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When Jake went to boot camp years ago for National Guard, I binge-watched Criminal Minds. I’m not sure if this was a step down or sideways from my binge-reading Hamilton’s Anita Blake series when he moved out, but it does follow a pattern: stories carry me through, and the more intense, the better the forgetting.
Stories still carry me through, but my ability to handle the unknown in them has vaporized. I have no tolerance for suspense because I live in that space. Until Jake went missing I was a no-spoilers girl; now I read the ends of books and fast-forward through movies to make sure I know who doesn’t die.
In the minutes after I gave birth to Jake I said, “I get to keep him.” Four years earlier I had given a baby boy up for adoption and the experience was fresh in my brain. Today, Jake is gone and my firstborn, who lives in another state, is in my life. My youngest son, also in another state, is off Facebook and living a normal, mostly pre-internet life. My children are far away, and I have mother-empties.
Vacuum, space in which there is no matter or in which the pressure is so low that any particles in the space do not affect any processes being carried on there. https://www.britannica.com/science/vacuum-physics
But life isn’t a vacuum. You hold your breath, sure, but it doesn’t affect anything but your own self. The upside is that you’re controlling that one thing for a minute or two, until you can’t.
Life is also not punishment and it doesn’t punish you for sucking. It’s taken me a thousand-plus days to figure this out. Life doesn’t punish me, I do.
Again I am in the in-between place of knowing/not knowing, going/stopping, looking ahead/looking back. All these places are one for me.
When I was a kid, my mother gave me a small paperback with Joseph Conrad’s short story, Silent Snow, Secret Snow and Heart of Darkness. It was too boring for my nine-year-old brain, but when I opened it a few months ago I felt as though I could inhabit it. And I wondered if Jake’s world looks like Paul’s, with “a secret screen of new snow between himself and the world.”
Paul, the narrator, describes his encroaching fog as delicious: “The thing was above all a secret, something to be preciously concealed from Mother and Father; and to that very fact it owed an enormous part of its deliciousness…it was also a sense of protection. It was as if, in some delightful way, his secret gave him a fortress, a wall behind which he could retreat into heavenly seclusion.” He’s thinking about the pleasurable feeling of dissociation, when you pull away from your self–not yourself, your self. You pull your self out of the present.
I looked up the synopsis and saw that there’s speculation that the story may be about schizophrenia, which made me think of my son’s mental health before he disappeared. I’d begged and cajoled him to see a mental health professional, to no avail. Many times since he’s been gone I have pictured him in a disheveled, crazy-eyed state, with matted hair and fleas in his beard.
But more and more now, it feels like he may be actively choosing to be gone, which creates a new narrative for me. I’m frequently tempted to blame myself, and I imagine others likely do, too, because sons don’t leave good mothers, now do they?
Well, yeah, actually, they do.
They go off on their adventures and make new lives, and if we’re lucky they reconnect with us.
This cold weather + Jake’s ill-fitting boots starts the spiral–I see it coming like a distant swirl that looks like a nonthreatening dust devil but which turns out to be very tornado-y. But not today.
Life goes on. Life-altering events are mulched over and the diamond bits are buried. The pain doesn’t go away, it’s just part of the soil.
Life’s as short as it ever was and I am thankful to be alive. I’ll be virtually holding my breath as I wait to hear back on PhD programs I’ve applied to, and I’m going to read and write more. I’ll finish quilts and start new craft projects and take walks in this in-between place, and I’ll hope. If there’s one thing that 2020 taught me, it’s that the act of creation is the way through.
One benefit of being busy with work and school is that you have no mulling minutes. Everything’s coagulated beneath the surface, cold and solid.
But a congealed bloodclot at any stage is really only a blockage that prevents hemorrhaging.
I don’t have time for a break of any kind: no heartbreak, especially. And I think this squeezed space is part of what fuels my impatience with my schedule.
I think I want time to mull, but I don’t. I don’t.
What does Jake look like now? Has he given up wearing shoes that are too tight? Does he wear shoes? Does he even exist? It seems like a mother should sense these things, and I don’t sense anything. I have no knowing in my bones, just this soft scab that will not bear picking at.
Jake’s birthday is coming up. It’s just another day, without him.
