When you never get back your son: A Hermon father remembers

One minute. One hour. One day. For some parents, continuing to live their lives after the death of a child requires focusing on a small amount of time and simply getting through it. Dave Sleeper, of Hermon, describes himself and his wife, Anne, as the parents of a dead child. They are still the parents, even though their son, John, has been gone almost 40 years.

John Sleeper is pictured one month before he died at age 12.

John was outgoing and had a lot of friends, Dave said. He went to a neighbor’s house a block away from where they lived in Niantic, Conn., to play. That’s where, at age 12, he was shot to death by a 15-year-old boy. It was Nov. 12, 1973.

But the date doesn’t matter when you lose a child. You can’t un-lose a son. And every time you hear another child has died, you lose yours again, Dave, 75, said.

“We went to hell and back. There isn’t anything worse. If there is, we haven’t found it,” he said.

People across the United States will continue to experience a collective grief about the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. Parents, especially those who have lost children before, will feel a particular heartache.

“Right now, he would be 52 years old. The thing I wonder about is, what would he have done in life?” Dave said.

Dave was at work — with Electric Boat Co. in New London where he was a nuclear test engineer — when a nurse called him and said his son had been shot and to please come to the hospital. When he arrived, his wife sat alone sobbing uncontrollably. A state trooper was nearby, and hospital staff talked in hushed tones.

His son’s body, covered by a sheet, lay on a gurney in a separate room. He pulled back the sheet, exposing his son’s head, and saw no immediate signs of trauma. The bullet from the .22 rifle had entered his right temple, and his long, blond hair covered the evidence.

A journey started that day, and it continues now, Dave said. The anguish lessens, but it never completely leaves. He talked about how he and Anne drove away from the hospital in silence, awaiting one of the worst moments: telling their daughters, Beth and Kim, ages 10 and 14, that their brother was dead.

He was in shock during the first days after the apparently accidental shooting and wondered what he could do to turn time around. “I had a lot of conversations with God about that, thinking, let’s see, can we undo this? That’s the thing you think of first: Can we undo this?”

Then the harsh reality of loss set in. He said the family cried every day for months. He withdrew from the outside world and didn’t watch TV or read the newspaper for a couple years. It took about four years for him to get back to what he called a sense of normal.

He learned he had to make changes to his life. The spring after his son’s death, in 1974, he returned to the place of his roots for a visit. He had attended the University of Maine and had family in the area. On his trip, he ended up buying a farmhouse in Hermon as a place to get away. He returned to Hermon a few months later for what was supposed to be a vacation. But when he arrived, Dave said he told his wife he couldn’t go back to Connecticut.

Everything happened fast. He found a job as a draftsman, and Anne found work as an assistant teacher. They moved to Maine permanently six weeks later. Dave described it as “a total leap of faith,” but they’ve stayed ever since. They adopted a child, Ed, from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

They lived. Anne finished college and taught grammar school for 20 years. Their children grew up, got married and raised families. Ed joined the military, fought overseas, earned the rank of major and will hold his next job at the Pentagon. Dave got into the real estate business and opened his own place, Realty of Maine, in 1986.

“If I could come up with one phrase that sums it up, it is that ‘time will heal everything.’ Although you never forget,” he said. “I pray it is in the power of those impacted by the Newtown shootings that they will be guided to eventually conquer the tragedy that they are now enduring.”

Decades later, he still misses John, he said. His eyes well up.

Dave said John’s death was the worst thing to happen in his life, but it also led to things he wouldn’t change: moving to Maine, adopting a child, changing pace. Eventually, he decided John’s death would not break his family. After all, that’s what matters most. It’s a theme fit for the Christmas season.

“The only thing that makes a difference is friends and family and loved ones. The rest is incidental,” he said.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.