Hallie Twomey kisses a packet of her son’s ashes before packaging them to send to someone who will scatter them. Twomey’s son, C.J., committed suicide in front of her Auburn home three-and-a-half years ago. Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman

AUBURN — C.J. Twomey was an adventurous kid, the kind who joined the Air Force right after high school, liked to jump out of airplanes and dreamed of traveling the world.

Hallie Twomey sends a small packet of her son’s ashes — along with a thank-you card, a picture and a small write-up on C.J. — to people willing to scatter his ashes around the world. Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman

Should you volunteer to scatter C.J.’s ashes to the far-flung corners of the Earth — his last big adventure — there are two things you must say as you let him go.

His mom will always love him.

And she’s sorry.

“YOU MUST AGREE TO SAY THAT,” Hallie Twomey wrote on her Facebook page. “Because I am and I need him to hear it as the last thing he hears before he takes off.”

She’s sorry her last conversation with her son was angry. She’s sorry she rolled her eyes instead of giving him a hug. Sorry she made a dismissive sound instead of saying, “I love you.”

She’s sorry she didn’t realize he was in such pain.

Twenty-year-old C.J. shot himself in front of his parents minutes after he and his mother argued about his future. For three-and-a-half years, she’s struggled to live with the horror of her oldest son’s last moments and the torture of being unable to change them.

“I’m still broken,” said Hallie Twomey as she wiped a tear from her cheek during a recent interview. Twomey’s son, C.J., committed suicide three-and-a-half years ago in front of their Auburn home. Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman

“A lot of people have said, ‘It’s time for you to move on,'” Twomey said. “People say that all the time. ‘C.J. wouldn’t want you to be this sad.’ Well, I don’t even know what my son wanted. I didn’t know my son intended to kill himself.”

Everyone deals with loss differently. Some people turn to support groups. Others get a tattoo or carry something that reminds them of their loved one. Others turn spiritual.

Twomey tried many things. None worked. And maybe nothing will. But she got an idea a few weeks ago. She started asking people — friends, friends of friends, perfect strangers — to help give her son the journey he never got.

And to tell him, as he goes, that she’s sorry.

“I can’t give him anything at this point,” she said. “So maybe this is like the last gift.”

Wide smile and crushing hugs

Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman

Hallie Twomey was 19 and her husband, John, was 20 when they had their first son. John missed having a nickname growing up and was determined his own boy would get one. He picked the initials C.J. first, then the couple chose the name to go with it: Christopher John.

Four years later, the Twomeys had Connor. The age difference was bigger than Twomey might have wanted for her two children, but those four years didn’t matter much to C.J.

“He was so proud to be a big brother when Connor was born,” Twomey said. “We have such great pictures of him in that dorky, ‘I’m a big brother’ shirt. He just loved him.”

The brothers grew up playing paintball together, hanging out together, bugging their mom together. After C.J. got his driver’s license, the two liked to jump in his car and take off for a drive.

“God knows what they did,” Twomey said with a small laugh.

Many of her favorite memories of C.J. are tinged with a mother’s exasperation.

The Twomey family keeps C.J.’s urn in the living room of their Auburn home. Three-and-a-half years after C.J.’s suicide, his mother, Hallie, is asking people to scatter his ashes around the world. Sun Journal photo by Amber Waterman

“He never met a mirror he didn’t like. He thought he was all that. He would sing and dance around the house. And he would hug you until you had to beg him to stop. That kills me. I would give anything now …” Twomey trailed off. “I used to yell at him, ‘C.J., you have to let me go!'”

C.J. joined the U.S. Air Force soon after he graduated from Auburn’s Edward Little High School in 2007. It was the perfect career for the active, outgoing young man who craved adventure.

“He wanted action. He was kind of an adrenaline junkie,” Twomey said. “He trained down in Florida. Pensacola. He went down there for a couple of days and did the jumping out of planes into the water. I’ve never heard him happier.”

C.J. trained to be part of an elite special forces unit. But the competition was fierce, the openings few.

Ultimately, he wasn’t selected.

Twomey said the military gave C.J. a choice: Train for another position or be honorably discharged.

“He struggled with that. He wanted to do what he’d gone in for,” Twomey said. “When it didn’t work out, he chose to be honorably discharged.”

It was a blow, but C.J. seemed to recover. He returned home after his year in the military, began working for a security company in Massachusetts and split his time between his childhood home in Auburn and his grandfather’s house in Massachusetts. He had a girlfriend, talked about marriage.

He remained C.J. of the wide smile and the crushing hugs. It seemed.

Then came April 14, 2010.

That day

In the living room, Twomey and her 20-year-old son argued. It was a big fight — C.J. had a lot of ideas for his future but wasn’t moving forward with any plan, and his parents were worried. But the argument shouldn’t have been catastrophic.

