Thursday, November 11, 2010

Finding Meaning in Tragedy

Ron would not live to see our first-born son, Jackson, reach 9th grade. That's when Jackson came home from school to tell me the news that would change the course of his life.

Weeks earlier Jackson’s junior high choir director had urged him to try out for county choir. Hundreds and hundreds of students from Berks County had auditioned; only one hundred would be chosen. The results were in.

Jackson leaned against the kitchen counter with his hands in his pockets, a posture I’d come to recognize as his casual way of breaking big news.

“Did you make it?” I said.

“Well, keep in mind that this was my first time auditioning. I think I did okay, you know, considering.”


“I’m first chair in Bass II.”

With those words, everything shifted. Jackson's other interests dropped away as music usurped his every waking moment. We signed him up for private voice lessons with Tammy Black. The rest of his high school career was studded with accomplishments including multiple appearances with county through state choirs, performances with every vocal group and orchestra at school, a European tour of six countries with Sound Of America Honor Band and Chorus, and parts in school and regional theater musicals.

Instead of high school gym, which would have interfered with his full load of advance placement and music electives, Jackson got a waiver to sub in aquatic exercise at the YMCA, for which he got up at 6 a.m. three days per week. Instead of a high school graduation party, Ron's little slacker opted to learn a challenging hour of music in several languages so he could perform a solo voice recital for his family and friends, followed by a reception.

In classical vocal performance Jackson found his calling. He is now a 23-year-old graduate of Westminster Choir College and a member of the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia.

One could say he was driven to make the most of every opportunity that came his way.

In earlier posts I shared the way my younger son Marty has expressed feelings about his father’s suicide through his life choices and songwriting. Now, it’s Jackson’s turn.

His words are from a 10th grade English essay. Jane Stahl, Jackson’s teacher at Boyertown Area High School, put together an annual spiral-bound compilation, After the Rain, Rainbows: Surviving to Live, Thriving to Grow, that she would distribute to disadvantaged and abused children as a ray of hope. In her note to the reader she wrote that her students “are better people because they’ve suffered, and they know it.” What an amazing sentiment, and a very meaningful project.

The contributors wrote of displacement, health obstacles, sports challenges, tragic accidents, the death of loved ones, alcoholism. The essays are riveting: in directly addressing that which was difficult and life changing, these students accessed impressive inner wisdom.

Jackson wrote about his father’s self-destruction in the following essay, "Finding Meaning Through Tragedy":
“Son,” she said, “It’s about as bad as it can get. Your daddy’s dead.” Needless to say, I was not prepared for this news. At the time I was only ten years old. My father, an alcoholic, had locked himself in his woodworking shop all day threatening suicide. My brother and I stayed at our neighbor’s house while this was taking place. The police had taken my mom to the fire station for protection. I didn’t seriously consider that he might kill himself; I just thought that tonight it would all be over and tomorrow would be just a normal day. I was wrong.
Over the next few days, I lived at my grandmother’s house. I didn’t go back to school yet. I didn’t feel ready. After that the days turned to months, which turned to years. These years felt almost normal compared to my life before.
Looking back on those times, I realized that I never really showed much emotion, I cried when I found out, but that was all. This lack of feeling made me feel like a horrible person, like I was forgetting about what happened, but that is not the case. He was never really there for me. He worked almost all day long, and nobody ever got to see him. Even when he was home, he was always working on something. He was always very distant. After his death, things were almost the same.
This realization struck me. I don’t want to be remembered that way. I don’t want to be someone who was never there. I want the world to be different when I’m gone, better somehow. I want to be someone people could go to with problems, someone who could help. That’s how I want to live my life. That’s what I want.
Too many people in the world today are content to see life pass them by. They are afraid to make a difference in other people’s lives. I don’t want to be that kind of person. If everyone would just try to help other people instead of satisfying their own selfish interests, then the world will be a much better place.
In my next post: a most amazing performance.


Jerry Waxler said...

Thanks for sharing these powerful experiences, Kathryn. It reminds me of those beautiful pictures of yellow flowers that broke through the blackened ground after Yellowstone National Park's massive fire. I am also stunned by Marty's fortune in having such a profoundly uplifting experience in high school. It sounds like Jane Stahl left a legacy of deeper appreciation for life. Let us all strive to find and share those beautiful flowers.

Memory Writers Network

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Jerry. I completely agree with you about Jane's legacy. But I can just hear Marty saying: "That wasn't me, it was Jackson!" [They were always chastising me when I got their contributions to a story confused. Glad I'm not the only one!]

Helen Ginger said...

Those are very powerful words from Jackson. I could hear and feel them in my gut.

Kathryn Craft said...

Helen, thanks so much for reading. When I read your words I realized for the first time where my own recollections of this trauma reside. Not in my mind, or in my heart, but in my gut. The trick for the memoirist, I suppose, is to funnel them back up through the brain and onto the page.