The Day our Charlie died
It was a normal week for us. On Monday I had taken Aidan and Charlie with me to workout and Charlie laughed when I held him and exercised at the same time. When I got down on the floor to attempt sit-ups he sat on my belly and hugged my neck. For family home evening we went to our new favorite place in Woodbridge, B&R Custard. We had a short lesson and every time I caught Charlie’s eye he smiled his sweet, shy smile that always melted my heart! After he ate all of his ice cream he asked for mine and how could I resist? We sang I Am A Child Of God and Charlie sang happily along with his brothers then went to bed with a very full belly. The next morning Jay left to work out at around 6:00 a.m. and all was quiet. I got up at 6:30 and prayed to have the spirit with me that day. I prayed for patience with my children. Jayson and Aidan got up at seven and I made waffles for them. I made Jayson’s lunch, started the laundry, and read to the boys until it was time to wake Charlie up to walk with us to the bus stop. Everything felt completely normal. I had not thought that I should check on Charlie all morning. I did not ignore a prompting or stop and think “should I get Charlie now?” We were happily getting ready for school…we were happy.
I wish that I had not asked Aidan to wake Charlie up! They were buddies and I knew that Charlie would like nothing more than to wake up to Aidan’s smile. I assumed that Aidan would talk to him between the bars of the crib until I followed him up a moment later to lift Charlie from his crib. Looking back, I still cannot understand it! How does a child slip from one life to the next and his mother not somehow sense it? Why didn’t I have a premonition or hear a whispering to check on him? How could I not know?
Aidan came down the stairs after going up to wake Charlie. He had a strange look on his face. “Did you wake Charlie up?” I asked him.
“I tried but he’s stuck and I couldn’t move him…” Aidan said. He looked confused. I ran up the stairs as fast as I could and found my sweet Charlie! He was lying face down underneath his little two drawer dresser. I called his name as I picked the dresser up. I felt his body and knew right away that he wasn’t breathing. I picked him up and went downstairs to the phone. I was screaming and crying. Jayson and Aidan came running and began to cry. “Pray for Charlie, Jayson. Pray that he will be okay” I said as I dialed 911. I put the phone on speaker and laid it next to Charlie. I looked at his face. His lips were blue and there were broken capillaries near his eyes and mouth. He was completely lifeless. Even at that moment I remember thinking how peaceful he looked! I prayed and cried until the operator asked me for our address. I told her and cried. She kept asking me to calm down. She told me to start CPR. I did what she told me as Jayson and Aidan cried and prayed aloud. We three huddled around Charlie hoping for a miracle. When I breathed into his little body I could hear a crackling sound, like sucking the last bit of a drink through a straw. I don’t know how long we were there like that…minutes but I don’t know how many. When the ambulance came I didn’t know that that was the last time I would hold Charlie in this life. I didn’t realize as I carried him down the stairs in a panic that it was my last chance to cradle his body. The paramedic rushed in and told me to move out of the way. He snatched Charlie up and carried him out to the ambulance. Charlie’s head bounced, lifeless as the paramedic ran. I stood up and was unsure if I should follow. I made a move to go but Aidan grabbed my hand and cried. Jayson came to my other side. We stood on the front porch looking at the ambulance for a moment and I said that we should pray. I was still hoping for, expecting.. a miracle. I knelt down on the cement and held their hands and prayed out loud for Charlie. A woman that I didn’t know approached us and said something about praying…that it was what we should be doing. I don’t remember who she was or if I have seen her again. I think she was a neighbor. I remember thinking that I wished she would leave me alone. Other paramedics and firefighters were there…a lot of them. One approached me and told me to come inside. He wanted to know what had happened and asked to see where Charlie’s room was. I wasn’t allowed to go with him and I didn’t want to anyway. I didn’t want to talk. I was still sobbing and saying Charlie’s name. Another paramedic pulled me aside and told me I needed to be stronger for Jayson and Aidan. He said that they were worried and needed me to be calm. I thought he was an idiot and asked him if I could see Charlie. He said he would check for me. He walked to the ambulance and climbed in for a minute then he climbed out to tell me that I could step inside for a minute. He helped me up and I crouched next to Charlie alongside 3 paramedics. I held Charlie’s foot because it was all I could reach. I said his name over and over while I cried. One paramedic said that they would be leaving for the hospital as soon as they “could get a line in” and looked at the one who was trying to insert a needle into Charlie’s arm. Two of them laughed, I guess because he was having some trouble and he said he was working on it, in an offended sort of way. One of them took out some scissors and cut Charlie’s pajama shirt down the center. I loved those pajamas. They were stripey from Hannah Anderrson and they had been Aidan’s just a few months before. I was surprised that they didn’t seem more sad. That they didn’t seem to feel the gravity of the situation. I hated all three of them and thought they must all be drinking buddies and would tease each other about this later. I didn’t want to leave Charlie with them and I wanted them to stop cutting his clothes. I wanted them to shock his heart so that it would start beating again. Then the firefighter standing outside told me it was time to get out. I felt like I had to obey him but I regret now that I didn’t stay with my Charlie. As I climbed out of the ambulance I tripped somehow and caught myself. I remember feeling vaguely self-conscious about being so pregnant with another child. It reminded me of a comment I had made to our neighbor less than a week before when Charlie had run out the front door after his brothers and I had chased him into the street. As I carried him back into the house I rolled my eyes and said, “I don’t know how I’ll keep them all alive after the next one is born”. My neighbor laughed. I have often wondered if he remembers that conversation as well as I do now. How quickly our lives change! With no warning, no sign. There was no illness, nothing to prepare me. But what if I had known? How could that be better? Charlie was so happy the days and night leading up to his death. He was like a naughty little ray of sunshine in our lives! We could not have enjoyed those moments we had with him if we had known his time was so limited on this earth.
