My daughter got the call. It was a Saturday in April of 1999 and I was just getting out of the shower, looking forward to a quiet day to myself with no student essays to read and the prospect of a full week of spring break. Toweling my hair, reaching for my clothes, I heard footsteps running down the stairs. Stasha was crying, yelling.
"Mom, Mom, Mom." Why is she so histrionic? I thought, striding through the bedroom to throw the door open.
“A woman from the embassy in Paris called. They found Aaron’s body hanging from a tree.” She's so irritating, I thought, and at the same time, No, it can’t be, we’ll talk to him and explain he doesn’t have to do this. I tried to picture Aaron in a tree. But I couldn't.
Taking the number from Stasha's hand, I was half-aware of a familiar tension in my spine, a burden of fear and anxiety. We sat on the bed and I punched out the long number.
"This is Ingrid Hughes. Someone called me about my son, Aaron Hughes," I said.
"One moment, please. I'll patch you through." Of course, the duty officer Stasha had spoken to was home today-- it was the weekend. I sat on the edge of the bed, my arm around Stasha, crying a little, staring at the brick hearth of the defunct fireplace a few feet away. The bricks had black scorch marks from long ago, but they were scraped naked now, the fireplace painfully barren and empty.
The duty officer came on. "Mrs. Hughes?"
"Your daughter told you?"
"The police found your son hanging from a big tree in a park about noon." Now I could see it. The big tree. Aaron's long, narrow body hanging.
"His body is at the city morgue."
"At the morgue," I repeated stupidly.
"I'm sorry it took so long to let you know," she said. So long? How could it have taken long, I thought, forgetting the time difference. It was still Saturday morning.
"If you want to get him back I think you'll have to wait to get hold of an undertaker. Easter Monday is a holiday here, nothing will be open till Tuesday." What does she mean, get him back? I wondered.
"Are you sure it was Aaron?" I asked.
"Yes. The police were sure there was no mistake," she said. "He had his passport with him. They wanted to know if he was depressed."
"He had a mental illness," I said. "What's the name of the park where they found him?" I needed to know where he had died.
"Parc Buttes Chaumont." Automatically, I wrote down the unfamiliar words to look up later.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm so very sorry."
Stasha and I sat on the bed for another moment in the quiet of the large white room, its tall windows looking out on two skeletal ailanthus trees. Two days earlier Aaron had been with us. Active and functioning in his crazy way-- tall, handsome, hostile, competent, articulate, nasty at times, convinced he was being poisoned and lied to, but in the last few days a bit more relaxed, and certainly not sick or weakened at all. I held on to my sense of his warm body, his living, breathing presence. It would fade over time, I thought. But for now I had it. He had been here. He had been with us.
Then he had set off for Paris in a blaze of fury, making what I thought was another of his many round trips across the ocean or across the continent since his illness struck.
And now he had hanged himself. Even years later writing those words shakes me. He was gone. Gone irrevocably. Gone by his own choice. He lay in the Paris morgue, lifeless-- a body, no longer a person.
Yet I had seen daily the pain he lived with, the disappointment, his continual anger, bitterness, anguish, the effects of an illness that had battered us all. I knew why he had ended his life.
I first realized Aaron had lost his mind on a spring night seven year earlier. I was living in Brooklyn, in the studio I had taken when I left Arthur. Left him despite love and respect, despite our long history together, going back to our time at boarding school in Colorado. Our youthful marriage had been the ground we grew up on; our familial foursome had been the greatest satisfaction of my life. But Stasha and Aaron were grown now. My love for Arthur seemed to me like one of those rivers of the canyon lands, a river that had worn away rock over the ages and flowed in a narrow channel now through layers of ancient history. The passion that carried me away from Arthur was a spring flood, a deluge of water and snow melt, dislocating ruthlessly anything in its path.
A flood does not provide an easy transition. I often felt insecurely rooted in my new life, though my plan was clear. Days I was tutoring at the Reading and Writing Lab of Baruch College, my first job since college. Evenings I was pursuing a degree in teaching English as a second language at Hunter. Once I had my master's a better job would follow.
