Blame

Some time in March, Kim and I spent an hour on the phone with a pediatrician. He was not Elena and Maggie’s doctor. He was the pediatrician that our school nurse took her children to. He had done some research into what could have happened and sat on the phone patiently answering every one of our questions. The science that he passed on was invaluable, but he did something even more important for us. Something we didn’t believe until much later. There are days we don’t believe it now.

At that time a lot of our questions were centered around what more could we have done to save our baby. Should we have brought her in earlier?

No. She would have been sent home.

Should we have seen some symptom that we hadn’t?

No. She was presenting like a child with the flu. In fact, that’s what any doctor would have seen it as.

Should we have …

And he stopped us. And then he said the oddest thing.

He said that there wasn’t any reason for what had happened. There wasn’t a real logical explanation. And in cases like that, parents would rather blame themselves than have no other explanation.

Kim and I looked at each other. We each held a phone in our hands not speaking. Just thinking. We both knew that Elena’s death was somehow our fault. It would be a while til we knew that it wasn’t.

Kim was sure that, no matter what any doctor said, that she had brought home the bacteria that had killed Elena from the hospital. That if she didn’t work at the hospital it wouldn’t have happened.

I was sure that if we’d called the ambulance immediately instead of minutes later that Elena would still be alive.

The pediatrician explained to Kim that no she hadn’t brought it home and that the bacteria is often present. It wasn’t its presence that had killed Elena. He explained to me that had she been in the hospital when she started turning blue she still would probably not have survived.

Not our fault. We both knew he was right. We both felt he was wrong. If it hadn’t been something we did, then what was it? Our job is to watch over our children and keep them safe. I had failed at that.

He was right about one thing. Blaming ourselves – never each other – was somehow natural.

Published in: on August 29, 2006 at 6:35 am  Comments (9)  

Six Months

Neither Kim nor I slept much last night.

Three nights ago, about twenty minutes after midnight, the doorbell rang.

When the doorbell rings that late at night it is chilling. No one would be coming to visit that late at night just to chat. Something horrible must have happened.

I’m transported back to a late night in our old house when the doorbell rang this late and it was Andy and Andy at my door to tell me that Mel had died. Suddenly. He’d died while doctors looked on unable to do anything.

But tonight there’s no one at my door. It’s a bit creepy. I know I heard the bell ring. It’s still echoing a bit and the dog is pacing back and forth. I turn off some lights to better see outside and there’s no one there. Then I notice some movement across the street. It’s two boys running. I open the door to make sure they’re ok – to make sure they aren’t running from house to house in distress looking for help.

They’re not.

They’re pulling a prank. They run up to the house across the street and ring the bell and run away. They’re too far to identify. All I can see is that one boy is wearing a green shirt with white writing. The other boy is hiding in the shadows. It doesn’t look as if they are done for the night. I call the police and go to bed.

Two nights ago our phone rang at one thirty in the morning.

Time contracts and expands at different times during the day. Kim and I had enough time between the first and third rings to wake up, look at each other, and imagine all sorts of horrible news that would be conveyed by this call.

It was a wrong number.

And so last night I had a hard time falling asleep. It could have been that I knew when I woke up it would be six months since Elena died. It could have been the two nights before. I tossed and couldn’t get settled. I listened to “On the Media” on my shuffle and fell asleep somewhere around one thirty. At two I woke up and took the headphones out of my ears.

I lay there unable to get back to sleep. This is unusual. Ordinarily, I just turn over and am out again. Ten minutes later I heard Maggie talking. It was her voice but what she said was indecipherable. Kim awoke immediately. It’s a sixth sense that mothers have for their children. She didn’t know why she had woken up but she listened carefully and then rolled over and go to bed.

But at three in the morning it is now the twenty-second. It’s six month since Elena died. I need to check on Maggie and know that she’s o.k.. I get up and look in her room. Her bed is piled so high with stuffed animals that I can’t be sure that that lump in the middle that is Maggie is breathing normally.

I walk closer to her bed and see that she’s fine. She’s more than fine. She’s perfect. I reach over her and turn off her clock radio. The radio we gave Elena a year ago. The one item from Elena’s room that Maggie asked for. Maggie stirs and looks up at me. She sees me turn off her radio and smiles and turns over and falls immediately back to sleep.

