Pietà

“Mr. Bradford? Here, they’re on the line.”

The ICU nurse hands the telephone to Randall and I listen, sitting next to him on a chair I have pulled over from the wall. She is very thin, the nurse behind the reception counter, Diet Coke lean with highlights and a tan.  Her wrists are sinewy and she wears no wedding ring though I remember she mentioned having a son. In those last minutes around the gurney when we’d called in select friends and family to pray, sing and say goodbye before we turned off the ventilator, she had mentioned, this nurse trying to be casual and conversant in the thickness of sacred silence, how handsome our son was. Almost the same age as mine, she had said.

Working ICU in Pocatello to put the kids through school. A loyal girlfriend to many and street smart, her face told me.  There to witness the last assisted breaths of the son of this woman wrapped in a blue hospital blanket that an earlier nurse had brought  from room seven.  There to stand at the foot of the son of this woman who had been singing church songs in different languages and had been reading from her scriptures into the left ear of her firstborn.

During those thirty-six unspeakably holy ICU hours, I’d pulled myself only four times from the gravitational suction that held me inside of room two and next to my son who lay first on his face in a neck brace, tubes running into his nose and down his throat, then on his back when they’d  turned him over a few hours before Randall was to arrive.  We had been on the telephone at least a dozen times or more off and on in the last twenty-four hours, Randall and I — from my parents’ in Provo to our apartment in Munich, Utah’s Interstate-15/Germany’s Autobahn,  Pocatello/Munich International Airport, Port Neuf Regional Medical Center/Philadelphia International Airport — although I had wished we could have spoken constantly.  Impossible from over the Atlantic.  As never before in my life my body yearned to have his body next to where mine was, next to our son.  He stagger-burst through the ICU doors in his navy suit jacket, gray-skinned not from that round-the-world flight from Munich but from horror, the crazed end of passion, the heart-melt middle of devotion.

One of those times I  had walked into the hallway I had felt the abrupt difference in air quality, as if I had passed through a gelatinous film  at the threshold and stepped into a one-dimensional, vibration-free world. Flat. Tinny. Void of resonance. I had walked through the door, with the reception area off to my left as I had made my way to the right, to the bathroom.  The desk was the place where folks congregated, professional folks like doctors and paramedics and people who live daily around other folks’ deaths, where they read X-Rays and check stats and chat about room six or five or two, and about when their shift was supposed to end, maybe about their worthless lawnmower or about how bad this stupid coffee is. Who brewed this cup of crap anyways?

I had passed them.  I had smiled at them, a Polite Girl reflex.  Had smiled at them while my son with his trademark smell and full lower lip and the tiniest almost invisible mole on the tip of his nose, while that son  had lain dying or really, had probably already long since died.

(Did you see how I just wrote that? Those two words with “D”? Not even a flinch? Five years and I still cannot say those words or any version of them. Cannot hear them associated with my son without feeling my spine revolt and turn titanium.  But write them? Cold fingers don’t taste the metallic flavor of the words, so I type them quickly just like the rest of the string in that sentence. Mole. Nose.  Dying.  Already.  Died. . . See?)

I had passed them, smiling on my way to the bathroom.   And whatever had been their internal joke that had caused the one doctor to slap the other  guy’s shoulder and throw his head back in a chuckle, it had been doused by my presence. Friendly banter with coworkers, that’s all, so the other two nurses had just dropped their heads ready to let out a laugh. Then there I was,  Mom From Room Two.  Out in clear sight.  Strange, nervous soberness and elbowing among the five there behind that counter of Formica.  A woman with a face mask hanging down around her neck starts shuffling papers, turning her shoulder a bit from me.

And now The Parents From Two sit in front of that same lightly speckled Formica reception desk.  And the thin nurse who is a single mom, I’ve decided, with the son my beloved son’s age is handing us the phone and my husband is going to do the talking while I watch my  legs and hands  and even my shoulders and ribs begin to shake, quake as if all the cold of a distant and soundless black universe has now inhabited my limbs.  My teeth chatter. My nails are blue.  I wrap the blue blanket more snugly around my thighs, pull it higher over my shoulders and push it up around my neck.  My husband’s voice is paced, warm, and the nurse steps away, eyes following the top of my husband’s head as he nods and agrees to the voice on the line.  He is, even in this ice block of time, an impeccable — though decimated — professional.

He will take the questions from  Organ Donation.  He will repeat to me in fragments the impossible litany of queries this interview  requires.  This Organ Donation interview scheduled out of necessity within two minutes of when room two turned off  life support.

My mind stretches to that room. I can still feel its heart beat from over my shoulder.  Room Two. The door is left ajar. Family has filed out. My brother, ten years my junior with a physique normally the mirror image of his favorite nephew now lying inside that door, looks ninety-seven.  He is hunched head first against a wall.

