After Losing A Child: Henry’s Body Was More Than “Just A Shell”

Last night Jon had to wake me up from a horrible nightmare. I was apparently screaming out loud. It isn’t the first time I’ve had a bad dream in recent weeks — they seem to come more frequently lately, and they are all variations on one of two themes. I am either frantically trying to find Henry before he takes the drugs that will cause the overdose or he is trapped inside a burning building and no matter what I do, I am prevented from saving him before he is consumed by fire. My dream last night was of the latter variety; my son was on fire and I couldn’t get to him in order to put the fire out. And then I was forced to watch him burn.

Sometimes the messages sent by our subconscious are painfully, embarrassingly obvious. This is one of those times.

Henry’s father and I chose to have our child cremated rather than buried. I always knew that I would choose cremation rather than embalming for myself or for anyone else for whom I was empowered to make that decision….except I never actually believed I would ever have to make that choice for anyone truly close to me, and certainly not for one of my own children.

I cannot in any way speak to what Henry’s father’s reasons were for choosing cremation for Henry; I can only tell you why I made that decision, and add that I am thankful that Henry’s dad and I readily agreed on this most painful of parental decisions. Why? Because the idea of actually debating whether to burn or bury our beloved child’s beautiful body would have been more than I could take. But as for why I chose cremation, well, it was basically the least bad of bad options as far as I was concerned. Neither choice sounded anything less than horrifying, but basically, the thought of my son being chemically mummified and then trapped for all eternity in a tacky box under the ground sounded worse than the alternative. In short, burial of his actual, whole body in a box in a cemetery simply wasn’t an option as far as I was concerned. And that left us with cremation. However, to say that I was comfortable with this option — the choice to burn my son’s body — would be a massive overstatement. I was not comfortable with it at all, and the reality of what was done to Henry’s body after his death continues to haunt me.

The day Henry died, after I was taken home from the hospital and tucked into my bed in my darkened bedroom, the first thing I did once everyone had left the room was to pull out my computer and Google “cremation.” I knew nothing about the process at all except that my child’s body was to be consumed by fire. But I wanted to know, had to know exactly what would happen.

Here’s what I read:

…the deceased body is brought into the crematorium by people called bearer’s and placed on a plynth with rollers on it called a cataphault… the body is moved by conveyor belt into a room and onto a trolley and the coffin remains in place. Then in the cremator room the crematorium staff will open two wooden hatches and the coffin will be pulled along sets of rollers. Then a special battery powered or manual ‘charge trolley’ will collect the body, this usually is either hydraulic or it had scissor action lifts on it but these aren’t as common in the better funded crematoriums however they still use these in case of an overflow. The cremator is heated up to 1000 degrees celsius and the coffin & body are pushed in where in 90 minutes time they will emerge as nails and calcium deposits i.e. bones, prosthetic implants. The wood ignites first and then the organic materials i.e. the body burn away (the body sometimes sits up due to the heat reacting with the bodies structure. The cremated remains are then left to cool in a fan assisted box before they are crushed …

For the next few days, I continually asked the people taking care of me (as I remained in my dark bedroom, never leaving) whether the cremation had taken place yet. I needed to know when it was over so that I could exhale. I don’t remember much of that period immediately after Henry died, but I do remember the agony I felt every time I thought about what was going to happen to Henry during the autopsy and then later, at the crematorium.

Knowing that Henry’s body was inside a bag or refrigerated box in a cold, impersonal mortuary space at the hospital was bad enough. The thought of his body being transported in a hearse from the hospital to the crematorium made me ill. The understanding that strangers would undertake the medical desecration of my child’s gorgeous physical self during the autopsy was even worse. But the thought of my baby being placed into a sealed wooden box and pushed into a white hot oven was honestly the most horrible thing I’ve ever considered — worse than any nightmare I’d ever had before. And yet, I made myself think about it. All of it. Every detail. I forced myself to imagine exactly what would happen to his hair, his skin and his eyes. I allowed the images of his burning body to flood my consciousness without pushing them away. This horrific imagining was the only way I could sort of, kind of be with Henry as the burning of his body took place in reality.

In the days just after Henry died, when I would express my great pain due to the autopsy and cremation, people who love me kept telling me that it was “just his body.”

“The real Henry is gone,” they would remind me gently. “What he’s left behind is just an empty shell.”

I understood completely what they were trying to convey, and I know they wanted nothing more than to take away some of my pain. However, these particular words were no solace to me at all. In fact, there is nothing anyone could have said to make the impending burning of my son’s body any less painful for me. That’s because there is no way that any mother can EVER see her child’s physical being as “just an empty shell.” While I understood and accepted that Henry’s spiritual self had been separated from his body at death, that didn’t make his actual body — his gorgeous, lithe, strong young body — any less important to me. I didn’t love my child’s body any less now that his spirit had gone elsewhere. I loved it the way I always had, and that was a lot.

