Buying Silk Flowers

cherry-trees-in-bloom-kyoto-japan

Cherry Trees in Bloom, Kyoto, Japan by Q. T. Luong

“Bread feeds the body, indeed, but flowers feed also the soul.” ~ The Koran

Bringing Beauty Where None Exists

akasaka-blooming-cherry-trees1
Blooming Cherry Trees, Akasaka, Japan

This afternoon I created a new floral arrangement to put on Caitlin’s grave. I had hoped to put it together yesterday, but I still did not have everything that I needed. I used to perform this ritual every year, twice a year. I would buy silk flowers and make an arrangement for spring and summer, and place it on Caitin’s grave on her birthday—March 26.

Then I would make another arrangement around the end of October for fall and winter. I would put this arrangement on her grave near the anniversary of her death—November 7.

Eventually, I stopped this ritual. I don’t remember exactly when, but I think that it was near the time of my father’s death, which also occurred in November. I cannot remember why I stopped or what was behind my thought process.

But this year, I decided that I really wanted to make a new arrangement and go to the cemetery. My desire probably arises from my recent series, Vale et Memini, in which I chronicle Caitlin’s illness and death.

So I purchased silk flowers again, and it took me back to those days gone by in which the actual ritual of selecting the flowers was enough to set me back for days, sometimes weeks. I would walk the aisles of Norfolk Wholesale florist for hours, putting together flowers, and then putting some back because I did not like the color scheme. Every choice that I made was personal and instigated by my need to bring beauty to a place that is not beautiful.

I remember that after we buried Caitlin in the infant cemetery, I was so depressed by the lack of trees and fresh blooms in that particular section of the cemetery.

Most of the older sections had beautiful maples and oaks surrounding the periphery, but not the infant section. Consequently, I approached the groundspeople about purchasing trees for the plot. Based on their recommendation, we purchased five Chinese Yoshino Blooming Cherry trees. They planted four along the back of the lot, and one on the end of the row where Caitlin was buried.

This was a family project. Everyone in the family contributed money towards the purchase. Then, about four years later, we purchased one more tree to be planted on the other end of Caitlin’s row.

Now, every spring when the trees bloom, the infant cemetery is surrounded by beautiful pale pink blooms. It was the best investment that I ever made. Other parents hang wind chimes in the trees, and for the most part, the groundspeople do not remove them. At first they thought that I had hung all of the windchimes, but I had not. I was content to have just the trees and the blooms.

The infant cemetery has unwritten rules of conduct for visitors: if someone is visiting, most people will wait in their cars until the parent or relative or friend has finished with their visit so as not to intrude. Many people who visit there do not just clean their children’s gravesites, but will pick up stray trash and set right flowers that have fallen over.

It’s a horrible fraternity to belong to, but at the same time, there is comfort in being with people who are just as devastated as you are and who can truly understand what life has become for you.

On that note, I will close with a few poems from the vault that reflect my varying states after Caitlin’s death.

“Each flower is a soul opening out to nature.” ~ Gerald De Nerval

From the Vault:

cherry-twig1

Cherry Twig by Rose Siegl-Ibsen

On buying silk flowers
for my daughter’s grave. A ritual I have created for myself to prepare me for the anniversary of her death, the logic being this:  If I can take her beauty that I have made, then I won’t have to dwell on the painful truth that brings me to a grave in an infant cemetery on a Monday afternoon in November.
 

 

 

Norfolk,Virginia in

Forest Lawn Cemetery,
among the stone faces of the cherubs
and the silent marble lambs
I have finally come to know
that it is all here, you see,
that no matter how far I travel from this place,
how hard I try to rebuild with what is left,
the piece of me that was you
will always beckon me to return here–
to this soil, this cold earth,
which cradles but does not comfort.
Nothing is nurtured here.
where renewal is as lifeless
as the silk poinsettias,
lovingly placed, then forgotten
left to fade beneath a late winter sun
warm as April, but without the glory.
In this most solitary of places–
crowded with souls long gone
and those newly taken–
here in this small plot of land,
lie the lost dreams
of too many fathers,
too many mothers,
who buried their hopes with their children
in this ground, fertile with sorrows.

 

 

Last Possible Second

Do you have any idea what it is like to hold someone you love until she dies?  Until that last second when all sound is gone and you are sucked into a void—complete nothingness.  And then the monitor doesn’t make that steady beep any more, and all of a sudden, you hear all of the sounds that had been there all along, but you had just stopped noticing them:  the footsteps, the nervous coughs, the sounds of the other monitors attached to other patients.  But most of all, you hear your own heartbeat.  It starts somewhere deep inside of your gut and pulsates relentlessly within your ears.  And you would give anything if the sound would just stop.  If your heart would just stop.  If all of the noise would just stop.  Because if it did, then you would never have to move into that next second when you know for certain that all possibilities have ceased to exist and that the pain—a pain that you have never felt before, are unfamiliar with, are not used to assimilating and reacting to—that pain has only just begun to consume you.  So you wish most of all that your own heart would stop, just as hers did.  And then neither of you would ever have to feel the pain again.

