Past conversations haunt me. I turn them over like a bottom plow looking for those hints, hidden revelations in the words, the tone, the facial expressions, a simple inflection that should have made me aware but went ignored in the moment. The past has a way of drowning us, to the point we lust to change its course, damn it up, and domesticate it to irrigate man’s purpose. I hear his voice in my sleep, but mostly, in my wakening. That giddy, uplifting sensation within my chest like a kid at Christmas courses through my being. I search, knowing he’s not there. Then of course, the other sensation, also within my chest, that constricting weight as I refuse to breathe, the guilt of taking a breath and filling my lungs with life. Each of us desperately clings to the flotsam and jetsam of our ship wrecks; even as we hear those promising whispers to uncoil our blue fingers, let go, breathe the cold water; come, join us.
“Daddy, you like this movie a lot, don’t you?”
“Well, yeah, it’s one of my favorites.”
“Is it the way they talk?”
“It’s more than that…Why are you asking?”
“I’m not up to anything—just engaging you in conversation. My teacher says that’s a good way to develop social skills. She says it will come in handy when I’m all grown up. So, tell me more about why you like this movie so good.”
“So good? What grammar—but, since you’re so curious, this movie…is a story about human nature and the lies we live. Tennessee Williams was a true scholar of human nature. There’s still a lot of that plantation mentality here in South Carolina. Folks judge you by who your daddy was and where you come from…”
“Why do they care where you’re coming from?”
“Well, that’s their colloquial way of referring to a person’s ancestry. You see, most grown-ups have a big hole, right in the middle of our gut that we are always trying to fill with something—anything…a big, empty hunger that needs satisfaction.”
“What do people try to fill their holes with?”
“Mostly, corks of religion, patches of vanity.”
“Is that why Big Daddy smells mendacity when those people walk by? Because of the holes in their gut?”
“That’s truer than you realize.”
“Daddy, you smile a lot when we talk about stuff.”
“Probably the way you phrase things.”
“That’s probably why we’re such good friends.”
“Maybe so, two old philosophers…”
“Look, daddy…this is the part where Brick bogs the convertible down in the front yard. Don’t you think all that rain filled his car up like a swimming pool? Where was he trying to go anyway with the top down? To get more of that whiskey that takes the hurt away? He sure is a man of intemperate disposition.”
“Intemperate disposition…yeah, I guess so. Brick’s running away from the truth. He’s always saying how the world is filled with mendacity. He knows he’s living a lie as well—even if he is the only one who doesn’t lie to Big Daddy. A lot of emotion and self –reflection in this muddy scene. They each see themselves and each other a bit differently and hate themselves for seeing it. A lot of imagery in slamming that door, breaking his crutch. A lot of imagery in that big ole house and the lowlands that give the family its illusions; it puts life right on the edge—the waters bringing in the richness with the floods but at any minute we can be drowning in the very materialistic things that give us blessing. A very delicate balance—the rain…it forgets to stop, rains a little too long, becomes greedy and wants it all, like a sociopath it blesses one day and destroys the next.”
“Daddy, I think their floods got out of hand and they don’t know how to get back to high ground. Kind’a like when I get mad with people over some little thing; each of us reacts to the other, then more people get involved and soon it’s so far out of hand I can’t even remember the rain beginning. Kind’a like today at school…the principal wants you to come to her office tomorrow before I can go back to class.”
We never saw Colin’s social skills develop into adulthood. Like his analogy, the rain began without notice and we simply were swept away, clinging to the hopes of debris, hoping to find the high ground once more. Looking back there were obvious things I should have noticed; the lost chances and damnation of not being aware of a flood before it “got out of hand.” One seemingly insignificant abnormal cell division—that “one little thing”, the catalyst like the first drop of a summer storm to bog our lives down in Big Daddy’s front yard.
Colin had this way of saying things which made me hesitate; my eyes would search the air for the most logical context to place his words. Life was so hectic; I simply filed the things that gave me pause away to conjure on at a later time.
“Look, they have benches in the grave yard for you to sit and be sad thinking about your dead grandmamma.”
