Searching for Alexander

In remembering his stepson, a young man who found peace and solace in nature, the author learns about the limits of love, the pain of loss, and finding hope again.

By Geoffrey Douglas

Jun 19 2018


Searching for Alexander

Photo Credit : Eiko Ojala
Searching for Alexander
Photo Credit : Eiko Ojala

Near the peak of Mount Mansfield on a sunny July morning, Nate Launer cradles a small gray-brown bird in his hand. He has just released it from a mist net, and will soon wrap its tiny pink leg with a wafer-thin band before letting it go.

It is a Bicknell’s thrush, the rarest and most secretive of North America’s breeding thrushes, and is now under threat as its natural habitat—the coniferous alpine forests of northern New England, the Adirondacks, and Canada—progressively dwindles in a changing climate.

“As the air warms, the deciduous trees move higher and begin to squeeze out the balsam and spruce where the Bicknell’s thrushes make their nests,” Nate explains to me later. The banding he was doing that morning, he says, will help track the birds’ movements as they attempt to adapt to the change.

Nate is 21 years old, a senior at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, where he majors in conservation biology. His morning on Mount Mansfield today is the result of a summer apprenticeship, the Alexander Dickey Conservation Internship, awarded by the Vermont Center for Ecostudies (VCE) in honor of another young man who once walked these woods in search of the Bicknell’s thrush: “a mostly solitary soul,” as the VCE announcement described him, “who found in nature refuge from a world that often seemed too much.”

Nate admits he knows little about the young man in whose name he is passing his summer. “I’ve been a little afraid to ask,” he says. “I can sense there’s a sensitivity there.”

I was working in the study of our New Hampshire home, around 4 in the afternoon, on Saturday, October 19, 2013, when the phone rang with a call from my wife, Landon. She had just read a text message from her 28-year-old son, Alexander, written an hour before: I’ve gone for a walk in the woods. She asked if I thought she should worry. It was clear to me that she knew the answer already.

It was a sunny fall day with the maples near their peak. It had been much the same the morning before, when Landon had driven two hours south to visit Alex at the small therapeutic community in western Massachusetts, Gould Farm, where he had been living for most of the past 15 months. They had gone to a garden center, where they wandered the stalls of apple varieties and bought jars of maple syrup and apple jelly— “the sort of place he loved,” she says. Afterward, they had driven back to Gould Farm and sat in the car and talked for nearly an hour, about his illness and his fears of the future. Alex cried, overwhelmed by regrets. Landon assured him that she would support him through whatever came next. On the drive home, she remembers, “I felt encouraged. Very daunted but still encouraged. We were in a new phase, and it was going to be all right.”

At 11:35 that night, Alex emailed his mother. He had been for a walk, he wrote, “with the full moon high in the sky,” and it had reminded him of the work of an 11th-century Japanese poet, who had written of the moon’s power to unite loved ones separated by distance: “If looking at it, we just remember / our two hearts may meet.” He wrote of his love of the Maine coast and his yearning to live there, “to live alone for a time … to take walks every day, write and read poetry, cook healthy food for myself, play the guitar, absorb the beauty and vitality of the ocean, and hopefully find a way through my illness.” That illness, he wrote, was like a cancer “that I have to come to terms with, accept that I may die from it, but do everything I can to keep living.”

He closed by saying, “I love you so much, Mom. I can’t tell you how much you mean to me, and how essential your support and love have been.”

It’s impossible to know when or how the pain took root. Growing up in a small town in western New Hampshire, on the edge of a meadow with a view of Smart’s Mountain on one side and the Connecticut River on the other, Alex spent endless hours outdoors—“planning lots of ‘missions’ in the woods,” says his mother. He skied and played soccer, basketball, golf, and lacrosse; he sang in the glee club; and for a while he dreamed of being a PGA golfer or a crack skateboarder in the mold of Tony Hawk. At his middle school graduation in the spring of 2000, he won the award for “Most Well-Rounded Student: Scholar, Athlete, Friend.”

