‘Losing Max Was Burden Enough’

Photos: Courtesy the Maisel Family; Background Image: Anthony Bradshaw/Getty Images

One evening in February 2015, sportswriter Ivan Maisel answered the phone. A sheriff was on the other line. His son’s car had been found next to Lake Ontario, but his son was missing.

In that moment, a father’s instinct kicked in: Max was dead. 

Within hours, Maisel, ’81, his wife, Meg Murray, their daughters, Sarah, ’14, and Elizabeth, ’19, and their extended family and friends converged on Rochester, N.Y., where Max attended college. And within a week, Maisel was doing what he knows best: writing about it. 

“I want to tell you about Max, about me and Max, about me and no Max, which is about me and my grief,” he writes in I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye: A Memoir of Loss, Grief, and Love. Maisel wants us to get to know Max, the sweet, vulnerable, rule-following young man who stood 6 feet, 5 inches tall but weighed only 135 pounds; loved hamburgers but shunned the buns; and struggled with social interaction but communicated indelibly through photography. Above all, Maisel wants us to know that grief is not simply the price we pay for love—it is love itself.

  

I don’t consider myself a public figure. I am on television occasionally. I am best known in my native South, where college football is neck and neck with Southern Baptist for most popular religion. I live in the Northeast, where the only way you could make college football a religion is if the Yankees and Red Sox ditch the American League for the Big Ten.

But because I worked at ESPN, and since I appeared on television occasionally, when Max disappeared, it was not just the story of a college student gone missing. This story had a hook to it, and the hook went right into my cheek: The son of an ESPN writer went missing. Just the right intoxicant for online readers.

Max always hated being the center of attention. One of the smiles we allowed ourselves in those darkest days came in thinking of how he would have felt about trending on Twitter or being a story on People magazine’s website.

I realized Max had become a story. We had become a story. Believe me when I tell you I didn’t care. I had bigger things on my mind, like putting one foot in front of the other, like dealing with the detectives working on land, like watching the police scuba team troll the icy shallows of the Great Lake that probably held our son. Not to mention that the journalistic instincts of a 34-year career forbade me from stonewalling the media. I didn’t want to “no comment” anyone. Writers and broadcasters want to tell a story. If you help us tell your story, we’ll treat you well. Or at least fairly.


Self-portrait photo of Max Maisel staring into a mirror while touching it.Self-portrait of Max Maisel

 


None of this was front and center in my brain in the first 72 hours. It is more of a baseline picture of how I think, which I am explaining to set the scene for the epiphany that enabled me to grieve openly.

Meg and I spent that first night calling Rochester hospitals, trying to spin out scenarios of where he might be. It took Meg a couple of days to wrap her head around the notion that Max might have died. She was sure he would turn up, and she was sure she would give him hell for putting us through this when he did.

We didn’t sleep much that night. Shortly after daylight, Meg, Elizabeth and I threw clothes in the car and drove the seven hours to Rochester. On the drive up, we began to spread the word among our siblings and parents. Meg’s three brothers and four sisters began driving, from Cincinnati and northern Virginia, from New Hampshire and Maine and Syracuse. My brother and sister and my nieces and nephews, none of whom lived north of Atlanta or west of New Orleans, dropped their lives and began making their way to the frozen north.

As if Max’s disappearance didn’t put enough on our plate, during the drive Elizabeth began having stomach pains so severe that upon arriving in Rochester, I took her to the emergency room. It turned out to be some sort of bacterial infection. I remember the surreality of her sitting on an exam table, the local cable news station droning on the TV above us, and seeing Max’s picture on the screen. The news played on a 30-minute loop; we were there maybe three hours. I know we saw the news report several times. I remember pointing to it and saying to a nurse, “That’s my son, her brother. That’s why we are here.” It’s hard to make an emotional dent in an emergency room nurse. I think that did.

For three days, the Rochester police cast doubts on the supposition that Max died an intentional death. Max did not check the boxes of people who end their own lives. The detectives suggested more than once that perhaps Max had ditched his car and gone off on what the Aussies call a walkabout. Max wouldn’t have been the first college student to do so. But Meg and I knew that Max hadn’t disappeared in a good way. For one thing, as I explained, Max was a rule follower. He wouldn’t have just left. For another, the friends of his that we knew of at RIT were all present and accounted for. Many of them also belonged to Max’s online community; we couldn’t find someone anywhere who could tell us where Max might have gone. And yet another indication of distress: Meg checked his credit card purchases and his RIT food service account. He had stopped buying meals a few days before he disappeared.

On the fourth day of our lakeside vigil, as we arrived at the docks on one more gray and brutally cold February evening, one of the detectives pulled me and Meg aside. He asked us to put the girls in the car. He wanted to speak to us alone. 

“I have some news,” he said. The cops had begun some forensic work on Max’s computer and credit card records and found evidence that he intended to harm himself.

So there it was.

‘We have never been ashamed of Max, and we’re not going to start now.’