One sentence with no further additions or subtractions. In silence, his mom and I frowned and stared deeply into the imagery. It was only natural to assume he would outlive his grandparents and even his parents. Isn’t that the natural course of a river? But, there is no natural course and we attempt to make our lives—our reality, more secure and less frightening with ordinary statistics of children burying their parents and sitting sadly upon contemplative benches in lush manicured gardens of granite monuments. Back then the present doted upon the future; sitting upon benches, smiling and instilling my future grandchildren of the things that were occurring in our present, but tragically that alternate future was never born. My memories are told to no one who listens and with each new viewing they become slightly altered, less true, and accepted merely as a sentimental gospel—blasphemous should anyone remember him differently. But that’s the nature of human religions; they are scripted to bring security and predictability to a very scary and chaotic world. Parents somehow want their children to believe.
“Daddy…good people don’t go to heaven.”
Sitting at the computer, my fingers seized in mid stride like a spider frozen with a blast of Freon. My eyes, were cast to the edges of my orbits searching for the punch line. “What ‘ya mean?”
“Good people are too good to ask for forgiveness from anyone—especially, a god.”
“Oh, I see where you’re going with this. People create their gods in man’s image and are above even the god’s judgement.”
Colin remained silent and I realized my little extra analogy was not needed. His statement stood upon its own for anyone to take in any direction they should deem fit.
In my silent contemplation, he added, “Seems to me that an all knowing god can’t judge anyone. Maybe he just lets the flawed little gods we create judge us by our own standards. We send ourselves to hell, without even knowing it.”
“Makes sense—we create our own little heavens and hells by how we script our little gods…Something happen to cause you to ponder on all this?”
“No, just thinking on the walk home from school.”
Parents have a tendency to expect hidden agendas from their child’s revelations.
Colin was our third child of four. On a spur of the moment, he lamented to his mom, “You treat me like a middle child.” We still wonder where that came from. At the instant of its utterance, I smiled from an adjoining room. His position was that he inherited the hand me downs from his brother. He had reached that stage…where he wanted his own identity apart from his older brother’s friends, his older brother’s outgrown clothes and his older brother’s domination.
I agreed from the other room with protruded lips and an accented nod. Later after his hand me down rant had been forgotten, I took him shopping for clothes that properly fit, clothes that were chosen by him and not by his brother. In his expression was that knowing look, which neither of us transcribed into spoken words. It was enough to be engrossed in my cell phone’s blank screen as I watched his reflection admiring his identity. When I replay the moment, his amazement of first discovery is both precious and indescribable. On a sunny, Wednesday afternoon we set out to properly clothe the person who was in the summer of leaving a fifth grade status and becoming a proper sixth grade inhabitant.
That was the summer he discovered skating. Each Friday night on my way to a part time job I’d drop him off at the skating rink and anticipate his stories as I worked feverishly to finish my work early to pick him up on the way home. His enthusiasm was inspiring as he took me to a childhood I never had. He now had his own friends apart from his siblings and shared their secrets, their desires, their relevant tragedies. He became the one they sought for advice but also a genuine laugh.
I recall his first trip to the skating rink alone. He and his friends had arranged to meet—a truly big deal for his group. I secretly smiled as he nervously waited with me in the car, hoping to see a familiar face with which to go forth and purchase a ticket. I spoke of mundane topics as he sat tensely on his seat, stretching his neck as the line of cars entered the lot.
He saw none of his friends and just as I thought he’d ask to go home, he uttered, “Well, I’m gonna go on in.”
“Oh…okay. You got enough money?”
“Here, just in case; take this.”
He smiled as he pocketed the twenty and off he went pausing at the entrance to wave me goodbye. I felt that conflicting moment of intense joy framed with the sadness that this was the beginning of our natural separation—his first steps at going his own way. Parents have a tendency to think that way—making everything a bright beginning and a tragic ending. From here on, his friends would have a bigger influence upon him than his parents—the natural course of life. Parents have a manner that pays tribute to these clear delineations of a child’s life.
