SUDDEN INFANT DEATH SYNDROME
Policing in small New Zealand townships, such as Wairoa, in
New Zealand's North Island, gave police members engaged in
the non-enforcement duties,an almost unique social intimacy with the population. Such incidents as I describe
here, really awakened the emotions and dispelled any notions that policing was a 'them & us' psychological enviroment.
'Sudden Infant Death Syndrome'
"Dennis! I've got you on this day shift because Raupunga is on leave, and it's time that someone went out there to clear the mail.."
That was Ben White, the station senior sergeant, giving me my instructions for the day-shift that I had been rostered to work by Constable Wally McLiesh, who managed the rosters.
"You can take the unmarked CIB car 1066." Ben added.
"Thanks for nothing Wal." I called to Wally, with mock indignation, while I grabbed a quick cup of coffee in the tea-room before leaving the station.
The station typist, Laura Edwards was also grabbing a quick cuppa.
"Hows the housie going Laura?" I asked with a good-humoured chuckle.
"Oh shutup!" she replied with equal good humour.
Laura's adiction to housie (bingo) was a standing joke at the station.
It was not uncommon for her to canvass the station to borrow enough money to carry her over to her next pay, as a result of her having an 'unlucky week' at the housie.
No one minded lending her the money, as she always paid it back on receipt of her next pay, not that she might not immediately re-borrow some of it, if housie had continued to be unkind.
"Don't go yet!" yelled Wally down the hall from the watchhouse, after answering the phone. "You've got a sudden death at Putere.
Putere was a tiny rural hamlet in the Raupunga sub-district, about twenty miles from Wairoa.
"If its a Maori death and you have any trouble getting possession of the body, you had better give me a call, so
I can jack up a Kaumatua (respected Maori elder) to give you a hand." called Ben from his office as I walked into the watchhouse.
"Right oh Senior." I called back with a false nonchalent aire, which was false because Bens words had created quite an uneasiness in my mind.
As I drove towards Raupunga, Wally was giving me the details over the air.
"It's an infant Maori death." he informed me , in a voice that indicated it would not be an easy matter to deal with.
He gave me directions which would involve a twenty minute drive up the Putere Road, from Raupunga.
This was not a duty I was looking forward to, and by the time I had turned off the Raupunga Road to travel towards Putere, I was positively dreading it. I imagined having to argue with the dead infant's relatives to get possession of the body, for an autopsy.
That part of the process is never easy, and is so much worse when an infant is involved.
Because of my dread to actually face the situation at the scene, the rest of the journey up the second-grade metal road, passes very quickly, and I soon find myself turning up the driveway of the subject house.
As I enter the driveway,a car and its occupants drives around me and leaves the property. There is no greeting nor acknowledgement from the occupants as they leave.
I am supprised to see that there are no other vehicles parked at the house.
I park my vehicle, approach the kitchen door and knock.
The door opens almost immediately.
The young woman who answers the door is part-Maori, and in her early twenties.
She is still wearing her nightdress, with a peach-coloured house-coat over the top.
Her face is puffy and it is obvious that she has been crying, although she now seems quite composed.
"Come in Constable. The doctor told me you would come."
I follow her into the kitchen, and when I see her sit at the table, I sit opposite her.
" I'm really sorry that I have to come here and bother you when such a sad thing has happened." I open quietly, hoping to get a calm dialogue going, without sounding too clumsy, or as unsure as I am feeling.
The young mother simply nods glumly.
"Who have you got here to give you support?" I ask her,suddenly realising that there appears to be no activity within the house.
"There's only me and baby here. Some of my friends left when you arrived. They'll come back later."
"Hell! That's no good. Where is baby's father?" I say, feeling stunned that she seems to be getting so little support, which is so foreign to the Maori way.
"He's staying with some other people. He can't hack this." There is no self-pity in her statement.
"Do you want me to ring someone for you? You should have someone here at a time like this." My words hide the fact that I am already finding the 'one on one' intimacy of the situation draining. There is difficulty in knowing what to say, how to act. The presence of others would spread that load.
