A mother talks about a child lost long ago

Published May 11, 2007

Unless you are presumably all-knowing, have your own talk show, billions of dollars and a boyfriend named Stedman, I'm sure that at some point, you didn't have all the answers to deal with life, or death.

Just like me.

I couldn't figure out how to handle decades of silence and family grief, but I knew it was time. So I was about to dial the number to my hometown, Fort Wayne, Ind., last week when the phone rang.

It was Mama, just the person I wanted to talk to. I was writing a column for Mother's Day, I told her. But it wouldn't be the typical story of perfect moms and successful kids all grown up. It would be for the many mothers who have lost a child.

I'd originally planned to find someone who dealt with such pain. Then I realized a search was unnecessary. The perfect person was someone I knew intimately: my own mother.

I asked if she would discuss it.

Without hesitating, she said simply, "Sure."

That was the first surprise. I had assumed that getting her to talk about my older brother would be so much more difficult. I got out a notebook and pen and the interview began:

What exactly happened?

It was January 1974, and John Jr. had had his appendix taken out a few weeks earlier. He stayed home for several weeks before the doctor released him to go back to school as long as he didn't participate in any physical activities. He was 8 years old, about to turn 9 that April.

As my mother sent him off to school with my brother Arbra, 7 at the time, and 6-year-old sister, Deborah, she scribbled a note for Junior's teacher with the doctor's instructions. She remembers handing the note to the boys.

The teacher never got it. Junior was allowed to go to recess, and my mother's strong-willed son got into a fight. One boy hit him in the stomach.

My father realized that Junior was sick and learned that night what had happened. At the hospital, doctors assured my parents that he would be okay. They monitored his condition for several days, and my parents visited after work.

The night before he was to come home, the phone rang at 1 a.m. My parents rushed back to the hospital, but their son, my brother, was dead.

I listened to the story and was silent for a moment. I'd heard bits and pieces before, but this 20-minute phone conversation was perhaps the longest that my mother and I had discussed it.

Junior's name had been almost taboo in our household. And I, only 11 months old when he died, knew the least.

As a little girl, I remember finding an aged portrait in my mother's dresser drawer of a little boy with a big grin. I remember once when the whole family went to a cemetery on Memorial Day and put flowers on a grave.

But I hadn't wanted to ask too many questions - my brother and sister had told me how sad my mother was at the funeral.

It took the shield of a long-distance phone call, 33 years and the guise of journalism to get the answers I'd always wanted.

You never talk about him much, I said, so I was wondering if you still think about him a lot.

"I really don't have anyone to talk about him to, " she answered calmly. My father, she pointed out, still won't discuss the namesake who had his looks and mannerisms.

So all these years, I'm thinking now, it wasn't that she didn't want to talk, but maybe she felt that few people wanted to hear what she had to say.

A few days later, I called Beverley Hurley, president of Bereaved Parents of the USA and chairwoman of the Tampa Bay chapter. I wanted to give readers some advice so they could handle a situation like this better than I had. Her support group helps parents, siblings and grandparents deal with their loss. Hurley's daughter, Debbie Bray, died 17 years ago of cancer at age 22.

I asked Hurley what loved ones of grieving mothers should know this Mother's Day.

"Certainly not to ignore that they had a child that lived, " she said.

People mean well and think they'll make parents feel bad by mentioning their child's name, but often sharing a happy memory brings joy. The parent may cry, but that's natural, and okay, she said.

Bereaved Parents typically has an evening meeting on Mother's Day for moms who need the outlet to talk, laugh or cry.

"Sometimes they've been celebrating Mother's Day all day long, but nobody's mentioned the child who's not there any longer."

On the phone last week, my mother kept talking as I listened. Just a few days before, she said, she and my sister had talked about Junior, too.

"I wish he could have lived and grown up, to see what kind of man he would have been, " she said.

She weighed the possibilities. Junior and Arbra were born only 11 months apart and stuck together. If he had lived, she could see their bond growing even closer.

On the other hand, with drugs and violence so common today, especially in the inner city, where we grew up, he might have gotten caught up with the wrong people. Maybe, she said, it was for the best.

Sometimes she sees him in her dreams, but the picture is never of him in a hospital bed or casket.

"I don't see him dead, " she said. "Every time I see him, he is happy."

She doesn't sit and grieve about Junior every day anymore or get as depressed as she once did.

"I know he's saved. He wasn't but 9 years old, " she said. "I know God's got him."

Bereaved Parents of the USA meets at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at the medical arts building at St. Joseph's Hospital, 3001 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Tampa. The group also meets today in Brandon. For more information, call Beverley Hurley at 832-3175.