Missing Jake

Friday evening, September 18th, three years ago. That was the last time I saw my son alive.

It was a memorable, joy-filled evening. Jake drove over with Georgia, his just-turned two-year-old daughter. We spent time playing her favorite games, then gave her a bath. He nestled her into bed - singing a song in his notably stage-worthy voice, and soothed her to sleep. It was a beautiful sight for me to witness: my son at his best.

Britt, his sister, arrived shortly afterwards. Jake and Britt were close - best friends really. They noted how long it had been since it was just the three of us at the table. Like all families, we have a way of being that strikes us as especially clever, funny, significant. Things that no one else would find particularly amusing. But it was our way of being, and that night we slipped into our familial “language,” basking in unhurried hanging out together.

All too soon, Britt said her goodbyes and Jake headed to bed early. He was leaving Georgia with me so he could set out the next morning on a weekend-long charity bike-ride. He and his tightly-knit community were riding in support of a mutual friend, Jessy Tolkan, whose brother, Ben, suffers from a rare form of cancer.

So Jake and I said our goodbyes that Friday night. I was roused briefly Saturday morning by the sound of him closing the front door as he slipped out of the house.

We talked one more time that day. He called about 2:30 pm to check on Georgia. He was ebullient. It was a crisp, sunny September day and it had been weeks, even months, since he’d been out on his cherished bike. He was having a fabulous day. We chatted for several minutes, and then closed our conversation with “I love you,” our usual parting words. Thank God. It would be the last words he said to me. How grateful I am for the habit we had of saying goodbye. Because the next call I received was “that call” - the one no parent allows themselves to imagine ever happening to them.

Nothing has been the same since 5:18 pm, September 19, 2015. The tectonic plates of my soul forever shifted. Everything changed: my orientation to time, my sense of what’s important (or not), almost all of my relationships. Every cell of my being has been affected. Who I was no longer exists.

And with that ending, a different portal opened. In the three years since Jake died, I’ve discovered a more expanded version of who I am and who I can be.

As I experience this third year of missing Jake, the week fills with re-activated levels of grief. My heart drowns, my soul aches, and I fight to move through the sorrow. I see a horizon of endless Septembers in front of me; I doubt this month will ever get easier for me.

And yet, paradoxically, and as recently as this morning, I experience the sheer joy and wonder of Jake’s daughters, Georgia and Garnet J., the daughter he never met. They shine bright with exuberance - a constant reminder of Jake’s legacy of vitality and boundless optimism.

Life is full of ironies. Two electives I took during my coursework at Vanderbilt Divinity School a few years earlier included Hope & Despair and Soteriology (the study of salvation). I thought they'd provide insight. Not so. I left each class with ten times more questions than I started with. How naïve I was when I wrote papers for these classes! I had no idea despair would visit me so tangibly, so fiercely, a few years later. And diving into scholarly literature about humanity’s salvation, while theologically fascinating, is pretty much all theory.

Nonetheless, the classes did help me articulate one point of wisdom that’s anchored me since the call telling me my son had not survived. The pearl I discovered: to live life “as if.” I discovered that within the unanswerable questions of hope, despair, and salvation, there is a choice. To live as if despair is survivable; as if it’s a teacher for insights found only by way of passing through it. I choose to live as if salvation is possible; as if I save the essence of my own soul by connecting with others.

Despair has added dimensionality to my life I would never have known or asked for. It shapes and informs my work. I’m a better executive coach as a result of passing through this territory, a better facilitator, a better observer of groups. I would never choose the events that led to despair, but I have absolute choice about how I’ll respond to it.  

So, I live my life as if Jake passed a baton to me, as if, in the form of a post-it note left on his White House computer monitor, he was signaling me to “Cultivate the Karass.” 

I live as if there’s a purpose to the time I have left, and that I can be instrumental in contributing to his vision for our democracy: that we can genuinely embody transpartisan collaboration. If we choose. 

But mostly, I live as if he were still here. This gives me strength. And it feeds my hope.