A few months before my mom died, I broke up with my first boyfriend (who I’ll call Steve in this post.) Steve was good to me, and we were in love – at least in that way that 19-year-olds without a care in the world can be. But I had dated him since high school, and we both wanted to see who else was out there. I spent the summer that followed our break-up working at an amazing summer camp, Bruin Woods, and I met all sorts of new people. One of those new people I met was James.
James worked as the camp’s fisherman, taking people out on early morning trips and schmoozing with the adults there. He was hilarious, handsome and a ton of fun. One night, he brought me out to the lake and we gazed at the stars together. I was smitten.
Throughout the summer I kept up with my family through weekly phone calls. As the weeks turned into months, my phone conversations with my mom worried me more and more. I have a vivid memory that summer of seeing James after I got off the phone with my mom. It had been a terrible call and I was crying. He comforted me. I felt unsettled, but I felt like James understood me.
My mom died by suicide a few weeks later.
I wasn’t actually with James when I got the news. It was my day off, and I was in a house with new friends. I flew home and didn’t think about James until he called me that night. This was before cell phones, so he called my house line, and I stood in my laundry room leaning against the extra fridge with tears streaming down my face.
How can I remember this specific moment more than 20 years later? It was the worst day of my life at that point, and yet this memory is one of the few that stands out. I think I remember it because what ran through my head was this: “James is trying to comfort me. But he didn’t know my mom.”
Of course he didn’t. We had just met and we were both living hundreds of miles away from my hometown. He was kind and he was thoughtful, and really, for a 20-year-old guy, he was impressively present for me.
But he didn’t know my mom, and my high school boyfriend did. Steve was at my house immediately after I flew home, and he held me as I cried. He came to the funeral, and he cried there too. We grieved together, and even if my pain was greater, he also missed my mom.
I eventually returned to LA and reunited with James. I was broken for the first time in my young life and I wasn’t sure how to perform the daily tasks that got me through the days. James was patient, and asked for little. One night, when the grief was still so raw I couldn’t quite figure out how to do anything, he took me out to a fancy neighborhood and we drove around looking at the houses of movie stars. He played this song that was popular at the time, “Lullaby,” and sang a bit of it too, if I remember right.
Sometimes I play that song now. It’s another one of those songs I haven’t listened to in 20 years, but I guess there’s a part of me that feels like the pain I felt then has a connection to the pain I feel today.
And just before
She hangs her head to cry
I sing to her a lullaby, I sing
Everything’s gonna be all right
Everything’s gonna be all right
James didn’t try to tell me that everything was fine when my mom died. Somehow, he was mature enough to know that he shouldn’t say something like that. But he wanted to comfort me, and these lyrics seemed to fit. Or at least it seemed so to me.
I obviously didn’t marry James. I spent that fall pushing him away and retreating to my former love, Steve, the one who knew my mom. I’m still not quite sure why I did it. Maybe I needed the comfort of home or maybe I was still in love with Steve. What I do know is that I was not good to James, even though he was good to me. It was just too hard to let him into my pain, and so I pushed him away.
Grief changed me that year. I wasn’t able to really tell anyone how it felt to be so alone in this world and I struggled to make real connections. When I think about myself at 19, trying to understand why such a terrible thing would happen to me, I want to wrap my arms around that young version of myself and say, “everything’s gonna be all right.”
Of course, I can’t do that. I had to live through that pain and emerge from the other side. I’m just sorry that I left people in the wreckage.