Michael Derick Baughan was born March 18, 1983. His mother, Cheryl Brooks, did everything to ensure Michael and his brother, Erik, had every advantage possible. She planned to deliver him without the use of medication, but after more than a day of active labor, she turned to her husband Don and said, “I’m going to die.” Michael was born three weeks overdue after 32 hours of active labor and two epidurals. The trauma did not end when Michael arrived. The tension in the delivery room heightened when the medical team saw Michael’s birth defects.
Michael was born with webbed feet and toes. One doctor informed the new parents that their son had synostosis, a fusing of the skull that could result in significant cognitive delays. Michael and Cheryl spent the majority of the first ten years of his life shunting between doctor offices. The process of separating fused digits is a complicated one.
In Michael’s case, skin from his thigh was taken and grafted to his hand. He would scream, cry, and beg his mother not to make him go. In a fit of frustration, he once plunged his arms, both covered in casts, into the toilet. Some of the doctors were wonderful, kind, patient and understanding. Other doctors were callous, throwing around medical terms and diagnoses without considering the impact of their words on the boy or his family.
Two years after Michael’s birth, his little brother, Erik, was born. Now Cheryl and Don were juggling medical appointments, work, and a new baby. Despite all of these demands, Cheryl refused to allow babysitters to watch her children. She and Don organized their work schedules and Cheryl’s mother helped watch the boys so that the children were never left in the care of a stranger.
The kidnapping of Adam Walsh alarmed her. Two weeks after Adam disappeared from a Sears Department Store, a fisherman found his severed head in a drainage canal near a road. This incident prompted Cheryl to build a fence around their yard. “I don’t want to say I was a helicopter mom, but I made sure that I knew where they were at all times and that someone I trusted was caring for them,” Cheryl recalls.
A quiet child, Michael didn’t utter a word for the first two and a half years of his life. He communicated with his mother and father through grunts and hand signals. Though the physicians ruled out synostosis, they ignored Cheryl’s concerns and said the symptoms were a result of a cognitive delay. In kindergarten, the teachers dismissed the boy as learning disabled and said he had ADD.
Cheryl continued to seek out resources to help her son. She took him to more doctors. She read to Michael and her younger son, Erik, every night. She read to them so often Michael would recite the picture books verbatim. The summer between kindergarten and first grade, Cheryl took the boys to a local library reading program. When she returned after the first session to pick her children up, the librarian took her aside, “Do you realize your son is reading at a fourth-grade level?” Cheryl thought her son was simply reciting the lines from the books from memory at night but he was reading, far above grade level.
Michael excelled in school. Cheryl still has letters from his teachers and principals raving about her gifted child. He loved working with computers, writing poetry, and voraciously reading nonfiction. He had the test scores and grades to go to Carnegie Mellon. However, he struggled with relationships.
Michael never had tons of friends, but he had a core group of friends he made in the first grade. He decided to stay in Maryland and attend college with the kids he grew up with. His parents supported his decision. His friends were good kids, the tuition was much lower, and he’d get a great education at the public university.
Michael majored in history. He spent a summer studying abroad. He loved Italy, especially exploring Rome and its history. He traveled to Germany and Australia and loved every moment of being overseas. When he came home, he announced that he would not be returning to college. The news shocked his family.
He moved back in with his parents and took a job working at Kmart. Cheryl was confused and concerned. She knew that her son was capable of so much more. Michael was still the quiet child and he didn’t talk to his mother about why he left school. But after a year, he decided to return and finish his degree. He changed his major to biology and his life seemed to be back on track.
He graduated from college and moved to Wilmington, Delaware where he started working at DuPont engineering genetically modified organisms (GMOs). He loved his work and was passionate about the mission. He would argue vehemently with anyone who suggested GMOs were bad. He met a young woman online from Brazil. They traveled to meet one another several times. In an uncharacteristic move, he even told his family about the young woman.
One evening, Cheryl received a phone call. She knew the moment she picked up the phone and heard Michael’s voice that something was wrong. “Mom, I went to Walmart and got a gun in 15 minutes.” Cheryl has blocked out most of the conversation but she remembers other key points, “Mom. I can’t even get a driver’s license that fast. I have the gun to my head.”Cheryl and Don did everything they could to protect their children: fences, doctors, afterschool programs. Ultimately, 15 minutes at a Walmart and the easy purchase of a gun shattered their family forever. Go #BehindtheStatisticsClick To Tweet
All Cheryl could think was that her son was going to kill himself and she was going to hear it. “I was a psychiatric nurse and I had no idea what to do during that call,” she remembers. The conversation was two hours long. She remembers telling him what provides her with comfort. She talked about swimming and the feel of water against her skin. She told Michael that he needed to find his water, something to calm him. Finally, he told her that he was sorry, he would take the bullets out of the gun.
Once again, Cheryl sought out help for her child. She gave him the names and numbers of doctors and he promised to follow up. However, unlike when he was a baby, he was an adult this time and she couldn’t take him kicking and screaming to the doctor. Cheryl doesn’t know much about the months after that attempt. Michael was so private. Cheryl thought about reaching out to Michael’s roommate, one of the boys he befriended in first grade. However, she was concerned that the young man might tell Michael and that the next time Michael felt suicidal, he would not call her.
Michael came for Christmas that year. He gave her a copy of “The Patriarch: The Remarkable and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy.” She thanked him but said that all she wanted for Christmas was a photo of Michael and his brother Erik together. Michael hated to have his picture taken. He was convinced that he was grotesquely ugly. Cheryl shows me the photo. Michael is over 6 feet tall, trim and strong. He has thick dark hair and rich brown eyes. There is a sadness in his eyes but nothing ugly about him. He is handsome. Cheryl looks at me, “I knew then, when he let me take this picture, that it would be the last time I saw my son alive.”
The winter of 2013 was awful along the Eastern Seaboard. Cheryl texted Michael the evening of February 13 during a particularly bad storm. “Are you home,” she asked. “Yes,” he responded. Like all mothers, she went to bed a little easier that night knowing both of her children were safe in their beds.
The night of February 14, Cheryl and her friends decided to defy the common Valentine’s Day conventions and have a girl’s night out. They went to see a foreign film and to dinner. She came home and, for no particular reason except perhaps the movie being a disappointment, was in an awful mood. She turned to the one thing that always gave her comfort in dark moments. She went to look at the photos of her sons on the walls, smiled and went to bed.
In the middle of the night, Don woke her, “The police are here.” Don immediately thought something happened to their adventurous, thrill-seeking son Erik. Before the police could say anything, Cheryl looked at Don, “No, it’s Michael. Something happened to Michael.” All Cheryl remembers is the police saying, “We regret to inform you. . .” The remainder is a blur. Through therapy, she has recovered parts of that night. She recalls sitting on the couch and a kind policeman coming up to her, with true compassion asking if she was okay. “No, I’m not okay. I just want to die.”
“Suicide is scary,” Cheryl tells me. “It comes with such guilt and shame. Don and I have lost so many friends, people who don’t understand, people who say that this is what he wanted.” On her ankle, Cheryl has a butterfly with the words, “missing you is a heartache that will never go away.” Cheryl and Don did everything they could to protect their children: fences, doctors, afterschool programs. Ultimately, 15 minutes at a Walmart and the easy purchase of a gun shattered their family forever.
Michael Derick Baughan: March 18, 1983- February 14, 2014
Written by Liz Banach, Executive Director, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence
Photo by Jen Pauliukonis, President, Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence