‘He’s gone’

My only son was born thirty-six years ago today. He died two days later. Here, in an excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, is what happened:

Sean David Becker was born at 8:47 p.m. on Sunday, May 23, 1982 at the Mid-Maine Medical Center in Waterville. He arrived a couple of weeks early, but seemed to be a healthy six-and-a-half pound boy. I called our families and friends in New York and Toronto and spread the news.

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

On Tuesday morning, at about six o’clock, alone in bed in the house in the woods, I got a call from Linda in the hospital.

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“No,” she said.

“Are you okay? The baby?”

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

“Is he okay?”

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

I rushed to the hospital. Linda was getting dressed. I found out Sean had gone by ambulance to the Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was in the only neonatal intensive care unit in the state. That’s where we found our tiny baby hooked up to machines, his eyes closed, barely moving, except for the occasional spasm.

His doctor, Douglas Dransfield, escorted us to a small, private room. He gave us the prognosis. Sean, he said, had stopped breathing the previous night in the nursery in Waterville. He had been resuscitated, but not soon enough to prevent brain damage. After arriving in Portland, he had had seizures. His vital signs were very weak.

If he lived, Dr. Dransfield said, our son’s mental capacity would be negligible. But, he said, it was unlikely our baby would survive more than a day if taken off the ventilator that was breathing for him.

“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 forty hours earlier, sat in a chair and cried. I held her and 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,” Dr. Dransfield said. “It could be days.”

We checked into the Hilton. I called my parents in New York and Linda’s mother in Toronto and told them the situation. I didn’t phone anyone in Waterville (where I’d worked as a reporter on the Morning Sentinel for ten months).

We went to the hotel bar, had a drink, telling the front desk to route any calls for us there. We were back in our room after ten o’clock when the hospital phoned. I answered.

“We think you should get down here,” the nurse said. “Do you want us to call a priest to administer last rites?”

“No, of course not,” I said. “Why would I want my baby to have last rites?”

Linda, raised a Catholic, burst out crying.

“Yes, please call a priest,” I told the nurse.

We jumped in a taxi and went to the same small room we had been in before. It was very dark. A nurse brought Sean in and placed him in Linda’s arms. She held our baby. I held her.

Sean hardly moved, barely seemed to be breathing. 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.  Our son had lived fifty hours and forty-three minutes.

Linda fell back on her Catholicism, God’s will. As a nonbeliever, I had nothing to hold on to and nobody to turn to. I paced the halls of the hospital, went outside and screamed into the night.

Dr. Dransfield, who had been incredibly kind and inspired great confidence, had stayed the night with Sean. He came back to talk with us after our dead baby was taken away.

“You did the right thing,” he said.

“I know,” I said.

Linda didn’t say anything. She was weak and totally spent, going from new mom to grieving mom in two days.

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

* * *

My thoughts about Sean are scattered throughout the book, including this passage in the final chapter:

I often think of my only son, wonder what kind of man he would have turned out to be. The only evidence of Sean’s life is a thick file stuffed with his birth certificate, hospital and post-mortem documents, correspondence with his doctors, notes and cards of condolence, a lock of his light brown hair, a footprint in faded purple ink, a photo, in black and white, of Linda holding our newborn, and a color photo of his grave.

The Expat Files is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

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Bar talk: A tale of rape

Forty years ago this month, while covering the Blue Jays for the Toronto Sun, the most memorable story from a road trip to the West Coast had nothing to do with baseball, as I recall in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:

I began the season hoping to get along with the people I was writing about.  At thirty-one, I was older than most of the players, but not by much. At first, they seemed to accept me more than the other writers.

I’d been a decent athlete in my youth and could still handle a glove and a bat without looking like a klutz. During pre-game warm-ups, I’d play catch or shag flies in the outfield.

The only player I socialized with was pitcher Dave Wallace. He was different from the others, more thoughtful and a lot smarter. I was about a year older. We’d both been born and raised in the Northeast. He was from Connecticut, and had graduated college. We’d talk about baseball but also about other things, books and movies and life.

Dave Wallace

Early in the season, on a day off in Oakland, I rented a car and took Wallace to Sausalito. I’d called my old hippie friend, Barry Ginsberg, who met me in the No Name Bar while Wallace had a look around the town. Thankfully, after Barry described in great detail being abducted by aliens, he had to go to work, as a chef at the nearby Trident restaurant.

Wallace joined me at the No Name and we settled in for the night. An attractive woman, a blonde about our age, sidled up to us at the bar. “You look like baseball players,” she said.

“He is,” I said.

“I hate baseball players,” she said.

“I don’t like them much either, except this guy,” I said, pointing to Wallace.