A briefly anonymous man was featured on the news up in San Francisco. He’d been found at 170 Pacific Avenue in San Francisco. 6’2″, 350+ lbs.
An acquaintance on Facebook alerted me to the news clip, and when I saw the photo I was convinced my son had been found.
I’ve blown this image up 300% to look for some clue for yea or nay, and his best friend does not think it’s Jake, but I can’t unsee the strong resemblance. It’s difficult because his face is swollen, and I can’t see his eyes, yet his eyebrows, nose, and beard are uncannily similar.
So I contacted his former commander in the National Guard, the officer who has been diligent on his case, the San Francisco hospital contact, the San Francisco Sheriff’s office, and the NamUs database volunteer.
DOJ has identified this man based on his fingerprints; this man’s name is not Jake Furrer. I am not satisfied with this, but I don’t know if this can be pressed much further than what I have already done.
Here is my quandary: I’ve said before that my longing to know where Jake is is not more important than his right to privacy. How loving is it to chase someone to the ends of the earth when they don’t want to be found? What would love do? Would love keep chasing? Some would argue yes. Love does not give up. But if I keep chasing, who am I serving? He was not a child when he disappeared. His mental state has been my chief worry, but what if he simply felt he could not safely be himself here in the Valley?
I’ve been told numerous times that not finding a corpse is unusual. My problem with that is how easy it is to be anonymous if you really want to. It’s easy for a scraggly, smelly person to die unnoticed on the streets anywhere because they are unseen. My son could be one of them.
The words in the email from the hospital spokesperson had a sense of finality to them. I begged that they check for a tattoo or scar, but they’ve got those fingerprints, and they’re very sorry about my missing son.
How very tired and broken I am over this. Despair leaches me. I’m not angry with God, but I wonder why I must bear so much.
I’m not the only person to wonder this. Not the only person to suffer so. I’ve been thinking of moms whose children have killing diseases, dads who can’t see their kids, little ones who are trapped in abusive homes. The weight of the world crushes us. What are we to do about it?
I will tell you how people have helped me: they don’t forget. Oh, maybe for a little while, but they come back and they ask, have you found Jake yet? They tell me they’re praying for all of us, that they think of Jake often.
Today people checked on me.
Nothing assuages the grief, but the connecting comforts me. I will always have an open sore, but people will always be the salve.
In all the scenarios I’ve ever imagined, never once did I think of Stephen King’s dystopian vision as a possibility of what Jake could endure. At this point I skitter like a rock across a lake over thoughts of where Jake might be. It’s an unbearable lightness of being. I am unbearably light.
I had to look the book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) up to understand why my brain went there. The book’s take is that to be light means you accept that life lacks ultimate meaning, that it is best to simply live for momentary beauty.
Despair tempts one to think that.
I rabbit-trailed to Parmenides’ poem, and found this:
Come now, I will tell thee—and do thou hearken to my saying and carry it away—the only two ways of search that can be thought of. The first, namely, that It is, and that it is impossible for it not to be, is the way of belief, for truth is its companion. The other, namely, that It is not, and that it must needs not be,—that, I tell thee, is a path that none can learn of at all. For thou canst not know what is not—that is impossible—nor utter it; for it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be. R. P. 114.
Jake is lost to me. It is. It is. And it’s impossible for it not to be. That is the way of my search.
COVID-19 seems impossibly large to me. I’m paralyzed by dread, thankful for self-isolation, too scattered to do what I love.
I am now caretaker of a nursing cat I never saw before four days ago or so. She leapt on my porch with a yowly meow and did not shut up till I fed her. I’m a natural cat magnet and try to avoid connecting with neighborhood cats but this one is relentless, and it was only today that I discovered why. I don’t know where her kittens are, and I’m torn between different ideas of responsibility here. My most basic one is feed the mama.
She has two purple collars and is unafraid of human contact. I suspect she is a casualty of the fear that the virus is spread by cats. She’s also a patchy calico–mostly white with some oops-puddles of mottled color on her coat. And she is loud. And if my front door is open, hello new cat.
My Dinah shows no sign of intruder-trauma probably because the new one is promptly led out with cat food. One day at a time is all I can do. I wonder if many are in this space right now. The virus is a new wrinkle for all of us.
In Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman describes a world in which time flows more slowly the farther you are from the center of the earth. People frantic to slow the aging process move to the mountains, only venturing to the valleys for urgent business. Those who live in the high mountains are snobby and insubstantial and live on gossamer food, and eventually become old and bony.
Lightness of being–avoiding attachment to anything because nothing has meaning–that’s what is unbearable.
Viktor Frankl, whose wisdom I frequently draw upon because he bore the unbearable, too, claims that “meaning [comes] from three possible sources: purposeful work, love, and courage in the face of difficulty. ” –from the Brain Pickings site by Maria Popova. If you feel despair, check this link for some perspective.
One day at a time is all anyone can do.
I get to see my missing son when I sleep.
He looked like Jake, but his voice was childish, like when he was 7 years old. I thought in the dream that it was because his circumstances had made him more childish–he spoke of what gas stations would let him pick off the ground, and of people shoving him away from them with such force that I saw that he winced when he touched himself.
He stashed little boxes inside his shirt to hold food and treasures, and although he had politely declined food when I bought a sandwich for myself, when I couldn’t finish it he eagerly accepted it from me then, and I saw how he had altered, and the grief woke me up.
And now I’m awake, and I’m cognizant that this Jake is a construct of my mind, and it occurs to me that I am perhaps losing the sound of his actual voice.
I fell asleep in the wee hours thinking that Jake could be mad at me, that he is staying away because he does not want me in his life. Apparently my subconscious mind rejects that notion, or just cannot deal with it.
I have never dreamt of finding his lifeless body. I suppose I think it often enough when I’m awake that my subconscious knows I’ve got that covered.
I remember a fellow writer asking me why I thought all these horrible things. Why not assume he is happy?
Jake could be happy and at peace and relieved to have his own life away from family. He could be happy without me in his life. How unpleasant for me, thinking that. Of course it makes better sense to his mom that he’s miserable and helpless without her. Or dead. How self-centered and self-serving.
I want him to be happy, to make friends, have a family. I wish I could be part of it, but the best solace is in assuming he is alive and thriving.
I’ll be grieving for myself, of course, but I’m clearer now.
In a month and a half it will be my birthday and the anniversary of Jake’s disappearance. Three years. 1,095 days. No sign of him, still.
I often think about his last text to me, in which he said, Happy Birthday, Mom. I love you.
The text is saved on a phone I don’t use any more, along with his other messages from the months before. I don’t turn the phone on any more for fear of accidentally deleting anything.
The last few sets of skeletal remains that were found have been dismissed as not being his, and I no longer haunt the NamUs website for clues because it takes me too long to recover.
I still have days I think he is probably dead, but I now wrestle with the likelihood that he is missing on purpose. If he is safe, I can have peace with that. Sons leave their mothers as a natural rite. We never like it, we always mourn, even when they have only moved a few blocks away.
Motherhood is mourning. For me, even in the happy parts, even when I know I’m failing forward. My friend, Natashia, told me that we must give up the hope that we could ever change the past in order to truly move on, to let go, to forgive oneself or others. I harbor the hope of time-travel, apparently.
Some days I have my own secret snow muffling the outside world. Maybe most days. I’m living with a permanent open wound that somehow is not getting infected, or if it is, it’s invisible to me. It hurts all the time, and I am thankful to hear from those who wonder where Jake is.
This passage from Literary Trauma resonates with me: “…psychoanalysis believes,” Deborah M. Horvitz writes, “that crucial to recovering from an experience of trauma is the capacity and willingness to incorporate that traumatic event inside one’s self as an indispensable piece of personal history and identity. Since, in the fiction in this study [Literary Trauma], narrative is inextricably entwined with memory and the process of remembering, the greater one’s ability to “make story” out of trauma, which is defined differently for each protagonist, the more likely s/he is to regain her or his life after that trauma” (6).
We survive by telling the story because we are the story. Not to tell the story is to brick ourselves into an airless box. We suffocate and no one knows. To tell the story is to make people uncomfortable and helpless, caught like flopping fish in a net because, no, they’re not getting out. You can’t get out; no one can, no matter whose pain it is.
Pema Chodron says that facing this is what will help make the world a better place. She writes:
What produces a genuine person is being open to not feeling okay.