I head back to bed but not to sleep. It’s been six months.

Published in: on August 22, 2006 at 7:08 am  Comments (9)  

Butter and Syrup

Kim was putting butter on a cracker and shaking her head. It caught my attention because Kim almost never uses butter. We’d picked up a two pound roll of butter at an Amish stand at the Farmers’ Market.

“Elena would have loved this,” she said.

And it’s true. Elena loved butter on pretty much everything. She loved it when we stopped at the bread store and picked up a baguette. I loved the baguette when it was fresh. Soft in the middle and crisp on the outside. She would tear off a piece of bread and join me. But her favorite time was toasted slices in the morning covered in butter.

She pronounced Challah with an prolonged “Ch” sound like she was getting ready to spit. “Are you going to the bread store?” she’d ask. If we said yes she’d always say “can you pick up some Chhhhhhhallah?” She knew they only had Challah on Fridays but she also knew that if she asked we would remember to order it for Friday.

I hadn’t meant to buy butter at the market. It was one of those “one thing leads to another” purchases. The mushroom guy had some really nice looking mushrooms and the stall across the way had some shallots. That said “risotto” to me. I wasn’t sure I had the right sort of rice, but I knew I didn’t have enough butter.

A woman asked me how many shallots I wanted.

“A handful, please,” I said.

She put a handful in a bag, weighed them and said “ninety-five cents, please.”

I gave her a dollar, and when she started fishing for change I said “that’s o.k.”

She shrugged. Another woman, the owner of the stall, came around the counter and handed me another shallot. “That’s o.k.” I said. She still held it out. I smiled and took it. “Thanks.”

I looked at the sign behind her. Snake Hill Farms. I turned to Kim and asked, “didn’t you go on a field trip with Elena’s class to Snake Hill?”

She nodded. The owner wanted to know more. “Who’s class was it?” she asked.

Kim thought a moment and said, “Mr. Raymont’s from Boulevard School in Shaker.”

The woman smiled. We talked about the field trip and about another Boulevard teacher, Mrs. Rimidio who was exhibiting her art work on the other side of the market. The owner looked at Maggie and asked if she’d been to Snake Hill.

Maggie said “no, my class didn’t go.”

“Well,” said the woman, “I have a present for the little girl who did go. Have her come to my stall and I’ll give her a little container of Maple syrup.”

We let it pass and talked about other things. The woman brought up Elena two more times. She was being nice. She had a present for her. Finally, I don’t know why, I quietly told her that Elena had died in February.

She remembered reading about it. She remembered many of the details even. She offered us the syrup anyways and we thanked her but refused. We talked about this and that. She asked what I was going to do with the shallots and I told her. I asked if anyone sold butter at the market and she pointed out the Amish stall across the way. “Buy their cream,” she said. “You can make it into butter.”

I smiled. I’d love to. Kim rolled her eyes. The man who sold us tomatoes had just told us to get a vacuum sealer to use on the peppers that would be coming in the next couple of weeks. I was feeling at home here.

The woman caught the look on Kim’s face and said “they sell butter too.” I had caught the same look and agreed that that would be best.

As we said goodbye and started to leave, the woman handed us a little container of syrup.

“It’s not why I told you,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I’d just like to give it to her. Posthumously.”

Published in: on August 21, 2006 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)  

The Corkscrew

Maggie doesn’t tend to like roller coasters. She explains that a car is safer because you have control of it. If something happens on a roller coaster there’s no steering wheel. There are no gas or break pedals. Intellectually roller coasters are safer, I explain, because no one else has steering wheels or pedals either. The cars have run the same way on the same track over and over thousands of times before you’ve gotten on.

She’s not convinced I’m right on this one. Besides, roller coasters are scary.

They’re supposed to be scary. They are designed to put your heart in your throat as you whip into action down that first hill.

We stopped in Hershey, PA and went to the amusement park there. We rode the scrambler which whipped you around in a spyrograph pattern. A wheel within a wheel. Four cars rotated around a  hub and this hub rotated along with three others about  a central hub. I found this way more challenging than a roller coaster ride but Maggie loved it. We rode on another ride where these two man cars whipped around in a circle while the riders controlled their height with levers attached to hydraullic pumps. Maggie gave us a ride that would challenge any roller coaster and yet she had complete control of our vertical position. It was perfect for her.

