I’ve never filed a lawsuit before. But today, I had to do it.
Originally published here, May 31, 2010
One year ago today, I had the terrifying realization that this was real. This was not a bad dream from which I would wake up.
Before that day, I think I had known somewhere deep inside that he wasn’t going to make it – at least not make it back to us as the boy he’d been before. But on May 29th of last year, my previous four and a half weeks of hesitant, subconscious knowing finally became fully manifest as a vicious and relentless 48 hour assault on my whole world as a mother, culminating in my precious baby’s death on the evening of May 31, 2010.
In a last ditch effort to save our boy’s life in the final days, the doctors and nurses did everything they knew how to do. They took him back to the ICU from the neurology floor. They shaved off the final remnants of his gorgeous brown curls, and then they inserted a cruel-looking metal bolt into his head so they could monitor the ever-increasing brain swelling that would pull the last of him away from us.
They put him back on life support, with that angry ventilator tube forcing his tongue into an unnatural position, a sight that just broke my heart every time I looked at his face. Seeing my poor, sweet baby’s tongue – swollen and dry and permanently thrust beyond his lips at a painful angle – just tore me to pieces. For some reason, among all the other the medical insults necessarily being inflicted on Henry’s battered, exhausted body, the sight of my baby’s beautiful mouth with the ventilator taped around it and his tongue exposed like that hurt me the most. I wanted so much to help him drink some water, to try to do something about the way his lips and tongue were parched and peeling. But of course, he was unconscious, so he couldn’t drink any water. And I couldn’t disturb the tape, or the ventilator tubing. I felt helpless and desperate because I couldn’t do anything at all to help my son. I couldn’t bring him a drink of water, and I couldn’t save his life.
Those last 48 hours were a nightmare beyond my most terrible imagining. At the time, I could not conceive of any horror worse than what Henry’s father and I lived through from the morning of May 29 ’til the evening of May 31. The three of us – father, mother and firstborn child – lived moment to moment in that ICU cubicle, Chris and I each on one side of our son, or taking turns in and out so we could each get a few minutes of sleep elsewhere in the hospital. We stroked his hands and feet, talking and singing to him. Others who loved Henry also took turns at his side – his stepparents and grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. But mostly, to me, it felt like only the three of us there in that tiny room full of frightening, beeping machines — just father, mother and child – together at the end, just as in the beginning.
Sometimes, during those last two days, I prayed that my beloved child felt nothing, knew nothing, heard nothing, while other times, I silently begged God that He would allow Henry to truly hear his Daddy and me whisper and sing our sweet son gently into the next world, just as we’d sung and whispered to him together when he was still in my belly, both of us naively and joyfully anticipating our baby’s arrival into this place, 18 years earlier.
And then it was over.
It’s true what they say. The pain of losing a child is a hurt like no other. One year later, I’ve yet to find the words to convey the enormity of the gaping, ragged hole that tore open inside of me when my child breathed his last. Since Henry died, I have sometimes thought that I, too might simply stop breathing – that one day, with no warning, my heart might just stop beating and I’d keel over and that would be that. Because how can I be in this world without my son? How is that even possible? I don’t know yet. I’m not even close to figuring out how to be me without also being Henry’s mama. I am not the same person I was before my son died. I am fundamentally different, and I know I always will be. No matter what’s going on around me, or how much joy I feel in my other children, or in my husband, family or friends, I now carry a tight, jagged coil of hurt inside of me all the time, and it’s hard to imagine that anything will ever make the raw void that I now feel at a cellular level any better.
But sadly, 12 months after Henry’s death, I can tell you that there are most assuredly some things that can make the unholy pain of losing a child even worse. Unfortunately, I know what those things are because our family has lived through them day after day, week after week, month after month, ever since our son, Henry Louis Granju died of “hypoxic brain injury resulting from opiate toxicity” at only 18 years old, in the same week he should have been graduating high school with all his friends.
