Bumfuck, Texas. Doesn’t matter. There she/he is,
waiting to be idolized. And man, do the pilgrims prostrate!
Everyone is agog at my god. Everyone but me, that is.
Since it’s my delusion, I can cut to the chase with the divine,
dispense with that holier-than-thou crap and get down to business.
“Pardon me, god-almighty,” I say, striking up conversation.
“Since we probably won’t meet again, I was wondering—
could we try something? Could we try to see each other,
really see each other for a change?” That’s how I put it to god.
And then, I just stand there waiting, holding god’s eye, so to speak.
The whole thing takes thirty secs, max. Not much to ask, IMHO.
I conclude the meeting with a single word: “Beautiful,” I say.
Very simple. Some might say elegant. Just ‘Beautiful’.
In my best imaginings, there’s always a sonorous heavenly coda:
“I was just about to say the same,” my god replies. Words to that effect.
And yet, I can’t help wondering—is this last pushing fantasy too far,
not to mention flouting precedent? After all, history is clear on one thing:
that the gods rarely recognize their creators.
©2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
(Dillon Tyler Urquhart 03.08.1979—08.02.2013)
Today, with your birthday coming on, I tried from old photographs to summon some smile-making memories, a few happy commemoratives from all those “say ‘cheese’!” moments. But it seems my recollections are like the Swiss variety—riddled with holes, the “eyes” never uniform or all-seeing. Entire decades of your life, Dill, have fallen into those voids. The leftovers come back to me in bite-size morsels, sometimes nostalgically sweet and buttery, other times flat-out nutty. It seems your very existence has been homogenized—the particulates broken smaller and smaller, aged and suspended in the milk of memory so smoothly that I have to concentrate in order to taste the cream.
There is a frosted birthday clown in there somewhere, nose Kodachrome-orange as a cheddar wedge, and a roomful of photogenic preschoolers mugging deliciously for the camera. A piñata gets batted around too, heavily stuffed with cheesy “made-in-China” tchotchkes, cellophaned pralines (courtesy of Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw) straight from the “Big Easy”. Also in the mix, a handful of Polaroid memories: a grownup party and you, a chocolate-mouthed thief, grinning, having purloined an unattended Chardonnay.
Strange, it must seem to you wherever you are: all this snapshot straining of the past for a soupçon of ‘happy’? But then, maybe that is the way we human beings experience our happiness—rarely in the present tense, its truest pleasures palatable only after the acidic effects of time? Rather like the aftertaste of a good Brie or Camembert. Or, more apropos of the day, the sugared memory of ice cream and cake that remains long after the birthday candles have all been extinguished. Who knows? Perhaps it’s our delayed experience of the sublime that makes life in the present tense bearable? That is what I’m inclined to think.
And it’s why I choose to remember you, this way, Dillon: as a beaming birthday boy.
Happy birthday, Dear Son.
I do not know if I should be attempting this again—don’t know if it’s wise or useful to attempt honesty, especially in prose, on a matter so profoundly life-altering as the death of a child. I have tried many times, sometimes in short memorial pieces, mostly in laboring poetry, to come to terms with my adult son’s death from mental illness and drug abuse in 2013. So why try again? After all, Dillon’s isn’t a new or even infrequently told story.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of drug overdose deaths, a 137 percent increase since 2000—including a 200 percent increase in deaths involving opioids. Contributing to these sobering statistics is the fact that nearly 50 percent of those who suffer from mental illness also have substance abuse problems.
My son was one in tens-of-thousands. Maybe even millions.
Dillon was schizophrenic and a chronic self-medicator—his drugs of choice, alcohol and opioids. Often in combination. By the time of his death, Dillon had a long tally of counseling, rehab, recovery, and relapse on account. He had also in late adolescence paid dearly in psychological terms during the dissolution of his parents’ twenty-year marriage, a bond broken owing to his father’s inability—that would be my inability—to deny and suppress a long latent homosexuality.
The bill for all of these troubles came due for Dillon, as I’ve indicated, in 2013. In the early hours of July 28th, Dill overdosed.
Stripped clean of identification, money, and most of his personal possessions in a Seattle park frequented by drug dealers, the homeless, and the mentally ill, Dillon lay unconscious and unattended for nearly half an hour. By the time emergency crews arrived, most of Dillon’s brain activity had ceased. He was admitted to Harbor View Hospital under the alias, “Joe Garcia.” Two days passed before a staff member recognized Dillon from a previous stay (one of several) in the hospital’s psych ward.
His mother, my ex-wife, and I were subsequently notified; we flew in from out-of-state to join our daughter, with whom Dillon had been living, to sit vigil at Dill’s bedside. The end came a day later.
Removed from life support, Dillon passed in the early hours of August 2, 2013. He was thirty-four years old. It was the worst day of my life—or so I thought at the time.
What I’ve learned since is that there is no such thing as a single worst day. Not for a parent who has lost a child; and certainly not when the child’s mental illness has introduced a whole world of “if only’s” and “why didn’t I’s” into the grief-guilt-anger-personal-culpability aftermath. Indeed, what I’ve discovered is that the bad days just keep coming, cropping up on the slightest provocation: a dream, an old photograph, one of Dill’s favorite tunes on the radio; the sight of another man at lunch with his son. Any one of a thousand ordinary everyday events can overwhelm this benighted father in a tsunami-like wave of fresh grief. It is two and a half years since Dillon’s passing, and still the tidal waves of regret and guilt keep coming.
