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Singing Lessons: A Memoir of Love, Loss, Hope and Healing

About The Book

More than an intimate memoir, Singing Lessons is the triumph of a keenly observant, brilliantly gifted artist—a deeply affecting and eloquently written journal of a woman determined to keep her heart open, her spirit intact, and all the elements of her life in harmony. It is the heart and soul of Judy Collins.

For the millions who know Judy Collins’ unforgettable music, this remarkable memoir will come as no surprise. A moving account of growth and healing, memory and rebirth, dreams and meditations, this is Judy’s heart statement, imbued with the introspection we love in her songs. From coping with every mother’s greatest sorrow—the loss of a child—to the shock of seeing her companion of fifteen years nearly die, hers is a ballad of transformation in which some of life’s worst tragedies lead to the discovery of a deeper love.

“Before I suffered a major catastrophe, I had no way of understanding the depth to which the soul is shaken, the exterior shattered, the interior made vulnerable and raw. Perhaps this is the way the wound works, to open us up so that we can feel and experience the depths, and having gone there, climb to heights we could never imagine...”

It was the suicide of her son Clark in 1992 that signaled the slow dismantling of Judy’s life, “the end of the world.” But in its wake came a choice: to become another victim of the tragedy or to emerge victorious. Judy chose victory, freeing her heart to appreciate every precious moment of life, and see the gift of memory for the miracle it is.

With quiet grace and uncommon candor, Singing Lessons reveals some of those miracles—Judy’s memories of places, people, triumphs, and tragedies. From meeting Gloria Steinem and John F. Kennedy to dining with Bill and Hillary Clinton and spending an extraordinary night in the Lincoln bedroom; from recalling the lessons of her beloved music teacher of thirty-two years, Max Margulis, to reflecting on her marriage to Louis Nelson, lover and soulmate for twenty years; and from her fierce battles with her own demons to heartfelt remembrances of her son, Judy shares herself, in the sweet, clear voice that is as true as her music, with the insight her fans have come to know from her lyrics.


Chapter One: Nightfall

When I heard the news of my son's death, I was standing in the foyer of my apartment in New York among the paintings and the flowers and the photographs of my family, in the beautiful space I have called home for twenty-eight years. Louis was in Washington, D.C., making a presentation for the Korean War Veterans Memorial Wall. He had called at six that evening, saying he would take the noon shuttle and be home by two the following day. Meanwhile I waited for my son to call me back from St. Paul. I had left a number of messages for him. I worked for a while longer and ate a solitary dinner around eight. I was alone but contented, a normal, quiet evening.

My last.

The doorbell rang at around eight-thirty. I wasn't expecting anyone and a strange feeling came over my heart. I peeked out the keyhole and saw my brother Denver and sister-in-law Allison standing in the hallway. I let them in. There was a deep silence and I knew from my brother's eyes what had happened. He didn't even have to speak. He took me in his arms and my world changed forever. I heard a scream from some primitive place I had not known before.

I clung to my brother, slowly becoming aware of the scent of roses and violets from a bouquet on the hall table; there was a sweet, lingering taste of mint in my mouth; my eyes focused on a photograph of my brothers and sister in a silver frame next to the flowers. I heard the sound of a siren on a Manhattan street below, and then my eyes moved to a picture of my son as a child, his red hair cropped close to his head and his big blue eyes looking out at me. Our eyes held each other and I caught my breath for what seemed an eternity, knowing the world was turning to darkness and I would never see it or hear it or live in it the same again.

My brother and sister-in-law comforted me as best they could. I stood up. I sat down. I laid on the bed. Allison made tea. I wept. My brother had tracked Louis down in Washington and told him the terrible news and Louis had lovingly arranged for Denver to tell me about Clark's death in person so that I wouldn't have to hear it on the telephone. My mother had been called, my siblings -- the family Clark had loved so much and who had loved him all now knew that he was gone.

I had thought we had won this battle, that the darkness had been averted. But it was not to be. Denver, Allison, my nephew Joshua and my niece Corrina and I flew to the Twin Cities the next day, where Louis joined us. The rest of my family arrived from far-flung cities to gather at the mortuary, putting their arms around me and each other; brothers and sister, mother, cousins, holding me close.

The tears for this terrible loss would keep coming in the days and years to follow, dropping like rain from the foggy valley through which I would walk, the valley of the shadow of death.

