But there is someone in my life, someone I love more than anything in the world, who must be hidden. He is eleven, and can tell you whatever you need to know about World War II aircraft, D-Day, computers, or pretty much any animal, living or extinct. I’ll call him Benjy. Benjy has looked life over and decided against it. He’s a child who wants to die.
I would like to tell you about him, but I do not want someone in his future life – a date, a boss – to Google him and read these things, decide he is not a good bet. I think he is a good bet, even though I do not know if he will be with me for two more years or forty. I do not know which of us will die first, and whether in his case that death will be an act of volition. There is not much I can do beyond get him every kind of therapeutic help that is available to him, give him his three or four meds every morning and night, listen to him, hold him, love him. I do not pray, but I accept other people’s prayers with profound gratitude. Maybe, I think, the sheer goodness of all those earnest folks will work a transformative kind of magic, and make Benjy choose life.
Benjy has wanted to die since he was four. I know, that’s not possible: children of four do not want to die. They don’t know about death. They like to watch trucks roll past their preschool windows but do not, ever, express the desire to throw themselves under the wheels of those trucks. Nor do they inform their teacher of an urge to leap out the second-story window through which they have watched certain trucks rumble by. I would believe you when you utter this truth, except Benjy has disproved it. He expressed those exact desires when he was four years old and still had the round face of a baby. His little corduroy pants sported gathered waistbands, and his sneakers had flashing lights embedded in their soles, and Velcro closures. He was a little bitty boy, and already he had had enough.
At the time, my husband, Lars (not his real name), and I did not really believe these episodes meant much. How could we? Everyone knows four-year-old boys do not want to end their lives by diving under the wheels of a truck. What we knew about Ben was this: he had Pervasive Developmental Disorder-Not Otherwise Specified (a kind of autism), and life was a struggle for us all -- Ben, his sister Saskia (not her real name), Lars and me. Oh, life was hard. A rigid, tantrummy ordeal, a sensory nightmare. Wild furies; bouts of desperate sadness; a tight little body, stiff as a plank; delayed development all around. I remember breathless battles to get Benjy buckled into his car seat, his back arched, body unyielding. I would sometimes resort to brute strength, and even that did not always work. Then it was my tears and Ben’s screams and Saskia’s impatience (can’t we DRIVE already?) and I was ready for a glass of wine, even though it was nine in the morning.
Lars and I dropped Benjy back at Franciscan Children’s Hospital tonight at eight. He’d been out on a twelve-hour pass. Tomorrow he will be discharged and tonight he is mourning the impending loss of the many, many lovely young women (and a couple of lovely young men) who have cared for him on Unit One, the children’s psychiatric unit. He's already missing the other kids he’s gotten to know and like. For a lonely boy, a lonely boy who wants to die, the hospital can be a wonderful thing, with friends who can’t leave him, at least for a while – friends as wrecked and lonely as he is. So tonight he was depressed when we took him back, because it’s been almost three weeks, and tomorrow he must say goodbye and go back to Real Life, which is unbearably hard.
But he is still with us, and he is halfway to twelve. And we will see what tomorrow brings.