The Nation's Pulse

Enfants Perdus

The horror of losing a child.

By 12.20.06

Send to Kindle

A couple of years back we heard awful news from a family friend. Her son, away at college, had been shot to death at a party. Just last week, we learned of another death. A friend's prep school-age son had killed himself.

I am going to do the best I can to explain how news like that makes a parent feel.

You raise children to stand on their own two feet. To make their own way in the world. To find fulfillment for themselves. To be independent, good, respectable human beings. But along the way, you take such terrible chances.

What's more, you know it. And when one of those risks looks like going sour, it hits you like a clumsy fall: an adrenal rush, the flash of cold on the skin, the compulsion to act, the efficient jolt of survival energy. All illuminated by run-for-your-life fear.

THE FIRST TIME WE TORE off to the hospital in the middle of the night, Bud got croup. You know what croup sounds like? Like death. Horrible, rattling, struggling breaths. A little prednisone, it goes away.

But much worse things can happen. A woman we know took her infant son into her bed to soothe him during a restless night. The two fell asleep, the infant rolled off the bed and fell, head first, onto the woman's cell phone charger, which was on the floor. The AC prongs of the charger penetrated the baby's skull.

"There was blood all over," our housekeeper told us. "Shannon was screaming." Luckily, the woman lived near a hospital. The baby had brain surgery -- the whole cap of his skull removed -- and will apparently recover completely. He takes Phenobarbitol to suppress seizures. All his life? Who knows?

Bud, it turned out, had a two-inch-long cancerous tumor on his right adrenal gland, diagnosed when he was 10 months old. Surgery got it. Some cortisone therapy afterward seemed to put him right. I still remember hanging on to him as the doctors tried to place needles for tests. "Aw done doctor!" he would scream. "Go home now! Aw done doctor!"

We are not yet "aw done doctor." Bud has to be checked every six months for hormone development in case of a recurrence of cancer. And he has two huge lateral scars across his stomach.

THERE IS NO RATIONAL BASIS for childhood risk. There is nothing you can do about it. My wife wept after hearing the news of our friend's son's suicide. "Why?" she cried. "He's the best man in the world."

We are at war now. All over the country good parents have heard the news that their sons have been killed. Daughters, too, of course, though less often. Those children volunteered to serve. It is enough to make a parent a gibbering idiot, and a tribute to our country that so few of them behave that way.

Bud is now twelve, and he has joined the Civil Air Patrol. He got his first uniform last week, BDUs, for "battle dress uniform." Full camo, supplied by the Air Force. He bought his own cover (cap), boots, and gloves.

And he insisted that his mother sew his unit patches on his blouse and take his picture for our Christmas card.

Sally and Bud argued over which photo to use. Sally liked one that showed Bud grinning, showing recent gaps in his teeth. Bud was horrified. He wanted one showing himself at parade rest with a calm, dignified expression on his smooth young face.

We did use that one. Understandably, Bud does not want to look like a childish goof in his uniform, in which he takes a great deal of pride.

So much can happen. Your boy can go to a dumb party -- who hasn't gone to a dumb party? -- and some fool can shoot him to death for no reason. The mysterious darknesses of adolescence can overcome your child, and he can't figure any way out, so he pulls his car into a garage and shuts the door and leaves the motor running. Your baby can fall out of bed.

A smooth-faced young boy in a military uniform. A picture like that shoots a blade through a mother's heart.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.