"Ben had such a big heart"
"Ben was always smiling"
"He was such a sweet kid".
Those are not just my words. You expect parents to say those things. Those are the words I've heard this weekend over and over.
If you took that impression of Ben, look at these two people: Cheryl and Bill. If he touched you, you should know that that kindness, that aptness of observation... He learned this kindness from his mother, Cheryl Ruth. He learned this acuity of perception from his father, Bill.
There are two other people who shaped Ben's life in innumerable ways, his grandparents Jim and Margaret Green.
Ben had a pillar of self-love inside him. He knew that he was special. If he ever doubted that, he needed to look no farther than Jim and Margaret and see the smiles that he brought to their faces.
Words fail to describe what that boy meant to them.
Let me read you a poem.
Edna St. Vincent Millay -- Sonnet II
Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide!
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go, -- so with his memory they brim!
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!
Ben let us down. He let us all down hard. He must have known, he surely knew how many people loved him. Of that, I have no doubt. Look around you at how many people were touched by him. [There were over a hundred people at Ben's memorial service].
Lesson One: Our pre-eminent duty to the people who love us is to keep ourselves alive. Ben had a network of people who loved him. Look how many people grieve now that he, the focus of that network, has vanished.
Each of you has a network. Ben, in his narcissistic pursuit of a high ignored that.
Ben could be great, but he could also be awfully inconsiderate -- hard to get ahold of, hard to reach. And now he's made himself, albeit accidentally, impossible to reach.
I have anger about that, perhaps you do, too. It's okay to acknowledge that anger. We may not want to dwell in it. But here's something I know about anger:
- You don't get angry with people you don't care about.
- You don't get really, really angry unless you really, really care.
- And you won't stay angry.
I can't be too angry at Ben, because I did stupid things, too. I was just lucky enough to live through them and maybe smart enough to run away from really dangerous things. But still, lucky.
I am reminded of a time when I was doing cocaine. I was with three people I hardly knew in Ossining, New York. The only reason I knew them was that they could get drugs. One guy decided to buy crack, so I thought why not try that. It had a strange chemical taste, sort of like smoking a cassette tape. And then the euphoria hit and I thought, "Man, this is my favorite cassette tape".
Then my heart started pounding and racing like it never had before. And I thought, "Oh my god. I could die here in this dingy garage in Ossining, New York with three people I hardly know. And I'll never see my son again". The thought of never seeing him again kept me from ever taking that risk again.
It was easier for me than Ben, because I'm the dad. Dads have a responsibility, they have to keep going. When I was going through the pain of the divorce there were times when I didn't want to live. I wanted to drive my car off a bridge into the roiling, icy waters of the Mississippi.
But the thought would come that I couldn't do that to Ben. I couldn't leave him not knowing what his father was like, always wondering, never knowing.
Of course, the great advantage that we have is that we do know Ben, and we'll carry his memory with us now that he's gone. He may have hidden his shadow self, but he by no means hid his whole self from us. When he shined his light on you ... that smile, those deep black eyes....
Couple of stories:
Ben loved to swim, we swam together quite a bit. One time we were swimming in Long Island Sound off of Westport Beach in Connecticut. We swam way out together and eventually we started to swim back. Ben got tired and asked if he could hold onto my back. After a while, I realized that I really wasn't getting any closer to shore. The tide was carrying us out faster than I could swim and I was getting tired.
Luckily, I remembered what to do when you get caught in a riptide. I started swimming parallel to the shore to get out of the current. We ended up way down the beach from where we started, tired, but glad to be on safe ground.
That's what you do when you're a dad: You have to get your son to shore. But you have that same duty to yourself to fight the tide and if it is too strong, evade it.
When Ben was around five or six, he was visiting me for the summer. I had a friend who owned a dinghy and we went swimming out in a lake in Putnam County, New York. Not too far out, really -- we stayed pretty close to the dock. But the water there was over my head. I was holding Ben the whole time. At some point I wanted to get out and I tried to put him into the dinghy, but he was a little scared and he wouldn't let go of me. Actually, he was making it difficult to tread water. I started to worry that we would drown.
So I pulled Ben under the water with me and his survival instinct kicked in. He let go of me and I was able to grab him and lift him up into the dinghy.
