The caller ID reads "Chattanooga Police," and I think, "I don't have time for this." My daughter Ali is on the way over with friends to watch the Vandy basketball game; I need to finish boiling shrimp and spreading out newspaper on the table. "He needs to handle this on his own," I'm thinking. "He's in college now."
Then it occurs to me: The police are calling my house on a Saturday afternoon.
I take a deep breath and answer. A man asks, in a hesitant monotone, if I am Mrs. Patterson. It's then that I begin a mental slide through a long tunnel, moving away from my kitchen into quiet darkness.
The man is a detective from the Chattanooga Police Department, and he has found my son Cameron hanging in his dorm room. I ask him if Cam is OK. The detective replies, "No, ma'am. He's dead."
The sounds in the tunnel pound me like bullets. I hear myself yelling at the so-called "detective" for playing a practical joke, shouting that he is sick, that this is not funny. I explain that he has the wrong person and that Cam would never take his own life. I tell the detective that Cam loves living and is attending a hunter's safety course this very morning. I tell him that Cam has plans to get married. The detective says nothing. He waits for me to breathe. He waits for my wailing to subside. He waits for me to stop gagging. He just waits.
His waiting confirms that this is not a joke. He is not telling me lies, and he will be waiting on the other end of the line until I am ready to talk to him. I slide to the floor, my wailing transforming into moaning, and through the slits of my eyes, I see my daughter running toward me. "No, no, no, my brother is not dead!" she screams.
I want to catch hold of her, but I cannot pull myself up from the floor. I stare at the wooden planks. I'm falling faster through the tunnel; the world recedes to a tiny circle of light. My stomach is moving up my throat, and the remnants of lunch follow, running into the cracks between planks.
Someone picks me up and holds me to her as I wail. I don't fight her, even though she is a stranger, a parent whose daughter is here to watch the game. I don't care that she can see me screaming at the ceiling, declaring war on the God of my childhood. Where is the Creator who was supposed to be protecting my son? I cry. Where is the God who cares for me?
That was seven years ago, and I still weep every day for Cameron.
People will tell you that after a while, it's time to stop grieving. They will say that God has a plan you can't fathom. They will advise you to move on. A note to all mothers: I hope you never enter the tunnel I've passed through. But from the far end, I'm here to tell you this: Ignore those people. You will never finish saying goodbye to your child. And you will never be able to tidily fold his absence into any divine plan.
I try to "move on" each day by loving my daughter and allowing my husband to grieve at his own pace — that's what "grace" means to me. I've found my way back to daily living with the help of dear friends who know what it's like to lose a child. I give myself permission to be present in each moment and savor its searing loveliness. As I move through my days, and for the balance of my life, I plan to tell anyone who will listen: "You think your child would never do this. That's just what I thought."
If I could travel back to a time before I entered the tunnel, I would listen harder to Cam. I would ask his physician more about depression. I would educate myself about the risks of antidepressants for teens ... this time, before it's too late.
I didn't know then that shortly before Cam died, the FDA warned that antidepressants can sometimes induce suicidal thinking and suicide attempts in teens and young adults. I didn't know that although the benefits of medication may outweigh the risks, I should watch Cam very carefully as he began his treatment. I didn't know that I could ask the doctor for a blood test to check Cam's levels of serotonin — a key chemical contributor to depression — to help the doctor determine his dosage. And I didn't know that I could ask my pharmacist to help me track the side effects of the medication.
As a behavioral analyst, I've spent two decades helping people with mental health disabilities live healthy and productive lives. But I couldn't help my own son. One in five of our children suffers from mental illness. Please learn all you can about this disease and its treatment for young people, so you can help your children live long, and live well.
There are days when I wake up back in the tunnel, but now I just accept it and keep going. And eventually, I reach the opening again.