Benji

 Twenty-three is too young to lose a son. Hell, twenty-three is too young to lose most stuff, but especially people. Not that bad things don’t happen every day to some: little girls are abducted in parking lots (we expect to never see them again, and usually don’t), an American soldier is blown to smithereens while examining a box left on a roadside in some godforsaken third world country (hardly seems worth it), a single mother and her children evicted from their apartment end up sleeping in an abandoned car (“We’re camping out, kids!” will only work for so long). So, it’s not like a lot of other people haven’t gone through something just as bad, maybe even at the same time. Still, at twenty-three I didn’t expect to have to bury a son; moms and dads do that—older moms and dads, that is.

   Jackie and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia in an apartment complex popular with a lot of other enlisted guys. To make ends meet most of us had part-time jobs; but, unlike the other guys, mine was a passion rather than a job. I was a drummer…a jazz drummer. Our apartment wasn’t expensive, fairly clean, and since I and several others in the complex worked in the same government building, carpool convenient. The Ripley Arms Apartments consisted of three long buildings surrounding a central parking area on three sides, a U-shape. Each building had two or three entrances where from the sidewalk out front you could see a half flight of stairs leading down to apartments marked T-1, T-2 and so on, and stairs leading up to apartments on the first and second floors. Our first floor apartment was a half flight up. I still have a picture of Jackie carrying Benji up the stairs to his first home.

   On a bright, sunny Saturday morning, the day Benji died, I was getting ready to leave for rehearsal with The Arthur Woods Trio; we typically practiced at Arthur’s row house in northwest D.C. around one o’clock. I used to drive by his house after Benji died, but never stopped; he rented and probably no longer lived there. It’s one of those stand-forever houses built in the mid-‘50s; a massive front porch with a porch swing hanging from thick chains, big, sturdy-looking white columns covered with so many coats of paint they look plastic, the front windows in each of the two second story bedrooms looking out over the porch to the street like sentinels. Arthur, our leader and singer, was in his early-to-mid twenties; black, single, gay, a good looking guy in great shape and always in a good mood. He sang in what would years later be considered a Brian McKnight style: smooth and cool. I joined the group after I saw an ad he and the other two band members, Hank the piano man and Jeff the bass player—they all worked in D.C. for the government—had placed in the newspaper: “Wanted, drummer for hip, jazz trio. No Dixie. Call Arthur…” Fully appreciating their “No Dixie” caveat—I’m not a big fan of Al Hirt or Pete Fountain and, while as a musician I can recognize good Dixie from bad, I never cared for it—I called. We met at Arthur’s house, sounded great together, seemed to get along well, and the Arthur Woods Trio was born.

   That morning, before I left for practice, Jackie and I sat at the small, off-white laminate table with its grooved aluminum edges and tubular chrome legs in our small kitchen having a quick bite while I gave her a blow-by-blow of the gig we played the previous night. The guys and I had landed a job playing in a Georgetown hotel lounge on Friday and Saturday nights and she liked to hear all about the job; what the crowd was like, how the other guys sounded, and anything funny that happened. There was always a funny story or two to tell; jazz musicians are serious about their music, not so much about life. She loved going to gigs with me and I missed having her there, but the birth of Benji a year earlier and her new part-time job playing organ for a local church choir made that temporarily impossible.

   “So, you’ll be home when the sitter gets here?” I asked, making sure. Jackie was practicing with the choir and would leave after me and be gone just a few hours. I wouldn’t be home from practice until around five.

   “No problem,” she said, “The sitter’s mother is going to drop her off. I should be back before you and I’ll have something ready to eat when you get here. We’ll get to spend some time together before you leave for the job tonight. Isn’t that great?”

   “Yea, that’s great, honey.” I answered. Jackie was born happy. Before Benji died, I used to wonder if anything could actually make her sad.

   Saturdays were hectic: I’d usually leave around noon to get to Arthur’s by one; unload my drums; carry them inside and set them up; rehearse some new tunes with the band; take down the drums; repack them in the car; drive back to Alexandria—hit D.C.’s notorious beltway traffic at least one way, coming or going—have dinner, play with Benji (at the sound of my voice he’d started verbally announcing my arrival with a shrill cry of joy); take a shower; get dressed for the hotel gig; spend another hour driving back into D.C.; unload the drums; stack them in the lobby and hope no one takes them while I park the car; find a parking spot—always a challenge in D.C.—rush back to the hotel lobby grateful my drums are still there; set up again and play the gig; finish playing; repack the drums; again haul them out to the lobby; fetch the car, once more praying my drums don’t disappear; reload the car; then drive home hitting the sack about 3:00 a.m. I didn’t mind it—I got to play jazz.

