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My Son's Death Made Me a Man I Never Wanted to Become

Photo by Elsa Lilja on Unsplash

All I could do was hold my wife and stare at the wall. Behind me, in the NICU, an army of nurses and doctors were all yelling at each other. My wife, that 5’3” rough stack of bricks and rebar, stared unblinkingly at every second of her little boy’s final days on this earth.

She would hold me and narrate every single moment.

A new doctor has arrived.

They are trying to drain the liquid in his bloated stomach.

The vitals are dropping. One of the nurses has left the room to cry.

He is starting to change color.

He is turning purple.

And me, staring at the wall, asking every Catholic saint to please intervene.

When the inevitable happened and all the prayers had failed, all that remained was an absolute truth. A tiny purple boy who had spent twenty-five days tangled in tubes and wires in an incubator of fogged-up plastic and steel.

I had been so stupid in thinking there would be so many days of holding him that I was terrified to do so in the hospital. My only real memory was kangarooing him for three hours in the middle of the night and feeling his warm skin on mine. I looked down once. That was all the fortitude I could muster.

When the entire hospital staff left, I left with them. The coward in me left my wife behind to bathe him and prepare him for the morgue. In a hallway, somewhere in the labyrinth of the hospital, four decades of man-training had left me incapable of tears. When you are taught to endure pain without showing anyone you are in pain, crying is always absolutely out of the question. All too often, men are trained to deviate pain away from themselves and externalize it. Make the world hurt as much as you do. If you feel that first drop about to form, stanch it, and punch something. Hard.

A block away from the hospital, I did just that. There was a bush in full bloom, outside a printing company, with the most beautiful red and yellow flowers I've ever seen. I stood there for half an hour plucking every bloom away and throwing them on the sidewalk. Stripping it of all its beauty. What was left was a green-gray mass of leaves. Indistinct from every other bush around it. In my head, I honestly thought only one thing. I have taken away all your babies, and now you are also unspecial.

Some would suggest that grief is like a sledgehammer to the chest that dents your ribs so badly that taking a full breath is always impossible. Others, perhaps more prone to metaphor, see it as a vulture that descends from the sky and wraps its inky wings around your heart. I would say that it is never as dramatic as all this. It’s the day to day tangles of the tongue and the sleepwalking that reveals one’s grief best.

Do I say that I have two beautiful girls, ages 3 and 4, who get on tiptoe to kiss me when I get home from work, or that I have three children? Or that I have three children, two alive and one deceased. Do I nod stupidly when others express that three babies would’ve been too much or rage against that person and end up even more friendless than I am?

Simply put, grief is the unconscious way I make one extra serving of mac and cheese or pancake batter every Saturday and Sunday that inevitably winds up in the refrigerator for a couple of days and eventually goes into the trash. It is the meal eaten under the shadow of loss.

There is more than just my son buried in the cemetery. In his coffin there is also my joy, my sense of invincibility, my sense of humor, my patience, and my faith. His death has made me the type of man that I never wanted to become.

I fight so hard to fake happiness and feign interest in order to be some necessary something, a simulation of a good husband or a decent father. It is a role that must be played, I know, for the good of those around me. Yet still I am so terribly frightened that any of them will leave me that they all sleep in the bed with me now. My wife, my 15-year old “puppy,” my two little girls, and me, scrunched into a corner with one foot propped on the nightstand.

Let me tell you something, though. I would’ve have made a little space for him. Right there between the tangle of feet and deflated pillows. I would gladly, every night, sleep on the floor if I could have my little boy back.

Thank you Rafael Miguel Montes for sharing your story. Shared with permission.

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