Giving Life and Giving Death: The Story of A Mother and A Son

Five years ago today, December 22 was also a Tuesday.

My son Judah was to hand in his very last final exam of his very last semester of law school, as 2015 wound to a close, then move out of his apartment in Berkeley, California.  He was not great about packing and getting to airports on time. So, part of the plan was that my daughter and her brand-new husband, who had committed to a two-year professional move to San Francisco and therefore lived just a half hour away, were going to his dorm that evening to make sure that all of his possessions were organized and boxed to ship home or donate locally. Then, they would fly back home the next day, Wednesday December 23, for a weekend in Teaneck, all of our children together, following which Judah would embark on studying for the bar and choosing a job.

I look back at my texts and receipts for that day: I was marathon grocery shopping and asking the kids for their food requests.  I was making beds. I was preparing for winter holiday togetherness. I did not have a clue that my son was already gone.

My husband, daughter and son-in-law meanwhile, I only learned later, were all trying to reach Judah all day, with escalating desperate urgency, to make sure he was procuring the corrugated cartons, the packing tape, the labels, from the Staples around his corner.  But Judah was already not answering. Not the texts, not the emails, not the phone.

We were in Manhattan that Tuesday evening having dinner with friends as I watched my husband growing pale and fidgety, until he whispered to me: “Nina, we need to leave”. As we got into the car he confessed that Judah was completely unreachable and he sensed something was terribly wrong. While he drove, I bought tickets for the first flight out to San Francisco the next morning. The worst-case scenario I could then imagine was that Judah had wandered from his apartment without ID and was hit by a car, or perhaps involved with some other accident or trouble, and that we would arrive in the Bay Area to be searching hospitals and dealing with the police.

A couple of hours later, clearly the longest of my life, our daughter and son-in-law would break into his apartment through the back door and discover that Judah had ended his life.

A few weeks later we flew out West, to collect the scattered shards of Judah’s broken life, literally digging through the contents and clues and chaos, as embers of his enigmatic brilliant funny troubled soul still glowed. And after I sorted and organized, stacked and discarded, I climbed into my son’s narrow bed, into the burgundy bedding I had bought with him at Bed Bath and Beyond in Oakland many years earlier. And then I lay down on his sheets under his covers and rested my head on the pillow that still contained his last imprint, reading notes in his handwriting that he had left around his room, and I squeezed my eyes shut and gave birth to his death.

What still remains hardest for me and what in fact may be the singular most painful part of burying my child is the realization that he died all alone. In my fantasy my son calls me and tells me that he cannot keep on living, that his suffering is too unbearable.  I as the mother, who am being tested in my unconditional love, understand.  And radically accept. And then I am with him, holding him, cradling my son in death as I did in birth.

But that is not what happened.  3000 miles away from our home, across the country, in a room with a bright blue wall that he painted, in a room filled with textbooks with his insightful thoughts scribbled in margins, in a room where the birthday cards we sent and photos of our family were scotch- taped above his couch, in a room that had a closet with piles of unworn clothing with tags still attached that we had purchased the previous summer, in a room with the trash filled with the wrappers and banana peels of the last snacks he had consumed, in a room where his shirts hung on hangers waiting to be ironed, in the room where he had spent the last  three and a half years of his life, he stopped breathing, ALL ALONE.  The week he finished law school, and was to embark on the adulthood he had worked so gallantly to achieve but could not penetrate, he organized his possessions and scribed us a note and killed himself. And then he returned home on the redeye Wednesday night December 23, on the same flight that he was scheduled to fly in a seat on, but instead of sitting in a row next to my daughter and her husband, Judah was under the plane in a plain pine box.

Fast forward five years. In this crazy pandemic landscape, I am always home. I have been transported from the frenetic roadwarrior who spent 100 nights a year in hotels, and ate countless meals each week in restaurants conducting business and socializing, from a FOMOer who was out nearly every single night, to a stilled woman who has barely left her zipcode in 10 months.

This period of extraordinary introspection, reflection and reevaluation has provided me with the blessings of time and a profound reality check. I suddenly possessed both the capacity and capability to tend to my elderly mother.  By September, with little end in sight to the alarming risks of my nonagenarian mother’s continued residency in Assisted Living, I brought my mother to stay with me.

Now, in the same western-themed room where Judah grew up, where he did his homework and picked out his clothing and jumped on the beds, my mother has moved in. I wake her up each morning and tuck her in each night, in the space that once belonged to the son who can never return home. I  protect her and nurture her and watch over her as she once did for me.  In this coveted and complicated front row seat to the life of the parent I often struggle to recognize, I am transformed into a quietude I could not access before. The circle of life.

In his death of course, Judah continues to live on in the spirit and hearts of everyone who knew him. I believe that Judah’s eternal kindness informs and guides me now as I unearth compassion and patience to care for my mother. And as I mourn and miss my son this particularly hard week, it is so very comforting that to know that my mother is not alone in this chapter of her own life.

May the memory of Judah Aaron Marans be a forever blessing.

About the Author
Nina Kampler is a lawyer and a retail real estate strategist living in Teaneck, New Jersey. She is married to Zvi Marans, and the mother of four children.
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