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A father’s struggle to accept the death of his son

by Kathleen Grassel

He doesn’t want to talk on the phone. He just wants me to come over. “What happened, Chuy?” It’s one of those moments when the sword slices into your heart before you learn exactly why. “I lost my son, Kathy,” he says. “Can you come over?” I take the freeway so I can speed, as if arriving those few seconds earlier could alter the finality of death or temper the blow to this father who had lost a child.
 
 The house is full of family and friends, inside and out. They are planting flowers, raking, gardening, making small talk—all those gestures that reinforce one’s connection to the earth. Chuy is in Lazaro’s room where he has made an altar. It’s covered with bright colors of Guatemala, snapshots of Lazaro, painted masks on the wall, polished stones, a lithograph of the wild-haired revolutionary Christ, a statue of the Meso-American Virgin of Guadalupe, and a painting of Lord Shiva in meditation—a picture I gave him a couple years before. Chuy is drained, first by imponderable grief that has just begun to sink in, and then by having to tell the story, over and over again to the many who come.
 
 It had happened in the middle of the day. “I somehow knew that when Lazaro fell in love for the first time, that would be the end,” says Chuy. “He was depressed from when he was little, so I knew. And he’d stopped taking his medicine. He didn’t have the tools.” He pauses, and says, almost calmly, “He took his own life, you see.” It is Chuy’s conviction, at least in this moment, that Lazaro’s was a noble act. In these early hours of trying to make sense of things, it is Chuy’s understanding that Lazaro’s first impulse might have been to use the gun on the lovers—the young woman who had loved him and the man who replaced him. He chose to turn it against himself instead. “He took control of his life—maybe for the first time.”
 
 They’d always worried about Lazaro—his dad, mom, siblings and friends. He suffered bouts of depression, had trouble in school, was forced to take drugs for what his teachers called attention deficit disorder, got stuck in “special education” classes, abused drugs and alcohol from an early age. But they’d stopped worrying so much after he passed a year of sobriety, counseling, and medication; thus was the shock so much greater. Lazaro had been born just 11 months after his brother Diego—troubled almost from birth, as if he knew even before language about the depression knotted to his genes and the anguish that was to come, troubled doubly as if knowing he was not conceived of love. “How could you let this happen?” Chuy had confronted the mother bitterly, as if he, the father, had no part in this creation.
 
 The Karma
 

 Those were the peak years of Chuy’s addictions—his body and mind poisoned by alcohol and drugs, the worst years spent craving for what killed his spirit and blocked him from life’s joys, such as those of fatherhood. Months would pass that he wouldn’t see the boys, months that he barely recalled himself, some of those months kept distant by a legal restraining order. He admits he was dangerous and had no self-control. He admits he had thoughts of ending his life, “but I could never go through with it. I didn’t have the courage.”
 
 He tried to let a life of addictions do it for him, but something kept him alive. It hadn’t been that many years earlier when, with friends playing Russian roulette, Chuy in his turn would put the barrel of a gun holding one bullet to his own head and pull the trigger.
 
 Chuy’s guardian angel didn’t want him dead, but let the rest of the karma play out. After a near-fatal overdose, this time sentenced to treatment and a month in jail, Chuy signed papers, papers he didn’t fully understand, relinquishing marriage, house and parental rights. When he was released, he didn’t recognize the city. “I was dry, but I wasn’t sober. The first thing I did was score and get drunk.”
 
 The day he awoke from a coma and went to his first AA meeting, the day Chuy finally and irrevocably got sober, Lazaro was already seven years old, and it would be another three years before Chuy would see him again. The boys’ mom had taken them to Nevada, and when she sent Lazaro, resentful and angry, back to New Mexico and his dad, it was because of his expulsion from school for carrying a gun. Guns and gang stripped from him, in the care of a father he didn’t know, in a city he didn’t remember, Lazaro struggled for identity. Chuy had become the good parent only to see his son trapped in the same cycles that had nearly consumed his own life.
 
 If parenting skills come from example and experience, it’s hard to imagine that Chuy knew what to do with Lazaro. In the Mexican state of Guerrero, his mama, at 14, pregnant against her will, delivered the baby Chuy and then ran away. His grandmother cared for him with tender love, but she fell ill and gave him when he was 10 to an aunt and uncle who took him to El Norte to work in the fields and orchards of California. Chuy learned geography, agriculture, and the cycles of seasons; also prejudice, hatred and humiliation, not in any school but in countless fields in countless states. Chuy was still a boy when he started drinking, still a boy when he was locked up in detention centers, still a boy when he became a parent for the first time.
 
 In Chuy’s favor was sufficient anger, sharp intelligence, a soul full of music, and a guitar; so he became an organizer for the United Farm Workers. Out of anger and humiliation came a compassion for the downtrodden humanity that he expressed through music. His music, always used in service, saved him then, singing around night fires in labor camps, saved him through the dark years of addiction as he performed epic, tragedy-laden corridos, and saved him through these 13 years of sobriety as he brings his message of survival and redemption to kids in jail, expelled kids in “alternative” schools, human beings fighting for their rights, the disabled, the fragile elderly, anyone whose lives can be uplifted or repaired.
 
 Chuy could not repair Lazaro. Maybe it was too late. Maybe the mysteries of life and death are imponderable even to the most questing of mortals. It is certainly an imponderable irony that Chuy was performing for people with physical disabilities while his son Lazaro lay dying by his own hand.
 
