The first half of 1980 was in many ways a continuation of life as I’d always known it, yet another chapter in a story of pain and suffering. My wife, Sherry, had hurt her back, causing her to lose her job. I was in school and only worked part time, so our finances, though bad by nature, were worse than ever. And I was a walking mess, a broken, angry, hurting young man who coped with each day by getting high, drunk or both. I had little to no ability to love, even in normal, human terms, and had made a habit of either abusing or ignoring my wife and daughter.
By the end of June, everything had come to a head. Sherry was in the hospital for her back; I was home with our kids, a four year old daughter, Estelle, and a two month old son, Sheldon, whom I didn’t know how to tolerate, let alone love; and I was drinking more than ever.
I awoke late on the morning of Saturday, June 29, 1980, to the telltale misery of a well deserved hangover and the equal misery of a reality that I couldn’t escape. Groping for the first cigarette of the day, I started to wonder what was wrong. It was too late in the morning. Normally, the baby’s crying would’ve long since dragged me to my feet. But I hadn’t heard a thing. The crib was in the same room, just a few feet away, so I should’ve heard him, but I hadn’t.
Fighting the bleariness of my hangover and angry at having slept through whatever crying he must have offered hours earlier, I sat up and finished the cigarette, straining to hear some kind of sound from the crib, something that would answer the sudden fear that was rising in the pit of my stomach. But there was nothing to hear, not even the sound of breathing. Putting out the cigarette, I walked toward the crib, instinctively knowing that something was wrong.
As I reached the side of the crib, I saw that he was lying on his side under his blanket, his head sticking out at one end, and his feet at the other. He was lying with his back to me, but looked fine, like he always did when he was sleeping. Feeling relieved, and at the same time sensing that something still had to be wrong for him to be sleeping so late, I reached down to wake him, gently pulling the blanket away as I turned him over.
He was strangely stiff. He didn’t stir when touched. His body didn’t warm my hand. His lips were turned outward, curled as if kissing glass. He didn’t sigh. He didn’t whimper. He didn’t coo. He made no sound at all.
A shudder went through me, a tremor of the deepest weakness I’d ever known. Stepping back, partly staggering, partly recoiling, I looked away, panicking at my weakness, too numb to think, too shocked to cry out. I couldn’t look again, but I knew I had to. I knew I had to know for sure.
Shaking like a leaf, swallowing vainly to find some moisture for my mouth, I stepped forward, my hand reaching with a mind of its own for his foot, his face, his leg. He was cold, horribly cold, cold and firm, too cold and too firm.
I tried to lift him, blinking back the tears. The side of his face that had been hidden was dark, the color of blood. I shrank back, my eyes frantically studying his little body, desperate to find something that would explain what I saw, that would make everything right again. But it was all the same. His leg, his neck, the side of his foot, the color of blood.
I turned away, unable to look again at what I’d seen, unable to believe that any of it was real. Stumbling back toward the bed, I fumbled for another cigarette, disgusted that that was all I knew how to do. My hands shook as I lit the cigarette and began to smoke.
I couldn’t think at all. I knew I had to do something, but I didn’t know what. As hard as I tried, the simplest thought just didn’t happen. And it made me feel that much more afraid, that much more helpless.
Still shaking as I smoked, one random impression after another raced through my mind: the regret at not knowing CPR; the anger that my wife wasn’t there; the guilt at oversleeping; the failure to save him; the shame of failing; the uncertainty and the knowing; and, more than anything else, out of nowhere for no good reason, the sense that I wasn’t alone.
It made no sense at all. I was alone. Yet, I wasn’t. I even looked around the room to be certain. There was no one there to see. Yet, I could feel a presence, both intense and subtle, as if someone were watching me, totally focusing on me. I could feel sorrow and compassion, a quiet stillness of emotion too still to be emotion, and a sweetness and gentleness that seemed so out of place as to be bizarre.
It made no sense it all, so I shrugged it off, forgetting all about it in the hours that followed, the long, tortuous hour waiting as the doctor fought vainly to revive my son, the dreamlike numbness of driving to the hospital to see Sherry, the helpless pain of holding her as she disintegrated in my arms.
Hours became days spent in a slowly lifting fog. I coped as best I could, keeping myself busy doing whatever came to mind. I was compelled to change what I could change. Somehow, it kept me from going insane at the stark terror of what I couldn’t change.
Off and on as the days passed, I remembered the presence I had felt. It simply kept coming to mind, unexplained and uninvited, and each time it came, I pushed it aside, calling it nothing, calling it crazy. Yet I also felt drawn to it, regretting the idea that it was nothing, not sure at all that it was crazy.
Several days later, I felt a compulsion to go out and buy a Bible. I simply had to do it, just like I had to do all the other compulsive things I’d done. Yes, I had seen a Bible in my wife’s hospital room, but it had only led me to caution her to be careful. It certainly couldn’t explain why I had to get my own.
Not knowing where to find one, I picked the one place that came to mind, a Paperback Booksmith not far from home. They had two Bibles, a small, wimpy looking paperback with smiling faces on the cover, and a massive, almost fearsome looking door stop called the Jerusalem Bible. Largely out of respect, I bought the door stop.
That night, as I lay in bed, I opened it for the first time, and began to read the first thing I saw. I had opened to 2 Samuel 12, the story of God’s discipline for David’s sin with Bathsheba. Briefly, because David had caused the death of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, God took the life of his young son.
It was startling, to say the least. Reading a story that was so similar to my own was amazing enough, but when I read about how David related to his grief, I couldn’t help but question my own.
While the child was still alive, he had fasted and prayed, but when the child died, he “got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate. His servants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”. He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, `Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
He had a hope outside of himself that put his great loss into perspective. Unlike myself, he saw his son’s life, and his own, in relation to his God. As I read, I felt like I’d stumbled into something precious. It was a revelation of a point of view that could actually embrace this horrible thing that I’d been at a loss to handle.
Nothing in my self-made philosophy could reconcile the death of my son. Until then, it had been pointless, senseless and insane. But as I read these words of a long dead king, something leaped within me. And as I fell asleep, I prayed to David’s God for the first time, instinctively knowing that it was the same God whose presence I’d felt so strongly just a few days before.
- December 18, 2003