Alex Dickey in 2009, not long before he took a volunteer internship with the Vermont Center for Ecostudies—a job that found him most in his element, his family says.
Photo Credit : Carl Cooley

He was the older brother to two siblings, Kelsey and Charley. Kelsey remembers, at the age of 6 or 7, following Alex’s tracks across a frozen pond—“it was like we were Lewis and Clark”—and being rewarded with her first moose sighting. “He was always curious,” she says today, “and up for anything. And he had a really big heart.”

His parents separated in the fall of 2000, the year he went away to high school. “That was hard for him,” his mother says. “I think he thought if he’d been home, he might have helped repair things.” But by the end of that year, life seemed to have normalized: “He made lots of friends, he played sports, he took up the guitar. He could be moody at times, but mostly he seemed happy.”

Yet his brother, Charley, younger by five years, remembers noticing something changing toward the end of Alex’s junior year.

“I idolized him, the way you do with an older brother,” he says. “He was popular, a good athlete, good-looking, and the girls all liked him. But you could see things starting to fall apart for him. It just seemed like he was having trouble doing the things he wanted, and he couldn’t relate to his friends as well anymore.”

Landon remembers a T-shirt Alex wore that year with the word LOST in a big green circle on the front. “It concerned me. But we stayed in close contact, visited often, and he seemed happy enough while we were with him. He had a wonderful sense of humor, could be very unselfconsciously silly with us—and that remained intact.”

He graduated from high school in 2004. An honor roll student with special distinction in natural science and orchestral music, he was asked to speak at graduation, but declined.

Who understands why this young man, healthy and so full of life, goes off alone to read a book of poems?

It’s uncertain when Alex wrote these lines, untitled and undated among the jumble of writings he left behind. With simple, undressed honesty, he seems to be asking: Who am I, and why am I so alone?

He wrote endlessly—poems, essays, short stories, meditations, sometimes-formless constructions I wonder if he understood himself. He played the guitar, often for hours. He listened to punk and folk, to Coltrane and Miles Davis, played “Rite of Spring” ritually every April, and lingered maddeningly long in art museums, scribbling intently in a small spiral notebook he was rarely without.

Most of all, he loved the outdoors. He never tired of hiking: in the woods, over mountains, on empty beaches, listening for birdcalls, studying the colors and contours of the leaves or the trees or the shells. I remember a weekend with him and Landon in the Adirondacks in the summer of 2012. Alex had brought a young woman named Tonya, a kindred disciple of nature. For two days, they hiked and boated, at one point paddling up the Moose River, oblivious to all of us, floating under balsams, practicing birdcalls, examining the striations of lilies and shore plants. Later at dinner, detailing their day, they were twin geysers of excitement and delight. I never saw Alex more happy.

He seemed to me one of those people you could say had missed their time. It wasn’t hard to envision him in, say, Renaissance Italy or 18th-century England, a gentleman-poet awash in ideas and great feelings, haunting the village squares and coffeehouses of the day, arguing the merits of humanism or democracy or extolling the beauties of the natural world. But we live in less forgiving times.

College was a struggle. In the spring of his freshman year at Skidmore College, Alex confided to his adviser (who recalled him later as “one of those who catches at your heart”) that he was suffering from depression and feeling overwhelmed. He changed majors twice in two years—from English to Spanish, then to philosophy—before dropping out, never to return.

This set in motion a succession of ever-narrowing paths, each one seeded by hopes that never seemed to blossom. A semester in Spain marked the start of a love affair with Spanish guitar, but was overhung by a loneliness he couldn’t shake. A transfer to the University of British Columbia saw an immersion in the land and birds of the Pacific Northwest (“He hiked all over the province,” his mother says, “started memorizing the names of birds, trees, land masses, wherever his curiosity led him”), but then he dropped out overnight, midway through his third semester, with no warning or notice to anyone.

He was never without friends—there was a warmth to him, and a realness, you almost couldn’t resist. But as time went by, some of them began to drop away. “I think they appreciated his sensitivity,” says Landon, “but in the end they couldn’t completely fathom the darkness he fought against.”

