by Mark L. Berry, excerpted from his memoir, 13,760 Feet
I was three years old and my new baby brother Daniel was dressed in a white christening gown, way too big for him, that contrasted against a black-leather reading chair in our living room. Daniel slouched left or right every time my father let go of him. It seems he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, sit up straight in the chair. My dad was trying to take a photograph of this historic family event. The walls were painted dark orange, a reflection of my parents’ decorating taste back when America was racing the communists to the moon and drafting soldiers to fight in Vietnam, and Timothy Leary was telling the counter culture to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” This is my earliest childhood memory, my only memory of Daniel, and the beginning of my experience with death.
Not many days after Daniel’s christening, I woke up to discover my parents weren’t home. Ms. Baker sat in our dining room. She was lean with straight, shoulder-length, jet-black hair. She greeted me with, “Good morning.”
“Where’s Mom and Dad?”
Ms. Baker’s lips were naturally puckered into a pre-kiss, but more in a way like she was thinking really hard. She took an extra breath before she answered me. “They had to take your brother to the hospital.”
“Can you make my breakfast for me?”
I clearly wasn’t getting the big picture. Ms. Baker poured me a bowl of cereal; I can’t remember exactly what, but the little corn-based flying saucers in Quisp would be a good guess—the crispy flavor is out of this world. Her numerous bracelets and bangles dangled as she reached across the table.
“I want to pour the milk myself.” I’m sure I spilled—nobody cared—except maybe my dog Crayon, a seventy-pound German shorthaired pointer with dark brown spots and patches. He hovered close for whatever left the table. What parents but mine would let their three-year old name the family pet? Even standing on all fours, Crayon was as tall as I was, and he could crane his neck to put his nose up on the table if Dad wasn’t around to command, No begging.
My parents had raced out of the house sometime that morning before I’d woken up. Something had happened. Daytime babysitters were rare, as my stay-at-home mom usually took me with her if she had to go somewhere. Mom gave up her public-school teaching position when I was born. Ms. Baker had never been invited into our house before.
This was 1968. Ms. Baker was divorced and her son introduced me to several “uncles” who came to visit during the era of free love. My parents were hard-core Episcopalians. They were obsessive—never missing a Sunday Mass, and attended or taught Bible study during the week. Ms. Baker didn’t fit into their perception of a good Christian influence, but in times of crisis, whole communities bond, and in this case the nearest available neighbor was sent in to keep an eye on me.
I think Ms. Baker received word confirming Daniel’s passing when one of my parents called from the hospital. I remember an off-white rotary phone mounted on the kitchen wall with an impossibly long, coiled chord for the handset that could stretch all the way into the dining room. I’m sure it wasn’t their intention to pass the burden of telling me onto her, but somehow I picked up on it. We sat around the table after she hung up the handset—its cord re-twisting, but magically not knotting. With most of my cereal consumed by either Crayon or myself, I asked her, “Where did Daniel go?”
Her comprehension of the horrible news probably compelled her to dig the pack of cigarettes out of her purse and push one into a black extension holder. I can picture Ms. Baker slowly and forcefully smoking that cigarette. This was before President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act. Secondhand smoke wasn’t even a concept yet. Ms. Baker took a big drag before her reply. She was polite enough to blow the smoke toward the kitchen. This was a long pull and a lot of smoke, but finally she said, “To Heaven, my dear.”
Again she sucked, and this time the smoke magically came out of her nose. She looked at me for what felt like a long time. “It’s where little babies go when they’re not ready for this world.”
“Can I go there and see him?”
She had long, candy-apple red fingernails. With the thumb of her free hand resting on the table, she began tapping her remaining fingers: pinky, ring, middle, index—repeat. “Someday, Mark. But let’s hope not for a long time.”
I was still under the misguided influence of cartoons—where death only lasted for an episode. Jerry, in his perpetual quest to outwit Tom, would blow up, burn up, chop up, or electrocute-into-a-skeleton the hapless feline predator, and I would laugh. This would happen at least twice in every half hour of cartoon opiate—a regular occurrence in my midday, small-screen schedule. I turned on our television at every opportunity—my interpretation of Timothy Leary’s cultural advice.
