This article is related to the tragic and unexpected death of my son, Michael.
The days immediately after Michael’s death were very difficult. I had been warned that certain objects, sights, sounds, and even scents could trigger any number of strong emotional responses. I certainly experienced those. Some were centered on physical objects, like the jar of peanut butter on the kitchen counter, the boxes of apple juice in the refrigerator, and the articles of clothing I pulled from the dryer. Others were connected to specific words that came up in conversation. Words like pillow, tent, phone, and blanket were among his most frequently used.
I was especially aware of sounds, or rather the lack of them. Michael would frequently take a smart phone or other handheld device and use it to play some of the worst “music” I have ever heard. A lot of the stuff he liked on YouTube, for example, sounded more like white noise than music. (For someone with his sensory issues it may have sounded just fine, but I hated it.) Whatever the case, for months there had been a constant, muffled stream of sound leaking from Michael’s bedroom. In the evenings following his death, I was very aware of its absence.
I also found some associations that I didn’t expect. Lisa and I like to watch Animal Planet together. Some of the shows we watch involve the operation of zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, where all kinds of animals are featured and discussed. Some of the other shows we watch involve game wardens and other types of law enforcement officers dealing with animal control issues. Sometimes these officers deal with the search, rescue, and recovery of missing people. On the night of Michael’s accident, I saw the real thing. A group of policeman and other first respondents were combing a wooded area looking for my missing child. When I looked at the TV screen and saw those game wardens searching a wooded area, it was like a sledgehammer to the head. Knowing that those wardens were looking for evidence of illegal hunting, and not a lost child, didn’t matter. It was the visual image that set me off. In my contorted mind, all I could see was a man in a police uniform running out of the forest carrying the wet, lifeless form of my son. The images on the television were too similar, so I reluctantly told Lisa that I couldn’t watch any more. The TV was turned off, and the disturbing silence returned to our home.
It has been four months since that horrible day. The emotional associations with everyday objects and events are starting to fade, but they still occur. I suspect some will continue for some time to come. Perhaps for the rest of my life.
“Tears are the silent language of grief.” —Voltaire
It has been said that the worst pain a parent can feel is the loss of a child. I now understand, and agree with, that statement. Thursday, November 21, 2019, would have been my son Michael’s seventh birthday. Tuesday, September 24, 2019, was the day he suffered an accident that ultimately ended his short life.
The events of that day are hard to keep straight, even after several weeks, but I will try. Caitlin, Michael and I had arrived home around 6:30 in the evening after a very routine trip to the grocery store. We had also spent a little time at a local playground and took care of a few quick errands. When we arrived home, Caitlin went into the house while I unloaded some of the groceries. Michael climbed out of the car and started walking toward the front door, like he had done dozens of times prior. At that moment I received a phone call.
Somewhere within the next few minutes, catastrophe struck. I had been on the phone for roughly five minutes, when Caitlin asked me, in alarm, where Michael was. The last time I had seen him, he was walking toward the front door. But apparently, at the last minute, he changed direction and went somewhere else.
Michael had wandered off before, so this wasn’t without precedent. He wore a signal device on his ankle for just such an emergency. Caitlin called 9-1-1 while I quickly ran around the property to see if I could find him. After a few minutes, emergency services had started scanning for his signal device, and help was on the way. In the mean time, I continued to search the area around the house while Caitlin spoke on the phone with Lisa, who was still in town on other business. Within ten minutes, people from throughout the neighborhood were searching for Michael. A few minutes after that, two sheriff’s office patrol cars arrived and joined in the search.
At roughly 7:00pm his signal was located, and he wasn’t far from the house. But the signal wasn’t moving, so the policemen were getting anxious. A few minutes later he was found floating face down in a pond, not a tenth of a mile from our house. He was cold, wasn’t breathing, was unresponsive, and his heartbeat was erratic. He was immediately rushed to Culpeper hospital. By this time, Lisa had returned home, so we quickly loaded into the car and started for town.
