Losing Michael: Teen Suicide and a Mother’s Grief
“The Making of a Memoir” is a bi-monthly blog series which explores the stages of writing a memoir as I write the story of losing my nineteen year old son, Michael, to suicide, through his story and the tale of a life without him and the grief I experience every day, even after he’s been gone for a decade. Some progress has been made toward the actual writing of the book since the last segment. I made a final decision on the title above for the book, and work on the cover is in progress with Art Rosch at Starrts Creative. Although there is still a lot of material still to sort through and compile what I want to include, I managed to work through a considerable amount. The going is slow, as I knew it would be, due to the emotional nature of the material and the memories some of it awakens.
In the last segment, “Stage 1: Prewriting Tasks“, I said I expected this book to be the most difficult story I have ever attempted to write, and that has proven to be true. In fact, it has proven to be difficult in more ways than I had imagined. This segment was supposed to be titled “Stage 2: Selling the Story”, but alas, unexpected “Obstacles and Roadblocks” has become a more appropriate title. Over the past two months, I run into several and I’m still trying to find a way around, over or through one huge one in particular – legalities.
Memoir can and should be a work of creative nonfiction. It is a true story told creatively, so as to capture and hold the readers’ attention. What memoir is not, is a work of fiction, with fictitional characters and places. You are telling a true story, something that actually happened, something in which other real people played different roles, and to tell the story, their parts must be told as well, even if the tale doesn’t portray all of them in a positive light. A good memoir must be told with honesty, from the heart.
As I sorted through the plethora of material I have gathered and saved since my son’s death: his poetry, writings and artwork; my poetry and writings; and oh so many photos, I couldn’t help but think about the other people involved, directly or indirectly with the story of the events leading up to Mike’s death and also the events that came after, and I realized that there were more than a few, people associated with Mike, and law enforcement officers, who might not want this story to come out because of the manner in which they might be viewed for their parts in his death.
It normally wouldn’t be a problem at all. I’m writing the story of events as they happened to the best of my knowledge. Many facts surrounding Mike’s death were suspicious, and for a time I believed that Mike might have been murdered. Things didn’t add up, but the proof to back up what I know to be true was withheld from me by local law enforcement. I no longer entertain the idea that Mike’s death was anything other than suicide, without the proof that the events happened the way I claim they did, I could be open to liable in telling this story.
The individuals involved wouldn’t really be a problem. The obvious solution is to change the names. Even in a true story, real people can have fictitious names, without damaging author credibility. Authors do this all the time; you just state that some names have been changed and readers won’t feel cheated.
The law enforcement agency and certain individual agents present a bigger problem. Do I change the names of the law enforcement agents? Do I change the name of the area they represent? How much can be changed before a true story becomes a work of fiction? The proof I lack wouldn’t portray the local law in a positive way and they know it, so they aren’t likely to have a change of heart about sharing it with me for the book. They play major roles in the events leading up to Mike’s death, and the story really can’t be told without their inclusion.
Although this issue has presented a roadblock that appears it might be unsurpassable, I have a couple of ideas on how I might be able to get around it. I need to let it play out and see. If not, I’ll look for a way to go over, or under if I have to. This is a story that must be told, and I’m determined to tell it. By the next segment, in June, I should be moving forward once more. I’ll let you know how it gets resolved. I do hope you’ll join me then.
Join me in my writing journey through “The Making of a Memoir” the second Monday every other month on Writing to be Read: February, April, June, August, October and December. To be sure not to miss one segment, subscribe to email or follow on WordPress for notification of new content.
Our monthly theme for February on Writing to be Read was, you guessed it – nonfiction. So, what tipped you off? Was it the great interview I did with nature author Susan J. Tweit? Or maybe the nonfiction revues of How to become a Published Author and Letters of May? Or perhaps it was the “Chatting with the Pros” interview of nonfiction author Mark Shaw? Whatever it was that gave it away, I’m here to tell you that these few posts on nonfiction don’t even scratch the surface of what the genre of nonfiction encompasses.
There are many subgenres of nonfiction, just as there are many subgenres under each of the genres of fiction. When someone asks what type of book your fiction novel is, we are quick to catetgorize it as a paranormal mystery, a historical romance, or a science fiction thriller. For some reason, we don’t seem to think about nonfiction the same way we do fiction and when someone asks what type of book your memoir is, or your travel diary, or your self-help book, we tend to lump it in with all the rest in nonfiction. Why this is, I don’t know, but I find that it is the case, time and time again.
