But mental-health types, including many youth-suicide experts, prefer to de-emphasize the concept, insisting that almost no one kills himself without a history of mental-health issues. (“The way they define ‘mental-health issues,’ ” Hemenway snorts, “about a third of the U.S. population has one.”) To school psychologists, the alternative is too scary. They do not want to destabilize healthy or, especially, struggling kids with the idea that anyone might jump with no reason. “Keep in mind,” says John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, “that in spite of having the lowest completed suicide rates, this is an age group that has the highest rates of suicidal thinking and attempts.” Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control suggest that in a class of 28 kids, four will have thought about killing themselves and, of those four, two will have tried. “The overwhelming majority get over it and live,” Draper adds. “But there is this crisis period in which, unless someone teaches them to deal with those thoughts, they’re flying blind.” This is the legitimate fear that schools are responding to when they say they don’t want to “glamorize” or “romanticize” a desperate act by making it seem a reasonable way to get attention, invoke outpourings of postmortem love, or earn forgiveness.
But Teddy gets lost in this debate. He’s neither a romantic hero nor a public-health trend. Nor did he jump because of a mental illness, even if a “mental-health issue” contributed. He jumped because his foolish solution to a passing academic problem reacted with the peculiar ideational rigidity of his condition—and, who knows, perhaps with the “suicidality” that is a potential side effect of most psychotropic medications—in a way even he, with his complicated brain, could not have predicted.
That does not mean it could not have been prevented. And that’s where Carla’s deepest pain resides. Because the other thing about impulsive suicide that distinguishes it from the more common type is that survivors almost never try to kill themselves again. They look back on what they attempted with incredulity. In seventh grade, in response to a “letter to your 30-year-old-self” assignment, Teddy produced a series of commandments that seemed to reverse that perspective. “Commandment #4,” he wrote. “Do not get lost in your anger. You don’t completely understand the situation. Take a breath. Commandment #5: Stop it. You don’t need this. Wait an hour.”
But he only had five minutes.
The unveiling of the grave, which marks the end of the Jewish year of mourning, has passed. (Clay nixed the planned Star of David on the tombstone, suggesting that a more fitting symbol would be that irrational constant pi.) Also over is the season when Teddy, like his friends who are juggling Duke and Emory and M.I.T., would have received his college-acceptance letters. Those classmates who stay in touch with Carla instinctively avoid dwelling on their plans. Dalton, on the other hand, failed to remove Carla from an e-mail list of senior parents requesting pictures of their children—one as a baby and one “current”—for use in a slideshow at the upcoming graduation.
Not, of course, that she tells me about it. (A family friend does.) Carla has nothing bad to say about Dalton, where, after all, Clay is still a student. But just as Teddy’s gaucheries and his genius were really the same thing, Carla’s stoicism and her tragedy are fused. Her folders of photos, her neatly stapled piles of relevant documents, her apparent sangfroid are not escapes from grief but expressions of it.
“My life is a struggle every day to live,” she says, trying not to cry. “I don’t know what to say. I refuse to stop trying to be a great mother to Clay. And I go on faith that somehow joy and happiness will come back into my life one day. ‘Oh, Carla’s okay,’ people say. ‘How’re you doing?’ they say. I look at them and want to answer, ‘How do you think I’m doing?’ I want to say the two most precious things in my life were Teddy and Clay. But what is true is that they are the only things that ever mattered to me from the day they were born. The rest of it I could give a shit about. I’m strong, I’m hard-nosed, but in terms of what gives me joy, it is only my two children. And I have to find a way to live without one of them, who was not only my son but, I thought, would contribute something amazing to this world. I thought that’s what his gifts were all about. So I don’t know how I get up every day. I do it. It’s a cliché, but I do it for Clay. What would I be like without him? I try not to think about it. I don’t know how I am going on.”
Carla takes me into Teddy’s room. Though his javelin still leans in a corner and the unopened box of track shoes still waits to be dealt with, it feels like Teddy’s life, not his death. Carla likes spending time there, as does Clay, who has taken over his brother’s desk as a homework center and patiently waits to grow into Teddy’s favorite hoodies. Clay seems to have figured out something about holding on while letting go. “I love you sooooooomuch and one day we will meet again, or maybe not,” he wrote on one of the Facebook memorial sites last February. “I know you were only 17 but you had the best seventeen years of your life.” And at his bar mitzvah, in October, he read a Yehuda Amichai poem called “A Man in His Life” that ends with the lines: “When he loses he seeks, when he finds / he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves / he begins to forget.”
Teddy’s cosmology did not admit of more than one truth—neither his math nor his morals allowed it. Carla is left to walk up and down the same narrow corridor, over and over. And Dalton seems to have stuck with its instinct of covering up the windows. Not Clay. His commandeered desk in Teddy’s room faces a bank of panes as wide as the room, and through them, the always inviting, always terrifying view of the world.