My first experience with death was with my son. He fought a chronic respiratory condition for over eight years and had a compromised immune system. We were vacationing in Atlanta and a tropical storm went through and my son picked up something that resulted in pneumonia. He’d suffered these chronically throughout his lifetime. My wife and I were trained in respiratory therapy and had O2, an oxymeter, and nebulized meds with us where ever we went to take care of him. His condition was compromised on a Wednesday and by the next day we couldn’t keep him saturated. We headed home to North Carolina.
Our pediatrician made a home visit and examined the pink powdery substance around my son’s nose and mouth and after several phone calls indicated that his lungs were giving out, that the substance was actually tissue, alveoli, and that it was breaking down and bleeding. His lungs were filling with fluid and we were faced with a decision. He could be intubated and sustained for a few additional weeks or we could facilitate his passing in our home. We talked about this with our son. He didn’t want to be invaded again. He was tired and wanted to stop the pain he’d felt his entire life.
We were given meds to give him for his comfort. He was on 15 liters of O2. We called his grandparents in the western States and gave everyone a chance to say goodbye.
By Saturday he slipped into a coma. We took turns holding him and talking to him, supporting him, reassuring that we’d be okay and that he’d be in such better conditions.
Late Sunday night his respiratory rate deteriorated. We held him together and encouraged him. At five the next morning he took a final breath and exhaled and expired. His body relaxed for the first time ever and our room filled with the release of his intelligence and spirit.
We had very little preparation for this, more out of denial I think than anything else. To admit to it was to allow it in a way and we had fought too long and hard to get to where he was. If I recall, we had the offer of hospice, but turned it down. We just wanted it to be us and his little brother of two.
We changed him into clean pajamas and wrapped him in his blanket. His mom held him or a long while afterward.
I made a call to a mortuary and they were prompt and respectful.
We decided to inter our son in St. George, a place where he had his happiest moments and a place where we thought we’d return to someday. Our funeral director in Raleigh made the flight arrangements.
On the morning of our flight I checked in and then told the ticket agent of our circumstances and that I wanted confirmation that my son’s casket and body had arrived and was properly prepared for the flight. Her face blanched and she excused herself from the counter and disappeared behind a door. A few moments later she came back, held the door behind her open long enough for me to see baggage handlers preparing the coffin for flight. Tears were streaming down her face.
She assigned us seats just above the cargo opening and the gate attendant boarded my wife, two year-old son and I before the rest of the passengers. She instructed us that if we wanted to we could look out the window and watch them load the casket. A signal was given and it was respectfully loaded on the conveyor that moved it into the hold out of our site.
An uneventful flight to Phoenix where we were met by a red coat who again made sure we were able to witness the transfer of his coffin from one air craft to the next.
Late that night we arrived at McCarren in Las Vegas. We were met by a representative of the St. George mortuary that was handling the services and burial. We procured a rental car and followed him in his inconspicuous hearse to the cargo area of the airport, pulled up to a loading dock where the casket was waiting, undone from its shipping frame and readied for the last leg of the trip.
We followed the driver up I-15 to St. George and to the mortuary. That’s when I realized the insulation of my own psychology. Wrapped up in the logistics of transferring the body of an eight year-old boy from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains was a diversion. Watching the tail lights of the hearse in front of us along that drive almost pulled me out of it – I remember fighting the emotion, the anger, and the gratitude as well for all the individuals who made the trip as uneventful as they could.
In St. George at the mortuary we opened the casket to make sure his body fared the journey. There were a few issues that were quickly and lovingly taken care of.
The following day after the funeral and after the graveside service, people were slowly filing away. I sat back down on a folding chair at the lip of the grave opening. The coffin was suspended in the green slings of the device that lowers it into the vault, and I could see the cement tomb beneath. The excavated dirt was covered in astro-turf. There was no ritual of tossing in earth, just the flower that was on my lapel. It didn’t matter. None of that would have made any difference. Beyond the proceedings parked in a lane of the cemetery was a front-end loader and a flatbed vault truck rigged with an I-beam crane suspended from which was the cement lid of the vault. The driver and operator stood quietly by waiting for me to leave.
My insulation came undone.
Much has been written or said about the healing aspects of the funeral or internment ritual. There was nothing healing here. I watched them lower the casket, and then someone led me away, I can’t remember who. I let my son die. I do remember telling them that.
A process contrived to soothe, heal, assuage, whatever, worked for so many people there. But it didn’t work for me and for a few moments I dissolved. Nothing has really worked for me since. Unweaving the conditioning of my past has me to a point of resolution about letting him die, but the rending is always there. Its frequency has lessened in the goodness of my living but its intensity has magnified in the time he’s been away, in the time since I let him die.
It hurts like hell. Even now, sixteen years later. And I want to curse god, but that doesn’t exist for me anymore. Instead I curse the OB that botched my son’s birth to begin with and I try to balance that with gratitude for the hundreds of people who have intervened on my son’s behalf ever since. This has been the saving grace of my sanity.