Looking Toward a Future Betrayed by the Past, a Writer Comes to Terms with the Death of His Son

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

Like most fathers and sons, Richard and Jesper Woodley lived through good times and bad, testing each other's patience and will, but never ceasing to believe that somehow, sometime, all that had gone before would be set right. By last winter, that redemption seemed all but complete. There had been a day of reconciliation, when their mutual understanding seemed finally secured, and now Jesper was celebrating what he told his father were "the happiest days of my life." Then, last February, Jesper Woodley died suddenly at the age of 27, leaving behind a family numbed with grief and a father who is still struggling to come to terms with his loss. Author of the recent best-seller Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia, written with former FBI agent Joseph Pistone, Richard Woodley, 51, 30years a reporter, first set out to learn everything he could about his son's last days and the reason for his death. Later, he faced a challenge for which he was less well-equipped—learning how to live with Jesper's absence and the emptiness it had made in his own life. Below is Woodley's account of a father's despair and his determination to escape its cold shadow.

My son, Jesper, was alone in his apartment in Ossining, N.Y., when he died during the night of Feb. 18. The police said he had been drinking, but the cause of death was unknown. He had been healthy, as far as anybody knew, in the best time of his life. Last Aug. 22, he would have been 28 years old.

Growing up, he had been a bright and stubborn child who explored his interests intensely but resisted rules and did poorly in school. We were close and very much alike, and I worked to understand him. By the time he graduated from high school—barely—I was divorced from his mother, Kamma. For a while, he worked in an auto parts store. Then, when his mother opened a coffee shop in Ossining, he went to work for her. But as he entered his mid-20s, I felt he was drifting. I had remarried, and my own life seemed finally in order. My work was going well; my wife, Madonna, and I had a New York City apartment and a farmhouse in the Catskills. Jesper's younger sister, Charlotta, was an accountant with Tri-Star Pictures in Manhattan. But Jesper—he was proud of the name, which is Danish, like his mother—frustrated me. I tried to arouse him with criticism that became increasingly caustic. I didn't recognize his sensitivity, and Madonna knew that I was raising a grim wall between us. One day, about three years ago, I made a particularly cutting remark and hung up the phone on him. Often in the past I had called him back or written him to apologize for things I had said. But now, suddenly, I felt unworthy. I had to change. I decided not to call back or to write or to communicate with Jesper in any way until I had forever rid myself of the habit of damaging him.

For almost a year we did not speak. Finally, when I was certain of myself, I called him to ask if we could talk. He suggested we meet at our farmhouse. He came up on the weekend and introduced us to his new girlfriend—his first, as far as I knew then. He bore himself with a whole new confidence and dignity. He and I went for a walk. I had hours of things I wanted to say to him, to explain and correct everything once and for all.

The first thing I said was, "I'm sorry for the times I hurt you. It will never be that way again." He said, "Okay." And that was all that was said.

We walked back to the house. It was a magical restoration, as if I were seeing him for the first time: a fascinating young man of eccentric charm—which others had enjoyed all along—and extraordinary breadth of knowledge and wisdom. He had a fine sense of the absurd, and we laughed a lot. I recognized his importance in my life.

During our separation, he had enrolled at Westchester Community College and fallen in love with mathematics. While still working full-time, he went on to complete the two-year curriculum with straight A's and math honors. He tutored others. The college recommended him to Columbia University, saying that a student like Jesper came along maybe once in 10 years. An elite, expensive Ivy League school seemed out of reach, but Columbia wanted him—so much so that it made him the first student in the university's history to have both his college costs and living expenses totally funded by scholarships and loans. His plan was to get a Ph.D., then become a mathematics professor at Columbia.

He entered the university last fall and completed one semester. He commuted three hours a day from Ossining, worked Saturdays at his mother's coffee shop and adjusted quickly to a rigorously competitive academic world. He got two A's and two B's and vowed never again to get anything below an A. "This semester," he told me, "I'm really going to kick some ass." He was carrying a heavier schedule than before, and I worried about the pressures. But he said everything was under control. He was discovering art and classical literature. "Dad," he said, "these are the happiest days of my life."

Wednesday night he called me to chat. On Friday morning his mother found him dead.

I was out of touch, doing interviews in New York, but shortly after noon I called my wife's Manhattan office just to check in. Her boss told me there had been an emergency and that Madonna wanted to meet me at home—immediately. He wouldn't say more. I assumed it was something in her family. Riding home in a cab, I prepared myself to support her through whatever she faced.

