How does a mother make sense of a son's suicide?
That terrible question lies at the heart of Janet Burroway's deeply moving, fiercely beautiful memoir, Losing Tim.
Burroway's career as a writer and teacher of writing has spanned six decades. She retired from Florida State University as a distinguished professor emerita, she is the 2014 recipient of the Florida Humanities Councils' Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, and she is the author of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, now in its ninth edition and one of the most widely used books of its kind. She has written novels, plays, poetry and nonfiction — this year alone, she has published five books as author or editor and is working on bringing a musical she wrote to the stage.
But the devastating and insightful Losing Tim is probably her most deeply personal book.
It is the story of Tim Eysselinck, the elder of Burroway's two sons. Tim was "one of those boys for whom the paraphernalia of war held a fascination from toddlerhood," she writes, despite his mother's liberal politics and distrust of the military. Tim served in the Army for four years and the Reserves for eight. He volunteered for deployments around the world, garnered glowing evaluations and found his niche as a mine removal expert — a task aimed at saving lives.
Then the Army privatized his job, and thousands of others. "By the time Tim reached Iraq in 2003, half the jobs that had been done by soldiers from World War I to the first Gulf War would be farmed out to multinational corporations and their hired hands," Burroway writes.
"The corporations could make quick profits. The temp help could be cut loose without V.A. medical rights or a G.I. Bill. The Pentagon need not keep track of their casualties."
Tim was convinced of the value of his work, so he went to work for one of those corporations, overseeing mine removal in increasingly dangerous conditions in Iraq.
In the spring of 2004, Tim went home on leave to Namibia, where his wife and children lived. There, he shot himself. He was 40 years old.
Burroway begins with the phone call from Tim's wife, Birgitt, and the "next hours in that strange after-state of catastrophe, at once numb and intense, the body somehow silently thundering." She writes vividly of the surreal trip to Namibia for his funeral and her realization of the questions surrounding his death — he was not a man whom anyone expected to commit suicide, but slowly, events during the last months of his life reveal clues to what might have happened.
Burroway brings ruthless eloquence to her depiction of her own grief and that of Tim's other family members and friends, and she paints an achingly tangible portrait of Tim himself, from boy to man.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The question of why any particular suicide happened is ultimately unanswerable, but Burroway places Tim's death in a larger and meaningful context: how our nation treats the men and women who fight our wars. Post-traumatic stress disorder might well have been a factor for Tim, as well as his disillusionment with changes in the military and with U.S. policy, despite his lifelong, dedicated patriotism.
Burroway notes that, because she has always been a writer, writing became one of her most useful ways of coping with loss, for "when I'm writing I have verbal nails and miters, planes and levels, a shed's worth of cared-for tools to give me the illusion of control." Her writing is a gift, too, for others who mourn — which is to say, all of us.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.