I also had no clue of its depths—such as the night in Vancouver, toward the end of his time there, when, drunk in a bar, he flew into a rage and went at a stranger with a broken beer bottle. I knew nothing of this then, and might not have believed it if I had. Even now, years later, it is almost unimaginable to me.

“A bouncer threw him out on the street,” Charley says. “He woke up later on a train with only one shoe. It sounded kind of funny at the time when he told it, but looking back now, it really shows how separate he was.”

Alex returned home in the fall of 2008 and moved in with his father, an attorney and health policy analyst in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. The next four years were a succession of false starts and near-rescues: a brief part-time attendance at UNH; several semesters, also part-time, at Colby-Sawyer in New London; a three-month stint at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts; a close relationship with a Dartmouth-based psychotherapist, whom Alex seemed to believe had a window into his soul.

It was toward the start of this time, in the late summer of 2009, that Landon and I were married. Our wedding, by a lake in the Adirondacks where I had spent my boyhood summers, culminated in a ceremony overlooking the water. Alex, as the oldest of Landon’s three children, stood alongside me and my son at the makeshift altar; later, toward the end of dinner, again on behalf of the three of them, he rose to toast us. I don’t remember many of his words, only how awkward and heartfelt—and unfittingly honest—they felt to me at the time. It had been painful for him and his siblings, he said, to endure the coming-apart of their parents’ marriage; it was an “adjustment” to make space for their mother’s new partner. They didn’t know me well but would come to know me better. I was welcome in their family. They were very happy for her.

By the end of it all he was rambling, unsure of how to finish, and the room was far too quiet. Charley, standing next to him, waited for a pause, then raised his glass and his voice: “A toast to Mom and Geoffrey!” And Alex, suddenly shy and thankful, sat down.

The Dickey siblings—Charley, Kelsey, and Alex—with mom Landon in January 2012. The death of their father later that year turned out to be especially hard on Alex.
Photo Credit : courtesy of Kelsey Dickey

It may have been around this time, from what I can tell from his writings, that Alex began thinking seriously about dying. In an email he wrote in the fall of 2010, to a professor he’d grown close to at Colby-Sawyer, he spoke despairingly of “a disconnect in my brain; [it] simply doesn’t know when to stop thinking, stop worrying, stop asking. [It] cannot feel certain, content, appeased by anything.” He was finding it increasingly difficult, he wrote, “to remain afloat in this world so often beset by these thoughts.”

The professor wrote back the next day, advising Alex to not isolate himself: “If you were a hockey player, and were really good at it, you would want to play hockey all the time, and want people to play hockey with. You’re a thinker; so you need to find other thinkers … and be with them, and talk about all these questions, [and] tell jokes and see beautiful things. And maybe at some point, find someone to not only think with but to love—and hang around with them a lot.”

For all these dark thoughts, though, there remained an embrace of life behind Alex’s daily activities that was palpable to anyone who knew him. Only a few months before that email exchange, he had begun his work with VCE; for the next several months he paddled lakes and climbed mountains in search of loons to rescue from tangled fishing lines or Bicknell’s thrushes to band and release. The work delighted him—he talked about it all that summer. And for those who worked with him, the delight was mutual.

“From the moment he arrived at our office that spring, Alex won us over,” remembers VCE executive director Chris Rimmer, who especially recalls his “probing curiosity, gentle compassion, and sense of innocence … I don’t believe I’ve ever known a more gentle, thoughtful soul.”

Alex’s life remained a battle between poles. He would write almost daily of darkness and death, but also of hummingbirds, his grandmother’s picked strawberries, or the discovery of a butterfly’s wing (“black-framed, white-mottled and apricot, a savior on the sidewalk”). “I know what you mean about how the flicker of a whitetail deer or the chitter of a red squirrel is sometimes all that saves you,” his mother emailed him in December 2009. “Thank you, Alexander, for letting me see that world through your senses.” He kept up his volunteer work at VCE, composed new guitar pieces, met with his therapist regularly, and made A’s at Colby-Sawyer —“the best student I ever had,” one professor said later. To most of us rooting him on, it seemed he might be winning.