Upon arriving at Culpeper hospital, Lisa ran to the emergency room to see Michael, while I stayed with Caitlin. For close to 80 minutes they worked to necessitate him and stabilize his pulse. They eventually succeeded in stabilizing his heartbeat, but he was still unresponsive. A doctor informed us that he was being airlifted to the University of Virginia’s pediatric hospital in Charlottesville where further treatment could be performed. But the doctor feared that Michael was already brain dead.
We collected ourselves and left. The plan was to make a quick stop at home for a change of clothing, medications, and the like. On the way home we hit a deer. The crazy animal literally appeared out of nowhere and destroyed the car windshield! Fortunately, the car could still be driven, so I turned on the hazard lights and slowly drove the rest of the way home. We picked up what we needed, loaded into our other car, and headed for Charlottesville.
We arrived there around 11:30pm, and found Michael in a ward room connected to various tubes and monitoring devices. We was receiving a steady supply of medication to keep his heart running, and a respirator was helping him to breathe.
By this time Lisa, Caitlin and I were expecting the worst. The hospital chaplain on duty was an Episcopal vicar from the University. He was very helpful in helping us to focus and remain calm. He did not perform last rites on Michael, because we weren’t at that point yet, but he did recite a special prayer for seriously ill patients.
The next several hours were long and surreal. The real concern was that there was no sign of neural activity. Over the course of the night, nine different doctors, all with different specialties, examined Michael. Unfortunately, all of them said the same basic thing. Namely, Michael wasn’t going to survive.
We had one last cause for hope. If Michael had slipped into some sort of coma, he could potentially wake up. If such a thing is going to happen, it almost always happens within 24 hours. Also, an EEG test would determine weather or not his brain was still functioning. But to be reliable, we would have to wait for the appropriate specialists to arrive in the morning.
We made a few phone calls to workplaces and schools to let people know where we were, and why we wouldn’t be showing up that day. Then we started calling family members, some of whom were out of the country at the time.
The neural specialists arrived around 10:00am on September 25, and started testing. There was still no neural activity. Michael didn’t even show a blink response when his eyes were subjected to bright light. The EEG rating was so low that the technicians weren’t sure they were picking up background electrical activity from the instruments themselves.
The prognosis was simple, and tragic: Michael’s brain was gone. It was only a matter of time before his heart and lungs stopped working. Now we had to make the most difficult decision that anyone can ever make. But before we did, there was one more expert we needed to consult.
We contacted the hospital chapel and requested a Roman Catholic priest. The church is notoriously strict about certain things, including when to take a person off of life support, so we wanted to speak with a priest before proceeding.
The Newman center at the University of Virginia hosts a small Dominican friary, and one of the friars came to see us at about 1:00pm. I wish I could remember his name (it is written down in our papers somewhere), but he was a very understanding man. He also knew the vicar who spoke with us the night before, and may have already spoken with him. We explained the events of the previous several hours, including the assessments of all the medical personnel who had examined Michael.
The priest informed us that whenever there is a reasonable chance of improvement, medical treatment should continue. That is, if there is still a chance of the patient recovering, we – the family – are morally obligated to continue treatment. But for Michael, this was not the case. After considering everything he knew, the priest concluded that continuing medical treatment on Michael was not going to bring any useful results. After some discussion, we decided to meet Michael “half way.” We would reduce the medication to a minimum, and allow Michael to leave on his own.
But a new development appeared. A social worker asked us if we wanted to donate any of Michael’s organs for transplant, or if we wanted any of his tissue samples to be used for scientific study. This was a surprisingly easy decision to make.
We easily agreed to organ and tissue donations. After all, Michael wasn’t going to need them for much longer. This required him to remain on life support for a few more hours while the necessary surgical equipment was prepared and the needed personnel were gathered. Everything would be ready shortly after 8:00pm that night.
While completing the paperwork for the donations, I asked if a brain tissue sample would be taken. When I was informed that one would be, I stipulated that it include a portion of his corpus callosum membrane. That is the membrane that coordinates communication between the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex – the left and right brain. In Michael’s case, it was always thin and inefficient. The two halves of his brain literally didn’t communicate well. This was arguably the root cause of his disability, and I wanted to make sure it was examined. Perhaps something could be learned that would help future patients. The social worker noted my concern, and told me that it would be followed.
