By Ivan Maisel
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In this deeply emotional memoir, a longtime ESPN writer reflects on the suicide of his son Max and delves into how their complicated relationship led him to see grief as love.
In February 2015, Ivan Maisel received a call that would alter his life forever: his son Max's car had been found abandoned in a parking next to Lake Ontario. Two months later, Max's body would be found in the lake.
There’d been no note or obvious indication that Max wanted to harm himself; he’d signed up for a year-long subscription to a dating service; he’d spent the day he disappeared doing photography work for school. And this uncertainty became part of his father’s grief. I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye explores with grace, depth, and refinement the tragically transformative reality of losing a child. But it also tells the deeply human and deeply empathetic story of a father’s relationship with his son, of its complications, and of Max and Ivan’s struggle—as is the case for so many parents and their children—to connect.
I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye is a stunning, poignant exploration of the father and son relationship, of how our tendency to overlook men’s mental health can have devastating consequences, and how ultimately letting those who grieve do so openly and freely can lead to greater healing.
At 7:37 on a frigid Monday night in February, the house phone rang. It was 2015—we still had a house phone. Meg had gone to a neighbor’s house to play mah-jongg. Elizabeth, our high school senior, had made her ritual retreat upstairs to her room. I had opened a can of Progresso Light Zesty Santa Fe Chicken Soup. I remember that detail. I walked around the kitchen island and answered the phone.
“Is Margaret Murray there?” a male voice asked.
“This is her husband.”
He identified himself as being from the sheriff’s office in Monroe County, New York, which I knew to be the home of the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where our middle child and only son, Max, was a junior.
“Do you know a Max Maisel?” he asked, pronouncing the last name “MAY-zul,” which is how the sitcom character on Amazon pronounces it, instead of “May-ZELL,” which is how my family has pronounced it since arriving from eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century.
“He’s our son. How can I help you?”
That is how you pick up the phone and find a trap door opening beneath you.
Max’s car had been sitting in the parking lot at Charlotte Park for twenty-four hours. Charlotte Park sits on the shore of Lake Ontario, north of Rochester, many miles away from our home in Fairfield, Connecticut. Meg’s brother Sean and his wife Deb own a vacation home a mile west of the park. Max has been coming to that home, to this park, every summer since kindergarten.
The sheriff called Meg because the car is registered in her name. He knew Max’s name because Border Patrol had a record of Max driving the car into Canada. Lake Ontario is within the Border Patrol’s jurisdiction because Canada is on the opposite shore.
I’m reasonably sure the sheriff asked me the last time we spoke to Max. I’m sure he asked a number of questions about Max. But I can’t recount the conversation. My mind had already leaped past any logical explanation for his car being at the lake to the equally logical worst-case scenario.
Max was dead.
The sheriff told me he would call back in an hour. I took the soup off the stove, put it in a container, and shoved it into the refrigerator. I couldn’t eat it. I never ate it. I stood there for five minutes, collecting my thoughts and rehearsing my phone call to Meg. I never seriously entertained thoughts of not telling her, giving her the last pain-free hour of her life, sitting in a neighbor’s den shuffling marble tiles around a tabletop.
I am a master of the art of conflict avoidance. I bob and weave, nod, sidestep, smile, hope for a way out. But when the conflict is directly in my path, I try to go straight at it. Lance the boil, we say in our house. Not to mention that if I gave Meg that extra hour, she would never forgive me.
I called her.
“I need you to come home,” I said, in as even a voice as I could muster.
“Is everything OK?”
I wasn’t about to tell her over the phone that the light of her life was missing.
“I need you to come home,” I repeated.
On a very cold night of a very cold winter, our twenty-one-year-old son Max walked off an ice-slicked pier onto the surface of Lake Ontario. We—my wife Meg, his sisters Sarah and Elizabeth, and I—presume that he walked until the ice gave way beneath him. We don’t know. We will never know.
An eyewitness saw him get out of his car, an eleven-year-old SUV that once had belonged to his beloved grandfather, and walk onto the pier.
Law enforcement eventually spotted some of Max’s belongings near the end of the pier, on the solid surface of the lake.
