I debated writing about this for a long time, back and forth in my mind. My ‘Goon Squad’ says,
People don’t want to hear this stuff.
People can’t handle this stuff.
People want to hear about hope, happy endings, and inspiration.
It’s too personal.
It’s too hard.
It’s too self-indulgent.
You have nothing original to say.
Well, maybe the Goon Squad is right, and every one of those things is true. But I always think about what Joe Dimaggio said when someone asked him why he gave his all every day:
There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time. I owe him my best.
I feel I owe anyone out there who may have lost a child, my ‘best’. Oh, and anyone who hasn’t lost a child, but might (yes, that means you, Mary, and you, Clyde). And anyone who has lost anyone, and is trying to go on, and make sense of life, make sense of death, or just find a reason for this whole crazy kit and caboodle.
And what is my ‘best’? It’s kind of like in A.A. – it doesn’t mean advice, or rules, or Ten Commandments. It means being willing to share my experience, in the hopes that some small part of it may help someone out there, because we’re all in the same boat.
The other day I was in line at the post office, and a sweet-looking older woman was going up and down the line, embarrassedly saying, “Anyone got a felt tip marker?”
Well, I did, and I handed it to her. She said, “Don’t worry – I’ll return it.” I said, “You know right where I’ll be,” and everyone in line smiled, because the Post Office operates on geologic time.
A few minutes later, she walked up to me (I was perhaps two feet closer to the front of the line), handed me the pen and, reaching in her purse, held out a dollar bill. “Here, let me pay you for it.”
I gently pushed it away and said, “We’re all human beings here.”
That’s the spirit in which I offer these words. I’m saying, “I’ve been there – and survived. Here is my story. I hope you can use some of it.” Don’t panic, I’m not going to go into gruesome detail, or really, much detail at all. There will be no stories about tossing and turning all night, or wandering down Broadway dead drunk (just kidding, though I did once take an extra Advil).
No, it’s just a story that could happen to anyone, but it happened to me, and now I’m sharing some of it so that when something happens to you, you’ll know you have company.
I know I could have used some, then.
And if you want to lodge a complaint with my Goon Squad, they’ll be glad to oblige you. See ’em? They’re right over there on the Grumblers’ Bench.
What does it ‘look like’ to lose a child?
Well, to me it looked like this: My wife had wanted to take the boys (six year-old fraternal twins) to a relative’s birthday party in Modesto. When your wife is a Mexican-American gal with ten brothers and sisters, there are a lot of birthday parties. Me, I had no intention of driving to anyone’s party anywhere: it was a beautiful Fall day, and that meant the baseball playoffs were on. If I haven’t mentioned baseball before – well, it’s a big deal to me. Neither of the kids really wanted to go to the party, I think, but Nick was more insistent about wanting to stay home with me than Brett. Not that he cared about baseball – nope, no such luck with any of my kids. But he knew I would probably take him to the park to fool around together.
And as for Brett, well that was the whole thing about him: Brett was a good boy. And by that I don’t mean a goody-goody, no, not that, not by any stretch of the imagination. I mean he was a good person. He could see that Mom needed at least one recruit for this gig, and he would never let her down. Besides, he could have a good time anywhere, as long as there was people and action.
So they left. And we did go to the park and fool around together. In fact, we had a great time. Finally, it was time to go back home. As we pulled in to the driveway, I saw two people standing there, that shouldn’t have been there:
One of my wife’s aunts, whom I had maybe seen one time before.
And a cop.
The cop said I needed to pick up my mother-in-law and get to Memorial Hospital, in Modesto – right now. And Nick needed to stay with the aunt. There had been an auto accident. No details – just that.
Now I am going to skip a bunch of the details, because they don’t affect what I want to say to you, and because the details aren’t the issue – what it feels like is the issue. If you want to know details, you can contact me anytime and I’ll talk your head off – but now we’re getting to the important stuff, like why I titled this Mission Accomplished.
I can’t speak here for most people who have lost a child – everyone has a different personality. I suppose some people would have gotten into rage, or blaming (there was a lawsuit involved, against Ford Motor Company), or hatred, or utter despair.
Maybe some people would have said, “Well, we can always have another child.”
Maybe some people would have considered revenge against the ‘other driver’ – the one who caused the accident: I know I did.
