by CJ Dyneley
Short story based on Ben Johnson's poem On My First Sonne.
| “Mr Johnson?”
The look on Ben Johnson’s face as his eyes snap up to meet mine is heartbreaking. The wide eyes, gleaming with moisture. The mouth strained, half open, as if about to speak a wealth of words that don’t exist.
Because, you understand, they don’t exist.
Trust me, the words to make something like this better don’t exist. Having been a paediatrician for thirty years, I’ve spent countless torturous nights trying to grasp these whisper-quiet sounds from the ether floating above my head with clumsy, tired hands; But, there has been no sudden flash of inspiration, no God-like voice murmuring in my ear at the appropriate time. The only comfort a doctor in my position can take from this fact is that, honestly, words do not matter. To be completely honest, I could probably say whatever I wanted to a grieving parent- Nothing would be able to pierce the impenetrable fog of horror that descends, lightening quick, upon somebody when they learn that their child is dead.
But this man, Mr Johnson, does not know that his son is dead. That his son, Ben Johnson, named for his father, died on the operating table approximately seven minutes ago. A hit-and-run incident. Mr Johnson thinks that his son is going to get better, and I have to be the one who tells him that he’s not. You see, Ben Johnson’s face, when he turned to look at me just now, was not registering fear, or worry, or even depression. His look was a look of pure hope, and this is even more devastating.
“Mr Johnson, would you like to come into my office?”
The change in his expression when I say these words is comparable to a power cut. I would say it was more similar to a building collapsing, except that this wasn‘t like a disaster on a grand scale. It was simply as if everything inside of Mr Johnson had shut down at once. His eyes glazed over, the mouth closed, his jaw clenched almost imperceptibly, all within the space of around a half second. Simply speaking one sentence had ended this man’s entire life.
Mr Johnson rises from the bank of garish orange plastic chairs without a sound, and follows me silently into my office with almost robotic movements. We get all the way in, close the door, and sit down before he breaks down.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Ben Johnson accuses, his voice thick. “He’s dead! Why don’t you just say it? I’m sick of waiting. Either he’s dead or he’s alive… If he was alive you would have told me out there, out on the chairs, but you didn’t, you didn’t… You bought me into the fucking office so he’s dead!” He suddenly rises from the chair, but at a loss of what to do next, immediately sits back down. I look at my desk, then force myself to meet his gaze.
“I’m sorry, Mr Johnson. We experienced some complications on the operating table, and were unable to resuscitate. Ben died at around half past ten this evening” I haven’t even reached the end of my sentence before Mr Johnson begins shaking, and sobbing hysterically. I get up and try to offer him some tissues, which he bats away with a damp hand. Suddenly, he looks up, his face horrible, contorted with pain and anger.
“I wish I was dead. I wish I could go with him. I wish… I wish it was me instead of him, damn it!” The man stands jerkily, and makes to leave “I swear to God, I’ll never love anything again. I could never love anything again. I don’t ever want to love anything again as much as I loved my son”.