 
Small Silent Victories

I did not.
I did not go.
I did not swallow
the handful of pills on
what would have been your first birthday.
I did not allow myself to return to the emergency room
to slay the resident who said you only had a virus.
I did not allow myself to stay barren forever.
I did not let myself stop feeling things when
I could have stopped feeling anything.
I did not forget how to love others.
I have not forgotten how you smelled.
I have not forgotten you.
I have not left.
I am still here.
I am, still.
I am.

 
More later. Peace

Advertisements

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

somewhere-over-the-rainbow1

Somewhere Over the Rainbow (nacedesign.com)

Part 4: When life was forever changed

Caitlin’s stay in the intensive care lasted almost four weeks. During that time, I learned how to read more machines, became close to several nurses and one of the PICU’s attending physicians. The hospital chaplain made frequent visits to see how we were doing.

Caitlin was placed in an isolation room because of her pneumonia and her susceptibility to infections. The isolation room allowed me to stay with her throughout the day, but I was no longer allowed to sleep with her at night. Instead, I slept on vinyl sofas in the parents’ waiting room. Sometimes I would go home in the morning to take a shower and change clothes; other times, I would find a shower and stay at the hospital. More often than not, I would go home for at least an hour and clean a house that no one was living in. While I would be vacuuming, I would weep. Then I would finish up, change clothes, and go back to the hospital.

One of the few times that I did go home to sleep, we were called by the hospital to come back because there was an emergency. I remember driving back to the hospital in silence. I was driving, and I had my emergency flashers on. I suppose that I had wanted to drive so that I could feel in control of something, no matter how insignificant. We went in the back door for staff and were stopped by a security guard who did not know us. He took one look at us and realized what was happening and moved aside. Caitlin had developed an infection around her heart. After that, I rarely left the hospital at night.

I remember arriving back at the PICU one morning, and the night nurse had made Caitlin a bow from paper and had put it in her hair. All of the nurses were very attentive, but usually, it was one of two nurses who cared for Caitlin during the day. They asked for her. The consistency they provided was one of the few things in our lives that was consistent.

I taught as many classes as I was able, but more often than not, I had to have someone fill in for me those last few weeks. I couldn’t bear not to be with Caitlin for more than a few hours, and when I was in the classroom, I was useless, and my students knew it. I had told them at the beginning of the semester that my daughter was very ill and that I would probably be missing some classes. I was admittedly surprised that every student was understanding, that they never complained when I wasn’t there. They were truly a wonderful group of students.

Our friends and family were frequent visitors to keep us company at night. People brought us dinner, played cards, anything to pass the long nights. A few times we spent the night in Paul’s office at the medical school, sleeping on air mattresses. Those times, I would take a shower in the room just off the cadaver room where the medical students practices on bodies that had been donated for research. It was unnerving, to say the least.

When we were left to our own devices, we would walk over to the main hospital and get food from the cafeteria. I mostly remember getting extra large cups of coffee. But each time we went to the cafeteria, I would stop in at the chapel. Paul would wait outside while I made my daily, twice daily, sometimes thrice daily pleas to god to spare my little girl. In all of the times that I was in that chapel, not another soul entered.

muppet-babies-christmas
Christmas Muppet Babies Fozzy and Kermit

Because she was hooked up to more monitors, I could no longer bathe and dress Caitlin in the mornings as I had once done. The only personal effects that I could fit in the room were a small cassette player on which I played Disney tapes like Pinocchio and Cinderella, and lullabies, and the nurses let me put a miniature Kermit the Frog on the end of her bed.

It was a special edition Christmas Kermit Muppet Baby. McDonald’s was selling them that season. Alexis saw Kermit and wanted one for herself. My dad took her and got her Kermit and then Fozzy Bear. Alexis recalls that when her Papa went through the drive through and ordered Fozzy, the woman taking the order could not understand his Filipino accent and kept asking what size french fries he wanted. Finally, Alexis yelled Fozzy Bear. It was a little bit of humor in an otherwise very unfunny situation.

The staff also found a way for me to hold my daughter in spite of the wires that spidered out and around. Depending upon her condition that day, I would hold her for as long as they would let me, rocking her in the blue vinyl rocker that they had put in the corner of the room for me. I would sing softly to her: “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Wishful songs more for my comfort than hers, I suppose.

