Sh*t happens and sometimes it hurts

Photo: mother and grown son pose together at airpor
My son Matthew and Teresa have one last hug before he heads off to grad school at UC-Berkeley, aiming for his master of fine art. At Dulles Airport outside Washington, DC.

Yesterday we drove our son Matthew to Dulles airport. He had stripped his life down to an over-sized suitcase and a duffle bag (total 100 pounds, max), a knapsack (with laptop and iPad) and a few boxes that friends and colleagues will smuggle into California. He left his car, some boxes and his new flat screen TV in storage with us (I don’t know if there’s space). He gave up a nice paying job working for a NASA contractor at the Goddard Space Center, though the post was no more secure than anything dealing with the Federal government these days. He could have lost funding in the next round of sequestration cuts.

When Matt was in college, he latched on to geography because he had to decide on a major and eliminated everything else. He went on to get a Master of Science in Geography because he needed a breather from paying off his college loans. On the side, he began dabbling in photography, got accepted in several collective exhibits, started writing about the DC art scene and then earned a residency slot at the Arlington Art Center. He found himself working full-time in a professional track in remote imaging and geographic information systems that would require a major investment of time and resources to keep abreast of the evolving technology and computing tools. But outside of work, he channeled his energies to the challenges of art, both making it and writing about it. I could sense he was not satisfied with the day-time job, but could not find the time to focus fully on his creative projects even though I could tell that he was blossoming into intellectual maturity.

At 35, Matt decided to veer his career in a radically new direction. He is among six people accepted in the University of California Berkeley Department of Art Practice, joining seven other students in their second year towards a Master of Fine Arts degree. That’s a big accomplishment for a guy with no formal training in fine arts (just a few workshops and classes). Through savings, selling off most of his big-ticket assets, scholarships and other budgeting magic, he turned the two-year hiatus at Berkeley into an income-neutral transaction. He expects that at the end of his time on the West Coast , fired by his genuine interests, he will have found new bearings for his life. That’s a huge bet because only a handful of artists make a living from their work. But he’s never going to imagine a post-graduate formula unless he plunges head first into the Berkeley cauldron.

Life is a bitch

Photo: three kids near a Christmas tree
Stephanie and Matthew enjoy decorating the Christmas tree with blond-mopped cousin Stephen at my parents’ home when we were visiting from Peru in 1983 .

Early this morning my sister Judy called to say that Stephen, her oldest son, had committed suicide, hanging himself in his backyard. He left behind his wife and child, plus two stepsons from his wife’s previous marriage. Stephen had always been a gutsy kid. He enlisted in the Marines, serving two terms. Out of military service, he struck out on his own, parlaying a knack for computer hardware and motors into a livelihood working on cars and eventually managing the work floor at a Sears shop. I have not seen much of him over the past few years because he lived and worked in Delaware.

Stephen was a year younger  than Matt. They lived most of their lives separated by thousands of miles and decisions about how to bridge the equally huge gap between adolescence and adulthood. It’s sobering to think that under the same starry night sky, a full moon, a blue moon to boot, Matthew was settling into his mission quest in California while Stephen was making a fateful, brutal choice to end his own journey. I’d prefer to be celebrating my son’s accomplishments wholeheartedly, but the news about Steven is like a sucker punch.

I have not had the courage to speak to my sister since her call this morning. I wanted to spare her the obligation of repeating the details of Stephen’s death, the upheaval in his young family, the grief of Judy and Sam, and his younger brothers, Jonathan and Benjamin, who looked up to him as their big, all-knowing brother.  They will be searching for clues, hints, the scribbled note that might help explain why Stephen made such a drastic decision.  Two and a half years ago, when my parents died, Judy showed that she could follow the protocols of mourning and leave her deepest expressions of pain for later. She will surely show the same fortitude, bolstered by the prayers and support of all those who care for her and her family.