• Waterhole Branch

It’s a Brutiful Life

By Suzanne Hudson & Jaxon Cannon

Excerpt below, condensed from an essay, “Hiding out with Holden Caulfield,” by Suzanne Hudson, published in the anthology Excerpt below, condensed from an essay, “Hiding out with Holden Caulfield,” by Suzanne Hudson, published in the anthology Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Acclaimed Authors and the Day Jobs They Quit, edited by Sonny Brewer, 2010

Photo (above): Joe Formichella getting a tutorial in rudimentary sound engineering from the late Lari White Cannon, in the studio at “The Holler”

This posting was inspired by the “Common App Essay,” of a post-secondary student, Jaxon Cannon, genetically endowed with the magic of words by his parents, singer-songwriter Chuck Cannon and the late singer-songwriter-sound engineering goddess-actress Lari White Cannon, Jaxon’s inspiration, along with a lost jewel. Proud papa Chuck sent Jaxon’s essay to my husband and me, and the author granted permission for me to post it, here . . .

From Jaxon:

My first day of high school, I sat alone for lunch. After eight years of homeschooling, I didn’t have any friends. Out of nowhere, a girl with red rimmed glasses framing bright blue eyes sat down and asked my name. Mustering all the social coordination of a robot programmed by aliens, I introduced myself. “I’m Jaxon with an’x’.”

She sized me up, stuck out her hand smiling, “Hello, Jaxon with an ‘x’. I’m Ruby.”

I hesitated, staring at the elaborate bracelets covering her wrist then dropped my sandwich, wiped the mustard off my fingers, and shook her hand. “I like your glasses.”

“Thanks, I just got them for my birthday.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“July twentieth.”

“No way, that’s my birthday!”

I told her about being homeschooled and how weird it was having other kids around. I asked if the movies got high school right. She laughed and assured me I hadn’t missed much; classes get harder, friends get scarce, and even though everybody pretends, nobody really knows what they’re doing. We talked through lunch and went our separate ways.

Some unwritten rule-of-cool says reaching out makes you uncool, and I never reached out to Ruby after the first day. Now and then I’d see her between classes. Sometimes she’d say hi or wave and I’d return the gesture, but these moments became less and less frequent until they were gone.

One October morning, the head of the school called an impromptu assembly. In a short speech, he said classes were cancelled for the day and the faculty would be available to students who needed to talk. Then, after a strange stretch of silence, he explained that Ruby took her life the night before. They put up a slide show and we watched the rainbow route of her hair color changing, the painted construction of her smiles, and finally, her blue eyes looking back at us from behind red rimmed glasses.

The cool sophomore who noticed the newbie freshman. The girl with ever-changing hair and a shield of bracelets. The could-have-been-friend I was too intimidated to reach out to. I never got to know Ruby, so it would be dishonest to say I miss her as a friend. The truth is I completely missed her.

Only a few weeks into my senior year, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Without any warning, it had metastasized into dozens of tumors throughout her abdominal organs. Hope lasted until the day after Christmas when we learned that the chemo wasn’t working. Less than a month later she was gone.

Ruby and I had the same birthday. The name of our astrological sign carries a certain poetic injustice. Cancer killed my mom. My own life started in the very same organ as the cancer that took hers.

Mom believed in talking problems out. She introduced my sisters and me to a counsellor who could help guide us along the crazy roads our mind takes us down, and called it practicing good mental hygiene.

Ruby’s road took her to taking her own life. Mom refused to go gentle, holding on until her road ended at home in the arms of her family.

One of Mom’s favorite songs was “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkle. She loved and lived its message of perseverance. My sisters and I sang it for her a few days before she died, choking up on the final verse. We knew she knew she was leaving, but she remained fighting. I can’t know the pain that made Ruby take her own life, or if I could have helped by reaching back out. I do know life is precious and so very precarious. Our counsellor says this: “Life is brutal and it’s beautiful. It’s ‘brutiful’.”

Life is ‘brutiful’, and it’s worth reaching out for and holding onto.

Essay’s end. When I read it, the former senior English teacher in me immediately recognized the honest beauty and wrenching quality of Jaxon’s words--and the innate talent that shaped them--the unflinching voice, the blessed avoidance of sentimentality. Not that there wasn’t some level of sentimentality for me, personally. It didn’t hurt, for example, that my grandmother’s name was Ruby. Or that I just put out a new book out by my nom de plume, which is also, yes, Ruby (as in, Ruby Pearl Saffire).

Jaxon got me thinking, too. About his mother, certainly, who so kindly and generously shared her know-how with my husband Joe as he dipped his hideous toes into the water of audio book narration. We both credit her with his ongoing success. And Lari’s death inspired my very first serious and lengthy piece, a feeble tribute to her, my first foray into this odd milieu of cyber-things, here in the “Notes” section--but I posted it only after getting the Cannons’ dear friend Chuck Jones’ blessing.

Jaxon also got me thinking about the suicides running through my own family tree, about life in general, and about my decades-long career in public education, as a teacher and counselor (note: I love that Jaxon uses the more impressive spelling, “counsellor”)--and about the emotional fragility that hides behind the sullen bravado of adolescence, about my own “Ruby,” a young girl whose desperation dissolved into death much too early.

So I plundered through my files and carved up a lengthy essay (the aforementioned, way up top) of mine, compressing it down to a much shorter length-- into something of a companion piece to Jaxon’s.

Thanks, Jaxon, for lighting a fire under my sometimes lazy ass . . .

