Lives in Pieces: Vale et memini (Goodbye and I Remember)

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Note: this entry was originally posted in January. I am reposting parts 1-3 since so much time has passed between those entries and part 4, which I will post tomorrow.

Part 3: I Dream of Oranges

It’s funny, but the time between the baby showers in February and Alexis’s fourth birthday in July just seemed to pass so quickly. In June, we had Caitlin’s three month portrait made. She was wearing a tiny rosebud print dress with pink trim on the sleeves and neckline. I remember that the sleeves were just a bit tight on her chubby arms. She had this extra crease in her arms like a lot of chubby babies do. I used to love to play with that crease in her arms.

On July 7, we had Alexis’s birthday party. I remember it was the birthday of  Barbies. She had asked for several Barbie items, and the family pitched in and bought them. I remember taking one picture of the Ken doll sitting in a lawn chair, flying a kite. I told Alexis that Ken needed to go find a job and stop relying on Barbie to support him. Then we all started putting Ken in these ridiculous poses and taking pictures of him. It was pretty hilarious. Caitlin was sitting in her little blue chair on the floor, taking all of this in: the bright color of the balloons, the noise, the packages. I took a picture of her sitting in her chair. Everything seemed so utterly normal.

Pat and Winn weren’t at that party. I really don’t remember why. We didn’t see a lot of them that summer. Or maybe we did. A lot of that summer has become a blank to me. The last invitation I remember that summer were friends of Paul’s inviting us to go sailing, but we had to turn them down because Caitlin had some kind of virus and was throwing up. She was throwing up so much that we ended up taking her to the emergency room on Saturday. We saw a resident. He said that it was a virus and gave us pedialyte and sent us home.

On Monday, August 23, I was to begin my new job teaching English at Old Dominion University. It was a pretty exciting time for all of us. We had our two little girls. I had the job of my dreams. Paul was doing well at his job at the medical school. It seemed that life our lives were charmed.

That Tuesday was when our lives began to disintegrate, and they never recovered. When I went back to work, my mom and Paul’s mom were going to share in the responsibility of watching the girls. I was in my first faculty meeting when I was called out for a phone call from my mother. I was really perturbed that she would call me at work. I picked up the phone and it was the pediatrician’s office, one of the nurses who I knew very well. She was speaking calmly, too calmly. She said that she was going to put my mother on the phone.

I remember driving to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, which was just down the road. I remember meeting Paul; the medical school was across the street from the hospital. I remember a CT scan showed blockage. I remember falling down a wall. I remember calling Kathleen in northern Virginia at work and saying the words, “Caitlin has a brain tumor.”

whole-orange

An operation to remove the tumor. Seven hours long. Pat was there with fresh oranges, talking to me. The tumor was the size of a small orange. Later, I would write a poem comparing the ependymoma to an orange. I remember nothing Pat said to me. Too many people were there. One of the women from the medical school gave me a rosary; it was red, like garnets. I just remember noise. I just remember wanting all of them to go away.

After recovery in the PICU, Caitlin was sent to the Progressive Care Unit. After a few days, she had another operation to install tubing which was going to be used for her medicines: chemotherapy, whatever she needed.

I was trained on how to flush and clean the lines because Caitlin was going to be allowed to go home. The plan was that she would come in for overnight stays when she needed chemo. We were going home on Labor Day weekend. In the meantime, ODU had given me the option of giving up my classes for the semester or taking a reduced load. I took a reduced load down to two classes. I was actually still hopeful that everything was going to be all right. After all, Pat had survived.

Caitlin stayed home for six days. I came home from school to find my mother completely distraught. The back of Caitlin’s head, which had been shaved for the operation, was swollen, the incision puffy. I called the neurologist, and he said to take her to the ER at the hospital. She was readmitted to the PCU with a staff infection, that dreaded infection that hospitals give their patients, one of the oxymorons of a sterile environment. The neurologists had to drain the fluid from the incision every morning.

They put Caitlin in one of the two private rooms in the unit, which had a pull-out bed because the nurses knew that I would be sleeping at the hospital whether or not I had a bed. I began to bring in personal things: a teddy bear, dresses. I didn’t want her to wear a hospital gown. The nurses, who already knew me from our previous stay, indulged my every whim.