“Has your son ever used recreational drugs?” the voice is asking my husband through the receiver.

“Never.”

“Pot? Meth? Ever abused prescription drugs?”

“No, never.”

“Has he abused alcohol or even drunk socially?”

“Never.”

“Sexual activity, Mr. Bradford. Was your son sexually active?”

“No.  He has never engaged in sexual activity.”

“Mr. Bradford? Um, can you be sure of that? This is to rule out any chances of STD’s or AIDS, you know. We can’t use his organs if there is any chance of those in his system.  Any activity? With women, Mr. Bradford? Or with men?”

“No. None. I know this for sure.”

“Okay then. Ah. . .yeah, okay, next question, Mr. Bradford. We still have quite a list here. . .”

While the voice from Organ Donation asks for a detailed profile, I watch another nurse walk toward my son’s room.  This is the same son whose strong back I’d hugged in the full-blown sun just three days earlier, the one who is lying still warm under a crisp sheet of white, but whose life is no longer supported there. Whose last struggling breath I’d stood by and watched. From where I sit, watching Randall, watching my body quietly convulse, I can not see what this other woman is now doing. But there she goes.  Into that room. With my son.  I have no strength to follow her or the thought any further.  And part of me is trying to be here in this plastic chair so I can love my husband through this disorienting phone call.

“Where has your son lived during his life, Mr. Bradford?  Idaho, right?”

“For nine days, if that counts,” Randall answers.  “And Utah. And Hong Kong. And Pennsylvania and New Jersey and Versailles then Paris, France.”

“Whoah, okay,” the voice laughs lightly,  “Moved, I see.”

“And Norway.”

“Norway?”

“Oslo, Norway.”

“What year would that have been, Mr. Bradford?”

Years.  From 1994 to 1999. We lived five years in Norway.”

“Ok. Mr. Bradford, can you just please hold on for a sec?”

Randall looked at me and tucked the blue blanket up under my chin, up behind the nape of my neck. I smiled at him, but not out of some polite reflex. It was love as never before.

“Mr. Bradford. Seems there’s a problem.  Government records show that there were three cases of mad cow disease in Norway during those five years you lived there. This means your son’s organs are unfortunately unsuitable for donation.  But we do thank you for your time, Mr. Bradford.”

I was in this gummy state, all senses on hyperdrive but by soul tuned to fold-into-origami submission. All my joints , though chilled through, were limp, my will utterly pliable. So we can’t even give his organs, I thought.  He’ll be unhappy about that.  Unable to move myself from this hospital chair with its aluminum legs, I stared at my hands. Randall’s hand reached over to mine. We had to find Luc, our youngest. Had to tell him. We made our way to the room where he had been waiting in the lap of our dear friend all these hours.

And this is when my brother, who has since turned from the wall,  saw what he saw. He told me all this later.

She walked into room two, this gently efficient woman, wearing her scrubs, her brown hair in a pony tail, ready to do what she was trained to do. She walked right to my son. To the body of my son.  My handsome — my gorgeous, my sweet — son on the gurney.  Those were his feet whose toenails I’d taught him to trim.  His hands I’d marveled at in the delivery room the minute he was laid on my chest, hands he’d pushed up against my breast when I nursed him all those eleven months.  He’d pushed and pushed with those miraculous mits, routinely kneading my flesh as he suckled life from me.  They were the same hands whose callouses and blisters he’d shown me proudly after all those hours spent pummeling his djembe with his Tunisian and Algerian buddies on the steps of the Trocadéro facing the Eiffel Tower. School exams, pressure, finally over. It was early summer in Paris, his home, and now all of life lay ahead of him. So he drummed and drummed till his palms and his knuckles bled.

Now this stranger, this woman with white nurse’s shoes and a metal rolling trolley was walking toward those hands, hands with callouses she could not read, toward an entire geography of flesh and blood she could not know. Nothing but foreign soil to her.  And then with everyday grace softening her movements, she proceeded with the speechless routine of turning and lifting, wrapping and bending, of dipping a cloth in cool water and tracing a limb with it. Wringing it out, that hospital rag, in a utilitarian metal dish. This unnamed woman, cradling my son, following the curve of his mortal landscape, sharing with him his final sacrament.

Pietà

 

Toth was his name, Laszlo Toth: the death man

who one midmorning charged Saint Peter’s sanctum

lunged with frenzied hammer at the polished Madonna

frothing at the mouth

shouting he wanted Him as his own

cracking with mallet swing the curves of submission

breaking her soft hold on the dead Son.

