April 2nd is a sad anniversary for my family and me. It has been fourteen years since our little Daniel died suddenly while walking back to school with his 3rd grade classmates from an event at the Warner town hall. They had made it almost halfway back when he suddenly went down, sliding with the other rebels in his class on a frozen puddle in front of the little office building just down the street from Simonds Elementary School. One of the girls had felt bad for a while because she thought that he might not have died if they hadn’t been fooling around sliding on the ice.
Talking to her several years later, I told her what had happened. It was that the artificial valve in his heart had malfunctioned just at that moment, after 8 years of working perfectly, and got stuck shut. I told her that those playful moments she enjoyed with him were sort of like the last fun thing he did in his short life, and I thanked her for that. But it must have been awfully scary to see a classmate go down and not get up. I don’t know how many terrifying seconds passed before his teacher aide scooped him up and ran the remaining hundred yards to the school. The teacher aide said that he did open his eyes briefly and seemed to recognize her as he lay dying on the bed in the nurse’s office.
I didn’t get there until well after he’d passed on, and I was frozen as I watched them load him into the ambulance to take him to Concord Hospital. He was so gray. For many years after, I’d wished that I had not just stood there frozen, but had at least tried to touch him. It had seemed like such a long time that I stared at him on that gurney before they loaded him on. I remember asking them if I could ride with them. Of course they said no. But the school nurse took me down to the hospital, driving about 90 most of the way. It was the hardest, saddest day. To put him on the bus that morning and not pick him up that afternoon. We all met at the hospital and sat in a quieter part of the ER section that we could tell was for people who’d lost or were about to lose loved ones. A counselor type person sat with us until Dan’s doctor arrived to tell us the bad news. [He was a great doctor whom we’d met the day Dan was born. Dan’s home birth on a hot August day in 1983 was a little tricky and delayed because he’d gotten tangled in the umbilical cord. It was wrapped around his neck twice. The midwives had to give him some oxygen as he was a bit dusky looking, but he pinkened right up. It was a few years before I figured out why the midwife was looking so closely at the palm of his hand. I thought the trip to the hospital was clear any complications connected to the birth drama. But the doctor was the first person to tell us that Dan probably had Down Syndrome, and would need a test to confirm that.]
So we had to sign some papers. We agreed to send his body down to Boston Children’s Hospital for autopsy. That was where he’d had his 2 cardiac surgeries back when he just over a year old. We also agreed to donate his corneas, and when we had some time to spend with his body, the nurse embarassedly removed the icepack from over his closed eyes. We didn’t really spend that much time there and we were just entering that thick, cloudy envelope of shock. When we got home, one of the midwives who’d helped deliver Dan was at our house waiting for us. She lived in Warner too. She took my wife into her arms and they walked down the road a bit. Before too long the phone began a long ringing phase. And all our friends came and helped us as much as they could. And it was a lot. One friend even came and took our dirty laundry away and brought it back clean and folded the next day. It was probably a few months before the shock began to lift. An almost physical feeling of something having been ripped from my midsection and leaving a hole gave way to things like noticing that I needed to cook rice for 3 and not 4. I always wondered whether we were grieving “properly”. Tears came to all of us, sometimes together, sometimes alone. For a time they would sneak up and catch you unexpectedly. We didn’t touch his bed for over over a year, except to cover it with all his favorite toys and stuff. Even when we moved away from that house in the woods of Warner’s Mink Hills a couple of years later, we took most of his stuff with us. Pictures of him are in every room (well, not the bathroom) of our home. Sure do miss him sometimes.