Probably the hardest date on the calendar for me is January 15. There are others that strike sharp chords, but this date in particular whisks me back in time to deal with what a person should never have to deal with.
The death of a child.
I’ve talked about it liberally over the years, trying to process through the grief and pain that binds me to that fateful day. I’ve gone over it in my blog probably more than in my own head, and yet I can’t seem to purge it entirely. I don’t know if I ever will.
But then I used to think that about the day my dad died, and eventually Brandon’s death overshadowed it. The day would come when losing Dan would rival closely the shock and mourning of that day, and I can’t even predict what other events may try to do the same in the future.
Nor would I want to.
But of all the losses I’ve suffered, the loss of a child cuts the deepest. I’ve often equated it to a broken promise, and that’s what it felt like in those horrible hours that followed.
I woke up that day after a much needed nap. Brandon was a sweet baby but he was growing fussier by the day. He acted much like Timothy had acted when he had constipation problems as a young baby, and we were just days away from his very first medical checkup.
We had no way to assume it could be anything more serious. We were released from the hospital in Los Angeles with a clean bill of health. He was a big baby, a whopping 9 pounds and 11 ounces, with a perfectly round head and a perfectly sweet disposition.
He would cry when normal babies would cry – to be changed or to be fed – but other than that he soaked in the world around him. He would gaze into the faces of his family – my face of course, his grandma who we lived with and his older brothers. Tim at the time was almost 5 and Jeremiah was only about two years and four months.
We lived in Eagle Rock, California then, and Daniel was still dealing with legal issues in Amarillo before he could join us. I remember distinctly the landlord coming by to check on me after the baby was born and telling me that having three sons was good luck.
A social worker, because those were back in the days when I needed financial help, also told me that a baby was the way God let us know he hasn’t given up on us.
I knew that Brandon was a blessing.
So much so that I never wanted him to be apart from me. I would literally take him into the bathroom if I had to take a bath, sitting him in his baby seat on the floor nearby so I could keep an eye on him.
I didn’t know then that our time was short, at least not consciously.
It was understandable that I might suspect that I’d get the rug pulled out from under me again because life had a frustrating way of doing it back in those days. Some of it was my fault, some of it wasn’t, but I felt pretty war-torn. So war-torn that my newest blessing was one I wanted to keep close to me at all times.
He was my angel, and I was hopelessly in love with him the same as any mother is with her child.
Our very last day with him we went to the Target in Pasadena to pick up whatever items you do when you go to Target. I went ahead of my mother to the car, where I stood just under the canopy of the store to keep us dry from the drizzle of that day. He had this look on his face I so wish I would have been able to capture on a camera – the wonder of the falling rain on a sweet little baby face as he craned his head to see more…
In that moment I wanted a photo to save that look but I thought to myself, “There will be other times.”
Everything was fine until that night, when he wouldn’t sleep as much as I tried to get him to sleep. Like I said I had this trouble with Timothy before so I wasn’t overly concerned. I just made a mental note to talk to his pediatrician about it. But by 7am I was delirious with exhaustion and my mother decided to take him into her room so I could get some sleep.
I slept till about 10am, and when I woke up I felt refreshed and relieved that he wasn’t crying. It meant he could get some rest too.
I went into my mother’s bedroom to check up on him and he was on his side facing away from me. He was laying so still and I think it might have sparked an alarm somewhere in my brain because I went over to lay my hand on him. When I turned him over onto his back, the side of his face that he had been laying on was purple.
I panicked and I screamed to my mom to call 9/11 as I did anything I could think of to save him. When I breathed air into his mouth it sounded as though he was breathing back, but he would not open his eyes. He would not cry.
The very thing that had kept me awake for hours before was something I fervently wished to hear again. I prayed to God and bargained everything I could think of to make this horrible thing not be true.
When the EMT got there I was rushed out of the bedroom so they could do their job. I went into my bedroom, which I shared with Tim and Jeremiah. I held onto them because they were scared and tried to calm them while I tried to calm myself as well.
Long minutes that seemed like an eternity later an EMT came into my bedroom and let me know he was gone. I felt every ounce of energy just evaporate and I fell forward onto my knees. The EMT grabbed me before I could hit the ground and he said something that would sear itself into my brain for those coming days, and stop me from doing anything stupid to join Brandon where he had gone. “You have two other boys who need you to be strong for them.”
That’s always been my job… to be the strong one.
And this day 16 years ago would be no different.
As we waited for the coroner to come to the apartment I had to call Dan and tell him the sad news. I was so scared that he’d do something desperate, and my main objective was to get him to California as quickly as possible.
My mother called my aunt and my uncle, who came to the apartment that night to take care of us. They were the only ones in California that we knew, aside from my sister, someone we weren’t necessarily on speaking terms – at least I wasn’t.
As I sat on my bed staring at the crib all I could think of was that he’d never sleep in it again. That self-dialogue had a lot of nevers. I’ll never see him go to school, I’ll never see him graduate, I’ll never see him marry and have kids of his own.
It just seemed so wrong. How could there be clothes and diapers he’d never wear? How could there be toys he’d never play with? How could there be a hole in my heart he could not fill?
I spent that evening avoiding all the platitudes of my ultra-religious aunt and uncle and instead got to work dismantling the crib to put it away. I packed away every last bit of anything that was bought for Brandon, keeping only my favorite little outfit for him to be buried in… even though I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around the concept. Otherwise I wouldn’t have put aside a diaper as well.
As I type this I feel that same overwhelming sense of sadness that weighs on my chest like an elephant, suffocating me so that I can’t even breathe. But breathe I do. Go on I do. Be strong… I do.
And 16 years later I have raised Brandon’s brothers and said goodbye to Brandon’s dad and even the great aunt and uncle who would be there for me in those dark days that followed.
I do that by keeping this day the one day I can feel those feelings. I can feel the loss – and the love – and the lesson that nine special days in 1995 was there to teach me.
Appreciate those you love. There isn’t always tomorrow. You have to make each moment count.
We lose sight of that far too easily… myself included.
I don’t know what Brandon would be like today, but I sense that he’d probably be wiser and more patient with the world than his mother has been. He had a sense of wonder that I seem to have lost along the way.
But because of him I have never lost my faith – even when the world seemed so fractured, and the promise of his life had been broken.
And I never will.
There have been times when I grew weary and considered giving up… but I know I have a job to do.
I’ll see him again, because of a bigger promise that will not be broken.
~~The Broken Chain~~
We little knew that morning, that God
was going to call your name.
In life we loved you dearly,
In death we do the same.
It broke our hearts to lose you,
you did not go alone;
for part of us went with you,
the day God called you home.
You left us peaceful memories,
your love is still our guide;
and though we cannot see you,
you are always at our side.
Our family chain is broken,
and nothing seems the same;
but as GOD calls us one by one,
The Chain will link again.