The Long Eclipse
Almost eight months have passed since losing Enzo, and in my final essay I reflect on what I was, now am, and one day will be.
Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
―John Milton, Paradise Lost
I have not been around many people in the past seven and a half months, spending most of my days in seclusion thinking and writing. Other than a weekly broadcast each Wednesday and the time I volunteer with non-profits, I live a life away from other human beings. I do not go to an office every day or speak to a boss or co-workers. I attend no church and belong to no support group. Though I reject no request to speak from a friend, I typically seek no interaction with anyone outside the people who were around me the night I lost my son. In the time since Enzo was killed, I have disconnected myself from the world intentionally, wishing to be left alone to comprehend and process my loss.
Today, I sit and reflect on what I have become and will be in the future. I do so because Enzo’s mother asked me the other day if had looked through his phone yet, and I replied that I had not. I told her that I am still incapable of seeing him speaking and laughing in the full bloom of life, knowing in my mind what was about to come, adding that I hope one day that I will be ready to do so. As I considered my state of mind, I began to contemplate the metamorphosis which I am experiencing in solitude.
Perhaps the most profound change is my realization that it will never be possible for me to heal fully from the wound I have endured. Though the clock in my mind is not frozen at 4:10 pm on June 1st, 2022, it does not take much to bring that moment to life. It lies just beneath the surface of my consciousness, like the ground under a light dusting of snow, which the lightest breeze can expose. The realization that the moment of Enzo’s death will always be with me means that my mind has divided time in two: there is that moment, which is forever fixed, and there is the movement through each day ever since. It is like wearing a watch on each wrist, one that stands still and one that moves forward: at any instant, my eye can glance to the left and see the present or look right and see the moment when my life changed forever. All that I think and say is shaped by those two conceptions of simultaneous time, and I lie between them like a bridge that connects two continents, one of the living and one of the dead.
One other phenomenon, more complex than the division of time, moves with me through the world. Because my son was killed in a horrifying accident, my mind’s conception of that moment is the site of a great struggle each and every day. At one moment, it wants to imagine the moment of impact, the exact point in time when a beautiful young man was destroyed by a speeding block of steel and glass and transformed into an unviewable version of himself. At the same time, another part of my brain fights that impulse, refusing to consider the sight and pushing desperately against imagining the instant when his life ended. This struggle is impossible for me to stop: it is a tug of war between two forces of equal strength in my mind, each pulling with all its might to drag my thoughts to one side or the other. One part of me wants to scrutinize his death, to absorb it in all its brutal reality. The other part wants to leave that moment undefined, floating in the mist just beyond my comprehension, forever an abstract thought that I must acknowledge but should never understand in its true form. This struggle is unceasing, and it happens day and night, no matter how much I may try to put it out of my mind. I may forget about it for a while, but I know that sooner or later, especially when I must drive past the scene of his accident, the contest will once again be front and center, tossing me back and forth between its two extremes of revelation and denial.
Another change in me is that when I look at humanity, I see it far differently now, for I separate everyone around me into those who know what I experience and those who do not. This phenomenon is similar to what those who have survived the horrors of war feel about the world: one has either endured that aspect of human existence or one has not. There is no middle ground, and what lies on this side of the line cannot be understood unless one has crossed it. It is for this reason that one’s friends and even family eventually move on after the loss of one’s child. It is not possible for them to understand what grieving parents experience because friends and family can only process it within the context of what is known to them. Just as it is impossible for me to comprehend fully what it is like to watch friends destroyed in war and to kill to survive, no one, no matter how skilled or how empathetic, can know what I feel without having lost a child. I understand now why so many war veterans wish to be left alone when they return, for I realize the paradox of trying to explain the unexplainable, of trying to put into words what cannot be said. Even these essays— these syntheses of images, words, and music—can never fully transmit to the world what it is like to lose a child. They are merely windows, small glimpses into a reality that is known only by entering a house of pain from which there is no exit.
I cannot write this essay without mentioning the profound effect that looking at children and teenagers has on me, especially those who remind me of Enzo. In seeing them, I often see my son and am overcome with a desire to say to them “I had a boy who looked just like you. He was about your age when he died. Take care of yourself and guard your precious life.” I never say anything, of course, and I am sure more than one teenager has wondered why I looked at him so deeply as he passed by me. Any meaningless trip to the supermarket or gym can turn into a visit to a haunted house, for these boys raise specters in me, flickering images of Enzo at various ages that swirl in my head— the dead moving in and out of the living—that can physically unbalance me, causing me to pause and gather myself before moving on. Seeing him in them crystalizes my loss almost beyond my ability to bear.
All the thoughts captured above were driven home to me the other day as I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd’s meditation on the tragedy of the human condition. It is a deeply pessimistic work, especially the final track, “Eclipse,” in which songwriter Roger Waters concludes that all of life amounts to nothing:
And all you create
And all you destroy
And all that you do
And all that you say
And all that you eat
And everyone you meet
And all that you slight
And everyone you fight
And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon
When the track ends, one hears only the beating of a human heart. A few seconds later, however, a man’s faint voice is heard saying the following: “There is no dark side of the moon, really. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.” It is a devastating final statement: what little light we see is only an illusion, and in the end all is darkness. This conception of human life stayed with me over the past few days, until I came across another artist’s perspective on the idea of an eclipse, this one contained in the poem “Solar Eclipse” by Diane Glancy. In her work, she acknowledges her pain, beautifully explaining the task of rebuilding herself each day:
I wake invisible.
