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Personal Essay | The Last Picture

By Nancy DeRego

This week I have gone back several times to look at the last picture of my son, Lucas. He died five months ago, and until now I have not been able to look at the picture. I took it at the end of the short time we were allotted by the mortuary to sit with his body. In Victorian times, it was common to have a family portrait done with a deceased loved one before the funeral. We didnʻt go that far, but I just wanted to have one last picture. I sometimes wonder if the way the people of the 19th century lived with death would have helped with this loss more – taking pictures of their dead, sitting with the body in an overnight wake, mourning formally for a year.

I am a little over five months out from the death of my 18-year-old son, and I can already see the impatience and confusion with the way I mourn in some of the people around me. We do not make provisions for such a loss, I think, in our get-better, self-help culture. You don’t get over grief. Grief is something you lean into, something you ride like a huge, unmanageable wave – you can balance, but you cannot control where it takes you.

I was not able to see Lucas at the scene of his accident. When we arrived at the scene, the ambulance had inexplicably left. I tried to stay until the ambulance came back, so I could see him from a distance, but the police officers discouraged us, saying it would take too long. I wish so much they had let us go to him that night. I am still struggling with the fact that I would so calmly accept the authority of a man who was barely older than my son. That I did not fight to go to my child, and I know some of it is because I was afraid of what I would see.

He died on a Friday night. They identified him via fingerprint, so we did not have to identify the body. His autopsy was Tuesday. His pediatrician, his doctor from birth, went to the autopsy and described the results to me over the phone. I have not seen the report, nor do I want to, Her description was more than enough for me. We were not able to see him until the next Friday. By then, I had not seen my son for a week.

I was still in quite a fog then, but I remember the mortician telling me where to find him – it was down a longish hallway and through a courtyard, up a few stairs and into a large room with chairs. I was in such a hurry to get to him – I had a mother’s sense of urgency to get to my injured child. There was absolutely nothing I could do for him, but I still needed to be with him. When I walked into the large room – chairs to the left, a kind of dias to the right, his body was lying on a gurney that was made up like a bed with white sheets and a tan blanket. I started wailing, in the doorway, quietly, still concerned somehow for the feelings of others.

Lucas almost looked like he was sleeping.  His hair was wet and dark like he came out of a shower, but brushed back in a way he would not have done. He was so cold, of course, but I kissed him over and over and stroked his hair.  His face was hardly marked, just a little contusion on his lip. It reminded me of the time he split his lip during the 8th grade dance: the boys were playing football and his lip split, and there was blood all over his nice shirt. I know that in 8th grade that was quite a shocker for him. Facial injuries bleed so much, but it was ultimately fairly minor. It seemed incomprehensible that he was dead. My baby, my boy, the young man of whom I was so proud.

The night of his accident, I wasn’t sure how damaged he would be, and I was afraid. Perhaps this is why I didn’t push harder to go to him. Perhaps, as my husband says, it was because we have respect for authority. Perhaps we were just in shock. His doctor told me, “He looks like Lucas; you should see him.” I am grateful that she told me to go. I am so glad I had that last time with him.

I could feel his hands and his arms through the blankets. It felt like my son. I had given him a backrub every night of his last two months of life and many times before, of course, and it was like it was my last time to do that for him. I could also feel where he was crushed, although I didn’t point it out to anyone else and have told no one until now. My other children were hesitant to touch him – I understood. The only dead person I have seen was my grandmother when I was 24, and I couldn’t make myself touch her. I didn’t feel that way about my son. If I could have picked him up and held him, I would have. We placed anthuriums from our yard with him, and we said a rosary.  I just sat on the floor near the bier, with my hand on him. I think my husband sat with me, but my focus was completely on my son. Everyone else sat in the chairs as we prayed.

The mortician in charge of him was someone from our tiny parish, so he let us stay for two hours, although we were only supposed to have the one. He also made the person who prepared his body for us put his hair back on – they wanted to just put a cap over him that would reveal his face.  I am so grateful to this man for being insistent. All I wanted to was to stroke his hair, and I got to do that.

I don’t remember that much of that day, except how he felt under my hands, how I felt seeing him. My sister said the most powerful moment of the morning was the huddle my children, my husband, and I made over Lucas’ body. I don’t remember doing that.  I can barely remember who was there with us, suffering our loss beside us. The numbness of losing your child is a cushion in the beginning, but I am so grateful to have this last picture to help me remember.  It joins the hundreds of pictures of our four children, three of whom will go on into a future, growing older without their brother.

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