My Son, always smiling, always happy, in my dreams.

January Seventeen

Coping with the tragic loss of my son


Time fascinates me. Becoming older, time can blur memories dimensionally as we try to remember moments in life that we deem insignificant. Those moments just meld together, making it hard to pinpoint dates, or even years, as to when that event happened. As time marches forward, the farther away the events once occurred, we even question whether those events in our lives happened at all. Yet, some moments no matter how far distant in the past remain frozen permanently in our minds recorded image with exacting specificity — right down to the day, hour, and minute.

Selfishly, we take time for granted. We seldom appreciate time we spend with others, our family or individual moments. For the most part, the big blur that comes with time is how the majority of us live our day to day routines. We wake up, we go about our workday or daily tasks, we agonize over the clock, watching, waiting for time to pass so we can go home and relax or do something else. It becomes a repeating cycle. The more insignificant we memorialize the day, the larger this blob of time becomes the big blur clogging up space in our head. Other days, some monumental event occurs that we earmark with extreme granularity, — to the day, hour and minute. This method of cataloging our life is also what shapes us over time. It becomes a blueprint, a roadmap we follow, a guide.

The evening of seventeenth of January is one of those frozen moments locked in my time catalog of life carried atop my shoulders. It’s as painful years later as it was then, but with some differences. A modified clarity appears from my memory in the rush of that night like never before. Certain details I had glossed over previously now come through. As time passes, my mind is able to sift through the fog of shock and see the horror not as the participant of that night, but as an observer looking from overhead. This is true in my dreams (or nightmares) also. I’m an observer watching my own actions. In most of these dreams, Ryan is always running away from me and as I try to catch up, he turns back and smiles, speaks to my mind without talking with his mouth, as through telepathy, and tells me it’s all going to be “OK”. I awake in a dead sweat panic with my heart racing, wondering why did I lose him in my dream, frequently sobbing when coming out of the sleep.

For the most part, I try to go to bed early on work nights. It was no different that night, I was racked up and asleep pretty soundly. My phone (which was on silent) finally woke me from a very short sleep. Apparently, the vibrating on the nightstand had been going on for a while. Later viewing the call log, many attempts tried to reach me before finally hearing the phones vibration and answering. It’s very rare I get evening calls, if at all. If they come, they are from an alarm company at a client site or a late-night staffer with a big problem. But this was different. It even felt urgent and big before I got into it.

The previously left voicemails were all the same, “This is the Emergency Room at Stanford Hospital, your son…” and then I just blanked out. The next call on my voicemail was from Ryan’s friend’s mother who was also one of the many previous calls and voicemails, but by now she was nervous and sobbing, “Something has happened to Ryan…” again, I just blanked out. Based on what little I did know, it was bad. I didn’t think, I didn’t hesitate, I just got dressed quickly and drove. As a parent, you get for free a built-in emergency response system. Your mind accelerates solutions and outcomes, you just go into autopilot and start moving. There’s no discussion, no deliberation, no planning. You just move as fast as you’re able to help your child.

The drive to Stanford Hospital ER was also a mild blank out moment. I know it was fast, likely far over posted speed limits. I recall looking down and seeing the needle of the speedometer buried at some point, but it didn’t matter. It was a long drive — about an hour away. I needed to get there now. Arriving at Stanford was greeted by construction detoured streets on the campus everywhere. It was dark, hard to see and I was scrambling to find a door to get into. I found an entrance and ran to the door. Inside I was very disoriented and couldn’t find the ER. Two plain clothed police officers seemed to be waiting to greet me. To this day, I still don’t know if that was fate or not. It’s possible the only door I could find was the only door to get in to the ER and they were just waiting for me. For still a reason unknown to me, I asked, “Do you know where the emergency room is?” to one of them. He took pause, looked at me carefully and asked who I was looking for.

“I was called by the Emergency Room and that my son…” I asked him again where that was. It was in this moment by his expression, he knew who I was and why I was there. I could feel it. This is the exact moment you feel as a parent that something is very wrong. His body language gave it away. His face gave it away. I just wanted to see my son.