Colin was born in June, our only summer child. He was skinny and scrawny with clubbed feet, but yet, radiated a resilience that made me smile he was here to stay. Over the years he endured the pain, the operations, the casts, the scars, and the odd little boots with a bar between.
Late at night, we’d hear the tell-all thump as he hopped from the cage of his crib, followed by his signature swish-swish sashay as he crawled down the carpeted hall. His orthopedic manacles secured his feet much like a seal upon dry land. We’d peep from the doorway and catch his bright smile as he scurried to greet us, free to explore, away from the boredom of colorful mobiles and white decorative lathe turned spindles. As parents, we made his hardships into our own inspirations, thinking of the days we’d anticipate his energetic smile and forward leaning gate as we wiled away our time in some assisted living complex.
Years later, he asked me, “Daddy, why do you get involved when you see people doing things to others?”
“Well, I kind of have a responsibility.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if that guy disrespects that old woman buying a Diet Coke, he will disrespect you. So, we kind of have to correct things as best we can, before it leads to a greater tragedy.”
“Daddy, you think you can change the world?”
I laughed as he stood there awaiting my answer, “Well, at one time long ago, I did. But my time has come and gone…Now, I have you to change the world long after I’m gone.”
He smiled and I could see the dreams and visions flashing across the cinema screen of his mind. Sometimes, parents see their actions manifest upon their children in a heartwarming way.
Colin found my treasure trove of CDs amassed over the years. He developed a connection with Fleetwood Mac, Gorillaz, Foreigner and Guns n Roses. Every so often I’d walk by his closed door and catch his voice singing with the same lyrics I sang in the 70s. Time seemed to freeze in those moments even as life persisted in tearing my ear away from his door.
Of course, as Guitar Hero became less popular he drifted away from the classics and towards the latest music he and his friends discovered together—Owl City, Great American Rejects, Nickelback.
On Friday nights, we’d watch Meerkat Manor or old DVDs of Fraggle Rock while planning the positions and rotations for tomorrow’s soccer games. He never wanted to play the entire game, remaining out a quarter to discover things on the sidelines, lost items, odd people, a new snack supplied by the designated snack provider. I feel debilitating sadness viewing his favorite sugary snacks temptingly displayed upon the spiral screw of a vending machine—Colin no longer here to drop the coins and press the buttons. Parents make inanimate objects extremely sentimental.
Occasionally, he’d steal one of my trinkets which adorned the rear view mirror of the Grand Marquis and give it to one of the loves of his life. Over time the trinkets would magically reappear in their proper spot as his loves became merely close friends. Parents notice their children’s loves from behind warm, silent smiles.
In November, I began noticing he wasn’t himself on the soccer field and he began texting me to pick him up on the walk from school, stating he felt tired. I’d ask him what was wrong to which he’d reply, “I don’t know, I just feel bad.” He developed pains in his neck and shoulders. Parents tend to grow accustomed to aches and pains from their children and we diagnosed it as his old beat up mattress and made plans to get a new one. Later he asked for flexible straws to sip his favorite drinks, lamenting that his neck hurt to bend. For efficiency and to ease our minds we took him for his wellness check up at the pediatrician’s office. They found nothing wrong and vaccinated him with the normal inoculations due a child his age. The next day he began running a fever. We were consoled and comforted that it was only a reaction to his vaccinations. No need to worry.
The fever persisted and he was unable to attend school. After several visits he was diagnosed as having pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics which had no effect. More antibiotics were prescribed to the same result. Eventually, we forced the issue at the emergency room and on Dec 11 he was admitted. In bed he grew weaker, complained of pain and ate his last meal—one shrimp from the shrimp cocktails he loved so much. Again we forced the issue and on December 15 he was transferred to a larger hospital where he was diagnosed with HLH. Hemophagocytic lymphohystiocytosis, a long name which means exactly what the individual words inferred.
