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.

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.

Pieces Of Her

In the spring of 2002, my daughter invited me to go on her senior spring break trip with her. It was a trip of a lifetime! While in Los Angeles, we visited the famous stretch of sidewalk outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Becca was beyond thrilled when her feet fit perfectly into the prints made by Marilyn Monroe. She was intrigued by the fact that she occupied the same space, for a moment, that the actress once had by standing in her footprints. My daughter had me take a picture from every angle! For months after that, she would casually throw out the fact that she and Marilyn shared the same shoe size. It was adorable. I’ll never forget that trip.

In a medium sized box covered in pink fabric, with Asian designs, I keep a half dozen very intimate pieces of my daughter’s life. Of those things, there are two that are the most difficult to hold, but give me the feeling of being where she once was. The space she inhabited while alive. Something like the feeling she had standing in those impressions, in the cement, years ago.

The hardest object to hold, I look at a lot, but pick up rarely. They were a part of her every day life. Of school. Her job. Of our hours together watching television. When I pick them up, and fold open the earpieces, I’m doing what she did every morning for years. I place her glasses on my nose, and KNOW, I am occupying the small space I saw her in every day of her last years. My eyes are looking out through the lenses she used to see her world. The tiny arch that rested on the bridge of her nose . . . now rests on mine. My eyes are where her beautiful long lashed ones used to be. And it makes my heart ache. So I don’t wear them often. But when I do . . . I feel closer to where she used to be.

The other object is so small, and seemingly insignificant, that it might surprise some that I cherish it. A simple cream cloth covered rubber band. Caught around the rubber band is some of my daughter’s soft brown hair. I don’t know how many times she used it to throw her long hair up into a ponytail or messy bun. I wish I could ask her. I’ll hold it and stroke the small bit of hair over and over, remembering how it felt to touch her hair when she put her head into my lap. I’m starting to be wary of touching the hair too much. What if it disintegrates from all of the handling and it disappears?? I can’t chance that. But I still need to stroke her hair some days.

There is one more object that is priceless to me. One afternoon, Becca and I helped the boys make hand prints in plaster of Paris as gifts for family members. There was a bit of it left over, so before it set, she poured it into an aluminum pan and made a print of her hand. I don’t remember how long after her death that I found it, but I am so grateful I did. I’m also grateful, that she decided to make it that day long ago. When I want to hold her hand, I place mine in the print she left. The surface isn’t white anymore. The edges aren’t as sharp. No longer can I see the lines from her skin. But when I place my hand in her’s, I feel a sense of peace. Of connection. This is the closest I will come to actually touching her again until I join her.

These small intimate pieces of her life, our life, will have to do until I hold her again in my arms. I want to cup her face with my hands and place a kiss on her forehead. Hear her laugh and call to me. Just hold my baby in my arms. For now, I have to visit the past to be with her again.

Take notice of the small pieces of each others lives. That’s where the love is. In the intimate moments in the tiniest of places. It really is the small things, I promise.