His last will wasn’t written on paper. His last testament wasn’t stamped or notarized. His last testament was carved into the broad branch of a great old giant sequoia tree.

B.M. 2/26/1995–4/9/2014. Just nineteen years.

Distraught, I stood beneath the awesome sequoia where a sheriff had found my son’s body. Driven, I climbed into its massive arms and huddled in the cradle created by a juncture of trunk and two massive limbs. From the lap of that great tree, I saw what my son saw—his last and final view—a golden field stretching for acres with blue-purple mountains rippling the skyline in the distance. Initials he etched into the skin of the broad limb stretched away from me like a tattooed arm reaching toward promise in those purple mountains. The calm of the place wrapped its arms around me the way a loving grandma would. Had it looked and felt the same to him?

After his troubled early childhood in meth houses and foster care, I’d wanted to show him one way it’s possible to live. We (his two newest moms) took him bicycling and trampoline jumping, swimming, fishing, hiking, tree-climbing, and treehouse sleeping to build muscles and bones and good, strong breath. Provided quiet and rest, books and music, so his mind and soul could breathe as well as his body. Early on he was intrepid, a young adventurer grasping each new activity with gusto, fingers gripping bicycle handlebars, face red, and lungs pumping. Brows scrunched, tongue slightly protruding, fingers fixing bait to a hook. He breathed in everything like he really wanted to live.

By the end of third grade, he couldn’t read and still struggled to get through the alphabet without error, so we filled the summer with biking and hiking and swimming and swinging and walking and climbing. And stories. Audiobooks while we drove or cleaned the house and picture books and chapter books read aloud before bed. When fourth grade started, he zipped from not being able to get through the ABCs, to twelfth-grade-level reading, a feat we’d feared might be impossible and one that left his teacher’s mouth hanging open.

“Awww, just one more chapter?” he begged one day when I started to close the book I was reading aloud (Eragon, about a dragon and its rider) as we waited at the airport to board a plane. “You know what Mom?” He turned to me with a look of wonder. “A good book really passes the time.”

So, it slayed me (though not really, what he really did was slay himself) when he chose to stop his breath forever. Despite shock and grief, from my perspective cradled in the sequoia’s embrace, my son’s last act—stepping off that carved branch with a noose around his neck—seemed a little less dire, was perhaps a fierce act, a final act of self-determination in a life that had been so mangled by the neglect of others. Instead of simply desperate, I saw his act as brave, an act that took balls, took balls upon balls; it would have taken every ounce of considerable strength in my ovaries to commit his last series of acts.

The toss.

Did it take a few tosses to throw a rope over that sequoia branch thirty feet in the sky? It would have taken me several. I know this from all the times I camped in bear country. Each evening I sought out the perfect branch where I could hoist a food bag out of reach of black bears. It’s easy to toss a ball of slender rope ten feet in the air, but try twenty, the lightweight nylon cord falling short again and again. Try tossing between branches. Some tosses bounce off the limb or tangle in the boughs of another branch. Some days it would take toss after toss after toss, the air cooling as the sun sunk below the horizon. I almost gave in on occasion, almost surrendered the food to the bears, but didn’t because I was certain of my goal. How determined he must have been of his goal to throw and throw again.

Maybe he didn’t toss at all. Maybe he climbed all the way up. My god, he loved climbing trees as a boy of seven and eight and nine and ten. Was he half monkey? Or, was the top of a tree his way to reach for freedom and the sky?

Up, up he’d go, whether birch tree, dogwood, or fifty-foot evergreen, swinging, climbing, reaching, straining. Red-cheeked and huffing, muscles flexing, boy-joy grinning his face as wide as a face could go.

One day, he set off for the sky when he found himself high in the ever more tender branches of an old Douglas fir. He was up with the birds and the squirrel nests where the wispy sky reached down to caress his cheek when he froze. Could not climb down again. His other mother, my partner, climbed up after him. My partner: brave and benevolent, she’s neither agile nor small. And yet she climbed, branch after branch groaning under adult weight until she reached him, and together they climbed down again. He was red-cheeked and smiling with feet on the ground after that brush with the heavens.

Even in his late teens when darkness seemed to be stealing his wonder, he still retreated to the treehouse we’d built for boy-him. Took refuge amid the trunks and branches and weeping bows of the tropical smelling mimosa tree. Seemed to find some solace there.

On his final way out, he chose a tree. Perhaps he climbed up again through thick and ever shrinking branches, toward the sky, when he found the One. He looped his rope over it and climbed all the way back down hoping he’d found an alternate route to heaven, or at least a route out of the madness that had absconded with his joy.

The noose.

Did he Google it? Had he practiced? Did he settle for a simple slip knot? Any one of these steps would have stopped me cold, stopped me dead. No. Stopped me alive. No will for it from me. He, however, wasn’t kidding; he made a noose that worked.

My god, he was into ropes and knots in childhood. Even the photo on the bulletin made by child welfare workers shows six-year-old him in a tan t-shirt with a blazing flame on the front and a rope coiled round his shoulder. Should I have seen? Known better? Suspected?

I did not.