She was really drunk. And really wanted to talk. She said she was a stewardess for United Airlines and sometimes worked on charters for major league teams.

On one late night flight, she told us, at thirty-thousand feet, her crewmate had been dragged into a lavatory and raped. She said the airline insisted her crewmate not press charges, that nobody believed her, that everyone assumed she had initiated the event and only cried rape later.

I believed her story. I asked some questions, trying to identify the rapist. But she kept shaking her head and guzzling vodka. “That’s why I hate ballplayers,” she concluded, before staggering off into the night.

Wallace and I were quiet on the long drive back to the hotel in Oakland. We didn’t have a chance to talk much after that night. He was released by the Jays and, when no other team gave him a chance, he retired at the age of thirty.

The cerebral Wallace would go on to have an accomplished career as a major league pitching coach. I would turn the flight attendant’s tale of rape into the plot of a novel.

The Expat Filesis available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

Mother’s Day

My mother – I called her Dot – died two years ago today. The photo above was taken when she was a docent at the Dreher Zoo in West Palm Beach and was displayed at her funeral in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

Since then, there have been many times I’ve thought: I wish I could talk to Dot about this … or that. Nothing heavy, mind you. Nothing personal either – at least not from my end. Just stuff of mutual interest.

After my dad died in 1995 , I phoned Dot about once a week, usually on Sundays. (We hadn’t lived in the same country for decades.) We chatted most often about politics, books, movies, TV shows.

She was always well informed, and had strong opinions. A lifelong liberal Democrat, she’d loved FDR and thought Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush Jr. were idiots. She was happy to have lived long enough to see Obama elected president.

Some of our last conversations were about Donald Trump running for president. She was revolted that he had a shot.

My sister Janice and I have talked about being relieved Dot did not live to experience the daily disgust of the biggest idiot yet in the White House.

Dot and I would also commiserate on the state of American culture as reflected in the popularity of what she called “nonsense” – some of the books that topped bestseller lists and movies and Broadway shows that were smashes at the box office.

In her later years, I became her maven on what to read and what to watch. I turned her on to such TV series as Homeland and, as her eyesight diminished, sent her the audio book every time a new novel came out by Nelson DeMille or Daniel Silva.

Our conversations generally wrapped up with her asking about my family: wife Linda, daughters Jodie and Lacey – Dot talked to daughter Kate all the time – and, later, granddaughters Annie and Zoey.

These were the things we talked about. That was our relationship. Every time she asked about my health or other matters I kept private, I changed the subject.

She’d tell me more than I wanted to hear about her latest malady – there were many. I’d tell her about my work but not about my more personal writing. I thought I’d save that news until a book was published. The timing never worked out.

I finished my memoir, The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism, about a year and a half after she died. As the title suggests, the book is mainly about my forty-plus years as a reporter, editor and teacher. Dot and my dad play minor roles in the narrative, not always flattering.

Since she’s been gone, since the book was published, I’ve thought more about the traits we shared: basically antisocial, incapable of small talk, intolerant of ignorance, more than satisfied to make a meal of the meaty bones on a prime rib of beef.

I now wish I had not waited so long to see her for the last time, to say goodbye. And wish I’d given her a less perfunctory sendoff in the final chapter of my book:

My mother, Dot, died at the age of ninety-four. Amazing she lived that long, with all the ailments and all the surgeries. She added to the inventory after moving north from Florida. A broken hip, followed by a broken fibula, finally persuaded her to use a walker. She was nearly blind by the spring of 2014, when she moved into my sister Janice’s house in Tarrytown.

Two years later, Dot got pneumonia and faded fast. I talked with her on the phone. She was barely coherent. But she had been that way before, through other serious illnesses. How can you discern when someone is really at death’s door?

Kate flew to New York to be with her grandma. I talked with her and Janice on the phone. Jodie wanted to go but was waiting for me. Finally, I said, “let’s go tomorrow.”

On May 10, 2016, Jodie and I drove to Tarrytown. We arrived in late afternoon, in time for the final hours. Dot couldn’t speak. Her eyes were closed. Her breathing labored. She looked tiny in the bed. I took her hand. She seemed to respond.

“Ken’s here,” Jan said.

“She’s been waiting for you,” Kate said.

A couple of hours later, I was on the patio having a smoke with Jan when Kate and Jodie came out to say she was gone.

Linda, Lacey, Hugh, Annie and Zoey made it to the funeral, as did other close family. Rabbi Brian flew in from Portland, Oregon, to preside at the service. I eulogized Dot’s toughness. Her casket was flown to Florida and lifted into her assigned place in the wall, beside dad.

The Expat Files is available from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.