The following essay is excerpted from Lindsey Rogers-Seitz's new memoir, "The Gift of Ben: Loving Through Imperfection," and describes the period when she went to the hospital to meet her husband, Kyle Seitz, after learning that their young son, Ben, had died.
He was here, and then he was nowhere.
My mind fell out of itself when I finally heard the words “He didn’t make it.” It had begun to falter early on, piecing together the scraps of a failing world, but it had been the walk down the hallway where the living lay, to the small room (This is where they tell people, I had thought) with a black Bible on a circular table, that had caused my brain to finally clamp shut in order to stop the bleeding.
I sensed their breath levitating, paused midair, waiting for the break to occur. Time became what it was meant to be — unmoving. The world around me, four walls and a mass of white, disappeared, and I was inside myself, a pool of darkness, infinite time, and a calm. So much calm. I sensed a shedding of my outer body, leaving nothing behind. Just the essence of me. Every moment of my life flashed before my eyes and coalesced into one, still and silent. The nowhere he was supposed to be turned into the everywhere I really was. With an inward gasp — “oh my God, no, no" — reality became me and hands covering my mouth, head hung low.
Is this what the black book on the circular table means by born again?
Kyle is dead, I thought. He’s killed himself. I’ve lost two people in one day.
“Where’s my husband?” My eyes move from the floor to the nebulous mass, ebbing and flowing with uncertainty.
“He’s in a room,” someone answered.
I pictured him lying supine, clear coiled tubes running from his mouth, or dead. He was just simply dead.
“How is he?” I finally asked. They paused and looked at each other, until one responded, “Well, he’s ... despondent. Do you want to see him?”
The question confused me. Why would I not want to see him? I thought.
The female doctor led the procession down the hallway. As we approached the double doors, I wanted to turn and run, as if by reversing course I could reverse time. I held my breath, retaining the stale air of history. They ushered me into a hallway of empty rooms, closed off by doors on each end. The new mass of white that had been loitering silently in the hallway scattered as we entered. A hand guided me into the first room on the left, but I knew where to find my husband. The sounds were unmistakable. I felt a faltering expectation around me. I was supposed to look at him. I was not sure at the time what I was witnessing. A body torn asunder by love and longing. A specter of the man I had once known, an empty vessel with no purpose except to breathe. It was the complete degeneration of a human into a form of near nonexistence.
As I watched the scene unfold before me, I was left questioning what it meant to love another. Do they become a part of you, such that when they are gone, a part of you leaves too? Do souls become intertwined, with the distance of one from another causing physical pain? I understood instantaneously — that which we call love is much more than an emotion. It is too integral to be merely that.
I did not get the chance to say goodbye, I thought as I stared at him. He would never be the same. Our life was over and I missed him already. Part of him had died, and only a primal grief remained. His mind had fled long ago, as a refugee into the night. The gravity of longing was already taking its physical toll. He sat on the edge of the gurney, stripped down to an undershirt, khaki pants and brown socks. His body rocked toward me. Then away. Red face, veins bulging, salty remains of sweat already forming streaks across his face. The reality of death crawled like ants all over his body, as one foot traveled up the opposite leg, trying to scrape them off.
Nurses and police stood in the hallway. No one could watch these events unfold. It was the pain from which you turn your head, and I wanted them to turn away. Please don’t watch this. There was something personal about the night, something I needed to keep private. I remained frozen in the doorway, trying to read his emotions through his body. I heard only the nonsensical mutterings of mourning.
“No, no, no, this is not real,” he mumbled with each thrust of his hands against his head, then moving down his body and back up again. His head shook with each repetition of the phrase, as if to oust an intruder. The reality of this day. He was, as I had been while seated in the room with the black book on the circular table, alone. I could not save him. I could not take the pain away. I was helpless.
Love transcended itself without my knowing, and I became him, inside of him. I was the pain languishing inside his soul. He would have to extricate me from the inside out. My body moved intimately, as it climbed onto his lap, straddling his body with my legs, wrapping my fingers between his as I tried to remove them from the skin of his face.
My body moved intimately, as it climbed onto his lap, straddling his body with my legs, wrapping my fingers between his as I tried to remove them from the skin of his face.
“I love you. I love you. I love you.” He continued rocking.
“Look at me,” I said again and again. “I love you. Put your arms around me.”
“No, no, no, this is not real,” he repeated.
“Put. Your arms. Around me. I’m here.”
His mumbling broke into screaming sobs, as if the release of one body into another was physically painful. My shoulder became wet with tears as he squeezed my body until I hurt. There was another kind of hurt boiling inside of me too, and after several minutes, thoughts overcame my initial instinct. I did not understand why my body had responded like that, why I had told him I loved him. He doesn’t get to sob, I thought. To touch me. To rely on me to save him. These arms held Ben this morning. I could not save or pity him. I only wanted him to suffer, as my skin began to recoil from his touch.
“I love you and I’m here, but I need some time to myself. I’ll be back.”
“Don’t leave,” he cried. Leave was an ambiguous word.
“I have to,” I replied as I stood to walk away.
My brain swam in the icy waters of grief and shock. I became numb. I understood nothing. He had killed Ben, yet I had told him I loved him. I had not thought it through, or maybe that was love itself. As I left the room, I leaned in to whisper to the nurse standing guard, “Have you given him anything?”
“Not yet,” he responded.
“You need to give him something to calm him down. Because he is not OK. He can’t get through this without medication.”
I could not get through this if I were him. Thank God it’s not me, I thought in a moment of weakness as I walked out of the room.
As I took my seat in one of the blue plastic chairs lining the hallway, I noticed a new sensation growing in my chest. The pain born from a heart existing outside the body. It was not even a heart. It was more. It was part of Ben, and Ben was gone. It had torn through the fabric of space and time, was floating aimlessly in another world, already searching for something it could no longer have. As I sat in silence, I knew. That was what it meant to love another.
I need someone to translate these words and events for me, I thought. A foreign language was being spoken, and my glances around the hallway showed red eyes, whispers, police, strangers entering, exiting. The sounds of moans coming from my husband’s room. I could translate none of these signals.
“Here, we’ll get you a room so you can be alone and talk,” a voice asserted.
Nothing makes sense; please translate.
The curtain was drawn, and I stepped in. I heard the swish of privacy close behind me. Lights were switched on. The starkness was an overwhelming reality. “I can’t handle the brightness,” I muttered. The nurse walked in quick obedience to switch the back dimmer lights on and then left. My nervous system eased slightly. I felt as if I could finally hide, and as the room opened its mouth of darkness to me, I visualized another room where my son lay. My mind convulsed, began to sputter and moan.
He didn’t make it. Left in car. Forgot. Day care.
Starkness of bright lights.
Police and red eyes of disbelief surrounding me.
I touched his skin this morning, but now he’s gone. With that thought I faltered and began dialing, a selfish instinct, making me feel weak and dependent. It was an intimate, personal grief and I feared for anyone to bear witness, as if by mere observance the pain would be transferred from my body to theirs. However, the burden was unbearable, and I thought I may just be able to survive if I could share it. I needed to find my way through the ruins. So I called my dear friend, Michele.
“I need you to come to the hospital. I can’t talk about it right now, but please come. Something has happened to Ben.”
Adapted from "The Gift of Ben: Loving Through Imperfection" by Lindsey Rogers-Seitz; Copyright 2023.