But the ropes and knots. He tied endless variations of rope and twine and string and bungee cords and belts together, always working on a booby trap to keep the Bad Guys out.

“What Bad Guys might be coming?” I asked one evening as ten-year-old him worked to affix a twelve-foot rope-ish contraption across the inside of our front door. “Are they real or pretend?”

“Real. Bad. Guys.” Each word seethed out with very little breath between clenched teeth.

When you start out in a chaotic environment with drug deals coming and going, and when you’re snatched up during a drug raid by the drug raid people, does someone in a hazmat suit or a bulletproof vest and helmet and twenty pounds of other gear, who looks like a Stormtrooper only you’re too young to know Star Wars and Stormtroopers, so who looks like some kind of monster, nab you off the bare mattress where three-year-old you sits next to a loaded gun and used hypodermic needles? Are bad guys, Real Bad Guys, always coming?

His knots weren’t all made of fear or anger. He begged for a book of sailors’ knots then set out to learn each one. He used knots to make rope ladders to and from his tree house. He made rope swings and rope belts and strung up tarps to make rope-n-tarp tents. He embraced the climbing wall at the rock gym and the beautiful, multi-color braided climbing ropes. Knotted ropes were full of contradiction: creativity, protection, everyday utility, fun, fear.

Several months after he died, I climbed to the attic of our house to retrieve extra linens stored there. The finished attic is a magical space in our century-old house, a crow’s nest with views all the way to Mt. Hood through the surrounding firs and cedars. I love it, and my son spent lots of time there as a boy and teen. In that private, quiet, crow’s nest of a space, he hunkered down and dived into the fantasy worlds that live and breathe inside books: Harry Potter and the wizarding world, prehistoric forests in Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, dark shadows in The Ranger’s Apprentice, and more. I passed books to him, and he passed books to me. We shared the enjoyment of many great tales.

When I realized my job was not as savior, rather my job as parent was to show up every damned day and create space for belonging but also space for longing for the mom he’d lost, and when I realized I couldn’t save him even if I wanted to, when I began to simply Be There, I still clung to a hope that perhaps his love of books might save him.

The step.

His final act of will. To place the noose around his neck and step off the branch he’d climbed onto. Knowing what would happen. Meaning it to happen. Willing himself out of this life and into… ?

Before I climbed up into the tree, when I stood on the ground beside my partner staring helplessly up, the sheriff who led us there waved his hand along the big, carved tree limb that paralleled the ground just a few feet up.

“His toes,” he indicated, “would have been right about here.”

My breath caught in my throat. My son’s toes hung one inch from salvation. A simple step back onto the limb and he’d have breathed again. He had to will his feet to first step off, then not step back on.

His testament to unfathomable despair.

His testament to unknowable bravery.

What happened in those last long moments after he stepped off the branch? Those moments when his legs and torso twitched and spasmed. Those moments that stretched to minutes and minutes and more. Did he know beforehand? I didn’t. For the longest time, this lover of breathing didn’t want to know, turned away from knowing.

I wanted to keep the story neat and sanitized. Theoretical. I wanted to spare you the details the way I spared myself for so long. The way I focused on the epitaph he left carved into the skin of that great tree, a gnarly old giant sequoia: B.M. 2-26-1995–4-9-2014.

The climb; mine after his.

I followed the sheriff who found his body to the base of that tree, no normal giant sequoia. Instead of one stately trunk, many enormous secondary trunks almost big around as the main one: arms that reached, snaked, and hovered parallel to the ground before they gently curved upward. I took a deep breath, inhaled the sweet tangy scents of evergreen.

“He strung his rope over that smaller branch way up there,” the sheriff said, pointing upward.

I tipped my head back and back as I followed the line of the big man’s index finger through lacy boughs of evergreen that drooped down over our heads.

My god, he’d loved not only to climb, but to hunker down and let trees hold him. From his early days scrambling up trunks and branches, sandy hair flying and mouth in a giant grin, to his teen years hiding in the backyard tree house, smoking cigarettes and brooding silently, the trunks of trees offered him safe harbor.

Plucky and adventurous at nine years old, he hauled a kid-sized backpack two miles uphill on our first overnight backpack trip. When we set up our tent, I worried he might be scared of the dark or offended by the bugs or bored without a television or a screen. But no. He climbed in and on and around the trees surrounding our forested backcountry camp spot past sunset, past twilight, past full-on dark. He embraced and actually hugged the trees, an inside-inspired grin lighting up his young face. As he got older, he still accepted and even sought, huge, heavy tree arms that could hold him, hold all his weight. Arms that could cradle a person. Arms, like a giant sequoia’s, that just might set you free.

“Help me up,” I said to the sheriff. Short. Curt.

I willed myself to climb where he’d climbed. Into the tree.

I had to see the last place where the boy-man I raised with my partner for the twelve years between seven and nineteen had stood. The place where he gave up the ghost on all of us who’d failed him. I had to see the place; see it, smell it, and feel it for myself.

The sheriff, a tall man in an olive-green uniform, bent his knee, lent his hand. I stepped on his thigh, my hand in his hand and boosted myself onto the broad sequoia limb my son had stepped off of, homemade noose around his neck.

The epitaph.

