June 18, 2013I had to choose between doing something I love and something I don't care for today. The thing I love is exploring new places - in this case a tour of the new beltway in-town. The thing I don't care for is funerals or wakes - especially for a stranger.
So today I attended the memorial for a stranger.
By the time it was over I felt like I knew him though, and could easily have been his friend even though he was only eighteen. I also attended because this young man, who went to school with my youngest at one point, took his own life May 28.
I went because I wasn't sure there would be a good turnout and I wanted his goodbye to be well attended. I went because I spent time with his dad the day before when he came by the office to get some copies of the paper with his son's memorial in it.
We talked a long time and cried some.
I wanted to be there to support him. I went because I think a piece of me died when his son left us. I went because I wanted answers. I wanted to understand. After the service, I will tell you now; I understand what happened and why — even less.
Listen now, let me describe this young man and maybe you will understand why attending did not help me. I quote from some of the many friends and family who spoke at his service.
"He always had a smile for everyone. He was the first one to volunteer to help someone. He was dedicated, focused, and responsible and worked incredibly hard. He was generous, kind and unselfish. He never took the last piece of anything."
Music was a passion — he played clarinet, bassoon, and talked about someday playing the violin. When asked one day, Why the bassoon?" his reply was, "Because no one else did."
What was it that Thoreau said, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."
He was brilliant and was ranked second in his class. He played soccer, basketball, baseball and fenced. He loved to debate and maintained an insatiable curiosity during his life. And his bucket list including training himself to be ambidextrous, working in a soup kitchen, learning five languages and inventing something so he could be rich (nothing wrong with that).
He was totally focused and could read for hours and be oblivious to everything around him. He was a "big thinker" and loved order, lists, organizing things by groups and never forgot anything. For him everything was black and white, with no in-between.
He loved fedoras, board games, the beach, performing magic tricks, and especially playing poker at the beach and other family gatherings. He was quite competitive, but it was thought that he sometimes let others beat him in contests that clearly he could have won most of the time.
His mother, Mary, remembers reading to him and referenced a funny story about Aladdin — one of Disney's creations (see my last column).
And she said that his love for learning and reading even included studying the dictionary.
A classmate described him as a "brilliant person with quiet dignity" and someone who "always lifted up the people around him." She described his "quiet modesty" and wished that she had the ability to treat others "like he did."
Another said he "was always there to listen" and called him a brilliant student and an amazing friend." And yet another said of him that "he would do things for people that no one else would do. He always seemed to be smiling. He was always on."
And this child ended his own life? Now maybe you see why my search for answers did not go well.
Many adults and children spoke. All told important truths and shared precious moments and observations about Nathan. His mother and his sister, however, shared messages I thought were particularly important to this community right now.
His mother, Mary, said that growing up Nathan was as "good a child" as one could desire - never talked back, always wanted to please, affectionate, talkative and smart. It was only later, well into his teen years that his behavior started to concern them and ultimately he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome (AS), which frequently is described as a high functioning condition on the autism scale.
Characteristics of Asperger include significant difficulties in social interaction, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior or interests. Asperger individuals frequently are extremely bright but also have difficulty having empathy with others and one-sided "conversations" are common. There are many other common symptoms.
Mary told me that had she been more familiar with Asperger she might have suspected earlier the possible signs of Asperger and sought testing and treatment earlier. That is one of her suggestions for other parents - to not discount seemingly innocent idiosyncrasies and to be at least familiar with Asperger.
There is substantial research that suggests a heightened incidence of suicide among those who suffer from depression or Asperger. Both are treatable if detected and in general most people do lead productive lives. But recognizing the illness is critical. And obviously, when children or teens are involved the onus for awareness and action falls squarely on parent's shoulders.
His fourteen year old sister, Isabella, poignantly and directly told us at the service that we need to be better stewards of each other. And it was my impression that she was primarily thinking about children, teens specifically.
We need to care more.
We need to be better listeners.
We need to be better friends, but not just to our friends.
She said that not reaching out to the goofy kids or the not cool kids is not ok. She lamented that, in hindsight she could have / should have made more time for Nathan.
This is the same message that John Trautwein and his Will-To-Live foundation preaches (www.will-to-live.org) - that young people are the best resource for helping other young people.
The world today is so much more difficult and so much more isolating and marginalizing than the world in which most of us knew. Surviving it is not going to just be a function of strength or backbone or good "parenting." It increasingly will be a function of being able to herd-up or, said another way, a function of fording these dangerous rivers of today collectively - traversing the bridge "corporately, instead of attempting to do it individually," as was mentioned this afternoon.
Isabella said, looking back and so wisely, looking forward, "What's next?"
I think she meant we could go about our lives business-as-usual or we can take care of each other - like now, today. Take care of the kid in the hall at school, the single mom trying to cope and the 60 year old neighbor out of work. It is not all about us.
It's all about those around us and what we do today to take better care of them. Compassion, faith, engagement and action I believe was the message that Isabella and others shared at Nathan's service.
Rest peacefully, Nathan. This world is the less without you. Much less.