Each morning, I gave Caitlin a bath, and I put her in one of the beautiful dresses that Pat had given us. I fixed her hair, at least, the hair that she still had. We took pictures of her. From the front, you couldn’t tell that they had shaved her hair in the back. She still looked beautiful with all of that dark hair. Each day a different dress, a different bow. I brought in more and more personal items. I turned the sterile hospital room into her bedroom. No one stopped me. The hospital closet held so many dresses, her red dress, green dress, blue dress. I brought in her booties and lace socks.

After her first round of chemo, everything changed. Her body became so weak, and she threw up repeatedly, non-stop. The nurses paged the neurologists. One of the younger men in the group showed up and said within range of my hearing, “She’s throwing up. That’s what they do when they have chemo. I don’t know what you expect me to do.” The next day I changed her primary care from the neurologists to the oncologists and had a note put in her chart that that particular doctor was never to touch Caitlin again. The oncologists gave Caitlin something for her vomiting and took blood samples every few hours to check her white cell count, which wasn’t good.

Her main oncologist, who happened to be a friend of mine, called me from out of town to give me the bad news. He told me that he had never seen a count that low from a chemo treatment. They were going to suspend her chemo for now and rethink how to treat her cancer.

jhospital-monitorThat night, her monitor alarms kept going off. I had a new nurse who did not know Caitlin’s case. She would come in, look at the machine, and look at Caitlin, and say, “Well, she’s breathing just fine. I don’t know why the monitor is going off. There must be something wrong with the machine.” I asked her if she was sure. She looked at me as if I were just one of those pesky mothers. The other nurses had already learned to take my questions seriously as by then I knew how to reset all of the monitors, knew how to read results, and knew my daughter’s body signs instinctively.

In the morning, I gave Caitlin her bath, and I was rocking her when I happened to notice that her nails were blue. I knew that meant that she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. I had another new nurse, and she was nowhere to be found. I waited another half an hour. I had asked for a chest x-ray the day before, but no one had followed through, and between all of the chaos, I had forgotten about it. Now, I was kicking myself for not being more assertive.

I went out to the nurse’s station. They took one look at me and asked me what was wrong. I told them that Caitlin’s nails were blue. Within two minutes respiratory therapy was in the room and so was a portable x-ray machine. Caitlin had pneumonia, pneumocystic to be precise. The kind of pneumonia that AIDS patients get because their immune systems are so depressed.

One of the nurses who knew me the best told me and asked me about the pneumonia, and asked me to pack up all of Caitlin’s belongings. They were transferring Caitlin to PICU. I called Paul at the medical school. He and a friend packed up all of her things and met me in the waiting room for PICU. We couldn’t go in right away. When we were allowed in, Caitlin was in a hospital gown, and she was on a respirator.

There would be no more dresses.

end of part 3

Lives in Pieces: Vale et memini (Goodbye and I Remember)

celtic-cross1

Note: this entry was originally posted in January. I am reposting parts 1-3 since so much time has passed between those entries and part 4, which I will post tomorrow.

Part 2: Anamchara, My Soul Friend

The first time I met Kathleen was right after we had moved to Alexandria, Virginia. I had asked for and received a transfer within the government services firm that I was working for right after graduate school. I was trying to climb the corporate ladder and didn’t feel that I could go much further in Virginia Beach; I also didn’t feel that Paul  was matching my plans to grow, so rightly or wrongly, I put his back against the wall and told him that I was accepting the transfer—with or without him. He came with me, but it created the first rift in our marriage.

I was given the position of Senior Technical Editor for an Operations System and told that I would be working as a proposal development specialist. The first proposal that I was assigned to was an Army proposal; I don’t remember exactly what the proposal was for, but I was introduced to the person who had been working on it before me, Kathleen Roulet. She had a large smile and a firm handshake, and she seemed to be all business. Quite frankly, I was intimidated by her at first. Actually I was intimidated by most of the women in the operations center: They were a much different breed from the Virginia Beach office. It was the time of dress for success. Business suits, pumps, brief cases. Women were dressing like men in order to be taken as seriously as men. I had a lot to learn.