Aaron was in Boston, in graduate school at MIT. Physics had been his passion, his preference since high school. He had always enjoyed it and excelled at it, with an ease that was characteristic. In high school and college he had been remarkable for his striking competence, his even keel, his humor and good sense. But on the phone that night, as often lately, he seemed disturbed and discouraged.
"You sound upset," I said.
"I am upset."
"I'd like to help."
"You want to help," he said dubiously.
"Yes, I do."
But he didn't see how I could. We said good-bye.
On one recent visit Aaron had dissolved into tears, crying inconsolably as he sat across from me at the tiny table where I had served our breakfast. The ostensible cause of his outburst was an embarrassing episode in his first year at Swarthmore, four years earlier. But his misery was so great I thought there must be more to it.
I persuaded him to see a family therapist with me, Ellen Wachtel, the person Arthur and I had talked with during our last months together. She had met Stasha and Aaron too.
I sat in Ellen's office, across from Aaron, as he told her a little of what he was feeling.
"Ingrid and Arthur didn't prepare me for what I want to do," he said. "They were never successful." This hurt. How could it not? It also puzzled me. I knew that his education had been excellent. He had begun at private schools, where he had the freedom to study math and science in his own omnivorous way, spent a summer at math camp, attended Stuyvesant, where he took advanced physics and calculus. He had enjoyed small classes at Swarthmore, graduated with distinction, and been accepted by every doctoral program he applied to. He had always had friends among his peers, and with his teachers had the same respectful assumption of equality he had always had with us. Yet now he felt painfully lacking, felt Arthur and I hadn't provided what he needed. Though I could see his distress, I couldn't make sense of it.
Later, I saw Ellen again on my own. She made it clear she considered Aaron shaky. "Help him hold himself together," she said.
None of this, not Aaron's tears, not Ellen's assessment, prepared me for what came next. A few minutes after we hung up, he called me back.
"Maybe you do want to help," he said. "And maybe you know that when I walk on the street people are making fun of me -- in an organized and systematic way."
I was so frightened by his words. So shocked. With that one sentence I knew he had crossed the line into madness-- into paranoia, into a world of his imaginings, a world far from ours, where what was real to him was plainly impossible.
"Aaron, it seems that way to you. These perceptions aren't accurate. That's not happening," I said. "We'll get help." I don't remember what else I said, just the deep fear that landed on me, the pressure along my spine.
I called Arthur, and was glad he was at home, in the apartment on East 9th Street. His companion, Lanie, was an old friend, but I didn't want to call him at her place right now. I repeated Aaron's words to him. He was upset, of course. But he left it to me what to do next. That had been the pattern of our marriage, and especially of the decisions we made as parents.
In the morning I called Ellen Wachtel. She gave me the name of a psychiatrist in Boston. She encouraged me to go to Aaron for a few days.
"What if he won't let me? He's been so distant and angry."
"Tell him firmly that you're coming," she said. Her support helped. I needed to be with him. And when I called him and announced I would visit over the weekend, he made no objection at all.
I checked in with Arthur several times over the course of the week, reporting my plans.
During the days till I could leave for Boston, I walked around in an odd state of shocked languor, as if I'd been gutted and lost my core. My spectacular son had been struck by mental illness-- my generous, confident, brilliantly able son. I felt like I was coasting along on empty at work. After tutoring I went uptown for my classes at Hunter. Like my tutoring, they were a distraction from Aaron, though he was always in the back of my mind, and in my body, sapping my energy.
At work the other tutors were talking about some news they found disturbing, assuming I knew about it.
"I just expected more," a young Trinidadian woman said, as we sat together during our break.
"Uhhuh," I said vaguely. Finally, I realized that the verdict had come down in the Rodney King case, and the ensuing outbreak in Los Angeles was part of the background of the next few days, a headline in a paper on a newsstand, a radio report I caught in passing, or a scrap of conversation.
When I spoke to Jay, who was the reason I had left Arthur, I told him about Aaron. Tuesday evening he came to see me after his teaching.