“You think I’m a failure, don’t you?” C.J. yelled at her.

Twomey rolled her eyes, made a dismissive noise. She never thought he was a failure; she did think he was arguing like an overly dramatic teenager.

C.J. ran upstairs to his bedroom, stayed for a few seconds, then flew back down the stairs. He paused at the bottom just long enough to turn and face his mother.

“Failure? I’ll show you failure,” he said, calm but intense. Then he walked out the front door.

C.J. jumped into his silver Jetta and drove it to the top of the hill on their dead-end street. John, who was home but not part of the argument, followed C.J. outside and watched him park at the hill. Twomey went outside with him.

“I said, ‘What’s he doing?'” Twomey recalled. “John sort of looked up the street and said, ‘I don’t know. He’s just sitting there.'”

A minute or two later, C.J. drove back down the hill, parked in front of his parents and his childhood home, and shot himself in the head.

John ran to the car. Finding the door locked, he slammed his elbow through the window. As he reached into the car, C.J. tumbled into his arms.

“I remember hearing screaming,” Twomey said. “I remember being tackled to the ground (by a neighbor) and hearing somebody screaming. They tell me that was me.”

‘He was the kid who made us happy’

There were signs that C.J. had been thinking of killing himself, though no one realized it at the time.

A couple of days before, he took his girlfriend to the Maine Mall and spent $700 on her, likely all the money he had. That same day, C.J. asked his father to open his gun safe. He said he wanted to retrieve the handgun he’d stored there and return it to the military. When his parents asked about the gun that night, he told them he’d returned it. When his girlfriend asked the same question, he told her his parents were going to return it for him. Instead, he kept it.

Doctors at the hospital where he was rushed told the Twomeys that their son knew what he was doing when he shot himself. He was serious about dying.

The Twomeys sat by C.J.’s hospital bed for the next 27 hours, but doctors offered no hope for recovery. On April 15th, he was officially declared brain dead.

The family was very familiar with organ donation. Twomey’s father had received a lifesaving heart transplant years earlier, and Twomey — with C.J. in the audience — often spoke at New England Organ Bank gatherings to highlight the good that donation can do.

The Twomeys agreed to donate C.J.’s organs. It gave them some small amount of comfort to know his heart, kidneys, liver and lungs would give several people a second chance at life. His corneas would help someone see.

But leaving C.J. after making the decision that day was the hardest thing Twomey ever had to do.

“A member of the New England Organ Bank staff, Laura, held my hands as we walked out of the hospital and she said, ‘I will not leave your baby. I will stay with him the whole time,'” Twomey said. “That’s her role; she goes into the OR and stays. I didn’t know if she was a mom. I didn’t know anything about her before that. But somebody was going to stay with him.”

Days later, hundreds of people packed Holy Family Church in Lewiston for C.J.’s funeral, remembering him as a comedian, the life of the party, a friend.

“‘He was the kid who made us happy,'” his friends told the Twomeys.

Deep grief

There are days when being in the family home is hard. There are days when being away from home is hard.

Every day, for Twomey, is difficult.

“I don’t think I’m better in terms of grief,” she said. “I think I’m better in terms of faking it.”

Life had an underwater feeling to it, a fogginess of unreality the first year after C.J. died. The second year was worse.

“This is real,” Twomey realized. “He’s not coming back.”

Life became a series of painful reminders of what she once had. What she could have had.

There were days when she sat at home and sobbed and days when she went to work at Community Concepts but could only sit and stare at her computer. The sight of any silver Jetta made her so physically sick that she had to turn around and go in the other direction if she saw one on the road. It upset her when someone snapped a picture of her, John and Connor together because it looked like a family photo without C.J.

And there were flashbacks, sometimes driving up to the house, sometimes sitting in the living room. Her short-term memory was shot, but she could see the fight so vividly, hear C.J.’s words so sharply.

“You think I’m a failure, don’t you?”

She ached with what she should have said.

“Of course you’re not a failure. I love you.”

“I wish,” she said, “I’d given him a hug.”

People offered their condolences, fewer and farther between as time went on. Sometimes they said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

“I just want to say, ‘Don’t. I hope you never have to,'” Twomey said. “I can’t hug my son. He’s in an urn. It shouldn’t be that way.”

Twomey found she could go out with friends, even smile a little, even mean that smile, but not for long. For moments.

“It all goes back to what I don’t have,” she said.

C.J.

Twomey did things to cope. She got a tattoo of C.J.’s initials on her ring finger, where they rest underneath her wedding band. She put a small amount of C.J.’s ashes in a necklace to wear every day. She held blood drives and promoted organ donation in his honor.

Twomey and her husband once attended a local support group for grieving parents. It didn’t help.