“What produces a genuine person, I realized, is being open to not feeling okay. It means to be open to everything — to all the horrors as well as the beauties of life, to the whole extraordinary variety of life. I began to realize that this whole mess the human race is in—the fact that we don’t take care of the planet and we don’t take care of each other, the wars, the hatred, the fundamentalism — all actually come from running away. Individually, collectively, we are trying to avoid feeling bad about ourselves.”
Part 1: October 21, 2018
I’m still not in. Not mentally. Not in my body. Not in my sanity.
Rollercoaster is a cliche. “Being on a roller-coaster” doesn’t fit any experience like this because 1) you choose to get on roller-coasters, and 2) you can get off.
I’m on fire and grey-cold.
You know how your skin feels when you have a sunburn, like layers have been scorched off and the tips of your nerves are exposed and if someone breathes on you you go through the roof? My soul feels like that. The weight of a gaze like hot breath on seared skin. The weight of words in the air. The weight of my thoughts. It’s ridiculous to try to make this tangible, but I need words for everything.
I am waiting for final confirmation that the body found in Ocotillo is not Jake. I got my preliminary answer to this far faster than I expected because my husband called the right person, not the person I pointed him toward. He got nowhere by calling the coroner so he called someone he knew–and I had an answer that evening. Dental records do not match. Thank God for smart husbands.
I myself called the coroner. Got an answering machine, left a message. Called the officer on Jake’s case. Emailed the missing persons’ case manager for the unidentified body. Neither the coroner nor the case manager returned my messages, but the officer did, and he thinks that he should have the confirmation by tomorrow. Or negation. We shall see.
I am coping with quilting, of course. It works because the emotion part of the brain hibernates while the rational part is focused on something else.
Part 2: October 24, 2018
My phone died this morning just as the police officer was about to either confirm or deny that the remains were Jake’s. All he got out before I lost him was, “I just want to let you know–.”
I could not get re-connected to a power source for an hour, and during that hour I realized two things:
- “I just want to let you know” is different from “I’m calling to inform you.” Somehow I knew this immediately, but it took me a bit to figure out why I wasn’t in full-blown panic. “I just want to let you know” is informal–I just wanna let you know your car trunk is open/your fly is open/your dog is running wild in the streets again/your cat has made my flowerbed a toilet/the check is in the mail/I won’t be there today. Such benign things. I just want to let you know.”I’m calling to inform you” is formal and menacing–I’m calling to inform you that your bank account is overdrawn/your car needs a new engine/your mother is in the hospital/there’s been an accident/those are your son’s remains.
Words mattered hard today. In this case they kept me from throwing up or running off the road.
- It’s a bad idea not to carry a charging cord everywhere when you’re waiting for news. I’m always waiting, really, so this is a timely reminder to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’ll just stick them with every set of reading glasses I have.
The remains that’ve given me fretful sleep do not belong to Jake, but DOJ is still going to run a DNA test. I don’t know why they’re doing that except as a final check, but I’ll take it. The coroner’s office is also going to request another set of remains be compared to my DNA, and possibly others that they’ve found in the past two years. While I’m relieved these weren’t Jake’s remains, I’m now sick with the old lurking dread that his actual remains will surface.
I’ll be adding to this post but for now I’ll leave you with this:
If you struggle with what to say to someone who is suffering, this page has some helpful info.
I’m sharing Brene Brown’s video here, too, so I have it in my media files. If you want to connect with me, to help in any way, I ask that you watch this video. It will help others, too.
I’m not here right now.
I’m mentally out in the desert, trying to retrace the steps I imagine my son must have taken in the last months of his life. Weeks?
I don’t know he’s dead yet, but signs are pointing to it.
I don’t know what shoes he was wearing, I don’t know that it’s his remains that have been found, but the possibility…the possibility has opened up a new door I have never considered.
Through that door I see the of-course truth. Information flyers would not be seen in the desert. Who looks at flyers in the desert? No one. The desert has no trees to nail flyers to, and even so, the one out there was seeking to escape and would have ignored them anyway. Of course he wasn’t found. No one looked for him there. Not even his mother. I did not look for my son in the desert. I am the mother who let her son die of thirst and hunger in the desert.
I am not here right now. I am watching my son die, over and over.
I am driving myself crazy, of course. I am in of-course land.