He sat quietly looking at me as I talked, his brown eyes serious, his large forehead furrowed. Meeting his eyes I was conscious of my fear and a sense of inadequacy in the face of Aaron's illness. Through the lens of my anxiety, I saw Jay too as lacking. He knew how proud I was of Aaron, he had a sense of him from me-- but he had met Aaron only once, very much in passing. How could he understand what I was feeling?
"So you're leaving Thursday morning?"
"Yes. I'll be back Sunday."
"I'll give you Jan's number. Maybe you can stay with her." Jay had friends in Boston, where he had lived until our relationship pulled him to New York.
Before my trip, I called Stasha at her apartment in Brooklyn. "I'm going to Boston. Aaron has had a breakdown," I told her. No more. She was two years older than Aaron, but it wasn't her job to help him now, but mine and Arthur's.
As my train pulled into Boston's South Station, I reminded myself of Ellen Wachtel's advice to be matter-of-fact, not to probe, or to make it harder for Aaron by acting distressed. I stepped onto the platform, my daypack on my back. Aaron was standing at the front of the train, tall and straight in a tweed jacket and dark jeans. He turned away, rather than watch me approach him, rather than meet my gaze. I reached up to hug him, and he gave me a wisp of a hug. His jaw bulged because he was clenching it, changing the shape of his face and he was so thin the sturdy muscles of his shoulders and neck had shrunk.
"Hi, Ingrid. How was your trip?"
From the station we walked to Boston Common along sunny streets crowded with lunchtime strollers.
"I've been to this place," he said, and leaned against the wall of a restaurant, while I gradually realized he was suggesting that we eat there. So we did. As we sat at the table, his features were often contorted, angry, uncomfortable, even crafty. When he wasn't grimacing there were tension lines around his mouth, though he was only twenty-four. He had been remarkable for his relaxed poise. It was entirely erased now.
The visible signs of his illness were disturbing, like his delusions, which he didn't bring up. We had an unspoken agreement that I was here to keep him company in this crisis, not talk about people mocking him.
"I got the name of a psychiatrist who's supposed to be very good," I said.
"Arthur gave me a name too. Do you think it matters which one I call?"
"I'm sure they're both good."
After lunch, we wandered around the Common, watching the people in paddleboats on the pond, and sat on a bench under the trees. It was a pleasant day, and the trees were in leaf already.
"How is your teaching?" I asked. He had a teaching fellowship, and a lab section that he taught.
"It's ok. The students are very worried about their grades. They're always bringing their quizzes to me to complain when I take points off for mistakes."
"They say, 'but it's just a little mistake.'"
"What do you say?"
"I just took off a few points."
He was nice, even tender with me for the first time in a long, long time. He said, "Now, Ingrid, don’t get depressed," when he saw me looking sad.
Although he had always liked small children and been good with them, when a child asked him to return a ball that had rolled under our bench, he reached down for it and handed it over without a friendly word.
Next morning, after a night at Jay's friend's house in Cambridge, I was happy to pass a deli on the way to the train, so I could get good bread and curried chicken salad to take to Aaron. He had one large room on the top floor of a small building in Beacon Hill, with stove, sink and refrigerator at one end, and a table and chairs; at the other end was his bed and the good oak desk he had bought himself.
It was sweet to have time with him. He let me put my hand on his warm head, now and then, or his thin back. "What are you thinking? You look sad," he said. This was the Aaron I had been missing, the dear, caring son I had brought up.
That night there was a spring rainstorm. "It's going to be a good storm. It's going to clear the air," he said.
Riding back to New York on the train, I felt better. Being with Aaron for two days had restored some of my strength. Talking with him and touching him meant so much after the months when he had kept us at a distance, repeatedly telling us not to call him, barely responding to our questions on the rare occasions when he was willing to talk to us. He had agreed to see a psychiatrist, so I was a little optimistic. Yet I knew the crisis was far from over. His words on the phone--"making fun of me systematically and in an organized way" were seared into me. His bulging jaw, his contorted face, his loss of flesh and muscle all indicated that he was seriously ill. But maybe not permanently. I had little knowledge of mental illness, but I knew that some young people recovered.