And eight weeks later, the fourth week of spring according to the calendar, Lake Ontario surrendered his body.
It would not be much of a whodunit. Those are the facts that we know. He left no note. Max wasn’t much on communicating.
I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye is about the death of my son Max, the grief that engulfed our family, and how I learned to coexist with that grief.
I will not be so presumptuous as to include here how my wife and our two daughters have dealt with their grief. That consideration is pretty rich, given that what I do for a living as a journalist is become presumptuous enough to write a story and “explain” someone I hardly know. But—and this will not be the first time you read this in these pages—little is more personal than grief.
All grief is personal, and all grief is as individual as the person doing the grieving. Love is personal, too, and there is certainly no shortage of writing about love. As I wrote, I began to understand that grief, if you get past the awkward social construct that American culture has with death, is the purest expression of love for someone who is no longer here to express it back. We mourn the deepest for those whom we love the most.
We view grief warily, as an alien force that invades us when we are at our most vulnerable. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t suffer greatly when Max died. I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t ache, that I no longer feel a void. But as I learned how to go on with my life, as I wrestled with and tried to make sense of my pain, I began to see the direct correlation between the love I had for the son I lost and the depth of my pain—my grief.
Grief is love.
For many years, I traveled on fall weekends with a small band of six to eight sportswriters who covered college football nationally. One of them, Chris Dufresne of the Los Angeles Times, married a woman I went to college with, Sheila Young. On those autumn trips, Chris brought with him an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, a genial outlook, and a wicked sense of humor. He could be as funny in print as he was in person (the two don’t always equate). We ate a lot of meals together, carpooled on the road to a lot of games.
Chris died of cancer in the spring of 2020 at the age of sixty-two, a loss that hurt all of us who knew him well. Sheila and I have remained in touch. Losing a spouse and losing a child are each uniquely awful, but Sheila and I trust each other in a way that only those who have endured such loss can. Sheila texted me a few months after Chris died to relay a sentiment she had heard from Greg Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles: “Grief is the price we pay for love.” Father Boyle is a Jesuit priest who has done remarkable work in gang intervention. He knows more about grieving than I ever will.
But there’s an extra step in there. Grief is a price we pay for love. I think it’s easier to consider grief as something without a cost. Grief is love. I don’t think this is merely a matter of semantics. It’s a viewpoint. Understanding that grief is love tempers the inevitable pain. Seeing grief as love helped me handle its all-consuming nature. Seeing grief as love made it seem less alien, less painful. We no longer had Max. We had all this love for Max, and no Max. We had his absence. That love metamorphosed into grief. There is so much about the death of a child that is more difficult to process—the generational incongruity, the unceasing what-ifs and where-would-he-bes, magical thinking that always will bedevil the four of us whom Max left behind.
I can’t tell you that Max died, and a week or two later, this revelation of grief as love seared itself into my consciousness. Oh, no. I worked for that revelation. It took me many months. The story that I am about to tell you is roughly chronological. I had to learn that grief can be painful. I had to learn that in its early stages it is unrelenting. I had to learn that grief is permanent. I had to learn that accepting it helps but doesn’t make it disappear. I can remember thinking, “I get it. I understand. Max was sick. I’ve processed why he died. I got it! I’m done! Mission accomplished. OK, where is he?”
I can’t tell you how long it took me to see grief as love. I am hoping that, by describing it to you that way, it may save you some steps. Maybe it’s just a mind trick, but seeing grief as love worked for me. It made grief more palatable and death, the one experience we all share, less fearsome. I am not hell-bent on turning our pain into a positive outcome. I am not driven to say that Max did not die in vain. That is a little too cloying for my palate. But if the story of my relationship with Max resonates with those who read it, then it would be nice to think that a sliver of this awfulness helped someone. If you stick with me and allow me to be the docent through my grief, maybe you won’t recoil when it happens to you. Maybe you won’t freeze and say or do something that makes your grieving friend feel worse, not better. Maybe you want to run away from this subject with an Olympic-qualifying time. I hear you. I felt that way before February 2015.
