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

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Yellow Roses by Michele Tramontana from Ramsey Art Gallery

Part 5: Yellow Roses

We put our daughter in the cold November ground on a Thursday. I had called Kathleen on Monday when Caitlin died and asked if she could come. She replied that of course she would be there.

On the Tuesday after Caitlin died, Paul’s mother took the two of us to make arrangements. We purchased a lot in the infant cemetery at Forest Lawn, an old cemetery in Norfolk. We went to a headstone place, and Paul’s mom said that she and Paul’s father would like to buy the headstone for Caitlin’s grave. I asked that the following be inscribed under Caitlin’s birth and death dates: “God hold you in the hollow of his hand and give you peace.”

We made arrangements to hold the funeral service in a funeral home in Ghent in downtown Norfolk. We chose this particular place because it was close to the hospital and medical school, and only a few miles from ODU. We knew that people would be coming from work and many would need to go back to work immediately after the service.

Since her coffin was so small, we only needed two pallbearers. We asked Winn, Pat’s husband, and Chris Hunt, one of our best friends since grade school.

On the day of the funeral, I was handing out Valium like they were Sweet Tarts. We did not have an open casket or a viewing. Caitlin had already been through so much that Paul and I thought that it would be intrusive to put her on display. We did request that the casket be left open before the service so that all of the family could say goodbye. I remember looking down into this small white casket and seeing my beautiful brown-haired daughter lying there. It felt as if the ground beneath me were going to open up and swallow me. Part of me wished that it would.

We had given the funeral home one of Alexis’s dresses that she had worn on her first Easter. The white dress had a very thin band of pink piping, and it had an accompanying bonnet that was very large and trimmed in white lace. Part of the reason for choosing Alexis’s dress was my attempt to tie the two girls together in my memory. They had spent so little time together in real life.

However, I did not want Alexis to come to the funeral. Her preschool teacher volunteered to watch her until later that afternoon. Perhaps it was the wrong decision, but at the time, I really did not feel that Alexis was old enough to handle what was sure to be a very emotional atmosphere at her sister’s funeral. I mean, how could a small child handle what her two grown parents could not?

Before they closed the casket, I put one of Caitlin’s small stuffed animals in the casket with her. Then I kissed her for the last time and walked back into the family waiting area.

My mom and dad had bought the spray for the top of the coffin. Paul and I also requested a vase of yellow roses be placed next to her coffin. I had come to associate yellow roses with Caitlin, but to be honest, I cannot remember why.

The minister from my mother-in-law’s church who had baptized Caitlin performed her service. It was a very personal and moving service. He recalled how when he had visited Caitlin in the hospital the few times before she went into PICU, she would smile at him. Then I read a poem that I had written for Caitlin. At first, I had asked Kathleen to read the poem, but on the actual morning of the funeral, I realized that it was something that I needed to do. I made it through the entire poem without breaking down. Then I sat down and began to weep.

So many people showed up for Caitlin’s funeral: people from the medical school, doctors and nurses from the hospital, all of our family and friends. It was amazing, actually. I remember standing in the little bathroom with Kathleen before the service and watching the people park and get out of their cars. I never expected such a turnout. I also remember hearing the organ playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the background. I turned to Kathleen and said, “That song should never be played on an organ,” even though it was one of the songs that I requested.

The drive to the cemetery afterwards seemed to take forever. Kathleen drove Paul and me. I sat in the front with Kathleen, and Paul sat in the back. I rambled on about inconsequential things, but Paul was silent.

The service at the graveside was short. And then afterwards, kind of spontaneously, I stood to the side so that I could be in the sun. People started to line up to talk to me. We hadn’t expected this, and Paul had already walked off a little to the side to speak to a few of his friends. I just remember hugging so many people, and then, out of the blue, Johnny, my former Catholic boyfriend, was there.

He took me in his arms, and I began to weep uncontrollably. I hadn’t expected to see him, but when I did, I was overwhelmed.

After the funeral we went home, and many people came to the house. My uncle ordered an entire spread of Chinese food, on top of all of the food that other people had brought. I ate nothing. Instead, I sat in my Bentwood rocker holding Caitlin’s bear, and drank wine.

As people left, I pressed food on them, assuring them that Paul and I did not need the extra food. Pat and Winn stayed until the end. Chris and his wife also stayed a long time. Sarah was there, and people from work. After the final guests left, Kathleen told me that she was going to drive back to Alexandria. Part of me really wanted her to stay, but another part of me just wanted to be alone.

Finally, when there was no one left in the house, Paul went for a long run, and I laid down on the bed with my black Lab Mokie and wept. I was certain that I would run out of tears, but it was as I had suspected in the hospital: my tears were endless. You see, while we were still in the hospital those last few days, I was on the verge of tears all of the time. Different people, doctors, nurses, friends, would tell me to go ahead and let it out. I would tell them that I was afraid that once I began to cry that I wouldn’t be able to stop.

The next morning, Paul and I realized that we could not stay in the house a moment longer. I packed hastily, and we drove to the mountains. We stopped by the cemetery on our way out of town, and I pulled a carnation from the flowers that still surrounded her grave. We ended up on Skyline Drive. It was our first time there together. At one of the scenic overlooks, I tossed the carnation over the side, but the wind caught it and blew it back towards me. I had wanted to give Caitlin to the mountains symbolically, but my attempt had failed.

We drove and drove and ended up in Front Royal, Virginia, the other end of Skyline Drive. We stayed in a horrible hotel because we couldn’t find any other lodgings. When we got up, we headed for home and uncertainty.

We picked up Alexis from my parents’ house, and we drove home.

I went into the girls’ bedroom and ritually touched everything that had been Caitlin’s. I was trying to absorb her into my body in any way possible. Some of the clothes that we had brought home from he hospital still smelled of her. I took the outfit that she had been wearing when she was first admitted to the hospital and put it in a sealable bag. For months afterwards, I would open that bag and inhale deeply.

I slept with Caitlin’s bear at night. I moved through the days as if I were surfing on quicksand. I honestly don’t remember very many details about the first couple of months after her death.

I remember finishing up the semester at ODU. My students, some of whom had attended the funeral and sent cards, were incredibly kind when it came time to do my evaluations. My colleagues also very gentle with me.

Christmas came, and it was all that I could do to force myself to make merry for Alexis. Somehow, we managed. I had only bought one present for Caitlin for Christmas, and this was early in September when we all thought that she would be coming home. It was one of those baby gyms that an infant can lie under and kick at and pull on. It remained under the bed.

Our lives had been forever changed. We had no idea how to move on except to move through the days as best we could. We went to one group therapy session for parents who had lost children. The pastor from the hospital had invited us. I spoke; Paul did not. After it was over, Paul looked at me and said that he never wanted to go back. We didn’t.

For parents who have lost a child, life becomes a task of mere survival. Some people are better at it than others. Most marriages do not survive such a loss. Ours survived another 10 years and two more children. We really thought that we had beaten the odds, but in the end, we became another statistic.

Next: The final chapter: A Time for Keening.

                                                                                                 

Part One: Young and Seemingly Immortal (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Two: Anamchara, My Soul Friend (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Three: I Dream of Oranges (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/14/)

Part Four: When Life Was Forever Changed (https://poietes.wordpress.com/2009/03/15/)

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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 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.

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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.