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

“You do not see the river of mourning because it lacks one tear of your own.” ~ Antonio Porchia

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Hammarby Angel, Sweden

“Mourning is not forgetting . . . It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the dust.” ~ Margery Allingham

“Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of the field.” ~ William Shakespeare

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Yellow Rose: Memory

I had an interesting conversation a few weeks ago that has stayed on my mind. A professional woman whose opinion I greatly respect told me that I am still grieving. Her comment momentarily took me aback for two reasons: I had not been talking about the loss of Caitlin. And secondly, it’s such an integral part of my life that I never stop to think about my grief.

But the truth of the matter is that yes, I am still grieving for Caitlin as well as for my father. I lost my baby girl many years ago. She was the second child that I carried, after Alexis, and the reality is that if we had not lost Caitlin, we may never have had the boys. But we did lose Caitlin. She was seven months and 16 days old when she died in my arms. Her death was a result of many things, the first being the malignant brain tumor. Everything else that came after only hastened her death.

The operation to remove the brain tumor was successful in that they were able to remove the entire tumor. I was told that it was the size of an orange. Imagine that girth in the skull of a seven-month-old baby . . . After the operation, Caitlin contracted a staff infection. After she had recovered from that, she began her chemotherapy. Essentially, I would have to say that the chemo probably was the real killer: it depressed her immune system so much that she ended up with pneumocystis, a particularly pernicious strain of pneumonia, the type that people suffering from AIDS can contract. The pneumonia led to her being put on a respirator. The respirator led to first one chest tube and then many chest tubes.

Ultimately, this string of events was too much for her small body. She died as she had spent most of her life: in my arms on a Monday afternoon at 2:42 on November 7.

To say that this day changed my life so completely does not even begin to describe the repercussions of losing my child. To say that I have grieved every day since may sound like hyperbole, but I do not think that it is.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”  ~ William Shakespeare

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Grieving Angel

For the first few years after her death, I visited the cemetery almost every day. Some days, I would sit there at her graveside and just keen until it felt as if my heart were completely empty. Other days, I would just sit and listen to the birds and enjoy the quiet communion. At times, I would imagine how I must appear to a casual observer, but then I realized that anyone who was in the cemetery with me, aside from the workers, was there for their own communions and cared little at all how I appeared.

Eventually, the grief became such an intrinsic part of my life that I believed that it no longer consumed me. Sometimes, the realization of her loss would come upon me unexpectedly, and I had no choice but to give in to the tidal wave of mourning. If these moments happened at home, I would take a shower to mask my tears and the ensuing moans that would escape my body so that Alexis and the boys, who were too young to really comprehend what was wrong, would not see or hear these unasked for echoes of my soul’s despair.

These moments assailed me less and less the more that time passed, but the truth is that they still have not completely disappeared. And now, if they come, they are sometimes a mixture of the loss of both my child and my father, and how completely helpless I felt at both of their deaths.

“When our children die, we drop them into the unknown, shuddering with fear. We know that they go out from us, and we stand, and pity, and wonder.” ~ Henry Ward Beecher

After Caitlin died, I went into therapy. It was that or be completely consumed by my grief. I learned a morbid fact in therapy: The loss of a child ranks as second or third on the list of the worst things that can happen to a person. Being a concentration camp survivor tops the list, followed by being a prisoner of war. Sometimes the first two are considered equal in how badly the effect of these events can crush the human psyche.

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Angel in Irish Cemetery

The usual platitude, of course, is that losing a child is unnatural in life’s grand scheme. One is not supposed to outlive a child. But I came to realize that life’s grand scheme was a sham, at least for me. My reasoning was thus: What grand scheme could possibly insert the loss of a child into the fabric of being? I’m not talking about religion or a loving deity here, just fate.

Fate truly is fickle. For how many of us actually have exactly the life that we imagined we would have? How many of us have suffered incredible losses that we could never anticipate? And then I had an epiphany: Fate will never be what you expect it to be. The ancient Greeks knew that, which is probably why they referred to fate in the plural: the Fates.

Fate, for me, was my enemy. It insinuated itself into my existence and wrapped itself around my heart like a tightly-fitting glove. And as a result, I found that my capacity for love was forever changed. Or at least that is how it felt for a while. Let me give you an example: After Caitlin died, I realized that I was holding back in my feelings for her surviving older sister—just at the time that she needed me the most.

It was not a deliberate act. Rather, it was an act of self-preservation; i.e., if I do not allow myself to love completely, then if I lose her, it won’t be as devastating.

This is how insidious the loss of a child can be. One begins to view life myopically. Everything is tinged by the loss, even the love that you still bear for those dearest to you.

“Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ From The Wonder Years

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Together With Caitlin In Normal Times

Fortunately, I was able to overcome my fear of loving my daughter. I realized that I could not let loss control my heart, no matter how much it tried to still my affection. I allowed myself to love completely again, and as a result, I had two more children, two boys. And in allowing myself to love again, I began to live again.

