After our twenty-year-old son Charlie died seven years ago, my husband Ernie insisted on seeing his body. Everyone told him, and me, not to.
Charlie had disappeared from our house in the middle of a freezing January night. After five weeks of searching-my searching, the police’s searching, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s searching-a Harvard crew member, during early-season sculling practice on the river, found Charlie’s body. The police came to my door. In the front hall, I collapsed into an officer’s arms. “They haven’t identified the body yet,” he said. “But we’re sure it’s your son.” In our effort to find him, we had sent information about Charlie, including his picture, everywhere we could think of. A detective from our local police department talked to me every day. Charlie’s identification, it turned out, was still in his pants pocket: A college ID and a distinctive key ring, rusted from its immersion, a gift from one of his sisters.
When Ernie returned from his errands that Saturday morning, we held one another and cried; we talked about whom to call, about what we needed to do next. One of our daughters was in California, the other in Israel. We broke the news over the phone, and they hurried home to Massachusetts. Friends and neighbors brought food, their presence, and their tears to join with ours.
The very first thing we wanted, though, was to see Charlie. He had left...