March 21 marks the thirty-third anniversary of our son Tyler's sudden death. It seems fitting to share this article to help keep our memories of Tyler alive and to express sympathy to other parents who have lost a child. The article was published in the March 2007 Generations of Today magazine.
I have also written a book about Tyler that is available on Amazon at this link.
Reading time: 10 minutes
Inscribed on a man’s tombstone in a New England cemetery are the words It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch. Next to the tombstone are the graves of his five children, each of whom died before him. On March 21, 1985, my wife and I experienced that “fearful thing” when our nineteen-month-old son, Tyler, died suddenly of Reye’s Syndrome.
Elie Wiesel, the Jewish author and Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived the Holocaust, but lost many in his family to it, said that it took thirteen years after the horrors of the event before he could put his thoughts down on paper. Although losing my son was nowhere near the magnitude of what Wiesel suffered, it was my personal holocaust, and it took years before I felt capable of writing about what happened. Wiesel wrote, he said, “because the words need to get out, for if they don’t they will strangle me or I will strangle them.” So, too, have I written of Tyler’s death before the words strangle me. I do this not only for me, but also for anyone who has loved or lost a child.
The whole world is asleep, you can look at it and weep. Few things you find are worthwhile. And though I don’t ask for much, no material things to touch, Lord, protect my child. Bob Dylan
I awoke to a sunny, warm Thursday, the first day of spring, March 21, 1985. It was the kind of day treasured by Minnesotans who have endured a long winter, for it signaled the end of snowy, frigid weather. The past weekend, my four-year-old son, Ben, and I were walking in the woods behind our house. That, too, was a glorious day; the snow had melted and birds were singing. Ben looked at me and said, “Dad, let’s just sit here and enjoy the world.” Little did I know how brief the time for that would be.
At 9:30 a.m., as my workday at IBM was picking up speed, I received a call from a Saint Marys Hospital nurse. “Mr. Ransom,” she said, “your wife and son, Tyler, are here, and you need to come to the emergency room right away.”
I was shocked to hear her words. “What’s happened?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”
“All I can say is that Tyler is very sick.”
I sped to the hospital and burst into the emergency room. A nurse directed me to a waiting room nearby where I saw Jeanine and Ben with the Saint Marys chaplain. Jeanine told me that when she bent over Tyler’s crib to awaken him, she found him unconscious and barely breathing. She panicked, tried to give him some water, and then called 911. She dressed, belted Tyler and Ben in the car, and raced to the emergency room some five miles away. By the time she arrived, Tyler’s vital organs were failing, and paramedics rushed him to a team of doctors who worked to save his life.
Jeanine and I were escorted to a hospital room in which doctors and nurses surrounded our son. There were so many in the circle that we could barely get a glimpse of Tyler’s lifeless body and the many tubes and medical devices attached to his arms, chest, and legs. I prayed that I was dreaming, that this was just a nightmare from which I would awake and see Tyler lying in his crib by our bed. But I wasn’t asleep. Tyler was dying. How could this be?
Mid-afternoon, a doctor motioned Jeanine and me into a conference room. As we settled into chairs around a small table, he wasted no time in leveling with us. “Your son’s vital organs aren’t working on their own,” he said with concern and sadness in his voice, “and there’s nothing more we can do. I know this is a difficult decision for you, but I recommend that we discontinue life support. It’s only prolonging the inevitable.”
Jeanine and I looked at each other in disbelief. It would have been easier if he had said, “Can you sleep on it and come back in the morning to let me know what you think?” But he wanted our decision at that moment. I never imagined I would have to say, “Yes, it’s okay to let my son die,” but that’s what Jeanine and I agreed to that first day of spring 1985. I walked in a daze to the waiting room. “Ben,” I whispered, “it’s time for you to come and say goodbye to your brother.” After we did so, my mom and he went home.
Doctors and nurses detached the life support apparatus from Tyler and then moved him to a nearby bed. He lay peacefully, as if asleep. The only device connected to him was a blue box that displayed his heart rate in bright orange digits. We watched in silence and horror as those numbers dropped slowly, one number at a time, from 70, to 40, to 10, and finally, to 0. The machine buzzed loudly at that point, signaling that Tyler’s heart had stopped. I have never felt so helpless, so hopeless. I embraced my dad, Jeanine hugged her mom, and we all sobbed for what seemed a long time.
The nurses were respectful of our sadness. After our crying subsided, they requested that we leave the room so they could bathe and dress Tyler. When we were allowed to return, a nurse handed Jeanine a pair of scissors to snip a lock of Tyler’s hair. There was an overpowering sense of finality and despair in the air. Watching Ben say goodbye to Tyler had broken my heart. As we left Tyler’s room and I looked back at him one last time, it broke again. As I drove home in the evening twilight, I hurt in ways that words could not describe.
“The decision to have a child is an enormous one; it is as if you decided forever to have your heart go walking about outside your body.” Author unknown
Tyler hadn’t been a beautiful newborn. His left eyelid was puffy, red, and swollen shut, and his body was bruised. Doctors told us that this was because of his stressful birth and that, over time, he would be fine. Despite his tough looks, Tyler was of normal weight – seven pounds, nine ounces – and delivered only a day ahead of the predicted date. So, on August 29, 1983, we brought a brother home for Ben, looking forward to the joys, and realizing the work, of raising two sons.
