Gary A. Braunbeck

The death of a child

by Gary A. Braunbeck

I once had a daughter. She died when she was very young. She had been sick from the moment she was born and never got better. She never learned to walk, never made a sound, never blew out the candles on a birthday cake. The only home she ever knew were the sterile walls of an ICU.

She was very tiny and she fought very hard. The last seventy-two hours of her life were agonizing, and when she died it was without the benefit of a warm, loving human touch lingering on her skin. Her mother, exhausted and sedated, was asleep on a couch in the hospital’s lounge; I’d not eaten for almost a day-and-a-half and so had gone to the vending machines one floor below to get some coffee and a sandwich. The entire trip took four minutes. The coffee was lukewarm and weak, the sandwich stale and tasteless, and by the time I came back to the ICU, my daughter was dead and gone.

Her death was not a surprise, her mother and I had known for a while that it was (as the tired cliché goes) “only a matter of time.”

Not a surprise, but still the ice-pick in my throat.

I remember seeing the curtain pulled around her incubator.

I remember the beeps, whirrs, and susurrations made by the various machines hooked up to the other patients in the unit.

I remember wanting to cry but being unable to.

Then it was shuffling, being taken aside, muffled words from weary nurses, uncomfortable-looking orderlies, a gurney with a squeaking front left wheel, and the last sight of my daughter: bumps and curves and patches of pale flesh inside a translucent plastic bag, rolling away, away.

Her mother and I were both young and foolish and not nearly strong enough to handle this. Our relationship crawled along for a few more months, a joyless thing, back-broken and spirit-dead, before ending in infidelity, accusations and poison.

It’s been over twenty years since she died. I have since seen my writing career at last get on its feet, and finally gotten — albeit sporadically — the upper hand in the battle with my recurring bouts of severe depression.

Still, there are times — periodic though they may be, usually very late at night or first thing in the morning — when it all comes back, diminished not one whit by the passage of years, and I crumple. Simply crumple.

Don’t believe what the pop-psychologists or self-help books or daytime talk-show hosts tell you about it: You never fully recover from the death of a child. The grief eventually works its way into the shadows, back there someplace, a whisper, an echo, a tendril of smoke perpetually curling in the air over a just-emptied ashtray … but it never completely goes away.

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