Monday, November 8, 2010

Moments before the standoff

October 20, 1997, 8 a.m. Ron drove up the driveway and when he got out of the car he was obviously drunk. Eight-year-old Marty ran out to the car; I followed. Marty was a linear thinker: if his father drove drunk he might kill himself, therefore he had to get those keys away.

Jackson stood on the porch, frozen in indecision. A more conceptual thinker, he took in the picture before him: Just as it was time to head down to catch the morning school bus, his family life had devolved into a brawl with a drunken father. Two years older than Marty, and already a martial artist trained to avoid the fight at all costs, he wasn’t so sure that adding into the fracas was the best choice.

Ron, Marty and I stood beside the car’s open door with our hands balled around the keys, locked in a war of wills, when Jackson called to me.

“Mom, what should I do?”

“Call 9-1-1,” I said. Inside the car I could see an ice chest, large bottles of whiskey and sweet vermouth, strewn cigarette packs—and leaning against the front seat, a shotgun. I knew what it was for; Ron had already threatened suicide once. “Tell them you need help and that your father is trying to drive drunk. He has a gun.”

Jackson disappeared into the house.

My point here isn't to tell the story of the standoff, what led up to it, or how the boys and I forged ahead once Ron was dead. That's the purpose of my memoir. Here I simply want to set up Jackson's role: it was a ten-year-old boy who turned a domestic dispute into a full-day standoff at our farm. Because Jackson carried out his task perfectly, the help we needed arrived in full, mightily armed force.

The police safely removed us from the property, avoiding what might have been a more grievous disaster—once a man has lost belief in the sanctity of his life, the police would later tell us, he is capable of killing anyone.

Suicide will challenge anyone’s innate optimism. In the early months after the suicide I worried if the boys would ever recover from this. Then, as we slowly regained our equilibrium, I wondered if somehow, with time, Jackson and Marty might make a positive contribution to the world because of this experience. They were both bright kids. Maybe one day one of them might discover a cure for depression, or alcoholism.

Okay, I was projecting—the interest in medicine is my thing. They would each find their own paths.

By the time of the suicide Jackson already showed signs of becoming a performing artist. By the age of four he had memorized all the songs on his Raffi tapes and would sing them while strumming a pink-and-cream plastic guitar—when I threw Ron a surprise party one year Jackson wouldn’t go to bed until he’d performed for Ron’s friends: “Baby Beluga,” “Down By the Bay,” “The More We Get Together.”

While Marty earned his father’s admiration for dutifully contributing to family projects like our 20-hour autumn leaf-raking extravaganza (sound fun, right?), Jackson’s attention would skitter away like a dry leaf and he’d soon head back inside to write an illustrated book about geology or a Star Trek script.

Ron feared Jackson was a slacker, which pained me. Jackson was just a different kind of worker—a self-directed creative—and as such worked harder than most kids his age. We'd signed him up for Tae Kwon Do because by first grade he'd taught himself how to do a cartwheel by watching the Power Rangers on television; by the age of ten he was already a deputy black belt. He began violin in third grade, and constantly drew pictures and read books in his spare time.

Ron would not live to see the day in ninth grade when Jackson came home from school and told me the news that would change the course of his life.

More about that, and some writing from Jackson, in the next post.

1 comment:

Lisa R. Tomarelli said...

I love this way of getting to know a little more about your awesome sons. And their awesome mom. Such raw intensity.

Hearing about 'Raffi' brought back some memories of my own though...I could not understand how that man's guitar playing would mesmerize my children---over and over again. Was it because his songs were all in the key of 'C' or that they contained mind-numbing repetition? The repetition is an odd metaphor for your Ron experience...all that was already known about Ron seems to have made the suicide less of a surprise.

Still admire your courage here. Thank you for sharing.