Scenes with My Son: Love and Grief in the Wake of Suicide
That’s what my friend said. I had told her I was reading an extraordinary book called Scenes with My Son. She asked what it was about, and I told her the subtitle, Love and Grief in the Wake of Suicide, which seemed like a good explanation.
“Oof,” was her response.
I get it. Voluntarily entering into someone else’s grief and pain, especially that of a parent following the suicide of a child, is a big first step. But it’s a step worth taking.
In many ways, this book is not a book about suicide. In the foreword, Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the book a love story, and Wolterstorff is right. The book is the story of a remarkable boy, August Robert Hubbard, told by Robert Hubbard, the boy’s father and a professor of theatre at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. Hubbard writes beautifully and brings his creative energy and imagination to the task of telling us about his son. Like a play, the book is laid out in three acts.
Act I is titled “Beautiful Boy,” and I immediately was drawn to Auggie, the big-eyed “day care Romeo” who not only is full of joy but spreads joy everywhere he goes. Yet almost from the beginning, not everything is okay with Auggie. As an infant, when something doesn’t go his way, he holds his breath in rage until he turns blue and faints. Later, he develops obsessive fascinations with things: a regulation NFL football, various video games, the Star Wars movies. A voracious reader, Auggie is eventually diagnosed with high-functioning autism. He is intense and passionate and, at times, explodes.
The second Act is titled “The Family Monster,” a reference to depression. Depression hits Auggie at adolescence, but first, it hits Auggie’s older brother George, one of several extended family members to struggle with this complicated disease.
The Hubbards do everything they can for Auggie and George. That’s one of the realities that makes this book so unsettling. In Auggie’s case, this includes multiple therapists and therapeutic approaches, multiple medications (none of which have an effect), psychiatric hospitalization, and even ECT, electroconvulsive therapy.
At one point, Auggie declares himself a Communist and avails himself of bountiful misinformation available on the internet. (This isn’t exactly the dominant worldview in Northwest Iowa.) After one explosive scene with his father, Auggie explains his attraction to Communism: “I get so mad because I can’t handle how unfair, how unjust the world is, how much suffering there is. And I know, I know that a system exists that could help if we could only all agree to follow it. Why do we have to be so selfish? Why do rich people need so much stuff when most of the world suffers with nothing? I only want poor people to have what they need, that’s all.”
As exasperating as Auggie can be, how can you fault those sentiments?
Auggie is a musical virtuoso, skilled at guitar, bass, and the tuba. As the pandemic shutters the world, Auggie, struggling with depression, stops playing music. A plan is hatched to rent a tuba while his school is in lockdown and see if playing music again might help lift his mood. Hubbard’s description is just right:
“Auggie practiced for at least an hour every single day. A devotee of prescribed routines, he always started each rehearsal by playing a series of whole-note progressions, working on breath support and tone. This simple warm-up ritual lasted twenty minutes or more. April and I rejoiced to hear these mellow, gentle booms return to our home. If art holds a mirror up to nature, Auggie’s sorrowful tuba warm-ups reflected the sadness of a globe without human interaction. Moreover, the mournful whole notes, so masterfully held, reverberated the unending melancholia that plagued the long-suffering player. While somber, nothing wallowing or self-indulgent escaped into Auggie’s musical interpretation. With elegant understatement, our talented son made clear through his tuba what words failed to express. In euphonious prayers of lament, Auggie transformed despair into subtle beauty.”
By the fall of 2020, Auggie’s depression seemed to be lifting. He can’t decide on what his college major should be and can imagine several different future directions for his life. Yet one day in October 2020, when he misses a theatre class taught by his father, his father goes to Auggie’s dorm to look for him.
Act III, “The Life After,” begins with Bob Hubbard’s discovery of his son’s body. Hubbard refrains from detailing how Auggie took his own life—as an author, he’s after more than voyeuristic sensationalism. We fully enter into the Hubbard family’s grief, but by this point in the book, I was so enraptured with Auggie that I gladly entered in. In fact, the night I read this section, I stayed up past 1 AM, reading through my tears.
When I reached the epilogue, which contains, among other things, Hubbard’s theological reflections on this devastating loss, I put the book down and asked myself who is the audience for this book. I rejected the idea that this is a book only for people who have experienced tragedy, especially the loss of a loved one by suicide. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not really a book about suicide. It’s a book about love, which makes it a book for all of us because we all need instruction in that gentle art. It’s a book that builds empathy and reminds us that we rarely have any idea what sort of burden others are carrying. It’s a book for all of us who need to learn the lessons Auggie taught: “to stand up for the marginalized and side with the powerless, to practice extravagant kindness, and to live in joy.” It’s a book about a beautiful boy and the family who loved him.