At Least He Died Laughing
A chance encounter at a nail salon leads to one woman’s story. An oral history of a woman who lost her son, age twelve.
I met a woman today who had a story to tell. I was rushing to get a manicure before picking up our son and his friend for their play date. The manicurist had asked me if I wanted a shoulder massage and I said, “No, no…I need to scoot to pick up my son.”
The lady next to me, a woman in her 70s; wearing a bright pink polo, polished sneakers, pale blue sunglasses and her hair in blonde spikes all around, says to me, “Oh, that’s important. When you have children, they come first.”
I was there, but wasn’t and said somewhat out of habit, “Do you have children?”
She paused. My eyes scanned her face trying to figure why the pause. I could tell her mouth was trying to say something, but her mind was reconsidering.
And then she said, “I did.”
In these types of situations, there are a host of responses. I chose the only one that came to me in that moment.
“I am so sorry. What happened?” I ask.
She says, “He was twelve. He was at his friend’s house. I was working at the time. They were playing on the bed and he was jumping and dancing and laughing and he had a brain aneurysm and he fell down and died. Have you ever heard of a twelve year old having a brain aneurysm?”
“I have not,” I reply.
“I tell myself it could have been worse. It could have been cancer. He could have suffered. And except for the moment of pain when the aneurysm occurred, he didn’t feel pain.”
She says, “I tell myself he died laughing. It makes me feel better. The mother, she saw him fall and she rushed to him, but she…she did what she could, but nothing could be done. The paramedics were there within 3-minutes, but nothing could be done.”
I begin fighting tears. I am searching my brain for words, asking a Higher Power for guidance as to what to say and then I stop, take a breath and decide to be with her. It seems like the only thing to do.
She tells me she was divorced at the time. “It wasn’t a bad divorce. We remained friends, but I was just too young.”
She says that she had moved from Michigan to New York City, she and her son “B” had just moved back, in fact. She was working at an agency, where she represented actors in film and theatre.
She says that her ex-husband had not wanted to attend the funeral at the grave site, but she told him, “I cannot do this by myself. You must.”
She says that he did attend the funeral at the grave site but got into a limousine after and was driven directly to the airport.
She says that shortly thereafter she received a box from her ex-husband which included every piece of anything that had belonged to her son and which had been at her ex-husband’s house.
People respond to grief differently.
She says that she had a friend who encouraged her to see someone to help her through her grief, but she didn’t think she would need to do so.
And then, after a week had passed where she had cried every day, all day and through the night, she decided to meet with someone. And so she did…meet with someone “for a little while” and it had helped.
I ask her, “How did you get through it? How does a mom survive?”
She says, “People just do. They go on.”
She says that she did have family who would have been hurt had she not gone on and gone through it.
She says that she asked a Rabbi once, soon after she lost her “B”, if some people were given more than their share of hardships or if life balanced itself out a bit, this one taking a hit here and then later, another one having to endure. She was looking for some sense of equality in a life that had seemed unequal to her.
She says that the Rabbi told her that there are some whom life treats more harshly. He had told her, “it’s life.”
This brought her some sense of peace she says, because some people said things to her at the time that bothered her. People would say things such as, “It is the plan.” These kinds of things bothered her.
The Rabbi helped her see that sometimes it is…just life; and, sometimes, life just isn’t fair.
She says the other thing that bothered her was that she would see people change their course of direction when they saw her approaching in the hallways at work. She understood that it was just that people didn’t know what to say to the mother who had lost her twelve-year old son, but it still bothered her.
“I would be walking down the hallway and someone would turn left or head up the stairs. I knew they were trying to get away from me.” She says that she had wished they had done something – touch her shoulder or something, to let her know they knew.
She says that she called every person who had called her, written to her or helped her in other ways during that time. A friend told her she wasn’t expected to call everyone back, but it was important to her that she did. She wanted those who had reached out to know that she was aware that they were with her.
I ask her what she did these days to keep herself busy.
