“I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.” ~ Sophia Loren

JS Sargent Repose_Nonchaloire

John Singer Sargent’s “Repose” (Nonchaloir), oil on canvas, 1911: This is how I felt yesterday 

“Sadness is always the legacy of the past; regrets are pains of the memory.” ~ Author Unknown

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

Well, yesterday was an eventful day, so to speak. We found out that one of the avenues of employment that Corey was pursuing is unavailable. Big disappointment there. I really thought that that part of the plan was going to work. Perhaps that’s why I shouldn’t be optimistic: It always ends up smacking me in the head.

Speaking of being smacked in the head, have to say that so far, the massive doses of magnesium are not helping with the usual morning headache. Each morning when I awaken, I have a headache, not a migraine, just a tightness. I don’t know if I am grinding my teeth, but I don’t think so. Corey would have told me by now if I am grinding. So each morning I get up and take 800 mg of ibuprofen and two Sudafed. This usually helps somewhat as I think that part of the reason is my fall allergies kicking in and causing sinus pressure. Oh well.

Another interesting not good thing that happened yesterday is that I had a minor breakdown. Let me explain.

hampelmann
Hand-painted Bear Hampelmann from Germany

I was looking for something for Alexis that I had been keeping for her. I had thought that it was in the small lockbox in which we keep our passports, birth certificates, etc., but it wasn’t there. Then I thought that I might have put it with her stuff from when she was a baby. I pulled down everything in the top left of my closet as that is where I store the things from the kids’ earlier days.

For example, I have a huge Raggedy Ann that Alexis’s Aunt Ann made Alexis for Christmas one year. The handwork on this doll is amazing. I kind of feel sorry for all of the grandkids, nieces and nephews who came along after Alexis. Everyone was tired of making handmade presents by then. I mean, for the first five years of her life, Alexis was it in the family, so she received handmade Christmas ornaments, dolls, cross-stitched pictures, you name it.

Anyway, Raggedy Ann and a much smaller Raggedy Andy are stored in that part of the closet, waiting for the day if/when Alexis has her own children. I also have a bag of puppets from Germany. They are called hampelmann, which are hand-painted puppets of sorts. Alexis had about seven in all, and they used to hang over her changing table. I would use them to entertain her, and then later, her siblings.

(Aside: Today when I got home from picking Brett up from school, the Pluto hampelmann had been eviscerated, torn limb from limb. I’m pretty sure that Tillie did it as she was the only dog that was hiding from me.)

“Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.” ~ Willa Cather

Sock Doll
Example of a handmade sock doll

Back to the closet. I have kept just a few pieces of clothes from each child, favorite shirts, etc., and I have a bag for each one. There is also a plastic cubed storage container in which I have put several things that belonged to Caitlin. Well, in pulling everything down from the closet, this container also came down.

I made the mistake of opening the container and opening the box that was on top inside of the container. This box holds several things from that hospital, including a sock doll that slept with Caitlin the entire time she was in the hospital.

Let me back up. I’m not a craftsperson. Never have been. But while I was teaching at ODU during that semester in which Caitlin was in the hospital, several of my students brought in things for her. My most cherished gift is a sock doll that one of my student’s mothers made especially for Caitlin. These sock dolls have been around for centuries. They have been called hush-a-bye dolls because mothers used to give them to their babies to keep them quiet in church.

Anyway, I took the doll in my hands, and that was pretty much as far as I got for the next hour. Corey walked in, took a look at the things spread on the bed, and immediately knew what had happened.

“Love lost is still love. It takes a different form, that’s all. You can’t see their smile or bring them food our tousle their hair . . .But when those senses weaken, another heightens. Memory. Memory becomes your partner. You nurture it. You hold it. You dance with it. Life has to end. Love doesn’t.” ~ Mitch Albon

I came across an article about two weeks ago on a syndrome that some psychiatrists and mental health care researchers are trying to have approved for insertion into the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association). The disorder is called prolonged grief disorder, or something like that. PGD is a disorder in which the individual simply cannot get over the loss of a loved one within the “normal” time periods.

PGD is different from depressive disorder, and currently grief is not included in the DSM. In one article, researchers contend “that PGD meets DSM criteria for inclusion as a distinct mental disorder on the grounds that it is a clinically significant form of psychological distress associated with substantial disability.”

Apparently, PGD occurs when grief following lingers and become a serious health problem.

I wish someone would have asked me. I could have told them that years ago. I know that my grief is not normal. I have known that forever. It manifests itself unexpectedly, sometimes mildly, sometimes to the point at which I am completely paralyzed. Granted, I do not have these hour-long crying jags everyday or even every month. But I can count on having at least one Caitlin/Dad related episode in a year.

I really don’t need a psychoanalyst to tell me that my bereavement periods are longer than most people. I do not need confirmation that the pain should not be as acute as it still it. And I will freely admit that even I am astounded by just how severely I am affected when it happens.

I also know that a lot of the reason that my grief has hung around for so long is directly attributable to my feelings of guilt over both of their deaths. I had to make the decision on whether or not it was time for Caitlin, and I don’t know that I will ever be able to view that as not being questionable: Was it time? Should I have waited? With my dad, the guilt arises over the fact that I wasn’t with him when he died, even though I had promised him that I would be there.

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.” ~ Cicero

Logically, you don’t have to tell me that I should have let go a long time ago, or point out my inability to let go. I know all of this. But holding that small, soft doll I could swear that it still smelled of her essence. I know that that is not possible, but grief and despair do funny things to a psyche.

I did look a little more in the storage case: I found the blue smocked dress that I have talked about, which was a real surprise as I have believed for many years that that particular dress is with Kathleen, along with the other dresses that I sent her. I also found the dress that Caitlin was wearing when she had her one and only portrait taken.

Black Patent Leather Mary Janes
Black Patent Leather Mary Janes

Eventually, I was able to put everything away, and Corey put the box back in the top left of the closet. The rest of the things that I pulled down are still in a pile in front of the closet. My accidental encounter with the past left me depleted, bereft, numb.

Too much at once. I’ll get to the rest soon. I think that I am saving it until I can actually enjoy the contents of these bags and boxes. After all, they are filled with items that recall good memories—like Alexis’s tiny Virginia Tech t-shirt. That made me smile.

So I’ll go through the rest, probably tomorrow, refold, repack, and replace on the shelf. I’ll take the time to bring to mind some of the good memories that are associated with these things: Brett’s baby blankets, the various humpelmann, Eamonn’s little cap from the National Zoo, Alexis’s Mary Janes. I find myself smiling inwardly even now as I type about these things. And that’s a good thing.

At times, I can balance with unbearable with the wonderful, the heart-wrenching with the endearing, which only proves that I am human after all. And even if it’s a lie, I will try to believe that it will be all right.

 

More later. Peace.

 

Advertisements

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

521px-hammarby_angel_statue

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

yellow-minaiture-roses
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

grieving-angel-statue
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.

angel-in-irish-cemetery
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

caitlin-and-me
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.