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Forever Feather: A Father's Memoir

Books: Retired UCI professor Robert Peters takes 'snapshots' of his young family and the 'Death and Life' 37 years ago of his 4-year-old son.

September 17, 1997|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Robert Peters picked up Richard from preschool on that sunny-yet-cool afternoon in Michigan 37 years ago, his son's teacher told Peters, "He's been unusually quiet today."

The 4-year-old, nicknamed Feather because his young sister couldn't pronounce the word "brother," handed his father a valentine. The construction-paper heart declared "I love Daddy" in a childish scrawl.

As they walked home, Peters grew concerned over his son's unusual silence, and as they approached their front door, the normally energetic boy complained that he had a stomachache.

Before day's end, Feather was dead.

The sudden, shocking death of his young son--due to meningitis, according to an autopsy--provides the haunting backdrop for the fourth in a series of memoirs that Peters, a poet and retired UC Irvine professor of English, has written for the University of Wisconsin Press.

Kirkus Reviews calls "Feather: A Child's Death and Life" "strangely affecting, a lyrical collage of memories surrounding a 4-year-old's brief life and sudden death."

In a series of impressionistic vignettes--"snapshots" as Peters labels them in the book--he paints vivid portraits of his family during the time he was a struggling young academic and father of three young children.

In one, "Snapshot of Turkey as Family Member," Peters, a former farm boy, feels his children's education is somehow lacking without the experience of seeing a turkey killed for their Thanksgiving meal. So he brings home a live tom, which Feather promptly dubs Gobble, and which prompts Peters' wife, Jean, to snap, "You really did it this time!"

A bittersweet "Snapshot of the Execution" follows.

During one particularly joyful account of a wintertime outing to a nature preserve, the children frolic on a frozen lake. It's only days before Feather's death.

A framed photograph of Feather and his older brother and sister taken that day is among a gallery of photos on the dining room wall in Peters' Huntington Beach home. (The grinning, black-haired boy in the photo, clad in a plaid wool coat, mittens, unbuckled overshoes and winter hat with furry ear-flaps, adorns the book's cover.)

But Peters, 72, says he needn't look at a photograph to conjure up an image of the son who most resembled him.

"I've never felt that he's left me," says Peters. "I don't know how universal this is for people who have lost small children or loved ones, but I like to think they become nourishing presences and that we no longer have to feel guilt or self pity or sorrow that they aren't here.

"At least in my case, the boy has never gone away. When I want to see him I can. I see him wearing the same fur cap and coat he wore on that last outing a few days before he died. He's here, and he's happy. That's how he nourishes me, I think.

"It's always a positive presence."

*

Peters, then a professor of Victorian literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, was home with a touch of the flu that February day in 1960 when he picked up his son up from preschool.

When they arrived home, Feather was running a slight temperature. He said he wasn't hungry when his mother offered him some lunch, and Peters took him upstairs to put him to bed. After putting on his flannel pajamas covered with tugboats and climbing into bed, Feather asked his father to give him Seal, a large stuffed animal.

"Want me to join you?" Peters asked. "We'll sleep off our bugs together."

They spent the afternoon in bed together, alternately napping and reading--Peters reading Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain" and then reading Feather's favorite children's books to him.

At six in the evening, Peters asked Feather if he wanted to go downstairs with him to have supper. The boy's stomach ache appeared to be gone, but he declined. Then, recalls Peters, "He turned over and said, 'I love you, Daddy.' I thought he was just going off to sleep."

Later in the evening when he checked on Feather, Peters was startled to find the boy lying on his face--a position, Peters writes, "he almost never assumes.

"I turn him, noting an awful inertness. His lips, fever-cracked, are ajar, distorted in the corners where the bluish skin doesn't quite meet. . . . His eyes are half-open, his irises inky and frosty. Though his neck is warm, his limp hand and arm are chilled. I discern no pulse. . . ."

Recalls Peters: "I called the police immediately and they sent out a resuscitation team. They couldn't do anything, so they took him to the local hospital."

But by then, Peters says, "He was already gone. . . . I watched them. They opened up his chest and tried to massage his heart, and nothing worked."

It took weeks before the couple received the autopsy results saying that meningitis had killed their son.

He recalls that when their son complained of having a stomachache that day, his wife sensed something more.

"Women, I think, sometimes have a special sense that fathers don't have, and she wanted to get the doctor," he says. "But the doctor wouldn't see him."

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