I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, December 13, 2009


If I thought the last post was hard to write, I guess I just needed to get warmed up for this one. I tossed and turned again last night, but I seem compelled to write these. The reason to write is morphing into something else, and I've only started. Now I realize that in telling my story, I am figuring out how I got here, to this place, to become this person I am today. Like peeling an onion in reverse, starting with the tender inside and making my way to the hardy survivor on the outside.

Derald was discharged from the service and we moved into a nice apartment. He got a job as an insurance salesman. I was living there in that house when President Kennedy was shot. I remember that I was bleaching my hair platinum blonde when I saw the news. Chris was two. Derald and I had begun to attend the Unitarian Church, I had a circle of friends, and I got pregnant again. I was still indifferent to Derald but I knew when I was fertile and I actually seduced him. By this time he was no longer being faithful to me, but this just meant he left me alone more often.

On August 15, 1964, our son Stephen Norman was born. I still remember the moment he entered the world, I felt his presence as a blessing. If I thought I was in love before, now Stephen and I were even more so. Chris was not a naturally cuddly child; he would often push me away so he could play and didn't especially enjoy being read to, which I loved. Stephen, though, was my precious cuddly child, very healthy, beautiful, and growing like a weed. I spent days just playing peekaboo with him. We bought a house in Flint and my joy was complete.

I have a memory of walking down the street pulling a little red wagon behind me, with Chris and Stephen in it. Little Stephen was waving and smiling to passersby with his cute fat dimpled hand. If my life were to be one of popping babies out every now and then and raising them, I would be complete. Motherhood was exquisite.

One day in September, Stephen woke from his nap with a high fever. I was so worried that I took him to the local emergency room. Although I waited there for hours as he slipped into a coma, not opening his eyes, not drinking anything, just moaning every once in a while, the doctor, when he saw him, decided to admit him for having a fever of unknown origin. I stayed with him until I had to leave, but he never moved much and never looked at me again. He was in a ward with several other children.

In the middle of the night, Derald and I woke to the ringing of the telephone. It was the hospital, and they told us simply to come. Now. I don't remember what we did with Chris, but I remember the ride in the dark, the words of fear that we exchanged. When we arrived at the hospital, Stephen was in isolation and in an oxygen tent. I was not allowed to touch him. The doctor said they had taken a spinal tap, but they suspected spinal meningitis before the tests even came back.

You know how you have memories that are burned into your retina? They never go away. I saw Derald coming down the hospital hallway, and he was holding the wall to keep from falling. I knew. I ran down the hall before he even told me, and I saw my beloved child one more time: dead. Mouth open. Not breathing.

What happened next I don't remember. But when we walked back into our home, the first thing I saw was the high chair, with a graham cracker on it, with a bite taken out of it by my now dead son. I saw his little shoes with the socks in them, soiled by his playing. I saw diapers still needing to be rinsed. These pictures are burned into my brain and will stay with me until I die.

Stephen was 13 months old. He died on September 17, 1965. My life became a haze of pain and suffering. My surviving son lost not only his brother, but also his mother. I could no longer function on any level. My mother came to be with me. She told me years later that she tried to get my father to come, but he would not, could not face my grief. I have no memory of anything that came next except a flashing yellow light that went round and round on the vehicle we followed as we made our way to the cemetery to bury my little baby.

At the Unitarian Church, many people who attended the previous Sunday were warned to see their doctor and take sulfa drugs if they had had any contact with the sick baby. I remember one man I had met in some church meetings who took me for a walk and comforted me. His name was Don. He told me he would help me, take care of me.

I had no will to live. I lost so much weight I remember how my clothes hung on me, but I didn't care. Before I knew it, Don had arranged for me to divorce Derald and marry him. Don was 21 years older than me, had a long-time position at General Motors, and was a very controlling person. This made no difference to me. If I had been able to join a convent and have every move dictated to me, I would have done it. This was the next best thing. I had never even kissed Don or had any kind of physical relationship with him. That was not what this was about.

Since Chris was my child, he came along with me, although now that I look back I know he would have been much better off if Derald had taken him, but they didn't do such things in those days. The mother always got custody, no matter how unfit she might be. Somehow I managed to rally enough to move into an apartment somewhere, although I don't remember much about that time. I looked for work and found a job with the Mott Program, an educational program that trained interns from around the country.

On June 25, 1966, at the age of 23, I began my life as Don's wife. This picture is of Chris on that day. I worked full time, I cooked, I cleaned, I did everything that wives were supposed to do. Chris began kindergarten. I still have the picture of Chris waiting for the bus on the first day of school. He was stoic, but I was crying as I took the picture. Chris continued to see his father on the weekends and we shared school vacations, but I have very little memory of those days.

In the next chapter I'll describe more of my life with Don, my job, and how I began to heal.


Norma Jean said...

I hope this journey gives you the forgiveness you are seeking. Stephen's death was such a trauma for you and me that it affected my being a mother for years afterwards. I don't know how you got through it, but you did and that is what is so important. No one should have to bury a precious baby boy that was such a joy to everyone he touched.

Seeing what you endured helped make me a stronger person and for that I am so grateful. I love you, Jan, I will always be there for you .

Stella Jones said...

I'm listening!

Star x

wendyytb said...

I think you are pretty special too.....

Historical sites with charmine said...

D-Jan,this is too painful to read.....I am sure the memories will last a lifetime but you did get past that trying time and came out stronger.

Whitney Lee said...

It is, I believe, every parent's worst fear. It's certainly mine. I am so sorry for your loss but happy that you had what time you did (although it wasn't nearly long enough).

As for the last post where you were speculating on why you felt the need to start this blog and journey through your memories, I came across something that made me think of you.

I am rereading 'Conversations With God' for the gazillionth time. You were the first thing that came to mind when I read this passage:

"Your soul (subconscious, id, spirit, past, etc.) is the sum total of every feeling you've ever had (created). Your awareness of some of these is called your memory. When you have a memory, you are said to re-member. That is, to put back together. To reassemble the parts.
When you reassemble all of the parts of you, you will have re-membered Who You Really Are."

Perhaps this will resonate for you...

Lucy said...

Dear Blogger friend and sister. Pour your soul into this Blog and we will read it. Perhaps somewhere there is a young woman who we can help through like circumstances, but, your story needs to be told. Even with these few posts, I know that.

The Retired One said...

I cried (inside of course, see my last comment) when you described the death of your son. How totally devastating. I cannot even imagine it. No one can, unless they have also lost a child.
One has two choices in those situations.
Stop living or live like you've stopped living.
Your path was clear and you had Chris to think about too.
My youngest daughter's significant other lost his one and only son at the age of two to SIDS. He is still grieving....
My daughter just recently found out she is pregnant with his child and that it is a boy.
I am concerned for them, but I hope in some way having another son in his life will take away some of his pain.
I hope the writing of your past helps in some small way with your experiences and to help you begin to heal.
Please know my heart is with you and that I am sending you postive karma to help you heal your heart...

Far Side of Fifty said...

Hi DJan..still reading. What heart wrenching pain. I believe it is impossible to imagine...parents are not supposed to out live their children.:(

Leave a Legacy said...

Oh DJ, I have such a lump in my throat. I commented on your previous post about my grandmother losing my uncle and how that changed her. Then I read this post of yours and I think of my own two beautiful sons and I just have to not think about it - too painful. I'm so sorry.