It was the same time of the year, four years ago. A slight chill had seeped into the air and the festive fervour was building up. Diwali was around the corner and most people across India were gearing up for the festival. We had a Diwali party planned in office and our colleagues in Bombay had planned for a puja. Later that day we received an email that the puja had been cancelled since a colleague’s child was critically ill.
At that time, I didn’t know the colleague well, but the news terrified me, and I prayed hard for her child. By evening it was all over. My colleague Joyce had lost her only son Brendan. He was 15. I cried for days after that. Perhaps because I also had an only son and losing him was one my biggest fears. Just the thought would turn me cold, and here was someone going through this unimaginable pain.
Over the years, I got to know Joyce a little. I admired how she managed to come back to work and how she still had her brilliant smile ready for you. But I never dared ask her about Brendan. I was afraid I might break down in front of her! But when I decided to write about #Inspiringwomen earlier this year, she came to mind. It took me weeks to get the courage to ask her and then when she agreed it took a few more weeks for me to get the courage to talk to her. And now it has taken me months to finally pen down her story. Its not been easy.
“I come from a simple, hardworking family.” Joyce and her husband Larson have known each other from a very young age. They started seeing each other in late teens and got married in their mid-twenties. She lived in a joint family with her mother in law and brother in law and his family. It was a one-bedroom-kitchen house and the loft was divided into two parts for the brothers. “wasn’t it inconvenient”, I asked. “everything has its pros and cons, the physical closeness also meant a kind of close bonding.”, she replied. They had a small family business. Larson and his brother made statues, moulded and painted them. Their mum handed them monthly salaries.
Life was simple and happy. In September 2000, their first baby was born. They named him Brendan Henry Fernandez.
Life was beautiful….
“life was beautiful when he came into my life”, reminisces Joyce. “We were so close. We laughed at jokes his dad couldn’t understand.” “even at 15 he was so simple, so childlike. He never asked me for anything – “whatever you bring mumma, will be good. I will eat whatever you make””. “but sometimes I would get angry with him, and now I cry bitterly”, she broke down as she remembered her only child.
“He was the head boy in class IV” ……“he was so smart and tall – he towered above both his dad and me”. “in class X he was chosen to be in the angel squad – he was taller than the rest and it looked like he stood guard over his friends”. His principal later said they never realised they had an angel in their midst.
….. “you know he was a foodie….he loved burgers….i would pick him up every Saturday from class and we would go to Mc Donald’s”
“I took him to Washington DC in 2014. He really liked the country and wanted to live there. He started planning for it before he passed”
Memories are never ending and memories are all Joyce has. She shared them with me. We cried together.
…. And then everything went horribly wrong
“Brendan and I celebrated our birthdays together on 22nd October and on 24th we brought Mother Mary’s statue home. Next day he went to school. He had complained of a headache but I told him to go as he had his practicals. But soon after, a call came from school saying he was unwell. That night he had slight fever.”
By the 28th Brendan’s fever had climbed up. Joyce requested the doctor to do some blood tests. Dengue was spreading in the city. Both the doctor and her husband said a test wasn’t required, Brendan would be fine. She still went ahead and did the test. The test came positive but his platelets were 130,000 so the doctor again assured her that all will be fine.
Assured by the doctor, Joyce came to office on the 29th. But she was sent back by her boss when he found out her child was sick. She came home and he seemed better. What she didn’t realise was that he was turning for the worse. By the time they took him back to the hospital on the morning of 30th, it was too late. Doctors started to blame them. They spent all day in the hospital and even then Brendan looked fine. He just said, “mumma I want to sleep”.
“it was so difficult seeing him pricked with all those tubes. Seeing my distress, a nurse told me that all patients on that bed get better.”
“but the last time I went to see him, they had changed his bed….he never came back.”
I question God everyday…But still have faith in Him
“do you know that when I was eight months pregnant with Brendan, I fell off a moving bus? And then on his first birthday he was hospitalised with pneumonia. But then he grew into a hale and hearty child. I question God every day why he did this, when he saved him twice before, why didn’t he save him then?. There are no answers.”
I ask Joyce how she can continue to believe in a God that took her only child away.
“you know Sakshi, in 2006, I had climbed one of the local trains that had a bomb in it – I was the last person to climb that train. But seeing the crowd I got down. Even then I asked why me? How did I get saved?”
“A year before that – in the July floods – I was working in Bandra. For some reason that day, I stayed back in office – left office at 2.30 a.m. and reached home safe and sound after 7to8 hours. I walked in water up to my neck but I survived.”
“in 1996, minutes after my friend and I stepped out for lunch, my office building collapsed. I survived.” “So yes, I have many reasons to keep my faith even though I will never find answers to my questions”, she said simply.
And I think I understand. After what she has gone through, perhaps faith is the only thing that gives her some semblance of normality.
“I am not strong …. I am lonely”
“It has been 5 years, but even today I haven’t been able to accept. I haven’t moved on. People call me strong – but I am not. I miss him everyday. I want to hear him say mumma once more.”
“My husband has not been able to break down. He can’t because he doesn’t want to see me cry.” Larson cannot cry because he does not want his wife to be burdened anymore. And anyway men have never been encouraged to cry. He has kept his grief within and it is taking its toll on his health. He falls sick often.
Joyce and Larson are bound by their grief – a grief no one can understand. Life has moved on for others. Everyone has their priorities. For Joyce, time has stopped. “I am unable to attend family functions – it is difficult to see everyone with their families, their children. I feel deprived of this happiness. No one comes and talks to me. They are afraid because I always cry. Only my mom visits us sometimes.”
It is difficult to describe how helpless I felt at that moment. Nothing we can ever do, can fill the void in Joyce’s life, but can we not even take some time out and spend time with her? Or with any other Joyce we may know? Are we so afraid of facing someone else’s grief?
Losing a child is the worst nightmare possible. Nothing can be more devastating. This is one wound, time will never be able to heal. The most important thing you can do to help a friend or loved one who is grieving the death of a child is be available, understanding, and non-judgemental. If they call, answer, if they need time alone, respect that.
I am reminded of a recent incident of female orca (killer whale) who lost her calf. Many mother orcas are known to carry their dead calf for a day or two but this orca (Tahlequah) carried her calf for 17 days. Such grief had never been seen before and it moved millions around the world. After a few days, other female orcas started taking turns carrying the 400 pound baby so that the mother could eat and rest in between. The orcas surrounded this mother, literally helping her carry the weight of her grief. We need more human orcas like this.
And if there is another Joyce/ Larson reading this, please know that I am sending you my love. Your journey of grief is your own…. But find someone to share it with. Unburden yourself. Please reach out.