Guilt 101

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.

13100863_10154281739049236_9094466494131306156_nIt’s hard to know if being all together eases the pain of Z’s absence, or magnifies it. Depends on the moment.

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.12933130_10207375253274126_1868475183619781830_n

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…

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14 Responses to Guilt 101

  1. Camille says:

    Before I was old enough to consider having children my Nana would say, “Cookie, Cookie, don’t have kids. They’ll break your heart.” All these years I assumed she meant they wouldn’t turn out the way I wanted, or would take me for granted, or somehow betray my trust and hope in them.

    Now I know she meant, they might die on you and then your heart will be broken. Nana was gone before I found out she’d had a daughter between my father and his brother. My father’s older sister died as an infant during the night while his mother slept across the room. Nana never forgave herself. When my father was born she kept him in her bed, making sure he stayed alive every night until he was eleven.

    The family used to whisper about Nana’s nervous breakdown, about the electroshock therapy. Nana told me she’d decided one night to put an end to her suffering but the next morning her dog had a litter of puppies and she couldn’t do it.

    I’m glad you aren’t making a big secret about your guilt. I think it’s healthy to be irrational about what happened, certainly it’s unavoidable. But I believe you’ll survive. There’s new life on the way.

  2. Diane says:

    We all (or a lot of us) have had experiences in our lives that could have turned out this way. I did. Especially in/out of college. Certain ages dictate more experimentation. It’s the drive to be creative/different/inventive. Now there are different drugs. More potent than anything that we had easy access to.
    I am so sad for Zafer and any one who experiments with the edge and fails. Very sad.
    The creative energy and inspiration than you all put into Zafer was all good, in fact great!
    What happened was a mistake. A fatale mistake. I’m so sorry. My hope is that other young progressive thinking individuals will hear about this and think twice, maybe even dis the idea. Don’t discount your love and support of individuality in your children. Instead voice the problem with dangerous drugs like this, loud and clear, so that it’s heard in every high school and college. Love to you all, for all you do, and all you are!

  3. Kathie says:

    I think all good parents have guilt (even if we don’t believe in it). I always think that I raised my kids with care to avoid the way my parents fucked me up, and in doing so probably fucked them up in entirely different ways which they’ll describe to their therapist someday. Of course, that’s how your guilt looks while your kids are alive. If something tragic happens to your kids, before they ever make it to the therapist, you get to unpack that guilt and dissect it prematurely. Not fun, and also not fully formed or accurate. My guess is that is Zafer had become an adult, the thing he would have been discussing with his therapist likely wouldn’t have been your recreational marijuana use (or even the branch or the giant wheel). I know people who were heroin addicts for 15 years, who got clean and are walking around today, whose parents never so much as drank a drop of alcohol. Trip is right. In the big picture, the positive things that Zafer got from your parenting far, far outweigh the fact that you smoked weed. That is bit the tiniest blip in the vast universe of your parenting. As you have parented my child as well, I know this for a fact. There are so many creative, interesting, intelligent and good things that you have imparted to these kids. Asked to describe the top 10, or even 100 things you learned from Lyle, I am absolutely certain marijuana use would not be among them. You may be guilty of imparting a sense of adventure and love of life, and that’s a risk all good parents take. If there had been an accidental death in the Grand Canyon, our grief would have been just as great but the element of social stigma (and hence guilt) would have been considerably less. Don’t give in to that. You raised a fantastic kid. Who took a risk that he didn’t even realize was stupid. As we have all done. And the unthinkable happened. Period. When he made that decision, he wasn’t thinking about his dad smoking pot.

  4. Lexie Wolf says:

    Unlike so many parents, you allow your children to know you as you really are. You showed Z love, honesty, openness, creativity, joy, fun, hard work, community, intellectual curiosity, adventure, courage.
    Somewhere on the painting that is Z’s life there is a fateful dot. Or more likely a number of them. Perfectly, terribly, against-all-odds aligned: a person, a place, a situation, a culture, a circumstance. All of the above. Not his family. And not you.

  5. Megan Fairall says:

    I am very touched by your brutal honesty. We all influence our kids. We try to do the right thing and hope for the best. Maybe your feelings of guilt are better described as “if only I had… or “why didn’t I?” I beat myself up with all the things I did or did not do. Maybe Zafer tried heroin because he grew up around marijuana usage. But then again, maybe he tried herion because it is easily available, cheap and many young people are trying it. Kids do not know the dangers of the drug. Lyle, I know you loved your son, and he loved you. The only thing that matters at this point is that you raised an incredible human being and had 19 wonderful years with him.