The rooting was hard, though. There seemed always a stumble after every step forward. And he was in his late 20s by now; the world was moving on without him. The reality of this, Charley says, was painful to witness:

“It was hard to see him always gracefully explaining to people how things were with him, and always in that same lighthearted way—not that he was ‘failing,’ exactly, just that he wasn’t quite where he was expected to be. The speed bumps just kept getting bigger and bigger for him, and he just kept explaining, kept keeping it light. I always respected how he handled it. I respected his pride. But I was sad that he had to answer all those questions.”

Then, in early May of 2012, Alex’s father, who had long been ill with a debilitating condition that had kept him out of work for more than a year, died unexpectedly. For Alex, this marked the start of the final cycle down.

We sat together in the white church. It was May. The windows of the church were open. Crab apple blossoms were falling on the grass. It made no sense.

I prepared our last dinner on a Monday night, cooked pork chops, summer squash and brown rice, which we ate while watching a TV program on Geronimo and the Apaches.

It was clear to us all that Alex was going to need more help than a twice-weekly therapist could offer. The choice was Gould Farm, a 100-year-old, nonprofit working farm in western Massachusetts that functioned as a therapeutic community. It seemed made for him: It was small (with fewer than 100 “guests”), rural, loosely structured, and built around the communal sharing of work, meals, and farm traditions. We went with him to visit on a weekend in late June. He seemed to share our hopefulness, and began his stay two weeks later, assigned to a job as a member of the trail maintenance team.

For the first several months he seemed to thrive. On the phone and during visits home, he spoke excitedly of his work on the trails and in the greenhouse, his poetry group, a band he had helped form, the music he was writing and playing. And for the first time in a while, there was talk of the future: He had applied to UMass Amherst and been accepted. The hope was, if all went well, to enroll the following spring.

And he was touching other lives, often in beautiful ways. On a visit to the farm that winter, I met a little boy, 4 or 5 years old, carrying around a tiny guitar. His mother, who worked at the farm, told me that Alex had found it in some forgotten closet and restrung it, and was teaching him to play; he was her son’s “major hero in life.” I passed the news on to Alex, who just smiled and looked embarrassed.

There was another guest at the farm, a young woman who had lost two years to depression and twice tried to take her life, who remembers “raking leaves with him, riding in the back of the pickup, making cider together. I followed him around like a lost puppy.” The week before Christmas, she recalls, there was to be a tree lighting at the top of a nearby hilltop. The staff passed out songbooks beforehand, she says, “only there weren’t quite enough to go around, so Alex offered to share his with me. And we started walking, singing, up toward the top of the hill on a path lit by burning candles. And at that moment, walking side by side with Alex, sharing that songbook, I finally felt a part of something. I felt like I wanted to live. After two long years, I really, actually wanted to live another day. That memory will last with me the rest of my life.”

Alex with his mother, Landon, in 1989. Even from an early age, she recalls,
her oldest son loved spending time outdoors.

In late spring of 2013, eight or nine months into his stay at the farm, there came a close-bunched series of losses: the retired UMass professor who had been leading the farm’s poetry group took sick and died; another member of the group, a young woman named Gabby with whom Alex had been close, took her life not long after leaving the farm; a staff member he had been fond of left for another job; his therapist at home, whom he’d been seeing for nearly 10 years, was diagnosed with metastatic cancer and would soon be gone, too.

All this, coupled with the weight of his father’s death, may have seemed too much to bear. Twice during that summer and early fall, no longer trusting himself, and honoring a pledge he had made to his doctors and to his mother, Alex checked himself into a hospital psychiatric unit. Both times he was released within a week.

In mid-September Alex joined Landon and me and two friends on a weekend trip to the Adirondacks. Much of the first day he spent in his room, too low to participate; the next afternoon, he came with us to a camp on the river, where the five of us lit a fire, talked and ate lunch together. He spoke little but smiled often. It was the last time I would see him.