The fact is, not all nonfiction books are alike and there are many categories or subgenres that fall within the nonfiction realm. Mark Shaw writes biographies and creative nonfiction tales that are very different from the memoirs, illustrated travel books and nature guides of Susan J. Tweit. Other types of nonfiction that are hard to define are books like Mark Todd and Kym O’Connell Todd’s Wild West Ghosts, which chronicles their ghost hunting experiences and offers advice on how you can be a ghost hunter too. Or Hollywood Game Plan by Carole Kirshner, which is a how-to guide for anyone wanting to break into the screenwriting world. These books are all nonfiction, but they are all very different types of books.
According to wikipedia the genres of nonfiction are biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, commentaries, creative nonfiction, critiques, essays, owners manuals, journalism, personal narratives, reference books, self-help books, speeches, and text books. I would add to that spiritual texts, encyclopedias, documentaries, how-to books, cookbooks, diaries and anthologies such as the one found in Letters of May, which is a collection of writings and artwork illustrating the world of those afflicted with mental illness. I’m sure there are others, but as you can see the list is quite extensive.
Nonfiction books may or may not be aimed to entertain, but the primary purpose, no matter the type of nonfiction book, is to inform. This may account for the fact that my reviews of nonfiction books receive more views in general, than most of my fiction reviews. A fact that I found to be surprising when I uncovered it while looking over the data for this blog. My theory is that readers turn more quickly to books they may find useful than they do to those with entertainment as their sole purpose.
My reasons for interest in nonfiction and all it’s many forms stems from preparation for my journey to write my own memoir, telling the story of my son’s death and my life without him, His Name Was Michael. My bi-monthly blog series which will chronicle that writing process, “The Making of a Memoir“, came out with the first segment in February, too. It was a good month for it to come out, as it also fits in with the nonfiction theme. I hope you’ll join us again next month, when the theme will be science fiction and fantasy.
Be sure to join me next month when we will explore science fiction and fantasy, with guest author Kevin J. Anderson on “Chatting with the Pros” on March 18th, as well as a review of his Selected Stories: Science Fiction Volume 2, and Jordan Elizabeth’s Rogue Crystal.
Update: In Friday’s post I talked about the changes coming for Writing to be Read. One more change that I just recieved confirmation of, and I’m pleased to announce: Art Rosch will also be posting one movie review a month, on the forth Friday of the month, in “Art’s Visual Media Review”.
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His Name Was Michael
I’m starting this bi-monthly blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will chronicle my journey as I write my memoir of my teenage son’s suicide and my life without him, breaking down the memoir process into stages. I am sharing thios process for several reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. Three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself. And four, I believe there are those of you out there who are interested in the methodology behind creating memoir.
Before I can begin writing the my memoir telling the story of my son’s death and the story of my own journey to find closure and my need to be sure that he will always be remembered, I must know what it is that I want to say, and have some idea of how I want to present it. After Michael’s death, I went through his writings and artwork, I went through every picture of him over and over and over. I listened to his music. And I cried and cried, and I thought I would never stop. It never has. At least not completely, but I did gain control over it by putting all his things away, to be dealt with at a later time. I knew I needed to tell his story then, but I wasn’t ready. Not then.
I actually made several false starts at writing his story at different times, I wrote poetry, some of it semi-epic, but the emotional wounds were still fresh. I was angry and overcome by grief, and I wanted by son back. I wasn’t able to portray what I was feeling with the depth of emotions I was experiencing. I had to set it all aside and heal some before I could undertake this immense task.
In addition, I wasn’t a skilled enough writer to undertake it at that point. I’ve since earned my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, published three books, and have short fiction and poetry featured in several publications and anthologies. Does that make me an expert now? No. But it has taken me down that path, and certainly I know more about writing books and my writing skills are much improved. I believe that I’m ready now to undertake the writing of my son’s story and my own.
There is no doubt in my mind that this book will be the most difficult book I could ever attempt to write. It is difficult because there is so much emotional investment in this book for me. I’ve collected and saved a mass of materials which may or may not end up in this memoir, but it first must be sorted and compiled. This is a difficult task because of the emotions attached to every piece of material I’ve collected and with the memories associated with each one. Michael has been gone from my life for a decade, but the compilation of these materials still must be taken slowly, a little at a time.
On the other hand, emotional investment in the author lends authenticity to the story and that, according to some, leads to best seller material that people want to read. If you go by that thinking, the more difficult the book is to write, the better it will be. You can let me know if I’m right after you’ve read it.