But for me, the most painful reality of those days was that Caitlin had been put in a medical coma so that she wouldn’t fight the respirator. She never opened her eyes and looked at me again after that morning when she was rushed down from her former room. She had the most beautiful brown almond-shaped eyes with long lashes. Some days, it would appear that she was crying, but the nurses assured me that she wasn’t. I never believed them.

raggedy-anne
Raggedy Ann

While Caitlin was in PICU, I became familiar with the other children who were there, just from catching snatches of conversations. One boy, Hobie, was very ill, and his parents were there as frequently as we were. Hobie was a teenager, and I don’t really remember what he was suffering from. I only remember the night that he died: Halloween.

Most of the nurses were dressed up for Halloween, and Hobie’s nurse was dressed as Raggedy Ann. I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. I went home in the late afternoon to get Alexis ready for Trick or Treat. That year, she was going as a princess. She had a crown and a magic womp (her pronunciation) and a beautiful pink and lace dress that her grandmother had made for her. Her father took her around for candy as I handed out candy to other people’s children. Once Alexis went to bed, I went back to the hospital. Hobie died that night.

Hobie’s death really affected me for a number of reasons, but mostly because he and Caitlin seemed to be on parallel paths. He would get a chest tube, and then she would get a chest tube. You see, one of the more heinous aspects of being on a respirator for a long time is that the lungs rebel. Caitlin’s oxygen levels would start to drop; alarms would go off, and the doctors would come in and listen.

pneumothorax-x-ray
X-ray Showing Pneumothorax

The portable x-ray machine would be rolled in, and then after looking at the x-rays, someone would tell me Caitlin had developed a pneumothorax—a collapsed lung that occurs when air leaks from inside the lung to the space between the lung and the chest wall. This meant the insertion of a chest tube to help reinflate the lung. Her oxygen saturation would get better, and everyone would calm down.

They put in chest tubes and then removed them when she seemed to be getting better. The same thing was going on with Hobie. But then, it seemed that they both took a bad turn, and chest tubes kept being inserted. At the most, she had 12 in at once. I joked feebly that she would never want to wear a bikini because of all of the little scars that they were putting on her.

By then, the chances of her getting old enough to wear a bikini were diminishing quickly.

After Hobie died, I began to lose the little hope that I had been clinging to so frenetically. Although I never wanted to admit it, I had to face that Caitlin might not make it out of the PICU. I asked for the minister from my mother-in-law’s church to come to the hospital to baptize Caitlin. It wasn’t that I believed that she could not enter heaven if she weren’t baptized, but it was comforting nonetheless.

On the Sunday after Halloween, she had a very bad day. We all had a bad day. Paul and I decided to go home around dawn to get a few hour’s sleep. Caitlin’s nurse called us at 9 o’clock Monday morning to see when we would be coming back. It was November 7. That had never happened before, a call from the hospital when they knew that we were coming back soon. I knew that it was not good news. When we arrived at the unit, the doctor on call that day took us into his office and told us that the time had come to make a decision. Paul looked at me as if he were completely surprised. I was not.

We asked for a little bit of time. I remember that we walked out of the hospital and walked around the medical complex. It was a beautiful day. Paul asked me what I wanted to do. Wanted. What I wanted was anything but what needed to be done. I told him that I believed that it was time to let her go. As I said the words, I literally felt my heart break. I had never felt so much despair as I did at that moment. Ultimately, he made the decision mine. I hated him for that but never told him.

We went back inside and back into the doctor’s office. We told him what we had decided, but we said that we needed a few hours to call all of the family. We called everyone and told them what was happening. My parents and Paul’s parents and sister arrived at the hospital at around 1 in the afternoon. Everyone filed into the room to say their goodbyes. It had to be done in shifts because of the size of the room.

caitlins-bear
Caitlin’s Bear

Then when it was time, they placed Caitlin in my arms, and turned off the respirator. I sang to her. We watched as her breathing slowed and then stopped. It was 2:42 in the afternoon. The monitors had been turned off so that the alarms would not sound. Everyone came into the room one more time, and then we were asked to go out for a few minutes.

When they called us back in, my baby girl was no longer hooked up to any machines. She was lying in the middle of the big hospital bed, and she looked peaceful, or at least, that is how it seemed to me because the machines that were supposed to sustain her were no longer invading her body. I took off the hospital gown and dressed Caitlin for the last time. I put her in a pair of pajamas with little flowers on them. I put on a pair of booties.

Then we took her few belongings and left the hospital for the last time.

End of Part 4.

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.

trivpursboard_t
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.

angel-in-irish-cemetery
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.