I had a brother who died.
For me the story began on a beautiful fall day in Arizona. I was there with my dad and my brother Wes and a bus full of karate students for a tournament. One our way back to the hotel, after pictures of students with trophies and grins, my dad took a detour inside the Phoenix cemetery. I thought he was lost or distracted—both equally likely and familiar.
Then he stopped and asked the students to wait on the bus while he showed my brother and me a gravestone.
Richard Nielson. September 3, 1970. Only one date.
At twenty-six years old, I began to understand the shadow over my dad’s heart.
For him, the story began before I was born when he returned from Vietnam in January of 1970. Robert Alexander Nielson, Sr. A Navy Corpsman/Recon Marine. A soldier coming home to his family.
His wife Loretta was in Arizona with their two young sons—my older brothers—Robby and Randy. My dad was ready to leave Vietnam behind, to return to being a father and a husband.
Loretta, a Type 1 diabetic, was pregnant with another boy within weeks, a risky third pregnancy that suffered complications requiring hospitalization at seven months, but Loretta was sent home in stable condition before the delivery.
Richard was born around 4:00 in the morning. He seemed healthy, a big baby like his brothers had been. Another son.
My dad went home to get some sleep and to see the two other boys.
Phone call at 9:00. Complications. The doctors struggled to stabilize Richard and the baby was sent to a larger hospital in Phoenix. My dad went to see him there, trusting the doctors to take care of the problem and telling himself to ‘soldier up.’ He had been trained well. He was the father. They were the doctors. He stepped back, giving up what would be his last chance to touch Richard out of faith that the medical professionals would handle it.
I imagine my dad pacing in the hospital hallway, not allowed to help his own son when he had fought to save lives in Vietnam. It was a problem he couldn’t stalk or shoot. It was his wife.
It was his son.
Richard died, only thirty hours old, from acute hypoglycemia. He wasn’t diabetic, but living inside the body of a T1D mother had taken its toll. He fought in the womb to stabilize the blood sugar levels of both of them. And after he was born, he kept fighting. His little body didn’t know it could stop.
Back on that fall day in Phoenix, standing at the gravestone, my dad kept repeating, “I should have known. I think I knew. I should have told them what was wrong.” And I know as he spoke, he wasn’t hearing the wind rustle the leaves or the distant traffic, but the soft of the hospital that underscored the doctor’s devastating news.
I should have known.
I knew a little about my dad’s experience in Vietnam. He still has his mint green medic kit and his dive watch. He tried to save lives. He hunted down bombs. He stayed faithful to his wife. He ‘soldiered-up.’ And he thought that someone who had been a hero in the ugly face of war should have been able to save his son.
I think I knew.
My dad and Loretta divorced, never recovering from the rift of grief. My dad married my mom, Pam, and Loretta married a man named Dan. Loretta never had another child, but my parents had three—a son, a daughter (me), and another daughter.
Loretta was part of my life. She even came to my wedding and gave me a set of bathroom rugs. She was fun and kind and died from congenital heart disease, a common T1D health complication, at the age of 48.
I should have told them what was wrong.
For some, T1D is their own child. For some, needles and pin pricks and insulin levels. For others, it is statistics and research and helping.
For me, T1D is Richard. It is the part of my dad’s heart that has forever lived under the shadow of his death, dark and unreachable. I believe my dad buried his capacity for self-forgiveness beneath that tiny gravestone. He has always been kind and generous and distant to those whom he holds most dear.
It’s been almost twelve years since that day in the cemetery, and this is what I know for certain. That it’s okay to let the grief in. It’s okay to be a dad and not a soldier.
I forgive him. Richard forgives him. Maybe someday he can forgive himself, too.
My short story “Simple Magic” is part of a speculative fiction anthology dedicated to funding diabetes research. All author and Crimson Edge Publishing proceeds from Secrets & Doors is donated to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
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