Rob Black can’t stop thinking about the day his son died. He passes the same streets, stops at the same lights, pictures the same gun in his passenger seat. He tries to understand how Andrew felt, willing himself to go through it now, knowing what he knows and the things he never will.
Alyssa Black can’t stop wondering about the last song her son played. She pictures the album cover on the the stand beside the record player, imagines the vinyl filling his room as it spins. But then the needle lifts and Andrew slides the record back in place and there’s no more sound.
The Blacks wonder a lot of things like this. Desperate to recreate Andrew’s final hours, they search for anything to help them make sense of the day their 23-year-old ended his life.
Some things they do know. They know Andrew did a load of laundry and hung his favorite socks to dry on the bathroom towel rack, like he always did. They know he watched two episodes in the third season of Mad Men. They know he bought a gun. They know he shot himself. They believe they know why.
Some things they don’t want to talk about because there comes a point where talking is no longer cathartic.
Other things they do. Like how Andrew would dust snow off his co-workers’ cars after a long winter day. How he would race inside to share a scene from his drive – a turkey in a field, perhaps – finding magic in the mundane. How he was funny, incredibly funny, the type to spur laughter even now as they wipe away tears.
Weeks after his death they start to sort through his belongings, intending to get rid of some. But right now, everything feels like it has a story: Even items they’ve never seen feel too important to discard, as if doing so loses another piece of their son. So they hold them in their hands and putter around and try again tomorrow.
Alyssa recently found a band from Andrew’s favorite watch. He replaced it this fall when it broke, and now it sits in his desk near a receipt for the new one. She knows it’s not much, knows she should throw it away. She knows it’s just a broken watch band. “But Andrew wanted to keep it,” she says, her eyes catching the light.
“So what do you do with it?”
Growing up the youngest of three, Andrew was always among the pairings inevitable with an odd number of kids – in that way he could feel like the glue that held the family together. It also meant he found himself under a slightly different set of rules.
“We’d been sort of worn down,” Alyssa said with a laugh.
“Not that he got away with more than the other two,” Rob clarified. A grin suggested otherwise.
Though Andrew excelled athletically, sports struggled to hold his focus, and he threw himself into a new one every few years. First baseball, then lacrosse, finally hockey. Academics were a similar story. All parent-teacher conferences started the same way: His teachers said he was a pleasure to have in class, and his parents prepared themselves for the “but.”
“If he liked your subject, he was an A student,” Rob said. “If he wasn’t interested, you weren’t getting any of his attention.”
English class was a common victim. He would often skip homework to teach himself Russian – an interest sparked from some Orwellian read. Rob dreaded sharing this fact with understandably skeptical teachers. But that was Andrew.
“What he was interested in, he wasn’t going to let anybody tell him [different],” Rob said.
Desperate to find something he could sink his teeth into, Alyssa saw an opportunity when her then-16-year-old son showed interest in chemistry, so she bought him a home brewing kit. Soon after, she spent a week driving around the county in search of cocoa nibs, a new shopping list request.
The hobby grew to something more as Andrew filled notebooks with recipes and tweaks, becoming a chemist in his own right. He developed a palate for good beer, and over his seven years working at Essex Discount Beverage, it wasn’t uncommon to hear his name called out when a customer needed recommendations (or when someone returning bottles wanted the count done properly).
By his early 20s, Andrew longed to join one of Vermont’s top breweries, dismissing his parents’ advice that he get his start somewhere small. Last fall, his persistence paid off: After getting an interview at Lawson’s Finest Liquids, he was hired the same day.
For the next few months he’d make the long drive to Waitsfield from his parents’ home in Essex, waking up at 7 a.m. even though his shift didn’t start for hours.
He would come downstairs and make a cup of coffee, cleaning the kitchen as he went, then take his dog, Biggie, for a walk. Then he might just sit for a while – centering himself, Alyssa called it – maybe thinking about what he had to do that day, or maybe about nothing at all.
He had moved away from home before but returned several years ago so he could save money. His siblings had done the same, living rent-free until their parents decided they needed to move on. Rob and Alyssa nearly reached that point with Andrew, too. But whenever they thought it might be time, they came home to find he’d spent his entire day off dusting ledges or buffing their hardwood floors.
“He always did just enough to make sure he had a place to stay,” Rob said, smiling. Alyssa added, “I don’t ever remember asking him to do something that he wouldn’t go out of his way to ensure that he did. Except for cut his hair.”