The world was suddenly the enemy, the place where this could happen, where it had happened. My knees wouldn't hold me, nothing could -- but my loving family held me, and we held on to each other. None of us were sure we would survive Clark's death, floating on this new and terrible ocean that had sprung up around us, an ocean full of storm and sorrow.

In St. Paul, snow had fallen, a heavy white mantle covering every statue in the city, every tree, every lamppost. A whiteness and a cold penetrated my nostrils and my breath froze, holding back even my tears after a while. The weather seemed to foretell the end of a world. This must have been what it was like for primitive peoples, this disappearing of the sun, the brightness and light gone. The weight of my son's death, like the weight of the white snow, stilled every bird, froze all life. Nature wanted to stop, time wanted to stop, life had stopped. For my son, there would be no thaw.

January 16, 1992, Thursday. Bitter cold. Snow. St. Paul, Minnesota

The snow has fallen on the pine trees, and their branches bend, heavy with white drifts. I stand at the door of a long, narrow room covered with a green carpet, my fingers tremble and my knees shake. The walls of the room are hung with flowered wallpaper, a design of green ivy on a cream background. Far away, at the end of the room, is the end of the road, the end of my dreams; a body under a white sheet lies lengthwise on a marble slab and I struggle forward toward the ancient, familiar figure as though climbing a great mountain, as though swimming an endless sea. I walk against the wind, I fight tides. The distance I travel is the breadth of the known world, to the furthest galaxy, to the end of time, to the end of life.

There, I see my son's freckled face, his shining red hair in plaits falling from his high forehead. Red streaks line his pale skin, the mark of the carbon monoxide, the stamp of death. He is some warrior from another time. I kiss his forehead, cold as marble under my lips, and sink to my knees. My tears fall on my hands and on my shoes, then on the snow and on the coverlet of the bed in the hotel in which I lay, my eyes open, waiting, trying to keep breathing. I keep thinking, this is not him, there is some terrible mistake, he is not dead, he cannot be gone.

The next day, Clark lay under the aspen leaves, under the bed of white roses on the lid of the carved wooden casket. Under the baby's breath and intertwined white rosebuds, Clark kept his silent vigil at his funeral.

A suicide.

Louis talked to the press, keeping the newspapers and reporters at bay. He and my brothers handled details at the mortuary, letting me think I was making the decisions myself.

A woman at the mortuary, kind and gentle, told me she would take care of my son.

Alyson, my daughter-in-law, was very shaky and seemed to be in a daze, little Hollis was opened-eyed, aware of everything. She and her mother had discovered Clark's body, as he must have known they would. I knew both must still be in shock. All of us were moving through a dream. A nightmare. Our friend Terry helped Louis order flowers and put the obituary together. We chose an urn for my son's ashes and picked out the casket. The terrible chores. God must have lifted us through these because none of us could do this thing. Together we planned the funeral, Louis inviting Alyson and all of Clark's friends and family to speak. I didn't know if I could walk through this fire.

It was all such a waste, it was all such a tragedy.

Louis spoke with tender words about his stepson. Then he invited everyone to share, Quaker-style. Nearly two hundred of Clark's friend's and family were there and many spoke of his loving spirit. The love for my son poured out in floods of emotion as Clark's friends memorialized my beautiful son. Everyone who loved Clark knew that he fought with his demons, knew that he had lived close to the angels.

After my daughter-in-law spoke, Rosalind, Clark's halfsister, stood, wearing my son's face, his fine bones, his gentleness, his beauty. She is tall like my boy, thin as he was, beautiful, her face pale under her pale complexion, her hair long and strawberry, as his had been. She talked of the secret suicide they shared, the death of their paternal grandfather Al. There was a sound, almost a sigh, in the room as she spoke.

"I see my father and his brother, as grandfather died, taking in that last breath, breathing in as he breathed out, and holding that breath for forty-five years. With Clark's death, that breath can finally be let out." Rosalind had earned the right to speak the truth, and truth was what was needed.

Under the white lilies and roses and aspen leaves atop his coffin, I seemed to see Clark's red hair shimmering all through the ceremony. At the end the bagpiper played "Amazing Grace." I sang "Amazing Grace" for my son for the last time.

At home in New York the mortuary sent me his clothes, the jeans they cut off him, the belt, the green and gray shirt, all smelling of carbon monoxide. They were in a brown shopping bag with his boots and his black socks. I wondered if my son had dressed for death. They gave me the leather briefcase in which were the keys to his desk at work, words to the last songs he had written.