Two weeks later, on September 28, Alex and his five-piece band gave an informal recital for guests and staff at the farm, doing an onstage arrangement of a Red Hot Chili Peppers number. A few minutes later, he played a guitar solo—a slow, very tender piece he had composed himself—announcing in advance, almost shyly, that he was dedicating it to his father and to his friend Gabby, “both amazing people who made the world a better place.” He seemed embarrassed by the applause that followed, and left the stage quickly.

In his room at Gould Farm at 1:30 on the morning of October 19, Alex wrote a final passage in his journal:

“In other days I have wanted the world—fame, love, success, happiness. I have wanted what everyone wants, one way or another. Well, peace is enough now.”

Also found in his room later that day was a sealed envelope with a letter addressed to “Mom, Kelsey, and Charley,” which would apologize for the hurt he was causing and plead for their understanding of his choice. “…I’ve simply run out of the strength to fight it any longer,” he wrote. “I see no open paths, and I’ve lost all hope. It has become unbearable. I would never want to cause you the pain I know I will cause you. You have done everything you could for me and more. Thank you with all my heart.”

At 1:40 p.m. that day, a Gould Farm van made its regular Saturday delivery of guests, Alex among them, to its drop-off point on Quarry Street in Great Barrington, roughly a mile northwest of East Mountain State Forest, for an afternoon of shopping. Alex was last seen walking north from the group. A little more than an hour later, his text would arrive on his mother’s cellphone: I’ve gone for a walk in the woods.

The call came from Gould Farm sometime around 6 that evening. Alex hadn’t showed up at the meeting point; a note had been found in his room, and it was read to us over the phone. Landon seemed numb, unreachable. I was unsure what to do.

The next morning, Sunday, we were met at the farm by the head staff and the local police. They had tracked the location of Alex’s last cellphone signal: the East Mountain summit, sometime after 3 on Saturday. The Great Barrington police and fire departments had launched a search of the area, soon to be joined by a state police helicopter equipped with thermal imaging. By the end of the day, there was nothing to report. Monday morning the story made the local paper—“Gould Farm Resident Goes Missing”—and included a physical description of Alex. The searches went on.

It continued this way for a week, then part of another. Landon remained stony, impossible to read. The more time went by, the more meager the grounds for hope, the more resolute she seemed to become. She walked the woods. She asked for help from hikers. She met with a tracker, who worked from Alex’s boot soles, then with the leader of the search-and-rescue team; she consulted with a psychic. She made up posters and tacked them to trees and trailheads and bulletin boards all over the county. She contacted the police to follow up on reports of sightings. At one point, she was put in touch, by phone, with a dowser from Pennsylvania; he assured her Alex was alive, that he was wandering the woods, confused and afraid. For three days, working from the Google map the two of them shared, she walked the woods for miles at his direction, circling, doubling back, along roads, along trails, across streams, keeping hope alive.

Sometimes as she walked, she sang: lullabies from Alex’s childhood, songs they had sung together, but now with the words changed to call his name. One was a Native American chant she remembered he had loved:

Ancient Mother, I hear you calling, Ancient Mother, I hear your song, Ancient Mother, I hear your laughter, Alexander, please come home…

It was like I was in another dimension,” she tells me today. “Maybe like falling backward out of a plane without a parachute—not the present, not the future, just tumbling backward through space, with no ground, nothing, under your feet.”

On the last day of October, the weather turned suddenly cold, dropping into the 30s with a dusting of snow. With no trace of a body, and no new leads or reported sightings, the search team called off its efforts. It was on that Wednesday, with Alex gone 11 days, that Landon came home.

“A fifth of me, or maybe only a tenth, had believed he could still be alive. But I knew he was gone, I knew I had to let go,” she says. “Mostly all I felt was numbness. When people would ask how I was doing, it was hard to answer—kind of like that feeling you get when you try to speak or smile after the dentist has shot you with novocaine. You can’t work your mouth very well. It was like that, only emotionally. An emotional effacement.”

In the months that followed, time seemed to fly, then slow. Norms lapsed. Civility became as precious as love. Sometimes for days at a time, the world seemed upside down. Other times it only seemed sad.