Within days I realized that I was going to have to overhaul my appearance completely or be eaten alive. Fortunately, Kathleen had been asked to help me on the proposal. Luckily for me, she was actually the least intimidating person around. She had an easy laugh, a quick wit, and she knew everyone. I had my role model.

princess-tiara

Kathleen’s Princess Tiara

As it turns out, between the two of us, Kathleen and I were two of the more powerful women in the Operations System. Unfortunately, a few months after my arrivel her group was moved to the other end of the complex, and we were working in two separate buildings on different projects, so for a few months, we didn’t have that much contact.

I was stuck with Marine Engineers who didn’t believe that women knew math. Kathleen was stuck working for a retired military officer who called her “princess.” He honestly could not understand why she might be offended by being called princess in staff meetings. It was both infuriating and hilarious in an odd sort of way. We commiserated.

In October, I found out that I was pregnant with my first child. It was a surprise. It was also a bit unsettling as I was just establishing my position. I was working 12 hours a day regularly, and often on weekends. I kept up with the frenetic pace as long as I could.

In the spring, there was some reshuffling, and another operations center was formed. They were sent to the other end of the complex where Kathleen’s group had been sent, and I was sent with it. My former boss was promoted to a Division General Manager. He did not keep me with him. I was not happy with the reshuffling, but at least I would be just down the hall from Kathleen. Between my pregnancy and the reshuffling, we became much closer. Kathleen and I spent a lot of time together at work and after work. When she wasn’t dating anyone, she would come by and have dinner with Paul and me.

One Friday in July, I went on a cleaning binge in the office kitchen. That night, I went into labor at home. I was on maternity leave for eight weeks. Kathleen brought me Speedy Little Devils in the hospital (cookies made with chocolate, peanut butter and other wonderful things). I found a wonderful woman just four doors down from my townhouse to watch Alexis while I was at work, and I returned to work full time when my leave was up. It was a time when women were trying to do it all: work full time, be super moms, keep their houses in perfect order, still be wonderful wives and great in bed.

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Trivial Pursuit

A few weeks after going back to work, Paul and I had gotten access to a beach house in Rehobeth for a really incredible price at the last minute, and we asked Kathleen to come along. It wasn’t going to be a romantic weekend. We were taking Alexis; she was about 7 weeks old. We just wanted to get out of town for the weekend. The three of us played Trivial Pursuit. Alexis slept in her travel crib.

Kathleen and I drank lots of wine, and Paul drank beer. The three of us decided that we were going to stay up all night playing the game as an endurance test to see who caved first.  At some point, Paul got up to go to the bathroom. After about half an hour, Kathleen and I realized that he hadn’t come back. We went in the bedroom where we found him asleep on the bed next to Alexis’s crib.

Kathleen and I laughed our asses off. Those were great times.

We used to do some pretty interesting things. Like the time she received a micro-cassette from a guy she had been dating. The only problem was that she did not have a micro-cassette tape. No problem. I proceeded to try to break into filing cabinets at work with a paper clip. It looks so much easier in the movies. We gave up, and she went and bought one at Radio Shack.

We regularly went out to lunch. She was my therapist, and I was hers. There was nothing that we couldn’t say to each other, and many things that we wouldn’t say to anyone else. Our jobs were so stress-intensive that often we felt as if we were carrying around boxes of nitroglycerine (figuratively), and someone was just waiting for us to drop it. It was a very cutthroat industry, and we were very high profile. It didn’t help that I had the ear of the Division General Manager. People did not like that.

At the Christmas party that year the band was the Beach Boys. Our group of ladies took off our shoes and danced on the tables while we drank champagne.  Yes, I started it. By then, I had moved beyond the Marine Engineers. I had a window office next to the boss, and people from corporate knew me on a first name basis. But I was really starting to get tired. My old boss still wanted me on the line as his ears, and I was being pulled in too many directions.

One of the few times I can remember really just relaxing was when Kathleen and I packed a small picnic and rode the metro to Arlington Cemetery, and then walked to the Reflecting Pool. I believe that it was Memorial Day. The symphony was playing, and it was a free concert. I’m almost positive that John Denver was singing that night as well.

