My son, Maxwell Defiance Landbeck, was killed early the morning of July 13, 2014. I’ve written about Max before, about our troubles. This post is my effort to make sense of his death. To find personal context and peace with it, to see the meaning in our loss and grief. It is comprised mostly of the remarks I gave at his memorial service, though I've included a few passages from the eulogy his sister read (the entire eulogy is here).
"Grief is the natural by-product of love. One cannot selflessly love another person and not grieve at their suffering or death. The only way to avoid grief would be to not experience the love; and it is the love that gives life its richness and meaning."A little over two years ago, Max was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. In the months prior to that, he struggled with substance abuse. It is now obvious he was self-medicating. The burden of bi-polar disorder is swinging between depressive and manic episodes. For Max, when he was Manic, he would become delusional. Delusions of different realities, grandiose visions and fantasies. He was never violent, but pursued his bizarre notions no matter how strange or dangerous.
When Max would use drugs, even marijuana, he became even more delusional. But he sought out bizarre drugs, custom hallucinogens, spice, gleefully experimenting with substances that were not technically illegal. During these years, family and friends tried to help him, offering him a place to live if he promised to quit for good. Max was easy to love, but difficult to live with. Addiction is a terrible burden. He could not resist the draw of trying drugs one more time. Each time Max was certain that it would help. Each time he was terribly wrong.
In the very early morning of Sunday, July 13 Max was struck by a freight train and killed instantly.
In the days since Maxwell’s death, when I would share the story of how he died, sympathetic listeners would sometimes ask, "Why?" I am sure they wanted me to know that their thoughts are with us as we struggle to understand what happened. But I also suspect that they want to know who to blame. They want to know who *we* blame.
Did we blame the people who gave him drugs? Did we blame him? Or the train? Did we think he was suicidal or delusional?
I need to explain something important, and to do it, I am going to tell a story about Max and me. A frequent conflict we had was about blame. Specifically, fault; as in, whose fault something was. Who to blame? Whenever something happened, and Max was involved, he’d acknowledge that he shared *SOME* of the blame. But he would insist, with prosecutorial certainty, that since it wasn't *ALL* his fault, it could therefore not be proven that it was *ANY* of his fault. Even as a first grader, he already had an intuitive grasp of contributory negligence as a factor in sentencing.
I am certain that Max was wrong about that. This vision of fault or blame, it’s not true. It’s a distraction, a feint to excuse yourself from accepting your portion of the blame. With Max, I came up with a metaphor to teach him my concept of blame or fault; it’s what I call the "Pie" theory of blame. P-I-E, not mathematical pi.
When something bad happens, the fault for it can be divided into pieces, sometimes into dozens of slices. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter how many other people or factors are involved, it doesn’t matter how big those “slices” are relative to each other. Every piece of the pie, every slice, they are *all* responsible. It’s not just the biggest slice of the pie. I wanted Max to understand and take responsibility for each choice he made, however complex the motivation behind those choices, no matter how contributing the circumstances around his choices.
And I understand that as people, we have an instinctive desire to reduce things to a single cause or a single concept, a lowest common denominator. It is easier to feel like we are in control, like our efforts can affect the outcome, if we are fighting *one* thing. It is especially comforting if we can affix the blame to some external force, some other person. But life is complex. Individual people are complex. If we could see ourselves with complete honesty and accuracy, we would see that each of our choices is prompted by many, sometimes dozens of different motives. Sometimes our own motives conflict with other motives! Trying to narrow the cause to one thing is impossible.
My point is that we get lost on the cause, the slices, how the pie divides up. We lose sight of the consequence of action when we focus on the cause of action. "Cause" is an equation we can almost never solve. We are ultimately the sum of our choices, NOT the things that motivate our choices.
So instead of focusing on the why of his death, looking for someone to blame, we've looked instead at the consequences. Max's death is many things at once. It was the tragic end of a troubled life. It was the result of mental illness. It was the byproduct of profound dysfunction resulting from drug abuse. But his life is also many things, many of them great successes. He repeatedly triumphed over the despair of relapse, trying again and again to stay sober. He used his native gift for music and singing to bring joy to hundreds of people this year alone, thousands over the course of his life. He loved his family, and he was loved by us.