On April 27, 2010, the day Henry ended up in the emergency room at UT Medical Center, our whole family had many unanswered questions about how he had ended up badly beaten, unconscious, overdosing, and nearly dead from lack of oxygen, pulled by paramedics out of the residence of two much older adults none of us had ever heard of. These people had apparently told the medics that they had only met Henry the night before, but that made no sense to any of us. Although we were all painfully aware that our teenager, like so many other people in this community, was struggling with a powerful addiction to prescription pain pills. I and other family members still spoke to or saw Henry pretty much daily, and we simply could not figure out the series of events that had put Henry in the critical care unit just before noon on an April weekday.
Who were these people in whose residence Henry had been found in such terrible condition? How did they know Henry? Why was he with them in their house trailer in an extremely remote area of rural South Knox County, far from anyone he knew? What were the circumstances of his overdose, and how had his condition become so critical before these two adults called 911? How had Henry ended up bruised and bleeding, with chest and head injuries? These were only a few of the questions swirling around us as we cared for our critically ill child in those first days of his hospitalization.
But from the beginning, our whole family trusted totally and completely that Knox County authorities would share our interest in finding answers to these troubling questions. We simply could not imagine a scenario in which law enforcement and prosecutors would not aggressively investigate the crimes committed against Henry. Surely they would want to get to the bottom of how an adolescent boy in their jurisdiction had ended up in the hospital in critical condition as the result of such obviously suspicious circumstances.
No, in the beginnning, it never occurred to anyone in our family that the authorities charged with protecting our community would dismiss what had been done to Henry as not really worth their time or interest, or that in the 38 days Henry remained alive, no criminal investigator would ever once come talk with him, or to anyone in our family. It never occurred to me, as I continually wiped the blood from my son’s ears during those first two weeks that the Knox County Sheriff’s Office would, in the days right after Henry’s death refer to the beating my son had clearly suffered by three people who admitted doing it as an “alleged assault.”
I could never have imagined that even after it became glaringly, abundantly and actionably clear that the people in whose residence Henry had been found were drug dealers, that authorities would bizarrely refer to them as “Good Samaritans,” and would insist time and time again – and against powerful, substantial evidence to the contrary – that these two people could not be connected with the drugs that caused Henry’s overdose. I would have scoffed if someone had told me that a Knox County Assistant Prosecutor would write emails discussing my son’s case in which she would say that in her opinion, Henry had “mental problems” and that he “wanted to die,” or suggest that I should be told to “shut up,” and that I should focus on the kids I still have remaining at home. I absolutely would not have believed that the Knox County Medical Examiner and her assistant would discuss the condition of Henry’s beautiful body in such brutally graphic terms in the newspaper without ever having discussed anything about his case directly with our family.
Most of all, I would never have believed it if someone had told me that 12 months after a Knox County teenager died a terrible, prolonged, brutal death as the result of a brain injury caused by an overdose inside the home of drug dealers – a death Tennessee’s criminal statutes clearly define as second degree homicide - that there would be no arrests. No arrests in the beating Henry suffered on April 25, 2010, and more importantly, no arrests or even any real activity toward arrests of the drug dealers who murdered my child. And no one in local law enforcement or the prosecutor’s office even seems to care about Henry’s case, or about Henry. In fact, Henry’s father and I were told repeatedly in a meeting several months ago with an assistant Knox County prosecutor that we needed to understand that our son was “an unattractive victim.”
To add insult to injury, Knox County authorities continue to inexplicably insist against substantial and alarming evidence to the contrary that they have done not just a good job in investigating my son’s death, but a truly remarkable job. And yet, those same authorities have denied our family access to the various records and notes that could potentially support their claim of having done the work on Henry’s case that we all know they are capable of doing.
