My head is throbbing, body detached – miles away. Its pitch black; my eyes cemented shut. The centrifugal force of my known existence is pushing me down, tumbling, and spiraling to the depths of hell. I black out – consciousness gone…
Some time has passed – hours, days, weeks – who knows, but awareness begin to inflate my limp, aching shell – yet still unable to take command of my body. With concentrated effort, my eyes open. After several blinks, vision comes into focus. Where am I? What in the world is going on? My head feels like a 500 pound boulder teetering atop a flimsy toothpick. I gather my wits and employ my senses…
Face-down, spread-eagle, limbs extended and immobile, with a whimper and a grunt, I lift my head and see my wrists are strapped with miniature leather belts to a headboard that’s made of shiny black curved pipe. I hurt. My feeble neck can’t support my oversized head. All that’s covering me is some flimsy gown that ties in the back, my bare-ass exposed. The rough sheet scrapes my cheek. Or is it a sheet? It feels more like sandpaper, but the faint odor of bleach persuades me it’s a sheet.
I force my glance to the furthest point possible, in hopes of seeing a door or a window. But all I see is yellow, dingy padding that’s puckered and dimpled here and there – like old bare mattresses, varnished in urine, held together with decaying stitching that looks like used dental floss. The padding continues down the wall, covering the floor like wall-to-wall carpeting.
So. I’m in a padded room. Huh. Well, that explains the total void of sound. Nothing resonates, every noise absorbed – pretty convincing that my voice has never existed. Is this what death sounds like?
Trying to shift my arms and legs but they won’t budge. I close my eyes, begging my brain to fill in all the blanks. Wrestling answers from my mind, I’m distracted by an insidious funk that permeates just beyond the gritty, flesh-eating sheet. It’s so gross! What the hell is that dank smell? It’s familiar, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Then it comes to me: its fritos! I smell god-damned fritos! Well, certain there’s NOT a big bag of corn-chips suspended above me – I mean, come on, only a crazy person would think that – I come to the foul realization that the stench is also that of nasty, dirty feet and ancient sweat; no doubt the ghostly remnants of those before me – restrained, refrained and muted from the living, paralyzed and spent.
Drifting off, the door opens and the unwelcome movement of forced air skims across my vulnerable bottom. Muffled footsteps stop at the side of the bed. I see his white smock, and a nametag that’s black with white letters, over a pocket. My mental translation almost convinces me it’s the Grim Reaper. His charcoal complexion and massive frame are overwhelming in this confined, puffed & stuffed, dirty feet-smelling womb. He looks down at me, but says nothing. Our eyes lock. I snarl my lips and bare my teeth like some exotic and dangerous wildcat about to attack, just to break the moment. Unimpressed, he unbuckles all four restraints and leaves the room. As he pulls the door shut, I hear him fumble with some keys followed by a defiant clang of the dead-bolt. His tick-tock foot-steps fade away after a few strides.
I reunite my mind to my body and ever so slowly, I roll over to my back. My eyes begin to well up as my brain drowns. Where the hell am I? Why am I here? Where is here? Where is my son? Why me? What have I done wrong? What the fuck is going on? Am I having a nightmare – or is this really going down for real?? Allowing the thick, oppressive silence to take me back in, I gasp and begin to feel despair like I never felt before.
Meanwhile, overseas in Okinawa, Japan:
~ ~ ~When Life Changes~ ~ ~
Written by Shannon Burnett, published in This Week on Okinawa – July 1987 edition
Every once in awhile you meet a person who changes your life, your philosophy, your strength. Like taking an unfamiliar path, you watch and observe that person and learn and experience life in a way you never would have seen. I recently met such a person at a time in my life when I don’t have time to examine all the whys and reasons. Yet, I feel drawn to her. I feel a need to comfort and take away all the pain she is experiencing, and give her back the security she recently lost.
