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Last updated
02/14/05
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“Grief is Our Story, Grief is Our Prayer”
by Bert Stern


I’m sitting at the window on a fresh, clear August day, and I know that nothing terrible can happen. Before Linda and Robert Waxler learned, first of their son’s addiction and then of his death, they felt like that. Everything seemed on track, and when news of their son Jonathan’s addiction came to them by telephone, Linda’s reaction was blunt denial: “Not in our family. Never in families like ours.”

No one enters hell willingly, though there has always been a wisdom literature inviting us to. What else could Jesus have meant when he urged us to lose our own lives in order to find them? One of Conrad’s characters says famously that we must immerse in the destructive element and Blake said, “Everything that can be broken must be broken.” But few of us go on such journey until we have been drawn into it by loss and grief. It is then that the dark side of things becomes so visible as to almost blot out all else.

Losing Jonathan describes just such a journey, with remarkable clarity and with openness to the convolutions of hope and despair that are part of the descent. The Waxlers decided to write this book as “a way of extending the discussion about grief and loss.” Waxler, who did most of the writing, understood that this would be a formidable task. It meant reliving unbearable moments, and looking for an order in the chaos of addiction that leads to death. It meant exacting honesty in describing an experience not from the outside but as one who suffered it, and it meant looking at one’s own contradictions. Finally, it meant offering a path of healing, carved not out of wishful thinking and sentimentality but out of the bedrock of felt life.

In all this, the book succeeds, by describing, first, the loss of the Waxler’s son Jonathan to heroin addiction and then to death, and then Robert and Linda Waxler’s struggles toward their own “recovery.” For all the direct simplicity of the writing, this is a book of genuine spiritual depth and mythic dimensions.

Indeed, the story begins with a myth, a kind of collaboration between father and son. Each evening when Jonathan was a young boy, his father made up stories about him under the sobriquet “Cowboy Jonathan.” Together, father and son experienced the exhilaration of utter imaginative attachment to the cowboy: “We cared about him, rooted for him, felt his danger, and celebrated his triumphs.” Cowboy Jonathan became a part of the collective memory father and son shared. At its deepest level, the saga of Cowboy Jonathan also carried a moral, a kind of template: Cowboy Jonathan rides out each day in endless adventures, but always he returns home, weary, but ready for his next adventure on the following evening. He is the heroic adventurer, but an adventurer who always remains anchored to home.

As Jonathan grew up, he remained true to that myth. The boy was loving as well as brilliant, and as he got older he rode out on adventures and extended his love to the world. At seventeen, he learned on a kibbutz that, in his words, a work group could be “a family helping each other, sharing common values and goals.” He was learning how to be a mensch, and to contribute his energy in a communal effort. Jonathan went on to study labor relations in college, and later in grad school. At the time when the family crisis he caused began, he was working as an organizer both for the United Electrical Workers and for various community groups, fighting for social justice and true democracy. In all this, he was his parents’ pride and joy.

In his practical idealism Jonathan had been inspired by Cesar Chavez. But he had also been inspired by Jerry Garcia and he was a follower of the Dead, whether for the music or the lifestyle his father was unsure. This other side of Jonathan came out early. As a boy, he told his father he wanted to run away with the gypsies. In college he got busted twice, first for smoking pot and then, a year later, as part of a group of students protesting against military research on the UMass-Dartmouth campus, the campus where Waxler himself served as professor and dean.

Waxler himself suggests that his son’s ruin and destruction is an aberrant extension of the Cowboy Jonathan myth. At one point, he sees his son falling into heroin as part of a heroic descent into the underworld in order to redeem it. Jonathan’s “overweening pride,” in this view, “convinced him that he could enter deep into the dark side of himself, the pleasure and the horror of it, that he could confront it, name it, and give it his own spin and control.” But in the end, Waxler continues, “it was most likely only the abyss that he discovered.”

Statements like this serve to give Jonathan’s story and death a meaning and to make this book a spiritual narrative and not merely a material one. Other stories and meanings besides the myth of Cowboy Jonathan arise from the narrative, some of them suggesting that Jonathan was in deliberate recoil against his loving family itself. “We wanted Jonathan to return to us. But is it possible Jonathan wanted something else?” Waxler cites the sociologist Jack Katz to define that something else: “To be cool is to view the immediate social situation as ontologically inferior, non transcendent, and too mundane to compel one’s complete attentions.” In this view, Jonathan sought to become one of Allen Ginsberg’s “angel headed hipsters. . .burning for the heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

Waxler believes in the power of story to heal. He had built his life around “the assumption we can create our own lives, we are free, meaning comes from making choices. Our lives become the stories we create. . . .” He wanted “Jonathan to seek his own destiny, create his own story, surface up from the haunting undertow of heroin addiction.” But as he began to learn from one of Jonathan’s doctors, the foundation of heroin is chemical, and to control chemical addiction “we need research to discover the appropriate drugs to counter it.” Yet part of Waxler remains true to his faith that heroin, like other human bondage, is a spiritual problem: “It’s an illusion to believe rational thinking alone can carry us back home after we have journeyed out into the wilderness as Jonathan had.” Beleaguered by demons who “surround him, seduce him, call to him,” such a journeyer “needs the power of God, salvation.”