And so, from 2010’s pre-retirement “Hiding out with Holden Caulfield”:

Some lawyers are fond of saying they keep secrets for a living. I am not a lawyer, but I do a whole lot of observing, listening, and keeping my mouth shut--except when I am required to open it. So I’m part spy, part Catholic priest, sometime tattletale. The workaday world I navigate involves being thoroughly entertained, hearing all stripes of stories, and, for all the toil of it, has a big red cherry on top: staying in touch, on a daily basis, with my inner Holden Caulfield. Neither Holden nor I ever did really want to grow up. Lucky him, with his red hunting hat, to be frozen in fiction as THE adolescent of the twentieth century, commenting on farts at prep school assemblies and such. Lucky me, to have this job, where farts abide and never fail to amuse or humiliate. I am a grateful and wounded resident of middle school world . . .

[After about a decade, the 1980s, of being a classroom teacher of English, Spanish, and literature] . . . into the 1990s I marched with a [fresh] Master’s degree in school counseling. I set up shop, determined to listen, nod, question, nod, listen, reflect, nod, empathize, etc. No longer was I in the role of taskmaster, Nazi rule-maker, enforcer of learning and discipline. Now I got a more up-close look at farting aunts, nekkid grandmas, and cancer-ridden uncles, evil best friends, bi-polar moms, meth-head dads, and pervertoids like Cousin Eddie--not to mention abusive stepdads, tormenting older sisters, a cast of thousands. Kids used for internet porn, rape victims, cutters, children who served as weapons for their warring parents, or who had been abandoned, or were doing drugs because Mom shared with them. Those stories took on a wash of darkness that had not shown itself so boldly in the classroom, and it was beyond disturbing. And of course it was only the tip on the iceberg, too, since the messy, silly, nanny-nanny-boo-boo trivialities played out most of the time--locker room bullies, girlie-girl dramas, and my-teacher-hates-me delusions. Still, all their stories, whether dark and disturbing or shallow, silly, and trivial, trickled down to the storyteller at my core. I began to miss the writing, and not just the exercises I once did along with my students in class. I began to feel a need to reach out to that part of me that was twin to my middle schoolers. Writing was the only way I knew.

And then, out of nowhere, the stories took a turn, inside out. An eighth grade girl defied statistics, put a gun to her head, and pulled the trigger. One of “my” children committed suicide. Not a girl who was neglected by her parents, or afraid of academic failure, or criticized by her teachers. This was a bright, beautiful young person, a leader among her peers, with a loving family and a constant smile for everyone. The utter tragic dissonance of it all snatched me into the real reason for Mr. Caulfield’s tale and how much the surface is such the mirage, especially at an age when you’re a chameleon, with the undeveloped brain of a lizard that eats its own tail. It’s the flip side of Holden’s funny, sarcastic musings. He is, after all, trying to hold together in the face of the most traumatic event in his life: his brother Allie’s death. He also has the specter of a former classmate’s likely suicide breathing down his neck. He occupies that place where self-destruction and self-awareness cleave, running scared from the truth of his own flawed reality. And that is what we always have to wonder about Holden. Does he make it? Or does he fold in on himself, like my dead student, collapsing under the weight of that youthfully false perception of hopelessness?

I had lost other students to tragic accidents, but none self-inflicted, none so accusatory, defiant, and guilt-wrenching as this. It was a death that demanded answers, for the sake of those who might visit and revisit such a choice. Thus began the second-guessing, the what-iffing, the retracing of steps to try to find the moment when such an unthinkable act could have been prevented. But there was no comprehending. The full-bore, scorching sadness dug into me in a way I had never expected--could never have expected--yet, surprisingly but slowly--trudgingly slow--it began to dig me out of the hole that, I was discovering, had been my residence for too long.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this was around the time I was also in the midst of a fallen-over-the-cliff, smashed-up, twenty-something-year relationship. I had scores to settle, even though I’ve never looked kindly upon the settling of scores. There was a flux of mish-mashed karma riding the ether--a confluence of events coaxing me from that camouflaged perch occupied by the school marm/guidance counselor persona. It began to dawn on me that, like these kids to whom I was drawn, I had been hiding from my own expression, that I had spent a couple of decades as an adolescent. Literally.

It has been a dozen years since that ghost-voice was born of a gunshot, and as I write this it is only days since another young lady, a high school student, died under similar circumstances, but in a murkier atmosphere. In a freakish clustering of events, she was preceded in death this academic year by the suicides of two teachers at her school within the span of a few months, teachers who laid out the blueprint for her and possibly for others. And now comes the collateral damage: the ruined families, the emotional fallout further scattering across the entire community, trickling down to my middle school charges, picking at my own squelched-down guilt and inciting the kind of rage that senseless death taunts out of us. Hearing about such a thing makes the heart of any parent go numb with the sudden severing of possibilities and a story incomplete, unwritten, cut off in a second’s worth of irrational role-playing that has no do-over.

We have to think deep and dark, even as we enjoy our inward snickers at at the shallow goings-on in ‘tween and teen world, grown ever meaner with the folding in of texting, sexting, online communities, and the viral exposure of images and self-expressions that once were deeply private and respected as such. As for Mr. Caulfield: not so lucky after all, to be character-frozen at that point of cleavage between innocence and despair, between humanity and isolation, between protector of children and conspicuously consuming adult. That crazy red hunting hat, with its Elmer Fudd earflaps. That whole 50s vibe of dry martinis and materialistic myopia. Juxtaposed with the electronic age, Holden Caulfield is so very post-World War II, so twentieth century. But his outward bravado and inner uncertainty transcend the subsequent decades since his creation, to expose the sometimes brittle fragility of adolescents everywhere, who, like yours truly, fight to defy the hiding.

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