Indeed, though she eventually gave up on that idea, Andrew’s mother frequently tried to convince him to trim his beard, which by 23 was still patchy in some places.
When Alyssa asked the last time, a few days before he died, Andrew looked at her and smiled. “That day is coming,” he said. “But today is not that day.”
On the morning of his death, Andrew found out he scored an apartment in Waterbury, closer to his new job. He was supposed to get the keys a few weeks later, making his death feel all the more sudden to his parents.
“Everything was falling in place,” Rob said.
Experts warn against simplifying why someone turns to suicide, explaining the decision rarely results from a single incident, and Rob and Alyssa understand signs of depression are often evident in such deaths. But they say they saw nothing to suggest Andrew would kill himself.
“I guess Andrew had a good way of hiding things, obviously,” Rob said. “But it was a kid that was having a bad day. That’s all it was.”
They learn that Andrew decided his fate the night before he died, and sitting to write his obituary, they couldn’t shake the feeling that if he had a bit more time around people he loved, he may have changed his mind. But there was no more time. Because Vermont has no waiting period to purchase firearms, he was able to walk into the gun store two minutes past 11 a.m. the next morning and leave with a weapon in under 30 minutes. He was dead within hours.
So Rob and Alyssa ended his obituary with a plea, 31 words long, that readers could share with their legislators: “We ask that you work for legislation that imposes a reasonable waiting period between firearm purchase and possession to provide a cooling off period to guard against impulsive acts of violence.”
The calls from reporters started days later, and the story quickly spread. Before long, thousands of people had heard the Blacks’ message, seeing Andrew’s face on the websites for The Washington Post and National Public Radio, and within weeks there was talk of a bill to enact a waiting period in Vermont – just what they had hoped.
At the same time, Rob and Alyssa saw their grief become public in a way most wouldn’t understand. The comment section of Andrew’s obituary started to feel like a guestbook for a tourist site, with messages from people they’ve never met in places they’ve never heard of.
Meanwhile, Alyssa found herself a member of a club no one ever wishes to join. Stories of grief near and far flooded her inbox from mothers who lost sons in same way – sons of 19, of 24. Sons like Andrew. The messages kept coming until Rob and Alyssa start to feel like they’re not alone.
But the attention went both ways. Strangers criticized them for speaking out, accused them of politicizing their son’s death. Even people in their own community – people Andrew may have helped one day at the store – questioned their motives. They called them names.
Rob told Alyssa not to read any of it, but she felt she must, rationalizing that these people don’t have the first clue about her or her family. Even if they did, there’s nothing they could say to make her feel worse. So she read the good and the bad, numb to it all.
One comment eventually got to her. A mother whose son also died by suicide told Alyssa to quit focusing on gun control and instead concentrate on grieving. Recalling it now, her voice catches with anger.
“You think I’m not grieving?” she says. “You think every single waking moment I’m not just lost? We’ve lost our son. It’s overwhelming grief.”
It’s been nearly two months since Andrew died, and the news cycle has moved on, the messages have dried up, but they press on, vowing to see through what they started. They sit and talk for hours with state legislators and leave optimistic, feeling they’ve been heard.
Rob and Alyssa are not the first to push for changes in the wake of death, nor will they be the last. Laws around the country bear the names of children like Andrew whose parents dedicated themselves to ensuring their loss did not pass with insignificance. Boiled down, it gives Rob and Alyssa purpose, something to think about instead of the void.
But even purpose can only hold their focus for so long. They still round the corner and see Andrew’s car beneath a blanket of white, though it hasn’t snowed in days. They still find Biggie at the top of the stairs at night, wondering what happened to his best friend. They still slip up and ask where is Andrew.
They worry about their other children, too, knowing Steven and Victoria have felt the loss in different ways. Together, they try their best to navigate the holidays. They celebrate Christmas a day early, thinking it might be good to start some new traditions. But they can’t shake that empty feeling.
It’s here they find themselves during uncounted hours – circling the questions, replaying the memories, advocating for change – an endless, exhausting loop that sometimes they wish to forget. The thoughts rush in when they try to keep them out, like a levee broken by a storm.
“Your whole life has been upturned, and it’s never going to be the way it was. Do you ever get over that?” Rob asks, knowing the answer.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.