"I'm alright really." she says, "Some of my friends and relatives are coming this afternoon, and they all know what to do. I'm not from here and I'm part-Maori, but I don't know that much about Maori things, and I don't speak any Maori. Baby's father is Maori and his people will know what to do."
She seems quite matter of fact, in her attitude,and very in control of her emotions, but I suspect that this might be just a 'shock' reaction.
'I might as well get the formalities out of the way, while the situation is relatively uncomplicated, and the mother is handling the situation well' I think.
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions and get that side of things out of the way now?" I ask her.
"No." she replies bravely, so I begin.
"How did you first realise something was wrong?" I ask, hoping that she will begin a narrative from which I can prepare my report.
"Well, at about 5.30 this morning, baby had a little cry for a feed. I was breastfeeding him for about four months, but he's on the bottle now.
I gave him his bottle and changed him. He seemed good. He had a bit of a snuffly nose, but not bad, and he went straight back to sleep after I changed his nappy..
When I got up at about 9.30am, I was supprised that he had not cried and woken me up earlier.
When I went to him I thought he was still sleeping.
I tried to wake him, but he wouldn't wake.
I picked him up and tried to wake him for a long time.
I didn't know what to do, so I tried blowing into his mouth, but that didn't work. Then I rang the doctor."
The voice is still calm, but now there are tears running down her cheeks.
As she is speaking, I am applying the relevent points of her narative to my 'Report for Coroner' form, on the table in front of me.
I am pleased that the matter is proceeding in a relatively unemotional manner.
While I am writing and the mother is speaking , out of the periphery of my vision, I can see the small cot in the lounge, only about fifteen feet from us, and I know that the hardest part will be when I actually have to take the baby from her.
"............... and the doctor called the police and some of my friends, and then you came." she concludes.
Having finished filling in the form, I write out a quick 'statement of identification' in my notebook, for the mother to sign after she has made the formal identification.
I have some trepedation about asking her to do the identification, but she is the only one there to do it, and I don't want to complicate the matter by getting someone else in to do it.
I am a bit worried about the easy, 'offhand' manner in which she agrees to do the identification.
I have previously seen what could be termed 'strange' reactions from the recently bereaved, and this mother's calmness convinces me, that while she has accepted the death at a shallow level, it has not yet hit her with the full impact of reality.
"Shall we do the identification now?" I suggest, as I rise from the table and walk towards the little cot in the lounge. She follows, and joins me at the cotside.
I see the small six month old, baby boy, for the first time then. He is lying on his back, and is tucked into the bedclothes, so that I can only see his little face.
The baby's face is white and waxen, with a translucent quality.
The sight of that small dead face awakens a spirituality in me that I was previously unaware of, or had suppressed.
I feel a wave of emotion as I look down at that little figure.
I feel sad, and angry!
Angry with the part my occupation forces me to play at this mother's time of grief.
My throat feels taut and dry, as I say the words,
"Is that your child......(giving the full name)?
The mother bends down and smoothes the side of her baby's face with the side of her hand.
She turns to me with a strange little enegmatic smile.
"Oh yes. That's my little boy." she says.
I then notice that the look on her face has become trance-like,as I pull a chair out, for her to be reseated at the kitchen table, and sit her down. I pass her the statement of identification, and she signs it mechanically.
As I return the notebook to my uniform back pocket, I notice that she is looking straight into my eyes, as if I have the answers for her, and she is waiting to hear them!
Suddenly her face crumples into tears.
"Why? Why did my baby have to die?"
She screams the question at me, and then lets her face fall forward onto the table-top, while her body is wracked with sobbing.
I feel like picking her up and protectively putting my arms around her, as if she were my daughter, but I immediately realise how inappropriate that would be.
I simply put my hand on top of hers, gently patting and stroking it.
I desperately search for some words to ease her pain.
"You must never think it was anything you did, or didn't do which caused his death." I hear myself saying.
"No one knows why babies are sometimes born to have such short lives, but I am sure that every life has a purpose."
I realise that my words are making me sound more like a preacher than a policeman, and I sense that it is not religious answers she is seeking.
"Perhaps your little boy was born to bring something important into your life, and it was his destiny to only stay a short while to bring you that gift, then his soul was required somewhere else.
