I saw his name on the phone display and wondered why he would be calling me at, what… 8:30? 9am? On a Sunday morning? Michael probably wants me to pick up the boys early. I bristled slightly, bracing myself for the disappointment of a shortened weekend. Crap. Oh well. I picked up the phone.
I said hello in the manner one does when you know who is on the other end. A “Hey-lo” and an expectant pause. There wasn’t an immediate reply. Instead there was silence, and then wheezy breathing.
It was an old joke of Michael’s and mine to put Owen on the phone. Whoever was with Owen would say ‘Hold on! Someone wants to talk to you!’, then hold the phone receiver up to Owen’s mouth and let him breathe into it. Owen found this infinitely funny and would start to laugh. (This little charade was all the more funny because Owen was Deaf! He couldn’t even hear! I like to imagine Owen found this even funnier than we did.)
His laugh almost always started with a suspension of breath, followed by a chuckling or wheezing sound, followed by a gasping in-breath. He would then continue to breathe/laugh into the receiver, sounding like Darth Vader. A fuzzy, static-y sound that was instantly recognizable to Michael and me. The other would say “Hi Bubby!” and politely wait for the joke to be over.
I heard the pause – a silent beat – then the wheeze. Silly Michael and Owen. I was amused, rolling my eyes good-naturedly. But still, it’s Sunday morning and if there’s a change of plans let’s get on with it.
“Hi Owen! What are you guys up to?” I knew Michael could hear me.
Another wheeze, then, “No, it’s me. Michael.”
Wait. Is he laughing? No, he’s crying. Gasping for breath himself. I felt a swirling sensation, a pressure, at the center of the back of my head.
He said it quietly, slightly high-pitched: “Owen passed away last night.”
What? “Are you joking?”
I don’t know why I said it because I knew it was true. Because Michael would never joke in that way.
No, it’s true, just please come. I hung up and looked at Carsten, dazed. He seemed to already know. He left to put on his shoes and fetch the car.
I had been thinking about this moment for months, years. When Owen dies, what do I do? Owen’s environment and experiences were so controlled I had only imagined a peaceful death. I assumed it would be with me, in my house, possibly in my bed and in my arms. I would wake from a night of cradling him in our customary position, which we always assumed after his first waking in the night – spooning, his back to my front, rock-like slumbering head heavy on my arm, my fingers asleep, my knees curled and pressed into the backs of his (jesuschrist, how will this be when he’s 15? 22? 35!) – and I would find that he had died in the night. In this case, I was told by our doctor, I would not need to call emergency services. I would only need to put him in a respectful position on his bed and call a doctor to come, who would pronounce his death and help take care of details. No need for ambulances and chaos. Let’s keep this peaceful.
We rode up the elevator in silence. I didn’t ask any questions. If I was in my right mind I would have noted with interest there was an ambulance and police car in front of the building. But I was not, and I didn’t. Just hurry up hurry up…
Michael led me into the little nook where Owen usually slept – the condo version of the modern day ‘den’ or home office (or third bedroom if you have a small body, few belongings and an active imagination). It was a tiny space with a huge picture window, just big enough for a toddler bed and a wooden hutch. Owen-size.
He was on the bed, on his back, face and body covered with his red blanket. The fluffy tuft of hair at the top of his head just visible under the tangled fringe of the cover. I took in the scene slowly, as though my brain was filming in slow motion. Felt the presence of uniformed strangers behind me, keeping a respectful distance.
I knelt down beside the little bed. Yes, I thought, yes, this is him. This my son. And it has happened.
I held my head in my hands, and wept.