Unknown to us, Colin had developed lymphoma, ironically the type which chemotherapy was very successful at treating. Unfortunately his body was already in a ramped up state of fighting off his cancer. He had reacted to the vaccinations by over producing white blood cells to attack the foreign proteins and was in an unchecked acceleration to attack his body as well. His lungs were not full of bacteria but white blood cells attacking his tissues and red blood cells as in some sort of demented revolution.
Secondary hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis occurs after strong immunologic activation, such as that which can occur with systemic infection, immunodeficiency, or underlying malignancy. Both forms are characterized by the overwhelming activation of normal T lymphocytes and macrophages, invariably leading to haematologic alterations and death. Parents always google their worries.
The disease had advanced too far, too quickly. We stayed with him for 12 days in a medically induced coma as the doctors attempted to get him to a state where chemotherapy could be administered. We were both there during the long days and rotated sleeping upon the couch in his room at night. We talked with him and blotted the blood that seeped from his nose and mouth. We played his favorite music and placed pictures of him about the room to remind his nurses and doctors that he was a vibrant person who needed to become so once again.
His grandparents kept his siblings as we attempted to create a miracle over my birthday and Christmas. His medications were reduced enough to bring him somewhat from his coma and back with us. He never opened his eyes and never spoke again but once his mama asked him, “Are you tired of hearing your daddy talking?” To which he managed to shake his head no. That was the last communication, a simple shake of his head after all those meaningful conversations of things he pondered on the walk home from school. His drugs were increased to reinstate the coma and we filed his head shake away for the day that we could relive it with his children.
On the day after Christmas his nurse found his pupils permanently dilated. We stared in silence as the EEG plotted its results and knew what we were witnessing was horror beyond belief. Electrocerebral silence—the plot forever burned into my consciousness as the world became a very painful place. There would be no more conversations…ever again, no more disappearing trinkets, no more writing upon the window seals, no more trips to the principal’s office, no more of the natural things which made Colin. The world crushed inward like an egg in an angry man’s fist.
More tests were needed and Colin was rolled from the room for an MRI of his brain. We waited in silence for his return, each of us replaying all the moments—the laughs, the cries, the worries and the happy times that once were. When he returned we hoped for that miracle that we read about and hear the preacher assuring us of. We formed to his bed rails as we chattered things of our denial, hoping for that head shake or a crooked smile.
The doctor was smiling to people she passed in the hall. She paused at the nurses’ station and I saw her smiling and heard her laughs to whatever it was they thought was appropriate. Her face lost its smile as she turned towards us standing about his bed, her white starched lab coat with an embroidered title swished as her short arms brushed with her strides.
“The MRI reveals that the white matter in his brain,” the doctor said his, and didn’t say Colin, “is extremely abnormal. He is gone. I will be here all night; just let his nurse know when you decide to disconnect him from the ventilator.” She explained the impersonal reality we already knew as we stared at Colin’s face and listened to the hiss and swish of the ventilator. His pictures smiled to us from about the room as we blinked to clear away this bad dream. The nurse came in with her box of death and began taking his hand print and asking if we’d like a lock of his hair. He was bathed and his hair washed like a ritual sacrifice upon the altar.
All the neural connections formed over these 11 years were gone—eaten away by his own immune system. All the things he loved, all the things he feared, all the things that made his eyes glitter, his unspoken connections to me, erased for evermore. Such a cruel fate to have protected him all these years and now in an odd way he had destroyed himself from within the one part that was the most precious. The foods he loved and the foods we told him were healthy, all combined to form the very cells which decided to rob me of him.
Parents have a tendency in their nightmares to remember the warmth and the freshly washed fragrance of their children. We tend to remember placing band aids over their scrapes and remember the reflections of birthday candles twinkling and undulating upon our kids black dilated pools. We force frowns as we recall trips to the principal’s office and the consternation that carved our faces upon hearing the latest offense at school. We close our eyes and pray that when we open them we will once again sit in those elementary courts of justice.
The undertaker sheepishly asked from somewhere behind a forced, gratuitous smile, “Do you see anything that we’ve missed—anything that should be changed—to make, Colin, more natural—the way he was?” His mannerisms, the fact he called Colin by name, his hesitation in his statement irritated me, even as I realized he was simply doing his job. I felt the pain and sensed my own hypocrisy—I was violated that his doctor was too impersonal to use his name and now felt the same wrong that the undertaker was too familiar with his identity.