It might take you the rest of your life to discover what the gift he brought was, or you may know already."
I do not know where my words are coming from, or even if they make sense. I just know that I must say them.
She suddenly stops sobbing and looks up at me.
"You won't let them take him in one of those cars, will you!"
Her voice is calm now. I know that she means a hearse.
"No!" I reply with determination. "He can ride up front with me in my car if you like. That okay?"
The small nod and wet-cheeked smile she gives me, is a human communication which needs no words.
"Thankyou for what you said before." she says, quietly but with feeling.
Suddenly, she is looking by me to a position just above her baby's cot. Her eyes have sprung wide open. She is standing now, transfixed by what she is seeing.
"Oh my baby! He's so beautiful!" Her cry is one of exaltation, rather than grief.
She moves quickly to the cotside, looking upwards for a few seconds, then reaching down into the cot, she lifts her baby. She holds him against her breast and gently rocks him for a few seconds.
I am supprised again, as she suddenly turns to me and holds the baby out towards me at arms length.
"You can take him now." she says simply.
I take the little bundle and cradle him to my chest as if he were my own.
"Will you be alright?" I ask her as I am carrying her son to my car.
"I'll be fine!" she confirms, with an almost happy emphasis.
I climb into the police car and sit the little bundle in the passenger seat, beside me.
I pull the seat-belt around the both of us, and lock it into place. I put my left arm around him, so that I can support him and change gear, as well.
"Dont' worry,I will make sure that he is not left alone at the hospital, until his relatives come and be with him."
She nods briefly. Her face has a beautiful calmness, as if she at least, has been inspired to make sense of the inexplicable.
I see her standing back on the driveway, as I am about to drive out, so I give her a little wave with the back of my right hand as I prepare to drive off.
I cannot say anything further, in case the tears that I had been suppressing, well out onto my cheeks. That would never do. Would be very unprofessional!
As I drive off, I see her framed in the rear-vision mirror,
gently waving at our departing vehicle.
I cannot tell if her waving is in answer to my own, or if she is just waving a temporary 'farewell' to her son.
I watch her, still waving softly in my mirror as we traverse the long driveway.
Baby and I are going to Wairoa!
We were going through Raupunga when I gave Wairoa a call on the radio. Wal answered.
"Hadn't heard from you for awhile. Thought you might have struck some difficulties. Do you need a funeral director?"
"No. I'm bringing the deceased baby back in this vehicle."
There was a long pause.
"You can't do that!" squawked Wal.
"Don't muck me around Wal!" I replied almost heatedly.
"Just ring the hospital and see if you can have a Maori staff member there to take care of the body when I get in."
I was met by a Maori nurse, when baby and I arrived at the hospital.I did not know her, but she knew me.
She was a motherly looking woman in her mid forties.
She took the little bundle, and hugged him to her shoulder.
"I'll stay with him until the relatives arrive." she assured me.
She walked away a few paces with the little body, then as if the product of an after-thought, she turned briefly towards me. "Kapai Dennis, kia ora" (It is good Dennis.
After leaving the hospital, I felt the need to purge myself of some of the sadness of that shift, so I made a brief call at my home at Campbell Street.
I walked through the door, to find my three year old son, playing with plastic blocks on the lounge floor.
His face was one big happy grin, as I lifted him to my chest and put his head against my own.
With the relief of holding my own son,I felt my chest shudder, and a few tears sprung onto my face.
"Daddy crying?" he asked with a concerned look on his face as he pulled his head back to get a better look at me.
"Don't be silly. Daddies don't cry!" I joked, as I put him on the couch and tickled his ribs, until he had had enough, and demanded through the giggles,
"Yeeb me ayone! Yeeb me ayone"
I then went into the children's room and noted with satisfaction, that my eighteen month old daughter was sleeping peacefully.
I was soothing her hair with my hand when her mother came into the room.
"What are you doing home? Anything wrong?" asked Linda.
"No everything is pretty good." I said, giving her a hug, and walking out the front door to my waiting car.
As I drove off, I saw that Linda had come out to the front porch.
She had a bemused look on her face, as she gave me an unsure wave, as if to say, "What was that all about."
I cant remember if I ever told her fully.