A glimpse into a family sharing a secret – an insight into stoicism of days gone by and its effect on interpersonal communications.
There is a black-and-white photo of a blonde-haired baby on my mother’s dressing table. He is sitting up in a high-chair, smiling and waving his arms and he has little, soft, white shoes and socks on.
At about the age of four it occurred to me to ask my mother about this baby.
“That’s David. He died when he was ten months old.” She continued to fold clothes on her bed.
“Two years before you were born.”
“He suffocated in his cot.”
“What does ‘suffocated’ mean?”
“It’s when you can’t breathe.” And then she left the room.
That’s when the word ‘suffocation’ was added to my vocabulary. I imagined all the covers closing in around this chubby baby to the point where he could no longer breathe. It made me feel breathless myself. But as I have grown older I have felt increasingly suffocated by the blanket of silence covering the whole event. This story isn’t just about a baby deprived of oxygen; it involves a whole cast of characters, some of them too young themselves to comprehend the situation in which they found themselves on a cold July night in 1964.
My brother, Michael, the eldest of the family, and my eldest sister, Margaret, were away at boarding school when it happened. Margaret says the first she knew of it was when one of the other girls came to tell her that the Mother Superior wanted to see Margaret in her office. She assumed that she was in trouble – for what she had no idea, but then in those days looking at your naked reflection in the bath water was a sin.
Margaret knocked on the office door and entered. The nun sat on the other side of her desk and when Margaret had closed the door and turned to face her she calmly announced that her baby brother had died.
Years later, Margaret told me of how she had seriously worried for many years if she had caused David’s death. When he was about six months old Margaret was minding David while Mum was busy in the kitchen. She sat on the floor in front of the television next to Michael and sat David up on a low stool between them. As she became absorbed in the television programme, she forgot about David and he tumbled off the stool hitting his head on the hard wooden floor.
The day after David died, Margaret and Michael were picked up from their respective schools and taken back to the house where our uncle and grandmother lived. They spent a couple of days there before being returned to school. They did not come home until the next school holidays some weeks later. Having left their much-loved baby brother the previous holidays they returned to find him not only gone, but all sign of him removed bar the photo on the dressing table. A code of silence like an impenetrable brick wall had been erected around all memory of him.
From my earliest memory of finding out about David, I rapidly learned this code of silence. No one ever told me not to talk about it, but the mere fact that they never did, except in very rare, guilty whispers, was enough. There was an occasion when we had the old box of family photos out while a friend was visiting. Michael had put together an album of all of our baby photos. There are many photos of Michael and diminishing numbers of his sisters in descending order of birth until me – the youngest; there are so many of me that they couldn’t fit into the album and are loose throughout the box. But floating amongst all the loose photos is a handful of another baby. The friend asked who it was. I looked at my sisters nervously and one of them lowered her voice to a whisper,
“That’s David. He died when he was ten months old.” At that moment I became acutely aware of my mother’s exact location in the house. It never occurs to young children to question these rules until they are much older. But when you start to question, who do you ask? How do you ask? I have never been game to bring it up, even though I desperately wanted to know what actually happened to David. What could be so bad about asking? There would be tears. There would be anger directed at me and I could get myself into big trouble. Breach of the code could mean expulsion from the club and as a late admission I felt I had less ground on which to stand. I had to just wait and hope.
I finally heard the fullest version of the story when Michael, aged 49 by then, was dying from cancer. It took a couple of years and I watched it start to bring up memories and emotions surrounding the events of that terrible night. My sister, Catherine, had called me to talk about how things were going in terms of Michael’s slow decline and of how it was being handled. Then she began to talk of David.
My sisters, Anne aged 11, Catherine aged 8 and Mary aged 6, were just going to bed that night. Catherine and Mary shared a room and Anne shared with David and Margaret when she was home from school. The three girls had just said goodnight to our parents and Catherine and Mary were walking up the hall to their room when Catherine heard Anne call out urgently to Mum who came running from the lounge room into David’s room. She pulled back his covers and began to scream. The scream brought Dad running in. Catherine says she stood rooted to the floor in the hall as the events unfolded in front of her like a movie.