It took me four years to get rid of the clothes. I gave them to a shelter. I could not, ever, look at them again, except a white cashmere sweater I have come to love holding next to my skin.

It was, for me, the saddest day of my life. It seemed to be the end of the world.

Sometimes it seems to me the nightmare began the day I bought my son the Subaru. It was on one of my visits to Minnesota, a cold, bright winter day in 1987. The Twin Cities sparkled under that polished sky of the land of a million lakes, so clear and crisp it made your eyes ache. Our hearts were light and our voices filled with love and cheer. Life was so good.

The station wagon was a dark, almost charcoal color called umber -- a solid car, good for the cold Minnesota winters. My son was bundled into a hooded, fur-collared parka and I was draped in my black cashmere coat with the purple lining, a coat I use every winter -- warm as toast, comforting in hotel rooms. I spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, on the road, doing concerts. My son said he might have been a rock-and-roll singer but he knew from the life his mother led that it wasn't an easy one.

Clark was excited about the Subaru, looking at me from his clear, untroubled face with anticipation and pleasure.

I looked at him intensely as though to memorize his metamorphosis. He was about five nine, with freckles in a scattering across his nose and arms that deepened in the summer sun. He could never get a tan. At thirty-two, he was a lanky figure in the pictures from Holly's wedding, the replica of his father, Peter, even to the way his figure bends, just so, from the waist, leaning over to hear you speak, leaning back to laugh. It took my breath away when I saw that. My heart skipped a beat.

Clark had always had a soulful singing voice, dark and sweet, unique in the way he played the notes and the way his voice meandered over the words, lovingly. He had a great sense of humor and an infectious laugh. His intelligence, evident at an early age, illuminated a deep sensitivity to others' pain, and to his own.

He was a redhead, a shade of red that tended more to strawberry than firehouse. At times in his life his hair grew down to the middle of his back. He cut it at least twice in his adult life, severing the luscious strawberry hank in a twist a foot and a half long. For a while when Clark was in his late twenties and early thirties, he wore his beautiful hair short, chopped off at the root. At his death, he was wearing it long again, down to his shoulders. How could he do it, just like that? Grow his hair, cut his hair? Take his life?

Clark understood me as no one else could. He understood the celebration as well as the troubles that the journey of our lives together brought. We were bound so very tight by the good things, as well as by the demons. It was as if he had lived before, experienced many things, and could see beyond the moment with a clarity that was startling. At his darkest time, he could still be a shining light and a beacon of hope. Clark was the person with whom I had been through everything. I loved him more than anyone.

Many people loved him. Who wouldn't love him? Teachers he had in the schools he went to, friends I didn't know, peers he had helped, stop me in the street or in church or write to me and say how much he meant to them. He changed people, made them think, turned their eyes and their thoughts inward. He understood why life was funny, why loving animals is a requirement, why, as Norman Maclean says in "A River Runs Through It," fly-fishing is akin to religion. Fishing was in his genes, from his father, his uncles, probably his great-grandfathers, and he took to it with such zeal. In my mind's eye I see him, going up to the lake country in the Subaru, casting in his waders, walking through rippling waters, returning home with trout or bass, cooking them himself for Alyson and the baby. He would practically throw himself into the middle of a lake if that is what it would take to catch that fish.

Clark always loved a good car and since he was healthy, he wasn't about to run this one into a mountain or drive it over a bridge embankment or roll it on a curve or put dents in the frame, as he had done in the terrible old days with my brother Dave's cars.

My son was a responsible man these days. He would soon be a parent. I was co-signing the loan for the station wagon that was going to get him around in the snows and the heat of Minneapolis with his wife and his baby. Those early, terrible days were only memories now, part of a story he might tell his child, the mesmerizing bedtime tale of how her father had come back from the grave.

It was a beautiful car, the Subaru. My son stroked the silky surface of the softly molded frame, complimented the paint job, checked out the tires and the big, generous backseat. We drove the car around the neighborhood for a while. On the way back to the office, we talked about Clark's job at the trade college in nearby Minneapolis where he worked in the computer repair shop. I knew he wanted to go back to school but was happy to settle for a good job where he was learning a lot about computer technology.