It is tempting, and egocentric, and slightly obnoxious, to say that if you haven’t lost a child, you can’t understand what it feels like. But I am delighted to say that it also happens to be true; delighted, because the death of a child is complete and overwhelming in its awfulness, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Most of us willfully refuse to approach the subject of losing a child out of self-preservation. But those of you outside the ropes, those of you with the inability to understand what our kind of tragedy feels like, are the audience I have had in mind since the first anniversary of Max’s death, when I began publishing what I have written. I am trying to explain this loss, illustrate it, reveal it, make it tangible enough that you won’t be scared to approach it—to approach us.
I didn’t start out with that mission in mind.
I am a creature of the word. I learned to read before I went to preschool. I make a living by writing. I am more facile expressing myself at the keyboard than in any other form. One of the many ways Max and I differed is that Max found his voice looking through the eyepiece of a camera. One of the many ways life frustrated Max is that his eyeglasses served as a literal barrier between him and his camera. He tried to wear contact lenses, but he couldn’t overcome the anxiety of sticking his finger in his eye. He. Could. Not. Do. It. He came home so defeated, his shoulders slumping more than usual.
Within a week of the death of our son, I began to type my thoughts into my laptop—vomit them, really. The first entry is a mash-up of thoughts, sentence fragments, about all my mind could form. It raced for days, skittering, unable to comprehend what had befallen me and the family that I am supposed to protect.
As a child, I cried easily, not the best trait for a boy in the Deep South, where ideals of manhood stood on foundations of stoicism, physical toughness, and all that other mid-twentieth-century bullshit. Traveling through adolescence and young adulthood to full-blown, mortgage-holding, child-rearing manhood, I packed away that sensitivity, buried it really, buried it so deep in my gut that when I needed it, I had a hard time bringing it to the surface. In the weeks after Max died, I met a father in northern California who had lost a son more than two decades earlier. He told me he cries every day. He told me there is little in life as emotionally cleansing as a good cry. I understood what he said, but he may as well have been speaking French. I needed subtitles translating to me how to cry every day. What I would give now to more easily access those quick tears.
I had few examples. When my parents, Herman and Freida, grieved the deaths of their parents and siblings, I was either too young to understand it or no longer living at home. My mom and dad displayed remarkable inner strength through lives that encapsulate the twentieth-century American Dream. They were childhood sweethearts, first-generation citizens, born and raised in Mobile, and they never left it. My dad began his career as a basketball coach at his (and my) high school, won the 1956 state title, and quit coaching at age thirty. He figured out that climbing the coaching ladder would mean leaving Mobile. Mom and Dad raised a close-knit family while each developed successful businesses. As I write, my mother is ninety-three and going strong. My sister, brother, and I always felt loved and supported. But Mom and Dad rarely trafficked in any deep emotion in public. Both of them, children of eastern European immigrants who believed in hard work and the Torah, probably in that order, came by it naturally.
And I don’t mean to say that my grandparents didn’t love their children. They loved them enough to make a life for them in a new country, one to which they slowly adapted as best they could. My mother grew up the sixth of seven children, and the fifth daughter. She is the first one that my grandfather allowed—and that is the correct, paternalistic verb for the 1940s—to go to college. My brother has our maternal grandfather’s volume of American history, the one he studied to take his naturalization test. I haven’t read it. It’s in Yiddish.
My father’s mother, widowed when my dad was ten, continued to run the small family grocery. Her way of expressing love: when my parents were newlyweds living paycheck to paycheck, their phone would ring. My grandmother, in her Yiddish-inflected English, would proclaim, “I baked,” and hang up.
Translation: “I made food for you, my darling youngest. Come over and bring it home to your wife and family.”
I remember being in the car with my dad after the fourth and final funeral of his siblings. Dad, before he finished high school, had lost his father and a sister. But he had the good fortune to make it well into his sixties before he lost his brother and his other two sisters. Dad was driving home from the funeral, I was alongside in the front seat, and about five minutes removed from the cemetery, he burst into tears. He wiped his face with one hand, kept the other on the wheel, and had stopped crying before we hit the next red light.
And yet my dad was a warm, funny parent who communicated love through humor and deed. In the business world he drove himself and his employees hard and drove his deals harder. When he had to confront the big, painful emotions, in himself and others, he believed in the shortest path.
