Karen Buck’s son David Gendron died on St. Patrick’s Day in 1999.
He was a bright-eyed young man who entered a room full of strangers and came away with 20 new friends. He carried in his pocket small yellow balls with happy faces on them to give to people who were having a bad day. He loved music and cars, worked two jobs and had taken out a life insurance policy on himself and, concerned at how hard his mother was working, named her as his beneficiary.
After a decade fighting aplastic anemia, having a bone marrow transplant, developing leukemia and finally being hit with an opportunistic infection, he died. He was 22.
At age 12 he began putting together a hope chest of sorts, filled with things he figured he’d want when he was grown and married – including a microwave oven, bed sheets, glassware and even a potato peeler. All items sit untouched in Karen’s home in Spokane Valley.
I know these things about this young man because his mother told me about him. She first told me in an email and more by phone following a Front Porch column I wrote recently about the death of adult children and how we were not meant to bury our children. I was so taken by her sorrow, anger and guilt, and how clear and pointedly she was able to express her feelings, that I thought her words should reach a wider audience. So I share them now, with her permission. She first wrote:
“A child’s death carves a hole in you, like someone had attacked you with an ice cream scoop. That wound will heal, over time, but its covering is gossamer-thin, easily ripped off by a sight, sound, smell or sudden memory that sidles silently up next to you and rips that cover off, exposing the wound beneath that is as painful and raw as it was on the first day, and the tears fall thick and hot, soaking your pillow in the middle of the sleepless night.
“Such a loss changes you forever. Everybody reacts differently, turning to drugs, alcohol, hoarding or suicide. For me anyway, his death is the ultimate failure, I didn’t do my job, didn’t protect my child. Failed, failed, failed, and the guilt is indescribable.
“When I came home from the hospital that day to my older son, all I could say over and over to him was ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ People say that when God closes a door, he opens a window, but all windows I see are painted firmly shut forever. What faith I had was destroyed that St. Patrick’s Day.”
Karen, a retired registered nurse who has lived in the Spokane area nearly all her life, also expressed her realization how the death of a child is the death not spoken about, the hidden death. She said:
“Something else that I found astonishing and humbling after David died and I went ‘back to my life,’ as they say. When I reappeared at the pool for water aerobics several people asked me where I’d been. When I told them, it was such a shock to hear so many of them say, ‘My daughter died at 14 … My son died at 34 … My baby died when she was only 6 months old,’ and on and on.
“The fraternity/sorority of those who have had children die is much larger than I knew, but somehow it is rarely talked about. I wonder why? Other deaths are spoken of much more openly. Maybe it is that the pain is so great. I know when I would tell people about David, I would hold up my hand, traffic-cop style, before they could speak and say, ‘Don’t be nice to me,’ because I knew it would be too hard to maintain ‘face’ if they were too sympathetic, and who wants to break down all the time out in public?”
And finally, she offered this:
“It is in the spring graduation/wedding and fall back-to-school times that I become grab-an-Uzi furious when I hear parents sniveling and whining around about how they are ‘losing’ their child to marriage/career/college. ‘SHUT UP,’ I want to scream at them. ‘Your child is not lost. You can text, tweet, twit, twerp. You can call them on a smartphone, dumb phone, pay phone, satellite phone. You can Skype. You can get in a car or a boat, on a plane, bus, bicycle, dog sled, burro, train, tram, horse, snowmobile, ATV, or you can walk and see your child. You can send money and bring them home for a visit. You can email, snail mail, send a telegram.
“ ‘Your child is here. It is my fervent prayer that you never truly lose your child. My child is dead, and I would gladly die tomorrow if I could see my son today.’ ”
The death of a child – as an infant or as an adult with his or her own children – is that one terrible thing you would never want visited upon anyone, even the worst of enemies. Karen Buck told me so, and I believe her.