To a mother, her child’s body is inextricably tied to her own, at the cellular level. My child’s healthy (pre drug abuse) exceptionally lovely (still, even with the drugs) body was a source of great pleasure and pride to me during all the years he inhabited it.

“I made that…I grew that…” I would sometimes think to myself with a smile as I watched his long, musical fingers play the guitar or when I saw his natural physical grace on a skateboard.

Henry’s body came from my own body. I grew him in my belly, catching a first glimpse of his features on a grainy ultrasound screen. I felt him kick inside of me, and then I pushed him out of my body — the hardest physical work I’d ever done. I cradled him in my arms for as many years as he would let me, contentedly enjoying the feel of his physical weight against my chest. For 18 years, I worked as diligently as I could to ensure that he would be physically healthy and strong by carefully choosing the food he would eat, the vitamins he took and the immunizations he received. I marveled at his physical growth, marking annual milestomes on the walls of our house as he got taller and taller, and making sure that he had bigger shoes and longer pants with each growth spurt. I noted his weight and length in the meticulous baby book I kept until he went to kindergarten, and I saved baby teeth and locks of baby hair to remember these parts of his physical being at particular moments in time.

Protecting Henry’s body, as well as those of his younger siblings from pain and discomfort has been my primary daily concern for my entire adult life — since I became a mother at 23 years old. When my Henry was little, I zipped him into his cozy pajamas each night to make sure that his body would be warm enough, and even when he was a teenager, I would go into his bedroom while he slept to be sure that he had enough blankets covering him on extra-cold nights. I made sure he brushed his teeth and I hounded him to be sure he’d slathered himself in sunscreen when we went to the beach or the pool.

I reveled in the physical beauty of that amazing head of wavy brown hair and in the twinkle in his gorgeous brown eyes. I loved the way his mouth would curl to one side when he smiled. Til the day he died, I knew just how to find the cowlick at his hairline, and I could tell you the placement of the moles on his temple and on his lower belly. I was the keeper of the history of every little scar and every birthmark Henry carried with him. I knew the precise length of his fingers and his eyelashes, and I can still feel the way his tiny newborn head fit into the palm of my hand when I rocked him to sleep. I loved his distinctive speaking voice, and I still hear it echoing through our house when I am home alone, calling out to me.

Like most mothers, I knew my child’s physical being so well that from the time he was born that I could have been blindfolded and still would have easily picked him out of a line-up of same-age children simply by smell or touch. I remember all the nights when I soothed his fevers, changed soaking wet sheets and wiped up his vomit — the essential tasks of mothering that bind us to our children’s sheer physicality in a way we are never connected to any other human being.

I loved my child’s body from the first moment I laid eyes on it, just before midnight on October 7, 1991. In the first years of his life, I tenderly bathed him, changed him and brushed his hair, and then I performed the exact same intimate physical caregiving for my sweet boy during the last weeks of his life, when he was totally helpless and dependent on his parents once again.

No, this child’s body, his physical being was not “just a shell” to me. It was a precious gift that I loved fiercely and completely for 18 years, until that heart-shattering moment when I had no choice but to leave my son’s still-beautiful body in the care of strangers at the hospital. Leaving that hospital without my son was the worst thing I have ever experienced. The pain I felt as I walked out the sliding glass doors into the oppressive summer heat on that early evening was a cruel counterpoint to the elation, unbridled joy and sense of purpose that I felt on the day I first walked out of another hospital in the same city, 18 years earlier, proudly carrying my gorgeous firstborn son in my arms.

On my first night without Henry, as I laid in my bed at home, alternately wailing in grief and shaking uncontrollably, I suddenly remembered that scene in “Gone With the Wind” in which Rhett Butler refuses to allow his dead child to be buried. Instead, he sits next to Bonnie Blue’s small, lifeless body in his bedroom all night long, declining to dim the lights because his young daughter had been terribly afraid of the dark, and refusing to listen to anyone who suggested that he needed to let her be taken away and prepared for burial. As I recalled that scene, I felt a powerful urge to drive as quickly as I could back to UT Medical Center to retrieve my dead son, and to bring him home. As I imagined his body — the physical manifestation of his being that I had created and nurtured, and that I loved so very, very much — all alone in a dark, cold, impersonal hospital mortuary, I became physically ill.

And I stayed that way — sick and unable to eat or sleep for the next several days, until my sister came to me to gently inform me that it was all over — the autopsy that further demeaned and brutalized Henry’s glorious body — which had already been beaten and left for dead by the people responsible for his injuries and overdose — and the cremation that removed all physical traces of my child from the earth. It was all over and my child was gone forever in a burst of searing, vicious heat from which I ultimately could not protect him, and which I now relive in my dreams.

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