The computers, and the baby, and Clark's wife, Alyson, and the groceries and the fly-fishing rods for the northern Minnesota lakes would all fit into the Subaru, with room to spare. He looked at me and said, "Yes, this really is the one," as we sat in the office of the dealer, signing papers, talking and laughing easily over mugs of steaming coffee the salesman had brought, clutching sugar, milk, wooden stirrers, napkins and the co-signature papers in his hand. Nothing worth doing, Clark and I always agreed, could be done without a good cup of coffee.

I watched my son's face. His eyes were bright as he glanced at me over his coffee cup, skin shining with health, weight on his thin bones, life and hope and health in his body. How different from the pale, frightened boy who had traveled to Minnesota to find a new way of life. He laughed at something the car dealer said as he took the pen in his hand and signed his name. I signed on the dotted line as well. Clark was the proud owner of a brand-new, spacious, buttery-finished Subaru station wagon.

On my visits, my son would pick me up at the airport in the Subaru. We would hug each other, joyful to be in each other's presence. Clark was proud of the Twin Cities airport valet parking, unique in airports. He would pack my heavy luggage with its wheels, along with my computer and handbags, into the back of the umber station wagon and we would tool on down the highway that runs by the river, the great Mississippi winding south through Minneapolis, on down toward the Gulf of Mexico. On the drive, our voices rose and fell in pleasure. No one laughed at my jokes the way Clark did. We thought the same kind of things funny, the same kind of things sad.

We would arrive at the ramp to his tree-lined street, turning into the driveway of the house in Crocus Hill, where we would stop, perhaps admiring the new porch or the work Clark was doing on the house; hugs with his wife Alyson and kisses and hugs with the baby, Hollis; then Clark would pour me a cup of his black, strong-brewed coffee. We would visit, talking about the past, about the future, about the rich and wonderful present.

Louis and Clark became close in those years and sometimes he would join me in my visits. Clark and Louis talked as friends, and Clark would ask Louis' advice about work, about school. Sharing was important to both of them. The life we were living seemed to make up for all the sadness that had gone before. We had laughter, joyous laughter, like it was at the start when Clark was that little, bright redhead tucked into my backpack in Colorado, seeing a red bird and laughing. We had heart-to-hearts and shared each other's secrets, except that one that killed him.

Once, just after my granddaughter was born, Alyson carried her to see me, at the hotel where I was staying in St. Paul, a tiny girl in a basket, with big blue eyes like her father's, and cherry lips like her mother's, laughing up at me. From the high hill in St. Paul I could hear the big bell of the cathedral tolling the time, chiming the hours. I felt the murmur of my genes, ancient voices in my blood, the purpose of my life, the completion of my role. My granddaughter's beautiful face looked up at me. "You can die now, she is carrying your line," the voice of my ancestors whispered. I was shocked to feel the primitive call from my civilized exterior. It is all genetic, all karmic, I thought, all this agony and all this joy.

It was heaven to have a loving relationship with my son now in this time of beauty, work, health, family.

All the things I had always hoped for Clark had come true.

The years were sweet and the time passed. I knew there was some difficulty in my son's marriage but neither Alyson nor Clark said too much. He was in therapy, then they were in therapy, which was good, wasn't it? I didn't want to pry. The ups and downs of married life came and went in my son's life, as they do in everyone's. What more did my son want? There was always that aching in him, that unsettled, unresolved itching to be somewhere and do something that he wasn't doing and couldn't even speak of. He played beautiful guitar. His wife Alyson and I bought him an electric blue Les Paul guitar and he played his songs to his baby daughter. He came to visit us in New York, to laugh and celebrate. Louis and I traveled with Alyson and the baby to Colorado, with my beautiful family, where we always feel our hearts are home.

Hollis turned four in October of 1991 and I was in St. Paul for her party, a joyous romp with a dozen children at the Minneapolis Zoo, where we ate chocolate cake and watched the seals and wore paper hats and looked out the big plate-glass windows at the dying, burning trees, at the beginning of the Minnesota autumn. Clark carried Hollis around on his shoulders. Blond, blue-eyed, and the spitting image of her father, Hollis had captured my heart. The little girl was filled with life and had a light, lovely quality about her, and from her emanated a sweet and untroubled sound. She and her father adored each other and she seemed to bring out in him his lightest, sweetest side.

