Last spring I had only begun to follow the renowned psychologist Ken Druck and the grief he bears for losing his 21-year-old daughter, Jenna, when he called one day to say he was with two dads he wanted me to meet because their kids, roughly the same age as his, had also died. He said if I aimed to tell the whole story of families and the horror of losing their children, there was no better way than to hear it from these men, who were “raw, brutally honest, and in constant pain.” He emphasized men, because I’d be close to their psychology and, a father myself, I might “get” (understand) some of their sorrow. Druck had “got” it, full-fathom. He had lost Jenna, whom he calls “the finest human being I have ever known,” while she was studying abroad with Semester at Sea, a cruise-ship campus that voyages to various sites around the world. Beginning in the Bahamas, crossing the Atlantic to Africa, then on to the Far East, the ship docked in Madras, India. There she and a group of 55 students flew to New Delhi to take an overnight bus south into the mountains. Their destination: the Taj Mahal, the world’s most beautiful monument to love. But the sleep-deprived driver lost control of the bus after passing a slow-moving vehicle on a curve. The bus rumbled over the edge and careened down an embankment. Jenna and three other female students were killed. To honor his daughter, Druck has built his monument to love, the Jenna Druck Foundation, where he leads — and participates in — support groups that help parents, grandparents, and siblings grieve their losses.
When we met, Druck hugged me, then I shook hands with the two dads — Ralph, whose daughter died violently last year, and Kevin, whose son overdosed on drugs 18 months ago. (Both men’s names have been changed and some identifying details of their children’s deaths have been left out at their request.) “He overdosed, killed himself,” said Kevin. His face was careworn, his look distracted. We sat in floral-patterned wrought-iron chairs, painted creamy white, in a corner of the Casa de Bandini, San Diego’s colonial Mexican restaurant. For two hours, the four of us devoured chicken quesadillas, chiles rellenos, chips, salsa, flan, drinks. Nothing prepares you for interviewing three fathers who’ve lost their kids. Though I felt lucky to be the odd man out, these men are the ones who “don’t fit.” They are cut off from a world whose norm is intact families, laughing, strolling, arguing together, god-awful–apparent everywhere these dads go. The most devoted man I have ever met is Ken Druck. The most anguished would be, after one evening in his company, Ralph. A middle-aged workhorse, he owns his business, travels, and plays golf as often as he can. After quick hellos, he pointed a finger at me: “You don’t ever want to know what I know, you don’t ever want to stand in my shoes. And, funny thing, I can’t blame you. If I knew someone like me, someone going through what I’m going through, I’d run the other way.”
Kevin and Ralph mostly made statements, asked few questions. When I settled into their pace, I risked a statement myself. How awful it must be, to be in Old Town, with its cantinas and mariachis presiding over dozens of families: Surely there weren’t three other men talking about their dead children here, tonight. Ralph said he understood, agreed with me, to a point. “There probably aren’t three men talking like we are. But I guarantee you, there is a mother or father here who lost a child once and is dying inside. Faking it as we speak. Who’s put on the mask. The clown face.”
“But it looks to me as though the loss is written on yours,” I said.
“Are you kidding? I wear the clown’s face all the time,” he said. “Nobody knows I’m dying.”
Earlier that afternoon, Druck had taken a call from Ralph, who told him he didn’t want to live anymore. “The act cracked,” Ralph told Druck. “What’s the use?” After 14 months, he wasn’t getting any better, and no one unless they’ve experienced what he has understands him. There’s no possibility of dating or romance. Ralph is divorced; he talks to his other daughter five times a day. “What’s the use?” Druck had ended our chat and tended to Ralph, one of many limps for whom he is the crutch.
“My life used to be balanced and steady,” Ralph told me, gliding a flat-line hand through the air. “But now it’s a roller coaster of schizophrenia,” and the hand began undulating in steep dips and rises like a day-traded dot-com stock. Now, at 8:00 p.m., seven hours after calling Druck about ending his life, he’d changed his tune. No, he really didn’t want to kill himself. He loves life, loves beautiful things, loves hitting the shit out of the golf ball, loves being with his friends. Much of the time. Today was just another day when the pain had so exhausted him that he couldn’t get out of bed. The only recourse was to call Druck. Druck got him going — get up, take a shower, brush your teeth, find some clothes (don’t worry if they’re dirty or don’t match), find your keys, and meet me at.… Ralph pointed that finger at me again and said, “Ken, here, has saved my life. This man’s a savior.”
He said when he first met Druck, a man with whom he knew he had a horror in common, he wanted confirmation. “Don’t lie to me,” Ralph said, pissed and angling for a fight. “Tell me the truth. I’m fucked, aren’t I?”
“You’re fucked,” Druck replied.
Now pointing that Gothic finger at Druck, he said, “That was the best goddamn thing you could have told me.”
Kevin and his son had lived together, ate dinner out most evenings. But the closeness didn’t choke off the drugs: The first time his son smoked crack he was addicted. Kevin was told by friends and counselors that crack was almost impossible to beat. Intervention would help, but he believed that a father’s love for his son would be the major antidote if the kid was to kick the habit. Kevin remembered one person telling him that “an addiction was not possible to control. But I’m a man, a father, and that’s what fathers do. We fix things, we make things right for our children. I thought I could save him.” Not long before his son suicided, Kevin said his boy came to him and confessed, “ ‘Dad, you can’t save me.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, we can lick this.’ A few days later he was dead. I thought I could save him. But I couldn’t. And he knew it.”