07/31/15

The Worst Club in the World

The Worst Club in the World
Everyday coping after the death of a child

It’s 2:00 in the morning and I can’t sleep. I’m sitting in a hotel room in a city not my own. In fact, it’s seven hundred miles from my house. I came here to take care of some business and take in a few ballgames. I do this once in a while when I feel the need to get away. When the silence has become unbearable. 

Seven hundred miles is a long drive but a short distance compared to the journey I’ve been on for the last thirteen years. That was when I joined THE CLUB. February 25th, 2003. Hardest day of my life, no question. I can’t imagine there will ever be a more difficult one, and if there is I’m not sure I want to live it.

Endyll Sketched

Endyll McDaniels in his tuxedo.

THE CLUB. This isn’t one you’ll ever want to join, though I’m guessing if the “opportunity” comes your way you won’t have much choice in the matter. And the price will be steep, up to and including a bankrupt soul and the irreparable loss of your future. The deal, such as it is, includes an unavoidable—and rapid—descent into hell. For some unfortunate few, hell is surpassed in favor of a slow descent into madness. Not surprisingly, this is the worst club in the world to be a member of. 

There is no more lonely an experience in life than losing a child, and the only folks who can truly appreciate the level of grief one feels are those who have themselves lost a child—other members of THE CLUB, so to speak. Losing a child, even as an adult, is not only devastating beyond belief, it’s socially isolating. There’s a sense you are in it alone, as if in the vast panoply of the human experiment, some six billion and counting, this has never happened before. Losing a child is quite simply the wrong order of things. Our brains aren’t meant to bend that way. Children are our future. We aren’t suppose to bury them—they are suppose to bury us.

So what’s it like? What’s it like to have your soul filleted by the reaper’s blade, opened wide for all to see? 

Imagine living with a deep down bellyache, one you can’t get at no matter how hard you try. The pain is intense. Physical, emotional, spiritual. It’s everywhere you look and in everything you touch. The very air you breathe is tainted. If you could somehow hold your breath and just cease being, that would be ok. You want only the impossible, to breathe life back into your loved one.

If the first days are hard, and few things are harder I assure you, what evolves is nearly surreal. About four months after my son died, we ventured out as a family for the first time since his sudden death. We choose a restaurant we had never been to before. One without memories. Unfortunately, the five of us were seated—completely innocently I am sure—at a table for six. There was, of course, one empty chair.

And of course, it’s been such ever since. One empty chair. At Thanksgiving. At Christmas. At every dinner and every meal. At high school graduations and college commencements. On road trips and family vacations. One empty chair. There’s always someone missing.

The weight of that empty chair can become oppressive, but it needn’t be. Some years ago my wife started putting a lit candle at my son’s place—his name was Endyll, our first born—during family dinners like Thanksgiving and Christmas. My wife and I haven’t always been together in our grief (one reason so many couples become singles after the death of a child), but on this point she was a beacon in the darkness. And my daughter, who was only eight when her older brother died, surprised the family this past year with a montage of memories written by Endyll’s friends all these years later. Turns out she tracked them down on Facebook and they were delighted to give of themselves. She turned twenty-one herself this year (the same age as Endyll when he died) and felt she’d been too young to really know her brother. What sort of person had he been? And so she asked a few of his friends for vignettes that might reveal something of her brother. 

I could well understand her desire. I myself had spent years searching for clues as to who he was or might have become. I poured over notebooks I found in his bedroom, in which I discovered a trove of unfinished stories. He had been a writer. Sci Fi and fantasy. Wonderful. But reading those vignettes from his friends was like finding an ancient scroll thought lost forever. It was relavatory, like bathing in the waters of the River Jordan.

Kids Best

The last picture of our four kids together. Endyll is the tallest.

The acuity of the pain fades with time. Folks will tell you this and it’s hard to fathom, but it’s true. I doubt, however, it ever dissipates entirely. At least it hasn’t for me, for us. What really happens is that eventually the good days outnumber the bad days. The memories become more deliberate, more welcome. The bombs, once seemingly implanted everywhere, defuse over time. Or at least lose some of their explosive power.