When Alexis turned one, Paul and I decided to move back to Norfolk so that she would be able to grow up near her grandparents. I also did not want to be working 12 to 16 hour days any more. I wanted to spend more time with my daughter. My mother came up and drove home with Alexis. Paul drove a U-Haul truck home with our furniture, and I spent the last week at Kathleen’s home finishing up paperwork and my last week of work.

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Angel in Irish Cemetery

I knew that Kathleen and I would see each other again, and we did. I drove up for her birthday in November. She came down for visits, and like I said, she came down for my baby shower for Caitlin.

Through the years, we have stayed in touch by phone and letter, e-mails and cards. We used to meet in Williamsburg once a year for a big shopping trip, but then that kind of faded away. But I have always known that Kathleen is truly what is called in Irish Gaelic anamchara: a soul friend. I have only had to call her, and she has always been there for me, an open heart, a warm shoulder. She has never turned me away. I have never felt her presence lacking in my life, though the years have spread out, and miles have expanded the distance. The circumstances have changed and changed again. The players have entered and left and some are gone for good. Kathleen, since the day she first took residence in my heart, has never left, and I know that she never will.

There are many things in life of which you cannot be certain, many things you pray will abide with you but do not. There are many places in this world that  life may take you, and many places that you wish you had never seen. There are moments you embed in your memory as being irreplaceable, and moments in time that you wish you could draw a curtain over and never look upon in memory ever again for as long as you draw breath. And there are people who have held you like angels even from hundreds of miles away, knowing that if they loosen their wings even a fraction, you will fall. That is what Kathleen is and has been for me, and will be for me ever more.
 
 end of part two.

There will be more to come. Peace.

Lives in Pieces: Vale et memini (Goodbye and I Remember)

Note: this entry was originally posted in January. I am reposting parts 1-3 since so much time has passed between those entries and part 4, which I will post tomorrow.

Part One: Young and Seemingly Immortal

This is the story of three friendships, four little girls, and a box of many beautiful dresses.  It spans over two decades, four cities, and touches countless individuals. Two of the key people in this story are gone now, taken too soon by similar circumstances. One was my daughter, and one was my friend. Both live on in the memory of the dresses. This is the story of  lives left in pieces of fabric from those dresses and how one person has pieced the story together with words, and another person has sewn the story together with thread and fabric, and how both have lost sleep, time, and ultimately, pieces of themselves. This is memento mori and memento amor.

This is the tale of how two women have attempted to complete a Viking story that began long ago.

I once had a very dear friend named Pat Swann. Pat had long brown hair and a big smile. Pat and I first met when we were working at our part-time jobs in a steak house in Norfolk, Virginia. She had worked there for a while, and she took me under her wing and helped me out when I first started. She took karate classes in college, and on the night before her wedding, she threw her fiance over her shoulder with one hand. We all laughed until we cried. Pat had the ability to make people laugh effortlessly. She was incredibly intelligent, hard-working, and did not suffer fools gladly.

I was the maid of honor at her wedding, which was a lovely outdoor affair on her in-law’s land, and she reciprocated the honor at my first wedding. I remember that she had just given birth to her first daughter two months before my wedding, and she was worried about how she would look, but she absolutely glowed. And I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else standing beside me on that day.

Before I got married and went to graduate school at Virginia Tech, Pat and I car pooled to Old Dominion University where she was working on dual degrees in German and Education, and I was working on my bachelor’s in English. During these years we became very close, and when I married my first husband, Pat and her husband Winn were among our best friends. My ex-husband used to go running with Winn, and then we would have cookouts at their townhouse in Virginia Beach. We had parties at our small apartment, and Pat and Winn were always there.

When Paul and I moved to northern Virginia for my big corporate job transfer, we made a few friends, one of whom is integral to this story, but Pat and I remained close. So it was only natural that she was very excited when I became pregnant with my first child. She had already had her two daughters, beautiful girls; one looked more like Pat, and one looked more like Win, which is how it often happens in families with more than one child. Pat was tremendously helpful in calming my first-time mother fears, and she donated a lot of things to the cause because Paul and I were really just starting out.

Pat and Winn and their two daughters eventually bought a bigger house in an older suburban area of Virginia Beach, and when we moved back from Alexandria, we continued with our visits and family parties. We bought or own house in the suburbs of Norfolk and settled into our own version of the predictable “American Dream.”

