Unanswered Emails

by Carol Henderson

Posted in Open to Hope

In the poem, “Note,” Ellie Schoenfeld writes that she is still sometimes surprised and angry that she receives no calls or emails from the dead. Death should be a place you go for a while and then you come back. Death is supposed to be like going to England. Eventually, you come home.

“The trouble with the dead/

Is that they stay dead.”

I used “Note” as a prompt in a writing workshop I co-lead every week in a medical center. Like everyone in the group, I never know where the prompt will take me on the page, what I’ll unearth.

Sitting around the large table in the hospital resource center, with a group of patients, staff, caregivers, and community members who come together to reflect and write, I began to scribble in my journal, in response to “Note.”

“Can you meet for a quick coffee?” my son Malcolm asks in a text. “I’m going to be in town briefly.”

“Sure,” I say, “Café Driade would be great.”

Like his mother, my son loves coffee.

He is a full-grown man who, as a boy, sprouted legs that suddenly got so long all his pants hit him mid-calf. His knees were always skinned.  Children do that. Grow. Change. Fall down. Get up. Living children, that is.

My son Malcolm died in infancy in 1982 so he never sent emails or scrolled through messages on a smart phone. Maybe he’d have been a Luddite, resistant to Instagram stories and Twitter retweets. Who knows?

Anyway, let’s just say he has gone away for a while and will return. Not as the grunting baby he was, his face the color of skim milk, when he died. I am too old now to mother an infant. I have two grown daughters, born after he died, and two grandchildren.  For the most part, I have tucked into the soft wool pocket of a rarely-worn winter coat, those frenzied hospital images and frightful vignettes that comprised his brief stay on this earth.

Let’s just say that, instead of dying, he continued to thrive, that he was written up in studies and newspapers all over the world. And yes, his picture, when he turned 16, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, as one of his doctors—after the first miracle surgery–had predicted.

Who would he be now over 35 years later?

Sometimes, it’s as though he abides in an alternate reality, a parallel universe, a Gwyneth Paltrow Sliding Doors type narrative. In that world, my son, like me, eats too fast, sweats easily, and has an unfortunate habit of running his fingers through his unruly hair.

Where does my son live? He’s living in Boston right now, the city where he died (at Boston Children’s Hospital). But he doesn’t dwell on this, of course. He’s too busy. He doesn’t even remember his time there, though the surgery, well, the initial surgery, was certainly memorable. He was the first baby in the world to undergo this experimental procedure—and it was miraculously successful. (We won’t go into what happened later, how the fix unraveled and our son died in a second open heart surgery.)

No. Let’s say he’s been married for five years to a lovely tall-like-him woman, Ellen, who is a pediatrician. He’s an architect, fulfilling his grandfather’s unrealized dream. He’s lanky and a runner. He and Ellen have a spirited little girl, Olive, who is two and a half. They manage their work schedules so that they can take care of her most of the time without needing extra help. I visit when I can.

And, of course, my son loves dogs. He has a beloved little Scottie named Inky he found abandoned on a country road. Inky tolerates Olive’s ear and tail pulling.  And her trying to wrap the dog in her “blankies.”

Like me, all of my children love dogs.

Getting a dog was the first thing I knew I had to do when I became pregnant with him. A child needs to grow up with a dog. Of this I was certain. My husband Bill and I found a black lab puppy mix, Molly.

But, actually, Molly and Malcolm never met.  Malcolm came home from the hospital briefly, not because he was better but because of the meningitis snaking through the pediatric ward in the large hospital where he was being treated.  By then my parents had taken Molly home with them to New Jersey. Bill and I were too busy chasing after our son to be able to care for a young puppy at home. Molly had snuggled on the couch with me as I labored with Malcolm.  That’s as close as the two got to meeting.

Now, Malcolm and I are meeting at the café. But wait. The timer sounds. It’s time to wrap up the writing. I haven’t finished. We haven’t met up yet, me and my handsome adult son.

When will I see him again?

Perhaps my grown boy is in England, and coming back again. An email, maybe a text, might arrive.

Any minute now.