I thought I had the title. His Name Was Michael: How I lost my son to teen suicide. The title, “His Name Was Michael”, is perfect, for it reflects the feelings I had as time passed and others went on with their lives. Sometimes, I felt that everyone had forgotten about him except my husband and I. A title that would make people remember is a must, and I think it does that. But the subtitle, “How I lost my son to teen suicide”, although clearly and concisely telling the reader what the story is about, it doesn’t roll off my tongue smoothly when I say it aloud. I came up with the idea of replacing it with “No Happy Endings”, and although it states a truth about this story, the potential reader picking it up off the shelf or spotting it online, might pass it over because it sounds depressing and doesn’t really tell them what the book is about. At this point, I have to wonder if a subtitle is even necessary. Comments on Facebook reflect the idea that the title is strongest without any subtitle. So, I am rethinking the title and I’m open to suggestions or thoughts in the comments.
There is still much to do in addition to compiling material and deciding on a title, before I can begin the actual writing of the story, pre-writing tasks, if you will. There are still more materials to gather and research to be done. I know you may be wondering what there is to research. Don’t I know my own story? After all I lived it. But the fact is there is research to be done on every book. On this one, I need to know things like statistics on teen suicide, and I need resources for warning signs of suicide and other information on the subject. I may not use everything I dig up, but I will have it available if I decide that it has a place in this book. I believe it does but I haven’t worked out how I want to present it. There is so much that I want to say, but not all of it belongs. Finding my voice for this book will mean finding my true voice.
There are several people I need to interview, people who I haven’t seen since Michael died, people who have something valuable to contribute to his story. I must learn to control the emotional whirpool that surfaces when I anticipate these contacts, the memories connected, cause turmoil within me. But, I know his story must be told, and to tell it in the manner it deserves, and so, I must contain my emotions and silence the memories in order to what must be done. The very act of doing this very difficult task for the sake of his story will become a part of my own, for it is my story, as well.
There must be at least a vague outline, which is now begining to take shape in my head. I believe I know how I want to begin the story and the structure I need to use. The next step will be to get it down in print, so I have a clear direction in which I want the story to go which I can refer back to to ensure that I stay on track. Outlines are a valuable tool in giving any story direction and making sure it doesn’t veer off into left field and lose the storyline and the way I’ve chosen to structure this particular story demands that guidance.
I’m starting this blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will break down the memoir process into stages, for two reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. And three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself.
Since I hope to get this memoir published traditionally, I will also need a book proposal, a query letter and somewhere around the first three to five chapters for that. We’ll cover that in the April segment The Making of a Memoir: Stage 2: Selling the story. I do hope you will join me on my journey.
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September is a month that I’d prefer to skip over if I could. It is not an easy month for me and hasn’t been for the last ten years. My son Michael was born on September ninth, he died on September 21 at the age of nineteen, and he was buried on September twenty-eighth. Had he lived, he would have been 30 years old yesterday. Since his death the Green Day song, Wake Me Up When September Ends, has held a special personal meaning for me, because it would be preferrable to go to sleep and not wake up until September was over each year. But of course, that isn’t possible and so, I plod through the month, struggling with my emotions, and life goes on. I haven’t forgotten, and I don’t miss him any less as time goes on, but I am now able to prevent my loss from consuming my life, as it did at first.
After he died, I felt his story needed to be told, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though most of what I wrote during the first two years concerned him in one way or another. The wounds were still too fresh and I couldn’t distance myself from the situation enough to write it. I always knew that it was a tale that needed to be told, and I knew I was the only person who could write it, so I saved all the files and the photos, as well as physical momentos and hand written stories and poems written by my son.
As I mentioned in a recent post, It’s All a Matter of Time, I’ve begun compiling the plethora of journals, stories, poetry and visual images I have accumulated in releation to my son, so tuning out the world and hoping September will go away is not going to work this year. I’ve gathered these materials over the past ten years since his death and they are my works, as well as his, and eventually, it will all be included in my memoir about his life and death, His Name Was Michael: How I Lost My Son to Teen Suicide. After a decade, it is time for his story to be told. The pre-writing preparations have begun and I hope to have it ready for publication by this time next year.
This September will be filled with many tears, as I read through all the materials I’ve gathered and/or written for this book. To put it all together I must read through every piece of writing and go through all the photos of him. I’m not saying that it will be easy for me, because it won’t. In fact, it will probably be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written, but there is no one else who can do it. It’s all up to me and I feel it’s got to be written.
Michael’s story is many stories wrapped up into his tale. His story will tell the tale of an amazingly unique young man in love, who made some poor choices. It will tell who Michael Daniel Lee was and who he might have been one day, had he lived. It will tell of a mother’s grief and attempts at denial. It will tell of the coping mechanisms employed just to make it through each day after the loss of a child. It will tell of a son, who was also my best friend, and a sense of loss that is undescribable, unknowable, unfathomable. It will tell of an epidemic that sweeps through our world taking young people who have their whole lives ahead of them.
