Friday, September 26, 2008


I've been slowly digging through a box of papers that the FX unearthed moving out, and I've found some interesting things. Journals from my first tumultuous months in college, a box of things given to me by my first boyfriend, which should be considered sentimental, but for some reason don't move me at all, an entire legal file from when I was working at Paramount and actively embroiled in not one, but two women stalking Michael J. Fox...and this. An essay I wrote in English 101 in college, the assignment being "Pick a defining moment in your life. Explain".

I was fifteen when this happened. I was a Detroit Tigers fanatic, and it was the summer of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who I was, of course, in love with. As far as I was concerned, sitting in Tiger Stadium and watching his moves, he could make everything all right. The city of Detroit seemed to agree with me. I was in Michigan to spend the summer with my dad and his family - like I always did. It all started out so well.

It was the summer my baby brother died of sudden infant death syndrome. His name was Mark, too. And here is his story.

** I think at some point I've gone back over this and edited it. I'm pretty sure of it, actually. I'm just not sure when I did it.**

Central air conditioning has a way of turning even the warmest, most secure home into a huge walk-in refrigerator, not only protected from humid, decaying air, but also keeping everything within cool, sterile and isolated. In July, when my brother died, this cocoon effect was at its peak. We all went to sleep in our frigid rooms as usual, fully expecting to wake up to just another ordinary day, bandaging scraped knees, fighting over television shows and playing softball in the back lot. Just another suburban summer day.

I heard the screams even before I woke up, cutting sharply through the chill air, around corners and under doors. Not at my best that early in the morning, I jumped out of bed, more asleep than awake, and started moving blindly toward the sounds. I was half-way to my bedroom door when it opened. My father walked in, carrying my half-brother Mark in his arms. Normally he's a very closed in man, always seeming deathly afraid of ever letting a single emotion break loose. He stood there looking like a child himself, with his rumpled hair and faded underwear, fighting that usually winning battle with himself to stay under control. This time he was losing.

"He's dead," he said, unnecessarily, holding him out as if he might break. I stood there shivering in my four sizes too big T-shirt, rubbing my hands on my arms for warmth, transfixed by what was in my dad's arms. I tore my eyes away and looked up slowly, finally meeting my father's eyes. Almost imperceptibly he held my brother out for me to take. As I stood there desperately trying to think of something- anything - to say, my legs involuntarily moved rather than my mouth and I shrank backwards. I stepped on an air vent, throwing frigid air up my already chilled body. It was morning.

The rest of that day went by in a blur, a fast moving montage of people pounding urgently on that tiny limp body, of useless sirens, numerous phone calls, the indescribable looks on the faces of my dad and step-mother when they returned from the hospital - alone. Then there were the other kids, two boys and a girl, the oldest just barely five. With the adults gone in the ambulance, I was left to provide explanations. From the wisdom of my fifteen years I was supposed to supply all the answers. I'd always heard about the reactions of little children to death, the inevitable "but where did he go?" and "when is he coming back?" and even "well, why couldn't we go too?" But as incapable as I was of handling even those bits of curiosity, I was still less able to understand some of the things they said to each other as we sat there waiting for confirmation of our fears. "Eddie," said my almost four year old sister to my just turned five year old brother, "I bet he died because we yelled at him all the time to stop crying." A sharp exchange followed, almost drowning out Bugs Bunny on the set, and ending with three pair of vulnerable, terrified eyes on me. "Can you die from that?"

Two hours later the living room was filled with well meaning but completely hysterical relatives. I sat on the edge of the fireplace, slightly away from everyone, the kids on either side of me, trying to block out the rising voices and pale faces. As my grandmother went into another round of wailing, I turned my head quickly, to avoid having to watch as well as hear. Simultaneously, all three kids huddled closer. I looked at them carefully, seeing the fear on their faces. I suggested a walk, ostensibly to get them away from the situation, but also, on a much less honorable note,to get me out of the room as well. They jumped at the idea and we slipped unnoticed out of the room.