She balked at a couple of other rides and then chose a water ride. The park rated it a four on a scale of five for difficulty. She had originally wanted to draw the line at three but really enjoyed the ride. She saw that the next one she wanted to try required that you sit with your legs dangling and she wasn’t about to do that. As much as she’d loved the flume a summer before, she wasn’t willing to try it this year. She loved a ride that freaked Kim and me out a bit. The coaster was fairly slow and flat but the tight turns made it feel as if you would fall out the sides.

Towards the end of the night we faced the tamest coaster in the park. Maggie agreed to go on it and she and I rode together. We went up the first slow hill with the rachet sound that always accompanies this dramatic moment. I worried that the coaster would be too fast and she’d hate it. But it wasn’t. The ride was fairly slow and gentle. A few hills and then we spiraled down in the corkscrew. When we were pretty close to the ground we leveled back off and coasted to a stop back at the gate.

“Did you like it?” I asked.

“Yeah, it was ok.”

“Would you go again?”

“Sure.”

And then she started to shake. It was a delayed reaction. Something had happened on the ride that hadn’t caught up to her when we were talking. She was really upset. I held her til she stopped shaking and apologized. The tears seemed to have come out of no where. One moment she was saying she’d ride it again and then something smacked her hard.

It felt like yet another metaphor for our last months. So many times I would say – and believe – I was ok and then something would catch up to me and knock me over. I’d go from fine to incapacitated in a matter of moments. And here was Maggie showing me that the answer to the question “what’s wrong with me” is “nothing”.

Later she would say that the corkscrew left her “three centimeters from the ground. I could have crashed.”

It was low. But she’d come through it o.k.. And then she hadn’t.

Published in: on August 18, 2006 at 9:27 am  Comments (2)  

Weddings

One of Elena and Maggie’s favorite games when they were young was to dress up and recreate a wedding. At the time Elena carried around little blankets for comfort. They were washed and rotated and often Elena travelled with more than one of them. They were small thin baby blankets – like dish towels.

We have pictures of Maggie and Elena standing side by side with one of Elena’s blankets arranged neatly on her head like a nun’s habit. They were playing wedding and Elena was the bride. Sometimes she would dress up nicely, other times she’d have something like a ballet dress from the dress-up box. Often she would just be wearing one of my old t-shirts because it would cover her all the way to the ground and drag like she imagined a bridal dress would.

No matter what she wore on her body, nothing said “bride” like a blanket on her head. Maggie would arrange it for her and Elena would have to walk very carefully so the headdress wouldn’t slip. She knew this would be followed by Maggie whining, “Elena, you’re ruining it.” In Elena’s world, brides held their hands arched together in prayer as they walked down past their adoring fans. Elena would sneak a sly look at the imaginary people who lined the aisles and wave at them.

Elena was always the bride.

Sometimes Maggie was the bride too. Sometimes they’d both have receiving blankets on their head and walk down the aisle as brides and meet up at the other end. Other times Maggie would be the groom. Whether bride or groom, Maggie always played the role of preacher as well.

They had watched the video of Kim and my marriage. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the video but Maggie and Elena had. They had also gone to Tommy and Patti’s wedding. Elena was just a few months old and Maggie was a month shy of her third birthday. I don’t know what Maggie remembered of that wedding but she seemed to recreate it fairly accurately.

By the time Carolyn and Jeff got married in our backyard the girls had honed their routine. Kim practiced with them so that they would be comfortable walking down the aisle as flower girls. It was an out-of-a-movie moment watching my three girls in the wedding in the backyard of our new house.

Maggie and Elena loved the ceremony but they didn’t really understand what it represented. One day when we were driving home from Oberlin a five year old Maggie said.

“I don’t think Ethan could marry Tara.”

Kim and I looked at each other. You never know what kids are thinking or why they bring these things up. Why had Maggie considered whether or not my brother could get married to our dog? And why had she concluded that a person and a black lab couldn’t get married? Hadn’t we just explained to her that Tara had been fixed? We forged ahead.

“Why not,” Kim asked.

“‘Cause after they get married they go to the reception. And at the reception they have to do the first dance. And you know that dogs can’t dance.”

