Losing Charlie

WHEN A CHILD DIES

After our twenty-year-old son Charlie died seven years ago, my husband Ernie insisted on seeing his body. Everyone told him, and me, not to.

Charlie had disappeared from our house in the middle of a freezing January night. After five weeks of searching-my searching, the police’s searching, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s searching-a Harvard crew member, during early-season sculling practice on the river, found Charlie’s body. The police came to my door. In the front hall, I collapsed into an officer’s arms. “They haven’t identified the body yet,” he said. “But we’re sure it’s your son.” In our effort to find him, we had sent information about Charlie, including his picture, everywhere we could think of. A detective from our local police department talked to me every day. Charlie’s identification, it turned out, was still in his pants pocket: A college ID and a distinctive key ring, rusted from its immersion, a gift from one of his sisters.

When Ernie returned from his errands that Saturday morning, we held one another and cried; we talked about whom to call, about what we needed to do next. One of our daughters was in California, the other in Israel. We broke the news over the phone, and they hurried home to Massachusetts. Friends and neighbors brought food, their presence, and their tears to join with ours.

The very first thing we wanted, though, was to see Charlie. He had left abruptly; we had had no chance to say goodbye. Against all odds, both Ernie and I had hoped he was alive, that he’d walk with his long stride and straight body through the front door again. Now, even with life gone from our child, we needed to see him.

I called the medical examiner. That doctor, a sweet-voiced woman, told me that Charlie’s body had been “in the water a long time”; that it was “unviewable.” Through several conversations, I pleaded with her; she said that perhaps the funeral director could do something so that we could see our son. It turned out that he could not. The psychiatrists-the one who had been treating Charlie, and another to whom Ernie and I had turned for advice about how to help Charlie-told us not to look at his body. “You could uncover just his hair,” suggested one, and, “You could see the outline of his body.” But don’t look at him, all the professionals said. Don’t remember him as he is now.

I agreed. But Ernie, ordinarily yielding and gentle, less forceful than I am, was adamant. Afraid that he would faint or be overcome or somehow need me, I went with him to the undertaker’s. There, in a room outside the one where Charlie’s body lay, the funeral director tried to talk Ernie out of what he planned to do. “I’ve been through this many, many times,” the undertaker said, the three of us still standing. “Please, don’t do it.”

Ernie did not hesitate. I sat down in the anteroom while the funeral director opened the casket and uncovered Charlie. I knew the exact moment because of Ernie’s terrible moan, a sound like nothing else I have ever heard.

After a little while, the undertaker covered Charlie again, and I went to be with him as best I could, smoothing my hands over his body, through the thick white cloth in which he was enclosed. “This is his face,” I said to Ernie. “This is his arm, his shoulder.” We knelt together.

On the way home, I asked Ernie how much damage the water had done. Was our child recognizable? “Charlie looked like himself,” Ernie said, “but as if he had been through a very hard time.” He told me a few details. I didn’t and don’t want to know more.

As time went on, though, I was grateful that Ernie had seen our son; that he knew it was Charlie. The death of a child is so unacceptable that it is almost beyond belief. What if it wasn’t Charlie we had buried? What if maybe, still, he was alive? Ernie could tell me, for sure, that it was otherwise. That was not a comfort, but it was a help.

What had led Ernie to perform his terrible task? How had he known to insist on doing so? It has taken me all this time-the months, adding up to years, during which the bruises from the shock have faded, though the loss is permanently pressing-to ask him.

At last I did, one day as we were riding in the car, during one of the ordinary conversations into which I often interject a comment about Charlie’s life or death, a phrase or sentence that to someone else might seem a non sequitur, an irrelevance, an interruption, but which to Ernie and me is an ever-present layer, woven into our shared fabric. “Why did you do it?” I said. “Why did you insist on seeing him?”

Ernie was his calm, matter-of-fact self, answering me in an almost flat tone, saying everyday words that have stayed with me, becoming part of my feeling for the father of my child: “It’s what you do,” Ernie said. “You pay your respects.”

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: 

Madeline Marget, a frequent contributor, is the author of Life’s Blood (Simon & Schuster).

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