Unfortunately while we were away, Pat had been diagnosed with a brain tumor; luckily, it was operable, and she seemed to bounce back fairly well. I’ll say this about her, she was one of those people who, even though she had a cutting wit, was genuinely cheerful. I remember that she smiled a lot, and she had a chipped tooth right in the front that she never got fixed, even though she could have, because she felt like she wouldn’t be herself if she changed it. That was Pat: unpretentious, genuine.

The first chance we had to visit her after her illness, I brought her a silk scarf to wear where her hair had fallen out. She protested that it was much too fancy for her. Plain cotton bandanas were just fine. After all, she was certain that her hair would grow back, and she was right. Almost all of it did grow back except for a few places near the front. It was darker, but it was there.

After the incident with her tumor, Pat, who had planned to teach full-time once her girls were older, stayed at home for a while, substituting on occasion, and it seemed that she and Winn had a really good life. Of course there were the usual problems for a family of four with one income, but overall, I always looked on them as an incredibly well-suited couple. Pat’s near-fatal experience had seemed to bring them even closer, and for all appearances, they really were a typical family of four living in the suburbs.

white-and-lavendar-smocked-dressWhen Alexis turned around three, Pat brought out all of these lovely dresses that her daughters had worn when they were younger. Most were presents from her mother-in-law. They were beautiful smocked dresses, with lace around the sleeves, and Peter Pan collars. So many dresses in so many colors. Pat offered them to me, and of course, I accepted. I was actually a little naive, though, because it never occurred to me that she might be offering to sell me the dresses, which she was, but I didn’t find that out until much later, and I was chagrined by my thoughtlessness.

Pat, being the generous person that she was, never said anything to me. She just let me take the armload of dresses home. Most looked as if they had only been worn once or twice. They were very feminine dresses, pale greens, pinks, small floral prints with white pinafores. Alexis looked beautiful in them. She always liked to wear dresses and to be dressed up, that is until the second grade when she had an incident on the playground that caused her dress to flip over and her underwear to show. After that, she didn’t want to wear dresses any more. I didn’t find this out until years later.

But as usual, I am digressing.

My mother and I also bought Alexis dresses, even though she didn’t really need them, and my mother-in-law made her some beautiful dresses as well. So by the time I gave birth to Caitlin when Alexis was four, the collection of dresses was really quite overwhelming, and far too much for one little girl. And again, many of them still looked as if they had only been worn once or twice because in fact, they had.

I have so many pictures of Alexis in these different dresses with her long hair, light brown, pulled back with bows, a big smile on her face. We used to have her portrait made at least twice a year so that we could give pictures to all of the family. She was the first grandchild on both sides of the family, and it was obvious in how much attention she was paid. She wasn’t a brat, but she was precocious. She was a very petite child, although her birth weight was average. And her coloring favored her father: she was fairer than I, and interestingly, as she got older, we noticed that she had two different eye colors: one was more green, and one was more grey/blue.

Caitlin was her opposite. Eager to be born, I had to go on bedrest with my second pregnancy, and Caitlin arrived three weeks early. She was a bigger baby, and she was born with a head full of almost black hair and dark eyes. She had very chubby arms and legs in comparison to Alexis’s very skinny ones. Like Pat and Winn’s two daughters, ours were opposites: one looking more like her father, and one looking more like her mother, at least in coloring.blue-smocked-dress1

My friend Kathleen came down from northern Virginia for my baby shower for Caitlin, which we had to have at my house because of my bedrest. It was at this shower that I received the cradle that I had really wanted so that I could put my baby girl at the foot of my bed and rock her to sleep at night. Pat was at my shower as well. I remember wearing an electric blue maternity dress that my mother-in-law had made for me. I felt wonderful, very much at peace with myself and the world. I experienced none of the fears I had had with my first pregnancy. In fact, it was probably the most at peace I have ever felt in my entire life.

At the time, both Paul and I worked at the medical school in Norfolk, and everyone in his office gave him a huge baby shower. I remember this because Paul came home with so many presents, including more dresses. I remember this beautiful sleeveless, baby blue one with smocking on the front. Funny the things you remember after so long.

end of part 1