  6. Liane Salgado says:

    When I was 19, and a college student at UNC, I often drank too much at parties and then drove home. One weeknight, I had 4 friends packed into my 1974 Pinto and went around a curve too fast, flipping the car 3 times and ending up underneath it, both legs, jaw and skull broken, heart stopped, bleeding out. 1 AM, a cardiologist on his way home happened to stop and happened to have an experimental defibrillator in his car that he used for training EMTs to use the new device. He started my heart 4 times, called an ambulance from the person’s house whose yard I had landed in, and went home. (The other folks in the car told me the story when I regained consciousness a week later.)

    Same stupid youthful stuff that Zafer was doing, but a miraculous intervention. Random as can be. I don’t even remember this, due to the head injury I suffered, but clearly, I was dead and came back. (No NDE story, sorry.) You can believe that I have processed this 100 ways, that my parents drank alcohol, often too much, and shared it with me while I grew up. That I was terrified when my only child was a teenager, driving, drinking. That I have tried to prepare myself in advance in case something like this happens to her (she is now 31). I have felt so bad for what my parents (and younger brother) went through the week I was in the ICU and critical, maybe mentally damaged, no one knew yet.

    I share this with you, because I have survivor guilt. This sort of thing triggers it. The randomness of the outcome when we do risky things is what comforts me, like so many things we think maybe we control, we don’t. Tragedies, near-tragedies, lucky breaks. Often totally random. The generous, creative, brilliant life that you had with him is still true and real. The end, like many things that happened in the process, was random and just part of the story now.

    • I’ll just add that it’s so easy to focus on our parental mistakes when something like this happens, & forget about all the good stuff we did (/do) for our kids. NO one is a perfect parent – no matter how hard we try. We all make stupid parental decisions sometimes. Ones that we regret. (That’s true for me, anyway.) But if we just take a quick look at how awesome our children are, we will have to realize that we must have done something right, as well! In fact, we’ve probably done a lot of things right… The powers that be (social forces? Law makers? Market forces?) love it when we guilt trip ourselves; it takes them off the hook. I think it’s wise that some of us are looking at the drug overdose statistics… Know what I’m saying? OK, I said more than I intended. Please be kind to yourself, Lyle!

    • Perfect. Thank you, Liane.

  7. Dianne McLaughlin says:

    I posted a movie/short/clip on Z’s page.
    The title was: “Everybody Dies, But Not Everybody has Lived”

    I feel that this is very true in Z’s case. Since I first met you and Tami, at a big chess game in Moncure years ago, I have at times been…let me say…envious of both of you and your ability and committment to follow through on your dreams. I have had many dreams through the years of building successful environmentally friendly businesses, of creating a community with gatherings, classes, and creative ventures. Of making beautiful spaces filled with gardens and art and of raising my children without smothering them with my own insecurities.

    Yes, these are some of my dreams but your dreams become reality and Z got to grow up in a place that many others have only dreamed of. He truly lived…and not everybody has lived.

  8. When people ask me about my son in law, I first tell him that he is an excellent father and I believe Tami to be an excellent mom.
    I’ve watched Lyle take the boys bird watching, bringing them to see their grandma while he went to the UU Church so I could have some time with them and countless other adventures with them. The love between all four siblings is amazing to watch and I attribute this to Tami and Lyle.

    This has been the biggest tragedy I have ever experienced, but I still believe Tami and Lyle are fantastic parents and know that one day we will all heal from this loss.

  9. diana hersh says:

    Kids experiment whether or not their parents drink or smoke pot. This has nothing to do you with you or Tami or anyone else…. It is called normal growing up in America and drugs happen to be very available. Please do not revisit Guilt; life is challenging enough my friend. LOVE is what you gave ALL and that is ALL
    that life is about… And please keep doing your metal sculptors; they are amazing!

  10. Jim Estill says:

    Lyle – great post. You correctly identify that guilt is a wasted emotion. It is one of the steps of grief though so perhaps it is not wasted. And recall that we grew up in a no drinking house so it is not just example that makes people who they are.

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