My Mandolin

Sunday Sept 25 

Dear Sinead, 

My only child, my son, Mandolin Hooper, died a week ago today, on September 18th, 2022. He had been ill for a few weeks, though no one knew except his boss. He’d been at home alone, dying in bed from liver failure, still, as always, not wanting to be a burden to anyone. We’d been in regular contact, as always, but he’d cancelled our gig together on the 8th, saying he was under the weather. “You ok?” I’d texted. “Yup!” 

I’d gotten a call from a hospital on Thursday the 15th that he was there and beginning detox from alcohol. At that time, they’d said he had advanced cirrhosis and had a 30-60% chance of death within three months. I arrived Friday morning. 

By dawn on Sunday he was dead. 

So I had 39 hours beside my son as he lay heavily medicated and dying. Like his father, like me, he was a songwriter and musician, so of course I brought my guitar and we sang to him. Saturday afternoon, his dad and I played him the same John Lennon album we’d played for him right after he was born: Imagine. We both sang along, singing over the body of our child, thirty years later. After that album, I’d played every favorite song of his I could think of that felt appropriate: Willie singing Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain, Sinatra singing One For My Baby, Tom Waits singing Picture in a Frame. For three hours I was a desperate jukebox, needing to make sure he heard everything he wanted to hear, wanting, as all mothers of dying children do, to give him as much comfort as possible. 

His dad and step-mom left around midnight. And my husband left around 130am after I’d had a quick shower in the hospital bathroom. At that point, I was running on caffeine and adrenaline, with 7 hours total sleep the prior two night nights combined. But, as all mothers of dying children would, I refused to leave my son’s side. 

I thought of you a lot in those hospital hours, knowing your recent horrible loss, and trying to remind myself that, as sickening as it was to see my son slowly being poisoned to death, yellowing by the hour, at least I was there to touch him, to play music, to yell at nurses for more medication. As horrific as it was, I had to keep reminding myself that it was a blessing to be there and to be grateful for it. 

When your son died, I’d told my Mandolin about it and begged him not to make me suffer the same fate. He’d been struggling since 17, and every year it felt like I lost him a little bit more. He’d finally tried rehab at the end of 2019, a tremendous ray light of light, only to come out of inpatient to be greeted by a worldwide pandemic and the isolation of a rented room in a shithole above a bar in downtown Austin, two thousand miles away from me. He spent a year and a half in that room, drinking himself to death. After a short period of homelessness, he relented to my pleading to come home to visit for a while. I rejoiced when his Portland-bound plane took off, knowing he was aboard. 

I did not recognize him at the airport. 

A week after arrival, he entered detox, but didn’t want to do inpatient again – so he stayed with his grandparents for a month, and then landed in the spare room of a friend of his in Seattle. That friend died in May of an esophageal bleed, the result of long-term alcohol use. His widow had allowed Mandolin to continue living there. 

My son had come to visit me for a week in late July. He’d arrived with a small bag of groceries, including a bag a peanut M&M’s (my kryptonite), and a bottle of red wine he’d casually set on the kitchen counter. I’d figured he’d been drinking again – he was, after all, working as a bartender at a brewery. But later, when I’d gone upstairs to check on him, napping mid-day, I’d seen the giant bottle of vodka beside his suitcase. 

I quit drinking at 29. Restarted at 38. Quit again at 48, and have now been sober four and a half years. I know that relapse is part of the process. I get it. But it doesn’t make it any easier to see. Especially when it’s your own child. 

Now, as I prepared my sleeping area beside my son’s hospital bed, I thought maybe I’d better video his breathing. I’d been part of the bedside vigil during the five days of my grandmother’s death some years ago, and I knew from that experience that the down-regulation of breath happens in stages. So I video’d his breathing for about 30 seconds to capture the rhythm and depth, so I’d have something to compare it to later. When I hit record on my phone, I suddenly began singing, without thought, My Darling Child. 

It was a song I’d sung to Mandolin often as a wee child to help him get to sleep. And he’d sent the song to me just seven weeks ago, when my dog-love-of-my-life, Pappy, died. “Me little puppy.” I’d wept re-hearing that lyric then. “Oh Mando, it’s perfect.” I’d texted back. “That’s the song I’ll use for our Pappy’s memorial video.” 

I pushed “stop” on my phone video and said out loud, “Oh my gosh, Manny, you’re right! We didn’t listen to Sinead today!!! Let’s do that now.” 

So I pulled up the Universal Mother album, and pushed play on My Darling Child, and began to sing along. 

