The subtitle of Catherine's Poelman's book "Since Stephen" is "A Parent's Examination of Reality."

And heaven knows the '90s have brought Catherine Poelman a lion's share of reality to look over. "Since Stephen" (Northwest Publishing; 219 pages; $7.95) is a tearful - yet amazingly dry-eyed - look at the suicide of her son in 1991."It is an honest book," the author says, "I was forced to think about so many things. And for that reason it is also a philosophical book. I'd like to think the book takes away some of the diabolical notions we attach to suicide and shows that it can be the product of illness, or naivete or impulse."

Stephen was the wild son. His zest for experience had him into everything. He had a startling capacity for creativity. But he also had a frightening bent for destruction. And Poelman has tried to put all those harrowing moments of longing into the book.

"After I'd finished," she says, "one of the most satisfying moments was when my 14-year-old came in after reading it and said `Hey, Mom; I now know the real Stephen."'

The Poelmans are the parents of nine. And the author has spent a good deal of time as a not-so-accidental tourist in places like Mexico - often in humanitarian causes. A native of New York, she incorporates more than a few western sensibilities into her life. She currently has two more books on the drawing board - one on adoption, one on addictions.

As for this memoir, readers will have to adjust to the writing style. Instead of following a time line, chapters are cobbled together to form a pattern - much like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle are assembled ("Spun out," Poelman calls it). The accompanying artwork - by son-in-law Mark Boyden - is exceptional. And the author has strengthened the book with some insightful quotes from William James, Eric Hoffer and others.

But the true appeal of "Since Stephen" is that in the process of revealing her lost son to us, Catherine Poelman reveals herself as well. We meet a woman who can somehow absorb the icy wind of tragedy and bring it back as a spring breeze. One caller went so far as to question her motives and the depths of her wounds.

Needless to say, such comments wound all the more.

"What I've found," she says, "is that the human spirit has an amazing capacity for endurance. Most people eventually find equilibrium - find their way back to their natural temperament. And my natural temperament is a happy one."

Putting the book aside, readers will find they've learned about suicide and learned about Stephen; but more, they've learned what it's like to be the mother of a prodigal son who never quite made it back home.

A section of John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" comes to mind - the moment when young, prodigal Tom returns from prison. He stops at the kitchen door to observe his mother and muse about her ability to cope with disasters - himself included:

She looked out into the sunshine. Her full face was not soft; it was controlled, kindly. Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and a superhuman understanding. She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken. . .She seemed to know that if she swayed the family shook, and if she ever really deeply wavered or despaired, the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone.

"Since Stephen" is a book about such a son, written by such a woman.