A Father’s Story of Love
Robert R. Burdt
There’s a hole in my heart and a wondering that will never leave, and yet, I have had a great life.
His name was Brandon, and he was my son, my first child, the one who made me a father. This was his first gift.
Brandon died on Good Friday, April 13th. He never lived to see age two. His birth was the happiest day of my life, and every day for the first six months, my heart expanded daily as I watched this sweet, good-natured baby smile and blossom.
With little warning, everything changed and when we took him to the doctor, we learned he had an incurable heart defect. My joy turned to fear and a sadness more profound than I’d ever known or could have imagined. As I fought to save my son’s life and make every day of his life the best it could be, I also discovered a courage within myself I didn’t know existed. That was Brandon’s second gift.
We never gave up trying to save his life. Brandon spent the days, weeks, and months prior to his death in and out of Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California. When he was home, we had to drain the fluids from his lungs every four hours to keep him comfortable. I experienced every grimace of pain with him. Those times when he felt well, his contagious smiles and giggles brightened my days. This was his third gift: he taught me that when life is going well, celebrate and don’t hang on to yesterday’s pain. Maybe his real lesson was that pain teaches us to celebrate any chance we have to experience happiness.
Brandon died thirty-seven years ago and as I write this, my body shudders as it recalls those days and nights I spent helplessly watching my baby suffer as his life was being stolen. Until Brandon became ill and died, I had never experienced grief. Grief was just a word, something that happened to other people. Once he was gone, my grief felt like I lived in a barren forest destroyed by fire. No beauty to be seen no matter where I looked—just total, unrelenting devastation. Being a man, I was expected to stay strong, and while I could pretend to anyone looking from the outside, inside I was a shadow of the man I’d been.
When Brandon was undergoing treatment at Children’s Hospital, my wife and I didn’t want him to be alone, so one of us was always there. The hospital had no accommodations for us or other parents, so I would spend each night sleeping under his crib so I could remain close to him. Unfortunately, for reasons known only to them, many parents I met were unable stay with their children.
Although my grief was all-consuming, I believed Brandon’s life had to have meaning beyond the still unimaginable fact that he was gone. I got together with a few other parents I’d met when we were at the hospital and together we decided to raise money for a home so that parents would have a place to stay close by. There were many fundraisers, and meetings with hospital executives and local businesses. Getting involved and knowing I was doing something to help others helped me cope with my grief. My forest was devastated but I began to see new trees and flowers and hear the birds singing. This was Brandon’s fourth gift: he added meaning and purpose to my life and to the lives of many others.
Brandon gave me the gift of fatherhood and love, and his courage enabled me to reach out to others, knowing it was more important to do something which would honor Brandon’s life rather than sink down forever in a hole. I wanted the joy of his life to mean more than the pain of his loss. Brandon lived and because he did, I learned to celebrate life whenever there’s an opportunity, and to be a better father to my two sons who never knew their older brother.
I will always miss Brandon, but because of him, I learned compassion, love, and how to listen to others when they are hurting without having a need to fix, judge, or change. That was his fifth gift: he made me a better man, husband, father, and friend.
These were Brandon’s lasting gifts: Live with joy, laugh often, be kind, show compassion, focus on what’s good, love with all your heart, and celebrate life as often as possible.