Keeping my son’s memory alive

Today is the twenty-second anniversary of the suicide death of my older son Paul. And as is my tradition to visit his gravesite on his death day and birthday every year, I will go to Hillside Cemetery in Culver City, CA this afternoon. Until my husband Bob died last November, we always went to visit Paul’s grave together. The first time I went alone was on Paul’s birthday, last December 31.

When Paul died, Bob and I disagreed about what to do with his body. I wanted him buried and in place close by so I could visit his grave. Bob wanted him cremated – which wasn’t very usual for Jewish people. The rabbi we consulted said we could do anything we wanted, so we chose both. He was cremated and buried, which served us both very well. Isn’t it interesting that I have recently moved to a place that is about a two-minute drive away?

Visiting Paul’s gravesite on his birthday and death day every year is just to make me feel better. I don’t believe he knows or would even care that I’m there. No one will go after both Bob and I are gone. And really why should they? There is no Paul there. it’s a little grave with a bag of his ashes in it.

Also, I prefer to remember him as a live whole person. (I wrote my memoir about him to keep his memory alive – Leaving the Hall Light On.) I saw him and spoke to him the night before he died in our house, and the last time I saw him he was ashes being placed into a tiny grave in the back side of Hillside.  Instead I remember his music, him sitting at the piano playing his jazz or Bach or Scott Joplin, his buzz cut, his deep blue eyes, his little half smile, and his very good mind – before it was broken by mental illness. And even though I wrote a poem about him up there in heaven surrounded by all the things he loved and having everything he needs, I still don’t believe he’s there. Writing the poem shows that would be my wish. But I know it won’t ever be a fact.

So as much as I’d like to, I don’t believe in either a heaven or an afterlife or that I will see all my dead loved ones after I die in some kind of wonderfully white-clouded place.

I was taught in my Jewish training that we keep our loved ones alive through remembering them and doing good deeds in their honor.


“The dead we can imagine to be anything at all.” Ann Patchett, Bel Canto


He sits cross-legged in a tree
deep in concentration,
the way he would sit on the floor of his room,
learning against the bed doing homework,
composing music, talking on the phone.
His closed-mouth grin shows
he is pleased to be where he is.
No longer a skinny rail, his cheeks filled out,
his skin clear, his eyes bright.
His tree has everything—soft jazz sounds
flowing from all directions,
deep vees and pillows for sitting and reclining,
the scent of incense and flowers,
branches of books by Miller, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky,
the music of Davis, Gould, Bach, and Lennon,
and virtual communication to those he loves.
He needs no furniture, no bedding, no clothes, no food.
Those necessities are for worldly beings.
The passing clouds give him comfort,
and the stars light his way.
Heaven takes care of him
as he imagines himself
to be anything at all.


  1. Hi, Madeline. My thoughts are with you today. I wish I was there to visit Paul’s grave with you. Instead, I will let you know that I share your belief…that we keep our loved ones alive through remembering them and doing good deeds in their honor. You’ve certainly honored Paul’s life (and helped others) by sharing his story. Thank you.

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