I recognized Colin in the casket but, it was not a recognition that we shared from any event in our short time together. This was a recognition that caused me to gasp for air even as I hated myself for breathing. The whiteness and purity of the lining defined the scene as he lay there, his large hands folded upon his chest, his eyelids glued peacefully to project our pleading prayers of sleep, cold satin pillows supported his head at a proper viewing angle—his head affixed, never falling to either side, no laughter, no anger, no inquisitive stares, no middle child rant; nothing was natural. His cheeks glowed a rouged stereotype of life which was not present as we watched him turn grey and the ventilator hissed his final breath.
His shattered mom stammered in a shaky voice, “That’s, not right—that’s not how he wore his hair.” The undertaker quickly upstaged himself from his pose of solemn respect, unfolding his clasped hands from before his bulbous belly he snatched a comb from the air it seemed. As she directed his hands, he combed Colin’s hair, smoothing it with his left until she realized it was no use and waved her hands for him to stop. The scene scarred me deeply—his fat hand petting Colin as if he were a dog. To this day I wonder if the mysterious comb also secured the undertaker’s oily comb over. We died in silence as a line of viewers strolled past, occasionally whispering words with unclear meanings and motifs—an occasional pat upon a dejected shoulder.
No one from our Baptist church came to visit, although, the preacher did stop off at our house once and proclaimed that he’d like to be our preacher—he never returned. In the church’s defense, we were told by three separate Sunday school classes that they did not like Democrats, nor did God. Which reinforced Colin’s view that an all knowing god simply stepped back and allowed the little flawed gods we each create in our own image judge us. In the eyes of the Lord…apparently, they were justified. We were allowed to use the church sanctuary though, while I gave Colin’s eulogy. Perhaps brick and mortar is godlier than flesh and blood when it comes to religions. Parents tend to see through a flawed god’s bull shit in trying times.
We had picked out his pin stripped suit for a field trip the year before; one of his fifth grade enrichment projects—a coat and tie, formal dress attire to immerse gifted minds in the foreign culture of French cuisine at a local restaurant. Below, his chest pocket, the encrusted sweetness from last year’s Crème Brûlée contrasted with the heart wrenching finality of the scene. I touched the stain, hesitated for his heart beat but only flakes of the hardened glaze stuck to my palm. His face was too peaceful, too artificial, too posed as if at any moment he would offer up his one sided smirk and crack this plaster face. Still…his palms and fingers were flat and wrinkled like paper left in the rain. He appeared in a frozen state of transition. I touched his hand, but it was stiff, and cold, and refused to touch me back.
A tide of anger, perhaps a boiling rage coursed through me as I heard their idiotic words decorated with fake sad smiles. “He’s in a better place.” “He’s an angel in heaven looking down on us.”
“Such a sweet boy.”
My pupils constricted as my blood pressure soared, “No, here with me is the best place for him to be.” “No, angels are not former humans and angels are not benevolent do gooders looking out for our self-worshipping best interests.” “Sweet? Is that all you knew of him? What about the meanness? What about the sarcasm? What about breaking the law? What about his brilliance? What of his loves, his fear, his dreams, his sadness, his disappointments? Of course, you didn’t know him—why should you? You don’t even know your own children. You disgust me.”
Tragedy has a tendency to make parents honest and straightforward.
Eventually, the wake dissipated and our family remained. The employees forced smiles while telling us to take our time; their body language spoke they were ready to go home. We hesitated at the front door, looking back as they closed the lid of Colin’s casket. We each swallowed hard and all hope drained from our eyes. Reality set in and his mom and I aged before each other’s eyes. My walk became that of an old man who fought long losing wars. I flicked off Tom Waits as we drove home with the windows rolled down to cover up the silence. Parents never trust religion or medicine ever again once they fail at their main purpose of filling that big hole in our gut with something other than mendacity.
Photo by Paul van de Velde