A writer friend of mine is compiling a photoscape of the world’s saddest places. Scenes of executions, mass graves, military cemeteries, places of memorials, final resting spots. The gates of Auschwitz.
For me, the saddest place has become a giant rock jutting out of the Pacific in the California coastal town of Morro Bay.
Last week my 25 year old nephew, Alex, was found dead on the jagged rocks below it on the ocean’s floor.
No one will ever know if it was suicide—likely—or some final, futile grasp at meaning in his turbulent life that led him to walk out of an unrestricted psychiatric halfway house, snowed on heavy amounts of the anti-psychotic, Seroquel, fix on the massive, six hundred foot rock, try to climb his way up, and dulled and disoriented, fall. In either case, his sad end has left two devastated parents for whom he was their only child, and their only hope of a lasting legacy of their own ruined, bipolar lives. As well as a lot of unanswered questions.
A week before, his mother had found a hastily scrawled application to buy a weapon in Alex’s room. A 20 gauge shotgun. (Thank God the state administered application period delayed the transaction.) And with it, a lot of manic, suicidal writings. About lying down with the devil, taking other people with him. Terrified—there was a history of violence in the house and Alex had been under psychiatric care before—she contacted the police. When they came, Alex, enraged, took her by the hair and threw punches at her. He was thrown into a van, taken to the state hospital in San Luis Obispo, restrained in a cell, medicated, put on suicide watch, his belt and shoelaces removed, under 24 hour watch. Rounds of psychiatric consultations over the next few days indicated he was depressed, suicidal, schizophrenic, a clear danger to himself and those around him. He was dosed heavily with Seroquel. His parents felt relief their son was finally in a controlled environment. (Over 21, it had been impossible to commit him without the threat of imminent danger.) Back in New York, we felt relief too. It was decided he would be transported to a restricted “transitional” facility, where for as much as ten months he would be among people like himself, unable to leave. Receiving medication. Learning a trade. It was a rare moment of hope in his short, tragic life. And calmer, he seemed to be embracing it too. “Wish me luck, Mom,” he said. The last words she ever heard from him. Maybe one day he would have a platform from which to embark from there. A footing for the rest of his life.
Last Sunday that footing forever collapsed.
Two days before he had been released from the hospital into a small, unrestricted halfway house in Morro Bay filled with aged patients coping with Alzhiemer’s. Dropkicked there– without a medical history or any background on him showing suicidal or violent behavior. The home’s administrator said he was “like a stroke victim, snowed on Seroquel.” But he seemed ready to “work it out.” Last Saturday he said he was going for a walk. She thought that was actually a hopeful sign. She didn’t know any better. When he never returned she called my brother and sister-in-law the next day. Looking to put out a missing person’s alarm. By that time he was already dead. He had been found that morning on the rocks at the base of Morro Bay Rock, a formation that seems to majestically rise out of nothing like Ayers Rock in Australia. A John Doe. Two news stations did reports on the unidentified suicide. My brother and sister-in-law saw them, never knowing, sadly, it was their own son they were hearing about. He was identified by his fingerprints the next day.
And their lives fell apart.
So how was this clearly agitated bipolar kid, two days from suicide-watch at the hospital, released into an unrestricted environment with no medical history or background provided to the staff? Only that he was bipolar and on medication. Lots of kids are bipolar, the facility’s head told me, coping, needing a place to come to. Not suicidal. Not violent. Not on the teetering edge of sanity, only a few days after beating up his mother, wanting to buy a gun, rambling crazily about killing himself and his parents, a threat to innocent people as well.
We viewed his battered body at the mortuary. I held his parents up, their legs weakened, from collapsing to the floor. They pawed over his marked-up face in grief, strangely quiet and peaceful for the first time in years. His voices silenced. Anger stilled. It’s a cliché, but in this case, one that works: Maybe Alex had gone on to a calmer place.
Then we went to the rock. To someone who had not seen it before, it is, stunning, majestic, awe-inspiring, rising out of the sea, nothing else around it. There were tourists walking around. We climbed out to where the coroner’s detective said we would find the spot. Rocks so jagged, they are like the gnarled teeth of the sea, gnashing at you. A cliff, rising above, maybe eighty feet high. How did he ever even get up there? What was in his poor head—to finally end his turbulent life, or maybe look up at last and see some clarity, the sun shining, a deluded, final search for God? Did he fall, climbing? Or, like the detective surmised, do a final, backwards dive onto a mangled resting place on the rocks?
What is the saddest place? Where your heart breaks with sorrow from what has taken place? Where the winds seem to carry a hymn. The world has its many spots, its hallowed memorials, its quiet tombs.
But for us, with the sound of the surf beating against the rocks, staring up into the face of something God must have created with something more glorious in mind, this is it. It’s here.