For the rest of my remarks to make sense, it’s important that you understand a couple of my fundamental beliefs. I believe in God. I know that each person existed spiritually before they were born. That belief isn’t just a metaphor that seeks to mystically capture the connectedness of us all, it is very literal. I know that God is a real being, a literal spiritual father to all of us on the earth. I know that we all existed spiritually before coming to the earth, and that we are here, on the earth, on purpose.
Anyone that knows me personally knows that I am very committed to the civic process of allowing all to believe whatever they believe. I talk often about the civic distance, the polite fiction of a space where everyone might be right, everyone might be wrong. I’m going to set aside that buffer and not use my usual caveats. I need you read this like everything I am saying is the Truth.
Like I said, I know God is real. And we are on the earth on purpose. We are here to:
*get a body
*make and keep covenants with God
*make choices with imperfect knowledge and total freedom, earning the consequences (both immediate and eternal) of those choices
*form and nurture relationships that will last into eternity
If you were born, that’s the "get a body" part. For Max, purpose one has been met, another way that Max’s life can be viewed as a success; he was, like all of you are, HERE; he got a body! But like I said, I see Max’s life as both success and failure. A jumble of both.
I think most of us acknowledge that "jumbled" nature of our life. We succeed and fail. But just like with Max’s death, I think most people want to know *WHY* we fail. Why do we make mistakes, why do we do wrong?
All the caused can be neatly divided into two categories. First there are personal flaws. Our weakness can hobble us in succeeding. We have to strive to overcome our own selfish, or proud, or lazy nature. But second, we also have to bear the temptations of an adversary, Satan. There is a popular image in our culture of the devil being some kind of honorable opponent, a gentleman with whom we can bargain, even outsmart. That’s not true. He has no rules. He wants us to fail, and that’s *all* he wants.
Of the four earthly purposes I listed, any of those purposes that Satan thwarts, he counts as a victory. When he separates us from our families, when we disobey, when he fosters disbelief, or when he causes us to despair and do nothing, those are all victories for Satan.
So, which is it, weakness or Satan, that make us fail? Which was it with Max? Was it temptation or personal flaws? I have to be plain, it doesn’t matter why we fail. It doesn’t matter why we go awry. It doesn't matter why Max failed, why he stepped in front of that train. As far as I can discern, in all of our failures, BOTH things are present, weakness and temptation. So, like with fault, it doesn’t matter which "slice" is bigger. I think when we got lost in the argument, that’s another way Satan wins. We get so caught up in trying to figure out who to blame, we stop taking responsibility for our choices and stop trying to be good.
Because what matters is how we act and what we choose. We have the power to shrug off both temptation and weakness. One of the great blessings of this life that we have is agency, the power we have to make choices. And the sum of Max’s choices in life is that he is gone. I can’t tell you if it was the drugs or his bi-polar disorder. I don't know if he meant to hurt himself, or if he was delusional. We’re never going to know the answer to that question here.
But the time he had on the earth to make choices, to learn, and to live with us, and to love us is over.
Now I know Max’s spirit still exists. All of his memories his experience, his personality, charm, playfulness, talent, quirks, the things that made him loveable, the things that made him maddening, that’s still there. Max is still "alive."
But one of the purposes of our earth–life is for us to form and PERFECT relationships that will last into eternity. Lucy Mack Smith said, "We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another, and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together." It takes a lifetime to hammer out a relationship with someone else that can last into the eternities. And for now, Max is lost to us.
When my doorbell rang, I knew it was bad news about Max. I quickly came to realize that I had a responsibility to explain his life and death, to give context for what both mean. I am pleading with you, with all the urgent grief of a bereaved parent, to learn the lessons of my and Maxwell’s life.
I want you listen to four things now.
First, don’t use drugs or alcohol. Ever. Don’t read this and smugly shrug off the histrionics of another "Just Say No" parent lecture. Don't think to yourself that you have an exception, a good reason, a new study, or a new law. I want to be the unequivocal voice in your ear for the rest of your life, drugs are bad. Period. When you use, you thwart a purpose for being on the earth. It distances you from the people who love you, it distances you from the people that you love. It impedes your ability to choose, to act, and to serve. It dulls your faculties. It harms the body that you have been blessed with. It harms you. I’m begging you now to stop it. That there is time, we are all still here. Stop it, and make the world a better place. Make yourself better. If you’ve been trying to quit, keep trying. If you’ve relapsed, quit again!