   “Well, baby, I guess I should go.” I kissed my wife, bent to kiss Benji—who at that moment chose to ignore me and instead fixate on the airplane mobile hovering above his head—and left. I wouldn’t see him alive again.

   Jackie and I worked full-time during the week and used sitters several times a month when our day jobs and night jobs conflicted. When the sitter arrived Jackie gave the young girl all the last minute do’s and don’ts, showed her the diapers, formula, and baby powder, kissed our son good-bye, and left—nothing special. Four-and-a-half hours later she was screaming, “My baby, my baby, oh God no, my baby!”

   I knew something was horribly wrong as I climbed the apartment stairs and heard pounding, running, and yelling. My first thought: My wife was being attacked. I didn’t have my key—I’d given it to Jackie so she could leave it with the sitter—so I pounded on the door and yelled Jackie’s name. It took what seemed like several minutes for it to open—it was probably just a few seconds. I was so relieved when the door opened and I saw Jackie was okay, but that quickly passed when I saw the crazed look on her face. She stared at me for a split-second, momentarily frozen in place, her speechless mouth open and eyes frantic, then bolted for Benji’s bedroom. I chased after, came up behind her, and saw Benji lying there…dead.

   In movies they often check for a pulse, lift a person’s eyelids to check for any sign of life, listen to the chest for a heartbeat—that all makes for good suspense—but, as a parent I needed only see our baby lying in its crib to know it was dead. The absence of life was so egregious, loud, offensive. His mother stood at the bedroom door, perfectly still, her eyes frozen in shock, her chest and stomach not moving, breath paused at the top of a huge inhale, as if momentarily resting to catch her breath so she could scream some more. I could tell she was afraid to again go near the crib; that by doing so she’d make it all real. I picked him up, supporting his head out of habit, and put his right cheek to mine like I did when he needed burping. His breath still smelled like Similac and his little body felt stiff. I held him for a few minutes more. “It’s okay, buddy, it’s going to be okay,” I found myself repeating. I think I was probably talking to myself. Finally, I softly laid him on his stomach in his crib like we were all told to do back then, pulled his blue and white striped baby blanket up to just below his neck so he wouldn’t be cold, and softly stepped back; my wife still frozen in place, now eerily quiet. I placed my hands on her shoulders, turned her around and walked behind her into the living room. There, I placed her on the sofa.

   I think it’s a human defensive quality that allows most of us to try to make things in hindsight seem not as horrible as they actually were. It usually starts by saying something like, “It could have been worse; it could have been…whatever.” Even when it couldn’t. But, still, Benji dying could have been worse. I could have been playing a job and unreachable…in 1975 we didn’t have cell phones. There could have been a traffic jam on the beltway that kept me from being with my wife. Worse still, she could have arrived home long before me and been alone with a dead baby. As it was, I placed my foot on the first step of our apartment steps at almost the same time that my wife cracked Benji’s door to check on him after saying good-night to the sitter whose mother picked her up. So, I think it really could have been worse. How’s that for looking on the bright side, huh?  

   “I guess we should call the police, huh?” I said stating the obvious. Jackie just moved her head up and down until it stopped moving, like one of those dogs you see in the back of a car window, its head bobbing to a stop, the car no longer running. I dialed 9-1-1. All I said was, “Our baby’s dead,” then waited to see what I was supposed to do or say next.

   The person on the other end of the line asked for my name and address and then said, “And you say your baby isn’t breathing?”  

   “He’s dead,” I repeated. “Isn’t breathing,” to me, suggests that a few thumps on the chest or a zap with a defibrillator will remedy the problem. Not the case here. She no doubt asked other questions, but I don’t remember any of them. After getting our address the operator told me an officer was on the way.