What happened to Ben's survival instinct?
This brings me to Lesson Two.
Lesson One is that our pre-eminent duty to the people who love us is to keep ourselves alive.
Lesson Two has to do with guilt. I have heard it said that guilt is a way of holding on to something or someone. It's not a very effective way. It doesn't really accomplish anything. But ironically, it's a kind of comfort.
I am sure you keep telling yourself, "If I had only..."
I have heard some of your "If only" stories this weekend.
"If only I had known..."
"If only I had been there..."
"If only I had said something..."
Yeah... if only Ben had listened.
For me, the thought is, "if only I had called". Some of you know that Ben and I were estranged for almost 4 years, and just last month he called me out of the blue and we got to talk twice.
By the way, I have to say thank you to two men who I never knew until this weekend. I have to say thank you to Dave and Glen. If it weren't for Dave, Ben never would have gotten the job at Insight [the cable company where he worked]. And Dave was a model for stability, so watching Dave helped Ben to start to get back on track.
Glen, I am told, took Ben under his wing. He recognized Ben's talents. When we cleaned up Ben's room we found several books about how to be an effective salesman. And we found page after page of hand-scrawled notes [at this point in the service, Ben's co-workers laughed in recognition]. He really took these lessons to heart. It was important to him to perfect his game. And the fact that he got so good at it led Glen to give him a promotion.
Glen, he was so proud of that promotion I think he felt like he could finally call me because he knew how proud I would be. He said so in the email he sent to reconnect with me.
If not for Dave and Glen, we never would have reconnected. I hope someday you come to realize what a gift that was to me.
So my "if only" phrase is: "If only I had called..."
"What was so important that I couldn't take one hour of my time to talk to him. At least then, I'd have had three phone calls..."
"Maybe if only I'd talked to him..."
Yeah... if only Ben would have listened. Ben had a bumper sticker in his room: "Knowledge speaks, Wisdom listens." I wish Ben had had a wee bit more wisdom.
But, as his Aunt Claudia put it, he was clear that he wanted to handle this on his own. Lots of people had tried to help him.
By the way, you know who wrote that bumper sticker? Jimi Hendrix. My god, guys. Listen to your own advice. Listen to this advice: Do not use heroin; Do not put a needle in your arm. (Jimi Hendrix. What a putz. He's no hero. He was not a wise man).
Lesson Two is that there was nothing you could do. Ben's death was the result of decisions he made. You're off the hook. We're all off the hook. There was nothing we could have done.
But if it comforts you think so, let yourself feel a little guilty. If it helps you to hold onto Ben for a short moment...
And there's a corollary to Lesson Two. We only have so much time with someone and we never know how much time that is. So you have to say the important things while you can. Ben and I were lucky to have two phone calls before he died. At the end of both calls, we said "I love you" to each other.
Say what needs to be said while you can, because when it's too late, it's too late. You'll worry that you won't say it exactly the right way -- and you won't -- but it doesn't matter. What matters is that you say it. Even if a thousand people told me today that he loved me, it wouldn't mean as much as hearing it from him. But I did hear it from him. I know he loved me and he knew I loved him.
Lesson Three: We're just flesh and blood.
Lesson One: you remember: Pre-eminent duty -- keep yourself alive, not for your sake, but for those who love you.
Lesson Two: Let yourself feel guilty but let yourself off the hook. And remember, we only have some finite amount of time with those who matter to us.
Lesson Three has to do with letting go and living life. At some point, you will stop grieving and go on with life and that will, on some level, feel like a betrayal of his memory. But we're flesh and blood. We're not saints. We're meant to live our own lives.
You all know in your heart that Ben would have wanted you to love yourself. I'm happy to know that he did. Does anyone here think he didn't? You know he did. As his parents, we wanted to give him the gift of self-esteem, because we all struggle with it somehow. Ultimately, self-love is a gift you have to give to yourself.
From talking to you, his friends, this weekend I know that he had that. You know how I know that? Because, he chose such wonderful, incredible friends. That's the proof.
So, Ben's friends, give yourself the gift of recognizing that you're only flesh and blood. And go on and live full lives.