Nathaniel Jacob Hirsh was born in a Catholic hospital in a tiny Appalachian town where my husband taught college English. Nat weighed seven pounds, two ounces, was 21 inches and sported hair as long as John Lennon's.
As soon as he was born, I started asking myself the question that has outlasted his lifetime, "What was wrong with him?" It started one night in that hospital. The nurses brought him to me, telling me, "He won't stop crying! What should we do?"
I thought about my first son, David, born 18 months earlier. Even after we suffered an incredible loss -- our U-Haul trailer containing our worldly goods including David's whole first year documented in photographs and some badly needed maternity clothes, David's bright nature seemed unchanged. I cried about the theft. He comforted me.
David was fun. He was the kind of baby who seemed to assure me at every turn that I was doing fine. I must be a good mama. Just wait until I took charge at home. Nat would change.
He didn't . He screamed when I tried giving him the bottle, he shrieked when I gave him a bath, and he went berserk the first time I fed him with a spoon.
My wonderful husband stepped in. Those were the days when daddies didn't deal with domestic pursuits. They brought home the paycheck. So what, Allan said, and came home between classes to give Nat his bottle. Nat complied. We tried to figure out why. Was he catching my anxiety -- growing by then a full-fledged post-partum depression. Or did he, a lefty as it turned out, like being fed by another lefty? Who cared? With Allan at the helm, he drained sometimes two bottles at a sitting.
We happened upon a panacea for his feeding problems, too -- cottage cheese and banana baby food. He loved it. To keep up with him, we bought out the local grocery's stock. When that was depleted, we took a 70-mile ride on bumpy roads to Lexington, Kentucky and loaded up cases of the precious stuff. By that time he was eating two and three big jars at each meal. That's at least six a day, folks.
Nat was becoming an all-or-nothing type of guy.
We moved to Connecticut at the end of his first year. But our mission to understand our son did not cease.
A black cloud seemed to hover over him. Like in first grade, Nat was called into the principal's office for carrying a knife. One of the boys in his class reported him. On inspection, the officials found out that the boy had seen Nat's jacket zipper and imagined it was a knife. And he was dismissed. But Nat did not dismiss it. He added it to the lengthening list of wrongdoings against him.
There were plenty of them, too. He just did not relate to other kids. He would wait for them to pick on him. And then he would wait for his older, but smaller brother to duke it out for Nan'l, his pre-Nat nickname. He adored David as much as he seemed to dislike his two younger sisters, Jennifer and Rebecca.
He could not tolerate authority. Since we lived on a busy street, I took pains to introduce safety to my children. Do not run out into the street, I told them. I had barely finished my life-or-death lesson when Nat charged into the street -- watching to see my reaction.
Nat seemed to improve when he learned a new skill or stumbled upon a new interest. How I enjoyed him when he learned to read and wanted to strut his stuff to the family. Simultaneously, he began writing his own stories ( more fun than dictating them to mom).
And he developed a life that involved a fascination with astronomy, paleontology, history, writing, art, and moviemaking. He put together a robot out of coffee cans. He fixed a transformer. He made a cartoon film when he was eight and a full-length 8mm film based on a story he'd written when he was 12. He had lots of plans for inventions.
As he grew to adolescence, he added to that list. He loved politics and wrote to candidates. (Maybe he remembered being pushed in a stroller when I went door to door for the 1968 campaign.) He also started writing lyrics and music at this time, seemingly in practice for a record cut with some friends during college. One magazine reviewed it as far-out.
Much later, he took a screenplay course with the writer Terry Southern. They became fast friends. (Nat always managed to develop good relationships with older men.)
When Terry died, Nat began interviewing literati on his friend -- William Styron, Norman Mailer, Larry McMurtry, Bruce Jay Friedman, Pauline Kael, and others -- in preparation for a book. It never got published but the Mailer interview has been included in his archives.
Nat was happiest when exploring his talents. But a yawning gap appeared between his intellect and his emotions.
By the third grade, he continued his erratic behavior in a new school. Sometimes it seemed he had loads of friends and was doing well in school. Then the situation would deteriorate until he had fought with his last friend and the school psychologist would call us. We would be shown, for example, a picture Nat had drawn of himself in a corner of the room. The rest of us -- his parents, his brother and his sisters -- were in the center.
He was apart from the family. But he set himself apart. Every time all the members of our family were involved in an activity, I'd turn around and see Nat off by himself doing something else.
As a sixth grade rebel, he gave a talk criticizing then-president Richard Nixon. His teacher, the president of the local D.A.R. and a staunch Republican, went crazy. I told Nat if he was going to attempt controversy that he had to expect reaction in return. He thrived on it and thrived on complaining about the reactors. Did he enjoy being the victim?
