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Farewell to My Son

Copyright © 1997 by Baul Donnelly


I've always written in a journal. Since my wife and I aborted a pregnancy due to severe birth defects, I've written to try and make a connection with my son who I'd never know. I've written to him, about him and about being his father.

March 22, 1992 We found out that my wife, Anne*, was pregnant when she went to a clinic for having severe abdominal pains. I am worried about this pregnancy. It has not started out well, right from the beginning. At week 16 of the pregnancy, Anne had a screening test for certain birth defects as is required by state law. This test, which is called AFP -- alpha fetal protein, measures the possibility of a badly developed central nervous system. It was positive but this test has a lot of false positives so we were not all that concerned, neither was the doctor at first. The test was repeated and results were positive again. Anne is scheduled for an ultrasound and then an amniocentesis. I will be out of town on business for the ultrasound (returning that night) and will go with her for the amniocentesis. I want to be a dad so badly, but it would be very difficult to have an unhealthy child or a child with serious birth defects. Down's syndrome would be one thing but spina bifida or incomplete brain development would be pretty tough to handle. I would certainly be tempted to abort and start over. My gut feeling tells me that all will be fine after the amniocentesis, but I still worry. It is a bad time to leave on a trip.

March 26, 1992 Never in a million years did I ever imagine that I would be dealing with and making decisions about things like spina bifida, hydrocephalus and mental retardation. The thought of ending my own child's life gives me the willies. If our child does have birth defects, to me the decision is pretty much already made: to abort. If it is chromosomal in origin then maybe it is not in the cards for Anne and I to have a child of our own. I have only cried a little, once just after the phone call and once with my mom. Poor Anne, she has gone through so much for this baby. I love you Anne!!

March 28, 1992 The ultrasound was so conclusive that we did not need the amniocentesis to confirm the spina bifida findings. Anne received this terrible news alone. Minutes later she beeped me a thousand miles away. I feel so bad that Anne had to receive this terrible news by herself. During an ultra sound examination of the baby, very serious birth defects were detected. A few minutes later the genetics counselor delivered the terrible news. Our baby has severe spina bifida (an incomplete closure of the spinal column) and hydrocephalus (an accumulation of fluid on the brain). The test could not tell if mental retardation was also present or if developmental disabilities may also be there but it seems likely that one of these may also be involved. Since this test was a pre-cursor to an amniocentesis, we were not expecting to find out anything conclusive so soon We have decided to terminate the pregnancy. Obviously this was a very painful decision. Although we feel it is the right decision, we feel terrible sorrow and grief over the loss of our baby. Knowing that we have made the right choice is not all that helpful. Additional tests will be performed later and we will learn more about origins of these defects. The most important thing for us to learn is whether these are chromosomal and what impact that might have on future pregnancies. There is an increased statistical chance of this occurring again, however, the chances of us having a normal baby in the future are greatly in our favor.

April 3, 1992 Our baby is dead. This morning before Anne's surgery I really sobbed, thinking of killing our baby. I am really sad. Anne is going through hell, she was in such pain last night and afternoon. I feel like getting drunk. Maybe I will? I wanted to call my mom and cry on the phone, but I didn't. I've been seeing lots of babies and families lately. It kind of tugs a bit. We will have another baby. I hope and pray that this baby will be OK. This has been such a sorrow.

