My name is Jessica, and my story is all I have, and it is as old as humankind, the story of child loss.
My son Jacob succumbed to depression, drugs, and suicide, at age twenty-one. And I find that I cannot move on—from the loss of him, yes, but perhaps even more, the guilt.
I have feared that writing down the words of my story will serve no one, and that fear has kept me silent for five long years since my son perished.
And all that time, while I have muted my grief, mothers all over the world have continued to lose their children—to war, gun and gang violence, miscarriage, abortion, adoption, estrangement, and death—and suicide continues to surge among our precious and gifted youth.
Yet in the silence that permeates my days, a voice deep inside me rises up and bangs itself against the inside of my skull. Demanding to be heard. It says that only by bringing our pain out of our bodies and into words, can it heal. Realizing that we share more than we imagined, and certainly, more than we ever wished anyone else to have to experience, comforts us.
So here I am, telling you now, that I loved being a mother more than anything else in life.
Dollhouses and Babydolls
I married young, fresh from graduate school and full of dreams that I would teach college, write books, and, most importantly, nurture my new husband and the babies we’d have someday. A few years later, I’d built a base of freelance contracts and my husband had quickly climbed to the top of his Silicon Valley startup. We bought a restored San Francisco Queen Anne Victorian that everyone said looked just like a dollhouse.
I was so eager to fill that dollhouse with babydolls and create my own fairytale, that I dove in headfirst, bearing first one, then two, then three wee boys. I pared back on my writing to clean, redecorate, and remodel that house, which grew larger and grander with each passing year.
Stress and Rage
My husband clamored for more power and money, imagining himself a famous genius inventor like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. He had a temper when I first met him that I’d accredited to his family, who constantly engaged in shouting matches and bitter estrangements. His mother, whom I adored, was a tiny, gentle woman with startling dyed hair who loved cigarettes and whiskey, bacon and cookies, her two sons and three grandsons, with abandon. She starkly contrasted her own husband and two sons who simmered with anger most of the time, yelling and cursing, slamming doors and hanging up phones.
I was afraid–not of my father-in-law, who seemed all bark and no bite, too old and pudgy and frail to really hurt anyone. But I was afraid of my brother-in-law, who expressed his loathing of me and ridiculed me. I never really felt safe around him and, during a brief period in which the two brothers lived together before my marriage, I strove never to be alone with him.
That probably helped me avoid facing how much I already feared the man I married, the man who struck me hard across the face even before we said “I do” (and why did I go on to marry him, I wonder still today?).
His anger grew incrementally over the years, and with it, my denial. Often he would rage against other people, calling coworkers names, severing relationships with people who had done him wrong, threatening and even carrying out lawsuits against those he perceived had cheated him.
Even when I cowered inside, I always breathed relief that his anger was directed somewhere else. And I carried on, scrubbing the house until it sparkled, bathing my little boys so they’d be sweet-smelling in their little pajamas when he returned home, poring over cookbooks to learn what homemade meals might provide the right aromas to calm him down and tempt his palate.
Abuse can grow quietly, so that you don’t see it for what it is until it’s your precious child who is being struck, kicked, choked, dragged, slammed, and even bitten, in the name of “discipline.” Until suddenly you have logged years of sleepless nights and vigilant days, trying to soothe not just the father but now the brothers who have learned to strike one another.
Jacob, the youngest, took it all in. As a baby, he was big-eyed, smiling, and happy. He did not want to be put down, so I carried him in a sling all day and wrenched away from his crib at night.
By the time he was born, his father seemed always to be seething about work, home, and us. People were all a-holes, I was an imbecile, and his boys refused to stay clean and placid and needless. He worked an incredibly demanding job at yet another startup, and rearing three boys under age four would have challenged any couple; but my husband boiled over with stress.
He came home later and later, still demanding that his homecooked meal be ready whenever he might return. He vacillated on weekends: sometimes he would orchestrate outings for the five of meant to be idyllic–barbequing with friends, chopping down a Christmas tree, going to an aircraft museum–that inevitably exploded into fistfights among the children, harsh punishment of us all by their father, and silent tears from me en route home. More and more often, he would go out to do, as he called it, his “own” thing. Weary as I was from a 24/7 job, I welcomed those blocks of time when the person with the biggest, scariest temper of all would be temporarily out of the house.
Beaten to Death
Jacob will never know how deeply I regret the choices I made. I can never regret loving and marrying his father, because that led to the birth of him. However, I wish that I had gotten divorced as soon as I held that precious baby in my arms.
I wish I had called Child Protective Services, the police, a lawyer–God, an entire team who could have helped me get sole custody or at least have his visits supervised … Because the verbal, psychological, and physical abuse did not cease when I finally did come to my senses and end the marriage.
Anyone who has seen domestic violence knows about the pecking order. I can tell you now, after years of trying to summon my courage to say this: Jacob was beaten down by three males larger than he. It must have been terrifying. No matter how I tried to intervene, to put my body between theirs when sibling quarreling or parental “disciplining” broke out, I could not always get there fast enough.
And I will always wonder, how much of Jacob’s later depression had to do with the brain he inherited from his father and me (there’s mental illness on both sides, as there probably is in most families) and how much resulted from childhood trauma. Jacob was only seven when we divorced, but the patterns continued, and his brothers attacked him even under the roof of peace I strove to build as a free and single mom.
Too little, too late.
Suicide has complex causes, and those of us left behind almost never know the extent of what our loved one felt or why they chose to die. I realize that Jacob’s death resulted from many other causal factors, too, more of which I will reveal as my courage to speak here grows.
But for my complicity in the childhood abuse suffered by all three of my sons, that contributed to Jacob’s pain in his short lifetime, I am deeply, eternally, sorry.