The longest hours

Waiting to find out if you've lost your child is the worst torture.

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

While trying to feed my addiction to media coverage of the Littleton massacres, I turned on the television, only to find Luke and Laura, daytime TV's most infamous couple, identifying their son's remains at the morgue. In 1983, my husband and I went through the same horrific ritual when we had to identify our dead 17-year-old son. At some point after the siege at Columbine High School, several parents had to do the same.

Luke and Laura's trauma was a sanitized version. She may have "fainted," but we all know there was no one under that sheet; there was no blood, no charred remains. In the messy, real world version, our son was laid out on a steel table covered by a white sheet, and green fluid, still wet, stained another sheet under his head. Until the massacre in Littleton, I never thought myself privileged to see my dead son so promptly -- his drowned body relatively undamaged -- so that my grieving could begin.

What I find appalling about Littleton is that none of the parents of the dead
children could identify them until more than 36 hours after their deaths. No matter how hard I try, I cannot fathom how those parents endured the torture
of waiting. Yes, it makes sense that their children had to lie there, growing
colder by the hour on hard linoleum floors, in pools of their own blood. After all, there were several bombs planted, and this was a crime scene. Still, I guarantee I would have needed to be restrained and heavily medicated to keep me from barreling through the police barricades to find my child, to make sure he had no pulse. The parents of these 15 children had to wonder if their child might be alive, maybe lying there with a faint heartbeat, still able to be revived. My heart breaks when I hear of anyone losing a child, but I cannot imagine the horror of a parent left standing alone after seeing all the others reunite with their children outside the school.

When Luke and Laura found out about their son's death, Luke reacted with anger and Laura with denial. Fifteen years ago, when my husband got a phone call from our son's hysterical girlfriend, Laurie, he could not hear her say that Mike had drowned. Instead, he hung up the phone and rather calmly told me that Mike had had some kind of accident at a lake, and we needed to call the hospitals and the police. No one had any information. The accident took place in an unincorporated area near Stanford University under several jurisdictions. No one knew who was responsible for the terrible job of notifying us, so we slipped through the cracks. When we finally received a call from the morgue just after midnight, we had only one hope: that it was a mistake. On the longest 18-mile drive of my life I was sure that it couldn't be Mike, but another boy who looked like him and had his wallet.

Maybe this was a gift, this not knowing. Maybe all of those parents in Littleton were blessed for an extra day and a half before they had to face the truth. But I don't believe that. I believe that some of those parents had to be restrained because no bomb scare would keep a parent from needing to know the truth, to find and check, and to hold their child. It is a parent's right to comfort our children, just as it is to expect that we will never have to bury them.

I lost hours Tuesday watching television to see how it was going to end. I cried when I heard teens describe grisly murder scenes, or writing good-bye letters to their family from inside a closet. I was especially touched when I saw parents hugging their healthy, whole, living children. At some point, though, I began to see a dad peering desperately over someone's shoulders or hear a mom frantically asking if anyone had seen her daughter, and I became enveloped by their pain. I have no idea if the parents I saw that afternoon were the ones who lost their children. I only know that I couldn't quit watching and wondering how the authorities persuaded these parents to sit tight. Even after finally going to bed, I awoke three times during the night and turned on the television to find out if the bodies had been released.

I did not have this reaction to the Oklahoma City bombing or any of the other
high school murder sprees that have taken place over the past few years; I was able to go on with my life. My husband was concerned about me, and I called a counselor this morning, who made time to see me. She told me I was OK and that some traumas will revisit us in strange and convoluted ways. She asked if I would take it easy and find some way to comfort myself, to allow room for my grief and not to feel crazy. Most of all I was reassured that parents who have never lost a child, parents who have never had a call from the morgue and people who are not even parents are horrified by last week's bloody rampage in Colorado and appalled that those parents were left wondering about their child's fate for more than a day.

As the parents in Littleton begin their grieving, not understanding that it will change (although it never leaves), I will go to bed and hope that when I shut my eyes, I will see Mike's smile and not the green stain. I will try to remember what his life gave me rather than what his death took away. Remembering what was good is what I wish for everyone in Littleton.

By Carol Ormandy

Carol Ormandy is a freelance writer in San Mateo, Calif.

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