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.