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/)

“It’s the ones you can call up at 4:00 a.m. that really matter.” ~ Marlene Dietrich

 rice-paper-butterflies-by-janson-jones

Rice Paper Butterflies by Janson Jones of Floridana Alaskiana

“Stand By Me” ~ Ben E. King

“I’ll Stand By You” ~ The Pretenders

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Chinese Friendship Symbol

A lot of the posts that I have written recently have dealt with matters in the past, which has led to my pondering the people who have played significant roles in my life, my friends. So I thought that I would write a post or two on some friends that I have mentioned only by name but have never really elaborated upon in any posts.

My first real best friend entered my life when I was 14. Her name was Sarah, and she lived a few streets over from my parent’s house. Sarah and I both went to the same junior high school. As much as I’ve tried, I cannot remember exactly how we met. I believe that it was through another friend of mine at the time, Erica, who lived directly behind me.

I was actually very close to Erica’s entire family; her mother and mine were and are very close friends, and we still keep in touch with them to this day. But at the time, Erica and I used to walk to school together. The junior high was almost an exact mile from our house, and we would spend our time laughing and having a great time on our walks to and from school. After Sarah entered our lives, she began to walk with us as well, unless her father drove her to school.

Like me, Sarah is an only child, which probably is what drew us together in the first place. Sarah and I became fast friends, and spent most of our time together after school. Both of her parents worked, so her house was preferable to mine. We could get into more trouble that way.

We shared everything: makeup, clothes (even though she was larger in the chest and shorter by several inches), food, jewelry, records (you know, those things before CDs). I remember going to her house in the morning to pick her up for school and walking in to the sounds of Black Oak Arkansas playing very loudly on her stereo. That was a wake-up call!

Unlike my mother, Sarah’s mom gave her some privacy when she was on the phone, and we used to spend hours on the phone together. It’s amazing how much you have to talk about when you are that age: boys (of course), girls (who we liked and who we didn’t like), television, boys, our hair, boys . . .

“It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.” ~  Epicurus

friendship1I got my first serious boyfriend when I was in the 9th grade, and of course, Sarah was my biggest adviser. When I had a fight with my boyfriend, she would be there to cheer me up. When I wanted to talk about things, Sarah always knew the answers. In fact, it was Sarah who told me how to use tampons (too much information?) because my mother didn’t believe in them.

Obviously, there were a lot of things about Sarah that I envied, but that never stopped us from being close. She was there for my first big love, and I was there for hers. If you wanted to date either one of us, you had to accept me or accept Sarah. It was that simple.

When I got my first car, a VW Bug, Sarah and I drove everywhere. I loved that car, and I loved spending time with my friend. There really wasn’t anything that we couldn’t talk about or do together. This was my first time with this kind of friendship, and it taught me a lot about being a friend: that you were there for your friend no matter what, that you never put a boy before your friend, that you trusted your friend with your deepest secrets and reciprocated in that trust. Not having siblings, especially sisters, I had to learn a lot of this.

Sarah really was the first friend that I had that I could call at 4 in the morning if I needed her, and she would be there. Of course, I never did call her parents’ house at 4 in the morning, but I probably could have. Her parents loved me. If there was one bone of contention between Sarah and me, it was that her father was always saying “Why can’t you be more like Lita?” If only he knew . . .

” . . . the sweetest support is found in the most intimate friendship.”  ~ Cicero

girls-holding-hands-bwOne of the great ironies of our friendship was that Sarah dated several of my guy friends, including my first husband. Oh she was really smitten with him. Sarah was actually Paul’s date to the senior prom. At the time, I had just started dating my very Catholic boyfriend, who was one of the best guys I ever had a relationship with (but that’s another story). Eventually, Paul broke Sarah’s heart, and I was her crying shoulder.

I could no more explain why he broke up with her than the man in the moon, but she thought that I might have some words of wisdom since he and I were such good friends. Paul and I were good friends, and he had broken up with another of my friends to date Sarah. It was always amusing years later to recall how my husband had dated my friends, and I had dated his.

But I digress . . .

Sarah fell in love with the man that would become her husband at a very young age—18. At first, I really didn’t like the whole situation. I thought that Sarah had not chosen wisely. But when I realized that she really did love him and he her, I changed my mind.

I was the only bridesmaid at her wedding. It was a small church wedding, and I remember it well. My former high school boyfriend (the love of my life, I thought then) showed up, and we briefly and mistakenly rekindled our doomed relationship. Other than that, it was a great wedding, except for the fact that her father really did not want her to get married.

“A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.” ~  Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Gustave Klimt's "Mother and Child from The Three Ages of Women," detail, 1905

When Paul and I got married, Sarah was very pregnant with her first and only child, Leyna. Paul and I moved to Blacksburg right after the wedding so that I could start graduate school and he could finish his bachelor’s degree, so I was not in town when Sarah gave birth to her daughter. We tried to stay in touch by phone as much as possible while I was away, but as with all things, our lives started to move in different directions.

Sarah and I never lost touch completely, though, mostly because of efforts on her part I’ll have to admit. She would drop by my Mom’s, and later drop by our house. It never really mattered if she hadn’t called. I was just glad to see her.

“True friendship consists not in the multitude of friends, but in their worth and value.” ~  Ben Jonson

When Catlin died, Sarah was right there, offering her love and support. By then, she and Joe had been married almost 11 years. The marriage that I never thought would last was still going strong, and Sarah was still there for me, regardless of time passed between us.

We run into each other from time to time at the store, and she e-mails me. She also is a loyal reader of my blog. Out of all of the people who have been in and out of my life over the years, Sarah is one constant that I know that I can still count on. I may not need to call her at 4 in the morning, but I know that I still could if I had to. I also know that if she dropped by my house one day, she wouldn’t judge me by the disarray that my house is in. Now that’s true friendship.

You don’t get too many people like that in your life, so when you do, you should cherish them. I hope that Sarah realizes just how much she still means to me, no matter how much time and distance have come between us. She was my first true best friend, and that’s not a slot that can be replaced by anyone, no matter how long you live. Other people will come along, move in and out of your life, supplant the best friend moniker, but no one can replace your first true friend.

End of Part 1

There will be more later. Peace.

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

oranges-in-baskets

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