The camera crowd gaped then contracted

wrestled him to the stone floor sentenced him

deported him declared him deranged.

Have pity on him.

Hard it is, to insanity hard, to behold a son’s graceful bow

In the hold of another (doctor, technician, nurse, mortician)

to glimpse quite by mistake through the sanctum doorway

as another cradles the warm form wilting, folding under death’s weight

as the gurney sheets must be removed from this side

and the tubes extracted from that side

and the limbs placed neatly at his sides

and machines are rolled away into shadows

as the muscles  melt

twisting the stone sturdy man in the

ultimate capitulation:

deference to death.

Hard it is, to derangement hard,

to not swing a mallet or hammer, to not fling oneself

onto the stone floor,

to not break into sharp marbled shards.

Have pity on me.

**

Printed first in Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets, ed. Tyler Chadwick

**
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

17 thoughts on “Pietà

  1. M-
    I wrote you a letter and emailed it to you on hotmail. I hope that you still use that account. Let me know if you don’t. It was a bit wordy to post here or on facebook. I also sent a message to your facebook a while ago. Did you get it?

  2. Bonjour Melissa…….I was touched by your mention of Parker’s baby hands and your amazement of his new life…the bonding of mother/baby when nursing is truly a gift from God. As I read, one song was in my mind, PIE JESU. I can absolutely visualize Mother in Room Two (Father too of course) singing, reading and loving Parker in those last sacred hours. Thank you for sharing, as always, grateful for you and your family in my life.

    • Sarah, what a moving coincidence: just yesterday we received your birth announcement for the arrestingly precious Luciana Mei-Lin. And all day long I had to think of our last evening together in Singapore with her nursing in the crook of your arm as we chatted and took pictures. It all sort of congealed for me. There is so much so very very much beauty in this life, and as C.S. Lewis says in the movie “The Shadowlands”, (all about the loss of his wife, Joy), “The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.” We must be happy right now this moment, we have to be, even knowing it might — will, must in the economy of eternity — evolve at some point into some sort of pain. Sorry I wax a bit philosophical. It’s a small part of what I’ve learned. Love you, Sarah ma extra belle.

  3. Hello Melissa,
    I’ve been following your blog for several weeks and I’ve wanted to comment many times. I feel like I must comment today because a friend of mine lost her 12 year old son in a tragic accident this week. I’ve been searching your blog for ways to help me to understand why something like this happens. I know there’s no clear answer, really. But reading your blog has helped me know that it is possible to get through trying times. . . even when it seems entirely impossible.

    I’ve enjoyed reading about your life’s adventures. It’s been a long time since Provo High, huh? Say hello to Randge for me.

    Carolyn (Warner) Taylor
    Redmond, WA

    • Carolyn, You bet it’s been a while sine Hail Provo High days, but I have your face and voice and vibrant presence right here with me as if Main Hall and pep rallies were just last month! I’d love to have had you closer all these many years. . .Thank you for following the blog. It is gratifying to know smart and sensitive people like yourself are listening once in a while. (Otherwise, it would be a whole lot of scary self-talk on my part, don’t you think?) Thank you for commenting. The comments help me to gauge what strikes a readership. I’m learning much from what people post in this thread. So don’t hesitate: come back. I’ll always do my best to respond as quickly yet as thoughtfully as time allows.

      To your dear friend and her unthinkable loss. Oh, this is the black hole no one wants to peer into for too long, as it has every appearance of taking the very life of anyone who enters, even those who just want to help. The loss of a child (and please, this is not meant to minimize the other horrific losses—spouse, parent, sibling, divorce, job, health, desire to live one’s own life), this particular loss of one’s child, according to all statistics and research I have unearthed (which is a whole library worth), is peculiar in its duration, depth and potential complications. There are reasons for this that you can probably think of right now, but your friend knows them in her cells and is, I will venture, struggling just to breathe every day. Struggling just to breathe. To stand up. To walk.

      Please do two things I am already sure you are doing. First, do not try to explain why this has happened or advise her on how to grieve or get her “distracted” so that she will “forget this thing that has happened.” (I know you, Carolyn. You would not do this. I’m just using this chance to dispence advice broadly.) Your friend’s whole soul is eclipsed with this loss. Like the sun, eclipsed. For quite a while, she will probably not be able to think, taste, hear, or imagine anything but this black total blinding eclipse. During this time, especially the first weeks, she can be in a special sort of incubation state where she can learn and receive comfort and strength. THis all comes from God. To distract her form this time would be to rob her from a chance to be tutored in ways that will be reference points for her in the long months ahead.

