Super Nova: A Mother’s Grief
A guest post by Elaine Gantz
“Elliot burned brighter than any of us,” whispered Mike Welch, Elliot’s freshman-year college roommate, his sweet voice cracking with despair.
He threw his arms around me as we stood together, suspended in the stalled receiving line at the memorial service, sobbing in waves of unison. We broke from a desperately tight hug that took my breath away as he stepped back. The joy, love and sorrow seemed to conflate in one excruciating moment as I struggled to compose myself. The tears streamed, and I could hardly breathe. When I had spotted Mike finding his way through the massive wooden doors into the crowded church parlor, I knew I would not be able to contain my grief. Some people are more difficult to see than others.
“He was a super nova. He was too brilliant for this world, anyway,” Mike continued with deep resolve. He even sounded like Elliot in that moment. Yet, that entire day was a hazy mirage with only faint flickers of memory breaking through — like the sun’s often futile attempts to find a crack or two in an ominous cloak of fog. I remember so little. But that might be psychic protection or awful grace — echoing the selective amnesia of childbirth. It’s the same for child death, I suppose — somehow saving you from the reliving the most excruciating pain you could ever endure in one day, so life can go on.
Elliot made a dramatic entrance into the world, not unlike his exit. He emerged already about 40 years old. Born at precisely 5:17 p.m. on 5.17.1992, as the delivery room nurses chuckled and cooed with amazement, Elliot arrived alert, calmly present and fully in charge after a grueling 21-hour labor and a botched epidural. And, at 9 pounds, 4 ounces, he must have packed his complete works of Proust for the journey, books he was born loving. As I looked into his profoundly blue and aware eyes for first time, I instantly knew he had been here before me— and perhaps, we had been here before. He was an old soul, and I knew it.
From day one, he enthralled and intrigued — even though he also struggled with social anxiety and bipolar depression. Perhaps, people were drawn to his potent combination of jaw-dropping intellect and rapier wit that was simultaneously understated, kind and often vulnerable. Likewise, connecting with others who knew and loved Elliot deeply is always a gift of comfort that comes wrapped in piercing pain. I am especially moved by those who knew him differently from the way I did — offering tiny surreptitious peeks into the smallest crannies of his enormous existence.
Mike Welch was one of Elliot’s dearest friends from their time together at the University of Toronto. He was just one of an astounding delegation of friends and professors who traveled to Dallas from Toronto and Montreal for his memorial service on that dank August day. I remember Elliot’s roommate pairing with Mike seemed a little awkward at first. When we walked into the utilitarian dorm room on the chilly day in 2010, Mike was measuring the spaces between the neckties he had lined up perfectly on a horizontal rack he had installed on the wall between their beds. His side of the room was immaculately arranged. Elliot stopped and stood quietly.
“You must be Mike,” I chimed.
“Indeed, I am, and you are Elliot,” he replied with an expansive smile as he extended his left arm wrapped in red-flannel plaid.
“Hey, I’m a lefty, too.” Elliot muttered, extending his left hand, as well. “I guess this is my side, huh,” he continued pointing to the unmade bed.
“I hope that’s OK,” added Mike. “We drove up from New York yesterday, so my parents and I just got started. We bought a mini-fridge, and I think we should get a TV, don’t you? We could put it over there,” pointing to the wall across from their beds. “Do you want to buy that?” he continued without taking a breath. “I think we are the only Americans on the hall.”
I could tell Elliot was a little overwhelmed. So was I. My stomach was churning — maybe even more than Elliot’s. My first-born son was meeting his first roommate at college — in another country. I was a wreck, especially since El had been struggling with his own before making this trek. I wanted him to stay close to home, but his father’s family prioritized university clout. When he did not get into his first choice, his dad, my ex-husband, suggested the University of Toronto, because many of his family’s ancestors hailed from Canada. It proved to be incredibly challenging logistically, but also deeply impactful in many ways. As roommates, Mike and Elliot were a little like Felix and Oscar, but they somehow found their way through their ostensible personality differences and forged a deep, lifelong bond.
As baffling as it was perfect, their relationship was a moving example of the way Elliot showed up in the world for other people. So many have said he was their closest friend. As I navigate grief’s bittersweet path, perhaps, I have become hyper-alert. I know Elliot’s death changed me in ways that defy articulation. I feel different inside and out — as his absence is always present. Also, I am more aware of my own heaviness and gravity. Maybe that sense of inertia allows me to notice more, like the mystical winks that I am confident come from Elliot on the other side — so erudite and obtuse. I look for them, because they help make being awake bearable. One happened about a month ago on “Ask Me Another,” one of Nation Public Radio’s Saturday shows.
Canadian National Public Radio host Ophira Eisenberg asked, “What is a mashup of the author of “Infinite Jest” and a claymation rocket to the moon?
The insightful guest replied, “David Foster Wallace and Gromit.”
These were two ends of the Elliot spectrum — one of his favorite clever and whimsical British children’s tales, combined with the complicated and dense musings of a luminous but tortured soul that left this earth too soon, as well. Elliot discovered “Infinite Jest” at about age 17 and tangled with Wallace’s work for the rest of his brief life. These obscure references converging on in the radio air of NPR, a love we shared intensely, soothe and derail me. Moments like this grab my heart and deflate my spirit — all at the same time.
Like sea salt waves engulfing my gaping wounds, these instants of recognition keep me connected to Elliot in their brazen synchronicity. I do not receive the traditional visitations — awake or asleep that so many speak of — but I find him in surprising places. As a bereaved mother, it is a strange but welcome pain, even though it feels like I will never be whole again. I must accept my new reality, but it is hard to even be in the world.
I feel exposed, but no one truly sees me.
My therapist says I should be kinder with myself, but, how can I? There is a hole in my heart — and in the deepest corner of my being, I feel I failed my sweet baby in some monumental way. My job was to keep him safe. I can’t help it. I am just a shadow mother, which often makes parenting Elliot’s younger brother, Ian, intensely painful. He is the only grandchild on both sides of my fractured family, and the weight he feels is palpable.
My heart breaks a little more every day. And always will.