Of course he didn’t hitch a ride and get out of dodge.
Of course he just kept walking away from town–I drove him away by making everyone look for him and he had no transportation. He had to walk.
But those shoes…. Did he own Adidas? Or was he still wearing those tight boots?
Of course it’s not my fault he was grieving and needed space. Of course it’s my fault he had no place to land, that he wasn’t found safe.
Of course I didn’t know, should have known he was wandering in the desert hoping to die. And then he did. Did he?
I think he must be dead, and I am just waiting confirmation. What a miserable place to be in, this in-between knowing and guessing. I am thinking the worst because it makes sense. Hope doesn’t make sense.
I cannot sleep. I know I must, but my brain will not shut up.
I am trying to figure out how to live the rest of my life with a dead son. Others have done it, so I think it can be done, but it does not feel possible right now.
His mental health was worse than I suspected. I don’t know how I can forgive myself for letting him down.
Of course life goes on.
Of course the sun will rise in a few hours, unfairly, indifferently, brightly.
Of course students will turn work in.
Of course my stomach will rumble.
Of course Jake’s unit could use wet wipes on deployment.
Of course I’m tired.
Of course he died.
In the news today it was reported that a body was found near Glamis, or partial remains. Now I don’t remember and I don’t have the heart to go back and look it up because I rabbit-trailed over to the Missing Person’s site and found an unfortunately promising lead.
This: https://www.namus.gov/UnidentifiedPersons/Case#/17369/details is what I found.
If you scroll to the bottom, you will see, after
Condition of Remains
Not recognizable – Partial remains with soft tissues
Clothing and Accessories
Item Description Accessories
So if these are Jake’s remains, he was at least wearing shoes that fit.
How will I breathe?
I also do not want to know.
There’s no meaning in this hideous suffering, only in doing something useful.
The only hope I have is that they ran the DNA through a database and came up with nothing.
I am sick with hope.
I should have kept looking for him.
I should have guessed he would have walked till he dropped.
My hold on equanimity is precarious. I’m fixated on “Jake’s totally off the grid, if he’s alive and well.”
The implication is that he probably is not alive.
This supposition does not bring closure because there’s no body.
When others suppose your son could be dead, it only just barely penetrates your awareness. You can think the thoughts, but the actual possibility sits on the periphery, like the time your mother told you her cancer had metastasized and you were surprised when she died because you had this membrane of denial protecting you.
Except that membrane now has a couple of tears in it, and images of what could have happened to your son ooze in and take root and grow until all you see in your mind are barrels of acid, withered, leathery flesh, white bones, ragged t-shirts and holey shoes, a lone skeleton propped against a tree in meager shade.
It’s not just that he is dead. It’s how he died. Where he died. If he died.
When your son might be dead, you grieve and hope simultaneously.
The boy I swore to protect, my beloved young son–vibrant, lifeless, vibrant, lifeless, vibrant, lifeless.
I saw a license plate frame two days ago that tore the membrane: The best mothers graduate to be grandmothers.
Another mom’s celebration just tore my denial veil.
And again, I’m reminded of my mother. When she wrote about my decision to give a baby up for adoption many years ago, she described “grandmother empties.” But adoption is not death.
A disappearance is not death, and neither is another person’s supposition.
This is a comfort, this tiny flickering flame.
It’s wondrous that it has not been doused. It’s like one of those unkillable candles that you hate to have on your birthday cake.
I don’t usually tell people I’m praying for them because I think practical help is a better way to show love and support. But I accept and respect that others are praying for me because I sense this. I’m a strong person, but I can’t manufacture inner peace. I can meditate, but we’ve seen where my thoughts go. I’m dealing with monstrous grief and I have questionable coping skills and I have this inextinguishable flame. If you are praying for me, thank you.
I have no idea what will transpire. I cannot affect the physical outcome. I’m helpless, and I’m a reminder that we all are. But Viktor Frankl reminds me that I have the freedom to find meaning in the midst of my suffering. He states that even in the most miserable circumstances life has meaning. And he himself lived this truth when he was in a concentration camp. I’m living it now. Just as Jake is irreplaceable, so am I.
I have found that making quilts grounds me, so that’s what I do in my spare time.
Here is one I completed for my beloved Aunt Nancy: