Jeff and Angelia have regular golf dates at Alabama's Shoal Creek.
We were at a function and someone asked how many children we had. I stumbled, unable to look at my wife, Angelia. As she said two, I said three.
The eldest of our boys died at our home in Atlanta in June 2010. Ang had taken Harris, 17, and Hamilton, 15, to attend a game at Yankee Stadium to reward them for making the honor roll. I was at my law firm's annual retreat in San Diego. Carter stayed home alone. He was on medication to treat attention-deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and anxiety but seemed to be turning a corner. My last correspondence with him was a chain of texts in which he asked permission to host a friend for golf at our club and later thanked me for the great time they had.
Carter had gone to work that afternoon at Publix. He brought home a sandwich and left half on the kitchen counter. He never came back downstairs to finish it. He died of an accidental overdose in his room. He was 19.
I've never met anyone like my son. When he played baseball and didn't get to pitch, he quit. When he didn't get the lead in the school play, he exited stage left. We saw and heard how kind he was to others, but he was rarely kind to himself. You saw it in his golf game, the way he could make three consecutive pars and then storm off the course if he made a quadruple bogey. We constantly reminded him of our love, and that life wasn't only about the pinnacles, but the climbs, too.
Carter didn't pick up when Ang called from New York. At 10 p.m. on a Friday night in Atlanta, it's tough finding anyone to drive to your house to check on your kid. Finally she found a willing family friend. Then 911 was called, and before long our worst fear was confirmed.
The next six weeks were hell. Ang stayed strong for our sons, who'd lost their brother. She cooked and cleaned and ordered pizza for all their friends who lived at our house to keep their spirits up. I kept going to work, though I shouldn't have. As soon as I came home I'd reach for the scotch. I'd lost my father to cancer that spring, too. Despite going to bed early I could barely get up in the morning and had some near misses on my commute. I'd call Carter's cell just to hear his voicemail greeting. Ang and I started seeing a grief counselor for the kids, but we kept going for our marriage. We didn't blame each other, but privately we thought about what we could've done differently. We would arrive and leave in separate cars.
One day, the counselor asked what made us happiest before. We answered with one word at the same time: "golf." In the wake of Carter's death we'd forgotten we used to play together twice a week, even when I was billing 60 hours. It'd been our time to make major decisions and say things we would never say in front of the kids.
I took a leave of absence. Eric Williamson, director of instruction at Shoal Creek in Birmingham, Ala., where we are members, called nearly every iconic private club in the northeast (Somerset Hills, Baltusrol, Sebonack, to name a few) to arrange our itinerary. These clubs all have strict rules about unaccompanied guests, but Eric explained our story, and I suppose promised enough reciprocal treatment to set us up at six courses in nine days. This trip would restore our marriage.
The air was still cold between us when we left. Ang drove. "Can I ask you a question?" was how we started conversations until we made a pact we'd stop talking like member-guest partners apologizing for bad shots. With all the things that come with losing a child, we realized that since Carter had died we'd talked about the stuff we had to, not the stuff we needed to.
The last course we played was Friar's Head. On the way to the 16th tee, there's a long footbridge that overlooks Long Island Sound. We put our bags down and our arms around each other and kissed--really kissed--for the first time in months. We didn't have to say anything. We knew we were going to be OK.