A compelling reflection by former Jesuit Volunteer Dan Misleh (Fairbanks, AK ’82-83) who shares his own lived experiences and the importance of community. First published on June 13, 2018.
This is a reflection on the loss of our son Zachary who died by suicide over a year ago. I offer this reflection to the JVC Northwest community for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that Susie and I met through JVC Northwest 35 years ago and Zach, along with his older siblings, Ben and Anna, are the fruits of that relationship. It is posted, too, to remind us all of the fragility of life and the need to be attuned to one another as we navigate life’s sometimes difficult terrain. I urge you to watch for the cracks in the lives of all people but especially teens and young adults. Be sure to check in with them. Ask the hard questions including the dreaded but pointed one: “Do you feel like you might hurt yourself?” Being attuned and asking the tough questions may save a life. To learn more about this extraordinary young man, please visit: zachmisleh.net.
Dan (Fairbanks, AK ’82-83) and Susie Patridge Misleh (St. Mary’s, AK ’80-82), with their son, Zachary.
Today is about Zach Misleh; but it is also about all of you.
June 13, 2017: a random day in the middle of a random year by which I now mark time. On June 12, our family was whole, and life was cruising along. Ben: happy in Colorado with good friends a solid job, and the mountains to lure him away in any season. Anna, too: life-giving work, living at home with Susie and I and finished with her first year of graduate school. Zach: home after his first year of college and a service trip to Puerto Rico with his classmates from St. John’s University and getting steady hours lifeguarding at the local swimming pool.
But at about half-past 2:00 pm on June 13, our whole world shifted. That was when we knew Zach was gone. The rest of that week was spent sharing and receiving heart-wrenching sobs, planning for a funeral and a burial, (Are we really doing this?), welcoming other mourners, consoling them as they consoled us. Family and friends arrive from out of town. Neighbors bring food, open homes. Hundreds leave their Father’s Day dinners to wait in line forever just to offer a word of condolence and say goodbye to Zach at the wake. Hundreds more fill St. Ambrose Church beyond its capacity for a funeral and farewell on Monday morning. We place Zach’s ashes in a niche at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery on June 23 and celebrate his 20th birthday on June 24.
Within a couple of weeks, I am back at work but not really. How does the world continue spinning after such a tragedy? How will life ever be normal when this pain—felt so acutely by so many—weighs me down like a millstone? The rest of the summer was going through the motions, visiting the cemetery, shedding tears often, sighing heavily and saying repeatedly, “Oh dear Zachary, what happened?”
Today, one year since Zach took his life, the rawness of the open wound is healing but it will never fully close. Many have described the hole left when someone so beloved leaves so unexpectedly. That’s really what it feels like: a big hole.
But I think the hole, the wound, never heals for a reason. It is a place where I can store memories of happy times. It is an opening like a knothole in a wooden fence where I can still have a conversation with Zach and listen in stillness to his reply from the other side.
In Leonard Cohen’s song, Anthem, part of the refrain says:
“There’s a crack, a crack in everything. That’s where the light gets in.”
We are all wounded, cracked, broken, battered. Some of us more so than others. We all carry scars and walk through life as cracked and imperfect vessels. Now I see that those imperfections are the places where empathy resides and where kindness can seep through. Sometimes I wonder if kindness and brokenness are not really just kindred spirits. How much kindness and empathy can we really have without heartbreak and deep wounds?
Zachary certainly had his share of cracks. It doesn’t seem fair that someone so young should have so many holes to plug. In the end, I suppose he was just tired of trying to hide them or gave up his search for the right tool to fill them. But maybe his undeserved brokenness was also where he found the strength for 20 years to be so incredibly kind, gentle and empathetic. We’ve learned from some of his friends who shared their own haunting depression that in Zach they found a very sympathetic ear—that he would go out of his way to reach out. Maybe his cracks also let in an abundance of humor and stoked his ability to enter fully into life’s moments. Maybe they were the places where hyperbole found an escape: “Inception (or Star Wars or Interstellar or…) was the best movie I’ve ever seen!” “Kendrick Lamar just put out the best album ever. Period.”
Today, I miss my boy so, so much. I miss laughing with him, watching him stifle a smirk at my bad jokes, and having short-burst conversations using only Pink Floyd or Bruce Springsteen lyrics. I miss his deep and thoughtful reflections about current events. I miss watching him grow into a man.
But today is also about you, dear family and friends.
I appreciate—more than I ever thought possible—all who have shared this year-long odyssey with me and with our family. Today, I realize—thankfully, even if a bit late in life—that big holes and gaping cracks offer us a choice. We could allow them to sink us further into despair as we try in futility to plug and patch them. Or we can leave them open, enter into their rawness and allow them to nurture much greater empathy and understanding. Lucky for me that I’ve had a circle of compassion this past year, a cocoon of love and friendship that left me only one real choice. Because of each of you, I think I’m coming out of this okay. Because of you I have chosen to leave the cracks open and the holes unfilled and let some light in. Thank you.