STONEHAM – Rosanne and Bob Carruthers have placed photos of their son, Neil, in nearly every room of their Stoneham house. On one wall, he hikes in the woods with Bear, his big black dog. In another corner, loving and serene, he and his wife, Tina, smile on their wedding day.
In these rooms he grew up, and in these rooms he drew his final breaths. “Neil died right here,” his mother said, standing in the hallway outside the first-floor bedroom where his wife, ill and bedridden, lived for her final months.
Neil, who was 34, collapsed there on Aug. 11, 2013, as he stepped into the hall after attending to the morning medical rituals of Tina, who died of brain cancer less than two days later at the age of 29.
A year later, his parents are trying to work through their grief while still waiting for an answer as to why their only son died. Like many families in Massachusetts, Rosanne and Bob Carruthers have had to put closure on hold because of delays that have beset the state medical examiner’s office.
The Globe reported earlier this year that severe backlogs occurred when the office switched laboratories for toxicology testing in order to save about $600,000 a year. The cost to families like Neil’s can’t be quantified.
When Neil fell to the floor, his parents were home, and his mother, who is a nurse, tried without success to revive him with CPR. At first, the state medical examiner’s office told Bob and Rosanne it could take four to six months to obtain autopsy results that might dispel the mystery of why Neil died; a doctor found nothing of note during a physical a few days earlier.
More than two months after his death, an administrative assistant in the office sent a letter to Neil’s parents that said “records will be forwarded to you as soon as they have been completed.”
‘Loss, we’re finding out, can’t be quantified or graded for what’s worse.’
On May 21, the medical examiner who had examined Neil the day after he died sent another letter, in part to assist Tina’s relatives, who were trying to settle the couple’s estate. “Based upon the information available at this time, there is no indication that Mr. Carruther’s death was the result of foul play,” Dr. Faryl Sandler wrote, misplacing the possessive in Neil’s last name.
The letter offered no other details, however. “I am awaiting the results of additional studies to determine the cause of his death,” Sandler wrote.
Messages left last week on the voice mail of Sandler and the administrative assistant drew no answers.
“I’m getting a little impatient at this point. I mean, come on, guys,” Neil’s father said in a recent interview in the family’s Stoneham home, adding that the time has come “to begin enjoying memories that fill in the life,” rather than remaining in a seemingly endless limbo.
“Everybody wants to know,” Bob said as he absently dangled a hand over the arm of a living room easy chair and gripped a rubber ball that Bear tugged soundlessly in a manner uncommonly gentle for a 105-pound black Labrador retriever.
Deeply religious and born on different continents, Neil and Tina had first encountered each other five years earlier, on a Christian Adventist dating website. The story of how this young couple met, fell in love, and married was as unusual as the circumstances and close timing of their deaths.
In the months after the couple died, Rosanne and Bob heard from more than just family and friends. A Globe news obituary recounting the young couple’s love story was widely read around the world, including in Tina’s homeland of Romania.
To help cope with their grief, the Carrutherses went to local meetings of the Compassionate Friends, a national support group organization for families that experience the death of a child of any age. “We found them very helpful in setting benchmarks,” Bob said.
“Someone there said it’s important that you set a plan, figure out what you’re going to be doing,” Rosanne said. “Otherwise, you’re going to go around crying all day.”
More than 30 people gathered each time, telling stories one by one about children who had died in car accidents or from cancer, of overdoses or suicide. Rosanne and Bob stopped attending after four meetings.
“I think the reason we don’t go anymore is there’s so much grief in that room. It’s overwhelming,” she said.
“Loss, we’re finding out, can’t be quantified or graded for what’s worse,” Bob said.
One woman brought bags of clothes and other items that had belonged to her daughter, who died in her 20s. “I’ve got the last cup she used,” the woman told the group.
Rosanne, who had already given away Neil’s clothes, recalled that when she heard the woman speak, “I thought, ‘What’s wrong with me? I’ve already gotten rid of a lot of stuff.’ ”
She had and she hadn’t. Laid out on a table in her basement are Neil’s hunting and fishing gear: fishing rods, a bow and arrows, two-way radios. Clothing mattered little to him.
“The stuff that was important to him, it’s still here,” Rosanne said.
She and Bob also have viewed videos Neil shot on trips to Maine when he and a cousin took their dogs for hikes in the woods. Sometimes, Neil aimed the lens at himself and spoke to the camera. Though he recorded the videos for Tina, whose cancer kept her home, they are now totems for Rosanne and Bob.
Last month, they went through the attic and discovered journals Neil wrote for a high school assignment. “I wrote a letter to his English teacher,” Rosanne said. “I said, ‘You’ll probably never get a letter like this from a mother.’ ”
Neil’s wife, who was born Florentina Nedelcu in Constanta, Romania, was about 20 when she was first treated for brain cancer. She was in remission and thought herself cured when she met Neil, but her cancer recurred several months after their 2010 marriage.
While caring for Tina, “he would write little verses for her,” Rosanne said. “We would find them on scraps of paper.”
In their last weeks, when Neil thought he would survive Tina, he wrote a poem he planned to read at her service, which included the stanzas:
Now the story doesn’t stop
But continues to play on
In the lives touched
By her beautiful song
I’m the one that was aided
By her real life’s testimony
God I’m so grateful that
You gave her to me
While in remission, Tina wrote an essay relating how an emergency room doctor told her she was having anxiety attacks when she first experienced seizures in 2005. “I knew deep down that something was wrong with me and that I should worry,” she wrote in the essay she titled “Do You Believe in Miracles?”
She later learned there was a tumor on the left side of her brain the size of a golf ball. “You have a year to live,” a doctor said after surgery in 2006.
“When friends would visit me they would ask if I was mad at God,” she wrote. “I’m not. I think it happened for a reason. I may not understand all the reasons now, but one day I will. Before cancer, I was so far away from God. Cancer humbled me and made me know that without Him working miracles in my life, I would not be here.”
In a postscript, she added: “I am looking forward to going to heaven! I am sick and tired of being sick and tired! So who wants to come with me?!”
As months have passed with no explanation for why Neil died, Rosanne and Bob have found comfort in unanticipated ways. Neighbors and friends quietly discussed their own private grief over deaths of loved ones they never mentioned before the publicity surrounding Neil and Tina.
At the support group meetings, “someone said, ‘the second year is worse,’ ” Bob said, “and we thought, ‘Oh, what will that be like?’ The reality begins to be very right in your face, so to speak.”
Like their son, Bob, who is 67, and Rosanne, who is 62, are Seventh-day Adventists. “Without a faith, I don’t know how anybody does this,” she said.
“I’ve been telling people, you never get over it, you get through it,” Rosanne added. “You learn to live your life and find some joy. The sky is beautiful, and you have to look for that.”
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