Canadian violinist Adrian Anantawan contacted me this weekend to ask if we would pay tribute to Ben Tobias (above with sister Katie), a 14-year-old who was bullied before he took his own life in August. Ben was born missing both legs and his right hand.
Just a few weeks before his death, Ben, who lived in Bothell, Wash., spoke with Adrian, an internationally renowned violin soloist in Toronto who is also one-handed, to learn about how a bow could be adapted so that he too could play the violin. "My husband Mike did a search of one-handed violinists and Adrian's name popped up," writes Ben's mother Jan Davidson. "My husband called him and Adrian was very generous with his time, talking to both Mike and Ben."
After Ben's death, Adrian asked Ben's mother to write an essay about her son. She wrote "A mother's sorrow," below, while listening to this video performance of Schindler's List, which Adrian has dedicated to Ben. Following the essay is a commentary from Adrian. As you know, I have my own "Ben," and when I read this story about Ben Tobias, my heart broke for him and his family. And then I was filled with anger and outrage at the bullies.
A mother's sorrow
By Jan Davidson
My child, my child, where are you now?
I wrap my arms around his sweater and smell his sweet mysterious scent.
He is gone from this earth, gone from my arms, far too soon and far too violently.
I cry the tears that only a mother can cry. I did not, I could not, protect him from his pain. I did not see, could not see, the depth of his pain. Ultimately I failed him.
My sorrow is bottomless and I will live with that forever.
There is a pain when a child dies of disease. There is a pain when a child dies accidently. There is, I think, a much greater pain when a child considers his place on earth, finds it unworthy, and takes his own life.
And when that death is caused by an inexplicable meanness, nastiness and hate, a parent is left with overwhelming feelings of anger and revenge. A state of grace and forgiveness does not come easily or naturally.
My son, my beautiful, intelligent and wonderful son, was bullied. Bullied to death. He was 14.
Ben's life was never easy. Born in Arsenyv, Russia, he was rejected at birth by his parents and abandoned in an orphanage to die. Ironically, the reason we adopted him was the reason he was abandoned. He was a triple amputee, missing both legs and his right hand.
We devoted our lives to him, never leaving him with a babysitter. We nursed him back to health, taught him to walk, ride a bike, swim and tie his shoes. He rose above his disabilities and became a friend to all. He inspired respect and awe wherever he went, yet he wore the adulation lightly. He could never understand why people thought he was special.
He may have been born without limbs, but God granted him an extravagant intelligence. He was a genius, a child savant. He was an accomplished writer and artist and was studying the violin. He had been reading at the college level for years. He could have been anything that he wanted to be. He had the capability to change the world.
Yet as he was struggling to make the leap between childhood and manhood, with all of his issues, certain other children were determined to hobble his trajectory, to cut him down to their level. They began to bully him, in person and on the net. Every day brought a new set of humiliations for Ben. He was assaulted by physical abuse, verbal abuse, taunts and jeers. One young girl made it her life's mission to make him as miserable as possible and sought him out in school and on the net to make his life a special hell. Yet he never told us, never mentioned his humiliations, never revealed his tears.
We had no idea.
So on the warm summer evening of August 7 when his father found his lifeless body in his room, we were racked with "why" and "what if?" It wasn't until later that we pieced together the tortured and painful last months of his life.
The pain of losing a child is an unimagined hell.
The pain of losing a child to bullying is an indescribable descent into blackness. Somewhere out there are children who chose my child on whom to heap their load of scorn, to torture and to laugh at. They sleep peacefully while I am left with only pictures and memories.
We struggle to make sense of their actions. What kind of families do they come from? What kind of people are they now and what kind will they turn into? What kind of society are we creating that nurtures this kind of behaviour? Didn't they see the pain they were causing and didn't it give them pause?
There is something seriously wrong with our society when a pack of children cull from their midst the most vulnerable and fragile of their group -- a physically disabled child -- and badger him to death. This is the work of animals, not human beings. I fear for the future of our race.
For the people he has left behind, there is no "new normal." There is only a hole that cannot and will not be filled. I am left to pray only that he is in a better place. I pray that he is happy, and at peace.
I love my son with all my heart, and will continue to love him until the day I die. We needed him as much as, or more than, he needed us. We aren't complete without him. This is the painful result of suicide.
Benjamin Michael Roman Tobias, July 30, 1996 to August 7, 2010. Rest in Peace, Sweetheart. We will never forget you.
From Adrian: I originally came in contact with Ben through his parents, who called me up here in Canada. The interesting thing is that I only spoke to Ben once, a few weeks before his suicide. There was a hope that I could connect him up to my prosthetist at Holland Bloorview to see if we could optimize an adaptation for his violin device, which he had begun using recently. He sounded like a pretty happy kid on the phone, and one who was on the cusp of doing some very special things in his life. There is always a peculiar connection people with disabilities share, and I felt an immediate connection with this young man.
In particular, I was hoping that the violin, and music in general, would become a special part of his life, as it was in mine. Looking back, it was music that helped me survive elementary school bullying, as it was not only an outlet to my emotions, but a way of communicating with my peers on an equal footing.
I knew I wanted to do something special for him, although I had no clue about his life and story. It was happenstance that Schindler's List was the perfect choice, as I found out after posting the recording that Ben's family was Jewish, and it was one of their favourite songs. Secondly, the Holocaust is, in a sense, bullying taken to a tragic extreme. The same ignorance that killed seven million Jews was the same ignorance that killed Ben. The piece is an elegy to those who have been lost too soon, and a reminder of the pain that these victims had to endure. It is the most meaningful recording I've played thus far in my career, and I'm happy to do my best to make sure Ben's story reaches as many people as possible.
Beyond that, Ben is an inspiration for my life in general, as he is one of the reasons I'm applying for grad school in education over the coming months. It is sometimes not the children's fault that bullying becomes prevalent in schoolyards. The onus remains on parents and educators to ensure that we send strong messages about social justice and inclusion. These changes have to be systemic, rather than within individual classrooms, and I believe that we can do better.
Ben, dear brother, you are not alone, and for those who are going through similar challenges in life: it gets better!