Dad scooped David up and ran into his and Mum’s room where he tried to resuscitate him. Mum ran straight out the front door and down to the corner where the family doctor lived. The next thing Catherine knew ambulance officers were running in with Mum. They ran past her, grabbed David and ran back out the front door with him. She remembers Mum on the phone pleading with the nuns up at the convent to “please pray for my little boy”. Then everyone was gone and the three girls were left on their own; the only instructions Mum gave as she raced out into the cold night were to “kneel down and say the Rosary”. And so, says Catherine, they did.
Mary says her most vivid memories of that night are of seeing David’s little legs on Mum and Dad’s bed as they frantically worked on him. She remembers too, the ambulance officers pushing Dad out of the back of the ambulance as he sobbed uncontrollably.
Anne and Catherine were sent off to school as usual the very next day. Catherine says she came home to find all of David’s things gone; the cot, high-chair, toys, and pram had been cleaned and put away as had all his clothes and nappies. Mum wandered about the house like a ghost. Mary, too young by far to comprehend, kept trying to ask about David. Catherine would hit her and kick her trying to shut her up. She pulled her out of Mum’s sight one day and punched her, threatening to kill her if she ever mentioned David again. She said she just couldn’t bear to see Mum upset. Forty-four years later these two no longer speak to one another.
Mary did not go to school that day. She remembers riding her bike up to the corner where the school was. It was recess and two boys who were out playing looked up and asked her why she wasn’t at school. She quickly turned the bike around and sped home.
When the death notice appeared in the local paper, the girls pointed it out to Dad who said in hushed, hurried tones, “Don’t let your mother see that”.
The night before the funeral, Dad took Anne and Catherine to see David’s body. The Mother Superior from the local convent was there and when Dad placed his Rosary beads around David’s little hands, she quietly took her own beads out of her pocket and gave them to Dad by way of replacement. A few days later Mum spotted these new beads on the bedside table while she was making the bed. She questioned Dad about it but he kept avoiding the issue until she got angry with him and he stormed off.
Mary wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral and was sent away to friends, Michael and Margaret stayed at boarding school and my mother stayed home. Only Dad went with Anne and Catherine.
When Mary’s fourth baby was born with Downes’ Syndrome, Mum came to stay with her to give her some support, which consisted of advising Mary that she would just have to be stoic and get on with it. But then, to Mary’s amazement, she began to tell her about how she coped in the first weeks after David died. She said a good friend of our family came over every night and they would sit and drink together. Where Dad was at the time she didn’t say. He was probably at the RSL with his mates, which is where he seemed to be throughout most of my childhood. Mum said she didn’t know how she would have coped if it wasn’t for this friend. Then, Mary says, Mum downed several Scotches and went to bed.
These few disjointed memories are all I know of my brother David. My mother’s determination to never talk about it is extraordinary and Catherine says that as a result of this enforced silence they have forgotten what few memories they had, because being unable to share them has made it impossible to keep them alive.
There was one bizarre episode when I was a teenager where Mum suddenly announced that she was going up to the cemetery. I decided to tag along; for some reason I always liked going to the cemetery. I enjoyed reading the gravestones, but I especially liked seeing David’s grave. Perhaps it’s because this is the only tangible connection I have with him. Morbidly, as a child I always tried to imagine what he looked like down there in his tiny coffin. But he does not lie there alone. Another baby who died, eleven years before, lies next to him. She was baby number four. None of my siblings knew about this little girl until David died. Since my parents knew they would eventually see David’s grave, they were forced to tell them about their sister who died twenty-four hours after a long and difficult birth, her little skull crushed by a pair of mishandled forceps. There aren’t even any photos of this little girl – no memories at all: complete silence. There is just her name on a gravestone: Rose Cecilia.
On this occasion Mum had brought a bucket and scrubbing brush. She proceeded to give the cement and blue-tiled grave a good scrub the same as if she were cleaning the bathroom at home. When she was finished she stood back out of breath and with a sharp sniff said, “There. That’s better.”
This was confusing. Shouldn’t she be a bit more emotional about it? I had no idea how to respond. Should I compliment her on the immaculate state of her babies’ gravestone, or offer sympathy for the fact that she has a gravestone to keep clean? I just stood there and said nothing.
I once took one of the photos of David from the photo box intending to keep it. I wanted my own connection with him. I don’t know where it ended up. So I just keep the few scraps I know about him and hope that maybe I can add some more to the collection as time goes on.
Share this post