I make a needle
from a porcupine quill,
sew feet to legs,
lift spine onto my thighs.
I put on my rib and collarbone.
I pin an ear to my head,
hear the waxwing’s yellow cry.
I open my mouth for purple berries,
stick on periwinkle eyes.
I almost know what it is to be seen.
Despite her sorrow, the poet “pushes through” the “dark circle's
tattered edge of light” to a new and better place:
All day I struggle with one hair after another
until the moon moves from the face of the sun
and there is a strange light
as though lit from a kerosene lamp in a cabin.
I put on a dress,
a shawl over my shoulders.
My threads knotted and scissors gleaming.
Now I know I am seen.
I have a shadow.
I extend my arms,
dance and chant in the sun’s new light.
After losing a child, anyone could be tempted to succumb to Waters’ nihilist view and to see all life as ultimately painful, all hope as ultimately futile. However, Glancy’s poem reminded me of the true nature of all eclipses, a point that caused me to contemplate yet another part of my new life that is worth mentioning: my deeper understanding of the basic humanity that joins all of us on this earth. I have seen great kindness in many people over the past eight months, including complete strangers. There is a grand beauty to the thread of life that runs through all of us, and though I knew it existed I had never encompassed it fully until I lost Enzo. All the tears shed for him and for us, all the gifts to us while we endured the initial shock, and all the selfless acts of compassion since then have left me with a much more profound appreciation of the essential goodness of most human beings. It is around us every day, and even in the midst of my grief, I am grateful for being part of a wider human race that is willing to help carry us across this bridge of sorrow.
Reflecting on our shared humanity, I end this self-examination by noting that even as I grieve Enzo, even as I endure the battles that rage in my mind, I consider myself a happy person. By happy I don’t mean the usual sense of the word; rather, I refer to the Aristotelian conception of the term in which happiness is “activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.” For Aristotle, as for me, happiness is living one’s life in accordance with reason and goodness—defining what is right and taking every action in accordance with that definition, no matter what misfortunes are placed in one’s path. It is a noble ideal: the maximum realization of what it means to be a human being, achievable even in the midst of great sorrow. I have to confess that I am not always able to live up to the lofty standard set by this great intellectual and moral challenge. Some days, the pain is too much and overwhelms what I know to be right and true. I hope that on most days, however, I walk the right path, remembering to live a happy life even in the depths of my immense grief. Indeed, I believe Aristotle would say that writing the essays I have shared, in which I confess all that I suffer while focusing my mind on trying to be a happy person, is his definition brought to life.
My final conclusion, almost eight months after losing my son, is that I exist in the heart of an eclipse. I have become a man locked in a private battle between past and present, between life and death, walking through a world of phantoms, living in a place where each day the light of reason may shine or be obscured by the darkness of human misery. I refuse to accept, however, that my present is my future. Even in my self-imposed exile from the outside world, as I fight my solitary quotidian battle to live a happy life, I believe that the awful forces that push me into despair can be overcome and that one day I will, like the poet, find new light. In short, what I see when I look up at the heavens may be darkness, but I believe that the sun must and will return, and the proof of that lies in every kindness great and small shown us through this ordeal. In those gestures, I find the strength that keeps me on my path to happiness, knowing in my heart that the sun that once illuminated my world will reappear one day. After all, even the longest eclipse, no matter how dark or terrifying, sooner or later, must come to an end.
With the hopeful thoughts above in mind, I now close this collection of essays on Enzo’s death. When I started writing, I merely wanted to create a personal record of what I have endured, something to revisit many years from now, should I live that long. I did not want to forget any aspect, no matter how terrible, of the loss of my son.
I published the essays in the hope that, in some small way, they might help another parent grieve or a friend understand. What I did not realize at the time was how much writing, however painful it is to form the ideas and words I have shared, would help me process my grief. I noted once before how writing is a kind of exorcism for me, a way to extract the sadness from my soul into something outside of me. I suppose the reason I write is the same reason grieving composers create music and artists form visual works that try to capture, in some distant manner, the nature of their sorrow. The act of writing forces me to understand what I endure and to give it substance; that intense process of discovery and acceptance is perhaps what has helped me most over the past eight months. Moreover, all the time I have spent reading and contemplating the great thinkers and writers of the past and present has granted me perspective on my loss, placing it in the context of our shared human condition. Their timeless wisdom has steadied me in a rough sea and will one day bring me home to rest. Lastly, music, especially that of the sublime Bill Evans, has been my deepest comfort. Both in listening and by playing, his creations have on more than one occasion kept my heart from breaking into a thousand pieces.
I have said all I need to say in public. I will continue to write only for myself and walk the rest of this journey in private. To everyone who has traveled the road with me so far, I thank you for reading and wish you a long life of happiness. Treasure every moment of that life, especially those that fortune grants you alongside your children. Open the doors in their world, pass through them with love, and stay inside their lives for as long as you can.
The last thing I will share is the final few minutes of a video made for Enzo when he graduated from high school. His family and friends all sent their thoughts and advice, and this is what I shared. It is our life together, from his first day almost until his last. It is who he was and always will be to me: my beautiful, unforgettable, little boy.