Remembering Max

Approximately 900 friends and family members gathered on March 27 for a memorial service at Congregation Bnai Israel in Bridgeport, CT., for our son Max, 21, who we presumed drowned on Feb. 22 in Rochester, N.Y. Due to the response my eulogy for Max received, and because several people have asked for copies, I post the text here.

Thank you, again, all of you, for your love and your support.

Max’s death has shone a light on the innate goodness in people, a quality that I am sure I didn’t appreciate until now.

I think of that as a gift from our son. I have to say, Max, that on the whole, I would have preferred a dozen golf balls.

Eight years ago, Meg and I stood here and talked about Max, who on that day became a Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish threshold of adulthood.

Today we are here again to talk about Max, who we presumed drowned on Feb. 22, shortly after he turned 21, the legal threshold of adulthood.

Max always hated being the center of attention. One of the smiles we have allowed ourselves of late is thinking of how Max would have felt about trending on Twitter, or being the subject of a story on People Magazine’s website.

In public, Max didn’t enter a room as much as he slid quietly along the wall. I should tell you that at home, he never entered the room quietly. When Max came down our stairs, he hit each step in a way that sounded somewhere between a gallop and a rockslide.

A lot went on between Max’s ears, most of which he guarded very carefully. He let very few — actually, close to none — inside his gates. He did this for self-preservation. It was a learned behavior. As a small boy, he had trouble grasping social cues. As he got older, he understood them but they remained a foreign language.

Max always marched to his own beat. As a toddler, he didn’t like loud noises, new foods or itchy tags. He was on his own planet and happy to be there. By age two, though, we realized he was different in ways that were stunting him and we intervened with every available resource: Special pre-school, speech therapy, OT, PT, psychologists, specialists — we spent the GNP of several small countries having him tested, all to find out he is “somewhere on the learning disorder spectrum.”

Thank you, behavioral sciences.

With his differences, he gained an early understanding of who he was. He would not do anything because everyone else did it. To put it another way, he would not do anything because everyone else did it. Sometimes I think it was plain old stubbornness. But it always came from a place of self-preservation.

His Stratfield schoolmates always accepted him. At Warde, he may have been an introvert, but he saw everything. He had no desire to drink or party, he accepted who he was, and as he became clearer about who he was, so did we.

He found things that he could make his own and he adopted them: He had no use for popular music but he liked video-game soundtracks. He maintained an unabashed enthusiasm for Broadway musicals and comedy.

Max had a wonderfully dry sense of humor, one we tried to cultivate in him from the get-go. Humor plays an important part in the lives of both the Maisels and the Murrays.

I introduced him at a young age to Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers’ farce. For the next, oh, two years, he would walk up to me and call me swine, I would call him upstart, and he would pretend to slap me.

He loved Bugs and Daffy, and he loved Bob and Ray. Both duos delivered a lot of punch lines that remain in use in our house today. As a teenager, Max was devoted to the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and of late, to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver.

I will tell you that when Elizabeth got her wisdom teeth out last week, I was annoyed that Max wasn’t around to hear me ask her a question I asked him all the time:

“Max, does your face hurt?”

As he got older, he began replying, “No, but yours is killing me, and I don’t know why you even bother.”

You could draw a direct line in Max’s interests, from Thomas the Tank Engine to dinosaurs to Bionicles to Legos to Pokemon to BeyBlades to Harry Potter to anime to manga to the TV show Survivor to the movies of Christopher Nolan. He loved our dog, which he daily called the stupid mutt. He was utterly devoted to our cat.

Max was a black-and-white person in a gray world. He came up in a family of Alabama Crimson Tiders, so he was trained by three generations to feel a certain way about Alabama’s archrival. Now, I must tell you my line of work takes me to Auburn regularly, and I have friendships there that have developed over my 30 years of covering college football. But that was a subtlety that escaped our 12-year-old son. I once introduced the Sports Information Director to Max, as “my friend from Auburn, Kirk Sampson,” to which Max reflexively replied, “But, Dad — you hate Auburn!”

Maybe that’s how Max learned to hold grudges, granting a merciful pardon only when he had no choice, as with me and Meg, or with his beloved ski instructor in Steamboat, Josh Berkowitz. Josh pushed Max past his fears and made him a skier comfortable and competent on any terrain. But Josh made the high-school-age Max so mad one year that Max just stopped talking to him. When we learned of this, we told Max that was fine. He could just ski with his mother and father all day.

Max found it in his heart to forgive Josh.

Max was a rule follower, rarely varying from routine. He loved structure. He did well when told what to do. That may be due to birth order, or it may just have been his personality. He feared getting into trouble. He feared a lot of things. If something proved difficult, he got anxious. Rather than work harder, he tended to shut down.

But when Max decided to do something — once he moved past the anxiety — he did it very well. We regularly reminded him that once he faced up to the fact that he had no choice about becoming a bar mitzvah, he aced his Torah portion. Once we told him he had no choice about getting his driver’s license, he passed the test. And if you ever drove behind him, you know he drove the speed limit. Legend has it he once made the entire Warde Class of 2012 late for school, because he went 24 miles an hour up Melville Avenue.

Every major hurdle in his life, once he got over his fear, he leapt over gracefully and with room to spare. Mustering all that energy, at every hurdle, must have been exhausting. Our dear friend, Anne Pride, told us Max gave us a gift, that maybe he hung on as long as did because of his love for us.

That beautiful sentiment has soothed me time and again over the last five weeks.

Max realized that for him, his passions and friends lay outside of his immediate schoolmates and surroundings. By his sophomore year at Warde, computers became his entry into the video gaming world, where he found his true people. Max developed an online community of friends from all over the country. That some of them went to RIT was a huge factor in his decision to go there. We’d go to sleep hearing him battle unseen friends — chortling when he won, asking for another game when he lost.