Once I was back inside the house a detective was waiting to ask me about what had happened but I felt just as confused and unsure as them. I told her what I knew and how I had found him. I felt like I should be able to explain things better but I looked at her paper with just a few notes and began to cry again. “I don’t know why…I don’t know how I didn’t hear him…” My voice faded. I had no answers. We waited for what seemed like hours for Jay to get home. They called the Rec Center and drove there but he wasn’t there. Later he told me that he had stopped at the store on the way home to get something…juice I think. He drove up slowly to the house and stopped the van in the parking lot without parking it in our space. He got out and had a look I recognized from a few other times in our marriage…our wedding day, the day Jayson was born, the day my water broke when I was just 26 weeks pregnant with our second little boy, Jesse. A police officer approached him and asked him if he was Jay. He said yes and asked what happened. The officer told him to come inside and I watched him walk up to the house. I stood up and faced him. I didn’t want to tell him because I knew that he would break. “Charlie climbed out of his crib and the dresser fell on him and he…I don’t know…he wasn’t breathing…”
“Is he okay? Where is he?”
“I don’t know if he’s okay. They took him to the hospital and we’re still waiting to hear.”
“When can we find out? Can we see him?”
“ I don’t know.” We were both crying. We hugged by the door and Jay started to throw up. He went into the bathroom for a moment then came out and asked if we could hear how things were going at the hospital. Someone went to call as the detective sat down with Jay to question him. Jay continued to wretch throughout the interview and I sat on the stairs and waited. I didn’t know where Jayson and Aidan were during this time. I wished that someone would wack me on the head with something… a large frying pan…so that I didn’t have to think or feel. I was still praying but now I was beginning to wonder if my faith hadn’t been enough. It reminded me of the scene in the movie “Legacy” when Emma Smith and others were crossing the plains and her ox laid down to die. Jay and I giggled at the ridiculousness of Emma laying her hands on the head of the ox and commanding that ox to get up and continue on. I sat on the stairs wondering if I was lacking in something that Emma Smith had in that movie… a certain childlike faith…humility. I wondered if maybe I was only too willing to accept bad things that happened in my life out of some doubt of my own worth. I began to frantically think back over the morning, trying to remember a prompting that I might have received but brushed aside. There was nothing! I had been happily unaware. It had been such a good morning and we had missed Charlie at breakfast and had considered waking him up then but I thought about our late night at B&R Frozen Custard and decided to put his waffles in the microwave until he woke up. Hours later, after we had come home from the hospital, I found his waffles where I had left them. I wanted to close the microwave and leave them there forever, as if I could somehow suspend time by leaving everything as it was when we found him. This would happen repeatedly over the next days and months. Weeks after his death I changed the garbage in the basement bathroom. Inside I found one of his diapers that I had changed and thrown away there. I recognized that this would be his last diaper I would ever throw away and a part of me didn’t want to do it. In the end I knew I needed to ask myself what would be healthy to keep. I have a few things but I realized that his things were not him and that they were a painful reminder that he isn’t with us anymore.
Someone at the hospital called to say that Charlie was officially dead. We went to see him at the hospital and I knew as I looked at his body on the bed that it was an empty vessel. There was no life. Months later Jay told me that as we sat there that day weeping he prayed for a miracle. He fervently prayed that Charlie would begin to breathe again. He stared at Charlie’s chest so long that he almost imagined the rise and fall of a beating heart. I remember being surprised again at the peaceful look on his face. I feel comforted to think that he could only be that peaceful if he died with no pain or fear. Perhaps he was surrounded by angels to guide him through the veil that separates this life from the next. I like to imagine that my Grandma Ginny was there and Charlie’s namesake, Jay’s great Grandpa Charles. I believe that his brother Jesse was with him in those moments as the veil was lifted from Charlie’s memory and he recognized these spirits who love him.