Below is the eulogy that I wrote, which I read standing before a mortuary filled with mourners for my son one week after his death. It’s one piece in the tapestry of writing that will be used to illustrate Michael’s brief time on this Earth. I hope it will pique your interest and encourage you to read the book when it comes out, hopefully by this time next year. If you’d be interested in pre-ordering the book, leave a comment letting me know and I’ll put you on the list, making sure you get your copy when the time comes. It would be great to know that someone is interested, and that I will be writing this for someone other than myself.
Michael Daniel Lee Booth
When Mike said, “I love you”, it was forever, and when he called you his friend, you knew you could depend on him to stand by you, no matter what. He loved to try new things, to explore and to learn. He had a love for life and for all that he held sacred. Mike strove for excellence in all that he did, and lived by a code of honor that was extremely tough to uphold. His Christian upbringing was intermixed with Hindu and Buddhist beliefs to make up the tapestry of his own personal belief system that was disciplined and unyielding. When he made mistakes, Mike was harder on himself than anyone else ever could have been.
When he got mixed up with the wrong people and things, he made some poor choices. He did not deny what he had done, but instead stood up and accepted the punishment that was given to him. He tried to make amends for his wrongs and was on his way to accomplishing that goal. He expressed great sorrow for his errors, and inflicted emotional punishment on himself over and above what the law could ever require of him.
He had a strong will and could accomplish anything that he set his mind to, including learning to speak Japanese and perform martial arts skillfully, all on his own. Mike had a love for Japanese culture and he could have lived off of green tea and sushi. His knowledge and skills were gladly shared with those who wished to learn. Mike had a love for nature and enjoyed all kinds of outdoor activities, including skiing, hunting, fishing and hiking. His imagination was endless and he created stories and drawings that reveal a talent far beyond his tender youth.
Mike was so much to so many people; a loving son, a dependable big brother, a doting little brother, a respectful grandson, a loyal friend and a devoted husband. He loved his dog, Zaar, who was a companion and loyal friend to him. Mike was sensitive, and hurt so easily and so deeply, yet he was too strong willed to ever let it show outwardly. Only through his writing, can we glimpse the love that he embraced or the pain that he felt. When he loved, he loved with all of his being. Mike was fun loving and enjoyed spending time with those that were important in his life. He had beautiful curls and the most wonderful smile, which could light up my heart whenever I saw it. Mike turned 19 three weeks ago. He had a whole life ahead of him. He was much too young to be called home to God.
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Time. It fascinates us, captures our imaginations with the possibilities of time and time travel, so much so that our literature and the entertainment industry are filled with stories and songs which follow that theme. There have been countless movies on the subject: the Back to the Future series; Time Cop; The Terminator; Groundhog Day; Planet of the Apes; Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey; The Butterfly Effect; Land Before Time; and Timestalkers, to name a few. And of course, television series: Dr. Who; Quantum Leap; Sliders; Time After Time; Outlanders – not to mention series with one or more episodes that involve time travel. Books and stories about time travel include: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain; The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells; Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving; A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens; “The Langoliers”, by Stephen King (Four Past Midnight); Timeline, by Michael Crichton; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, by J.K. Rowlings; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger; and more recently, All Our Wrong Todays, by Elan Mastai. Even the music industry has gotten in on the theme: Fleetwood Mac can’t stop thinking about tomorrow; Tim McGraw deals with it in segments, so he only worries about the next thirty years; Bad Company is ready for love and figures better things are bound to happen looking forward; Jim Croche wants to save it in a bottle; Cindy Lauper comments on the repetitiveness of it, as things tend to happen time after time; and Stevie Nicks would do it all again, even though it’s not always a breeze. These lists don’t even scratch the surface. So, why is it that time so fascinates us?
I had a little Australian Shepherd named Dorchester. I got her when she was a pup. When she was young, she was agile and fast. Man, was she fast. She could smoke both the male Blue Heelers she grew up with to get a Frisbee. Then, she’d run off with it and wouldn’t give it back. She never was much for playing by the rules. But, as she got older, of course, she slowed. Age affects dogs in many of the same ways that it affects people: it gets harder to get up and down; movement is slower, more careful; the senses are not as accute as they once were, etc… Dorchester began to lose her eyesight first, even before her she lost her speed and her agility, so I had to become her seeing eye person. I began carrying a walking stick on our walks, thunking it down firmly on the ground with each step I took, so that she could hear where I was and follow. We walked this way for several years until eventually she was no longer able to go on walks with me anymore due to poor eyesight and other effects of aging.
