This Is Not Goodbye

“Now I’m the one going ahead . . . I’m not afraid . . . I can be brave, too . . . “ – Beth, Little Women

For a years, I’ve gone over nearly every aspect of losing my child. I imagine there are ones I’ve not thought of yet . . . but I have the rest of my life for them to find me. I’ve healed in some ways, not completely (never completely) and there are others which I’ve not inspected too closely. Simply, I’m not sure I will survive them. Yet, they stay visible in my peripheral vision . . . waiting their turn. This one, the one I’m attempting to write about, has been heavy on my heart since the moment I knew my daughter was dead.

Each detail of that night is like an autumn leaf that I keep pressed between the pages of the book of our lives. Most are worn from being held, in my hands, multiple times. If I turn to one page, in particular, one I’ve skipped past dozens of times . . . the leaf is in perfect shape. Vivid colors, the veins still strong. The smell brings me right back to the moment my boyfriend stepped out of the back of the police chaplain’s car.

I could tell by the look on his face that the young woman’s body was that of my daughter, Becca. As he held me, he told me they had allowed him to kiss her still warm forehead. I kept screaming, “I need to help her . . . I need to help her!” Later, he told me her spirit had ridden back with him in the car. I believe him. I asked him what she looked like. He answered, confused . . . lost.

When I think about this, anguish rises in soul and I can’t help but think I failed her at the most important time of her life. The end.

Mothers teach their children about life. I wasn’t given the chance to help her through her death.

When I took Becca to school, the first day of kindergarten, she and I both cried. She didn’t want me to leave and I didn’t want to go. But, I knew at the end of the day, she’d be home again. I could talk to her about all the new things. She would know I would be there to pick her up and she could trust that I wouldn’t leave her. Our time apart was more acceptable because we would hold each other again. This made the separations much easier on both of us.

Her death, I couldn’t hold her after and tell her everything was going to be alright. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering what that conversation would have been like.

“Mom, mom . . . what happened?”

“Come here,” I’d say, taking her in my arms, “you were killed in a car crash, honey.”

“But why? Why? How?” she would ask, confused, as I held her close to my chest.

“A drunk driver killed you . . . oh baby, I’m so sorry!”

“What do I do???? Where do I go? Do I have to leave you?? I can’t leave you, momma, the boys, I can’t go. I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s there!”

“I know honey, and I’m so sorry I can’t go with you. I don’t want you to either, but we don’t have a choice, my Becca.”

“But what do I do??? How do I go??? How do I leave you??”

“You have to be brave, sweetie. You have to be a brave girl. I know you can do that. I know you are strong enough to do this. It’s scary, I know, but just like when you went to school . . . I’ll see you again after, I promise.”

“Mommy . . . momma . . . I don’t want to go!!”

“You have to turn around and walk away, honey . . . “ even with these words, neither of us loosens our grip.

I take her face in my hands and look into her beautiful green blue eyes, “You have to go before all of us. I didn’t want it this way . . . but it’s what we have to do right now. I will always be your momma and you will always be my Becca. My only daughter. The one who made me a mother. I know you are scared, I’m scared to be without you . . . but our love will never fade. You are beautiful and smart and strong and brave. I promise I will be there with you one day. We will all be there. The boys will come. We will all be together again, I promise.”

I can feel her head shake slightly in my hands.

“Go now, my Becca, go and wait for us. Be strong. Soar through the heavens. Glide past stars. Dance in the winds that blow around the entire world. Play. Laugh. Visit us when you are lonely. And know, you are always loved. It’s been such a privilege to be your mother . . . you were my first true love, my girl.”

I would gently kiss her forehead and let my hands drop to my side, as my daughter turned away and bravely walked into her heaven.

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Shores

This past weekend, I was lucky enough to spend a night on Mackinac Island. For those of you not familiar with this location, it’s an island off the northern tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, with Lake Huron lapping it’s shores. We arrived in a small town at the edge of the Mackinac Bridge. Parking our car, we left our luggage with the porters and waited to board the ferry. The waters were a cold steel gray topped with fast moving whitecaps. I was scared. I’ve never been to the island, ridden the ferry, or been on one of the great lakes when the waves were so large.

Traveling with another bereaved mother, who’d been to the island many times, we boarded the boat. This trip was a sort of pilgrimage for her. Anxious about going somewhere she’d last been with her deceased child, she settled into her seat and looked out the foggy window. I ran my sleeve across the glass . . . trying to clear it enough to see outside. The ferry started to move and the swell of the waves grew larger as we pulled into open water.

My friend told me where the life vests and exits were “just in case”. Then, thinking it was funny, started to sing lyrics from “The Edmund Fitzgerald”. I looked at her with horror and she said “it’s a nurse’s sense of humor, dark”. Not long after that we hit a huge wave that lifted the boat about five feet into the air. Now, you have to know this boat seats nearly a hundred people and has two decks. Being tossed that high means the water was rough! For a moment, we hovered in the air as the boat fell. Then we slammed down into our seats. And I thought, if I die, I’ll see Becca. I think we lose our fear of death when we have a child that’s gone before us.

Either the captain slowed down or the waves calmed down as we approached shallower water, I don’t know which. I was then able to concentrate on the hazy shapes in the distance. I asked if the shape I saw was Mackinac Island. My friend said no, it was another island, but we were almost there.

My mind starting thinking about how grief is often times described as waves. How we are fighting the currents and just trying to stay afloat. I agree with this description. Then, a thought flashed into my head. She’d been here before. She knew what the islands looked like when the weather was sunny and the waters a clear blue calm. She’d never been here when the weather was as it was that day. But she knew that the mist covered shape in the distance was solid ground. Even though, at the moment, she couldn’t see it. The trip across this stretch of the lake wouldn’t last forever. She KNEW there was land.