In the very short seconds that followed, my demeanor flipped. I wanted to know where my son was and they weren’t telling me. This turned from panic for my boy to anger at this cop who wasn’t giving me any information at all. I knew he knew, yet he wasn’t saying anything except asking me questions I wasn’t hearing or listening to. This is where I blanked out mildly (again) and went looking for my boy in autopilot on my own. A woman appeared who then calmed me down and took me to where Ryan was supposed to be.

I was expecting to find him in the ER or Intensive Care, because at this point I still had no idea what was going on. I was expecting to see my boy there for whatever reason and ready to grapple the next task as his parent to help him. As we walked down a cold silent hospital hallway, my hopes began to dim quickly. I went from panic just moments before, to anger seconds ago, to now fright. I wasn’t sure any longer where I was in the hospital, though I kept hoping he was being cared for and stabile.

During my lifetime I’ve been witness to some horrific tragedies. In the late 1980’s as just one example, I actually worked out of Stanford for an EMS provider. This was a part time gig where I was the engineer on the rig, (or drove and maintained) the ambulance. I had transported many life-threatening patients and medical teams, worked with LifeFlight as the ground-based carrier and also transported critical donor organs to planes waiting. In that job you see a lot of life’s tragedies. The reason I left that job (again, it was just part time gig) was mainly due to one of the last incidents where we had a small child go into full arrest (Cardio/Pulmonary).

We had just arrived back at Stanford after the child and Pediatric team were flown into Moffett Naval Air Field in Mountain View. The child had Bacterial Meningitis and was in a late stage. It was horrible. No more than 5 minutes later after we had him inside Stanford Children’s Hospital he went into full arrest. The parents were still hours away because there was no room on the plane for the parents and the Pediatric team/child. So, the parents had to drive 5 hours which would be 4 hours too late. I watched their child die while the team of docs and nurses did everything they could for an hour to save him.

It seemed that nothing in this world is worse than watching a child die in front of you and knowing you can’t do a thing about it. What I didn’t know then was there is something worse and far more horrific.

The hallway I was being escorted in was cold. Not chilly, but cold. I thought it was unusual how cold it really was. We came up to a door that was closed, and there was another cop outside of it. I was let in and at first all looked like a normal hospital room. I didn’t notice the lack of hospital equipment like IV pumps or oxygen flowing or monitors beeping, it was eerily silent. My memory gaps a little at this point, as I’m not entirely sure if in the hallway I was told by the woman leading me what Ryan’s status was at that point. If she did, I wasn’t hearing it. I do recall repeating over and over again, “Where is my son?” to only get empty stares from all I asked.

At this moment I’m standing in a room, a hospital gurney bed is in front me, its silent. There’s no hospital machine noise, no heart monitors beeping, no oxygen flowing. Just silence. On the bed is sheet. There’s blood stained through it and a still body on it. The body is my son. He lays still with no breath, eye’s mildly open, mouth agape. He makes no sounds. It is now I understand in an eye-blink the true horror of life. My son, my only boy, is dead.

A few minutes after Ryan’s mother appeared. We were left alone with him in the cold room until a Medical Examiner arrived from the Coroner’s office. His job was to help to the police understand what happened to my boy. What I didn’t know until days after was this was an active investigation, presumed to be a murder investigation at that time. That’s why the officer who I first encountered wouldn’t say anything to me. I look back now and understand that, however this was my son. Those moments of agony trying to understand what was happening when I arrived at the hospital were absolutely insane. I was so angry after not getting answers that I almost started swinging my fists at that cop. It wasn’t his fault, he had a job to do, but in retrospect, it all could have been handled far differently.

The Coroner’s Office Examiner was a kinder soul. He clearly understood the weight of this on Ryan’s mom and me. It’s harder when you are estranged from your child’s mother, that adds friction and blame shifting. Yet, our parental call exceeded pettiness, our only child now needed our strength and to put aside our past. In that moment, nothing else mattered but Him.

The Seventeenth of January now turned into the 18th. Every day after filled with relentless grieving and sadness. We had to say goodbye to our son, put his mortal body to rest, let family and friends gather to memorialize him forever more. There was an entire month or longer following that I don’t want to remember, or care to. I didn’t go to work, I didn’t want to talk my friends, I frequently didn’t want to live anymore either. My entire soul was robbed and ripped from existence. I became a fraction of the man I was, yearning daily he was back in my life, when his life put joy into mine.

