No longer at the children's table
At about 4:30 a.m. one weekday a few years ago, I was wakened by laughter and the sound of male voices.
"You go," mumbled my husband, half asleep in the bed beside me.
I slipped on a robe and stumbled down the stairs to our family room. As I turned the corner, the two young men on the couch, each with a video game control in his hand, turned to grin at me.
One has dark hair that he keeps cut short. The other had blond hair combed and gelled to stand straight up. Sometimes he added other colors, red, purple, maybe pink.
"Could you be quiet?" I demanded.
"You sure are cranky," laughed the dark-haired boy. I muttered something about middle of the night and sane people and went back to bed.
The dark-haired boy is my son. We held memorial services for the other young man last weekend.
What do you say about a 23-year-old who decided it was time to die just days short of his 24th birthday?
That he was funny and sensitive. That he was thoughtful and reckless. That he made mistakes and didn't see them as mistakes. That he did so many things right but couldn't see that either. That, although I haven't been able to figure out how, we failed.
I hadn't seen Chris for about a year so I couldn't presume to guess what he was thinking when he came downtown, bought a gun and went back to his apartment to end his life.
Nor did I know what he was thinking nearly three years ago when he got drunk, left the house he shared with my son and other friends and drove his car off the road into a hillside.
Brandon and Chris lived together in a succession of apartments and houses. Somewhere in the middle of that they suddenly found themselves homeless, something about one too many loud parties.
It was October. There were no apartments to be had in River Falls, and I suggested my son move home.
"What about Chris?" he asked.
So the two boys took over our downstairs, Brandon in his old bedroom, Chris in our daughter's old bedroom. They spread out to claim the family room and downstairs bath.
"It'll only be a couple of weeks," said Chris as they moved in. It stretched into nearly six months.
Both of the guys worked nights, and my husband and I work days. Except for the times they disturbed my sleep as they wound down after work and the times I vacuumed in the morning while they tried to sleep, we got along well.
Chris told a friend of mine that I'd miss them when they left, and I did. The house seemed hollow.
They moved into an apartment in Hudson for a few months and then into a house in River Falls with three other friends.
After the Labor Day 2000 accident, we visited Chris at Regions Hospital twice.
I went along when the medical staff called a meeting of family and friends to talk about his future. He'd had serious injuries and his doctors said he wasn't ready to live on his own. Though all the rest of us heard the same thing, Chris seemed only to hear that he was being discharged from the hospital.
Before she went home to California, his mother checked him into a treatment center for young men with brain injuries and addiction problems. A couple of days after she left, Chris walked out and came back to River Falls.
The first time I saw him back here, he threw his arms over his head in mock terror and said, "I'm going to get yelled at now."
I had thought of yelling, but I remember wondering if that's the way the kids think of me, as someone who just yells.
For awhile I saw Chris occasionally when I stopped to see my son. But a year ago the housemates went their separate ways, and I never saw Chris again.
Then there he was at the memorial service, beaming back at us from a collage of photographs. There was that smile, a little goofy and at the same time so complete. It was a total smile, full of delight.
The smile was genuine, but it's not the whole picture. Chris got his second OWI on May 17 and took his life on May 19.
"He'd been going down this road for a long time," said his mother when we embraced at the funeral home. "We did everything we could."
During the memorial service, someone told the story of Bergstrom extended-family holidays. Even as he got older, Chris insisted on sitting and eating with the children. He called himself "the King of the Kids' Table." The adults, they said, listened to the children laughing and thought of moving to the kids' table too.
Because most of Chris' immediate family lives in California now, the memorial service was held more than a month after his death. That gave us time to mourn and ponder.
I don't think Chris loved himself as much as others loved him. But his honorary title for himself was well chosen.
I see him as a boy on the verge of manhood, who wasn't sure he wanted to step over the line. A kid who indulged in fun but couldn't understand the value of moderation. A man proud of his abilities but doubtful of his worth. A person who had a future but now has only a past.
God keep the King of the Kids' Table.