As we left the cocoon of the house an incredibly humid mid-western wave of heat hit us, bringing us sharply back to the realities outside of our own little world. Some painful realities, such as stepping on flaming hot asphalt with no shoes and feeling the blisters immediately erupt on the soles of my feet. At least they'll go away, I told myself numbly, not able to resist comparing the temporary pain of the heat to the permanent casualty of that cool, closed house.

Thinking back on that day three years later I can still feel those blisters, still see the confused faces all around me, still hear those wrenching shrieks. I'll never forget the funeral, seen through a haze, trying unsuccessfully to fight back both the hysterical laughter and the hot tears. More than anything else I see my father's face, the first and only time I've ever seen him cry. But I can also be grateful that I didn't know at the time just how it would affect me in the future, didn't know that just eighteen months later the same thing would happen - another baby, another sudden death.

We went to bed that night shaken, wondering, following the same routine as before. We all lay in our chilly, still rooms, quilts pulled up to our noses in a futile attempt to get warm, and thought of Mark, lying perfectly still in his best pajamas in his very own cold, still room.


heather.pnr said...

Oh, my heart broke open reading this.

Nobody, no family, should have to experience a moment like this. I'm so sorry.

Stacie said...

How utterly heartbreaking to read. I think I held my breath through the entire post.

I just want to reach through and hug that 15 year old you. I'd settle for hugging the adult you if I could.

I agree with heather that no family should have to go through an experience like this (and twice is overwhelming to think about). I am so very, very sorry that you and your family had to.

Maggie May said...

RC, that was a heart wrenching account and no 15 year old should have to cope with that.
So sorry.
Your present nursing skills came right out that day, even though you didn't know you had them at the time.I expect your younger siblings were very grateful that you were around to help bring some stability on that sad day.

-Ann said...

Very powerful - I feel like I was there.

I'm just wondering, how would this essay be different if you wrote it now, with all the years between you and the event and the births of your own children?

speccy said...

dear god, you have me in tears again. So sorry for your losses. And you have been a writer since English 101- powerful stuff

Kaycie said...

I was still in high school the first time a baby was lost in my little circle of friends and family. There were three such funerals before I turned twenty. The first was stillborn, but the other two were babies I held, babies I knew. I know how you felt.

aims said...

Oh Dear God!

RC - too much pain. Too much.

Iota said...

How truly dreadful. Just awful.

Even in college, you could write brilliantly. That feeling of cold, the way it cocoons the outer world, then the coldness of the baby in his best pyjamas. Seeing your dad, "like a child himself". It's all incredible writing.

ciara said...

this is just so sad. you have been through a lot, haven't you? *hugs*

Akelamalu said...

I don't believe there is anything worse than the death of a child. I remember my Father coming back from the hospital and telling me and my younger brother that our newest brother had lived only an hour. Then the calls from my son's first partner telling my first my granddaughter had died and then three weeks later my grandson had gone. You have my total sympathy RC. x

Potty Mummy said...

Incredibly moving - and incredibly written.

Mya said...

What a terrible thing to happen. A very sad story, brilliantly told.

Mya x

CrazyCath said...

This has pulled at my heart so deeply, I am typing through tears. And you wrote the bulk of that at 18? You are remarkable. To come through that and still come out the other side telling the tale but still smiling at the end of the day...

What a fantastic big sister, daughter, wife, mother and nurse. The depth of feeling and the care is so very evident in this post.

Devon said...

I'm thinking two things, one... 18 months later? The pain would be indescribable.

The second point, your writing is brilliant. You should write a book in the style of James Herriots vet books. Stories, some with sad endings but all somehow enriching. You could do this, and when you sell millions, you could cut back to part time at the ED.

Wisewebwoman said...

Your gift for pulling me, the reader, in is astonishing, RC. The devastation of your 15 year old self, your father, your precious baby brother. The mantle of responsibility you had to assume for your siblings.
The chill descended on me, here.