Still, through much of Jonathan’s struggle, Waxler tries to stay close to his addicted son, as if he could protect him or lead him into a narrative that could heal him. What he finds in this part of the journey is something inhuman. He finds it not only in heroin but in the pitiless machinery of our health system, and in the good son’s steady fall away from his father’s world into a world of other ruined cowboys, pining away over the death of their manhood at the hands of a pitiless and dehumanizing bureaucratic system.

Waxler’s physical journey is through hospital waiting rooms, social workers, halfway houses, and sordid rooms where only prostitutes and addicts live. It also carries him through a web of phone calls, the one that told the Waxlers that their son was an addict, but many others as well. In support of his addiction Jonathan runs up huge phone bills on his card. In pursuit of him, Waxler himself is entangled in calls to psychiatrists, hospital, and half way houses. The last time that Jonathan, holed up in the room where he died, heard his father’s voice on an answering machine. And the part of the story that ends with Jonathan’s death is marked by a 4:00 A.M. phone call Waxler gets from the medical examiner in San Francisco. The telephone is one of the many instruments of mechanical dehumanization that haunts this book, an aspect of an implacable fate tightening its nets.

During the stage when Waxler fights to hold Jonathan to him, he blames himself repeatedly for things he didn’t do (like drag his son by force back home, against the advice of the doctors and his wife) and things he did. Toward the end of the ordeal, he blames himself for keeping a distance from his son. Yet his frequent self-reproach signals an illusion that Waxler finds it desperately hard to give up: that there was a “right” way to go through this experience and save his son. In all these self-reproaches, Waxler hangs on to his notion that he had the power to make things right if only he had made that choice rather another one. Such dilemmas are a measure of his pain and ultimate powerlessness. They express Waxler’s faith in human beings to shape their lives by right choices, but in the case of Jonathan this faith fails him.

From such a shattering of dreams and hopes, what redemption can follow, and by means of what choices? After Jonathan’s death both Robert and Linda felt isolated and betrayed by their friends, wishing they had been, in Robert’s phrase, “more considerate, more compassionate, more understanding. But I knew their fears. They didn’t want to be haunted.”

The Waxler’s both pass through difficulties reentering their old lives. Robert resigns his position as an academic administrator and returns to the teaching of literature, guided now by the teaching of the Jewish sage Shemayah: “Love work; hate lordship; and seek no intimacy with the ruling power.” He continues in his faith in story, and we can say that the story he tells here, in Losing Jonathan, is also a healing choice he made, though he is guided to it by Linda.

Jonathan had complained that his father was too “intellectually detached.” Waxler confirms this judgment when he explains the difference between his grief and his wife’s. Linda’s bond to her son, in life and in death, is deeper than Waxler can know. She made her grief “part of her flesh, holding Jonathan inside of her, refusing to let him out, not wanting her body to give birth to a corpse. The struggle made her physically sick, practically immobile.” As for Robert: “I had never allowed my body this kind of exposure. I believe in the word, that the word must be made real. . . .I was part of the People of the Book, a believer in texts.”

But in the end, the father’s grief and the mothers are intertwined. Linda’s pain makes it impossible for her to go back to teach mathematics. Instead, she becomes part of a group of bereaved parents called Compassionate Friends. Here, as she puts it in a pamphlet she wrote to help others through ordeals like hers, “a parent can find comfort in the fact that they are not alone and their feelings, no matter what they are, are shared by other members of the group. We learn we are not insane–our feelings are normal for bereaved parents.” Waxler himself gives no evidence that he could find that comfort in the company of others. Instead, he seeks it in stories, and in the kind of psychoanalysis we know as “the talking cure.”

Before Jonathan’s death, Linda believed that the Waxlers were the kind of people for whom “things just seemed to work out.” Her grief teaches her, more deeply than her husband, “that much of my life is out of my control.” Yet it is Linda who suggests: “We should try to write a book. It would be a way of honoring Jonathan’s life. Sustaining it.” So they set out on a project of “extending the discussion of grief and loss.”

Robert’s own purest success here is in offering us himself, in his flaws and contradictions and practical idealism, in his naked humanity. We see in him the mensch, whom Leo Rosten defines as a human being, “not an animal; an upright honorable, decent person; someone of consequence; someone to admire and emulate; someone of noble character.”

At one point in the book Waxler quotes a French poet, perhaps Jabès: The book is a labyrinth. You think you are leaving and only get in deeper.” Losing Jonathan is a book like that. I can’t imagine any reader leaving it.

 

 

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