The son of a friend died last week. He was 21, the age at which I felt like I had just earned my freedom. Stephen was a tall kid, I mean really tall, with deep red hair his mother and I envied. I’ve known him since he was five and sometimes now he flashes before my eyes as he was then, a skinny, quiet boy with serious eyes and a slow smile.

Is it karma that loads onto one child burdens others don’t receive? Stephen suffered from ADHD so severe that if he didn’t have his medicine, he’d fall off his chair at the dinner table. Whip smart, he’d often forget to do his homework or a science project, or if he had done them, he forgot to turn them in.

He liked music. He was good at drums, African ones, usually. I have a hazy mental picture of seeing him play drums in a jazz recital in grade school, standing out paler than pale amongst children of darker skin.

Despite the fact his mother moved away to California several years ago, we are close, really close. She and I have many interests in common: hiking, flowers, nature, books, writing, feminism. We met because of our children. Stephen was in my daughter’s class for nine years, but it was on ten-hour hikes that I grew to really know and love his mother.

What can I do for her now, my friend whose heart is empty and who cannot sleep?

My friend knows I am here for her, for whatever small use I can be. I witness her loss and then go off, guiltily and gratefully into my own life where I can shop with my daughter, yell at her, and take a Pilates class together. How my friend bears her pain, I do not know. I feel the devastating echoes of it and it knocks me off my feet.

If you have losses you’ve lived through, if you have anything to offer Stephen’s mother, sister and father, please leave a reply.

Seeing and Believing

I was in a group of women on Friday. One of them had the same exact color hair as Stephen. She was his age. She had the same red-haired fragile skin. I watched her from across the room. I knew she carried burdens too and her life was not easy, though the scars didn’t show on the outside.

Neither did Stephen’s. You couldn’t tell by looking that he battled demons like alcohol and drugs. He was privileged by gender, race, education and social class. Sometimes I get so mad at him I want to shake him. What were you thinking, I want to cry. Heroin? You stupid boy, what were you thinking! Look at the pain you’ve caused your mother, your sister, your father, and all the rest of us.

But a wise woman, another mother from our kids’ class, works with heroin addicts. She says they are some of the bravest people she knows.

It’s too easy to judge, from the outside looking—ignorant—in.

I walked across the room to the red-haired young woman and told her a bit of Stephen’s story. She let me touch her hair. She let me hug her. In her bright face, her light blue eyes looking toward a future, I saw Stephen smiling out at me. I swear he was there, for a moment or two, saying goodbye.