   Jackie was sobbing again, her comatosity on hold. I felt in some way her crying was better…less scary, at least for me. While I was on the phone she’d gone back to Benji’s room and was standing over the crib with her arms wrapped around her waist like she had a stomach ache, hugging and rocking herself. I could see her jaw moving and knew she was talking to Benji; I never asked her what she said. I figured that conversation should remain private and felt better knowing she and Benji were making a secret they could keep. I watched her from the living room until she took her hands off the crib railing and dropped them to her side, her jaw no longer moving. I quietly moved behind her, put my hands on her waist and my chin on her right shoulder. We both stood looking at him; the same way we often did watching him sleep. Then she said to me, “Our poor little guy.”

   I let the policeman in and pointed numbly to Benji’s bedroom. My wife and I sat on the sofa and watched the officer as he bent over the crib. A couple of minutes later he came back and told us emergency personnel were on their way. Apparently, he was in the area, heard the radio call, and got there way ahead of them. He asked a few questions—not nearly as many as I expected—one of them was the sitter’s name. To this day I don’t remember it. I do recall Jackie responding, but not what she said—the sitter’s name didn’t seem important to me. At that moment nothing seemed important. I was concentrating on not breaking down; I knew if I did my wife would lose it. I remember thinking—with my wife sobbing and out of control and a stranger sitting on the sofa across from me—if I start to cry, how am I going to stop? My wife wouldn’t be able to help me, she was a basket case, and the young cop, who didn’t look much older than I, was himself trying hard not to cry. I felt sorry for him because he had to sit waiting until the EMTs showed (what a shitty job). 

   After I’d answered the young cop’s questions, I asked him if, before the rescue squad arrived, it’d be okay for me to go back in Benji’s room. He shook his head and said he was sorry, but that it would be better if we both waited with him. It wasn’t until later, lying next to my wife, listening to her exhaustive, racked breathing, that it hit me: Until they determined that Benji had simply stopped breathing we had been, at least for a few minutes, the most likely suspects. Outside the door I heard the emergency personnel stomping up the stairs. The officer heard it too and opened the door. The lead guy looked past me to where the cop was nodding and walked quickly and respectfully past. They asked us to remain seated, and then he and his partner closed the bedroom door on us. The young patrolman stayed with us. Suspects have been known to run.

   As I sat, wondering what we were supposed to do next, my wife’s crying became a mournful whimper and sounded more like a forlorn acceptance of a nightmare—not good, but no longer scaring the hell out of me. Neither of us knew what to say to the other, so we simply sat waiting, as if in a doctor’s office.

   “Is there family or anyone that can be with you, that you’d like me to call?” the young cop asked.

   “No,” I said, “We’re from Iowa. That’s where all our family is. I’m in the Army and have friends, but…not to call about this. We’ll be okay…thanks.” A long half-hour went by, they came out, and one of the two rescue guys said something about being sorry. The other one was holding Benji at his chest like nurses do, and at the front door raised his eyebrows to ask if we wanted to see him; but as I’d said good-bye, I declined, keeping my hand on Jackie’s knee hoping she’d stay put. She did. Then they eased the door shut behind them. The young cop and I stood facing each other, waiting for the other to say something more. He gave me a card with his name and other information printed on the front, wrote what I assumed was his home phone on the back, said to call if I needed anything, patted my shoulder, and left.

   Jackie and I sat on the sofa for a very long time, holding hands and staring straight ahead. God only knows what was going through our heads. We had no clue what to say to each other; as yet, no death experience. At some point I asked, “Do you want to try to sleep?” She looked wiped out.

   “I don’t know. Should we call somebody?”

   It hadn’t occurred to me to call our families—we’d been busy dealing with a nightmare. “God, honey…we have to tell them.” My grief over Benji’s death momentarily took a back seat to the sadness and trauma I knew we were about to inflict on our parents, my wife’s grandmother who had raised her, our siblings. I went first, then my wife. In those days, without cell phones, you had to wait your turn to shatter a person’s heart. What transpired on those calls was nothing out of the ordinary: shock at the loss of a grandchild or nephew, followed by heartfelt sympathy and frustration at not being able to personally comfort.

   I’m not sure what I expected having never lost a son. How could I expect anything? Jackie said she had to use the bathroom before bed, but I knew she just wanted to be alone. I could hear her crying—no light was coming from under the door—and I knew she was sitting on the toilet so I decided to leave her be. I walked to the patio door and opened it so I could feel the cool air and watch the traffic on I-95. As I watched the cars, their occupants headed home from D.C. after a movie, dinner, or a play, I felt like yelling at the top of my lungs, “Where the hell are you all going? Our son just died goddamit!”