I use the word guilt on purpose, because that is what I feel—as if I could have and should have done more to save my son. Something more than arranging for therapy or supplying occasional supplementary funds; more meaningful than editing his resumé or helping him find affordable housing. Couldn’t I have undertaken something more hands-on than long-distance telephone pep-rallies, something more stabilizing and/or interventional than an Internet search for appropriate services? And most acutely: couldn’t I have denied myself, delayed my ‘coming out’ for my children’s sake, remained closeted and heterosexually coupled in the service of their emotional and psychological health at least a while longer?
Even barring that possibility, shouldn’t I have taken Dillon under my roof once I’d forged out on my own to build a new life? Perhaps even taken control of his mental health treatment by legal means?
Over and over, my daily reflections remind me that I chose not to do these things, chose not to pull my son closer.
So, why didn’t I? It’s not as if the options weren’t clear to me.
I remember, for example, a long distance telephone conversation with a representative at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Greater Seattle, shortly after Dillon moved there to join his sister in 2009. Already my daughter was reporting a resurgence of Dillon’s old patterns: the precipitous ups-and-downs, the recalcitrance about his meds, the bouts of paranoia accompanied by self-destructive behaviors with alcohol and drugs. I remember discussing with the NAMI representative the various services, treatments, and support systems available to Dill in Seattle if he could only be persuaded to access them. And I remember that we explored intervention options too—the various legal complications and difficulties associated with attempting to gain guardianship of my son and/or effect his involuntary commitment. I remember (tellingly?) experiencing a feeling close to relief when I learned that since Dillon had several times demonstrated enough self-awareness of his illness to pursue voluntary commitment programs, it might prove difficult to establish the preponderance of evidence necessary to gain control over my son’s mental health care via the courts. Even so, the NAMI representative provided me with information and legal contacts for exploring a court action. But as I’ve indicated, I didn’t pursue that route.
Instead, I convinced myself that the least traumatic, least shaming course of action for Dillon was to encourage him to be proactive in maintaining his mental health—i.e., staying on his meds, continuing regular sessions with his psychiatrist, and even pursuing voluntary commitment treatments when necessary.
For my part, I would provide advice and financial assistance to supplement Dill’s disability income; I would do my best to smooth over his legal and housing difficulties via long distance. And I would keep reminding him that the voices that sometimes commandeered his consciousness weren’t real, weren’t the result of a sinister N.S.A. experiment designed to beam self-destructive commands at him via microwave.
It was easier to pursue this route—easier because Dill sometimes experienced several weeks of normalcy at a stretch—no dramas, nothing more bothersome than the housekeeping challenges his messy ways occasioned for his fastidious sister and housemate.
But the rationale for my choices was not entirely rooted in parental altruism or even the belief that a milder form of tough love might do Dillon good—not that those didn’t factor into my actions. Rather, the naked Full Monte of my reasoning included much that was not admirable.
Seventeen years of running damage control in close quarters during Dillon’s youth, I thought, was enough. I wanted my own new life as a homosexual man to be as uncluttered as possible. And besides, Dillon had repeatedly proven himself a bridge burner, disappointing us all—his mother, sister, myself—multiple times. How much dishonesty, verbal abuse, and even theft was one expected to endure? Hadn’t I put in my time? So when my adult son forged out into his own space, I was determined to keep him there—at a distance. I was able to pull this off by compartmentalizing in a backroom of consciousness (well away from the shaming light of day) the less commendable reasons for my actions.
But as the saying goes, you can be sure the truth will out. And in the aftermath of Dill’s passing, with all my emotional doors flung wide open, the truth has been stepping into the klieg lights, strutting its ugly self in a manner guaranteed to commandeer my attention, my regret. And my guilt.
There are reasons, I know, that should mitigate these feelings, this shame. After all, one of the tenets of supporting a family member who suffers from mental illness and/or substance abuse is not to do for them what they can do for themselves. And certainly not to intervene in their lives in a manner that keeps them from the consequences of their actions.
These are pretty words, and not untrue. But they are afterwords now, and their comfort has been icy cold in the aftermath of Dillon’s death.
More helpful has been support from my spouse, my loved ones.
As a dear friend recently counseled, I must discover how to forgive myself, forgive Dillon, and forgive the universe for casting us both in this drama. And then maybe make something good happen in my son’s memory. Which is, I suppose what I’m attempting here—the ostensible purpose of this post.
That I’m finding it beyond difficult, is, I expect patently obvious.
But I am trying.
One of the things that makes the process so difficult is that while there’s no denying my parental shortcomings and insensitivities, I really do love my children; I have always loved them. That was the one thing I wanted them never to doubt. So I told them so at every opportunity: “I love you bushels and pecks,” I told them when they were children. And then later on, “Whatever happens, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you today, tomorrow, and for always.”
I thought that knowing how deeply and unconditionally they were loved would help my children weather any challenge. How naïve of me not to have foreseen that discovering otherwise would break all our hearts. Especially Dillon’s, whose wounded psyche was so fragile.
“I love you both to death,” I told my children repeatedly.
But I always meant my death.
Atoning for that failure with Dillon will be, I suspect, a lifelong challenge.
“I can see you,” she says
sweeping airily by,
flash of Sunday-school dotted swiss,
patent leather rat-a-tat heels,
whiff of Skin So Soft.
“Time to rise and shine!”
Her voice is soprano sharp
and bellwether clear,
the vibrato not yet crackled with age.
“Mama seeees you very well.”
And how eagerly, happily you rouse,
clutch at the bed sheets,
a child again to your mother’s skirts.
“And I can see you,” you answer back.
But, that truth is fading fast,
like the epiphanies of slumber,
another vision glimpsed much too late.
And come the hindsight of day,
subject to wavering revision.