They are still there though. In the curious glance of a stranger, whose eyes have the same light as your lost one. Or inside an old box from the attic, where you find his stash of men’s magazines—and thus a glimpse of his very human needs. Or perhaps the box contains the clown costume he wore to school for Halloween when he was five, when he was still your precious boy and you couldn’t imagine a time when he’d pull away from your touch. He was—is—a part of you. His life permeates your own. He will always be your precious boy.

And then comes that singular question, ever uttered with innocence, despite which can always be counted upon to bring up a ghost. How many kids do you have? This may be the hardest question in the English language—hell, in any language.

How many kids do you have?

Like the weather, asking about children seems benign. But it’s not when you’ve lost a child. More often than not, the question scratches an old wound. And deciding to tell or not is another kind of pain altogether.

If I answer one way and leave him out of the equation, it feels as if I am denying my son’s existence. I can hardly bear that, even after all these years. Especially after all these years. He died just before the internet came of age and so was never immortalized on facebook. He never had a digital life. He doesn’t go on ad infinitum in electronic limbo. I can’t pull up an infinite stream of pictures of him. To deny his existence, which remains very real to me, means he will be forgotten once I am gone. That is, for whatever reason, one of the harder things for me to deal with. I don’t know why.

Yet, if I answer the other way, there’s an awkward silence in the making. Invariably, the next questions are how old are they? Where do they live? What school do they attend? What do they do? Etc., etc,. etc. Having seemingly numbered him among the living, at least in the ears of the questioner, I now have to step back and explain. Sometimes that’s exactly what I want because it gives me a chance to talk about him, to keep him alive I suppose. But often there isn’t time, or the person asking is taken aback, feeling they’ve intruded. Or worse, they’ve overstepped. Or worse yet they were just being kind, as in making small talk. Then I’ve overstepped and it’s just plain awkward.

Other times I can’t say anything and the silence can be unbearable. It’s as if the pain has stolen my words.

I still haven’t found a good way to answer that damn question.

For awhile, I attended survivor meetings. Parents who’ve lost a child. Survivors of suicide. Grief counseling. It helped. It still helps. Talking about him (or writing about him) soothes me. I feel less alone. He feels less gone to me. 

This journey is a solitary one. My wife—she joined THE CLUB too that day—and I take solace in each other of course, but  even couples must grieve in their own time and space. Each parent must walk the journey on their own. She finds survivor meetings loathsome. She attended one and never again. When I’m having what I call a bad Endyll day, usually she’s more composed, and vice versa. We persevere. Whatever, it seems to have worked. We are still together and that’s saying something. Few things stress a marriage more than the death of a child. The pain of the reaper’s blade is deep; the swath it cuts is wide. 

Eventually though, a scar forms. And as with any scar, you can look at it and see pain and suffering. Or you can look at it and see healing.

You decide.

03/5/15

Saving King

Saving King

Click the image to go to the Amazon Kindle page to purchase this work.

A seminal work on a moment that changed the world. Stunning.

The Rev. Dr. King was shot at 6:01 pm on April 4th, 1968. He was pronounced dead 64 minutes later, after a struggle that included an emergent tracheostomy and open heart massage. In Saving King, McDaniels dramatically recreates these events in graphic detail, providing an almost minute by minute account of the first responders at the scene, followed by the action as it appears to have taken place in the emergency room. This account is based on a close reading of eyewitness reports, King’s autopsy, and the 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations’ investigation into the MLK assassination.

Saving King is a clever work of creative nonfiction which not only dramatizes the action in heartbreaking detail, it showcases the US trauma system at work in 1968—and in 2013. One of the most interesting portions of the monograph (which runs about 8,000 words and is an intense read by any measure) comes near the end, when McDaniels goes the extra mile and shows how such a grievous injury might be handled today.

In fact, one of the things Saving King does so well is to inform the lay public about the US trauma system. In this regard it is informative and educational without seeming to be. It reads more like a novella than a monograph, and very definitely has a story to tell.

The story opens with King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel one minute before he is shot, and doesn’t end until he is pronounced dead 65 minutes later. Along the way, we watch as the first responders (a modern term) are overwhelmed by the bleeding and essentially just scoop and run. It is a tense 15-20 minutes later before King’s airway is finally established via an emergent tracheostomy—and his breathing finally restored to something reasonable. We learn too about the incredible coincidence that led to a delay in calling an ambulance—it turns out King wasn’t the only fatal casualty that day.

