On March 5, 1987, my son Neill Earl Smith was born. Three months later, he died of pneumonia. He was a victim of a rare neurological disorder known as Werdnig-Hoffman Syndrome. He would be 17 years old now. My wife and I have had five other children, but I still miss him.
The pediatrician knew from the very first time he saw Neill that something was wrong because Neill was a “floppy baby.” Neill looked perfectly normal to the untrained eye, but he couldn’t move his arms and legs like a normal baby. Unfortunately, the doctor wouldn’t tell us what he suspected. He wanted to do some tests. Then more tests. My wife began suspecting that the tests were not all about Neill’s welfare when multiple doctors at the University of Utah were invited to the examination room each visit. They seemed a little too interested in his symptoms and not enough interested in his life. Finally, when the doctors requested a muscle biopsy, we took Neill to a trusted friend, who recognized the problem immediately. We were told that Neill had almost no hope of surviving his first year.
We decided that Neill would beat the odds. He would be a miracle. We fasted. We prayed. We gave priesthood blessings. We sheltered him, and we loved him.
Then he caught a cold. Not a big deal for most babies, but Neill was a floppy baby. He was unable to cough up the mucus. His lungs filled with fluid. We fed him with a syringe, and he lost weight. Then, one evening, while Sue and I ate dinner in the next room, Neill stopped breathing as he lay on the couch. We didn’t hear anything unusual, but after I finished my dinner, I found him. We rushed him to the emergency room, but there was nothing that anyone could do.
I had never attended a funeral before I buried my son. It was a hot day in June. We dedicated the grave — the first and last time I have performed that priesthood ordinance — and we cried. Family and friends tried to comfort us, but we needed space to sort things out. Immediately after the funeral, Sue and I got into an old pickup truck and started driving. Destination: unknown.
Leaving from Salt Lake City, we made it to Provo by sundown. Sue suggested that we stop at the home of my mission president, Ed Morrell. We must have looked awful on his doorstep. When he answered the door, I said simply, “Neill died.” Sue burst into tears. He hugged her, and said, “You’ll have other children.” For some reason, this seemed to comfort us. President and Sister Morrell had lost a daughter of their own. They knew what we were feeling, and we talked for several hours. Fortunately, given our horrible emotional state, they insisted that we stay the night rather than driving on.
The next morning, we set out for the Utah desert. We drove to Bryce and Zion … St. George … Las Vegas … San Diego. We stopped because we hit the ocean, and because Sue’s sister lived there. We stayed for a day or two, then started back for Utah. While we drove, we talked and cried. I cannot remember most of what we said, but I remember alternating between bitterness and gratitude. When we arrived back at our apartment in Salt Lake City, my knees buckled. The first thing we saw when we opened the door was Neill’s bassinet. Although I thought that I had no more tears, I cried again.
Some people who have lost children take comfort in the idea that “families are forever.” Certainly, the Church’s teachings on infants in the eternities are inspiring to grieving parents. Still, the eternities can seem distant, almost to the point of irrelevance, when the present is filled with pain.
Now removed by many years from those events, I recall feeling that God was with me in the Utah desert and in the weeks and months that followed. When I expressed doubts, He assured me. Nevertheless, the pain receded slowly. We returned to Church in our home ward on Father’s Day. The Primary children sang, “I’m So Glad When Daddy Comes Home.” To me it seemed like a cruel joke. A few months later, sitting in a new apartment in Chicago, we read about a woman who had abandoned her healthy baby in a garbage dumpster. What kind of world is this?
Then, everything changed dramatically in the spring of 1988, when my daughter was born. A few minutes after delivery, Sue placed her index finger in Laura’s little palm, and the tiny baby fingers closed quickly and tightly in response. We knew immediately that Laura was healthy. We cried. Suddenly, the world seemed orderly again.