It’s hard to decide where to begin with this story because I’m not sure when it starts. It either starts with the death of my three-year old son or with the divorce that followed a few months later. Without certainty, judgment or commitment, I will start with the death of my beautiful son TJ because that’s when things changed for me. That’s when I began to see things more clearly and insist that my life get better. It was then that I began to insist on honesty, loyalty and commitment. It was then that I knew life was too short to accept anything less than those things.
T senior and I decided to work opposite shifts. I worked days and he worked afternoons. We agreed we didn’t want our children growing up in a daycare and we didn’t want someone else raising our kids. So, when I left in the morning, he was home with the kids until it was time for him to go to work. He dropped the kids at my sister’s house on his way to work and I picked them up when I got off. We rarely saw each other for more than a few minutes and we hardly ever spent time together as a couple. We thought was this was the best thing to do for our family and it was, but it was not the best thing to do for us as a couple.
I was working at one of the country’s largest auto makers and my husband, T senior, worked at a major automotive supplier. We were both working on average 76 hours a week. The automotive industry was booming in Detroit and we made a pretty good living. Had we planned it right, we could have made a good life for ourselves and our little family. We had what everyone wanted. We were young and beautiful and middle class. We had what most would consider a good life. We had good jobs and three beautiful children. However, we were both very tired all the time. At least I was. I was a front line supervisor in my plant. We made SUV’s and they were very popular at that time. My day started at 4:00 a.m. in the morning with a shower and a 45 minute drive to work. I stopped at 7-11 every morning for a cup coffee and a bite to eat. I worked on average 12 hours a day and I was on my feet the whole time.
The attendance system at this company required that I check-in each employee as they arrived. I’d walk up and down the concrete floor checking to see who was at their work station and who wasn’t. With my clip board and pen, I’d check off names and access my need to cover each job for the day. I managed up to 70 hourly UAW employees. I might need 50 employees to run the production line but I always had extra employees on roll to cover employees who didn’t show up. It was a rare occasion when everyone showed up for work. Even if I didn’t need my extras, someone somewhere in the plant would.
The shift started at 6:00 a.m. and the plant manager wanted everyone checked in by 6:06 am. If someone called in or just didn’t show up, I needed to reassigned someone to that job or ask for help from other supervisors in the plant before the line started at 6:00 am. Mornings were hectic and very stressful. They constantly reminded us that the company lost $12,000 for every minute the line was down. So, there was a lot of pressure to get the line started and running without stops. I was nauseous every morning my first two weeks on the job. I literally needed to get to the restroom by 6:12 a.m. every morning. It was my job to be there at least a half hour before my team arrived and to stay after they left to make sure everyone got paid correctly and on time. Plus, there was generally a meeting with the other management staff to go over what happened that day and how we could improve tomorrow. It was brutal and exhausting.
This was a launch year so, we worked most Saturdays and some Sundays. During launch we focused on making repairs and changes to the build the engineers didn’t expect when they designed the new vehicles. There were hundreds of changes to be made to the build, the parts and the sequence to which the vehicle was put together. These were essentially the things that looked good on paper but didn’t work well in practice. Still, now was a front-line supervisors time to shine. It was said, if you could make through launch, you would likely go far in the company. I wanted to make it because I liked the excitement of the job and the fact that I learned something new about building cars everyday. I also learned a lot about myself and how to handle people. Managing adults who had been there longer than I had and who were in most cases older than I was, was more than a notion. Everyone wanted to test my resolve. It was a tough environment. The men cursed every other word. Everyone yelled at each other as if they were going to fight. This was all new to me. I wasn’t used to being yelled at or cursed out like this everyday. The biggest adjustment was forgetting about the fight an hour later. I couldn’t believe how your teammates would come up to you and expect a regular conversation on a totally separate subject like nothing had happened. I was sensitive and expected a level of professionalism I would not get working there.
The area I manged was about 1/4 mile long. If the line stopped, I was expected to get to the job that stopped the line, assess the problem and get the line back up and running within 15 seconds. This was impossible. But, the way your manager yelled at you over the radio with everyone listening, made you want to make it happen. It was impossible, embarrassing and stressful. We were building trucks that people drove out on the streets that we drove on everyday. So, safety they said, was the most important thing. Aside for keeping the line running, that is. So, within 15 seconds, I’d better get there from where ever I happened to be, find out why the line was down, fix it and get the line back up. Then, I’d better document it and explain to my manager how I could prevent that from ever happening again. Ten hours a day, I ran up and down the line. Another two hours I spent in meetings.
I’d make it to my sisters house to pick up the kids around 6:00 p.m. Then I’d come home and make us some dinner. I’d give the girls a bath, then TJ a bath, let them watch TV for a while then it was time for bed. We had a routine. We did the same thing every day. The kids were 17 months apart. TJ was three years old and the girls were 1 and a half. Three babies and it was just the way I’d planned it. I wanted my kids to be a year apart because I wanted them to grow up close in age and to each other. However, I had not planned on having twins. Fertile Myrtle, that’s me.
T senior, was an hourly UAW employee. He was a member of the union. I’m not sure what he did on his job, but the company he worked for, supplied engine parts, gears and axles. It’s hard to explain to someone which screws you put in or which cuts or welds you make on a part. I understood that and didn’t really need him to describe his job to me. On an assembly line or in a parts plant, you never really affect any one part of the process. You often affect several. For example, you might put in four screws on the top of a part and four on the side and load it on to a cart which may take 60 seconds before the part moves to the next station. It’s not real exciting work, it’s repetitive and tedious.
