An Unexpected Goodbye: Still Grieving After All of These Years
She dwells in the shadow places of my heart and steps out into the glaring light at the most inopportune moments, bringing with her a tumult of emotion. In my mind’s eye, I see the large eyes, the color of dark chocolate, the wide toothless grin, her head tipped back, long braids sailing through the air as she twirls with her arms out-stretched wide in the bright sunlight, her high-pitched giggles carried on the early summer breeze.
My soul splinters. A large lump forms in my throat and tenderness wells up inside of me as I remember: the warmth of her tight hug and her sing-song voice. “Mom! Hey, mom! I love you!” Then the rush of pain floods over me anew and I am over-whelmed, once again, by the loss of her. The intensity of the pain, after all these years, still shocks me. I struggle to regain my composure, to replace the mask, worn for the world, which has momentarily slipped off. I begin to push her back into the shadows and stumble as I realize that she belongs in the light. It is I that belong in the cold darkness. I begin to re-live that time of sorrow. The years that I had her, they were fleeting but I had no way of knowing that then. We, as parents, protect our children. We safe-guard them in every imaginable way, at the same time never really anticipating that they could be taken from us. They think that they are immortal and despite our endless warnings we believe it as well.
Once in a while, however, the unthinkable happens, leaving you as completely shattered as Humpty Dumpty fallen from the wall, never to be put back together again and no matter how many people tell you that it will be alright, you know that it never will be.
Eight year old girls aren’t meant to die, but on a rainy day in June of 1996, that’s exactly what she did. It was stark and unexpected. Time passed in slow motion, yet it also happened so quickly that I struggled to comprehend it all as reality. One moment she was breathing and talking to me, saying that she wasn’t feeling well and the very next, she wasn’t. There followed the sterile harshness of the emergency room, the doctor clad in blue scrubs, his arm draped around my shoulders, his voice low and consoling, telling me that this didn’t usually happen.
They all left me to my solitary vigil. I watched her lying there, small and still. The rasping of the respirator filled in the silences. I sang to her, all of the songs that I had always sung to her. I read to her. I stroked her thin arms and legs, replaying scenes of her brief life in my head, while verbalizing them to her. I kept talking to her as the hours passed, reassuring her that she was not alone. I prayed, begging and bartering with God, but God doesn’t barter.
As I sat beside her bed, I felt powerless to help her. I could feel her gently being pulled away from me by the very hand that formed her. At first I prayed for healing. He is a God of miracles, after all, but as the hours passed into days, I began to pray for mercy. I sensed that we were being given this time alone to prepare us both for the journey. Even as I could feel her baby sister stir in my womb with new life, I could feel this other life easing away from me. I spoke to her about God, knowing already that this child had been holding onto His hand her entire life. Finally, in the wee morning hours, I told her that if He was waiting for her, it was alright to go to Him. That I loved her and would keep her here with me forever, if I could, but that if He was calling her, it was okay to run to Him. With that, I saw the light fade from her eyes and I knew she had left me.
Two days after she was admitted, they brought me organ donation papers to sign. I washed and plaited her long dark hair. When I’d finished, the nurse snipped off a lock of the long braid, at the tip, as a keepsake for me. I kissed her sweet face, taking in every detail. I studied the thick dark lashes, resting on her cheeks, the tiny button nose that she inherited from my grandmother, who she would at last meet again. I lingered, trying to fully appreciate this wee child, the beauty of her face and even more the beauty that was her soul. I said good-bye to my daughter, turned and left her.
I remember the horror of the long walk through the hospital and across the parking lot to the car. I couldn’t force myself to leave her there alone. My sister, clutching me tightly, forced me forward. “She’s gone, Candy. She’s not really here anymore. You have to go home now, to the other children and leave them to tend to her here. You can’t be here for that.” My sister urged me on. “I’m her mama. I can’t just leave her here. She doesn’t know these people. She’ll be afraid.” I wept. “Candy, she isn’t here. She’s with God now. She’s okay.”
I wanted the world to slow to a complete stop – to acknowledge the light of her that had been extinguished. I was angry that the world carried on as if nothing had happened and I was angry at God as well but God understands anger and he understands loss as well. He lost a child also – His son. I also needed time to catch up with the truth of it. Yet, we all know that life does, indeed, go on, whether we like it or not. The next days, weeks, months are a blur. Looking back there are moments that I can recall but they are dreamlike, disconnected, as if something I saw once in an old film.
As the years pass by those left behind find ways to carry on. You pack your pain away, tucking it as neatly as possible into a box and putting it on a shelf, often, trying to spare the feelings of those around you by suffering in silence and solitude. We are expected to “get over it” and move on. Naturally, it is always difficult surviving the loss of someone you love. We often think we are prepared, but seldom are. It is acutely arduous for those who lose their child. Your children are expected to outlive you. That is the normal progression of life. The death of a child is an obscenity that we cannot ever put into any context. So we keep our quiet observances, counting off their birthdays, acknowledging the anniversaries of their death, imagining rites and rituals that they didn’t live long enough to partake in and despite the pain, we still close our eyes and watch – welcoming them to come step out of the shadows and into the light.