I had been invited as a mental health guest speaker. Prior to my event on teen mental health at an undisclosed location, I was nervous because these audience members and the moderator were well-known and influential.
I gave myself a pep talk and then took a brisk walk ahead of the event to burn off nervous energy. That worked. Then I could tell myself how excited I was
Right before the event, I was surrealistically calm
And thrilled. I couldn’t wait to get out on stage.
I asked my son Charles who died of suicide to be with me on stage that day and I could even hear him telling me jokes in my ear as we walked in.
The moderator had called the day before to see if I would end the panel by reading one of Charles’s rap songs–there’s no way I could rap it.
My heart stuttered. Can I do that?
Sure I can.
I chose the song, “Forgive Me, Momma”– definitely my favorite but certainly not the easiest. What’s more, I had never read it live before although I had read the whole song on video years ago.
At the airport, I decided to do a quick practice which resulted in my boarding the plane with with a wet face and an equally wet shirt. As I practiced, it was evident this wasn’t going to be easy which made me that much more stubborn it was the right one.
I kept at it, reading it over and over to myself until I could at least read it sufficiently without an all-out epic emotional tsunami. I would describe it as a sort of exposure therapy.
The panel that day went extremely well and the audience was in rapt attention, barely moving
They had not been this intensely focused for any other session. And the questions from the audience were thoughtful, intelligent, and engaging.
At the end, the moderator nodded and gave me the segue to reading the passage Charles wrote. I had sort of hoped she’d forget. She did not. So I reached under my leg, pulled out the song I’d handwritten on the page, and took a deep breath.
I didn’t rush.
Prior to reading the song, I looked up briefly and asked my son’s forgiveness for shortening the passage for the sake of time. And let’s face it, for my own self-preservation. The 1.5-minute version was all my grieving momma heart could handle even seven years after my son’s suicide. Those two lines about the tooth were always an emotional hurdle.
My mind narrowed into something akin to tunnel vision in concentration
It would take all my reserves.
And there it was–a feeling of anticipation but also support. Where was it coming from? It was the people with me and in front of me.
I cannot even explain how everyone’s silence and hopes in that room buoyed me at just the right time. We were in unison and the collective effect urged me forward.
My throat started to tighten around those lines which had previously triggered an emotional breakdown, so I paused to regain my composure. The tears spilled and my voice caught but I was able to keep it steady enough for the audience to hear my son’s words. All of them were wearing earphones, which someone would point out later, made the experience that much more intimate.
It was important they hear my son’s words and understand his pain
I owed Charles that and frankly, it’s the only reason I was able to deliver it. He finally got what he wanted, an audience of famous people to feel his words. I never thought it would be me delivering them.
I read a 1.5-minute passage, but here is a snippet of it below. In this song, Charles is expressing his anger for having been sent to a therapeutic boarding school because his drug use and behavior were so cavalier and dangerous we didn’t think we had any other choice. We were trying to save his life.
It’s the “lost my tooth” line that always pressed on my heart and caught in my throat.
“I was so angry when you sent me away, in my own personal hell to stay.Excerpt from the Song, Forgive me Momma, by Charles Aubrey Rogers.
I hated every day, put me off on layaway
cause you were terrified by the way I lived my life.
I was still your little kid inside,
the same little boy who said, ‘Momma, I lost my tooth,’
was the same kid saying I need bail from you, I failed you.“
When I looked up, I was crying but so was everyone else, including the moderator
No one was moving.
There is something particularly intimate and extraordinary about 400 people crying together–feeling the same deep emotion at the same time in the same space. For that suspended piece of time, there was no hierarchy in that room–we were all humans with a heart.
It’s not an experience I will ever be able to replicate nor would I ever try. However, I have savored and tucked it away in my memory bank for future retrieval when I want to remind myself of a time when I felt truly connected.