In the years that followed, I attempted to focus more on the time that we had with Caitlin, rather than the agonizing period in which we lost her. But again, as with most things, even this approach was faulty. The reverberations of a loss of such magnitude are farther reaching than most people realize, and to deny my memory the loss was to deny Caitlin’s entire life.

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, Remembering thee.” ~ Algernon Charles Swinburne

angel_statueI have found that people who have never suffered the loss of a child cannot possibly understand just how permanently it shapes your life. I once had someone ask me, in total seriousness, if it wasn’t time that I stopped grieving and moved on. What this person could not possibly comprehend was that I had moved on, but that the process of mourning is a never-ending process.

Like an ocean, mourning ebbs and flows, but it cannot be controlled completely. Time does heal, but simultaneously, time stamps forever in memory the life that was lost.

In the end, I suppose that how we grieve is a reflection of how we live. This was one of the things that ultimately drove an unmoving wedge between my former husband and me. There are those stages of grief that every grief counselor and therapist will tell the mourner about, and then they always add that individuals move through these stages differently. This is what happened to us; we moved through our grief differently, and eventually, separately, and few relationships can withstand such vast differences in functioning.

Which brings me full circle. The truth is that I still carry my grief with me. It is compartmentalized and for the most part governable. But it is omnipresent, and to deny that would be to deny my very existence. I fear forgetting, even though to do so is well nigh impossible because Caitlin will always be a part of who I am, of the face that I present to the rest of the world. And losing her does not negate my love for her.

I buried my beautiful, dark-haired daughter on a brisk November morning, but I did not bury myself with her, as much as I wanted to, tried to. I persisted and endured, and I am stronger for it, but my weakness will always be the loss of my baby girl. This is the pattern of life itself. This is a part of my tapestry, the one that I am still weaving. Perhaps, in some ways, it is the largest part, and it took an insightful remark to remind me of that. But while Caitlin colors every part of my life, she does not overshadow it. And this, more than anything, is probably the reason that I have survived.

There will be more later. Peace.

Some Wounds Never Really Heal

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Old English Churchyard by Rebecca Gagnon

Time passes. Landscapes change. People come in and out of your life. This tapestry that we are constantly weaving contains many, many threads, some short, others incredibly long; they pass in and out, unbroken, made stronger by their connection to the other threads that in the end, are the portraits of our lives. But when we step back, we see the barren spots, the threadbare patches. These are the incomplete pieces of our lives, the places in which we were unable to fulfill a part of our destiny, for whatever reason, or a place in which a piece of our life was taken from us unwillingly.

These barren spots on our tapestries are the wounded pieces of our soul, and often, we do not recognize them until late in our lives when we are looking back, reflecting on our lives. But once in a while, we are forced to face these wounds much sooner than we would like, and it is in these moments, when we face our own mortality, that our lives are changed forever, and the weaving of our tapestry takes on a completely different pattern.

Mine changed on November 7, 1988 at 2:42 p.m., the day my daughter Caitlin took her last breath in my arms.

Some years, this anniversary passes me by without much pain at all. In the beginning, each year was like a fresh debridement, a new removal of my skin, and I welcomed the pain like a junkie welcomes the needle. The pain reminded me that I was alive and that she wasn’t, and the pain forced me to relive my self-imposed guilt for being the one who lived, for as any parent in this situation will tell you: the death of a child is not the natural order of things. Gradually, by around year nine or ten, the pain had lessened in its acuteness, and for that I felt a different kind of guilt. And then when I stopped going to the cemetery as much, I felt a new kind of guilt.

There are all kinds of books on the stages of grieving, but none on the stages of guilt, or at least, none on the many stages of imposed guilt: guilt when you no longer buy silk flowers every year on her birthday, guilt when you no longer think of her every single day, guilt when you no longer can recall the smell of her skin, guilt when you can no longer carry her baby blanket around with you everywhere you go . . . well, you begin to understand the idea.

What brings me to this posting? Twenty years. This morning I was sitting in a hospital outpatient waiting room awaiting my mother’s surgeon to finish a relatively simple procedure on her eye, and I felt as if the room was closing in on me. Twenty years ago on this date, I was sitting in a hospital room in pediatric intensive care, watching a machine breathe for my daughter, knowing that this was going to be the last day of her life, knowing that her organs were not going to be able to help anyone after her death because she was too far gone, knowing that I would never brush her hair again, never sing to her again, never sleep on the hospital vinyl furniture again, never, never, never . . . and all I wanted was another day, another week, a Thanksgiving, a Christmas, a birthday. Anything. Everything. And all that I had was another few hours.

They have come so far in treating what ultimately killed my sweet baby girl—ARDS—Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, a big name for a tiny child for a toxic syndrome that develops in the lungs from being on a respirator for too long. She was on a respirator because of the pneumonia. She got the pneumonia from the depressed immune system that she got from the chemo. She was on the chemo because of the brain tumor. No one knows why she got the brain tumor.

My sweet baby Caitlin died when she was 7 months, 12 days, and a few hours old.

Some wounds never heal. Some threads are not long enough to create their own pictures. Some holes are burned beyond repair. Some tapestries remain incomplete forever.

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