Dorchester isn’t with me anymore, but I still go on walks with both of the Heelers. We all walk a little slower these days. Our walks are shorter and there’s not a lot of rabbit chasing anymore, but they are are enjoyed, never the less. My son’s dog, Zaar, was Dorchester’s mate. They were the same age, each joining our family at about the same time. As Zaar ages, he is not only losing his sight, but his hearing, as well. He is very frightened of thunder and storms always gave him major anxiety attacks, so his not being able to hear so good hasn’t been a totally bad thing, but it does pose new problems on our walks. Zaar grew up walking on our property, so he thinks he knows where he’s going and doesn’t always pay attention to where his walking companions are headed. He gets into ‘the zone’, nose up, sniffing th air, and no matter how loud I yell, he doesn’t hear me, causing me to have to chase after him, touching him to get his attention and get him back on track. Zaar was also raised around a Heeler who was deaf, so he learned hand signs and once I have his attention, he will follow, but it’s getting his attention that’s the trick.
The exercise he gets from his walks is what keeps him healthy and mobile. As I watch him getting older, I feel a sense of urgency, knowing that time may be running short for our walks and I want to enjoy my time with him while I can. I guess I just don’t know how to be a seeing eye person for a dog that can’t hear. He doesn’t hear my stick. I must figure out how to adapt and rise to the challenge, because left to his own devices, Zaar would soon be lost, especially after dusk, when his eyesight is at its poorest. It seems none of us are as young as we used to be.
It’s easy to look back and see what we’ve lost. ‘Hindsight is better than foresight’, and all that. Looking to the past, all our regrets become vividly obvious, but we tend to embellish the good times, as well. I think happy moments may be remembered as euphoric, more so than what they actually were, because those are the times we wish to hold onto. When I look back, there’s a dividing line to my timeline, seperating my life before my teenaged son died, and post-death, signifying the time when he was no longer in my life. That’s my loss. The time when Mike was alive seems brighter, more vivid in my memories. He was my biggest fan, with aspirations and the ability to be a writer himself. He was a unique soul and a source of inspiration for me.
These days, I feel a sense of urgency to make this writing for a living thing work while I still have time to do so. I have certainly taken enough time making it happen. I was 52 when I finally earned my M.F.A. and 53 before I became a published author. I’m sure I have some good years left, but I have to wonder if there will be enough for me to realize my dream. I wish I could go back in time and do things differently, but of course that’s only possible in my fiction.
Now, with time travel, there’s the possiblity of doing things over, making things turn out different. Granted, it doesn’t usually turn out well when you go messing around with time, but things can, on occasion turn out better. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at MY time travel short, Last Call. Things aren’t going good for Derek, but he finds a way to make his life better. Maybe I could go back and get started on this career path a lot earlier in life. That’s not Derek’s solution, but it could work.
I don’t live in Derek’s world and there is no Last Call bar for me. I know I can’t just sit back and wait for things to happen, so if I want to reach my dreams while I’m still alive to see it, I have to take action. I must market what I already have published, but even more importantly, I must keep writing. So, my plan is to just keep at it. Eventually, my efforts will pay off. I have to believe that.
So what if I didn’t earn my M.F.A. until I was 52 and wasn’t published until I was 53? I’m not the only one to get a late start on their dream. After all, according to an inspirational Facebook post by Karen Caron, Stan Lee’s first big comic came out at age 40, Morgan Freeman had his first major movie role at age 52, and Julia Child didn’t make her cooking show debut until age 51. That puts me in some pretty good company.
Young or old, all we can do is look to the future. (There’s that time thing again.)
With that in mind, I’ve begun the writing and compilation of my memoir about my son’s life and death, finally, after nine years. I’ve decided that it’s time to reunite the two time periods that divide my life and my thinking. After his death, I wrote poems and stories about him, pouring my grief out onto the page. I compiled all the photos of him into a slideshow for his memorial dinner. In addition to that, I plan to contact some of Mike’s friends and request them to contribute writings of their own about who Mike was for them. It’s going to be a massive amount of work, but his story deserves to be told and there is no one else who can tell it. It will be my first non-fiction work of book length.
I’ve always said that I never have less than three works in progress. Michael: How my son became a teen suicide statistic, will make the third one, as I’m also writing the first draft of the sequel to my western novel, Delilah: The Homecoming and I’m revising the first book in my science fantasy Playground for the Gods series, The Great Primordial Battle. Writing is an integral part of my life, past, present and future. I may be an old woman, but there is no other direction in which my life can go. Mike would be proud of my accomplishments so far and I think he would be glad that his story will finally be out. After nine years, it’s about time.