I walked into the house one afternoon during my sophomore year of high school. I turned into the den and found my dad home from work, a rare occurrence in midafternoon. He was sitting in a chair, and in the picture I have in my head, my mother stood next to him.
“Ivan,” he said. “Your dog is dead.”
That story eventually became the source of great hilarity among me, my sister, and my brother. We usually added a response from me, something like, “Fine, and you?”
My point is that when it came to the big, painful emotions, my parents held them at bay. Mom and Dad didn’t dwell, at least within the scope of my eyesight. My mother’s favorite saying, for as long as I can recall, has been, “This too shall pass.” That is what I knew. When my dad died at age eighty-one in 2007, seven and a half years before Max died, I couldn’t have been more poorly equipped to handle it. So I didn’t—avoidance masked as optimism, avoidance masked as consideration—as he descended into hospice care, as he donned the armor of morphine to ease his final days. I didn’t race back to my hometown. When I did return home, I didn’t race to his bedside. Instead of acknowledging that I didn’t want to confront his death, I told myself all kinds of stories.
He won’t know I’m there.
I didn’t want to bother him.
And the best one: I didn’t want to bring up that he was dying. As I look back, I’m pretty sure he knew.
I so wrapped myself in avoidance that providing comfort to my dad never became my primary consideration. Only recently, having gained the wisdom of grief, have I come to understand that I had a model for how to handle my father’s demise all along: my father.
My uncle Max, my son’s namesake, had health issues throughout his life. He spent nearly a decade of his childhood in a hospital, battling a bone infection in the days before sulfa drugs. My father, three years younger, devoted himself to his brother from an early age. Dad worked as a teenaged soda jerk in Joe Bear’s drugstore, not far from the old Mobile Infirmary. Every day, when Mr. Bear wasn’t looking, my dad would pour the cream off the top of the milk bottle, make Uncle Max a thick-as-mud milkshake and take it over to the infirmary on his bike.
More than a half century later, as Uncle Max succumbed to cancer at age sixty-eight, he allowed virtually no visitors into his house except for his brother. Dad went over there every day, made lunch for the two of them, and comforted Uncle Max. They talked, they didn’t talk, they sat, they communed. Comforted.
If I had to make a bracket of behavior in my life that I would like to have back, my father’s last weeks would make at least the semifinals. I lived in denial. I didn’t prepare our kids very well. They last saw their Papaw two months before he died, at my niece’s wedding. Dad made sure he stuck around for that. Rather than prepare Sarah, Max, and Elizabeth to say goodbye, I lived in a world where I thought, “Look at him. He’s hanging in there. We’ll see him at Thanksgiving.” Dad made it to his sixtieth wedding anniversary in September. He barely reached October.
I cheated my kids out of a valuable life lesson. But I hadn’t learned the lesson, either. If Google Maps laid out my route to emotional maturity, the message on my route would read, “30 yrs longer.” That was the person I was when Max died. I didn’t know how to grieve.
In those first days and weeks after Max disappeared, I understood intuitively that I had to do something to proactively excavate the layers and layers of pain from my innards. If I couldn’t cry, if I couldn’t emote in public, I could open my laptop and type. So I did, most mornings, sometimes before sunrise, for months. It became second nature to me. Giving my thoughts a voice, bringing them into the light, crystallized them, made them and the emotions they described feel more substantive.
Dealing with death demands emotional maturity from everyone in its path, from the survivors, to friends called upon to support them, to acquaintances just learning the news. The demands are different, depending on the griever’s relationship to the deceased, but no less incessant. You choose either to accede or push it away.
I gradually came to understand that I had to grieve, express my pain, give voice to my loss. I also understood that my friends, my acquaintances, my work contacts were not compelled to listen. Plenty of them did. We benefited from so many kindnesses, small and large. But plenty did not. Their lives did not compel them to confront this pain. So why confront it? Why acknowledge it? Why connect to discomfort?
A woman in our neighborhood described to Meg how she couldn’t attend the memorial service we had for Max because it would have been too emotionally difficult for her.
“It’s nice that you had a choice,” Meg replied. I’m not sure if the woman ever noticed the shiv in her ribs.