Madonna hadn't arrived when I got there, so I called my daughter's office, thinking she might know something. The woman who answered said Charlotta had left for her mother's. I was confused. I insisted that the woman tell me what had happened—even though Charlotta had directed her not to—because I was alone and couldn't find out anything.

She said, "I'm afraid your son has died."

I remember thanking her for understanding that I had to know. I remember my wife coming through the door. I remember driving to Ossining, to Jesper's mother's apartment. Charlotta was there already, with Kamma. Perhaps there were others drifting in and out. I don't remember tears, just frantic eyes and my desperate need to know everything, every detail, as if I could somehow make sense out of what had happened. Only his mother could re-create the scene at his apartment for me, and it was surely torture for her to recall it. I went to the phone and called everyone who might have talked to Jesper the previous day. All said he seemed fine, cheerful, busy. I called faculty members who knew and worked with him at Westchester Community and Columbia, tracking them down after working hours. All were incredulous, shocked. The police were investigating.

My son's best friend since grade school, Ray Ammarell, about to graduate in engineering from the University of South Carolina, flew up immediately. The next morning we went to Jesper's apartment to clean it out. As well as I thought I knew my son, I didn't know what we might find there, but everything was private and precious to me, and I had to protect it all. I didn't want any outsiders to have a chance to see or touch anything—not even the police, who might seal the place for investigation. We threw Jesper's stuff into bags and boxes, not daring to pause and think about the things we handled and what they had meant to him: electronic components he had built, math books and sci-fi trivia, pocket computers, skis, hockey sticks, his electric guitar, photographs he had taken, two bicycles, a tall, red automotive tool chest professionally stocked. A pile of freshly laundered clothes was on a chair. Homework for his German class was in the electronic typewriter that Madonna and I had given him for Christmas.

In a few hours all tangible remnants of my son's life were in the back of a rented truck with Ray at the wheel, following me as I drove Jesper's old Plymouth Valiant, headed for the safety of the farmhouse. The car radio was tuned to a classical musical station. That would have been what Jesper had last listened to in his car.

Ray and I sat up long into the night in front of the fire in the woodstove. He and Jesper had just spent a week's vacation in Florida. Before that they had been working together restoring World War II Jeeps, and the last one had been towed up to our barn for storage until Jesper could make some repairs. Ray said it would mean a lot to him if I kept the Jeep, and if he could be considered a member of our family.

I wrote the eulogy in the early morning hours before the memorial service and delivered it as stoically and proudly and unfalteringly as I thought Jesper might have done for me. The funeral parlor was overflowing. I described my son as sensitive and delightful and exasperating and creative, a high-wire walker always testing his limits, who never apologized for how he went about his life and never complained about the consequences.

Before the service the casket had been left open for his mother and me. Seeing Jesper's body and then having it reduced to ashes by cremation held terrors for me. I had to confront them to convince myself that I accepted the reality: He was no longer there. At the casket I stroked his brow and said goodbye. Later, by myself, I picked up the cannister of ashes from the funeral home and delivered it to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. From the can on the seat beside me I felt no profound emanations; this was not my son.

There was an obituary in the local paper, a death notice in the New York Times. The first four days passed in a dark haze of disbelief.

Aggressively I pursued the facts of Jesper's death, determined to confront whatever there was now rather than risk being ambushed later.

I got the police reports. An officer had come to Jesper's apartment early the evening my son had died because Jesper, who had been talking long-distance to a friend, had suddenly dropped the phone and had not returned. The friend called police, who broke in and found Jesper passed out on the floor. The officer, who knew him, woke him and talked to him. Jesper was coherent, said he had had too much to drink but was fine and had no problems. He walked the officer to the door, shook his hand and said, "Thanks for caring." The next time police came was when his mother found the body the following morning.

For $25, I received a copy of the autopsy report in the mail. There were sloppy mistakes. Jesper's name was incorrectly spelled "Jasper." The time of death was given as Feb. 19, 1988, at 2:50 p.m. In fact, that was when his body had arrived at the medical examiner's office. "Estimated weight 210 pounds." He was 5' 11" and proud of being fit. He cycled, ran, swam, lifted weights. He wore trousers with a 32-inch waist. Maybe he weighed 150.

This careless, unprofessional synopsis was an insult to him. I considered demanding a correction. I had to force myself back to the reality. The only relevant matter here was the cause.