Unfortunately, I am not God. I cannot give her back the only thing that gave her a purpose in life, a life that is now lonely and unforgiving. I try to comfort her, yet my words do nothing to change the past and that is what she needs. I would do almost anything to give her back the spark and drive to keep her going. But what she needs is for the ashes she sleeps with, talks to, and cries to, to take the human form of her only son again. The beautiful and nearly-bald baby boy who’s antics could make a room full of straight-laced Navy personnel laugh out loud; the very child who could decipher the light difference between sweet apple juice and the mixture of apple and cherry juice. She needs the ashes to dance in her dreams and tell her that he is happily wrapped in the loving arms of God only waiting for her to come Home. Afterwards, maybe she can make peace with herself and the crimes of life that sweep away what is dearest to each of us. Maybe then she can begin to function as a person, as the loving human being who has so much to share and give, and as someone who knows that life is only good for the second you are touching now.
For Gina, I pray God will show you the peace and love that is supposed to be out there waiting. For myself and others, I pray we will look at this moment and realize that life changes so quickly, and when we least expect it, it can take away what is dearest to our hearts, souls and dreams. I can only hope to appreciate life to the fullest as I have those around me who give me the purpose and essence to continue to see the next sunrise. I love you Gina, and I love you too Baby Michael — July 9, 1986 – April 7, 1987.
When death comes without warning, the shock and disbelief is overwhelming. It is never in the natural order of things for a child to die before his or her parents, and it is especially intense when the death is sudden and violent. There is no opportunity to prepare, say good-bye or to try and change the course of events from just hours earlier. Hadn’t I heard that children die? Or did I just think that it could only happen to others? Before my son was murdered, the thought that a child of mine could or would die – never entered my mind. In our culture, the death of a young child is considered a rare event, but that’s simply not true – just turn on your local news or read the paper – children die everyday. Yet, the unexpectedness – the unnaturalness of it all is more than anyone can (or should ever have to) comprehend.
Bright and early on a crisp Tuesday morning in September, I’m enjoying a delicious white chocolate mocha latte and a slice of lemon poppy-seed bread at the neighborhood coffeehouse. Pleased with the beautiful weather, sitting outside was a gift; a picturesque way to start the day, beginning with writing my “To Do List” for the day.
Mindlessly I watch blurs of people pass by… and suddenly, down the street I see this kid, well actually, he’s a young man, probably around 20 or so. As he approaches my direction, I notice his strides are purposeful and confident, his eyes are fixed forward and he’s jamming out with his iPod, bobbing his head, keeping the beat. Tall with a slender frame he has tufts of unruly blonde hair busting out from the edge of a knit skull cap. For no apparent reason, my pen drops from my grip.
Time stops for a split-second. Squeezing my eyes shut – hard and tight, my heart pounds like a jackhammer to concrete. A fuzzy sound takes over my mind… an ‘eggs frying in grease’ kind of sound. I whisper an “Our Father”, and by the time I finish, the kid has gone by, crossed the street and nearly out of my sight.
Finally, my heart slows down, hands stop trembling, the sweat on my upper lip dissipates and I know I have just survived the millionth – no, the billionth such-like episode. And as always, I have a ‘Gina & Gina’ conversation, where I remark to myself how much he looked like my precious baby Michael. “Was that kid an Angel (vision) of my son? Because, you know, I saw it on the Montel Williams show once, where Sylvia Browne talked about how our dead loved ones will continue to appear in our lives, as a way to let us know they’re okay and that they still love us. Surely baby Michael loves me, right? I mean, he knows I would have never hired her if I knew it would all go so, so, soooooooooooooooo wrong! He knows, right? So, well, of course, he comes to see me, just like Sylvia said. See! I just knew that kid looked familiar…”
Nearly 25 years ago, I found myself in lock-up on the mental ward at Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego. My nearly nine month old son had been murdered by the woman I hired as his caregiver. I was stationed in Okinawa, serving my duties as a crypto-analyst; a job I studied for two years prior to my overseas assignment. I cleared an extensive background investigation and checks because of the high level security clearance required for the job. Early in my rotation, I became pregnant and chose to keep the baby and be a single-parent. The Marine that I slept with was a nice enough of a guy, but I was not in love with him and I did not hold him responsible for my decision to keep the baby. Soon after learning I was pregnant, his unit was reassigned and he left the island. I never heard from him again.
My point in explaining all this is not to begin a long and drawn out auto-biography, but to share the context and situation of my life at that time. I was a young woman, alone, living in a foreign land and went through my pregnancy, the delivery and parenting my baby – alone. I was living on an island, far from any family or friends and yet, determined to make a life for my child; taking college classes in my off-duty time and serving in the Navy as a crypto – working long hours to serve a demanding mission. And I needed help. The USO directed me to an Okinawa employment agency that worked with Americans living on the island (military dependents, etc).
