By Christopher M. MacNeil
The dark shadows of the thick clouds on the western horizon matched my mood that late November afternoon in 1990 as I drove the hour-long trip on Indiana’s flat and colorless I-69 to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis to visit my 2-year-old niece. Born with an inexplicable “defect” in which 95 percent of her body was covered with what doctor’s described as burn tissue, my niece was to endure yet another surgery to remove her “burned” skin and replace it with grafted skin.
It had been less than two years since my last round as a drinking alcoholic and a failed suicide attempt that cold and dreary Friday afternoon. After years of alcoholic drinking and its resulting emotional and mental devastation, a myriad of emotions churned inside me. Many of my relatives, including my niece’s mother – my sister – harbored unresolved feelings for me – even hate – for what I’d become as an alcoholic, and the niece I was visiting hardly knew me. She was barely 5 months old when I made myself scarce from my family after my suicide attempt, and I feared she wouldn’t remember me at best or, at worst, that my sister would refuse to let me see her and have me thrown out of the hospital.
At the hospital, I entered the burn unit and saw my sister and other relatives crowded around my niece in her room and lowered my head as I walked toward an uncertain reception I might get. It was then I noticed the screams and cry of what sounded like a little boy somewhere on the ward. They continued uninterrupted and without break. A silence fell in my niece’s room when I walked in. But my sister, who had less than two years earlier called the ambulance when she found me unconscious on the floor of my apartment from the pills I took to end my life, signaled me to greet my niece. Surprisingly to me, my niece remembered me: she called me by the nickname everyone else did.
Uncomfortable that I might be making everyone else uncomfortable, I stepped halfway out the door of my niece’s room while relatives adorned her with adulation. Standing there, I noticed that the kid’s screams and crying I heard when I arrived had stopped and, at the same time, I felt a slight nudge on the side of one of my shoes. Looking down I saw a little wind-up toy car that had hit my foot. I looked around and saw not far behind me a boy not more than 2 or 3 years old sitting on the floor, both hands bandaged and staring at me. I half-smiled at him, picked up the toy car and returned it to him, mindful not to hurt his hands. But as I returned the car with one hand and gently patted the boy’s shoulder with my other hand, I saw either uncertainty or fear in the kid’s eyes as he raised his arms slightly and shielded his chest.
It was less than a minute after I returned to my niece’s room, again half-in and half-out, when I felt a tugging on the sleeve of my coat. It was the kid again. He tugged my coat as if he wanted me to follow him. I did, to an area where he sat on the floor and indicated he wanted me to sit down in front of him. He apparently wanted us to roll the car back and forth to each other. Not being in high demand in my niece’s room, I took the job.
I learned later the boy’s name was Michael, 2 years old. A nurse risked violating patient confidentiality when she shared that Michael was headed to foster care after discharge from the hospital, the injuries to his hands being second- and third-degree burns that were inflicted by his parents by holding his hands in the fire of an oven burner as “discipline.” Both parents were in jail awaiting trial or pleading out to charges of felony child abuse and neglect. Even if they avoided prison, Michael would not be returned to them. Child Protective Services had filed a petition to terminate parental rights because Michael had been the victim of multiple other substantiated episodes of abuse and neglect by his parents.
Michael and I rolled the toy car back and forth for about a half-hour when I noticed he needed a diaper change. I knew nothing about diapering and picked him up to take him to a nurse for the change. Picking him up, for a reason I still don’t understand 25 years later, I intuitively kissed Michael’s forehead gently. After finding a nurse to change the diaper, I handed Michael over to her. Suddenly and with full volume, Michael began to scream and cry and I realized only then it was he who I heard crying and screaming when I first arrived. It explained a comment I overheard by a nurse who showed up for her work shift. She told a colleague it was “unusually quiet,” then, in a heightened tone, “Oh, God! Michael! Where’s Michael?” The other nurse pointed out Michael with me on the floor. The nurse who had just arrived then asked, about me, “Well, who’s he?” “Jamie’s uncle,” was the answer. “Oh,” was the reaction.
I stayed with Michael through his diaper change as the poor nurse maneuvered to get a fresh change in place while he thrashed and screamed and tried to get up. When the nurse finally got the diaper changed, she returned Michael to me. In my arms, Michael stopped the screams and cries. His eyelids had become heavy by then and, instead of returning him to the floor for more play, I slid out of my coat and found a rocking chair to sit while holding him.
Michael fell asleep quickly, and I sat there rocking him gently for nearly an hour until I couldn’t put off the hour-long drive back home. And I tried as long as I could not to leave him: I wasn’t ready to give him up for reasons I didn’t understand then. But I stood up gently and found the nurse who had changed his diaper, the one to whom I’d give him up. The nurse and I almost pulled off the exchange without waking Michael. But he woke up and, when he did, he jolted everyone with maximum-volume screams and cries, the same ones I heard when I arrived two hours earlier. Michael bolted upward in the nurse’s arms and, as I rushed into my coat, he reached for me and cried, “No! Help me!” Those words have haunted me since. “I think you broke his heart,” the nurse said above Michael’s screams and, feeling the rush of stinging tears to my eyes, I muttered, “I’m sorry.” I turned and headed for the exit without saying good-bye to my niece and other relatives. By the time I found my car, I realized my face was damp either from a misty rain or tears. I couldn’t breathe. My plan to stop somewhere for dinner was shot by the sick in my stomach.
A storm of emotions raged within me on the drive home, the strongest my anger. The menacing memories of my own childhood engulfed me, and I thought about my relationship with my own father and my firm promise that I would show him! As a young, young kid I pledged that I would never be the father to my son that mine was to me. I would never let my son see me drunk, never hit him with my fist, never call him a “fag” or “n**gger lover” or throw my son out of a glass picture window for walking away from a Ku Klux Klan rally that my father dragged me to when I was 5 years old and then got “whopped” for walking away from the march because I couldn’t – wouldn’t – salute the Grand Wizard.
I collapsed into sleep that night and awoke the next morning with a hangover, that one of emotions without the booze. I decided my niece didn’t need me and that there was no reason for me to visit her in the hospital again. I didn’t dare risk seeing Michael again. I couldn’t lose him a second time. And I didn’t.
That was 25 years ago. As cruel fate would have it, it wasn’t in the cards for me to be a father. I think of Michael more days than not, that he’d be 27 or 28 years old now. I leave it to the unknown my hope that he was never returned to his abusive parents and that some lucky adoptive parents found him and gave him the love he so clearly and desperately needed. And, God knows, Michael had a ton of love to return.
There’s a physical pain when I remember Michael, like an arrow in the heart. But I try to find comfort in the reality that I experienced being a dad – if only for a couple of hours.