The tragedy of loss: a doctor-father's lament

March 19, 1995|By Tom Keyser

"Only Spring: On Mourning the Death of My Son," by Dr. Gordon Livingston. 230 pages. Harper San Francisco. $20 Dr. Gordon Livingston, a psychiatrist from Columbia, Md., begins " Only Spring" : " This is the story of the life and death of my son."

If only it were. This is the story of Dr. Livingston's response to the death of his son, a response so wringing with self-absorption and despair as to be unpalatable.

That is a shame, because his son fought so courageously. Lucas Scott Livingston, 6 years old, died of leukemia in 1992 at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. He was a healthy child until the diagnosis five months earlier. His father was already keeping a journal. That journal comprises " Only Spring."

The first third recounts Lucas' diagnosis, treatment and death. Because Dr. Livingston's journal is so personal -- written presumably for his own catharsis -- it fails to connect emotionally with readers unfamiliar with the story.

It neglects descriptions, work and family backgrounds, ages, context -- basic requirements for compelling reading, but not necessarily basic to a journal. Dr. Livingston, who doesn't write for a living, can perhaps be excused. His publisher cannot.

Dr. Livingston served in Vietnam, he mentions in passing. His 22-year-old son committed suicide, he mentions several times. But these important strands are left dangling, never plugged into the core of this story.

The result is utter frustration for readers, who approach the book wanting so much to care. Instead of wiping tears as one terrible incident after another befalls Lucas, we feel strangely, and regrettably, detached, as if reading the hospital chart of a stranger.

The final two-thirds of the journal is, as Dr. Livingston's subtitle says so accurately: " On mourning the death of my son." Here is a typical entry: " What have I learned in the process, ever incomplete, of mourning my lost son? . . . I don't know what the lesson of this tragedy is. . . . What I long for is a reunion with his brave and generous spirit."

Dr. Livingston writes of his total, unconditional love for Lucas. He writes of hope, coping and moving on: " I cannot let this become the defining moment of my life."

He throws himself into raising money to establish a suite at the Tremont Plaza Hotel in Baltimore where families can stay while their children undergo treatment at Hopkins. The Lucas Scott Livingston Memorial Suite was dedicated one year ago.

But, sadly, the unconvincing references to healing are overwhelmed by the author's anger at his cruel fate, bitterness over losing the son he loved above all else, doubt about his wavering belief in God and guilt, unrelenting guilt, because his bone marrow transplanted into Lucas did not help and then accelerated his son's death.

We're unwillingly transformed into reluctant voyeurs peering into an anguished soul. " It feels like cutting open a vein in front of strangers," he writes shortly before a journal excerpt is published in a San Francisco magazine.

Dr. Livingston is, after all, a psychiatrist. But in " Only Spring" he throws no lifeline to readers, offers no counsel to families in similar situations. He must first resolve these issues within himself -- and he does not in the pages of this text.

Near the end he writes: " Perhaps I can best handle my grief by paying tribute to Lucas, letting him go, taking my emotional temperature less often, and rejoicing in what I have rather than endlessly longing for what I have lost."

Perhaps now, with the publication of " Only Spring," he can.

Tom Keyser has been a reporter at The Sun since 1984. He writes often on human tragedy and grieving parents. He worked six years at the Concord (N.H.) Monitor and six years at the Clearwater (Fla.) Sun

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