 Compassion
 
 I ask if there will be a memorial service. “Tuesday morning,” he tells me. “I suppose everyone will be at work.” Is he worried that people won’t come? For the hundreds of people who came that Tuesday, work would have to wait. The service was almost too much to bear—everyone connected to the same intense vibration of grief; everyone’s heart ripped open; music of all genres—not all of it sad—expressing what words never will. In front, the extended family weeping anew and embracing each person pulled down the aisle to the front to be near them, pulled into their grief like the undertow of the ocean. In front of them, the urn containing Lazaro’s ashes on an altar, sharing space with crosses, flowers, photos, and mementos. And the urn—utterly eerily still—the embodiment of T.S. Eliot’s phrase, “the still point of the turning world,” the mystic calm in all things, meditation, Lazaro’s new realm of gentleness and tranquility.
 
 Lazaro’s sister spoke. I don’t really remember what she said, but I’ll not forget her turning to the urn and playing a song on the clarinet for her brother. High notes, hanging there, unwavering, piercing straight through to Lazaro. I couldn’t breathe. So this is the voice of God, and this young woman His instrument. I thought of the Sufi poet Rumi who wrote that each note of the reed flute is a longing for the reed bed from which it was taken.
 Lazaro’s brother Diego spoke. They were like twins, born so close together. Their minds were as one mind. Of all the people grieving and confused, struggling to keep their hearts open, I wonder about Diego the most, what kind of sense he is making of his brother’s decision to leave him behind with such finality. I don’t remember what Diego said either, only his arms raised up to heaven, holding his brother’s framed picture, kissing it, oblivious to us, declaring to Lazaro, “I love you, brother, I love you, brother.”
 
 Then Chuy spoke. “I am… Chuy Martinez…, Lazaro’s… father.” Until then I didn’t know that compassion meant taking on the pain. It was a pain in the heart that required God to be right there in the same place. I don’t remember exactly what Chuy said either. I know he talked about Lazaro, his love for animals, how he would bring home abandoned cats and dogs, how he could communicate with the least of them, the spiders, the iguanas, it didn’t matter, how he would clean out the refrigerator to take food to a homeless man he’d befriended. We were all weeping. A Kleenex box was going around, launched by some angel in the group who could see our noses dripping onto our black silk dresses. He ended by speaking to all the fathers. “Fathers,” he said. “Love your children. No matter what they do. Love them. For in loving there is healing.”
 
 Pray. Now Chuy asks us all to pray. All right, but these are special times. The old prayers won’t do. In bygone days Lazaro would not have been diagnosed with clinical depression; he would have been possessed by devils. In these postmodern times, a clinical designation called “bipolar disorder” allows people to shrug and say, “Oh, yeah, I get it,” and relegate Lazaro to the landfill with all other broken bipolars whose deaths by their own anguished hand is now acceptable, even expected. Better to swap the old prayers for blunt directives such as those by author Marianne Williamson: “Dear God, my heart is broken. Send help. Do it now. Amen.” Or simply, “Dear God, please bless the children, mine and all others. Send all darkness away from them.”
 
 I go through this and meditate in full gratitude that swimming with God catches that spiritual wave out of reach of the sociologists, the academics, the indifferent, and the fearful, all of whom have their ways to dismiss Lazaro’s death or file it in some catchall category. I’m amazed that Chuy is asking us to do nothing more than the simple act of praying.
 
 Chuy, carefully tending the open wound a month after Lazaro’s death, sits at the kitchen table and talks to me. In this moment it hits me that I am sharing the spiritual space of a person whose heart is broken. “What guardian angel would save me so many times only to visit me this pain?” Chuy has the ability to talk steadily all the while huge tears fall from his eyes and splash onto the surface of the table. “I can’t stop what I’m seeing. I see him alive in the moments before. I feel his agony. I see his finger on the trigger and I see the bullet going in. I see his spirit flying from the top of his head and his body dead on the ground. I see him laid out before the fire, then the flames, his long hair consumed first, down to the bones, turning to ashes. And I feel guilty. Did I cause this? Is this what karma is?” While Chuy repairs others, he will also repair himself and his broken heart, surrendering his fear and accepting the grace that will take the guilt, to return again to love.
 
 He doesn’t question God. That connection is too great, the journey home to Him too long and arduous to waver now. He knows the joy that comes from surrender, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He’s just not there yet, honoring each feeling as it comes and passes, comes around again and passes again.
 
 Soon after Lazaro’s death Chuy is asked to sing for an 85-year-old woman who had fallen into a coma and was expected to die soon. He is playing “Las Mañanitas”—Que linda esta la mañana, en que vengo a saludarte; vinimos todos con gusto y placer a felicitarte.—“How beautiful is this morning, and our hearts are light and gay, as we sing this song of blessing, to awaken you today,” when she suddenly wakes up. “Play Jalisco!” she says in a big voice. That’s a lively song, full of joy. Chuy is playing it and she starts clapping along. When he finishes, she sinks back on her pillow, peaceful. Chuy leans over, kisses her on the forehead, whispers to her, “His name is Lazaro.”
 
 “I know,” she says. “I’ll take care of him.”
 And so it is that Chuy believes that it was Lazaro’s time to go. “I have to think there was nothing anyone could have done to change it. Through my spiritual acts, I hope to embrace the spirit of my son. Somewhere, too, is a reason. It will come.” He’s spending the day at home, has invited his three-year-old grandson over to pick out some toys. Chuy found two boxes of toys in the shed that had belonged to Lazaro. “I won’t tell him the toys were his uncle’s,” Chuy says. “I’ll just say that they are his now, if he wants them.”

Kathleen Grassel lives in New Mexico, where she is pursuing an M.Sc. in Water Resources Management. She is a freelance writer, editor and graphics designer. She teaches Tai Chi at the local juvenile jail.