"Is it bothering him, or is it bothering you?" Dr. Higman asked Michele, when she objected. "At this point, he gets to decide."
THE ANGELS ARE COMING
"Looks like you're having a rough day," she said. She walked slowly around the bed, prepared to retreat. Michele slumped into a chair, clutching a stuffed animal R.J. had bought her in the gift shop downstairs. She was looking at her son.
His eyes looked like two brown bruises. His chapped lips were bleeding from frequent suctioning of his mouth. His legs, like skinny white statues, rested on pillows, trembling under the pale blue sheets.
"They wanted to know if I wanted to put him in a diaper. I can't have him die like that," she confided. Then she broke down, upset that for the first time, she had let the nurses clean him.
"You're a mom. You know all the mom things, but you can't know all the nursing things," Reder said, moving in. She knelt down and laid her hand on Michele's arm.
"You're always going to be the mom."
Later that day, in his own way, R.J. confirmed what Reder had said. While Michele was outside meeting with doctors, he gestured to nurses and scrawled a note: "I need Her."
Michele rushed into the room, ready to perform some task. Then it dawned on her. "Do you just want me to be here?" she asked.
R.J. looked at her. He reached up, and ever so gently, cupped her cheek in his hand.
That weekend, a little after 2 a.m. on Saturday, July 19, R.J. stirred in his bed. He had been dozing, his eyelids swollen, his thick, dark eyelashes matted, hugging his favorite stuffed animal, the rabbit Mr. Browney.
R.J.'s long, skinny finger pointed at the end of the bed. He called out, "They're coming!"
"Who's coming?" his mother asked, alarmed, jumping up. "Who's coming, R.J.? A man? A bug?"
In the chilly, dimly lit room, as the oxygen hissed and the suction tube bubbled, his mother strained to make out his words. He tried to answer, once, twice, and then again as she bent close, putting her ear near his face.
Determined, R.J. took a big breath and managed to spit out the words. His voice was hoarse and corroded, like an old man's. "The angels. The angels are coming."
About the series
In preparing these articles, The Sun relied on medical records, R.J.'s personal journals and interviews with family, friends, physicians, teachers and others.
The Sun received permission from R.J., his mother, Michele Voigt, and the Johns Hopkins Children's Center to be present during the last four weeks of R.J.'s life, except, at his mother's request, his death.
Most of the events described in this series were witnessed by the reporter and photographer. In addition, 15 families who have lost children, as well as more than 70 health care professionals, were interviewed.
> Part 1: Never Give Up
> Part 2: The Angels are Coming
> Part 3: Final Choices
> Part 4: Aftershocks
> More photos and videos from the series
Part 2 of 4: The Angels are Coming