“Memory is a way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~ Kevin Arnold

The Magpie Monet 1869 oil on canvas Musee d Orsay

“The Magpie,” by Monet (1869, oil on canvas), Musee d’Orsay

 

” . . . say it loud
panebreaking heartmadness” ~ From “Nightmare Begins Responsibility,” by Michael S. Harper

Do you know what it’s like to hold someone you love in your arms as she is dying? All of the white noise of the hospital room dissipates in those last few minutes. The only sounds that you hear are your own heartbeat in your ears and the sound of someone near you crying. Time becomes suspended, and a part of you hopes that it will remain that way forever, just so that you never have to move into that next moment, the moment when all possibilities cease to exist.

I still remember the weight of my daughter’s body in my arms, still remember the smell of her dark hair, or what was left of it. I can recall vividly the bright overhead lights of the small room, and the way that I stared at the machine that monitored her heartbeat, willing it to remain steady so that all that was left of Caitlin would not end.

I remember how it felt as if my own heart stopped in that moment when hers stopped, and how I wished that it were true so that I would never have to exist in a world in which Caitlin was no longer a part. And then how we all left the room while the nurses disconnected her from all of the machines and removed the tubes that had sustained her. How when we went back into the room, she was lying there in the middle of that big hospital bed, so small, so seemingly perfect, and how I knew that at last she was no longer in pain.

I removed the hospital gown and dressed her in soft white pajamas, and I tried to train my eyes away from the incisions on her chest and arms and legs. I felt the scar on the back of her head where the surgeons had cut into her only two months’ previous, and then I kissed her, caressed her still-warm cheeks, and left.

We walked out into the bright November afternoon, and I thought to myself that it was impossibly cruel that the world outside could still be moving on as if Caitlin had never been a life force among those moving about, completely mindless of her life and her death. After that, I don’t remember much. I don’t remember the car ride home. I don’t remember walking into the house that had been mostly empty for months. I don’t remember getting into bed that night or waking the next morning.

My next memories are of minutiae: picking out a headstone and deciding what to inscribe, taking a dress and bonnet to the funeral home, renting a carpet cleaner and cleaning the carpet and living room furniture, even though they did not need it. I remember my mother-in-law bringing Pizza Tuesday night so that we would eat, and I remember that it tasted of cardboard. I remember Ann going with me to find a dress for the funeral, and how I obsessed over finding finger-tip towels for the bathroom.

I remember the day of the funeral, passing out Valium like it was sweet tarts, standing in the tiny bathroom of the chapel with Kathleen and watching the people pulling into the parking lot, walking up to the podium and looking out at all of the faces of people who had been so much a part of our lives—nurses from the hospital, our friends from the medical school, people with whom I taught at the university, and I remember not being able to distinguish faces.

I remember the ride to the cemetery in Kathleen’s car, and looking behind us at the long line of cars that followed. I remember the late morning sun and the cool breeze. I don’t remember what was said, nor do I remember actually being there during the service, only the moments after the service concluded, when friends began to come up to me and hug me, how surprised I was. I remember looking up and seeing Johnny and collapsing into his arms, sobbing openly in my dear friend’s embrace.

Afterwards, I remember sitting in the Bentwood rocker in which I had held my daughter, drinking wine, and listening to people talk to me. I don’t remember what was said or everyone who was there. I remember that Sarah wore red. And then as people left, I remember pressing food into their hands because the idea of a house full of food made me physically ill.

Awakening Bessie Pease Butmann 1918

             “Awakening,” by Bessie Pease Gutmann (1918):            This is how Caitlin looked with her dark hair and chubby cheeks.

 

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

These are the things that I remember about those four days in November, remember still even though so much time has passed. And while I know that I have forgotten as much as I remember, it’s the memories that continue to cut so sharply, reopening wounds that have never healed completely.

I know that it is a cliché to say that a part of me died in that room that day, but that does not negate the statement’s truth. A part of my heart closed off completely the moment that Caitlin’s heart stopped beating. The part that had belonged to her grew cold and has never regained its living warmth. I can live with that. I have lived with that. I will continue to live with that.

Death is not a gentle journey for anyone, for those who die or for those who are left. Death is insidious in its ability to weave its way into the sinews of existence and memory. What those of us who remain must do is learn to take that loss and incorporate it into our daily lives. If not, it would be impossible to go on, to move through time with any kind of peace or hope.

The memories of the day that my daughter died and the hours that followed are stored away, and I dare not retrieve them too often lest they break me. But sometimes, it is necessary to open the box in which they reside, even if the doing feels like bloodletting. These memories are not the totality of my daughter, yet they are as much a part of me as the cells that give me life. I have incorporated these memories into my lifeblood, and there they will remain, along with the memories of my father and all of the other memories that make me who I am.

I have come to realize that the ability to recall such intense emotion helps to make me stronger, even if it feels like a little death each time that I do so. It may not seem to make much sense, but embracing every part of the tapestry of my life—the beauty and the pain—affords me my humanity, and given the opportunity, I would not choose to have traveled any other path.

One of my favorite songs from that time: “Cristofori’s Dream,” by David Lanz

More later. Peace.

                                                                                    

Remembrance of Monday Afternoon Past
     for Josh

How can I explain to you
what it is to hold someone you love
until she dies?
I cannot prepare you for that moment of separation—
     it is something so unspeakably personal
     that to watch it, to intrude upon it
     almost cannot be forgiven.
If I try to tell you about the silences
that enclose and isolate,
     you will not understand
     until you, too,
     have felt them.
I cannot describe for you
     the desperation
     with which you will try to pass
     life
    from your arms to hers,
    but you will come to know this as well
    as I once did.
When the moment comes,
     you will not be ready,
     but you will recognize it for what it is—
     that last instant
     in which possibilities still exist.

L. Liwag

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

yellow_roses_from-ramsey-art-gallery1
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/)