The priest performed the anointing of the sick, followed by last rites. The equipment was re-configured to keep him stable for several more hours, and that was pretty much that. The priest returned to the friary around 2:30pm, while the three of us went to the hospital cafeteria for a much needed meal. We were beyond exhausted, and our emotions were all over the map. All in all though, it was a welcome break.
Shortly after 8:00pm that night, we were informed that the surgery rooms were in the final stages of preparation, and that everyone who needed to be present was on site. The medication drip was reduced to minimum, and he was disconnected from the respirator. Then something very beautiful happened.
The hospital has a ritual they perform when a terminal patient is being taken to donor surgery. As the patient is wheeled through the hospital, staff members in whatever rooms are passed go into the corridor and watch them roll past. It is their show of respect to the patient and the grieving family. Michael was wheeled through the hospital, flanked by several doctors and nurses, while Lisa, Caitlin and I followed behind. Along the way, his favorite song was playing on my smart phone. As difficult as it was, it did provide some comfort.
Michael’s heart and breathing stopped shortly after 9:00pm on September 25. We started for home about thirty minutes later, to whatever future awaited us.
Michael was entrusted to the Clore-English funeral home in Culpeper. His funeral mass took place a week later, on October 4, and his ashes were interred on October 21.
I will add to this story when I am able. But for the moment, this is as far as I can go.
Tonight, we had to say goodbye to a very dear friend. Doctor Watson, our 10-year old Border Collie / Australian Sheppard mix, had to be put to sleep. For the past few months he had been suffering from a variety of digestive issues. One of the vets we spoke with suspected a canine variant of Crohn’s disease. Whatever the case, none of the treatments he received had any lasting effect. Having to euthanize a pet is an agonizing decision, but it’s one that most pet owners eventually have to face.
At some point last weekend, Lisa and I realized that the inevitable was within sight. I wanted to take him to one of his favorite walking and running places, for a final runabout, but he had been too weak to do much moving. I then considered getting him one of his favorite treats, as a parting gift, but he hadn’t been eating consistently for a few weeks. It was painful to see.
He spent most of his last day sleeping in his favorite spot on the living room floor, right below the skylight.
Such images stir up memories. When we first moved into our house, we promised Caitlin that we would get a dog. When I was young, I had a very good experience with a Border Collie mix, so we started searching for one. We acquired Watson from the Atlantic Region Central Border Collie Rescue, based near Richmond, back in 2009. He was roughly a year old at the time. When we went to the rescue farm to pick out a dog, we were greeted by several bouncy, rambunctious Border Collies. Some were entirely too rambunctious, and one was downright pushy.
Watson was different. Granted, like the others he came into the meeting pen and vied for attention; such behavior is common for Borders. But once he finished that, he settled down on the stairs and leaned his head against Lisa’s shoulder. A short time later, he sauntered over to Caitlin and did the same. Finally he came over to me, gave me several licks on the hand, then sat down next to me. It’s been said that dogs often choose their owner. Watson certainly choose us, and we were very lucky for it.
We couldn’t have asked for a better dog. He was as friendly and good-natured a dog as one could ever find, and he was always great company. His table manners were never the best, and he tended to flop down in the most inconvenient places possible. But at the same time he rarely begged, wasn’t an incessant barker, and he never got on the furniture (unless he was invited).
In many ways, Doctor Watson was the first one to realize that Michael had a life-threatening cyst on his left lung. When Michael came home as a baby, we had some extended family milling around, and some expressed concern over Watson’s aggressive sniffing at Michael’s left chest. When we learned that Michael had the cyst, we concluded that Watson must have sensed that something was wrong. (Perhaps he could smell the corrupted tissue?) Apparently he was trying to inform us.
The decision to put him to sleep was heartbreaking. But again, the various treatments we tried were not working. It was as if his entire digestive system just gradually stopped functioning. Given that he wasn’t eating at all consistently, there was a real chance that he would starve right in front of us. We had simply run out of options and time.
As I write this, I realize how much I’m going to miss the furry goofball.
After taking care of things at the vet’s office, Lisa started for home, while I took care of some errands in town. When it came time for me to grab a quick dinner, another strange memory surfaced.