But things with Clark were not good, no matter how it looked on the outside. My son's waters ran so still, so deep, so dark at times. Those of us who loved him seldom guessed how locked he was, behind that vulnerable, open, easy smile. Lurking beneath the surface like a big spotted rainbow trout, swimming in the shadows of a willow by the turn in the river, I felt murmurs in my blood, premonitions like sighs on dark and secret nights. These were thoughts that flitted like phantoms through the brain, and then hid in the light of the bright day's faith, a certainty that obscured the low, moaning, almost inaudible call I stifled with hope. I turned the volume down on the whispering discontent that throbbed beneath the reassurances and the lighthearted laughter, because I had no idea what my fears meant or, more importantly, what to do about them.

January, 1987

Dream of Clark (five years before his death).

I'm holding my son in my arms, inside a house. We see a tornado coming and I look for a place to stand where we will be safe. Clark tells me he is terminally ill.

Clark's keen mind, the fiery intelligence that led him when he was older to read Kierkegaard and Tolstoy and Yogananda even when he was nodding out on heroin, was a flame that caught the heart of all who knew him even casually, his light rubbing off on even the darkest thought. He was a kind soul, with a great heart to match his great pain. Beneath the slow and painful thawing of my frozen hope, it is this moan of sorrow that haunts me. Knowing my son is out of his terrible pain gives me consolation, for he could not bear his own deepest sorrows. That is the tragedy of the suicide, but also the one thing that makes life for the survivor bearable, to know our beloved is no longer suffering.

The contradictions are what ring now. Clark was like the sun, his spirit the song of a magical bird on a summer morning, a melody that is clean, cutting through all the other sounds of the earth, bright and warm. He was beautiful physically, but his soul was more beautiful. There was a kind of glow about him, even when he was having troubles, something fine and inspiring to others. He seemed to bring out the best in people. His laughter was full of lightness. Now I see this, that only a bird that can sing so sad a song can be as joyful.

In November 1991 Clark made what he would later call a halfhearted attempt on his life. Clark had started doing something again, maybe drinking, maybe drugs. He told me he had been depressed. When I told him I would come to Minnesota to help him, he asked me not to ride in on a white horse to try to save him, or tell him what to do. I knew that if he was using, I couldn't help him and I backed off and respected his wishes. I later heard he resisted others' attempts to help.

When a friend who visited him at the hospital after that first attempt asked him why he had relapsed, he said, "I ran out of insurance." Meaning, he had cut back on twelve step meetings and talking to people who know what the solution was. He was back in denial. His addiction was on the front burner again and wanted him dead.

After a few days of observation, Clark was released. For the next few weeks he seemed to be doing better. The holidays seemed to go well for everyone, and Clark and I talked about my coming to Minnesota in January. He said he was feeling great.

The low moan roared in my ears, then settled down again.

After my son's death Alyson gave me his notebooks and his songs. In his New Year's resolutions for December 31, 1991, Clark wrote a list of the things he was going to do -- as all of us do on New Year's, looking for solutions. He would work hard every day and reduce debt, save money, he said, write music and play guitar and play more with his daughter; stop smoking. Clark had battled cigarettes for years, and for a time he wrote a wonderful letter called the "Grateful Ex-Smoker" that was filled with experiences he was going through in his fight to get rid of the "filthy weed," as he called it. He would work out regularly, he promised, clean out the garage, work on his diet, drink less caffeine. All the things we promise on the glorious eve of a New Year. Better ourselves, be kinder to those we love. He promised himself to find a hopeful attitude, go to sleep early, cook more interesting food, start writing, stop prying.

What he didn't write was "I will not take my life, one day at a time."

Clark forgot to mention that he was loving and compassionate, that he had made progress, against the odds, and had a steady, healthy life. That he had done well for his wife and his family and himself, he had a beautiful child who loved him, a huge family who loved him, friends who loved him. How could he not have noticed us in his life? How could he not have noticed all the good, and not have come to the conclusion that he wanted us more than he wanted death? He had some problems, but we all have problems.

On January 1, 1992, Clark called to tell me he had decided to go into a week of family treatment at the Hazelden Renewal Center. Hazelden is a place of peace and contemplation, group meetings and professional supervision structured to help the recovering alcoholic and/or family member living with the "ism" of alcoholism. I was overjoyed. My son was taking a positive action, in his own behalf, and that could only mean he was really dealing with his life in a healthy way. The low moaning hum settled back to a soft, almost inaudible sound like a feather, waking me in the night, so softly I didn't know it was there. It was silent but still hovering there in the dark.

I packed my bags for the yearly trip Louis and I make to the islands. I had thought of canceling the trip, concerned about Clark, but hearing the good news that he was taking steps for his health, doing the right thing, Louis and I left New York. I could relax. I could stop worrying.


