Death in the Family.


Our son Joseph was seven years old when he died.  His death had nothing to do with medicine.  He had been playing with his nine-year-old brother Michael in the care of their usual babysitter when he disappeared.  Down by a viaduct after a recent rainfall, Michael watched as Joseph lost his footing and was swept away.  It took them two days to find his little body.

No one knows what it’s like on this side of those two days, from the point of view of my husband and me.  People see a story like this on television, and it was on television, and they know there is no hope.  But hope is all you have on this side.  Surely, we thought, he could turn up, with a miraculous survival story.  Perhaps cold, hungry and through some unbelievable adventure, but alive!  We would be able to fix him up and forget it all.  But he was not alive.  Were we foolish to hope?  They found him pressed against the metal crossbars of a gross strainer and cut him out with a blowtorch.

Television recorded his death as the search ended.  What is there to say about a seven-year-old?  He lived, he breathed, he played.  He had friends and family, and he died.  Simple, no different from any seven-year-old, yet beautiful.  The whole town knew.  The outpouring was tremendous and welcome.  Hundreds of people showed up to say goodbye to him as he lay in his miniature casket.  Would his final remembrance have been so well attended at the end of a full-sized life, dying in old age, with his body filling a full-sized box?  That’s not to say I thought any of the mourners were insincere.  I appreciated their presence and wished for even more.  In particular, I was hoping Joseph’s pediatrician would show up.  I don’t know why I was so hopefully expectant.  This was a terrible accident, no chronic or acute illness.  It had nothing to do with the doctor.  But I waited for him.  Every face became somewhat of a disappointment in that it was not his.  I suppose I wanted him to provide oen more door of closure in that by caring for him in life, he would care in death.  Any death!  Not just the failed efforts of medicine.  I waited.  He did not come.

The months passed and the pain was strong, but bearable.  Michael did better than his father and I.  About three months after Joseph’s death, Michael was scheduled for a regular physical at the doctor’s office.  It was the first time we would be seeing the doctor after the accident.  This was very important to me.  I was extremely nervous about how he would handle it.  In my heart, I wanted to believe he had every intention of coming to the funeral, but could not come due to some other important matter in the life of a physician, perhaps a different child to be seen, very sick.  Of course we were not his only patients.  I understood that.  A few well-chosen words could have changed my world and given me comfort.

He came in with Michael’s chart and said hello.  I sat wide-eyed.  I had that glassy feeling in my eyes, straining to keep them open – because I knew if I blinked, the tears building up would drop.  He paused, reading a note he had scribbled to remind him of our family structure in relation to Michael.  Two parents, two boys.  One brother, Joseph.

“How is Joseph doing?” he asked.  I was crushed.  Absolutely reduced to pure emptiness.  Oddly, my tears dried instead of overflowing.  How could he not know, I wondered.  He had to have heard.  It was all the town talked about for a month.  How could he not have made a simple amendment in chart?  Joseph, 1992-1999.  He was his patient!  I was heartbroken and angry.

“Joseph died,” I managed.  Michael just looked at his shoes.  The doctor did not ask any follow-up questions about the circumstances.  I’m hoping he realized his error.  I’m hoping the story came crashing back into his head.  I’m hoping he was embarrassed and sick to his stomach that he had not updated his records.  I’m hoping he had not totally forgotten my Joseph.  We had not.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  What else was there to say?


Patrick O’Neal, Class of 2001