According to the Genetics Home Research website, “Humans normally have 46 chromosomes in each cell, divided into 23 pairs. Two copies of chromosome 18, one copy inherited from each parent, form one of the pairs. Chromosome 18 spans about 76 million base pairs (the building blocks of DNA) and represents approximately 2.7 percent of the total DNA in cells.”
Our second son, Chandler McBrien, was conceived with an extra 18th chromosome. It was a death sentence, in utero. Nature selected him for extinction. Or perhaps God visited upon the son retribution for the sins of the father.
For a long while during my wife’s pregnancy, we were happy in our ignorance. In week 28, technology revealed to us a son. I clearly recall lying in bed at night, my arm draped over my wife’s abdomen, feeling the boy somersaulting, twisting, turning, taking measure of his universe.
In week 29, technology revealed to us a son unable to survive beyond the womb. We could not believe or accept the litany of deformities, mostly invisible, that having an extra 18th chromosome wreaks upon the human body. As it turns out, one too many building blocks is as bad as one too few.
I am ashamed to say I didn’t even know if babies born dead were buried in the customary way, or if the corpse was just unceremoniously disposed of.
I asked a funeral director, an old friend, if a proper service and burial were in order. He assured me they were. And so, knowing the child’s fate beforehand, we visited the funeral home to make the necessary arrangements for death.
One of death’s choices is the container of internment. My friend ushered us into a room displaying a variety of caskets, most of them adult-sized, but a few were for children. I suppose the selection was typical. We had to choose between wood finish or metal, pleated interior or plain, expensive or less so. We stood addled with silence.
Then he opened a nearby closet door and extracted a white Styrofoam box. “This is a coffin?” I thought to myself. I’ll be damned if I’ll bury my son in a beer cooler.
On January 6, 1987, we arrived at the hospital for induced labor. My memories of that day are sketchy, likely because later that night I washed most of them away in a flood of alcohol and self-pity. I remember the doctor pulling Chandler into this world and depositing the lifeless body on his mother’s stomach, as if to be rid of the whole unpleasant business. I remember turning away. I remember grief. Although we have not spoken of it much over the years, I sense that my wife remembers every detail, every second, every sensation, every emotion, every thought. Each unanswerable question.
My parents’ generation did not know if their children would be born girls or boys, whole or maimed, healthy or sick. Technology enabled my generation, the Baby Boomers, to know much more. But we were relatively powerless to use that which we knew.
Things will be different for our children. Technology is giving them choices both terrible and great.
It is a luxury and a burden I do not envy.