“Only one other family had lost their child to suicide, and their child left a note that absolved them of everything,” Twomey said. “I remember sitting there thinking I was jealous of her, the mom speaking. I shut down when everyone else talked.”

Twomey blamed herself for C.J.’s death then.

She still does.

If she had said or done something — anything — differently, she believes, her son would still be here. And the guilt of that consumes her.

“Very, very little in three-and-a-half years has made me feel real happiness at all,” she said. “I don’t expect it to. I don’t expect to be ever over this. So to think that something could actually bring a tiny bit of peace is so foreign. I don’t know that I deserve to be happy.”

Without her husband and youngest son, she said, “I don’t know if I’d still be here.”

Twomey was diagnosed with complex grief, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression during an intense grief study in Boston. For nine months, she participated in a drug study and took weekly trips to the city for counseling. The program gave her the opportunity to talk about her grief and to visit the idea that she wasn’t the sole reason for C.J.’s suicide.

It’s an idea she can consider but not embrace.

“They made me understand, logically, that I cannot be fully to blame,” she said. “I can’t be 100 percent to blame. But I’m telling you, my heart does not believe that. I believe I let him down.”

She doesn’t want to let him down again.

Scattering C.J.

Since his death, C.J.’s ashes have sat in an urn in the Twomeys’ living room. The family gave some ashes to relatives and scattered some in places that were special to C.J. — Ogunquit Beach, Hampton Beach, Florida, Fenway Park — but most remained in the black granite box etched with C.J.’s image.

Eventually, the fate of the ashes would fall to their younger son, and the Twomeys didn’t want him to have to bear that burden. And they couldn’t imagine bold, energetic C.J. being so confined for eternity.

“C.J. to me is his ashes,” Twomey said.

The couple decided they had to do something.

“What if we asked people? What if somebody out there was willing to take him somewhere?” Twomey suggested.

A few weeks ago she posted a request on her Facebook page.

“John and I want our beloved Shmoops to see the world, to BECOME part of a world he didn’t get to see,” she wrote. “Would love to have people, through the power of social media, spread this post to see if anyone out there would be willing to take some of our son’s ashes and show him the world.”

Friends responded. Friends of friends. Perfect strangers. Someone offered to take him to Italy. Someone else offered Hawaii. Someone else, Dubai.

So many offers rolled in that the Twomeys started a separate Facebook page — “Scattering CJ” — to keep track of them.

Twomey asked people to think of her son as they scattered his ashes, to think about the lives he saved through organ donation. To tell him that his mom will always love him and that she’s sorry.

She asked that they write a description of the moment and take a picture.

A couple of people have already done better than that: They took video.

“Your mother wants you to know that her and your dad love you and how truly sorry she is,” said Tonya Bailey-Curry on video as she held C.J.’s ashes in her palm and stood on the shore in St. Petersburg, Fla. “I hope I picked a good spot. I hope it’s peaceful and calm, and I hope that’s what you’re experiencing right now.”

Her son had committed suicide, too.

Days after Twomey put up “Scattering CJ” on Facebook, she had a list of  nearly 250 people ready to take him to places that included Costa Rica, New York, Morocco and the top of Mount Everest. She can use many more.

Each volunteer takes less than a teaspoon of ashes, a small amount that will allow C.J. to go as many places as possible.

“And I will always keep some,” his mother said. “As much as I love this idea and it feels right, it feels wrong not to have some of C.J. here. That can be a small amount. I don’t know what that amount is, but I just figure we’ll know. I assume we’ll have people who stop offering before we run out of ashes.”

Some volunteers are planning trips in a few weeks, others months from now. When the departure date gets close, Twomey puts together a package with a thank-you note, a photo of C.J. and a small packet of ashes that she kisses goodbye before sealing it in an envelope and sending it off.

Not every location is exotic, but every offer is heartfelt. Twomey sees the journey as the last gift she can give her son. It may turn out to be something of a gift to her, too.

“I’m not spiritual and I don’t have a lot of faith, but the people who are writing back to me sure do,” she said. “Maybe some of that will rub off on me.”

Twomey hopes to gather all of the stories, photos and letters from “Scattering CJ” volunteers and compile them in a book to both raise money for the New England Organ Bank and serve as a legacy for C.J.

“It’s just another way to ensure that my son isn’t forgotten, which is my single biggest fear in life, of all. He’s so worth remembering and I just don’t want him forgotten,” Twomey said.

In a few weeks, she will embark on a journey of her own. She’s volunteered to be part of a paired organ donor exchange, donating her kidney to someone whose friend or family member will donate a kidney to someone else.

She’s healthy and complications are rare, but there are risks to any surgery. It’s one more reason she wanted to make a plan for C.J.’s ashes.

One more reason she wanted to tell her story now.

“It’s so cliche, but just tell your family you love them,” she said.

[email protected]

More coverage:


Facebook comments