When I started this blog, I told myself I would write once a week. It is immensely therapeutic and it forces me to do something I enjoy, which is write. I missed two weeks in a row. Well, that’s not entirely true. I actually did write a post last week. It was about our recent vacation to Hawaii and the inability to shake certain fears, like sharks. But I didn’t post it. I’ve already written about PTSD in other posts and didn’t really feel like I was adding anything new except to say “Yep, this shit follows you everywhere.”
It seemed like old news. I thought about those fears and thought it would be better to try and talk a little about how the fears originate, and fester. Obviously, losing a child is not only devastatingly traumatic, it’s also scary. It’s a peek under Life’s skirt, a place that most of us pretend doesn’t exist. We pretend not because we’re wimps, but because the truth, which is that anyone can die at any moment, is really too much to handle most of the time. Living with a veil over our eyes is just plain necessary to move on with your day. You need to get in cars, or on planes, or a bike, and yes, sometimes you do just want to swim in the ocean without thinking of a Tiger shark biting your arm off.
But there is something more. Most people think of someone dying as a singular event. It usually isn’t. The entire situation is made up of dozens and dozens of smaller events that culminate in the full horrifying experience. It’s all those little things that get to you, that sit in your head and make you terrified to go snorkeling. I am going to tell you about one of those events. This is not going to be an easy thing to read. I know because it’s taken me a very long time to write.
When a child dies, especially in a home with only family present, there is an investigation. There is an autopsy. It’s protocol; they need to make sure that what you say happened, really happened. When a child turns up at a children’s hospital who is brain dead, they don’t just pull a sheet over the body and tell you they’re sorry. They need to make sure you didn’t do it.
Our sweet boy was taken for an autopsy. It took less than a full day to complete. I got a call from a very sympathetic detective who worked at the coroner’s office who stated he was done and they were releasing the body. And then he said, “I need to tell you that I retained his eyes. We needed to send them to an off-site lab for more testing.”
“How long will that take?”
I was stunned. This investigation would go on for weeks? That’s a whole other post right there. He went on to tell me that he, too, had lost a child, that this was protocol and normal, etc. I asked him if he would send the eyes to the mortuary when they came back from the lab. He sounded uneasy.
“Uh…they aren’t going to look the same.”
“That’s fine.” We were going to cremate our son. My son donated his heart, liver and both of his kidneys. Those were gone. I wanted the rest of him.
Months went by. The investigation concluded just as the detective said it would. But I never got a call from the mortuary about my son’s eyes. I texted my friend, livid and destroyed. “They just threw them away! Like garbage! My baby’s EYES. I made those fucking eyes!”
Out of the blue, last month, I got a call from the detective at the coroner’s office. He again sounded terribly uneasy, like he had been dreading this call. “The autopsy report is done. I just need to know..what you would like me to do with Jay’s eyes.”
He had them. Thank God. They weren’t thrown away like garbage. I told him I wanted them cremated and the ashes sent to us. He told me there wouldn’t much much. “Like, would they not fit on the head of a pin?”
“No, there would be a bit more.”
“OK.” I started crying. He apologized for having to call. I told him no, I wanted to hear from him, that I thought they had been thrown away, that we didn’t have those other organs. He told me things would take 1-2 weeks. So I waited, thrilled that such a special part of him would be back with us.
Every day I expected a Fedex package, which is what the eyes were to come in. Take a moment and think about what that would be like. Try to say it out loud: I wonder if I’ll get my child’s eyes in the mail today. These are the kinds of things we do now.
They didn’t come. We had planned a vacation to Hawaii. I called and left a message asking for an update. I didn’t want to be out of town when they arrived, fearing that they would just be sent right back to the coroner. The detective called me back the next day.
“I talked to the mortuary. There wouldn’t be anything left at all.” I told him I needed to talk to my husband, even though we weren’t left with any options. He said he understood and to take our time, and we hung up. Within weeks I went from being crushed, to hopeful, to crushed again.
My husband was traveling for work. After I put my daughter to bed, I walked as far away from her bedroom as I could get so that I could have this conversation. I put the lid down on the toilet seat in the master bath and cried. I told him that we would never get our son’s eyes after all. They were gone forever. Eyes that had been made inside of me and that I looked into everyday were going to be disposed of as medical waste. My son’s eyes were considered medical waste.
“Fuck it,” my husband said, “Add it to the list. Add it to the list of shitty things that happened this year. Those aren’t his eyes, his beautiful eyes, anymore. They are sitting in some jar, sliced up and ruined. It doesn’t matter.” He was angry and sad, but he meant what he said. What’s one more terrible thing? And what’s worse than losing your child at all? Once you’ve traveled down 7 layers of hell, what’s another layer? But it still killed me. My body convulsed with tears at every word he said. My sweet, teeny boy’s eyes were gone.
It has been two weeks. I still haven’t called the detective back. I will call tomorrow. I will ask if, even though they will be vaporized into nothing, if they can be cremated on their own. He deserves at least that. But I am preparing myself to be disappointed yet again.
So, yes, when I’m floating in a gorgeous Hawaiian ocean, with sea turtles swimming majestically around me, do I enjoy it? Yes, I do. And do I think of the Tiger sharks? Yea. I think about the Tiger Sharks. We have lived far more horrifying things. It makes a shark attack, or a plane crash, or a car crash, or a kidnapping, or anything else, really, seem not so fantastical. Another layer of hell that can come to pass as easily as everything else.