Our ground was solid when our children were alive. When our child died, a tsunami swept across our land and wiped much of what we know away. On our good days, we stand on that ground, looking at the drastically changed landscape surrounding us. On the bad, the waters rise and sweep us to sea.

During these moments, the ones when we think of how easy it might be to slip below the surface and give in, we have to look across the water and find a familiar shape. We know there is land. Reaching it might be difficult . . . but it’s there! The waves rise and fall. When they carry you to their crest, find the land and swim towards it. Keep doing this, over and over. Until you make it to shore.

I think my friend was calmer than me on the ferry because she knew what lay ahead. I didn’t, therefore I was more anxious. We can help ourselves, and each other, by remembering what we stood on before our child died. Reminding each other that the maelstrom won’t last forever.

As we drew closer to the island, the soft shapes started to come into sharp focus. My friend pointed out a white church very close to the shore. She told me that her daughter, Mckenna, wanted to get married there some day. Now, she wouldn’t have the chance. Her mom was going to leave a rock, with her daughter’s name on it, outside of the church. Her pilgrimage.

The ferry slowed, we floated on the waves, and I took a picture of the church through a foggy window. A picture taken for a grieving mom, a daughter who’s future was stolen by someone else’s hand, and for me. Someone who didn’t know this shore existed, but felt blessed to visit it.

I don’t always know where my journey will take me. I do know that the journey can be better if you don’t always do it alone.

In The Understanding

I remember sitting, numb, in the big room inside the funeral parlor. The chair was uncomfortable. There were boxes of tissue on every flat surface. Scattered on the shiny table in front of me were multiple binders. Binders which held images of caskets and linings and flower arrangements. I kept thinking it all was a bad dream. That at any moment, my alarm would go off, and I’d wake up. Of course, this didn’t happen. Instead, I went to the store and wandered around, trying to find something for my daughter to wear at “her visitation”.

There are no words to explain the pain which accompanies a mother choosing her child’s last outfit. Up one aisle, and down the other, I searched for the perfect outfit for Becca. Finally, I found myself in the sleepwear section of the store. I saw a beautiful white silk nightgown with a matching robe. It looked so much like the simple dress she’d worn for her senior prom. This was what I had envisioned her in. Something that made her look like the angel she now was.

With the clothing chosen, I now had to decide how she would “look”. I told them I wanted her to look like the little girl that I had raised. Very little makeup. Her hair simple, in a pony tail, I wanted her to look natural. I needed her to look like herself. Even now, writing this, my heart is torn in two as I remember her laying there . . . covered by the Care Bear blanket she’d had since she was three. I’d always thought that blanket would cover her children someday, not be cremated with her.

Earlier today, I was in a position to hear two people talking about autopsies. Their conversation was light with some laughter. You need to know, one of the participants in this conversation is going to be a doctor. A discussion about viewing an autopsy is not perverse but expected of a medical student. Though this topic isn’t out of the realm of what is talked about . . . it completely ripped apart my insides as the memory of my daughter’s visitation rushed into the middle of my thoughts.

Because Becca’s death was brought on by the actions of another, she was autopsied. My daughter was killed on a Sunday. She was kept in the morgue, in one of those refrigerated drawers, until her autopsy sometime on Monday. I spent that time frantic because I desperately wanted to sit beside her, so she wouldn’t be alone. I wasn’t allowed. In my bedroom I sat, looking out the window into the snow, aching to be with my child.

The first opportunity I was able to see her was a few minutes before her visitation began. I was led into a room. In the center of the room, there lay my Becca, her hands crossed atop the Care Bear blanket. She was on a gurney because I couldn’t bear to see her in a coffin. A coffin made it too real somehow.

In a future blog, I’ll share more about the visitation. For now, I’ll talk about her autopsy scars.

I remember, hysterically thinking, why are they called scars?? A scar indicates healing. When I gently parted the robe across her chest, and saw the Y shaped incision, my heart nearly stopped. They were not scars. They were cuts. Cuts that were never supposed to happen to her body. Distraught, I felt wild to know if her organs were put back where they belonged. Was she treated with respect? Oh my God, I pray that she was treated with tender care. She was my baby. She deserved to be cared for, even at the end.

As I stood next to my daughter alone, having asked everyone to leave so I could say good bye, I arranged her robe back over the stitches and kissed her farewell. Turning and walking away from her was so incredibly difficult I couldn’t do it. I had to be forced to leave her side.

I’m writing about this today to convey a very simple truth. The meaning of something to us will rarely be what it is to another person. If I had heard the conversation I shared above, a few years ago, I would have exploded. There is too much raw emotion, for me, around the term autopsy. I am a mother who witnessed the remnants of the procedure on her child. The person who talked about it today is a medical student. Worlds apart. Completely different sides of the same thing.

We bring our own experiences to every situation. The little ones, and the big. In no way did these two people mean for their conversation to raise memories about my daughter. They couldn’t know it would shatter any peace I felt today. If they had, I am certain they would not have talked where I could hear them.

Most people are like this. They can’t know the memories behind every day things because they have not experienced them in the way a grieving mother has. I imagine, most of the time, people don’t realize why what they have said has hurt you. I doubt there is much intent in hurting us, further.

If you need to explode, then do it. Those who are close to you will understand. It took me a very long time to realize what I’ve tried to explain above. If you haven’t realized it yet, that’s ok, you will . . . in your own time. And your time is all that matters.

If you are one of the people who’s been hit by the fallout from just such an explosion . . . thank you for sticking around. We are doing the best we can to come to terms with all that’s changed around us, and within us.

The key is attempting to understand each other, even if we fall short in it’s completion, there is deep connection in the act.