I’d been touching my son since I’d arrived. Wiping sweat from his brow, patting his head, pressing my nose into his hair like all mothers do. And because I’m a massage therapist, I was also doing joint mobilization, gently moving each of the joints of his extremities to keep them limber. For many hours, I’d been holding onto a little glimmer of hope, like all mothers must do, that he might get a miracle. But at some point Saturday afternoon, when his breathing down-regulated yet again, I reckoned with the fact that we were on a one-way train, a journey that would end with his death. Saturday afternoon, he’d stirred from his deep sleep to cough up blood and I’d lurched forward and grabbed the dead weight of him to sit him upright. The bleeding stopped but that moment scared the absolute fuck out of me. It was bad enough to watch my son slowly die from internal poisoning. Was I going to also have to watch him choke to death on his own blood?? Jesus god, please no. Please please please no. 

As the evening had worn on, as I was smoothing back his hair, something told me to stop doing that. Something told me that it was ok to touch him, but that my movement while touching was helping keep him in his body.   

And so it was, hours later, at 2am, when I stood beside him and pressed play and started singing My Darling Child over him, that I set my left hand gently on his left hand, and my right hand gently on his left shoulder. 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
You gave life to me 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
You came and saved me 

My eyes had been closed as I sang. But I opened them now and saw… his breathing was changing. Instead of the sharp reflexive inhales he’d had all day long, his breathing felt like gentle waves. I kept singing. 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
God gave you to me 

His breathing getting gentler and gentler. 

Me little ninja 
My little dancer 
Me little street fighter 
Me little chancer 

Me lovely boy 
Me lovely babby 
My pride and joy 
Me little puppy 

As the song ended, I reached one hand over to play my favorite Sinead song of all time. In This Heart. I pressed play and returned my right hand to his shoulder. And sang along with you over my son. 

In the heart lies for you 
A lark born only for you 
Who sings only to you 
My love, my love, my love 

His breathing, now easy gentle waves, started to slow. As I sang, I could see the breaths getting shallower and shallower. 

I am waiting for you 
For only to adore you 
My heart is for you 
My love, my love, my love 

This is my grief for you 
For only the loss of you 
The hurting of you 
My love, my love, my love 

His breathing was now so shallow I could not see it. Only the pulse of his neck told me he was still alive. I kept singing. 

There are rays on the weather 
Soon these tears will have cried 
All loneliness have died 
My love, my love, my love 

I will have you with me 
In my arms only 
For you are only 
My love, my love, my love 

The music stopped and, not wanting to move, I kept both my hands on him and started singing My Darling Child again, this time just my voice echoing over him in the hospital room. 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
You gave life to me 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
You came and saved me 

I could see the pulse on his neck getting gentler, gentler, gentler. 

My darling child 
My darling baby 
My darling child 
God gave you to me 

And then I could no longer see his pulse. And he changed color instantly. 

I reached down with my right hand and pressed the “nurse” button, returned my hand to his shoulder and kept singing. 

The nurse came and checked his heart. She whispered, “Still beating,” and gave a hand signal for me to keep singing. So I did. 

It took another half an hour for his heart, the biggest most beautiful heart I have ever known, to stop beating entirely.  

And all the while, I sang My Darling Child. 

At some point, some words came out of my mouth: 

Go into the sunlight, baby 

I will meet you there 

And I will feel you every day 

It’s been an honor to be your mother 

And we will always be together 

It’s ok to let this life go 

It’s time to let your heart go free 

I was just the vessel 

You were never mine to keep 

I kept singing. 

And when, at long last, his heart finally stopped, I stepped back from his bed. In what should have been the single most devastating moment of my life, I was instead overcome with nothing but love and gratitude and awe. And the deepest peace I’ve ever known. Utterly fucking magical, that in death, my son gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. There was no struggle. There was no blood or choking or trauma. Just the same pure tender love of a mother and child, her singing to him sleep, an unbreakable bond, a togetherness known only to them, a room unto itself, a room that – as it turn out – is eternal. The single most magical, mystical, transcendent moment of my life. Absolute serenity. 

Of course, later, after some sleep, I awoke, and so too did my inner mama bear, howling and screaming – a feeling all mothers of dead children know well. 

The heart racked with pain. The grip on the throat. The blackness in the mind and stomach. The tungsten lungs. 

But I know that that pure peace is there somewhere. Is here somewhere. And I know Mandolin will help me find it again. 

But what I need to say now is: thank you, Sinead. 

While the broken mother in me wants to hug the broken mother in you, I hope you are making the journey toward finding some of the peace in which I know both our sons now dwell. If you ever question what your life is worth, and what value you have, and what good could these little songs you’ve made up possibly give to this word – I hope you will remember my Mandolin. You sang him to sleep as a child, and then later eased him to his death. For that, I am eternally indebted. 

With nothing but gratitude and love, 

And, in absentia, 
Mandolin Jacob Lennon Hooper (yes, named in part after your first boy)

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