Max was devoted to two animated series, Red vs. Blue and RWBY. The members of his beloved online community found one another because of their devotion to those series. In each of the last three Novembers, Max and the group traveled from across the country to meet at the Youmacon convention in Detroit. Max fell in love with one woman in the group, and fell hard. While it didn’t work out, it lasted more than a year and a half, and gave him the hope that someday, he would find the right woman.

No parent knows how a child lives at college. Clearly, the disaster we have on our hands is an indication of that. We didn’t recognize the downward spiral Max was in, and that is the burden that psychologists tell us we can’t carry. As much as we tried, as great a job as our friends and family tell us we did, it wasn’t enough.

But since Max disappeared, we also began to hear about a side of him that we didn’t know, someone who reached out to others. A man in Missouri who is part of Max’s online community described our son as his best friend. A transgender friend of Max’s told us about the unconditional support Max provided through that step across the biological divide.

We also began to see a side of Max we didn’t know. Max majored in photography at RIT, yet he refused to show us any of his work, no matter how regularly we asked. Finally, for Chanukah last year, after a direct maternal — Request? Command? — he gave Meg a digital frame with 40 landscape photos. The slideshow in our family room has been running for a month now. I am usually the first one awake, and when I go downstairs, Max’s pixels seem alive, bidding me good morning from him as they cast an ethereal, changing glow through the darkness.

We gathered from his belongings boxes and boxes of photographic prints, which we got to see at last. His professors tell us Max was succeeding. He earned pocket money as a class notetaker, an important job at RIT, where about 1,200 students are deaf. He sat in the front, and he never missed a class. When Max didn’t appear in that last week of February, one professor told Meg, he knew something bad had happened.

Our friend Ellen Reilly told us a story of Max at a young age, wandering around the Lanese Memorial Day party by himself. You have to understand: our friends T.J. and Debbie Lanese used to hold a party on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend attended by everyone in the 06825. And I mean, everyone .

Max was wandering around, alone per usual, and Ellen called him over to where she was sitting with her daughter Charlotte, Max’s classmate. Ellen asked him about the party, and if he was having a good time, and he answered, and she tried to chat him up, and he never knew how to do that, so the conversation came to a close. Max wandered off, but Ellen remembered he quickly, quietly came back to where she and Charlotte were sitting and sat down a few feet away. As much as he shrunk from conversation as the grease of human interaction, he wanted the connection.

He wanted the connection.

Max has a wonderful older sister in Sarah. From the day he was born, she never showed sibling jealousy. For 21 years, he was thrilled to be the follower she led. When Sarah left for college, Max and Elizabeth developed new bonds, usually including running commentaries on the inadequacies of their annoying parents.

But Max also collected older siblings:

— his cousins on both sides;

— Drew Barlaam, our neighbor, who became the older brother Max didn’t have, perhaps because, when the Barlaams and Maisels made their annual summer trips to Vermont, it was two moms, four girls, and, one word, DrewandMax;

— Stephanie Ard became Max’s honorary big sister. Stephanie used to come get Max and take him for ice cream, or a burger. Stephanie is an elegant writer, and since Max disappeared, she sent us a meditation that included this paragraph.

When I was driving to work early yesterday morning, the sky seemed magical — filled with pink, purple and red striations — like one of Max’s photographs. Suddenly, a flock returning from the long, dark winter crossed the bands of colors. There were ten or twelve birds perfectly aligned in a “V”, but one followed alongside — keeping safe distance.

— — -

Charlie Chaplin was once asked how to improve the classic visual joke of a man and a banana peel. His solution: the man walks down the street. There’s a shot of a banana peel on the street ahead. Show the man, oblivious to the danger. Show the peel. Show the man approaching. Peel. Man. Peel.

At the last second, as the audience is prepped and poised to see the pratfall, the man sees the peel and steps around it. Self-satisfaction spreads across his face. Crisis averted. Maybe even a jaunty look. The man takes one step — and goes right down an open manhole.

I always thought, if we can get Max through the hell of high school, he will go to college, find himself, find his people and he will blossom. Max began to find himself. He found his people.

And he stepped right into a manhole.

As he told a counselor at RIT that he had no intent to hurt himself or others, he told a couple of online friends that he wanted to disappear. We noticed that he had gone underground, but this was a matter of degrees. Max disliked talking on the phone. We assumed it was just the normal pressures of college.

We were wrong.

There is circumstantial evidence to indicate that Max intended to take his own life. The Rochester police tell us they will not connect the dots. But you don’t have to be a pointillist to see a larger picture. We live at a time when suicide is recognized as a result of mental illness, when the stigma has been removed. Even if it weren’t, we have never been ashamed of Max, and we aren’t going to start now.

And yet. And yet.

Three days before he disappeared, he paid for a year-long membership to OK Cupid, the dating service. On the day he disappeared, he spent the afternoon doing photographic work, which we think was for a class. Police found no note in his car or on his computer. None of this, they tell us, is consistent with the behavior of someone intent upon hurting himself.

Suicide can be an impulsive act; or, as my fellow Mobilian Jimmy Buffett sang about tattoos, a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Really, what difference does it make? Accidental or intentional, he’s gone. Either path leads to the result that we don’t have him anymore.

We have learned over the last month that hindsight is not 20/20. It is, in fact, a hall of mirrors, distorting memory, assigning motive and meaning where it may not belong.

It is tempting to think of this as a version of It’s A Wonderful Life with the last reel missing. Clarence didn’t save Max, who, as a result, didn’t realize the impact his life had on all of us.

In the end, we may never know what happened. All we do know is that Max tried to leave the room — quietly.

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