Also, I wasn’t ‘there’ when it happened: what my wife had to deal with – the guilt, the helplessness, the mental images – was far beyond anything that was on my plate. I hear that most all marriages break up in these circumstances. ‘They’ say women need to talk, and that men don’t talk, and that that brings relationships down. I don’t know about that. I’m a talker, and I talk to people all day about ‘heavy’ issues, so the talking/not talking thing wasn’t in play for me.
All I can speak to is my experience, and somehow I suspect that the way I thought about my loss is specific to men. As you’ll see, that’s why I prefaced this whole thing with my experiences at the Veterans’ Hospital. In the film Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks plays an Army captain in World War II who is in charge of a company of men tasked with locating a particular paratrooper, just after D Day. At one point in their mission, they are ‘crashing’ for the night in a bombed-out church. It is the first time they have had a chance to stop and gather themselves, to talk and be human beings for a few minutes.
At one point, Hanks and his trusted friend, Sergeant Horvath,are talking about a man in their company who was killed some time before. At first, they’re laughing at the memory of some of the crazy things this kid did. Then, Captain Miller (Hanks) intones the name of yet another man who was killed, the same day they are talking. The mood suddenly shifts, downward, as he continues, with terrible pain and irony:
“You see, when you end up killing one of your men, you see, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two, or three, or ten others – maybe a hundred. (Pause) Do you know how many men I’ve lost under my command?”
Sergeant Horvath: “How many?”
Miller: “Ninety-four. (Pause) But that means I’ve saved the lives of ten times that many – doesn’t it? Maybe even twenty, right? – twenty times as many? (Pause, his face showing the devastation) And that’s how simple it is. That’s how you rationalize making the choice, between the mission and the men.”
It is obvious from the dialogue, and throughout the film, that, while Captain Miller wants to help win the War (after all, he’s in the Rangers, an elite unit), his primary emotional investment in this whole thing is all about protecting his men. He carries with him, every day, every night, the exact number of men he has ‘killed’.
And that’s exactly how I felt: through my ineptness, I had lost one of my men. It happened on my watch. I was a failure – I had failed Brett as a parent, as a guardian, as a protector.
He wasn’t supposed to know about Life – I was.
No, I wasn’t crazy with it: I knew that having allowed him to go to a birthday party in Modesto wasn’t ‘negligent’ – not in any real sense, but I still felt like I had been negligent, asleep at the switch.
Maybe I should have gone.
Maybe I should have been driving.
Maybe I shouldn’t have let him go.
Maybe . . . Maybe . . . Maybe . . .
In this kind of situation, you realize the crazy, happenstance quality of life: anything – anything at all, that would have changed the scenario by even half a second, would have ‘prevented’ the disaster.
If only this, if only that . . .
And this makes you realize the crazy odds ‘against’ something like this happening.
And that makes you wonder:
Why was my boy chosen for this insane spin of the Russian roulette wheel?
And that brings you back to your own ‘responsibility’. Am I being punished (by God) for something I did? Something I didn’t do? Maybe if I had been a better person. But if I have been a bad person, why was it taken out on him? Because ‘they’ knew how much I loved him, so that I would have to live with the unbearable pain of losing him, of being responsible for losing him, for the rest of my life?
You go through all these things. It doesn’t matter if they make sense – you go through them anyway.
You look at your wife sleeping at night – twitching, moaning, crying, whimpering out loud, jerking around, and you blame yourself, somehow:
It happened on my watch.
You look at your wife during the day, half-crazed with loss, pain, despair, and you blame yourself, somehow:
It happened on my watch.
You look at your son. Yesterday, he had a best friend, a soul mate, an other ‘half’. Today, nothing. And you blame yourself, somehow:
It happened on my watch.
I found myself starting to think about Victor again. Now, I understood: it wasn’t that he had lost his platoon, his ‘family’. It was that HE had lost his platoon, his family. He must have thought, Why am I alive, and they aren’t? What could I have done differently? If anyone should have died, it should have been me!
I thought that a million times about Brett: Why not me? Please take me! Make time go back, and take me, dammit!
There were things I couldn’t listen to anymore. One of my favorite songs was Moon River. I’ve written before about the songs that got me through the hard times of junior high, high school. One of them was Moon River. I don’t know – something about the lyrics was evocative in a way that really registered with me. But now – no way. Why, you ask? Listen to these lyrics:
Two drifters, off to see the world –
There’s such a lot of world to see . . .