The author is himself an accomplished writer, and more than qualified to write such an authoritative work. Edison McDaniels is a board certified neurosurgeon with an extensive surgical experience, including more than a little bit of trauma. He is the author of several novels, including the acclaimed Not One Among Them Whole: A Novel of Gettysburg, which  has been described as a magnificently harrowing trip into the bloody horrors of the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s about surgery in a time when every wound was potentially fatal and every operation was a minor miracle, according to the author himself.

McDaniels’ strength in writing, which comes across loud and clear in Saving King, is his unusual ability to make the intricacies of medicine and surgery understandable to the masses. This is at least in part owing to his unique combination as an experienced surgeon, a talented writer, and a passion for both. And, in his case at least, the parts sum to more than the whole. Indeed, Taylor Polites, author of The Rebel Wife, has called him “An amazingly talented writer…”

02/26/13

Edison Penrow McDaniels

An African American Life

 

I watched an incredible TV show the other night, Stories from the Road to Freedom, a chronicle of African American life as lived by regular people from Emancipation to the Civil Rights era. My own father was such a man.

He was born in 1923, the son of Oklahoma sharecroppers. Born poor, half-black & half-Indian, as far from privilege as possible within these United States—at a time when the Jim Crow South thrived and to be a black man was to be, at best, a doormat in a society valuing dogs and horses above mere negroes. African Americans were still being lynched with regularity throughout his childhood.

He died, on Jan 2, 2011, as far from that conspicuous and abhorrent idea of humanity as one can venture in a single lifetime, an elder statesman  of 87, the product of a long, eventful, and full life.

Edison Penrow McDaniels came of age in the great and terrible years of WWII. He volunteered for service in the United States Army immediately following his graduation from high school in 1942. He was present at what the historian David McCullough called the most important event and date of the 20th Century, Omaha Beach & the Normandy Invasion on the 6th of June 1944, when the tide of Hitler’s evil was first turned back. He spent the next six months in combat, had 18 trucks blown out from under him, and was finally injured in the 19th truck just days before the Battle of the Bulge. The blast shattered his body but primed his mind to go forth and change the world. He was immensely proud of his WWII service, and it proved to be the priming event of his life. He spoke of it often.

He studied under the GI Bill and, although it took sixteen years, he graduated with a Juris Doctor degree from Southwestern University School of Law in 1961. He entered private practice and devoted most of the next forty years to helping those who needed it most. He developed a nationally recognized Civil Rights practice, spoke for the masses against the bureaucrats, and gave voice to those people who, in the small moments of their lives, ran into injustice and unreason that became the big moments that defined and confined them. He spoke for such folks when they could not speak for themselves, in courtrooms and assembly halls, in council chambers and town meetings. He spoke always with eloquence, and it was one of his most important beliefs that we had to be able to communicate with each other, that the mark of intelligence was the ability of one person to speak with another at his or her own level. 

I once asked him what he thought the most important class he ever took was and he answered that it was English. He told us often that whatever we did in life, we’d have to be able to communicate with our fellows and English was the key to that.

He married twice and had nine children. Two preceded him in death: Ronald Vaughn and Ellys Preston.

Far from a perfect man, he was at times irascible and always difficult. More often than not too strict a disciplinarian, he did not encounter humor well, drank too much when the pressures became too great, and rarely praised those around him, even in the best of times. He was a difficult man mostly, and prone to ego-centrism. His political aspirations were never realized, but even so he helped many, and if he demanded too much of others, he demanded most from himself and was unflinching in his own self-criticism.

He was that rare individual whose life summed to more than its parts. And if any of us saw failings in his later years, it was only because his will to live powered him for so long.

02/22/13

The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Written

The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Written

 

ORYOToday, Feb. 22, 2013, would have been my son’s thirty-first birthday. He’s been gone ten years now, but as those of you who are members of the club know, they never really leave us, do they? This is both good and bad, mostly good now. I enjoy thinking about him daily.

Nobody here knew him, of course. What follows below are a few notes I put together for his funeral. I thought it might be of some interest, maybe a way of getting to know me. Or maybe I just wanted you to know him.

Thanks for reading. And if you would like see his memorial site, go to www.mem.com. Or you can send me an email here. That would be nice.