Did he plan a memorial to himself? Or when he sat on the limb, did the broad space offer itself as a place to claim his name, his life, his birth and death dates? He’d carefully carved through thick greening bark to the smooth brown wood with swirls of grain below, a beautiful tablet. B.M. he’d carved into the newly naked wood.

Even on the limb of the tree where my nineteen-year-old son hung himself, I couldn’t stifle a chortle. Said out loud, maybe a tad too loud, “He should have used his middle initial like I always told him. B.M. makes terrible initials.” From the ground below, the sheriff nodded up at me, but didn’t speak.

“B.M.” I read aloud for the second time. “2-26-1995–4-9-2014”

In life, to say he suffered low self-esteem was to dramatically understate.

“I know who I am!” he spat one day when he was sixteen. He pointed to his shoe, turned it sole-up. “The lowest of the low. A dirty old piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.”

Early in his tenure with us, he often used to wail. Why do they take little kids away from their moms? He fell onto his bed to cry and flail. Why did she leave me? Snot bubbled out of his nose. Why didn’t she want me? Quiet sobs wracked his small body. The agony of believing himself so unlovable that his own mother would give him up.

In his tenure with us, he often used to rail. Rage has more power than fear, more power than sorrow. Red-faced with fury, he kicked and screamed, slashed his bed, broke his toys, stabbed the trunks of the trees he loved. “Wanna know why I hate you?” He’d spit. “You’re not my real mom.” The agony of believing he didn’t belong. Behind you’re not my real mom, his deeper worry might have been that he was not a Real Son.

Still, over time he went from I hate you, you’re not my real mom to I’d take a bullet for you. Dramatic, I know, but so sincere and easier to say than I love you. Though those words came too. “I … don’t just … hate you. I … I … I love you, too.” He went from fuck you when asked about his homework, to “would you please look at this story I’m writing and give me feedback like you do with your writing group?” “I guess,” he said, “writing’s just in the blood, Mom.”

So, on the limb of that sequoia, my heart burbled with glad amidst the shock of sad when I saw that he found his existence worth claiming. I’d already known he was worthy, knew how much he mattered. But I rejoiced to see evidence that perhaps he felt it too. He left his initials and his birth and death days carved into an arm of the tree as if he believed it mattered.

In the last months before he left, he lost confidence in his worth, whatever confidence he’d gained. He started slipping out of the reality I lived in and into some other experience where voices and visions the rest of us couldn’t see and didn’t hear surrounded him regularly. “You’re controlling electronics with your mind,” he’d spit at me. “You’re lying, you’re tracking me, someone’s coming to get me.” I reached out to his birth mom, and, in recovery, she reached back. Together (which sounds more kumbaya than it was), three moms struggled to surround one son with a scaffold, but where we perceived a buttress of support, he perceived a trick. “You’re plotting to get me thrown in prison,” he told me. “You’re dressing up as me to rob a store,” he said to his birth mom. He feared being caught, captured, duped, imprisoned.

No matter how much it mattered, we couldn’t reach him.

Understand this. I never saw his body. Not there at the tree, thank all that is good and kind and holy in heaven and on earth. Not in the morgue where the sheriff had taken his body either, though I asked.

The young mortician held up his hands, stop-sign style.

“No.” His cheeks reddened. “N-no, ma’am.” His face fractured. Head shook. Voice stammered. “I-I mean … uh, I, uh can’t stop you, if-if you insist. But-but … but ma’am” he pulled himself taller and straighter, “I must advise against it.”

So… I never saw. It doesn’t mean I didn’t know then; doesn’t mean I don’t know now. One of the ways I honor him now, this dead young son of mine, is by knowing. By not looking away.

To hang.

When a person dies by hanging, it’s neither swift nor neat, as I had imagined. When a person hangs themself, they die by suffocation. It’s slow, drawn out. The tongue swells, capillaries break in bulging eyeballs, body twitches, and spasms as it involuntarily fights for breath. Finally defeated, sphincters loosen and release all they held. Finally defeated, muscle movement stops. The whole process might take up to twenty minutes.

A twenty-minute testament to the depth of misery he suffered.

Once, I sat at the tree—that giant sequoia beside highway 99—for twenty quiet minutes.

As witness. My testament.

What he bequeathed to me in his last will and testament had nothing to do with things. His last will wasn’t written on paper. His last testament wasn’t stamped or notarized.

His last will flutters on the tips of evergreen branches, drips with the sap of wounded tree trunks, floats on the inhales and exhales I take twenty thousand times a day. His last testament lies between the lines of this essay. His last will and testament slithers under my skin and swirls in my blood because yes, young son, writing does live in the blood. His last will and testament is carved like an epitaph, where it will always remain on my bones.

Cover art: “Corner Table” by Donald Patten

Mary Mandeville

Mary lives with her wife in Portland, Oregon. Her non-fiction and hybrid essays have been published in Atticus Review, Hags on Fire, Master’s Review, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Fugue, and elsewhere. Two of these essays have earned Pushcart nominations. When Mary’s not writing, she can be found providing chiropractic care, gardening, or walking her two aging pitbulls around the wilds of Portland.