A few days later, at ten o'clock on the morning of the tenth of January, 1992, I was standing on a tiled terrace outside our cottage, watching the morning sun as it slanted through an ancient fig tree whose branches sheltered lizards and aloe, seedling palms and banana quits, dancing shadows and skittering bars of sunlight. Blue water shimmered in the sunlight at the ocean's edge while I talked on the phone to Clark of everything, just as we always did. He sounded wonderful.

Paradise. Last stop.

I was drinking coffee out of a white porcelain cup with a gold edge, squinting in the sunlight. My son too, in that faraway city in Minnesota where fresh snow had fallen, was drinking his first cup of coffee. I felt the shadow lift, the humming sound fade into the background. Clark had stayed at the Hazelden Renewal Center for a week and was now out again, going to therapy, trying to sort things out.

I remember everything about that conversation. I was wearing a violet stretch bathing suit that clung to my still-white skin, and a wide-brimmed straw hat with a band of violet. I had the telephone receiver jammed against my ear, listening for clues, batting away tiny black flies. I shifted from foot to foot on the hot tiles.

"How are you, Mom, are you rested? Is your cold better?" Clark knew how beat I always was in January after a heavy year of concert touring.

"I'm better." The winter flu that had been dragging on during my concert season was drying out in the healing sun and I was feeling human again and ready for another year of life, of work and friends, of seeing my son and his family. "And how are you?"

"I'm good, Mom." Clark's voice sounded cheerful and calm, at peace, in spite of the fact that he and Alyson had decided they would try living apart for a while. He said he hoped they would not divorce, but also that he thought he might see a lawyer in case that was going to happen. The problems in their marriage had not gone away, but he seemed to be at peace with what they had decided to do about it.

I asked him if there was anything I could do, and he said that when there was, he would ask me.

How do you know when someone is at the edge, when the next breath will be the last, or near the last, when the last chance has been taken, the last bridge crossed? I listened for clues, but the sound of Clark's voice stilled the moaning hum.

"What are you going to do today?" I asked. Inside the cottage on the floor above me I could see Louis, padding about, getting ready to do some watercolors on the terrace, his body moving behind the slats of the shutters, a series of stuttering pictures, his lips under the wreath of beard smiling as he nodded to me from inside the room in quick poses, jerkily, like a black-and-white time and motion study.

On January 8 Clark had turned thirty-three, the magical age. Clark thanked me for the birthday gifts I had sent, a check and a watermarked tie from Florence, a dance of color.

"I've got some things to do," he said. "I trashed a hard disk at school, I have to talk to you about giving me some money to replace it," he said.

"Let's talk about it when I see you next week," I said.

Relief in his voice. "I'm going to the gym today," Clark said. Good! The gym meant getting rid of any lingering depression. Wouldn't it? "And I've got ten days sober and clean." He had had seven years of sobriety before his November relapse. I told him I was thrilled, which I was.

"I'll come out on Friday, honey," I said, hoping my offer would be greeted with enthusiasm. Today was a Friday. "I'll be there a week from today." I would get myself back to New York, and hop on a plane out to Minnesota.

"That's great," he said. "I've been wanting to go to the museum with Hollis, maybe we could do that." There was a pause and I heard water running. A banana quit flitted onto a branch above the telephone near where I stood, squeaking and bouncing on the tree, pure yellow and black. He chuckled then. "But I need my mom!"

Finally, I thought.

"I'll be there, I love you, Clark."

"I love you too, Mom." Those were the last words I heard him say.

He rang off, the sound of oceans and distance rolling in the telephone line.

I looked out beyond the fig tree, at the falling, rainbow-laden mist that drifted from the silver clouds above the water. I would work for a while, then go to lunch with Louis, and in a few days I would be on a plane headed home, and then to Minnesota to see my boy. He was doing fine, the crisis past. He had friends. He had the family given to him by God, and the one he was creating around him, both gifts, the ones we have at birth and the ones we find, collecting them as God brings them to us.

Like a fugue in slow motion, like a haunting melody that will not leave your mind, I play the scene over and over: the rainbow over the water, the mist in the air, each fig leaf, each word spoken, each wave in the sunlight, each gulp of strong coffee on my lips, the feel of each bare foot lifting off tile, the shift of weight from one foot to the other, the tapping with my yellow metal room key on the dusty red-brick wall, the hummingbird hovering over a red, long-lipped flower in a blazing green bush, drinking sweet nectar.