As he got older, certain quirks began to worry me. Unlike our other children, Nat was not affectionate. He did not like being touched. Well, that was his right, I argued with myself. But he also didn't look into people's eyes and that was disconcerting. He was also very awkward. He would gesticulate in a strange way and generally give one the impression of being ill at ease.
This was odd because he was a gorgeous baby and a handsome grownup. Anyone else with those looks would and could afford to swagger. He grew to six feet tall and was lanky. His eyes out-blued Paul Newman's. He had fair skin, dimples, and curly brown hair, a beautiful soft voice and hands with long, graceful fingers.
He was also contrary, perverse and made a point of cutting off his nose to spite his face. And explosive with little control of his inhibitions. He frequently directed his rage at his parents and sisters.
No one could tell Nat what to do (remember the warning about running into the street.) I finally gained a little wisdom. I stopped trying to put him in the mainstream and just let him be him. When I wanted something for him, I'd do a shtick.
Like the school newspaper. I always wanted to be on the newspaper, I told him, but you probably would hate it. So he joined and wrote movie reviews that won prizes, became features editor and jolted the conservative advisor by interviewing the high school's first punk. The advisor called it yellow journalism. So Nat sent it to the dean of Columbia University's school of journalism to ask whether it was, indeed, yellow journalism. He got a two-page reply raving about the inventive writing.
One teacher told me that he was not bright enough to get into the gifted program. I was puzzled about that. But I found out then that Nat hated standardized tests in any form so he'd just take the pencil and check whatever number he felt like. Just to get through it. Except his advanced placement history exam. He scored 800 on that. He liked history.
Despite that teacherıs assessment, Nat graduated high school with high honors and without sweat. He went to Swarthmore (sometimes called Sweatmore) College and graduated with honors in economics there without sweat.
Then he got lost. Really lost. At first, he stayed in Philadelphia with my parents until they began badmouthing us to him. Then in a fury, he moved to Allan's sister's house. Subbed in the schools. Had a relationship with a woman. Went to Northwestern University for a master's in advertising; that lasted a summer. Came home to live with us. Got a job as a mailboy in a law firm until one of the partners took him under his wing and told him he wasn't cut out to be a mailboy for life. So he took the state exam and became a bank examiner.
That's what he was doing when he had two automobile accidents that resulted in brain injuries. That's what he was doing when his brother got married. That's what he was doing when he learned that his brother and sister-in-law were having a baby. That's what he was doing when we told him we were moving to the west coast. That's what he was doing when he took his life.
Just about the time he got his state job, he became interested in the stock market. I lent him $1,000 and told him to put his money where his mouth was. He did. I got my money back in quick order.
He became a real maven. At his memorial service, his stockbroker who was one of David's high school buddies, talked about Nat's talent for the market. With the money, Nat bought a little house in the northwestern corner of Connecticut. And that is where the police found him on January 5, 1998 with a belt around his neck.
A poetic addendum:
Nat, my beautiful son, despite the difficulties, you were a fascinating person to know. Even when you were a young child, you amused us with your black sense of humor, your verbal ability and your intellect. You may have been negative, but you were also inventive. If you hadn't been my kid, I would have wished you were. When I started to practice Buddhism, I chanted to have you become my friend because I wanted a friend like you. You gave us joy and broke our hearts. I love you. I will love you forever.
I know the drill.
First the queasiness of the undone
and having lost my chance to do it --
and swallowing, when I think of that,
and I can breathe
only if I accept the gnawing
through the bottom of my heart
Then what was once bargaining
and has now turned into regret
If only I could offer you
one of my cheapo air-tipped cigars
and the smoke would envelope us
into a motherhood and sonhood
the way it did when you were here,
My mourning is a kind of mother love
he will never know
Even now, because the dead
are on to our secret lives
they know how we whisper
within our dark corners and hide that gossip
even from ourselves.
He will never know because I cannot cry
although he may know why
The arrows that pierce holes in my heart
from mourning too silently
are mail: returned.
you always wanted to make waves
when you were alive
today, when the bay was still
a mirror reflecting anyone who had the courage
to look into it,
I walked to the water's edge to look
and suddenly, waves broke the surface,
flipping like a kinescope,
there was no boat
causing this uproar; the water,
was empty to the horizon, so why
did this happen?
science eluded me, but
the spirit did not.
yeah, I walk in the shadow of death,
that shadow called mourning,
just as I walk the trails every morning,
and feel the energy beneath the earth
and on the water,
it is invisible like you
it is you
02/05/64 - 01/05/98