Our biggest fight at this time was because T senior tried to convince me that he was on a mandatory 12 hour a day, seven-day work week for the past three months. As a manager of UAW employees, I knew he was lying. I knew contractually, no company could require anyone, least of which a union employee to work 12 hours seven days a week. It was my job to know the contract and the lie he told was more than just a lie, it was an insult to my intelligence and a violation of trust. That lie made me feel like he didn’t care what I knew or what I believed about his loyalty to our family. But, he stuck to it no matter what I said and he refused to take time off or come home early. He even had someone from work call me to tell me he was telling the truth. Yes, he was willing to take the lie that far. And I got tired of arguing about it. I had three children at home and I couldn’t exhaust any more energy on that lie.
I was in love with my children though and for the most part, I was happy. TJ was the oldest and a great kid. To me, he was absolutely beautiful. The night before he slipped away, he came into my room and said, “Mommy, can I sleep by you?” I said, “No, TJ because I’m not going to sleep right now. I’m going to stay up for a while and read my bible.” He just stood there looking at me with those beautiful eyes. He didn’t move. I smiled at him, got out of bed, picked him up and put him in our bed. I said, “Ok, now, you’re going to have to sleep with the light on because I’m reading.” He said, “Ok mommy,” and closed his eyes. He lay there pretending to try to sleep as I watched him. I stared at him for a while, his little round face and caramel skin. Suddenly reading didn’t seem as important. I turned off the light and lay with him, my face next to his. We both smiled and I turned over to face the other direction. He put his little arm around my neck and I closed my eyes and went to sleep.
His father came in around 2:00 am. Normally he would pick TJ up and put him in his own bed, but not this night. On this night he looked in and left right back out. On this night, he let us sleep. Until this day I thank him for that because it was precious time I would have lost. At around 3:00 a.m. my son threw up all over my bed. I picked him up and took him to the bathroom. He threw up some more and I took his temperature. He had a fever of 101 degrees. I told T senior, “His temperature is 101. We have to take him to the hospital.” He said, “No, every time we take him it’s the same thing. We take him, they keep him for three days and they send him home without knowing what was wrong.” He was right, TJ spent a lot of time in the hospital ever since he was born. You see, he was born with a heart murmur, sickle cell anemia and congenital adrenal hyperplasia. He ran fevers a lot and for what seemed to be no reason at all. Plus, it was Saturday, our first day off in a long time. We were both tired and looking forward to a days rest. My hips and knees hurt from pounding that pavement at work. I needed to recover.
Still, I went to his room to get something for him to wear and saw that he had no clean clothes to put on to go to the hospital. Neither of us had done the laundry and even though I wanted to take him to the hospital, he had nothing to wear. I went to the basement and threw a load in. Even today, I am ashamed to admit he had nothing to wear. He threw up all over his pajamas and all his other clothes were in the basement on the floor waiting to be washed.
The next few hours are a blur but I do remember talking on the phone to one of my girl friends. She said, “I’d take my baby to the doctor. I don’t care what he said.” She didn’t know I had mentioned it to T senior three times and he said “No.” all three times. She also didn’t know T senior had left and I couldn’t leave the girls alone. Plus, I was waiting for his laundry to dry. T senior went to get take-out for us to eat. It took longer than it should have, but it always did so, I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I learned later that he would meet his friend at the bar and have a few drinks before returning home with food. TJ was asleep in my daughter’s bed. A few hours later, around 7:00 p.m. T senior returns home and goes straight to where TJ was sleeping. I hear a loud, “OH MY GOD!!! OH MY GOD!!” I tell my girlfriend, “TJ must have thrown up again. I’ll call you back.” I hung up the phone and ran into the room. I saw T senior doing CPR on my baby and I screamed! I kept screaming. My son lay there motionless. He was not responding. I kept screaming. I was petrified. The girls came in and started screaming too. T said, “Shhh! Don’t do that! Don’t do that! Calm down.” He put his hand up as if to say, ‘Please!’ “Call 911,” he said. I called 911 and told them to, ‘send an ambulance right away my son had stopped breathing.’ A police car came before an ambulance and we waited. After a few minutes, they agreed to take my son to emergency in the back of their car. I followed behind them in my car.
They put me in a room and kept telling me, “We’re working on him.” I called my mother and told her TJ had stopped breathing. She came to the hospital. She understood what ‘not breathing’ meant, I did not. I was not processing well. When they told me they were working in him, I believed them. I was sure he was going to be ok. I knew they could re-start his heart and help him breathe. Then people started showing up at the hospital. My mother and my sister, my nieces, T senior dropped the girls off at his mothers’ house, then he came. My girl friend whom I had been on the phone with earlier came. Someone was calling my loved ones those who loved TJ to come to the hospital and it wasn’t me. They knew something I didn’t. I was anxious. I kept asking, “how is he is doing? Can I see him?” They kept saying, “We’re working on him.” I believed they were. I thought since it was taking so long, they must be fighting for my son. So, for what seemed like forever, I waited for them to bring him back to me.
When everyone arrived, a team of doctors and nurses came in. They told us that TJ had passed away. I started to scream again. I told the doctor he was lying. I didn’t believe him. When they took us in to see him. He didn’t look like my son. He soul had left his body. He was gone. I didn’t touch him. I said, “That’s not my son. That doesn’t even look like him. I want to go home.” Denial. Shock. Numb. I wasn’t ready to accept it. I couldn’t. I wanted to remember what my son felt like. His warmth, his hugs, his smile and the sound of his chewing a strawberry while sitting in my lap.
I know now that I should have put something on him even though it was dirty and took him to the hospital. But, I also know, that it would not have mattered. My son had a hole in his heart and the disease, myocarditis got in. They said he had the coxsackievirus. He couldn’t have survived it. The medical examiner said that even if he had made it to the hospital he wouldn’t have survived it. Still, there was nothing he could say to make me feel better and there is nothing anyone can say today, to make me feel worse.