In the days and weeks following Ryan’s death there was a lot of time with the detective assigned to the case. He was also a kind young family guy, he was quiet, he listened, he cared. While many ideas were floated around what caused Ryan’s death, who was responsible, how it all happened, some questions were never fully answered. That is hard when you’re trying to find a reason. When answers don’t come it only results in emptiness, which in turn leads one to spiral down further.

For the last several years I still look for answers. Memories have details, but not always the answers we want to know, or care to know. I think back about everything that was presented to me as facts by the police, the Medical Examiner, some of Ryan’s friends and the memories I have. I believe my Son, like his Father, was a tortured soul. He was always looking for the shortcuts in life, trying hard to make something of himself the fast way, skipping the details which make us whole. It was his approach to life that made him a beautiful soul, but also in the end took his life from him.

The curse that will stay with me is one of genetics possibly passed to my Son. I’ve long suffered with a mild brain defect in the Frontal Cortex that gave me a lifetime of biological depression. It’s likely he may have suffered in a similar way. I know he had bouts of depression, but it’s unknown how bad. He wove himself into a lot of problems though.

Like most parents of children who have died before us, we constantly agonize over what we did wrong, how could we have done parenting different or even changed the course of history and time so our child could be here today. I’ve spent years on that painful journey asking myself those same questions daily and likely will continue asking until my own last breath. No answers have come yet, which leads to me writing about it, discovering the pain, testing boundaries of self-healing and speaking to him in my dreams.

In those dreams where he’s always just out of touch. My dreams have also frozen in time his childhood. He is smiling, laughing, and giggling only the way a young boy could. He’s still so sweet and innocent, but with a calm on his face I can’t describe. Like I said earlier, he speaks to me without talking, almost telepathically and I hear his voice answering me in a gentle reassuring way.

These dreams are very interesting and in similarity to after my father died. At just 12 years old, my parents were divorced already and I was a rogue self-roaming “latch-key kid” of the late 60’s and 70’s. About six months after my dad passed, I would have these feverish and very intense dreams, once again, awaking in panic. But one night the dream took a twist. I found myself in a dark night time lush orchard. Much like the orchards that surrounded us in the Valley before it was Silicon Valley. The dirt in the orchard was warm and soft. It was very dark, and very still, almost airless. The soil felt like walking on a warm beach. You could sense how fertile the orchard field dirt was on your bare feet. It felt electric. In my dream, I was struggling to understand why I was there when suddenly my dad appeared. His face was solemn, yet content. He placed his hand on my shoulder and without speaking words from his mouth (again, almost telepathically) said to me only these words: “It’s going to be OK…” And just like that, he walked away into the dark orchard. I tried to catch up to him but couldn’t. Once again, he was gone from my life forever.

No words have been spoken really about these dreams to anyone except a couple close friends and family. Obviously, you always get a certain “look” from people when you talk about this stuff, but I really don’t care. I also don’t talk to many people about my son’s death. Those who know already know, that’s all that matters. These small moments where I can see my Son as a young child again in my dreams, happy, full of life’s radiance as an image in my mind, well, it just brings me peace. It’s probably nothing but my mind aging and hanging onto a little hope as time passes before us, but again, I don’t care if it brings me a thread to hang on to with keeping his soul alive inside of me.

Getting older, thinking about what time is left for me, approaching that geriatric state of mind in the short years to follow, Time is a new enemy and friend to me. Knowing my own time is shorter, finding some of it to place a long life into perspective is my goal. The last several years a lot of time has been spent understanding, grappling and reconciling with the Seventeenth of January. I’d like to put that behind me now, it’s been hard these past years. The grieving won’t stop, that’s a lifelong process. Instead, I’d like to memorialize the day as when my only Son left us to free himself, shedding his tortured soul to be with his grandparents (my parents) in Heaven, to visit me occasionally in my dreams, and to be frozen in time as the smiling little boy I’ll always remember when he chooses to visit me.

From now forward, January Seventeen is his day, along with his birthday, for two birthing days. His first birthday being born into this world, my only son. His second birthday, being born into the Kingdom of Heaven and wrapped in the arms of our Lord and those family who passed before us.

I choose Seventeen January as his celebration of Heavenly life forever more. May God bless your soul my Son. I love you. — Dad