It was there I hired an Okinawan woman, Tomiko, as the care-giver for my infant son. She spoke some English and had a medical nursing background. I hired her when Michael was 4 weeks old and she poisoned him a few days before his nine month ‘birthday’.
She injected him with excessive fluids containing concentrated amounts of liquid sodium. He died of hyponatremia. Which is the medical term for when a body consumes large amounts of water over a short period of time and blood plasma (the liquid part of blood) increases thereby diluting the salt content of the blood; all the while, the body also loses salt by sweating. The result is the amount of electrolytes available to body tissues decreases to a point that loss interferes with brain, heart and muscle function. These electrolytes must be replenished. They’re essential to the normal electro-chemical operation of the nervous system. If this is not done, it is deadly. In effect, the person drowns from the inside out. My sinless child did not stand a chance.
Michael went into shock. Tomiko panicked, and literally threw him off at the military hospital then fled. When I went to pick him up at her house, no-one was home. I found a note on the door telling me to go to the “g.i. hospitol”. As I was running into the emergency room, the doctors ordered ‘code’ on Baby Doe. I watched as they tried to revive him – I watched as they called his time of death. On the other side of the world, alone, numb, alone, pained, alone, betrayed, alone, confused, alone, frightened, I watched my defenseless baby die.
Not too long after, I learned that Tomiko poisoned my perfect son because she resented that I, an unmarried American girl, brought forth a “man-child” – an honor she judged me unworthy. Tomiko has two daughters and due to birth complications, she could bear no more children – never to honor her husband with an heir. A woman I hired held such hatred of me that she took the life of another innocent human being – an infant, my child. I never saw it coming.
Two months later, after she confessed to the authorities, my government granted my request to break rotation. I left the island and reported to duty in San Diego. It was explained to me that records of this incident would be sealed and I was proceed to check into my new duty-station, business as usual. As part of ‘processing in’, I had to take a CPR certification class. There I saw a rubber baby used for CPR demonstrations and practice. I remember the instructor placing the child on the desk and doing chest compressions. Like the flick of a light switch, everything disappeared into black; my next moment of cognizance was the padded cell.
In less than a year, I lost my child, my job, my future, my mind, heart and will. And at the same time I ‘earned’ betrayal, pain, grief and mental illness. I was branded as high risk, unstable, unreasonable, angry, defiant, crazy, ugly and mean. I went from being an upstanding American citizen, worthy of the highest security clearance our nation has, to being analyzed, picked apart, dissected, interviewed, suspected, over-looked, unheard, spoken for and just damned crazy. Crazy from grief?
With dark days and brutal valleys grief lasts far longer than society in general tolerates. When a child dies, grief is not over in a month, a week or even years, if ever. Parental grief is intense, long-lasting and complex. The journey from early bereavement towards a ‘new normal’ is hard work and I admit I’ve not succeeded. The work of grief involves dealing with immensely uncomfortable emotions – that, for me often times stem deep from childhood… exposing my deepest vulnerabilities like no other experience I’ve lived through. Any labels, clinical observations, whispers, demands or stereotyping by others carry no weight on me; like a flea biting King Kong – it’s bothersome, but so what. I cannot give language to the self-desecration, inward hatred and guilt I nurtured for years (and sometimes still do) as means to cope with still being alive.
There have been periods in my life since Michael died that I simply could not, would not, and did not deal with the any of it! My denial was exposed a thousand times by anger, bitterness and salty tears that respected neither time nor place. Over the years, I took comfort from these ‘episodes’ because I grew accustomed to the pain. It’s the pain that kept him from fading.
Guilt and grief is an open sore that fails to fully heal. The agonizing intensity of the hurt, guilt and despair rocked the very depths of my being and it felt as if my journey would be forever crippled. And I am not better for the experience nor am I stronger. (I hate when people tell me that!) True, time does go on and I’ve adapted to living ‘around’ the pain, hopefully in a manner that gives respect to my precious Michael and the all too short life he lived. To this day, the complicated duality in which I exist is nearly unexplainable. I still catch myself apologizing for merely being. Crazy, eh?