Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ben's Eulogy

Here is Ben's eulogy, slightly revised from how I delivered it at Ben's memorial service, Dec 2, 2006:

"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.

News of Ben's death

My son Ben died, November 29, 2006. He overdosed on heroin that night and accidentally killed himself.

He came home that night and said hello to his roommates. They said he seemed happy, not depressed. Then he went into the bathroom. When he didn't come out after a really long time, they went in to check on him and discovered his body with a syringe nearby. He was dead.

Ben and I had been estranged for quite some time -- since almost four years ago when he returned to Indiana after trying to live with us in Florida. But just two weeks before he died, out of the blue, he called. He told me about his life and we reminisced. He followed up a few days later and we talked again. He seemed to be doing well. He seemed happy. He planned to go to IU next fall. I invited him to visit over the holidays.

But now he's gone. I had meant to track him down the previous weekend to talk again. I was looking forward to it. But you know how it goes. There are always some hundred little things to distract from the important ones.

My wife, Oxana was upset, too, and cried more than I. Ben had traveled with me to Odessa in 1999 on my second trip to meet her. She regrets that he never got to see his new little sister Nastya, or to see how much Polina has grown since he last saw her. She weeps to think that he missed out on so many joys of life: romance, marriage, children.

But Ben had a fairly good 25 years, too. He had just about every advantage a middle class kid could ask for. A lot of people loved him and made that clear to him constantly. And yet he had an unhealthy urge to get high and stubbornly refused to accept help to get beyond that. He was certain he could handle his problem.

It's a sad thing (a rather stupid thing, too) and those of us who really knew him will miss him terribly.


On Sunday Dec 2, 2006, we held a memorial service for my son Ben. At that service I read the following poem (edited) by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The full version can be read here:


The room is full of you! -- As I came in
And closed the door behind me, all at once
A something in the air, intangible,
Yet stiff with meaning, struck my senses sick! --
You are not here. I know that you are gone,
And will not ever enter here again.
And yet it seems to me, if I should speak,
Your silent step must wake across the hall;
If I should turn my head, that your sweet eyes
Would kiss me from the door. -- So short a time
To teach my life its transposition to
This difficult and unaccustomed key! --
The room is as you left it; your last touch --
A thoughtless pressure, knowing not itself
As saintly -- hallows now each simple thing;
Hallows and glorifies, and glows between
The dust's grey fingers like a shielded light.
There is your book, just as you laid it down,
Face to the table, -- I cannot believe
That you are gone! -- Just then it seemed to me
You must be here. I almost laughed to think
How like reality the dream had been;
Yet knew before I laughed, and so was still.
That book, outspread, just as you laid it down!
Perhaps you thought, "I wonder what comes next,
And whether this or this will be the end";
So rose, and left it, thinking to return.


And here are the last words your fingers wrote,
Scrawled in broad characters across a page
In this brown book I gave you. Here your hand,
Guiding your rapid pen, moved up and down.
Here with a looping knot you crossed a "t",
And here another like it, just beyond
These two eccentric "e's". You were so small,
And wrote so brave a hand!
How strange it seems
That of all words these are the words you chose!
And yet a simple choice; you did not know
You would not write again. If you had known --
But then, it does not matter, -- and indeed
If you had known there was so little time
You would have dropped your pen and come to me
And this page would be empty, and some phrase
Other than this would hold my wonder now.
Yet, since you could not know, and it befell
That these are the last words your fingers wrote,
There is a dignity some might not see
In this, "I picked the first sweet-pea to-day."
To-day! Was there an opening bud beside it
You left until to-morrow? -- O my love,
The things that withered, -- and you came not back!
That day you filled this circle of my arms
That now is empty. (O my empty life!)
That day -- that day you picked the first sweet-pea, --
And brought it in to show me! I recall
With terrible distinctness how the smell
Of your cool gardens drifted in with you.
I know, you held it up for me to see
And flushed because I looked not at the flower,
But at your face;
(You were the fairest thing God ever made,
I think.) And then your hands above my heart
Drew down its stem into a fastening,
And while your head was bent I kissed your hair.
I wonder if you knew. (Beloved hands!
Somehow I cannot seem to see them still.
Somehow I cannot seem to see the dust
In your bright hair.) What is the need of Heaven
When earth can be so sweet?

That first sweet-pea! I wonder where it is.
It seems to me I laid it down somewhere,
And yet, -- I am not sure. I am not sure,
Even, if it was white or pink; for then
'Twas much like any other flower to me,
Save that it was the first. I did not know,
Then, that it was the last. If I had known --
But then, it does not matter. Strange how few,
After all's said and done, the things that are
Of moment.
Few indeed! When I can make
Of ten small words a rope to hang the world!
"I had you and I have you now no more."
There, there it dangles, -- where's the little truth
That can for long keep footing under that
When its slack syllables tighten to a thought?
Here, let me write it down! I wish to see
Just how a thing like that will look on paper!
"*I had you and I have you now no more*."
O little words, how can you run so straight
Across the page, beneath the weight you bear?
How can you fall apart, whom such a theme
Has bound together, and hereafter aid
In trivial expression, that have been
So hideously dignified? -- Would God
That tearing you apart would tear the thread
I strung you on! Would God -- O God, my mind
Stretches asunder on this merciless rack
Of imagery! O, let me sleep a while!
Would I could sleep, and wake to find me back
In that sweet summer afternoon with you.
How easily could God, if He so willed,
Set back the world a little turn or two!
Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!
We were so wholly one I had not thought
That we could die apart. I had not thought
That I could move, -- and you be stiff and still!
That I could speak, -- and you perforce be dumb!
I think our heart-strings were, like warp and woof
In some firm fabric, woven in and out;
Your golden filaments in fair design
Across my duller fibre. And to-day
The shining strip is rent; the exquisite
Fine pattern is destroyed; part of your heart
Aches in my breast; part of my heart lies chilled
In the damp earth with you. I have been torn
In two, and suffer for the rest of me.
What is my life to me? And what am I
To life, -- a ship whose star has guttered out?
A Fear that in the deep night starts awake
Perpetually, to find its senses strained
Against the taut strings of the quivering air,
Awaiting the return of some dread chord?
Dark, Dark, is all I find for metaphor;
All else were contrast, -- save that contrast's wall
Is down, and all opposed things flow together
Into a vast monotony, where night
And day, and frost and thaw, and death and life,
Are synonyms. What now -- what now to me
Are all the jabbering birds and foolish flowers
That clutter up the world? You were my song!
Now, let discord scream! You were my flower!
Now let the world grow weeds! For I shall not
Plant things above your grave
Amid sensations rendered negative
By your elimination stands to-day,
Certain, unmixed, the element of grief;
I sorrow; and I shall not mock my truth
With travesties of suffering, nor seek
To effigy its incorporeal bulk
In little wry-faced images of woe.
I cannot call you back; and I desire
No utterance of my immaterial voice.
I cannot even turn my face this way
Or that, and say, "My face is turned to you";
I know not where you are, I do not know
If Heaven hold you or if earth transmute,
Body and soul, you into earth again;
Ah, I am worn out -- I am wearied out --
It is too much -- I am but flesh and blood,
And I must sleep. Though you were dead again,
I am but flesh and blood and I must sleep.