She gives me a quick rundown of American Idol, including her assessment of each of the judges. She likes Steven Tyler. She is not a fan of his music, but she likes him. He has talent. She thinks Jennifer Lopez “is everywhere.”
She says she has friends who disagree with her pick at the beginning of the season, but she sticks to her choice.
It isn’t just that the person can sing – it’s something else. They have something else.
She picked this year’s winner at the start of the season as well. “He’s got something, but you know, he went through eight surgeries on this season. Eight.”
She says that when he cried after he had won; some people thought he was crying because he was happy to have won.
“He was crying because he was in pain.”
She tells me the contract amount each of the judges received, including Britney Spears on the other show. She likes Britney. She thinks Britney has talent and is “a sweet girl” and she thinks Britney’s fiancé (also an agent) is a good man and a calming force. “He will look out for her.”
She says that she continues to work here or there. She was recently asked to help judge a talent competition with over thirty people auditioning. She’s still deciding if she wants to participate. She did it last year as well, but she commented after each audition and the hosts of the competition asked her not to provide comments this year, “because it takes too long.” She says that the people who were auditioning were happy to have received the feedback.
She says that she still receives headshots and resumes, unsolicited. “To receive unsolicited resumes. That is hard.”
She says that she usually offers practical advice for people. “I will ask them, what commercials have you been in?”
She says that sometimes people hem and haw and she corrects them, “Know what you’ve done. Know how to answer that question without a pause.”
She says that when people audition for Broadway shows, she tells them, “Go in with two songs. Go in with famous songs.” Sometimes, apparently, actors audition with songs no one has ever heard before. This isn’t a good thing.
I tell her she seems vibrant. I ask her if she would be interested in something else, maybe volunteering at a school in the neighborhood to keep her mind as sharp as it is now.
“I keep myself busy. I’m always busy. But yes, I like that idea. I really should consider volunteering.”
She tells me that in her building, there are lots of children “and for some reason, lots of twins.”
She says that sometimes, when she happens upon a set of twins, “I think to myself, oh I should just take one.”
She says it is because children are happy and it makes her happy and the twins…there are two of them and sometimes she just likes being around them.
I ask her name. It’s a great name for a talent agent. I’ll keep it private. She reminds me a bit of Joey’s agent on Friends. My friend here, the one who lost her son, age twelve, isn’t nearly as loud or course, but there is that thing…that New York talent agent thing about her.
I look for a business card, but do not have one. I suggest we would see each other again in the neighborhood.
I tell her I am happy to have met her.
She says, “When people ask me if I have children, I usually say no. But for some reason, I thought you might understand.”
I tell her that death has visited me unexpectedly and that we’re members of the tribe. I tell her I know that life is fleeting and it is precious but because I now have children, I fear it sometimes. I tell her I fear it a lot. I tell her that her story is the one that I fear the most.
She says to me, “Do you want to see a picture of “B?”
In the front clear window of her wallet, there he is. A little picture of her “B” dressed in the Peter Pan collar and cotton jump suit popular at the time.
She says, “He was 2-12 when he was born.” She says it a couple of times until it registers to me what she is trying to say.
“Do you mean he was 2-lbs and 12-ounces when he was born?”
“Yes, 2-lbs and 12-ounces. He was not very attractive. I called a family member who was a doctor and asked him to come and visit us because I was worried.”
She says that her family member, the doctor, told her, “I’m not worried whether he is an attractive thing right now. He will be. Right now, there’s nothing to look at – there is nothing to see. Don’t worry. Give it time.”
She says that even though the baby wasn’t pretty, he had a cleft chin. It was distinct even then…when he was just 2-lbs and 12-ounces.
She says that he was a great swimmer. He had had a meet on the day he had died. He had gone to the friend’s house because she was working. And he was jumping on the bed, laughing and then he had a brain aneurysm and died.
And she carries that picture in her wallet. I’m sure she carries it for herself, but maybe today she carried it in case someone asked, “Do you have children?”