I knew Daniel would reappear when the next episode of my young life opened. I barely knew him, but he was my little brother. I loved him unconditionally, even if he was still too young to sit up straight on his own.
Some combination of Lego, Lincoln Logs, and puzzles kept me busy. I was really good at spreading all the small pieces across the carpeting. When Mom and Dad finally walked in the front door, they were both really upset and Mom was crying. Did I make too big of a mess? They didn’t have Daniel with them. Was he still in Heaven?
Years passed before my parents tried to describe crib death to me, and only after I brought in the mail containing a letter from a charity with SIDS in its name. “Nobody really knows how or why it happens,” wasn’t a very satisfying explanation, but research is still being conducted today. From what I’ve read, it has to do with infant apnea. I have come to know the emotional impact death has on a family much better. Death-days mark the milestones of my life more powerfully than birthdays, beginning with Daniel. I was old enough to understand when my mom passed away not many years after I graduated from college and first flew a jet. Another was my fiancée Susanne’s death in a plane crash in 1996 not long after I proposed.
There is no love like that of a parent for a child, and as an adult I’ve seen Susanne’s mom suffering her daughter’s loss firsthand. I still couldn’t explain why such things happen. Big Bird didn’t have an episode for that: “This episode has been brought to you by the number 3 and the letter B, and sometimes little babies just aren’t ready for this world,” wasn’t something that Sesame Street was approved to air during my childhood. It was a new show, and they were still learning how to teach me. When Mom and Dad came home with our first color TV—possibly their unconscious attempt at retail therapy during the aftermath of Daniel’s death—I was surprised to learn that Big Bird was yellow.
The rest of my third year is a blur, but still a guide for my modern life. I think I just looked forward and started attending nursery school. That’s the kind of advice my dad surely gave me: “Knuckle down, eyes forward, the past is history and we can’t change it.”
Ever practical, ever positive—that’s my old man, even with his heart carved out. He’s still stoic and forward-thinking. His only salve: VSOP cognac (that makes it easy to Christmas shop for him). At three, I hadn’t begun drinking yet—although ironically as an adult I occasionally put mixed drinks in sippy-cups while at crowded parties in order not to spill when bumped. Instead, I buried myself in my work: playing in the leaves (after raking them for a quarter); trying to parachute with an umbrella (perhaps my earliest flying lesson, a premonition for my future, and—surprise, surprise—it didn’t work); slamming my thumb in the car door (physical pain still hurt more than emotional pain at this point in my life); finger painting (something I still do); struggling left-handed with right-handed scissors (the safe kind with rounded tips for much-less-effective eye poking); singing “London Bridge” with new classmates (loud and off-key; some things never change); and then came the arrival of my next baby brother, Timothy.
The night Timothy was released from the hospital with Mom and Dad, I was playing deep-sea diver with my friend Glenn and his two brothers, Chris and Greg.
We were jumping off one of their beds into the imaginary ocean of their shag carpeting as if we were splashing off a ship, all wearing our tighty-whitie underwear over our heads while peeking out of the leg holes.
That must have been the moment my parents committed to successfully practicing birth control. After Timothy, no more brothers or sisters arrived wrapped up in blankies. With one son wearing his briefs like a diver’s helmet, another recently passed away, and the third just getting his first look at what life in the Berry clan was going to be like, my parents had enough on their plates. A picture of us would have made a great print ad for the Pill: Have enough family and not enough practice?
My parents really had to put a lot of strength and love into rebuilding our family after losing Daniel. I’m proud of them. Shortly after I lost my fiancée, Susanne, well-meaning friends tried consoling me by saying that losing a child is worse than losing a soul mate. I cringe whenever I even attempt to imagine a deeper loss than what I’ve been through, and I know my parents had to bear it. While they were grieving after Daniel died, and praying everyday that their new son wouldn’t suffer the same inexplicable fate, I was blissfully caught in my own childhood moment of undersea adventure, and the arrival of another bundled-up baby was confusing: Why did my parents make another brother for me? Was this one going to stick around awhile? Why couldn’t Daniel learn how to breathe? With my cotton diving helmet, I can breathe under the sea!