The de facto dismissal of Henry’s case, of our family, and of Henry’s very personhood by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the Knox County DA’s office has made the pain of losing my son even worse for me, for his father, for his little brother and sisters, and for everyone else who loved Henry. Seeing our sweet, kind, dear boy – made terribly vulnerable in his final months by the pain pill addiction that had taken hold of him - essentially treated by local authorities as a meaningless nobody, not even worthy of the interest and effort the same agencies recently put into investigating and prosecuting the case of an injured dog, has compounded and amplified the hurt. It has deprived our family of the opportunity to grieve and heal over the past year, forcing us to instead deal with nonstop logistical and bureaucratic barriers in our advocacy for Henry, and for his case. It has also been tremendously disillusioning to me as a citizen and a taxpayer. This is not how the criminal justice system is supposed to work.
Recently, when speaking with a federal agent about Henry’s case, and about the fact that no arrests have been made one year after my son’s death, he told me that the only difference between Henry’s murder, and the many other cases he now sees like my son’s all over the country in which arrests and prosecutions DO take place is that in the latter, someone in the system cared enough to make an effort. He said it’s as simple as that. He said that someone at some level – be it the detective assigned to the case, the Sheriff, the Medical Examiner or someone in the DA’s office has to give a damn, and translate that into a real investigation and case development. All cases have their own challenges when it comes to investigating and prosecuting, but what they all have in common is that somebody or more than one somebody with the authority to make something happen did, in fact, make something happen.
When people talk to me about my continued push to see that Henry’s case is properly investigated, they often tell me that they would probably give up at this point, and accept that nothing can be or will be done by local authorities to try to arrest, charge and prosecute those responsible for Henry’s death. Others tell me that they would have gone vigilante by now, and would have taken matters into their own hands to ensure justice in Henry’s death. But I will never accept either of those options. Why? Because I am an American, and Henry was an American. I believe in our system of laws, and I believe that good, honorable people exist within the criminal justice system – people who would never be okay with what was done to Henry by predatory criminals, or what has been done to our heartbroken family since Henry’s death. I just haven’t found those people yet, or that person – someone who will decide that getting the dealers who killed Henry Granju off the street is worth their best efforts. But I continue to have faith that I will, and that the right thing will happen.
In the meantime, and as Henry’s Dad said recently, I can only assume that the drug dealers who killed our teenage boy last spring, as well as those in authority who have – for whatever reason- failed to do their jobs, manage to sleep better at night than Henry’s father and I do. For us, the nightmare of losing our son has only been made more terrible and more painful in the past year, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
If anyone in the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Knox County DA’s office or in any other local agency with the ability to fully investigate my son’s death happens to be reading what I’ve written here, I want you to know that I still have faith that you can and will do the right thing. Not just for my child, but for every other Knoxville and Knox County young person dying in this unprecedented overdose epidemic. Legislators have given you the tools you need to successfully prosecute dealers who kill, and federal authorities recommend that you treat every overdose death as the potential homicide that it is. My son’s case is one that you CAN develop into arrests and prosecutions. It really is. Please step up. Please. Please. Please. I never get my son back, but the people who did this to him WILL kill someone else’s child if they are allowed to continue preying on vulnerable young people and dealing death. I am not asking for special treatment, and it’s not too late to make this right. I do not have unreasonable expectations. My teenage son was murdered one year ago, and all I am asking is that you and your colleagues will decide now that his death mattered enough to try.
C chats with Dr. D over at the Applegates’ house
C in the pool
New bookstore in the ‘hood – on Central Ave. I’d say that’s a good thing except that it replaced The Corner Lounge, my favorite hangout in the world, and the site of the first date I ever had with my husband.
Please help me meet my goal of collecting 5,000 signatures by May 31 ON THIS PETITION asking authorities to fully investigate the circumstances of the brutal beating + overdose-related brain injury that killed my teenage child on May 31 of last year. Thanks for your signature, and also for any help you can offer getting the word out to others about the petition, and why they should sign.
Well, it turns out that we’re both on this list.
C fell asleep last night reading her very favorite book, which was a gift from Dr. Neighbor, who is her godfather. I suggested she was dreaming of Central Park, but my friend Ayun insists that she must actually be dreaming of the annual Coney Island Mermaid Parade. (Hmmm… C had just been playing with her mermaid Barbie in the bathttub right before she got in bed to read ….)