Death and journalism in a small town

My mother died last week at the age of 94. My only son also died in May, in 1982, at the age of two days.

I’ve tried to write about Sean over the years, tried to explore the wound in my gut and psyche from his fleeting life and unexplained death.

But I’m not that kind of writer. So, all I can tell you is what happened.

My wife Linda and I were living in Maine when she became pregnant with our first child. I was working as a reporter at the Sentinel in Waterville, an unremarkable burg off I-95 north of Portland.

All appeared normal with Linda’s pregnancy. But my condition at the paper was deteriorating quickly.

We’d arrived in Waterville from Toronto in the summer of ’81. For me, at the age of 35, the move was a lark, a break from a lifetime of living in big cities and competing in big-time journalism.

We’d loved Maine, travelled there often. Our Maine had been the coastal grace of Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor, of charming country inns and lobster suppers.

The Maine we moved to was the inland poverty of tumbledown mill towns, people living in shacks, hoping to stock the freezer with enough venison or moose meat to get through the long cold winter.

We rented an upscale shack in the woods, about 15 minutes from my office.

On my first day at the Sentinel, the city editor told me: “The guy you’re replacing got a job at The AP in Baltimore. He’s moving right up the ladder.”

“I know,” I said, “I passed him on my way down.”

It was meant as a joke. But the joke would be on me.

Just before Linda went into labor, my notebook full of material for my next story disappeared from my desk.

I knew it had been swiped. I’d never fit in with the small-town, small-minded, no-talent bunch who ran the joint. This was their latest gambit to discredit my work, run me off the paper.

But my search for the notebook was interrupted by the arrival of Sean David Becker, an apparently healthy six-and-a-half pounds, on Sunday, May 23, 1982, at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville.

I took Monday off and spent most of it with Linda and our baby. The new mom in the next bed was 15 years old. Her mother, the new grandma, was Linda’s age, 31.

The next day, at about 6 a.m., Linda phoned from the hospital.

“Is everything OK,” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Are you OK? The baby?”

“I heard them screaming ‘Code Blue’ in the middle of the night. The nurses told me he wasn’t breathing.”

“Is he OK?”

“I’m not sure. They took him to Portland.”

I rushed to the hospital. We found out Sean had gone by ambulance to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was in neo-natal intensive care.

We sped down the interstate and found our tiny baby hooked up to machines, eyes closed, barely moving, except for the occasional twitch.

His doctor, Douglas Dransfield, escorted us to a small, private room and gave us the prognosis: Sean had stopped breathing during the night in the nursery in Waterville, had been resuscitated, but not soon enough to prevent severe brain damage. He’d had seizures. His vital signs were weak.

Dr. Dransfield said it was unlikely Sean would survive more than a day if taken off the ventilator.

“Does that mean he’s basically brain dead?” I asked.

“Yes,” the doctor replied. He said it was our call.

Linda, who had given birth fewer than 48 hours earlier, sat in a chair and cried. I asked the doctor to give us some time to talk.

We didn’t have much to say. We knew what we would do. We told the doctor we wanted Sean taken off the ventilator.

He suggested we find a hotel and someone would call us when the time was near.

“It could be hours,” he said. “It could be days.”

We checked into a Hilton, went to the bar, had a drink, telling the front desk to route any calls for us there.

We were back in our room after 10 o’clock when the hospital phoned.

“We think you should get down here,” a nurse said.

We returned to the same small, dark room we had been in before.

A nurse brought Sean in and placed him in Linda’s arms. She held our baby. I held her. Sean hardly moved. The nurse came back a couple of times to check his heart and respiration.

The third time, she shook her head and said: “He’s gone.” We sat there a while, a sad little family, our baby dead. It was 11:30 p.m., Tuesday, May 25, 1982.

I gave Dr. Dransfield permission to order an autopsy. We wanted to know what killed Sean. We never found out, the results deemed “inconclusive.”

(I’ve always blamed small town incompetence.)

The next day, at Brooklawn Memorial Park in Portland, we watched the tiny white coffin placed in a tiny burial plot.

When I next went to the office, the notebook that had disappeared was on top of my desk.

I wrote my last story for the Sentinel, we packed up the shack, and moved home to Toronto.


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.


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