I have been on the receiving end of a litany of well-meaning, perfunctory responses: reassurances that Max has gone to a better place; queries whether after weeks or months I felt better (as if my losing Max could be cured with an antibiotic); the question, “Is it still hard?”; or no response at all.
I do not like euphemisms, unless they are employed for humor. I do not like “passed away.” I do not like “no longer with us,” “gone to his glory,” or “met his Maker.” Max died. He is dead, and softening the language doesn’t soften the blow. Sugarcoating doesn’t make it easy for anyone but the person saying it, the person who may tiptoe around the loss with cloaked language and continue on with his day.
The survivors aren’t the ones who need the euphemism. We confront the death of our loved ones every day. We must learn to coexist with loss. Softening the language doesn’t change that task. You might be able to convince me that “passed away” is a well-meaning courtesy. My personal experience is that, in the throes of loss, when the sinkhole inside me felt as if it would expand until it consumed every ounce of mind and body, “He’s gone to a better place” soothed nothing.
I did take solace that Max’s death meant an end to his suffering. But I don’t like to think that Max has joined my father, my brother-in-law Mike, and my sister-in-law Annie in the Great Beyond. Well, I like to think it. I just don’t want to put a lot of stock in that thought being anything more than a calming wish. In most cases, when I refer to Max’s death, I say “death,” not “passing.”
I saw my former self in that softened language. I saw my former self among those who spoke to me and pretended that his death didn’t happen, or the people who said something once and considered that box checked. Because that had been me, I was charitable when my emotional doppelgängers approached me. I could size them up in an instant and see how I had evolved. I could see the path I had hacked out of my emotional underbrush.
I began, slowly, to try to explain publicly how this loss felt. I believed then, and believe now, that if I described what grief felt like, maybe it would be demystified. Maybe those who heard me, or those who read me, wouldn’t be so scared of death.
As I wrote about my grief, as I wrote of other parents who became members of the Club No One Wants to Join, the responses from those not in the club encouraged me to continue forward. They also underlined the differences in our lives. Regularly, I was told how “courageous” I was. They would focus not on the message but on the “courage” it took to write the message.
After I did a video piece for ESPN College GameDay and wrote a story about Mark and Kym Hilinski, whose son Tyler, a Washington State quarterback, ended his life in January 2018, the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism at the University of Georgia asked me to speak that fall at its annual McGill Symposium for Journalistic Courage.
I have to say, I didn’t get it.
The notion of courage implies a choice, that the four of us chose to undertake this more difficult course as if we got off a chairlift and looked for the steepest, bumpiest descent. Max became ill, and Max died. It hit us hard. The added burden of suicide, and of societal views toward mental illness, made processing his death more difficult. We came to believe that it’s every bit as deadly as cancer and more insidious, and there is no x-ray or MRI that will reveal it.
All of it—the death, the mental illness, the many questions, the few, unsatisfying answers—devastated our lives. One phone call from law enforcement in Rochester stripped me and Meg of the foolish belief that we led a charmed life, that we would continue to live as we had lived for fifty-five years, largely devoid of heartbreak, free of pain.
If we made a choice, it was to continue to exist, to live our lives, to breathe. There were days when that took courage. In the weeks after Max died, I once drove two towns away to shop for groceries, a different place where I pretended for forty-five minutes that my life had returned to normal. I wandered up and down the aisles, secure in the knowledge that I would see no one from the life where my son had died, that I would not have to deal with questions from friends, that I would not be on the receiving end of stares as the father of that boy who had been on the front page of the newspaper for days. I could chitchat with the woman at the register. It felt like Disneyland. It felt as if I had escaped to my old life. It was an artificial high, illicit and intoxicating, with returns that would diminish rapidly if I kept trying to achieve it.
That was one great, uncourageous trip to the grocery store. When I checked out, I loaded the groceries into my car, locked it, and walked back to the wine shop next to the grocery store. I walked up and down those aisles, too.
But after I drove home, what courage that existed came simply in the decision to continue to get out of bed, to undertake the enormous task of accepting that we had to go on without Max. It took no courage at all to write about my grief. Writing is what I do. It is how I communicate.