Winter came. The phone calls were slowing, though the letters, more than 100 by the end, still arrived. The day before Thanksgiving, Alex’s sister and brother—one in New York, the other in his senior year at college—came home. There were long silences, quiet tears, much drinking, football on TV. Christmas loomed.

It had been Alex’s favorite holiday, Kelsey’s and Charley’s too. Now it seemed unthinkable—so we did what we could to erase it, to abandon every trapping and reminder, even the season itself. We booked the cheapest Caribbean cruise we could find, on a humongous floating city known as Enchantment of the Seas, with 2,500 passengers, and found ourselves, on Christmas Day 2013, on an artificial beach in the Bahamas listening to a piped-in rendering of “Ave Maria” as hundreds of our fellow shipmates—and eventually even Landon—lined up to glide down the length of a massive water slide. It was awful. But we laughed a lot together, ate too much salad-bar shrimp, drank too much bad champagne, and managed almost to forget why we were there.

Four months later, on April 13, a day or two after the ice went out on Lake Buel, a forested pond just east of Great Barrington, a fisherman called police to report a body on the surface. By the time Landon got the word, in a voicemail message a day later, the body had been shipped to the medical examiner’s office in Boston. Dental records confirmed it was Alex. The autopsy would confirm he had drowned—we can only assume intentionally. A week later we drove to the funeral home in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and made arrangements for cremation. Before leaving, Landon sat alone with the closed coffin, covered in a royal-blue blanket, and said good-bye.

No one wanted a funeral. it had been too long, the grieving had claimed too much of us already. But there needed to be something, some way of marking his passing and remembering who he had been.

The internship was his grandmother’s idea. Closey Dickey, by then in her late 80s, had 10 grandchildren, though Alex had been her first. It was in her garden, as a child, that he had first found his love of plants and flowers. They both loved books; he wrote her long letters, she bought him his first Spanish guitar. It was she who suggested he volunteer with VCE. “She had a real sense of him, I think,” Landon says.

Closey’s commitment of $25,000 laid the groundwork. Friends and family more than tripled that. In the spring of 2016, the call for applicants went out, mostly to the biology and environmental studies programs of New England colleges, seeking candidates who could, among other requirements, show “a proven dedication to conservation biology … a willingness to work unpredictable hours in demanding field conditions, [and] a personal connection to nature that reflects the solace and delight it offered to Alexander.” The winning candidate would be rewarded with a 12-week, field-based, paid internship in conservation science.

Amber Wolf, a conservation biology major at College of the Atlantic in Maine, was the first year’s intern. Nate Launer would be the second.

Nate Launer, the 2017 recipient of the VCE Alexander Dickey Conservation Internship. For more information on this program, or to make a donation to help ensure it will be available for future generations of conservationists, contact VCE at 802-649-1431 or go to
Photo Credit : Heather Marcus

There could be no more perfect legacy. To walk in the woods with Alex, according to the VCE website, “was to experience nature on a deeper level: the flora, birdsong, lichen on the underside of downed trees.” The joy he got from his work with VCE, for those summers of his mid-20s, whether charting migratory patterns on an overnight field trip in the White Mountains or sitting at a desk uploading data on the habits of some Hispaniolan cloud-forest bird, seemed among the very few things sufficient to liberate him from the world, and from himself.

“He just liked being there. He liked talking birds, he liked talking nature,” says his mother. “He used to call it ‘nerding out’ on bird stuff. The VCE people didn’t judge him. They didn’t care that he wasn’t going the same route as other people his age. They didn’t care, they just accepted him, they made a place for him. He was so happy there, so in his environment. And I was happy for him. I thought I saw a path for him.”

On an early morning in the last part of July, near the summit of Mount Mansfield, Nate and his VCE fellows are unfurling their mist nets, then banding and releasing the birds inside. There are two new species today—a black-and-white warbler, an out-of-habitat rose-breasted grosbeak—as well as a robin, a golden-crowned kinglet, other warbler types, and several Swainson’s thrushes. There is also a single Bicknell’s thrush. All are tiny, some small enough to sit easily on the first joint and nail of your finger.