My son died of "acute ethanol intoxication." A blood-alcohol level of .10 is sufficient to convict for drunk driving. A level of .4 may cause coma. The autopsy number was .49. It is difficult to drink yourself to death. Ordinarily you get sick or pass out. Jesper had, but evidently after the first police visit he had drunk more. If the police hadn't conscientiously awakened him, he would likely have slept it off—an irony as empty as the bottle of 190-proof Everclear grain alcohol I had noticed on the kitchen counter when I walked in.

I had never seen my son drunk or heard him slur a word. I had hoped for some more acceptable complication. But there was nothing else wrong with him. No other drug was in his system. There was no sign of habitual drinking. He was otherwise perfectly fine. It was a stupid accident.

Before the autopsy report, I had told people that Jesper had just suddenly, inexplicably died—which was all we knew. Now I found myself keeping up the fiction, to protect him. But that was wrong. I was protecting myself. Jesper was everything he was, including young and reckless and honest. Honesty was, in fact, the bedrock of our relationship and of our pride in each other. His life was now unalterably complete, including the way he died, and I had to be honest about that, too.

The police, for their investigation, had taken Jesper's telephone answering machine. He liked to leave on it humorous, cryptic outgoing messages—maybe even a few lines from Hamlet. I retrieved the machine and steeled myself for the sound of his voice. But it was the other voices that were the most awful to hear, the incoming calls—his mother begging him to answer the phone and tell her everything was all right, a girlfriend teasing him to wake up.

The family set up a mathematics scholarship in his name at Westchester Community College. The college sent me tapes of Jesper's math honors class and of him addressing the faculty on the value of the new program. For the first time. I saw him in his element, stimulated and intense. And after his moving presentation, I heard the grand applause he had heard.

I wrapped up his affairs. I returned the last undeposited check from Columbia University, $740.32, intended, I supposed, to pay his living expenses. When new bills came, there was no money in his account. I considered paying the bills myself, with a misguided notion of protecting his credit rating. Finally I simply notified creditors of his death. That was enough. The books on him were closed.

In May I went to South Carolina to attend Ray's graduation—in place of Jesper, who had promised to go. As I sat in the audience, surrounded by Ray's proud family, I wrestled to control my thoughts about how Jesper had fallen one year short. But whether he had had one year more, or five, or 25—for all the expectations, there were never any guarantees. Not that he would be successful or happy or even that he would graduate. He got to Columbia, which is more than most, and so back home I wore with the pride of any Columbia parent the university jacket I had given him for his vacation with Ray.

A couple of weeks later we hosted my daughter's wedding at our farm. Her husband, Paul Danko, had been a childhood friend of Jesper's. Ray was there and Madonna's daughter, Lauren. The expanded family was close, the outdoor ceremony beautiful, the undertone of sadness suppressed.

Everybody was suffering a unique sense of loss. Jesper's mother had seen him every day and depended on him. Charlotta, always fiercely upbeat, was shaken now and scared, sometimes angry for what the brother she had come to admire had suddenly brought on us all. She looked to me more now for guidance than she had for years. I felt that if I seemed to suffer too much, I risked making her feel that I had lost my only child.

One way or another, Jesper's possessions had to be dealt with. His mother, for now, wanted only a few token items. Charlotta took his record collection. Ray wanted the math library and the electric guitar. Lauren took the crazy Santa Claus hat Jesper used to wear at Christmas. When my parents died, I had wanted nothing of theirs, no reminders—their lives had been too bleak at the end. This blow was harder, but I felt stronger now, and it wasn't necessary to shun everything. I tried to burn a few inconsequential and useless things, but I couldn't watch even the most trivial item disappear in the flames, so I stopped. What was left went into the attic.

I registered Jesper's old car in my name and filed his taxes—both acts requiring death certificates and notarized statements that were difficult for me to execute and deliver. The car would be useful to me, like Jesper's mechanic's tools. But I did not like seeing the tools or using them. Initially I would carefully clean them and return them to exactly the same spots in the toolbox drawers, as if I were borrowing them. In time I forced myself to call them mine and arrange them my way.

In going through his things and feeling the dimensions of his life in a way a parent seldom does, I had to close my mind so as not to ponder too deeply. But there were no guidelines about what to keep, what to use, how long to stare at something. I was wary of trying to hold on to him through his things. I found myself wanting to read into his math volumes, for example, to glimpse what he knew, what excited him so, but I resisted. It was an incredible notion that a whole mind full of knowledge and ideas not yet expressed had vanished.

