Charles Leslie died on Dec. 23, 1992, not quite five months past his birth. According to the paperwork, he died of SIDS, an acronym for “just died.” My physical memory of that time always starts on a Wednesday but ends on the night before.
I drop my keys on the dresser and flop on the bed to get in a quick nap before kids start coming home. Working in the press room at a book bindery has me beat; it is more physical labor than my white-collar body normally performs. The softness in my hands is becoming calloused in ways that my ancestors understand. A few minutes of after-work quiet is golden. I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and the phone rings.
After my “hello,” the memory becomes more focused but with less detail. Someone, a woman, tells me that an ambulance is taking my son to the hospital, that I should meet my wife there.
He was having trouble breathing.
That’s all she knows.
As I drive, forcing myself to follow the rules of the road in Nashville’s bustling afternoon traffic, a conversation occurs in my head. My late dad, for whom Charles is named, says, compassionately, “He’s with us now, son.” I refuse to accept the words. I loudly chant a prayer to drown out any more dialogue.
An ambulance is positioned in front of the emergency room. The EMT is putting away gear from the last transport. He looks brokenhearted. When his eyes inadvertently meet mine, he is terrified.
Inside I am ushered into a small room with my wife and asked to wait. Empty chairs line the walls on three sides. We are given no information, and they won’t allow us to see our baby. After an hour we become verbally insistent. They find a chaplain. By now my mom has arrived.
The chaplain introduces himself but I don’t hear. He tells us our baby is dead. A sound rises from deep inside. I don’t recognize my voice. It’s a wail. Somewhere within the noise are the words “no, not my boy.”
They take us behind some curtains in the ER where his little body is stretched out. He does not look natural.
The events run together after that. Sitting up all night staring at blinking lights on the tree after carefully removing the many presents marked “For Charles;” my brain is permanently scorched; my heart eternally burned. Christmas songs are everywhere. Everywhere. Tis the season.
A funeral director sits across from me at our empty dinner table on Christmas Eve, telling me he will offer his services at half the regular price. Friends and family are near; few have a clue how to navigate the storm. The elders stay particularly quiet and close.
Enduring this moment is inconceivable.
It’s unlike anything, this.
Tuesday night comes before Wednesday now, as then. But not in this memory.
Just the two of us. I fill his head with stories as I feed him, bathe him, dress him. That’s how I recall those precious hours, as one continuous smile. Light fills and surrounds us. Then, bedtime.
As I lay him down he is quiet and serious. Such is his way; he only cries when he means it. On this night, as he gets comfortable in the crib, he is considering his hand for the very first time. And then he notices my hand. Holding my hand in front of my face, as he is with his own, I open and close my fingers. He watches me, smiles and does the same. We go back and forth, with giggles. We do this forever.
This is how my memory of Charles ends, which is to say, it doesn’t end.
In this very moment, as I find the letters on a keyboard, I feel his heartbeat and hold him close, taste his skin as I kiss him and hear his breath as I turn off the light.
Charles is not defined by grief. He is not defined by pain. He is defined by love.
That he was born and that he died are as important as every other moment in his life as Charles Leslie. Every beautiful moment.
This is where I first truly experienced a deeper awareness of love. Love goes and stays, yet remains whole. There is no division; it doesn’t start, it doesn’t stop. Love is.
Carry the pain, embrace the love. This keeps me breathing. Breathing keeps me growing. Growing keeps me moving toward the light. The light is love, which is all that matters.
Charles is part of my eternal now.
I am deeply grateful for the love that is my boy.
It’s Christmas, this.