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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

Bottle Rocket

Updated: May 22

by Lee Erickson


Dusky hue of summer

fading its light

waiting for the

pop

boom and

rattle of

pyrotechnics

that will

start my heart and

hopefully

shake my soul


I too have burst onto

the scene with

glittery lights sure to

dazzle.


But secretly I wonder

how much forward momentum

I have deep in my heart.


Flying skyward

I explode into a

showering of sparks

and yet,

I am

determined

not

to

fade.


In the summer of 2002, I had moved back to Minneapolis from Seattle. My brother had died in March of that year by suicide and there was a pall on my life and in my heart. I had moved all my stuff to a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis, just south of Downtown. It was advertised as a “vintage” building which mostly meant it was old and full of lead paint.

The building was maintained by an affable man named Tom who was pleasant enough. It was an unusual apartment from the standpoint that it had windows in every room. It had a small, narrow galley kitchen with a window and a dining room, living room and bedroom that had a bathroom attached which also had a window. It meant if someone needed to use the bathroom, they had to go through the bedroom. It was a cheery place to live which was an odd juxtaposition to how terrible I really felt. I was trying to wrap my head around the idea that my brother, Doug, had died by suicide. Suicide. It was such an odd word. I remember repeating the word over and over in my head to the point where it became a nonsense word, a word without any meaning. Suicide. Suicide. Suicide. Suicide.

Suicide.

I had lived in the Twin Cities for many years before I was transferred to a job in Ohio which led to jobs in Chicago which led to jobs in Seattle, which lead me back to this one-bedroom apartment in a building with a hallway that smelled a little like cat pee. It was late July of 2002 and I had been reconnecting with old friends who were still living in the Twin Cities. It was an odd push and an even odder pull. I wanted to meet up with old friends and catch up with them, but I also felt like I owed people some kind of explanation.

“Why did your brother die?” I felt like they were unconsciously asking me. I didn’t know the answer to this imaginary question, I imagined them asking. Part of me wanted to be alone to try to make sense of my brother’s death. It was overwhelming. I found some comfort in talking with my mom. She got it and understood it from a similar perspective. She had a whole different experience with my brother. She had birthed this child who had struggled with chemicals and relationships for many years. I don’t know what it is like to birth a child and then have that child die by their own hand at 48 years old. If a parent knew that their child was going to kill themselves, wouldn’t you think they would make different choices to prevent it from happening? What if a parent couldn't prevent it? Then what?

As a therapist, I talk with clients a lot about the notion of when parents lose “control” of their kids? Do parents ever have control over their children? Certainly, there is an aspect of control that parents have over their kids, especially when they are younger. How do parents know when to let go or a process for letting go of their kids?

I had a friend recently who was lamenting that her three children all lived outside of the immediate metro area, and she was feeling bad and even wondered out loud if she had done something wrong with the parenting? I told her that maybe it was a good sign that her kids were well adjusted and didn't need to live attached to her apron strings. She smiled and thanked me for the comment. She agreed that she felt like she had done a good job raising them and liked the idea that they were blossoming in their lives, not despite her current actions but because of how she had raised them. 

It seems like there is a point where kids who become adults get to choose how they want to be in the world. Sometimes those choices occur before kids are ready to accept the responsibilities of what they are choosing. I have had many clients who have gotten into drugs or alcohol as children before they were ready to accept the responsibilities that come with using these substances. 

I remember a particularly savvy client who, when talking about controlling children, was pregnant and said that her baby was kicking like a son of a gun right that very moment and she felt like she had little control over that.

I also remember hearing a story of a young mom who was walking with her five-year-old son on a rainy day and her son yanked his hand out of his mothers and ran ten feet into a street and was hit by a car. It had all happened so fast that the mother didn’t know what was going on. The family was devastated by the death of the five-year-old. But did the mother lose control over her son or was it that she never really had control of him? Obviously, she would have done something different had she known he was going to pull his hand away and run. The rain hadn’t helped because she said her hand was wet and slippery.

Maybe, over time, all parents’ hands become wet and slippery, and their kids pull their hands away and run. Maybe it happens when a child is five and the consequences aren’t dire. Maybe it happens when a child is a teenager, and they are in a process of differentiating from their parents. Maybe the process of differentiating is normal or maybe it happens when a child is 48 and they pull their hand away violently with a trigger on a gun.

After my brother’s death to suicide, it was the first time I had ever contemplated my own thoughts of my own death. I wasn’t suicidal, so to speak, but instead I wondered what the point was of it all. It was hard to see a future. I was working a job that was unsatisfying and I had moved back to a place that I had lived for many years. I had a feeling that I was losing ground somehow.

Hopeless.

I felt hopeless in a way I had never felt before. It was a miserable feeling.

It was Aquatennial Weekend in Minneapolis. Aquatennial is a celebration in Minneapolis that celebrates its rich history of lakes, rivers, and parks around Minneapolis. Some friends had invited me out to watch the fireworks display over the Mississippi which happened on the last Saturday in July. It is huge fireworks display that draws over 250,000 people to downtown Minneapolis. It started at dusk, but people gathered early to eat at the many food vendors who were present.

My friends had gotten there early to get a good spot. I had arrived around 7 p.m. and arrived with my sparkling facade and my heavy heart. As several in our group got up to go get food, I was left on the blanket with my dear college friend Shawn.

Shawn is a marriage and family therapist and worked for a large nonprofit organization, providing therapy for kids, teens, and adults, and supervising new therapists as they began their careers. She does amazing work and I have felt lucky to call her my friend.

As we sat there on the blanket, I took in a deep breath and exhaled a heavy sigh. She looked at me and took my hand, gave me a knowing look, looked away and said nothing. We sat there in silence and both of our eyes started to well up. It seemed like she wanted to say something to me; something profound and healing. But we sat there, holding hands in silence. As she saw the others in our group heading back towards us with their food, she turned back to me and said, “You’ll figure all this out.” She gave my hand a final squeeze and let go.

I wasn’t sure what she meant at first, but I took her words and filed them away in my heart. It would be Shawn in the future who, when I told her I was thinking I wanted to be a grief therapist, directed me to the Center for Grief, Loss, and Transition. She was the person who had already been to graduate school for therapy. She had followed a path to become a healer. She was a mentor. She was my friend.

The fireworks show ended and as I walked back to my car, the first phrases of the poem Bottle Rocket came to my head. Over the course of the next few days, I finished the poem and began a journey to ensure that despite of or because of my brother’s death, I was going to be determined not to fade.

 

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