Of the many fears I gladly shed in the wake of my son’s death, I miss the relentless dread of disappointment the least. Had I realized the moment the fear left me, I might have raised a glass of something aged and expensive, made a big to-do. As it happened, the terror of disappointment left me so quietly that by the time I realized it was gone all that was left was to search my recollections for the moment when I gave up the ghost and became brave and new, the border between before and after. The instant when my existence was liberated from the orbit of disappointment’s sun, came in July a few days before what would have been Lev’s 4th birthday. I’m sitting on the top step of the highest staircase in my parents’ very tall house in upstate NY, the house in which I grew up. And I’m stewing in a cold soup of disaffection.
Even though he’s been gone nearly 8 months at this point, I’ve been dreading the approach of the day Lev officially won’t get any older, the day he won’t have a cake or presents or a celebration of making it to the next buoy. That day, I think, will make it all real. I remember Lev’s 1st birthday party in the backyard of this house, co-hosted with his “best friend,” my dad, who turned 70 that same year. I think about Lev taking his first steps—at age almost-2—in the living room two stories down. I think about how it had felt the year before when Lev, then 3 and with defiant swirls of recently returned strawberry blond hair, was there in the house with me for the last time. I wouldn’t have taken this summer trip down memory lane, but for Joss, who I am delivering to his dad and grandma for a Hamptons vacation.
In this moment, I’m sitting a few steps away from my childhood bedroom and thinking about how I used to get the dry heaves from nerves the night before going to summer camp (and how Joss, who’ll head to camp for the first time in a matter of days is not at all nervous; not worried in the slightest). I’m thinking about how it felt to be a lovesick teenager in this house. And how it felt to explain to my parents that I was breaking up with the first man they thought I would marry, and the next one, and the one I did marry. And I think about the men in my life now, who are making me crazy—every last one of them—and giving me little in return. And I’m trying to decide what’s next, what the fuck I’m going to do.
I’m sitting at the top of my parents’ house and I’m reading, on the tiny screen of my smart phone, these words: “Nietzsche famously said, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ But what he failed to stress is that it almost kills you. Disappointment stings…” The words are from Conan O’Brien’s 2010 commencement address at Dartmouth College, a year after he was forced out of his job as the host of the tonight show and replaced by Jay Leno. The key takeaway of O’Brien’s Dartmouth address was the idea that having your worst fears realized is—maybe—the best thing that could ever happen to you (except that it’s still the worst). Of everything he’d learned from his Ivy League education, in life, through the cutthroat trials of show business, this platitude from Nietzsche contained the point Conan O’Brien wanted to drive home. That and “Disappointment stings.” In addition to feeling tremendous empathy for this tortured giant ginger of a man who’d been disillusioned on a grand scale, I thought to myself: “WELL, FUCKING DUH.”
Historically, for as long as I can remember, my relationship to disappointment was something like respect rooted in terror. Disappointment was the star around which my world revolved. Like Le Petit Prince, I lived alone on my planet (whose poles were marked at one end by the fear of displeasing anyone ever and at the other by the anticipation of being let down by everyone always). The sting of disappointment was forever hot in my cheeks and cold in my soul. Over the years I learned to imagine the worst and to gird myself against the impact of my own poor showing or the failure of others to meet my expectations. I learned to aim low in the hope that by not aiming for success I could—in effect—dodge failure. To that end, I moved thousands of miles away from my family (to evade their judgment of my un-ambitious career choices and oft abandoned creative endeavors), I stayed in terrible romances to avoid the end (or worse: the beginning of something new, ripe with fresh potential for disillusionment). To put it plainly, I hid. But the years of living in the literal fishbowl of Lev’s hospital room had put me under a microscope and made the idea of controlling my image—managing others expectations of me—moot. Instead I put my head down and submitted to the next indignity.
That evening, while Joss played with my mom and his cousin, my brother and I had gone to see the documentary Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, about what was ostensibly O’Brien’s darkest year. Although the reasons for our disenchantment were dissimilar, I felt an affinity with Conan O’Brien’s openness about how much his downfall at NBC wrecked him. And I felt a sense of solidarity with O’Brien’s decision to go bold with his next endeavor. When I got home from the movies, I ate great forkfuls of the Dartmouth speech till the plate was empty. And when I was done, I sat a bit stunned on that familiar staircase with my darkest year turning rapidly to light. I thought about what disappointment had meant for Conan O’Brien, an admittedly blessed and lucky man—a proudly self-effacing Harvard–educated comic legend. Ambitious, driven, at the top of his field, O’Brien was financially and creatively successful with a happy, robust family to love and support him. Disappointment came for him as it comes for all of us and it nearly killed his will to create. Maybe it stung worse for this man who—on the eve of his yearlong television blackout—famously urged America not to be cynical. He hadn’t spent his whole life steeling himself for failure. For all his accolades, he was sucker-punched by disappointment. Conan O’Brien’s unceremonious ouster from NBC (which, let’s be honest, amounted to a forced paid vacation with limitless possibilities) sent him into a deep depression. I think I must have realized in that instant that disappointment is the passive-aggressive cousin of death. It’s not something any one of us can avoid successfully. It will get every one of us.