Published in: on August 17, 2006 at 8:16 am  Leave a Comment  

Breakfast Conversation

We weren’t rushing to get out the door. Maggie had stirred the coffee in the french press and then pushed the plunger at the perfect moment. She had poured a cup for me so that I would sit and have coffee while she ate her cereal. Kim poured a cup for herself and, not seeing the cup that Maggie had brought me, another cup for me.

“We need to do something about the stone this week,” I said to Kim.

She nodded. That would have been that except that Maggie looked up from her cereal.

“I don’t want a picture on it,” Maggie said.

“A picture on what?” I asked.

“Elena’s grave stone,” she answered. She gave me that look that asked how I could be so dumb. “Isn’t that what we’re talking about?”

“Yeah,” I said.

How did she know that that’s what we were talking about? She just knew. And to her participating in the discussion about what should go on her sister’s headstone was a natural to this nine year old as pouring milk over her Fruity Pebbles.

“Why don’t you want a picture?” I asked. Kim and I had already decided we didn’t want a picture but I wanted to know what Maggie was thinking.

“I don’t know. I just don’t like it.”

“What about a picture she drew?” I asked.

Maggie thought a moment. “That would be o.k.,” she said, “just not one of those photograph ones.”

Kim stood in the doorway listening. We looked at each other and then at Maggie.

I said, “We’re not going to put her picture on the stone. I’m not sure what we are going to put. Something simple.”

“Like what?” Maggie asked.

“Her name. Should we include her Chinese name as well?”

Kim nodded. “It was her legal name.”

“O.K.,” I agreed, “and the dates that she lived.” We could almost list each day separately on the stone but I meant birth date and date of death. “What about ‘beloved daughter’ of or something like that?”

Kim said, “No, but should it say something else? I want people to know how young she was.”

“Well,” I said, “we could write that – but really people will know. They’ll do the same subtraction that we do in the cemetary. They’ll see that she wasn’t even seven.”

“I guess,” Kim said.

“And,” I turned back to Maggie, “your mom is thinking of a pink stone.”

“Pink?” Maggie asked.

“Not bright pink,” I said. “More of a soft rose color.”

“Are we getting a flat stone or one that tips?” Maggie asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we should go back to the cemetary and walk around her section and look at some of the other stones.”

And so we will.

Maggie finished the milk at the bottom of the bowl. She took her dishes into the kitchen. Just an ordinary breakfast conversation with what remains of our family.

Published in: on August 15, 2006 at 9:20 am  Comments (2)  

Happy Anniversary

Kim and I were married on this date a lifetime ago. 8/8 so easy to remember. A month before Kim’s birthday which is three weeks before mine.

It was one of my favorite times with my brother and sister. We finished getting dressed for the wedding in one of their hotel rooms and then walked over to the hall. Kim missed most of the music she had selected. Herb on the flute and Jay on the guitar playing songs that included Van Morrison’s “Moondance”. I walked upstairs to watch Al play the organ while Sandy turned the pages. Later Jill sang, a bag piper played, Debra sang accompanied by Robert. Kim’s grandfather sang after the toasts and Richard dj’ed.

Al Jarreau sings “Blessed be the promise taken today – sunshine and May wine streaming.”

I remember hearing that a man gets married hoping his wife will never change and a woman gets married hoping her husband will start changing right away. I still look at Kim and see the woman who walked down the aisle to join me that day. I’ve changed less than she’s wanted and she’s changed more than I anticipated.

She doesn’t like being the person she is now – the mother of a dead child. She loves every other part of her life but “forever” has taken on a new dimension for her now. She says “I don’t want to be ‘this person’ any more.” And I understand. No one understands more. I am that same person.

“I do. I wanna watch over you. Yes.”

A wedding is where two people make a public declaration of their love for each other and their commitment to each other. I am so fortunate to have found a woman who meant what she said that day.

A marriage isn’t easy. There are days that love sees you through and days that commitment sees you through. Then there are so many days that pass by that don’t need to be gotten through.

“I do. I wanna give you the key to me.”

Kim and I don’t give each other many gifts for formal occasions. She’ll often call and ask, “you didn’t get me anything did you?” She’s relieved when I say, “no”. What is there to give? Just the same promises I made thirteen years ago. Just a pause to think about them and nod and smile because I still mean what I say.