      That is number one. No heavy dispensing of doctrine and no distracting. This is the time, as I know you know, to sit and weep and howl and moan with her, to follow her lead by maybe sitting in total silence, but my all means to SHOW UP and keep showing up in any way you possibly can for days and weeks and months and years. An SMS is enough to give breath to the soul suffocating under the weight of tragic loss. Just an SMS. To say: “I love you, you are not alone in this, I cannot imagine where this tragedy is taking you, my dear friend, but I am here for whatever this means and however long this takes and I will not go away. You are changed by this, life is forever changed by this, I know that. And I love you.”

      Number two is to pray for her, tell her you are praying for her, and to refer her, if she has the strength to read a line or two, to important voices (anyone read the Book of Job lately?) that will help her to feel she has a community of people out there who have been somewhere close to where she is right now. (I can give you a whole reading list, if you are interested.) There is a big world of similar suffering out there, and many who write their stories give full-lunged volume to the pain and incomprehensibility of it and can show that there is a way forward, as undesirable and unfathomable as “way forward’ might sound in the beginning. It is not “Getting over”. I personally dislike those words as they are untrue on all levels and offensive; one “gets over the flu”. And it is not “moving on”. Also not good words. You “move on” from a fender-bender. You leave the mangeled Toyota for the AAA to tow away, right? But you do NOT “move on” from your child. It is MOVING FORWARD, inch by inch, hour by hour, and doing so WITH your child. That is what it is all about. That child of your friend —and this is truer than the keyboard I am tapping on on a rainy Saturday morning in Switzerland — that dear sweet twelve-year old boy is now in death as he never was in life a constant partner with his mother and family. He is present, ministering to them, and loves them and will help them in specific and recognizable ways to move, hand in hand, forward to the next thing.

      Please tell your friend all that from me. I ache with her and for her and this agonizing loss. I am sorry but also grateful to say that I can understand a measure of her anguish. I am here to say she will make it, and will do so with her son at her side.

      Much, much love to you over the years and miles, Carolyn. Much, much love to your friend, a stranger to me, but a sister in loss.

      P.S. It looks like a publisher is going to do some collected essays with me in the coming year as well as a major volume of collected quotes on Loss and Living Onward. I will give you all pertinent details in the months to come, if that can help your friend.

      • Thank you, Melissa. Your thoughts and insight are very much appreciated! I will continue to read your blog and will, no doubt, find more inspiration from it.

        It would be great to see you in Utah sometime, although we get there about as much as you do these days. . .

        Good luck with your publishing!

        C

    • Marleen, your nephew Parker loves you and always did, you know that. Remember when we’d eat watermelon during the summers and he learned the fine art of spitting seeds? At all of us? And when you took him horseback riding on your quarter horse, Beau? All that love you gave him, it is with him now, and he loves you for it. He knows us better now — or at least sees more of our potential — than maybe we know or see in ourselves. So we can hold on and we can make it. Love from where I saw three prancing horses in a field this morning and thought immediately of you.—M.

  4. Melissa, I have been thinking about this post for a while. I saw the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. It was one of the rare times that I could observe without the responsibility of instructing and educating a child. I was by myself and like most people I was struck by the glowing beauty of this piece. Until I read this post, that is all this sculpture was for me, a masterful work of art, but now I truly SEE it. At the age of seventeen, feeling stunned and horrified, I stood with my family around the body of my brother, I could not then understand how my mother so naturally reached out and lovingly stroked what to me had seemed a false shell and that in that awful moment she could make a comment about his beautiful eyelashes. Your writing has made this moment in my life so clear to me, I now understand how she could do that and it makes me love her even more, thank you.

    • Janina, This is a beautiful comment, so threaded through with boldfaced images. Your gone-too-soon brother, I recall your having told me about him. And I can recall the effect on my mind and spirit when you did. I’ve looked back on moments like that where I learned about sudden tragic loss before I truly had any idea about sudden tragic loss myself ,and I have to admit (this is terribly embarrassing but I have to say it because it must be heard), that it hardly rearranged my neurotransmission. It shocked, yes. And I shuddered, yes. And I was so sorry to hear it, yes of course. And it never fully occurred to me — not in a cell-deep way — that the same could happen to me. This was my very human reaction. I had nothing in my corporeal memory that could come anywhere close to what the real effect was for someone was. I’d loss friends, two parents-in-law, others. But they had been in another category of loss completely. My flesh was not invested in them. Now, when I hear about such things from others’ lives, my body revisits the total blow and I sense my bones burning. Compassion is such a rare virtue, and I am still, still working on that one. How much more breathtaking that this is the essence of Christ’s atonement: to truly know and suffer in the bones the full voltage of another’s pain.

      And when I stood by Parker’s perfect, powerful body, I said out loud as I remember very well, “When did you start biting your nails again, my love?”

      Much love to you, Janina—M.

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