 

THE PUREST SILENCE

Endyll Princeton McDaniels Feb 22, 1982 – Feb 25, 2003

 

We choose our truths the way we choose our gods, single-sightedly, single-mindedly, no other way to feel or see or think. We lock ourselves into our ways, and click all the truths to one.

We put our truths together in pieces, but you use nails and I use glue. You mend with staples. I mend with screws. You stitch what I would bandage.

Your truth may not look like mine, but that is not what matters. What matters is this: You can look at a scar and see hurt, or you can look at a scar and see healing. Try to understand.

–From A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds

 

My name is Edison McDaniels and I am Endyll’s father. I could stand up here today and tell you about my son. I could tell you about his years spent growing up in Minnesota and ice skating on the pond behind our house, of playing hockey at 4:00 in the morning before school, of his speed and excellence on the track field. I could tell you how much he loved skiing and how good he was at it, although he never really got to do it all that often. I could tell you about his love of sky diving and how, from the age of eleven or so, he would spend hours designing, sewing, and then actually testing life sized parachutes (on the wind, not in the air). I could tell you about the day of his first real jump, about how we were all gathered at ground zero and how big the smile was on his face that day, about how that jump was a tandem jump with a guy named Brad Foster who was, even then, a good friend. I could tell you how distraught he was when Brad Foster was killed in a sky diving accident last May after more than 4,000 jumps to his credit.

I could tell you what an incredible voice he had for singing and how his dream was to be discovered. If I was going to talk about my son, I suppose one of the main things I’d want you to know is that he was smart and funny, that he smiled a lot and, that he liked Japanese Anime. I’d want you to know that he loved to play cards with his brother England and sister Ehvyn, that he and his brother Edison split the chore of cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes after dinner every night for years. I’d want to mention that he enjoyed going to the movies. In short, I’d tell you that his youngest brother thought he was “cool”, and that his sister said he was “just nice, always so nice.”

I’d tell you he was most of all a joy to have around, and that his mother and I were so proud of everything he was.

But I’m not going to talk about Endyll today. He has so many friends and loved ones here today and I’m sure we’ll all talk amongst ourselves and reminisce. And his mother and I thank you all for coming out.

What I want to talk about today…is silence. I want you to know about the two kinds of silence. About how one of them is just something called quiet, and how the other is what I have learned, over the last few days, to call “the purest silence.”

The first kind is the silence of an empty room, or it’s maybe what you hear when the TV goes off at night. Sometimes it’s a little spooky, but there’s nothing profound about it, nothing special.

I wish I could say the same of the second kind of silence. It’s what you hear when you’re lying in bed at night, with nothing to do but think about all the why’s and what could have beens. It’s what you hear in the afternoons when you sit for hours staring out a window, looking at the park across the street from your house, the park where they found your son the morning after he took his life.

It’s what you hear when you’re all riding in the car on the way home from the elementary school, after just telling your two youngest kids, who aren’t even teenagers yet, that their brother–their buddy, their best friend–is dead. You hear the tires humming against the roadway, the occasional clink of keys or coins, the raspy sounds of five people breathing as if they can never again get enough air. You hear all of this–and none of it. This kind of silence is absolute, it is so profound–so pure–it’s as if you are traveling in a void, as if you have suddenly been struck deaf. And it’s a painful silence, like a fever burning hotter and hotter and hotter inside of you. It burns down deep, in place you can’t possibly get at. It’s a pain you can’t cure.

In this silence—this purest silence—there are no voices, no words. No one speaks. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of it all, your daughter does speak, and you do hear her.

“We went from a loud family of six,” she says, “to a quiet family of five.”

And instantly, you understand the one thing that could work its way through this misery, the one cure for this silence.

But you will never hear his voice again.

He is gone.

Endyll had a lot of special gifts. He was just three days past his 21st birthday. He didn’t have nearly enough time in this world and we didn’t have nearly enough time with him. It is our most heartfelt prayer—his mother Jean, his brothers Edison III and England, his sister Ehvyn, and mine—that he has found the peace and tranquility in the next world that so eluded him at the end in this one.

England, our youngest son, said the other day that he didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye to Endyll. England, I’d like you to know that none of us did, but that here and now, in this place where God shines, we can say good-bye. I’d also offer that maybe we should just say goodnight though, because I’m confident that we will see Endyll again. And when we do, it’ll be like he was never away.

The End