May 25, 1992 We had the funeral for our son today. Anne and I went to a favorite place at the dead end of a logging road and hiked in a mile or so to a series of cascading waterfalls on the creek. This place was always special to us, but now even more so. All around there are moss covered rocks and stumps and lots of wild flowers, mushrooms and other-worldly looking fungus. Animal tracks dot the landscape. Even on memorial day weekend there are no people here. We each read a poem we had written, a prayer my mom had sent me and then we burned the papers they were printed on. We took the ashes and mixed them with the fertile soil and planted some columbine, which are indigenous to the area. We will no doubt return here with our new family. As I prepared the ground for the flowers and to symbolically lay our son to rest, a beautiful American Dipper raced up and down the cascades. As we planted the columbine and patted down the last soil a very light rain started. I would like this place or a place very much like this for my final resting spot. We read and studied about neural tube defects and had chromosomal studies on us and on the baby. We found out that our chance of having another baby with this birth defect was still pretty slim. We now have two wonderful and healthy daughters that are about two and a half years apart in age. Anne has been taking folic acid daily almost ever since, even before conception. At first when we had the autopsy, we did not want to know what the gender was, but upon completion we asked and found out that the child we lost was a son. We felt very guilty and wondered aloud to ourselves if our son could ever forgive us. As I saw my own father's health failing over the years, I worried that he would never see his youngest son bring a new life into the world. As it turned out he did meet my first daughter before he died. The loss of my father was the final one-two-three punch for me. This was the third loss of someone who I loved dearly. Fifteen years ago I was a paramedic in Los Angeles, I saw death every day. One day I hurt my neck and was instantly disabled. I never worked again as a medic. I was off work for many months and worked hard to try and avoid neurosurgery for my herniated cervical spine. I employed every eastern and western technique I could find. I had daily physical therapy, medicines, acupuncture, massage and hypnosis. It worked, I never had surgery. In the following years I had 75 hypnosis sessions and learned many skills for pain control and relaxation. After my dad died, the loss of my son hit me harder than ever. Even with the joys of fatherhood with my daughter, knowing that I would not be doing "guy" things with a son as I had with my dad was difficult. After months of dull apathy I saw psychiatrist. Although hypnosis was not on the agenda, it flowed naturally once I started. I was already having daily flashbacks and nightly dreams of my paramedic years. In no time these images took over the hypnosis. The counselor used this to try and get through to my current grief. Once while under hypnosis I returned to a memory of another father who lost his son. I was on the roof of our base-station hospital, standing at the edge of the heliport in the rotarwash of an incoming air ambulance. Thirty minutes earlier, a boy had been riding his bike on a school playground and, daydreaming, ran smack into a basketball standard on the asphalt. At home his mom and dad were arguing, they had just filed for divorce and it was over. The boy had a major head injury, a brain hemorrhage. As the helicopter touched down, the mother was there and well-supported by friends and family. She had her sister, women neighbors and the nurses huddled around her, shielding her from the horror unfolding around her. Her boy was near death and was on the way to Children's Hospital by air ambulance. As I scanned the scene, I saw the dad, standing on the opposite side of the asphalt. He was alone, very alone, dwarfed by the chopper lifting off. I walked around behind the mother and stood next to him. I placed my right arm around his shoulder. We stood there quietly, not hugging, not crying. The man was so alone, even with me there. As I laid on the floor of counselor's office, remembering this real day, I was overwhelmed. I sobbed like I had not sobbed since my dad died. I spoke about how when the man's son was hurt, part of the man died and how sad it is to die alone. It seemed so unfair that this man was naked and unprotected and the mom had her strong shield. Through my tears, I finally broke through my pain and loneliness. My doctor wanted me to turn this around and feel the support and compassion for myself that I once delivered to others. Later, during my final hypnosis session I finally connected with my son and my father. The session started as they all had, with me in my special relaxing world. My mind was a dark blank with swirling fog and clouds low underfoot. I was sitting relaxing on a warm rock in a meadow. I looked over and I saw my son and my father. My son was an adult and able-bodied -- whole, intact, and complete. I saw myself, my Dad and my son just sitting around talking. It was outdoors with nice weather so we sat and told stories of our journeys. As I watched, I saw myself growing old and gray still telling stories. As I looked at my father and son there was no sorrow, no loss. I begin to sob. As the tears slipped onto the carpet, I said good bye to my son. I said good bye to my son the way that I knelt down next to my father when he died. I couldn't see my son's face or features, I only know that it is him and that he is complete.

September 12, 1995 I visited my son's grave this weekend with friends. When we got to the road that leads to the trailhead, it had been closed...permanently. The road was filled in, culverts removed and filled with football to baseball sized gravel. We hiked on this road for the better part of an hour but when we got to the park, the paths had all overgrown. Underbrush and saplings had grown over what was already a poorly-marked trail. Even on our last visit three years ago we had followed logging flags tied in the trees. Now there was no trail to follow at all. Finally we crawled on knees and bellies through the "tubes" in the alders. Every step forward you had to move big branches to make room. I had come for a special ceremony. I was there to visit my son. When nothing was looking familiar I really thought, "I may never see my son's grave again." I had several indelible landmarks in my mind, the problem was that there were hundreds of those same landmarks. We had started in a clear cut and moved into a second growth forest and then into an old growth forest just outside the park entrance. An ancient forest is in a constant state of decomposition and nurturing growth. There were as many downed trees as standing trees. It was very disorienting. I was so confused. We hiked along a canyon edge on the left then turned right and walked down to the cascading river at the bottom. Along the way you would walk into an occasional sunbeam, but mostly it was dark and cool and shaded. Finally, after several trips down to the river and back up to the wall of the canyon., I found the spot. It was the spot where three years and four months before Anne and I laid our son down to rest in peace forever. After eating lunch my friends left me alone. But I was not alone. My son was there. I first felt his presence when I turned up the road from the highway. I lit a candle I had brought in a wind proof container. I re-read a poem I wrote three years before and as I read it I poured some of the melted wax over the page. By the time I got the bottom of the page, the wax had begun to turn opaque and harden. I rolled up the page and lit it and held it as it burned up, turning to take advantage of the licking flames. I set it down and cupped my gloved hands around it, letting the smoke curl out between my fingers. As the flames died down the wind blew cold ashes around the folds in the moss. I could really feel his presence.

It felt good to be back there, I was pleased just to find the was not easy. I wanted to leave something from Anne and our daughter. I scanned the area for some of the columbine his mother and I planted before and there were none. I picked a few tiarella flowers and leaves and pressed them in a book. I picked up a few mini-pine cones thinking of our daughter. I took out one of her "Spot" books and read aloud to my son. I still wanted to leave something. I thought of leaving the book, but it would not be right in such a beautiful place. I remembered a trip to Indonesia seeing people offering daily gifts of food to their dead. I placed a peanut butter cookie in the pile of ashes, it had been baked with love by his mother. I talked with him and told him about his mother and sister. I told him I was sorry. I said good-bye. I knew that I may never see this place again. On the way out we found an easier route. As we neared the top of the closed road, I saw two burrows in the sandy embankment. As I stepped nearby, eight little baby snakes squirmed away and tried to hide. Later we saw the Mom snake too, beautiful garter snakes, red and yellow striped.

Farewell To My Son


You live on

In the decaying logs of the forest

I can feel your cool humid breath

As the water splashes from

Rock to wood to moss

As sure as you are

Part of my own flesh and bones

You are part of the boreal northern woods

As we watch over, nourish and protect our beloved woods

We care for and cherish our child


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