A week later, we took Tyler to the hospital for a checkup. Doctors discovered that he had a broken collarbone in addition to his still-swollen eye. They attributed the broken bone to Tyler’s stressful delivery and reassured us that his collarbone would mend and his eye would be okay. The latter would not be. Behind the swollen eyelid was an eye that looked to the side rather than straight ahead. Weeks passed and it didn’t get better, so we began sessions with an eye specialist. After running a series of tests, the doctors said that Tyler’s third cranial nerve might have some damage.
I recall the instant I knew that something was terribly wrong with Tyler. He was about six months old. He lay on his side on his diaper-changing table. There was a vacancy in his eyes that sent a chill up and down my spine. He stared, unblinking, straight ahead at the wall. “Tyler,” I said, “it’s Dad.” He didn’t blink or move, but remained staring. I waved my hand up and down in front of his eyes. Nary a blink. I moved my hands again to try to get a response. The look in his eyes frightened me. In a few seconds he snapped out of his trance, but I knew then that Tyler had more serious problems than a damaged eye.
At nine months, Tyler had the motor skills of a four-month-old. He couldn’t feed himself, sit upright for any length of time, or roll from his stomach to his back. “Walk at one; talk at two” was the standard for children. Almost one, Tyler had yet to crawl and seemed light years away from being able to do so.
Jeanine and I learned that more nerves were damaged than those affecting Tyler’s eye. We began to hear the words “cerebral palsy” for the first time. We were frightened and sad, but since doctors were not able to predict its severity – or if they knew, they didn’t tell us – we were hoping for a mild form. Maybe, through extensive therapy, Tyler would be able to live as normal a life as possible. An occupational therapist came to our home each week to exercise Tyler. She emphasized what Tyler could do more than what he couldn’t do, so each visit brightened our day. Jeanine and I stayed positive. We never lost hope.
Tyler had wispy blond hair, blue eyes, a cute little nose, and a rose-petal mouth, perfectly formed. He was a beautiful child. Because he couldn’t crawl or walk, he had little muscle tone, a slightly chubby middle, and he was soft everywhere you touched, like a plump Pillsbury Doughboy. He couldn’t sit upright for any length of time. Jeanine made a cloth tie-around that helped him sit in his high chair. He also had a small wooden corner chair in which he sat, again tied upright, and played with toys we put on a table in front of him. One day, Jeanine propped Tyler in the corner of our soft couch, left the room for a short time, and returned to find him plopped over, lying sideways, right where she had left him. He was smiling, as if knowing that he was in a bit of a pickle, but not to worry, because the mom who took care of him so well would be back soon to help him up. Jeanine couldn’t help laughing at the little guy, but not without crying at the same time.
Many evenings, when I came home from work, Tyler would be lying on our bed. He began laughing and squealing with joy when he heard me open the door. I came into the bedroom and leaned over him so that my face was close to his. He reached up and grabbed my glasses, as if playing a trick on me. This simple act never ceased to amuse him. After he would do this, I would pick him up and gently hold him to my chest. He curled his tiny fingers around my index finger and squeezed with all his might. Though we never spoke a word to one another, that squeeze, his laughter, and the smile on his face were all I needed to know that he loved me.
“A day of grief lasts longer than a month of joy.” Chinese proverb
There are things to do and decisions to make when a child dies, the same as when a person of any age dies. Jeanine and I signed insurance forms, chose a casket, planned the funeral service, wrote an obituary, picked a tombstone, and selected the final outfit that Tyler would wear. We made it through the funeral and graveside services, which Pastor Duane Hoven so compassionately led, then began the rest of our lives without Tyler.
Much has been made of the first year following a death, as, if one can survive it, things magically become better. Neither Jeanine nor I felt anything special about reaching the first anniversary of Tyler’s death. Although her sadness lessened every year, Jeanine believes that it took her four years before things significantly improved. She said it well: “Perhaps the part of me that died is slowly coming back to life.” As for me, I tried to pretend I was okay. I still do. I’m gradually accepting the fact that a parent never recovers from losing a child.
Sorrow is a strange animal. Over the years, I’ve often felt sorry for myself. Doing so makes me feel selfish, for it was Tyler who was cheated out of his life. I’ve felt sorry for Jeanine. She’s been such a wonderful mother for Ben; she was the same for Tyler, but her time to do so was much too brief. I’ve felt sorry for Ben. His years to be a big brother have been cut short. I’ve trod over these sadness paths so many times in the past years that they’re like well-worn trails through a forest. All paths circle back to the start. Back to reality. Back to the place where Tyler lives no more.
I am not the first person to lose a son. I will not be the last. Jeanine and I joined an army of millions who march on in sorrow. We know many by name: Greg and Amy, Rod and Sharon, Erna, Natalie, Rick and Cheryl, Peggy, Mildred, Jeff and Carol, Kay, Glenn and Jo, Linda. We all soldier on.
Many things have helped me endure Tyler’s death, but what has helped most has been putting aside my personal sorrow – rising above it – and turning to others in need. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl wrote “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is.” With this perspective, I carry on as best I can.