A few years back, I brought home take out from Burger King, because we were all too tired for much else. Before I could distribute the food, however, Watson’s muzzle had descended into one of the bags. He managed to snarf up a double whopper with cheese, some chicken tenders, and an order of onion rings. He didn’t even have the decency to get a stomach ache later! I wasn’t happy with him. Neither was Lisa, because it was her sandwich that he had stolen!
Earlier this evening, I went into Burger King and ordered a double whopper with cheese, with onion rings. Such fare is unwise for a type-ii diabetic, and I suspect I will be reminded of that when I check my sugar before going to bed. But Watson would have loved it.
I looked at that big, greasy sandwich, and couldn’t help but smile before biting into it. This one is for you, Watson.
Lisa featured Watson in an article connected to her blog.
Many families have special traditions for the holiday season, with heart-warming tales that are lovingly passed on from one generation to the next.
This is not one of those tales. (Though it could be considered a humorous anecdote.)
It happened during a Christmas season in the late 1970’s. I don’t remember exactly when, but my brother was still in the first stages of elementary school, which suggests the period of 1976 to 1979. The scene was in my childhood home town of Homer, New York, during one of the heavier winter snowfalls, about a week before Christmas. My family used actual trees at Christmas well into the 1980’s, so each year we would find a suitable pine tree to fill our living room. After the holidays, the remains of the tree would be put along the side of the house where it served as a shelter for birds and other animals until it was broken down for compost in the spring.
We generally tried to acquire a tree one week before Christmas, so that it would still have most of its needles through January 5th (Epiphany, or Twelfth Night). One of our “go to” places for a Christmas tree was a place called Forest Fisheries in Homer. It was a local business that sold gear for hunting and fishing, as well as various other sports that were popular in the region. It’s still in business, and now sells boats and all-terrain vehicles in addition to hunting and fishing equipment. During the Christmas season they sold trees (and may still), mostly from local tree farms. White pine and blue spruce grow in great quantities in upstate New York, so they were always in good supply.
This particular year we had a unique problem: our car was in repair. My father had arranged a carpool to his office at SUNY with a co-worker, my brother and I could both walk or bike to school, and there were some small local grocery stores in Homer at the time. So basic needs were not a problem. But how were we going to get a Christmas tree to the house without a car?
I had a small, wooden sleigh. roughly five feet in length (think of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud”). Forest Fisheries was only four blocks from our home, so that year we decided to use that sleigh to transport a tree back to the house. So, during the driving snow, the four of us dragged that sleigh over to the place, picked out a nice blue spruce, loaded it up, then dragged it home.
Many people saw this display: a family of four, with the family dog happily marching along side, bringing home a Christmas tree on a wooden sleigh. It probably looked like something from a Currier and Ives print. For a few years after that we had people complement us on our “lovely family tradition.”
The truth is we didn’t enjoy it at all! The tree refused to stay lashed to the sleigh, and had to be re-tied at least twice. My brother ended up riding on the sleigh with the tree, holding it by the trunk to keep it in place. Pine needles fell out of his hair for days afterward. A layer of ice had formed under the snow in the streets of Homer, which made the sleigh hard to control, and footing very difficult. I fell down at least four times. Over the course of the trip, the snowfall went from moderate to heavier-than-usual, even by Central New York standards. Our dog Sparky, who was generally loyal to a fault, got sick of the whole thing and eventually ran ahead home.
We never did that again. After the ordeal, my parents decided that if we were ever in a situation like this again, we would order an artificial tree from the Sear’s catalog, and just hope it arrived in time. As it turned out, we never again were without a functioning car at Christmas, and we didn’t switch to an artificial tree until I was in college.
But even so, for many years after that people would ask us about our perceived family tradition of bringing home a Christmas tree on a sleigh, and how we would disappoint them. I now wonder how many romantic notions we managed to shatter. I now find that when I look at a Currier and Ives painting on a holiday card, and I see people riding in horse-drawn sleighs and what not, I have to ask myself if the people in that scene were really enjoying themselves, or if they were longing to be indoors in front of a warm fire!
Are they really having fun, or just indulging the viewer?