Weeks after Charlie died the Coroner’s Report arrived and with it the cause of death. He died in the early morning hours, of asphyxiation. I know how I found him and I know how things in his bedroom were when he died so I have pieced things together and come to the best explanation for how this strange accident occurred. About a week before he died Charlie quietly climbed out of his bed and without a sound came creeping down the stairs. I saw something from the couch out of the corner of my eye and I was shocked to see him standing there smiling at me. I remember Jay and I laughed about how sneaky he was and we both kissed him goodnight again and he went to bed happily. He tried that several more times so we put a cover on his doorknob so he couldn’t get out of his room. It never occurred to us that he could hurt himself in his bedroom or climbing out of his crib. I don’t know why we felt that way! He was our wildest child. He wanted to try everything that his brothers did and more! We were naively unafraid and both felt strongly that no matter how hard we tried there would probably always be something else to endanger our children so we just needed to have faith and live to be worthy to hear the still, small voice. After we installed the door knob cover and Charlie realized he couldn’t open the door, he stopped climbing out of his bed…until that Tuesday morning. I think he climbed out and tried the door but couldn’t open it so he looked around for something else to do. I don’t know if he called out. If he did I don’t think it was very loud or very long or it could have been when I was in the shower. When he realized he was stuck inside I think he looked around for something else to do. There was a statue of Jesus on top of his dresser (which was actually a two drawer nightstand from Ikea) and he really liked to hold it and look at it. My grandma had made it for my mother and my mother gave it to me. I liked to push it back on the dresser so Charlie couldn’t reach it and break it. He probably opened the drawer and stepped on it to reach the small statue. I think the dresser started to tip and Charlie lost his footing and strangely his head fell into the open dresser drawer. The weight of his head caused the dresser to tip over and as it did it caused the drawer to close, crushing Charlie’s neck as it did. It is so strange. I have thought so many times about that moment. His fear. I wonder how long he choked for air with his mouth buried in his clothes. I’ve gone over the morning so many times, asking myself if I heard a noise that could have been his dresser tipping over. But it was so small and its fall was broken by Charlie’s little body. I hate to think that he suffered. That he was distressed and I didn’t know. Whenever I think of this moment I remember a time not very long before when we were walking through the Potomac Mills Mall. Jay was pushing the stroller and I was walking ahead with Aidan and Jayson. At one point Charlie began to cry and was reaching back behind the stroller. I thought he had seen something in the mall that he wanted so I walked next to him for a moment and held his hand which he liked us to do. It wasn’t until an hour later when we were getting into the car that I realized that he had dropped one of his stuffed animals and a dear friend, Mr Wolf. I suddenly knew what he had been crying about and I felt like such a bad mother! We immediately went back inside and looked everywhere for that wolf but nobody had him. I felt like I had let Charlie down by not understanding what had happened. He had turned to me in distress and I hadn’t recognized it. Isn’t that our role as parents? I have agonized over both of these moments so many times but I know that all I can do is accept that it happened and that I cannot do anything to change it.
I have been so humbled by Charlie’s death. I have gone to Heavenly Father so many times in prayer selfishly and foolishly prepared to make my demands. Why did he die? Could I have prevented it? Was I lacking faith when I prayed for a miracle? Where is he? Can I see him just once now that he’s gone from this earth? Did he suffer? I have so many questions and I do not know if they will ever be answered while I live this life. I do know, however, that many beautiful and unexpected things have come. I have felt the love that my Father in Heaven has for me in a way that I was unable to feel before. I have gained a peace about our Jesse’s death that evaded me before because of the guilt I carried for 5 long years. I have come to understand that through humility and recognition of weakness I have found a strength I did not know before. I know what doesn’t matter. I don’t know yet why he died when and how he did but I feel that it was the Lord’s will. Most importantly, I know that I will see Charlie again. I know that it will be a happy reunion.
I have always loved Lehi’s vision of the tree of life. It’s such a clear analogy for what we want to attain and it seems so simple…hold fast to the rod of iron and look forward. When you get to the tree, partake of the fruit and look for those you love to share it with. Now, in my mind’s eye, I can see Charlie and Jesse so clearly, strong young men, standing together at the tree of life, arms outstretched. Jay is leading the way on that straight and narrow path, as our boys follow one by one. I am bringing up the rear, most likely to pick up any stray marble and to help them up if they trip or stumble, and to keep a close eye on their grip to the rod of iron. I am in the back of this pack but I can see them clearly. They are smiling, encouraging, forgiving. My boys that have gone before me but have not left entirely or forever.
I wanted to record my point of view of that day because it has haunted me over this last year and created a loneliness. I have not talked about the details because by talking about them they become real. I wasn’t ready to relive it moment by moment. It takes so much out of me emotionally to think of that day that I try to block it out as much as possible because I need to be available for my family. I need to be able to function from day to day. Recently a friend lost her baby. She and her husband were devastated but she chose to record the details of her experience and share them with those that are close to them. As I read her words I felt strongly that I too would like to tell my story. In a way, I’m sharing my burden with the friends and family that read what I have written. I wanted to put all of this down in words as a way of marking that day a year ago. I’m sorry for bad writing, tragic run-on sentences, and a bit of graphic detail. I hope I do not offend anyone that reads this.