The most difficult things to come across were those that had once been mine and had been fun to pass on to him. My old Nikon camera equipment I now had back, in a new customized metal case. He had kept everything about and by me: articles, interviews, books I had written and inscribed to him. I found several letters of apology I had written to him over the years. There were land mines everywhere.

My watch was broken, so I put on his runner's watch. The first morning at 9 a.m., the alarm went off. Obviously he had set it for the morning he never saw. Until I could figure out which combination of buttons to push to turn it off, it rang every morning at 9 a.m., reminding me.

The typewriter we had given him had a memory. I turned on the machine and watched the stored data run across the little screen. There were personal letters to friends, including one that said he was going up to see his dad the next weekend and was looking forward to it because he hadn't seen me for a while and hadn't given me my birthday present.

That weekend was the last time I saw him alive. He drove up to the farm and gave me a heavy L.L. Bean shirt. We went out to a field and sank some fence posts together. We toasted with expensive champagne the arrival of my book on the best-seller list and his successful first term at Columbia.

Finally, more normal times returned, marching along with a muffled drumbeat of sorrow. A respite of light and hope came in the announcement that my daughter was pregnant and that by October I would be a grandfather.

Still, I was not able to work effectively. Unable to concentrate in our apartment in the city. I went to the farmhouse. But our purchase of that place had coincided roughly with the beginning of the best of times. It had become the focus for a renewal of family activity in recent years, and I found myself brooding too much. I would think of things like the first time Jesper drove my old Farmall tractor. He wanted to execute some unusual maneuver, and I yelled at him. Too stubborn to comply, he got off and never rode the tractor again.

Guilt, like other forms of melancholy, lurks always. I wish I had treated my son better, known him better; maybe I could have intervened in some fashion to keep him alive. Maybe if I hadn't been a bad drinker when he was a kid, and gotten away with it, he wouldn't have tempted fate. You can create endless scenarios. Really letting go means letting guilt go too.

But I began to sink. I am not by nature optimistic, and here there was no bright side. I tried to put it all out of my mind and look beyond, but couldn't. Friends ordinarily ready with wise advice on my problems did not easily volunteer now. They were full of sympathy, of course, but not knowing what to say, or fearful of saying the wrong thing, most of them avoided the subject unless I brought it up. It was as if, in this case, I was the expert, and others looked to me to explain what it was like, if I wanted to.

But I couldn't explain it. It was beyond anything I understood, unlike anything I had experienced. I was strangely torn because I wanted to seem stoic and strong, but I was afraid that if I put up a cheerful front, nobody would know how much I hurt.

I withdrew into a deepening gloom. It wasn't that these difficulties necessarily were insuperable, just that maybe they were insuperable for me. It had never occurred to me that I would be without a son, or how much I needed him. Even my pride in work centered so much on his pride. I would never be able to ask him another question. I had no interest in anything at all. My stamina was gone. Spasms shook me at odd times.

My wife felt the daily burden of my silence. Suffering the loss herself, she felt unable to reach me and so was helpless.

I continued, as I had off and on for years, running several miles in the morning. While I ran, I thought that I wasn't sure I wanted or deserved to survive my son. Yet I was punishing myself on the hills in Central Park, to get in shape for some reason—maybe another marathon. I was very tired, but perhaps something inside was calling my bluff. To my wife, the daily sight of my running clothes hung up to dry when she came home from work was a signal that I had not quit yet.

One night in our farmhouse, I sat up till dawn thinking about what I should do. I have never reached harder for a truth than I did that night. The reality was that Jesper was gone. Expectations—so much of what a child is to a parent—ended on Feb. 18. I had seen a whole life of a son from beginning to end. To recover from such a loss without feeling that I was betraying my love for him was a matter of accepting how gone he was. I had a life before I had a son, and now I would have one after. That was a bitter, cold truth. How I managed that would in large measure determine whether my life was happy or sad, worthwhile or not. Certainly, everything for me was forever changed in ways that could not be fully defined. There will always be a shadow.

An article in the New York Times in the spring said that the death of a child is the hardest loss to accept and that profound grieving might go on for a year—once through the cycle of reminiscent seasons and special days. We have passed Mother's and Father's Days, my daughter's 25th birthday, which came two days after Jesper died, and his birthday. Yet to come are Christmas, my 52nd birthday and then the anniversary of his death, when snow will again cover our farmhouse, where last I saw him drive away.

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