In high school I learned that guilt was a wasted emotion. I think I read that in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
That’s a platitude I have turned to all my life.
This is a cold, grey day in Arlington, Virginia, at the abandoned kitchen table in my daughter Jessalyn’s house. The whole family is here, spent from a day of tennis and monument walking. And eating. This is “down time.” People are napping. Curled up on couches reading. And there is a sadness that permeates the place.
Despite my life long commitment to a “guilt free” existence, guilt visits me regularly these days. It simply does. I try to shrug it off. I try to battle it with reason. But despite my best efforts, it occasionally settles in.
In the outpouring of love and support that has washed over our family, there are plenty of messages that suggest “Z’s death is not your fault.” People tell me I am a great father. I received a note from my old friend GP in Montreal. He’s followed us from afar, and his thoughts are informed by similar situations he has encountered and he assures me that I mustn’t second-guess myself on the guilt front.
I miss GP. I want to vanish into some bar on St. Denis and discuss the world with him—like we have a hundred times before. And though I know he is completely right, I can’t shake the notion that I paved the way to Zafer’s death by heroin.
I’ve been an avid recreational drug user since discovering my first joint at a Blue Oyster Cult concert in London when I was an early teen. That’s back when marijuana potency paled by comparison to the legal stuff currently sold in Z’s beloved Colorado.
I raised Z in a house filled with parties, and alcohol, and my heroes were rock stars, and writers—like Hunter S. Thompson for instance. On the occasion of Dr. Thompson’s death by suicide in 2005, Tami got me my own fake PhD, which still proudly hangs in the library at the Plant.
Once, Zafer found a Sucrets box of mine when he was in middle school. It was complete with rolling papers, a lighter, and some roaches. He assumed a handyman that was working on our deck left it behind. Or his Uncle Glen, who had recently visited, forgot to take it home with him.
Instead of lying about it, I confessed that it was my stash. And I proceeded to answer all of his questions about drug use honestly from that point forward.
A month ago he told me that he had given up marijuana. I was delighted. I bragged about it to friends. He said that his life was not going anywhere and that he thought taking a break was a good idea. As someone who was once intimate with the de-motivational effects of pot, I said “Good idea. I took 15 years off myself once.”
I learned on this trip to Jess and Dan’s house that Z was lying to me. He was trying to impress me. It worked.
He used to brag to me about “tying on his steel toes” to go to his job at the hardware store in Boulder. That’s something he saw me do each morning on my way to the Plant. We went out and bought new boots together before he headed to school.
One time when Z was very small—just able to stand on the tire of our pickup truck and pull himself up to be able to look into the bed—I took him logging with me. As I loaded the truck with brush, a good-sized limb bounced out of the back and knocked him through the air. It had to weigh more than he did. He was super cautious about clearing brush with me ever since that day—and I felt guilty for that bad bounce his entire life.
Another time I was working on my first ever “spool gate.” I was a metal sculptor at the time and I had propped a giant wheel into a clearing of trees so that I could stand back to get some perspective. Z had just shed his training wheels. He sped ahead of Tami, and me and caught his front wheel on the lip of the unsecured metal. We watched in horror as it crushed him and his bike. He was super cautious of my metal projects after that—and I felt guilty for it his entire life.
Guilt is something you do. Despite what you want to believe.
Our friend Trip came to the house the other day and spent some time counseling Tami and me. He described guilt as the scene one would see with their nose on a pointillistic painting. Up close it is a meaningless series of dots. Backing away, it becomes an image that can be understood. Of course he is right.
Up close, Z emulated me. I did drugs. He did drugs. Enter guilt here.
Backing away there is a whole picture. There is a culture that celebrates drug use. A hit of heroin is 7.00. If you had fun last night with one, and you have fourteen bucks, (about two hours work at the hardware store) perhaps tonight you can have twice the fun. I learned this weekend that he was watching the classic heroin movie, Train Spotting the night he died.
And by the way. If you are having fun with heroin tonight, don’t nod off. If you do, you’re dead.
When you die you destroy the lives of a lot of people who love you. And you leave them feeling guilty—even when they don’t believe in guilt…