Jeff died today. The emergency room doctor suspects a brain hemorrhage. Jeff was forty five years old. It’s strange writing those words. In a perfect world parents are supposed to precede their children in death.
Jeff led a troubled life. He had his first seizure when he was three months old. From infancy onward he was on medication for epilepsy. Later, in 1st grade they put him on Ritalin to calm him down, a prelude to a lifetime of drug cocktails.
As a teenager he discovered that cannabis soothed his racing mind. So began thirty years of self-medication, including fields of tobacco and mountainsides of coffee. In the 1990s Mayo Clinic performed brain surgery in an effort to alleviate his seizures—the result; seizures continued and he now had short-term memory loss.
It breaks a parent’s heart to watch their child suffer, regardless of his/her age. Many times in the past decade Jeff would lose his train of thought in the middle of a sentence and begin hitting himself on the side of the head trying to realign his words—but they’d be gone. After a moment I’d say a key word and he’d recall what he was saying.
I think now that as an infant, with those very early seizures—and there were many of them, he sustained brain damage. I recall how we’d rush his convulsing little body to the emergency room and they’d send us home with instructions to submerse him in ice water. Neuroscience today recognizes the exponential growth of the brain during the first three years of a child’s life. More than once I remember getting up in the morning to discover him in the throes of a seizure. And I wonder how those electrical storms crashing in his head impacted his baby brain growth.
From the time he was a little boy he loved mechanical things. When he was eight he completely disassembled and reassembled an old lawn mower engine—don’t worry about the rings left on the garage floor. This passion eventually led him to become a certified transmission specialist, auto electric specialist, and a certified welder. But with his seizures he could not hold a job.
Jeff married and had four children but the marriage didn’t work out. He did live to see four grandchildren.
Myself, Jeff, and his first grandson, Aden
Jeff spent much of his adult life in southern Wisconsin. A few years ago I helped him move back to northern Minnesota. I like to think we reconnected. We’d often go to breakfast or lunch together. We did several work projects together. He’d call every few days to see how I was doing. About six months ago he got his driver’s license back and Patti and I helped him get a vehicle. That seemed to open a new world for him.
He was able to get out of his little house more and visit old friends. I think he became a happier person. This morning he stopped to visit for a few minutes and left with a “Love you,” and a smile on his face. Since he and his sisters were tiny we’ve always parted with a “Love you” even when it’s not a very lovable parting.
I’ve come to realize that we all have a burden to bear. About 18 months before Jeff was born I was serving on a gunboat in Vietnam. The riverbanks were heavily defoliated with Agent Orange. We bathed in the dioxin run-off polluted rivers and canals. Monsanto and Dow assured us it was safe. Our government assured us it was safe.
Within a decade of the war, returning veterans fathered thousands of children with new and abnormal birth defects. The Veterans Administration grudgingly acknowledged a few presumptive related defects. Each year the list grows. They say that no way epilepsy can be a result of exposure to dioxin. Monsanto and Dow paid a settlement—I’m sure the attorneys received a bigger payday than the veterans and their families who were poisoned.
In the end, we grieve and carry guilt for things we might have done differently. Just yesterday I told Patti I needed to take Jeff to breakfast—we hadn’t gone for a few weeks. But I’m too late.