We thanked the detective. We thanked the scuba team chief when he came off the lake to tell us they hadn’t found Max. On our one-mile drive back to where we were staying, Meg suggested we not say anything to anyone in our families about the news that gave form to our worst suspicions. She wanted time to process the information, to figure out what to say. But I didn’t understand that. I didn’t ask her how long she needed. I just nodded.

We numbly followed our extended families as we descended en masse on a Thai restaurant. I say numbly because I don’t like Thai food. That’s how numb I was—I went to a Thai restaurant. I sat at one end of a long table of Murrays and Maisels. There was a lot of talk—you should meet our families—little of it by me. Something bothered me, and I couldn’t figure out how to articulate it. Even when we stopped afterward at Abbott’s, a frozen custard place that made Max very happy, I cut short any of my family’s attempts at conversation with me. My memory is of almost feeling physically uncomfortable in my skin. 

As we drove back to the house, as I stared out the window at the Rochester tundra, it dawned on me what was eating at me.

I don’t like keeping secrets.

Losing Max was burden enough. I didn’t want the secret of how he died to weigh on me as well. The last thing I wanted to do was have to keep track of which members of our families knew what. That sounded like unnecessary work, not to mention the emotional issues that would bloom as our extended family discovered that some knew all and all knew only some.

Meg didn’t feel any differently. She just needed some time. But I didn’t have the patience to wait. I didn’t want to return to the house and for one more second keep what we knew from our families. It was hard enough for me to carry my end of a conversation as it was.

As everyone walked into the house and started shedding winter layers, I pulled Meg aside.

“I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t not tell them what we know.”

We told our girls, and then we gathered everyone in the living room. I stood in the middle, surrounded by the people who love us more dearly than anyone else, who raced to what felt like the coldest place on earth (on that day, the low in Rochester was 1 degree) because we needed them. I stuffed my hands in my back pockets. When I began to speak, I kept my eyes focused on the ground. If I had looked at anyone, I would have choked up. And I said to our families what became the foundational tenet of my grieving.

“We have never been ashamed of Max,” I said. “And we’re not going to start now. This is what we found out today.”

I had come to the realization that I had to take the lead, that I had to be the shepherd in tone of how we as an extended family responded, both privately and publicly. You have to understand: I am the youngest of three children. I grew up being told what to do by parents and siblings. I always looked to others for guidance. But in these moments, I grasped that Meg and I knew more about this heartbreak than anyone in our extended families. We could depend on them for support, for succor, for love. They had our backs. But they had our backs because we were out front.

By not being secretive, we didn’t act as if Max’s death deserved secrecy. The first rule of stigma is that it’s a badge of something to which you don’t want to be attached.

So I laid out the framework of what the detective told us.

By not being secretive, we didn’t add to our considerable burden. 

By not being secretive, we didn’t act as if Max’s death deserved secrecy. The first rule of stigma is that it’s a badge of something to which you don’t want to be attached. 

By not being secretive, if someone thought Max’s death was shameful, or if someone didn’t want to participate in a conversation about Max, that would be their burden. I hope that’s not inconsiderate. I don’t mean it that way. To this day, I don’t broadcast how my son died. I don’t shy away from it, either. I play a lot of golf, and, invariably, when playing with someone I don’t know well, the conversation on the walk down the fairway turns to children.

“How many kids do you have?”

I make sure to modulate my tone. I don’t mumble. I don’t speak with an air of apology for answering an unloaded question with an emotional blast. The only hurt I suffer is that I don’t answer, as I did for 21 years, in chronological order.

“We have two girls, 29 and 24,” I say, “and our son died six years ago. He was 21, a junior in college. He went into a spiral, and we didn’t know it, and he ended his life.”

That answer always elicits a gasp; it’s the words that follow the gasp that provide a gauge of how my explanation landed. Pretty much everyone gets out an “I’m sorry.” They usually don’t venture much beyond that. I wish they did. I am willing to answer any questions about Max as simply and matter-of-factly as I answer the first one. You asked about my children. Max remains one of my children. Not only for my own peace of mind, but for the greater good. The fact is, mental illness needs sunlight. Suicide makes people uncomfortable. Only recently has it begun to emerge as a topic spoken only after pulling someone aside, and then in a whisper. But I will talk about it. I am not ashamed of it. We as a family need to talk about it for reasons of catharsis. We as a society need to talk about it, very simply, to save lives. Not just the lives of those considering it but the quality of lives of those whom suicide leaves behind. I came to believe that the four of us, and everyone who rushed to the ramparts with support, emotional and caloric, would survive this wound. It would leave a scar. How disfiguring and disabling the scar became would be up to us.  


Ivan Maisel, ’81, is vice president of editorial and a senior writer at On3.com. I Keep Trying to Catch His Eye will be published by Hachette Books in October 2021.

Excerpted from I KEEP TRYING TO CATCH HIS EYE: A Memoir of Loss, Grief, and Love. Used with the permission of the publisher, Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Ivan Maisel.