As a hospital chaplain, I sometimes see things that are too heartbreaking to forget. Other times, I witness things that are too hideous to remember. On rare occasions, I encounter both.
Such was the case 20 years ago when paramedics rolled a 3-year-old boy into the emergency room at Houston Northwest Medical Center. His blue eyes, medium-length blond hair and cherubic face gave the hint of a child model.
Within seconds, the trauma room spun with controlled chaos as every available hand assembled to perform CPR. Doctors shouted orders, techs charged defibrillators and nurses gave injections with Hail Mary fervor.
I took my place outside the trauma room alongside Diane, the nurse manager, to wait for arriving family members. A few minutes later a man burst through the automatic doors of the ambulance bay.
"Where's my son?" he yelled to no one in particular. At over six feet tall, wearing torn jeans, sandals and a deep surfer's tan, the stringy-haired 20-something could've passed for a shirtless Don Johnson.
"Take him to the family room," Diane whispered, "and wait." "Wait" was Diane's paraphrase for, "Sit, shut up and don't tell him a thing."
So, inside the waiting room, I simply listened as the man explained that his wife was on her way from the lounge where she worked as a stripper. In fact, they were both strippers, working alternating shifts so they could raise their son.
Before I could react to that, the man waved his hands as if to ward off any coming judgment. And then he said something much worse.
"We were just playing," he explained. "I was only horsing around."
Twenty minutes later, Diane appeared with the ER doctor to tell the father that his son was dead.
"What happened?" the doctor asked.
The man restarted his "horseplay" story just as a woman in a fishnet bodysuit lunged into the room from the hospital hallway.
"You son of a (expletive)! What did you do to my son?" she screamed. Two police officers quickly restrained the distraught mother and started asking their own questions.
When the man tried to say he'd only given his son a "playful" stomach punch, I could feel my own fists starting to clench. Even Jesus seemed to wish violence on those who would harm a child, saying, "it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
I was ready to drown this man myself, until I watched him bring his face between his knees and let out a guttural scream.
"My son. My son," he cried out. Then, in a volatile mixture of grief and guilt, he started weeping and convulsing with heartache.
The man had just admitted before witnesses that he killed his son. Yet now he genuinely grieved the loss that he, himself, had caused.
It was an early lesson in my ministry career of how complicated grief can become. It isn't always black and white; it isn't always innocent. As admittedly guilty as this man was, he also was a victim deserving of spiritual care.
Even today as I write this column, I still wonder if the man was grieving the loss of his son or the impending loss of his freedom. Now, after 20 years of working with the grief-stricken, I can say with certitude: "Yes. And yes."
Email questions for Norris Burkes to firstname.lastname@example.org.