As it became clear to me that my view of our lives differed from what our friends and acquaintances saw, my desire to write on this topic began to grow. I want to tell you about Max, about me and Max, about me and no Max, which is about me and my grief. What follows in these pages is largely my experience. Trust me, there are some very sad moments. There are also uplifting moments, and funny, and embarrassing, and entertaining moments, and everything else that happens to human beings. Grievers continue to live their lives.
Ten weeks after Max died, two weeks after his body surfaced in Lake Ontario, our nephew got married in my hometown of Mobile. I believed that the four of us should attend the wedding. To say we attended with mixed emotions is the understatement of the century. Meg probably would tell you her emotions weren’t mixed at all. She didn’t want to go. Only with the perspective of hindsight do I understand the enormity of her sacrifice. But we came to the realization that if we did not attend, then we would be projecting our pain more deeply into our extended family. We didn’t want Max’s death to be the horrible gift that keeps on giving. I had visions of our absence hanging over the wedding, that weekend and for years to come.
The wedding made clear, even though it happened well before the four of us could embrace the message, that as we adjusted to the searing pain of losing Max, good things would continue to happen in our lives.
- "[A] beautiful and heart-wrenching work... Flashbacks to Max's childhood make him a vivid personality, and photos of him throughout render the author's grief devastatingly visceral... Maisel writes honestly... The result yields a deeply affecting testament to the fragility of life, and the human capacity for resilience."—Publishers Weekly
- "At the center of this beautifully written memoir by a father about his son Max, is a loving, devoted family. Ivan is a sportswriter, his clean, direct writing style is riveting and emotional. One winter day, when his son goes missing on purpose, the family unspools first in shock, then grief, and finally redemption as the author finds a letter written to him from Max from happier times. There is so much love in this memoir, the reader too, is redeemed. There is humor and grace as the Maisels find their way in the world without this beautiful soul in their midst. The family holds their memories of this original, one of a kind young man in their hearts. You will too. I couldn't put it down."—Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of The Shoemaker's Wife
- “This is a poignant memoir about the love that propels us to carry on and move forward after loss. Ivan Maisel gives voice to emotions that many of us have felt but few have been able to articulate.”—Adam Grant, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Think Again and coauthor of Option B
- “This is a story about grief, and loss and sorrow, yes. But it is also a story about triumph over those things, about love, devotion and grace.”—Wright Thompson, New York Times bestselling author of Pappyland
- “Having lost a child myself, it’s hard for me to imagine a parent experiencing anything that is more painful. Losing a child to suicide adds another layer to the grief because we can’t understand why it happened. In I Keep Trying To Catch His Eye, Ivan Maisel shares his family’s story of losing a son to suicide. He examines some deep issues that aren’t easy for us to talk about—suicide, mental health, grief, and recovery. This book will be helpful to anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one but especially to those who have been impacted by suicide.”—Tony Dungy, NBC Sports, former NFL player/head coach and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame
- "Loss and grief create a division between the uninitiated and those who speak the language. Maisel's gem of a book bravely bridges two worlds to help translate the many facets in grieving a child's death. Unvarnished and unsparing, this award-winning sportswriter turns the lens on his own journey to make sense of the unimaginable, demonstrating how we get through it without ever getting over it."—Lee Woodruff, #1 New York Times bestselling author of In An Instant
"An intimate chronicle of abiding love."—Kirkus
"[A] poignant, understated memoir... Those who have lost a child will find a kindred spirit here."
"For those who read this work, we see Max as he was. We see a family that makes the best they can through a time of grief. And we see that the human spirit, the will to both hold on and move on are both valid and necessary. And in that final understanding we find a way into each day’s new dawn. And for that and so much more, I cannot recommend this book enough."—Jay Paterno
- "Losing a child is every parent’s nightmare; losing one to suicide deepens the anguish unimaginably. Here, a father shares his grief and valuable lessons on how he carries on."—People Magazine
- "His deeply personal and moving book, I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye: A Memoir of Loss, Grief and Love, is a testament both to a father’s love and to the human soul’s ability to grieve and remember and still not lose hope." —Kerri Miller, Minnesota Public Radio
- On Sale
- Oct 26, 2021
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Hachette Books