To me, that was always Nicky – and Brett. Now, the words were just a hole burned in my heart.
There were lots of others. You realize, suddenly, that the lyrics to almost any love song can ‘apply’ to your child – your lost child. You ‘see’ him everywhere: cloud formations, shadows, children walking down the street, alive.
Like I say, now I understood Victor’s pain. And I started thinking of Brett as one of The Goners. He was the platoon member that I, as his commanding officer, had lost to enemy action. And, crazily, it helped. It felt like I had a kinship with Victor, with all the vets I had worked with – men who had lost something irreplaceable, whether it was their buddies or parts of their ‘normal’ selves and lives.
And it felt like Brett had company – honored company, The Goners.
And it felt like I had company, too – the vets I had worked with. When you’re in war, you change. Then, you have to come back – but you’re still ‘changed’. What do you do? You walk the streets feeling like a freak: you’re not part of normal life anymore, but then the ‘normals’ are not part of your life anymore either, or your memories.
That’s how it feels walking around when you’ve lost a child. Like nobody understands your pain – they haven’t ‘been there’. Oh, they think they understand, but they don’t – they can’t. They want to be nice, to help, but your pain scares them.
My wife told me a story about an encounter with a relative who asked her, “So, how are you doing?”
My wife said, “Okay.”
The woman frowned solicitously and said, “Just okay?”
My god, at that point, “Okay” was a fucking miracle! I remember talking to a colleague I saw on the street one day, a few months after ‘it’ happened.
He said, hopefully, “So, is it getting any better?”
I said, “I’ve read it takes about ten years to really get better.”
He flinched, visibly, then walked off as if I had electrocuted him with a hot wire.
Guess what: It takes about ten years to really get better. Sorry, folks, but that’s my experience. That doesn’t mean every single day is unbearable, until a sudden bolt of lightning strikes you ten years later, and you’re fine. No, it means you’re ‘working on it’ actively, all the time, for about ten years. Then, you seem to reach some kind of crazy peace, most of the time.
Still hard nights?
Still depressing sometimes?
Still feel like a failure, a loser sometimes?
Absolutely – just not all the time, and not as intensely.
And, if you’re lucky, you eventually find your own personal ways to honor the lost, and keep their spirit around. You find that, in a way, you can ‘memorialize’ them by incorporating their best qualities into your everyday life, so that their life wasn’t lived in vain. In the case of Brett, a sense of aliveness, or pure joy in the moment, was his hallmark. I’m definitely not noted for any of those things, but dammit, I try – I try harder, now that he’s gone and can’t do it for himself, and others. And sometimes I succeed, for example in helping my patients appreciate, and even revel in, the ‘moment’, and then I feel that I have carried out the sacred obligation I owe to Brett.
As I’ve said, for some reason military things seem to come to mind when I think of Brett. Maybe because honor, duty, valor, courage, loyalty and fidelity were his strongest suits. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, especially when in the service of someone else. One day, we were going to be riding the Skunk Train, a small old-time railroad in Northern California that we really loved. While waiting for the train, the boys and I were passing the time at a sort of restaurant and store near the station. There was one of those kids’ rides there – the kind where you put in a quarter and can ‘ride’ the horse, or car, or whatever – except in this case it was a locomotive.
This much older kid was riding it over and over, kind of giving Nicky and Brett the gloat, and flaunting the heck out of his hegemony over the locomotive. Nicky was getting agitated and starting to lose it.
I was almost about to say something when Brett boldly stepped up, put his hands on his hips and said,
“Get off, kid – you’re through for the day.”
The kid meekly got off and slunk away. Then Brett waved Nicky onto the train – not proudly, just like ‘mission accomplished’. He went through his life like a soldier on a mission – a mission to have fun, and to make sure everyone else had fun, too. There was a seriousness about him, a strong claiming of place, that was striking and unusual.
When he was five or so, I noticed him playing ‘soccer’ with some other little kids on the playground after school. They weren’t really playing by any rules – they were too young, and most of them were sort of paying attention sporadically and mostly goofing off.
But Brett was determined and focused.
Later, I said to him, “Wow – we should get you on a soccer team.”
He looked me square in the eye and said, “I’m already on a soccer team.”
That’s my boy.
Note: All clinical vignettes herein are significantly altered to protect patient confidentiality and privacy.