Now, that was a pretty heavy lecture that's obviously about Max and his choices. Number two is entirely about my failing. Avoid contention. I consider it one of the great failures of my adult life that, especially with my son Max, I often allowed my certainty to lead me to verbal hostility when I'm right. It is inevitable that each of us will be right about something, and then be confronted by someone else who is COMPLETELY wrong. It is tempting to demand, "What were you thinking?!" or, "How many times have I told you?!" in such situations. I hope it is obvious I am describing the conflict I had with Max; I was right, and he was completely wrong. He was SO wrong about his choices, that it killed him. But I can testify in hindsight, that my self-righteousness, my unswerving and indignant reciting of standards I knew would keep Max safe, did no good. It put distance between us. My certainty that he was wrong did not excuse the anger, and the hostility, and the contention that I created. I am grateful that my wife taught me this lesson in recent years, that peaceful love is a better response to disobedience. I was working on this with Max, trying to rebuild, trying to be less critical. It is possible to have an absolute moral standard, and NOT be angry. I lost YEARS of time with Max, just arguing with him, and yes, he loved arguing. But just like I wouldn’t let Max redirect the blame to others, I cannot shift the blame for this failure. *I* engaged every single time he threw down that gauntlet. So I challenge you, when confronted with conflicts, especially within your family, state matter-of-factly your standard, gently ask kind-hearted questions, and act with compassion when your loved ones choose the wrong thing.
The third thing, and this is important, is do not despair. Despair is a tool of the adversary, whether you believe in Satan or the thermodynamic concept of entropy. Especially do not despair to suicide. Whatever you’ve done wrong, whatever horrors you’ve experienced, whatever failures or burdens you carry, whatever burdens you have set upon other people, no matter what they are, I can promise you; you need to be here. You must keep trying. You must keep acting. If you ever doubt that, if you ever reach that point where you feel there is nothing left, you call me. And I will find you, and I will give you the relentless hug that I can’t give my son.
The fourth thing I want to leave you with is the challenge to seek the will of God, and obey it. The great burden of choice in this life is that you will fail, and fail often, and you will be held accountable for each of those failures. But the great gift of mortal life is that you can try again. And again. And again. You can be forgiven. No matter how wrong you have been, you are still alive, and you must try again to be right.
I ask that you look to Max as both an example to be emulated, and an object lesson of what happens when you make the mistakes he made. He failed, and he succeeded. For all of us, every day is both failure and success, both things at once. We fail, because we do not achieve the standard of goodness or perfection that God instructs. But we are also victorious, because we keep trying again no matter how many times we fail. In trying, we conquer evil, we conquer temptation, and our own weakness.
Do not be discouraged by your own failings. Find courage and motivation in the fact that Max succeeded *and* failed. Keep trying. Be more obedient to God’s will, seek earnestly to know it. Turn away from the despair that threatens to engulf you. Seek a more peaceful path with those around you. And be sober.
As a favor to me and my family, I would ask is that if you have a moment of success, where one of those things happens, where you avoid an argument, where you choose life, you choose sobriety, please share that story with me. Every time someone shares something with me about Max, every time I can talk a little about him, I’m pursuing my relationship with him. He might be gone, but I am still here, and I can still make myself better, love him better.
I know that I’ve made the covenants that will allow Max to be my son forever. My life’s pursuit from here out is to live worthy of those covenants so I can be with him and his brothers and sisters, and my wife. I know what I am saying is true. And it’s not just a reflexive response to grief. I knew these things were true before anything happened to Max.
Thank you for your attention, your thoughts, and your prayers on our behalf. We have been comforted and strengthened by it.
I miss him. I love him. We are going to be OK.
John Landbeck is the Husband of one wife, the father of six children, and the father-in-law of one son-in-law. He loves them all. Read his previous guest posts here.
Image credit: Chad Latta (used with permission).