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When my son's best friend at daycare died, I sat down with him and tried to explain Add to ...

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I no longer remember his real name – it was so long ago. I shall call him Habib, “beloved one” in Arabic. I do recall a beautiful child with big brown eyes and a gentle smile. He and his family were new Canadians from the Middle East.

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Habib was my son’s best friend at their daycare. As three-year-olds do, they played together and, when they played apart (in what I believe is called “parallel playing”), each still knew what the other was doing.

The head of the daycare, a woman wise to the ways of children and their parents, liked to point these children out to visitors: Muslim and Jew, inseparable friends, innocents.

In the days before Christmas, Habib grew sick. Children often missed days with colds and ear infections. In the hubbub of the approaching holidays, the staff took his absence in stride. Our son David noticed that Habib was missing but, like everyone else, he assumed that Habib would return. If not before the Christmas holidays, then after.

Then rumours circulated that Habib was seriously ill. There was an airlift to Toronto Sick Kids Hospital, followed by the unthinkable: The child with those big brown eyes had succumbed to an infection of the heart.

My wife and I grieved for Habib, for his family so far from their native land, and for a friendship cut so terribly short.

What does one say to a child whose best friend suddenly disappears?

After Christmas, I consulted with the head of the daycare. She decided that Habib’s cohort would not be told anything. She thought that five- or six-year-olds could handle a child’s version of the truth, but that Habib’s playmates could not.

I deferred to her since my experience of three-year-olds was limited. At home, however, I could not remain silent. For months the two children had played together, and it did not seem right simply to let him slip away as if he had never been.

So I sat down with David and told him what happened to Habib. His friend had been very sick. He had had good doctors who tried very hard to help him, but he was very sick indeed and his heart had stopped.

Here my own personal beliefs reached their limit: I would have liked to talk to David about heaven, but could not.

David seemed withdrawn for a few days, maybe a week. It was clear that he was trying to assimilate something really difficult. Then it passed.

Just as he had a right to know, he also had a right not to be continually reminded of his loss. So I said no more unless he brought the subject up. This he did less and less.

Several times after Habib’s passing, I saw his father standing by the fence of the daycare. He stood there silently, as if waiting to pick up his child at the end of the day. I wish I had had the courage to speak to him. I wanted to tell him how special his son was, how David missed him. But before I could say anything, Habib’s father stopped coming. It was said that he and his wife could no longer bear to live in Canada, so filled it was with the bittersweet memories of their son.

Many years passed. Every Christmas I remembered Habib, who died before he had a chance to live. Finally I asked David, now grown, about the friend of his childhood. He recalled nothing. I sketched in a few details. Still nothing. Was this how David dealt with loss? Maybe the brains of three-year-olds are too unformed to lay down permanent, meaningful memories. Was the head of the daycare correct after all? I do not know.

Late in his university career, David informed his parents that he wanted to be a doctor. This was a surprise, for he had studied chemistry and mathematics and seemed to like the fact that they were “pure” subjects, divorced from the hurly-burly of life. His decision seemed to come out of the blue. Only later did I appreciate how hard he had thought about his future.

Today David is a third-year resident physician in the University of Toronto Hospital Network. He does not work at Sick Kids, but he works at virtually every other surrounding hospital. He is passionate about his patients and, as he pursues internal medicine as a specialty, seems increasingly driven to discover what is really wrong with them.

He is conscientious to a fault. He is not the sort of doctor who gives a patient two pills and says, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He wants to know whatever can be known even if it is 3 in the morning, and he has been at work for 20 hours.

There is no sugar-coating the fact that freshly minted doctors face a very steep learning curve. How does David deal with the decline of young people or the deaths of long-term patients with whom he might have established a tenuous bond? Losing a patient is the hardest teacher.

And what of Habib’s legacy? I would like to think that somehow the thought of a child with a broken heart is showing David the way, encouraging him in a difficult profession. I would like to believe that the child with the beautiful brown eyes is by his side, reminding him that the healing professions transcend both race and creed and that, if all else fails, what matters most is compassion.

Alan Mendelson lives in Hamilton.

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