There will be a lifetime to remember it.

I should have been more worried about the lawyer, about the divorce. I still believed Clark and Alyson would work things out.

Sometimes I see myself putting on my ivory summer suit, packing my bags, climbing past passengers with reservations on planes leaving the Caribbean that day. I play the scene that way, some days. Some nights. I come home to New York and get on the next plane to Minnesota, and -- and what? Save my son? Can we do that? Can people actually do that? Save each other? Mother? Son? Father? Daughter? Perhaps Clark would have stayed alive, for that week, for the time I was with him. Perhaps not.

Five days later, on January 15, just after one o'clock on a bright, sunny day in Minneapolis, while the birds sang on the bare trees and the Mississippi River ran its ice-laden course alongside the tree-filled park where his ashes would be scattered later that year, my son didn't check his telephone messages. I was trying to reach him to tell him what flight I was going to take to Minnesota, and when he could pick me up at the airport Friday in the Subaru. Later, we learned, he went to work in the morning and then had an appointment with his lawyer, and after lunch drove to the liquor store down the block from his house. He bought a bottle of cheap champagne. Odd. Clark had never really liked champagne. Counting days again, not far from his last drugs and booze, there were many friends he might have called, a community of souls in Minnesota, many of whom say my son saved their lives.

As far as we know, he didn't call anyone.

He drove to his house on the suburban, tree-lined street in Crocus Hill, the home he had been restoring with love and care and pride. The kitchen had a dark, mottled blue-gray marble counter, one of my gifts to the newly renovated house. Clark had put the counter in the previous winter with the help of my stepfather Robert, who had driven out from Denver with my mother Marjorie to give my son a hand. Robert is a skilled craftsman and he and Clark had had a fine time working together. There was an expresso machine on the counter, a new floor and dishwasher that shone in the kitchen, along with other generous gifts from Alyson's mother Sandy, and Clark's father, Peter, who had helped the couple make the down payment on the house. Everyone had pitched in, positive and hopeful of Clark and Alyson's happiness.

I wonder if he thought of any of us at all, but today I believe he was only trying to escape from the demon that was chasing him.

The garage stood next to the white gazebo under which Hollis's trainer bike, wagon, and other brightly colored toys lay. He parked the car in the garage between shelves of computer parts and projects in different stages and put the garage door down. He left the engine of the car running, plugged a length of hose into the exhaust of the umbercolored Subaru, and brought it around the car and in through the window. He switched on the ignition and while the engine idled, uncorked the champagne bottle and drank, breathing in carbon monoxide.

Most of this I know because Clark left a tape of his final message, speaking into the machine as he struggled to make this last act work. On the tape he made amends to all of us for what he was doing. He said to me, "Mom I love you, and you have tried so hard with me, and I'm so sorry." He left instructions with Alyson that the ignition of the Subaru needed checking.

Spiritual teachers say that every soul, no matter how determined, repents the taking of its own life. At the end, they would rather have lived, tried another way. For Clark, with his wild blue eyes like irises blooming in a field of white, with his beauty and his humor and his lyric songs, with his laughter and his love and his pure and gentle nature, it was too late.

On that shining day in the land of the lakes, with as much hope as most of us have and more trouble, perhaps, than many, my beautiful son ended his life.

Alyson sold the house after my son's death -- and the Subaru. The car was almost paid off and I wrote a check for the balance, stunned with grief as the pen moved in my hand. Who is driving that car, who will be cooking in that kitchen that my son built with his hands? Who will be making pots of coffee and wiping that beautiful marble counter clean?

I went home to New York in a daze. Louis and I tried to pick up the pieces of our lives. Friends, tears, the wake. Like a sleuth searching for answers, I read letters and notebooks, looking for clues to how and why this could have happened. Why I hadn't predicted it, or foreseen it. I felt it was my fault, that I could have stopped my son from killing himself. Perhaps the fear of divorce had played a role in Clark's final choice, and there was something I should have done about that. A black hole of despair descended, through the numbness of the knowledge: the worst had happened, the worst was happening, the worst would continue to happen each and every day of my life. The snow is falling; the rain is falling. How could they fall? The sun is shining. How can it shine? How could I live if he was dead? Was his faith so great that he knew I would live through his death? How could he know that? The disbelief, like a howling wind in my head, tore at me. It was as if I discovered his death each day anew. Each morning the tragedy was as fresh as though it had just happened.