Love and commitment.

I don’t know how long it will be until we have a happy anniversary, but I am glad to mark another year with this woman who was a friend before we married and who remains my closest friend so many years later.

This year it is very different. This is our first year celebrating our wedding anniversary since we became “those people”. And yet, here’s to many more.

Published in: on August 8, 2006 at 11:29 pm  Comments (9)  

Taking Tissues

There has been a long pause in my writing. Depending on how you read these entries you may or may not have noticed. I know you don’t need an explanation, but I’d like to offer you one. I have written these mainly for me but I’ve come to know many of you through your kind responses and so I want to tell you why I stopped posting regularly and then stopped posting at all.

I know you could have helped me. I know you would have helped me. But I needed to get here myself.

Here’s a possible metaphor – a sense memory from childhood that may or may not have happened quite this way.

I’m somewhere around Maggie’s age and my elementary school teacher is telling the class how disappointed she is in us. Someone has taken something from her desk.

Immediately I start to feel guilty. Maybe she’s talking about me. It’s the same feeling I get when I’m taking a test and my eyes wander. I haven’t seen anything. I was just looking around – but I feel so guilty that the teacher might think that I’ve seen something that I stretch or feign a cough and look around in a way that she will know I wasn’t looking around to copy off of anyone’s paper.

Of course, with my adult eyes I look at this behavior and shake my head with half a smile on my face. But as a child, these moments were serious.

Someone has taken something. Later, when no one’s around I wander up to the teacher’s desk and I tell her that it was me. My nose was runny and I took a tissue off her desk when she wasn’t looking. She laughs. It’s a burst that confuses me at first and then reassures me. No, it wasn’t tissue that she was talking about. That’s what the tissue is there for. We can always take some if we need it. She gives me one of those hugs that teachers used to be allowed to give their students. She smells of cigarette smoke and chalk. She laughs again, this time to herself, and pushes me towards the door for afternoon recess.

I don’t know it but she was talking about a twenty dollar bill that is missing from her desk. She thinks it is missing. She’s not actually positive but she’s pretty sure it was there before morning recess. Now, it’s not there. So if it was there before, then now it is missing. And if it was there before and not there now then someone took it.

I don’t know if someone took it. If someone did, I don’t know the effect of her words on them. There are also many kids in the class that didn’t take it and haven’t given it another thought. There are also the kids who think that if someone took something then they know who it was and they hound those kids with accusations. And then there are the kids like me. The kids who feel guilty when there is nothing to feel guilty about.

I hope that that’s where I am now. Now, I ask for a favor. Either stop reading this entry now or read it through to the end. Do not stop after the next sentence.

The entries to this blog slowed and then stopped after Ann Coulter’s comments about the 9/11 widows.

In her latest book she wrote about a group of women whose husbands died when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center. She wrote “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much.”

People on the left who appeared on talk shows after this statement were horrified both with her choice of words and with her sentiment. People on the right who appeared had various explanations for the words she used but generally expressed sympathy for the underlying message.

And that gave me pause.

Was I taking unfair advantage of the death of my six year old daughter? I was clearly benefiting emotionally from the feedback posted on this blog.

Part of what made me consider the comments so personally was that I had submitted a query to Doubleday books to see if they might be interested in publishing this blog. I’d looked up the address of the editor of “Tuesdays with Morrie” and sent a simple letter. I never heard back but I had to wonder if maybe I was seeking to gain from this tragedy.

I knew if I asked those questions here, most people would be supportive. I suspected that there would be some, however, how would feel that I am trying to cash in on Elena’s death for personal benefit.

That’s why I needed to work this all through first. I don’t believe I was writing this for any reason other than those I’ve expressed before. I can’t truly be certain. After all, the mind is very good at helping us lie to ourselves. But I think that I was taking tissues and that if any twenty was taken it wasn’t by me. This is the kind of a theft that can’t be explained or excused by anyone else.

I have not enjoyed any part of Elena’s death. I’ve seriously considered the question for a month and I’m sure enough of that to begin to put words down on paper again.

Unexpectedly, writing this has reopened wounds. Fortunately, I’m still allowed to take all of the tissues I need.

Published in: on August 7, 2006 at 9:50 pm  Comments (36)