I hadn’t been afraid of death for a long time. I’d resigned myself to the infinite sleep when I was a teenager. I’d spent my early adolescence calculating the odds of Reagan or Gorbachev pushing the red button at any given moment, terrorized by the inevitable end. Odd as it may seem, the tense denouement of the Cold War coupled with my atheism (and related belief that there’s nothing after this life) forced me to develop some coping skills around my own mortality. Disappointment stuck around, though, as a major driver. Given the attention I lavished on mental dry runs of every possible tragedy, I might have fancied myself prepared for Lev’s death. If not prepared, I was at least more than familiar with that particular sad ending. I’d practiced this dance before. I prepared to be without Lev before I was ever with him. When we’d gotten the first diagnosis, when I was 22 weeks pregnant, the doctor had taken us into his office and told me that the kid growing in me was a boy whose heart had formed all kinds of backwards and that if we went to Kansas, we could legally terminate the gentle kicking in my midsection and my need for designer maternity jeans. We demurred on the late-term abortion, but after that kind of halftime show, the rest of the pregnancy was your basic gallows-walk. At the end of the road was complex surgery on an organ the size of a macadamia nut. I busied myself with plucking all negative scenarios from the galaxy of possible outcomes and making peace with them long before—or if—they were real.
In advance of Lev’s birth, I favored superstition. I wouldn’t sanction a baby shower. I didn’t buy a crib or arrange the nursery. I left the world alone. I thought perhaps if no one saw him coming, if I didn’t disturb anything, there would be less of a blast radius when the world exploded. As it happened, I gave birth to a perfect-looking baby and had to hand him over to be cut into pieces. When I left the hospital without him, my heart was shrapnel. And so Lev’s life began.
At the end of his life, after heart surgery and brain surgery and cancer and respite, when Lev’s disease returned with a vengeance and killed him inside of a month, my fear was the truss that restrained me when I might have reached for optimism. I made every attempt to extinguish hope where I found it as if it were contagious and might infect me. As he fought and we all fought with him, and after somehow always managing to right the flight path of the airplane in free-fall to which Lev’s life had become analogous, we lost. During our final weeks with the little lion, my ewer of disappointment reached maximum capacity. I had done everything I could to keep disappointment and death at bay. But we were beaten.
The reign of disappointment wasn’t over when the brightest star went dark. Lev’s death began a series of are you kidding me with this shit?! humbling experiences: the realization of exactly how hard it would be to be divorced, to co-parent Joss in separate houses, to move on; a real estate Sophie’s Choice, online dating (!), befriending (and defriending) awful people who did not have my back. It was, to say the least, a crushing weight.
There was a period surrounding Lev’s death when I thought perhaps I might die too. I was more or less indifferent to the thought. During Lev’s final stretch in the hospital (3 months all-told), I lost my voice for several weeks—the result of a convulsing cough. I’d somehow dropped 25 lbs without trying (at Lev’s funeral, I’d worn two jackets and a belt to disguise the fact that none of my clothes fit). Not infrequently, during this time, my heart would leap and flop in my chest and I’d feel as if I might black out. I’d go to my car, lay down till it passed. Part of me almost hoped an actual affliction had taken root and would quietly end me. My attempts to address normal activities of daily living in those weeks when I’d thought I was dying resembled that aspect of a dream when one tries to dial a phone and one’s fingers behave like leaden sponges. Bills sat unpaid, I forgot to feed the dog. Joss went to visit his grandmother in Arizona. My hair grew dirty and took on bizarre shapes. And then Lev died. And I did not die. And that was that.
The vagaries turned concrete by Lev’s death were staggering, but they were no longer terrifying question marks. I could grab these certainties by the balls and crush. I could lurch forward. Lev’s illness was the force of gravity that kept me tethered to planet Terrifying Letdown. And after he died each course correction served to erode my fear of the next shitstorm. I’d swallowed a bitter horse-sized pill of disappointment and my fever had broken. I’d let the fear of it go so completely, it took an earnest question from a wise man to bring its absence to my attention. Of course it still stings when the plan goes kablooey. But the fear is no longer an out-of-control speedboat dragging me behind as I try to water ski. In fact, it was nearly drowning in all of it that saved me, made me fearless. Turns out, Nietzsche was right. And so was Conan O’Brien.