November 1, 1992, en route from Minneapolis to New York

Today we scattered Clark's ashes on the Mississippi River in St. Paul, down in a park called Hidden Falls. My daughter-in-law Alyson in black, her black hat buffeted by the wind, her words torn away from our ears, and my granddaughter Hollis's song, sung but unheard, the wind carrying her voice along the water to the high walls of Fort Snelling, her pretty voice absorbed by stone and the sound of the wind, her slight figure, wrapped in a black coat. A clear plastic umbrella showed her underneath its ribboned outline, a tiny survivor. All of us are now survivors.

We stood, our coats whipping around our legs, in a wind that howled and a rain that became colder and more fierce as the time went on, the wind battering rain against our bodies, hurling the ashes thrown into the air and the flowers, violet and golden mums on leggy stems, this way and that, all about us, as though Clark himself hurled the raindrops, shouting and laughing. "Is it cold enough for you? Here is Minnesota weather, here is more wind, more cold, more pouring, slanting rain! You call this cold?" His laughter was a red-headed, deep-souled, complete laughter. I could see him, with no gloves, having lost them somewhere, so like his mother, and his coat too thin, or wearing one of his great Minnesota down parkas, his face white. He would be cold too but wouldn't admit it for the world. My beautiful brothers were there, Denver and David and Michael, and my nephews, Matthew -- looking like my son Clark's double -- and Kalen, my sister Holly's oldest son. My life partner Louis and all Clark's Minnesota friends. No time to speak much, aside from a few mumbled words over the sound of the wind, my own words cut short. No singing, nothing but flowers in the gray wind, rain on our already wet faces and soaked clothes, our shoes in the river, our hearts flying into the wind with Clark.

I kept thinking, this is a dream, there must be some mistake. Gone, into the wind, into the river, into the grass, into the past, merged with my past and my future, all I have ever been or will ever be. My son's hair, my son's heart, burned now to ashes, on the river across from Fort Snelling, serenely ominous across the dark water, across from Hidden Falls.

We stood, our fingers numb with cold, trying to keep our faces warm, giving up, umbrellas no protection as the rain pelted us.

I imagine Clark' s voice calling in the rain, calling against the wind.

On the first anniversary of Clark's death, January 15, 1993, Louis and I were in the islands once again. We brought flowers, wind-blown white roses and peach- and orange-colored trumpet flowers, wild bougainvillea, yellow geraniums and blue hyacinths, up to the statue of the Christ of the Caribbean -- a white powerful adobe figure of the Savior with His face turned to the sea, His arms outspread toward the blue water of the Atlantic, guarding the boats and fisherman, the living and dead.

It was hot as we climbed the green, dusty, flower-dotted trail to the statue. There were some others that day, a few tourists in sunglasses and bright yellow print shorts, three children in fuchsia shirts and Lycra bathing suits, their shrill voices calling to one another. We stopped before the Savior and followed his gaze, looking out at the blue sea and the whitecaps and the sky dotted with clouds. The tourists and the children evaporated down the hill and when they had left we knelt in the grass beneath the statue and held hands and prayed for Clark's peace and for his daughter's happiness, and for our family's healing.

Late that afternoon, after the thunder showers, a rainbow appeared outside the window of our room. It stretched from the sun setting in the sea to the trees at the end of the island. The arc of the rainbow hovered over the spot where I was standing when I last spoke to my son, when he said, "I love you, Mom," and where I told him that I loved him.


At midnight I woke from a dream and looked out the windows at the white moon's silver broken path upon the sea. The wind was blowing the leaves of the fig tree and the waves were bobbing, phosphorescent in the moon's light.

In my dream I had been trying to persuade Clark not to die, arguing with him, trying to convince him that he didn't have to die, he didn't have to end his life.

My son smiled and looked at me with love in his eyes, the twinkling light of his angelic spirit.

"Mother," he said, "death is not an ending."

Copyright © 1998 by Judy Collins

About The Author

Judy Collins has inspired audiences with sublime vocals, boldly vulnerable songwriting, personal life triumphs, and a firm commitment to social activism for more than fifty years. She began her music career at thirteen and has recorded fifty albums. She is also a prominent social activist and a frequent keynote speaker on the subjects of mental health and suicide prevention. In addition to Singing Lessons, she has authored books including Sanity & Grace, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music, and Cravings.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books (November 28, 2007)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781416587736

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