It is April 2, 1972. I have gone to work as a caseworker for Otsego County Department of Social Services in Cooperstown, NY where I oversee a caseload of 55 children, aged infant (and his 14-year-old mother) through 17, placed in foster homes throughout the large, rural county. I am engaged in a home visit in Edmeston, talking with a foster mother about the progress of her young-teen foster daughter, when the phone rings.
“Excuse me,” she says politely and walks to the next room. I am making a few notes on my pad when she returns and says, “It’s for you.”
I’m surprised for a brief second, then suddenly feel terror. I know what this call means. My hand shakes as I lift the black receiver to my ear. “Hello, Mary Jo,” says Lucile Gilchrist, my supervisor, her words low, halting. “I wonder if you’d come back to the office right away.”
“Keith?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says solemnly.
I quickly and somehow politely conclude this home visit, hurry out to my car, and drive the dozen miles to the new, three-story brick office where I’ve worked since graduation. My mind is frozen into five repetitive words, “He’s going to die today, He’s going to die today. Oh, God, he’s going to die today.” I cannot absorb their reality but I know this is going to be the truth of this day.
I hurry up the three flights of stairs and pull open the door with the sign “Child Welfare.” I pass swiftly thought the large office where eight desks are neatly arranged, a few occupied by one of the caseworkers for foster care, foster home workers, or adoption. I drop my note pad on my desk, not seeing the faces of my co-workers at their desks and no one speaks to me. Do they already know what Lucile is about to tell me, I wonder. No, of course not, she would never….
Her door is closed. I knock twice and pull it open without waiting for her to say, “Come in.” She is seated behind her desk, this soft-spoken, gray-haired lady who was my first role model for kindness and compassion, the woman who decided to hire me despite my shaky background. Our eyes meet: mine large and brown, hers hazel and sorrowful.
I sink into the chair positioned in front of her desk, facing her.
“Mary Jo,” she says, then stops.
I supply the words I think she’ll say. “The hospital called to have me come right over. Keith’s dying?”
She’s silent a second then whispers, “He’s gone. I’m so sorry.”
No. NO. How could they not have called me so I could say my last good-bye? My head drops and I stare at the tiled floor. Damn them. DAMN THEM. Hospitals always call the family when someone is close to death. My son, Chip, and I are Keith’s only immediate family.
Each day I had visited on my lunch hour and briefly after work before picking up Chip from the babysitter’s home. Perhaps I had said my good-bye last night though.
She walks heavily around her desk, pulls a chair next to me, and places her hand on my shoulder. We talk for several minutes as she hears my frustration, my anger, and my sorrow. Finally I am spent and I think of my other small son, 8, at school in the third grade. I look at Lucile with tears in my eyes, thinking about what I will say to him.
She is a wonderful, wise woman and I ask what I should do about Chip attending his brother’s funeral. She answers without hesitation, “Ask Chip what he wants to do, and that will be the right thing.” Of course. I leave, not knowing when I will return.
As I drive robot-like, I hear once again the horrific crash of metal last December 8 on that snowy Catskill night. The young girl who’d hit us head-on. Keith drawing in his last breath. The Good Samaritan who’d revived him. The jaws of life. The ambulance. The flashing lights. The emergency room. My rigid denial during the past 115 days, until just very recently, that he would have to “live” on complete life support for the rest of his life. No, Keith would heal. He would come back home. Life would pick up where it had left off last December 8th.
I arrive at the school, walk into the office, tell the office staff briefly in a low quiet voice what has happened, and then Chip appears in the doorway. I hold out my hand. “I want to take you home early today, Chip.”
He is puzzled but doesn’t question my words. It’s a short silent drive home and, once inside our home, I say, “I have some very bad news,” and then tell him, watching him closely. He is quiet, stoic, but tears leak slowly onto his cheeks. I reach out to hug him and he lets me embrace him. I lean my head on top of his and say something to try to comfort us both.
It’s hard to remember the quiet blur of the rest of that day. We must have eaten. We must have made plans to go shopping in the morning for I absurdly decided I needed new shoes. Chip might have taken a bath. I probably read him a bedtime story although it’s hard to imagine which one I’d have chosen. Somehow we both slept, at least some, and finally the day was forever over.
I sit today by the stream in my yard and I remember you, dear child. You are forever seven years old, a slim, brown-eyed, sturdy little boy with a husky voice and endearing manner. The sun is so warm. Grass is greening on the bank. Water trickles so softly, so gently, it evokes my tears. I can see you bent over in this stream, your dark hair falling forward, your hand intently reaching for something in the water. I look to see if there are tadpoles. No. I listen for frogs. None. But there were many that you and Chip used to catch and then release in another stream at another time in our life.
In this journey called life you left the pathway so early. Yet I can believe only—especially on achingly radiant spring days like this one, so filled with rebirth everywhere I look—that your beautiful spirit is part of it all and that, wherever you are, your dancing brown eyes are smiling.
I am home. You are home. I seek the peace you possess.
April 3, 2011