Landon has joined the group. She is working with Nate, taking the birds in a small bag from the nets to the nearby car where they will be weighed and banded before their release. She will remember the young man’s gentle sureness in handling them, his warmth and ease in talking, as well as the beauty of the morning.

“We were watching mist just clearing the ridges. Nate was taking the birds from my bags, cupping them in his hand and weighing them—and we were just talking about things, school and work and his plans for the future.”

There was birdsong all around them, and from time to time the group would pause to listen and try to identify— a cedar waxwing, a Canada warbler, this or that type of thrush. There was a feeling of connection in the group, Landon says, “a sense of quiet and purpose, a sort of delicacy,” that triggered memories.

“Alex had begun to teach me how to listen in the woods, how to tell one birdsong from another, to receive sounds as though your ears were a satellite dish—and that’s what it felt like was going on that morning. He would have loved to have been there. He would have loved that I was there.” 

Breaking the Silence

With 85 chapters across the country, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is the largest U.S. nonprofit dedicated to “saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide.” Lisa Riley is the chairwoman of the AFSP chapter in New Hampshire, where last year suicide was the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. After reading “Searching for Alexander,” Riley wrote: “As a ‘loss survivor,’ [I found] the sense of helplessness felt by Alex’s family all too familiar. It’s palpable. This piece shows the battle for life … that this illness, like a cancer, is in fact illness and not a flaw in one’s character.” She added that “this story brings Alex’s struggle out of the shadows. Mental illness is not like a disease you can see. These are the stories we need to break the silence.”

For more information, go to

Yankee Readers Respond The article about Alex was as much a love letter to people who care about their children in trouble as it was an article in a magazine; I mean that in the best possible sense. It was thoughtful, tender, empathetic, and so respectful. I can also only imagine how powerful it will be as each intern each year reads that article and understand the responsibility and honor that comes with their internship. I think many people will feel the article is written to them personally, even though it is designed to reach everyone. —Barnes Boffey, White River Junction, VT I’m in some kind of deep trance, after reading your tribute to Alex. I had to take a break halfway through. My soul has been deepened. I’m not sure what to do with the rest of my day. I think I’ll go birding, or for a walk into the woods, or fishing alone. Alex was such an amazing person, a tribute to our potential as human beings. Thanks for writing so openly and beautifully. —Peter Travis, Hanover, NH The more we can understand the struggle of mental illness … and combat the misunderstandings that so many of us have about it, the better we’ll all be for it. This has truly helped me understand the tangle of this disease. Thank you so much. —Katie Murphy, North Yarmouth, ME How moved I am by this eloquent reflection on Alexander’s fragile yet profound and tenacious desire to find meaning in life and foster a sense of awe of the world around us. I’m weeping, but in a good way, I think, as this essay underscores not only the struggle but also the beauty of Alexander’s life. How very special that his memory is honored through the internship at VCE. —Carla Berry, New Rochelle, NY I felt so welcomed into the life of Alex and all whom he touched and still touches, and now that includes those who have been awarded the fellowship in his name.
What can we do with grief, which is both unbearable and unstoppable? Yet we must bear it, no matter. And we’re never done. Grief is a relentless animal—a parasite, really—and even when we feel most able to “move beyond” it stays with us, it becomes a sound: bass notes that hum incessantly while absent is the melody we can no longer play. —Andrea Hollander, Portland, OR It’s been 13 years since I lost my brother, and a week doesn’t pass without my thinking of him. I have come to treasure the happy memories of him in our family life and not dwell on the “what ifs.” Alex was a wonderful soul and dedicated environmentalist. God bless him. —Craig Benton, Ireland This is a poignant, lovingly told story and opens into my heart with a stunning intimacy and clarity. Such a delicate touch. It has love, grace, and careful investigation. It is, in fact, very much like holding the delicate Bicknell’s thrush, captured and thereby seen up close—just for a moment—in the mist net. The metaphor is amazingly apt and pervasive. —Doreen Schweizer, Norwich, VT