Hello, good-bye

There were lots of ribbons and bows.  But it wasn’t about the gifts.  It was about the pure, untrammeled beauty of a little girl celebrating her first birthday,  just waking up to the pleasures of pink party hats, presents to open, a spoonful of ice cream, a bite of cake.  We gathered round the living room, cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents, neighbors and friends, snapping photos and marveling:  just a year ago, Angelique arrived in our midst; today she is an essential member of the family, this powerful pint-sized personality exquisitely packaged and growing up before our eyes.  On the verge of walking, tossing her new red ball, laughing at her three-year-old big brother Gabriel, reveling in her moment.  Brief as my tiny niece’s time on earth has been, it’s hard to even remember what the world was like before she was in it.

Then: my husband’s buzzing cell phone, a relentless caller, Steve finally giving in, disappearing down the hall, returning with news to whisper in my ear.  A car crash, an eighteen-year-old girl dead.

Two weeks ago, Steve gave the graduation speech at High Mowing, Henry’s alma mater.  Huddled under umbrellas, our family watched as the soaked, exuberant seniors tossed their caps in the air, whooped, and hugged one another before turning to receive congratulations from the crowd.

How quickly a moment turns upon itself, from joy to grief, from light to dark, from life to death.  How to hold, on the bright summer afternoon of a child’s first birthday, the sudden, senseless death of another child, just coming into her young adulthood?

You put an arm around your own seventeen-year-old son, pull him close, and give silent thanks for his life.  You say a private, wordless prayer for a family devastated by loss.  You see in your mind’s eye a photograph of a lovely girl with long brown hair, laughing as she danced with her classmates around the May Pole.  You try to understand how it is that such a girl, with all her life to live before her, could so suddenly be gone.  You carry forks and plates out to the porch,  hug your dad, and watch your kid brother, now a father of two, cook the burgers on the grill.  You smile when your sister-in-law sweeps her beautiful children into her arms and kisses their round, fat cheeks, and you choose to spare her the day’s dose of grief.

All week, I’ve been wondering: how are we meant to do this?  How can we learn to carry both the preciousness of life and the inevitability of death in our hearts at the same time?  At the end of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” Emily, who has died in childbirth, is given the opportunity to return to earth and live one day of her life over again.  She deliberately chooses an ordinary day, her twelfth birthday — a day of eggs and bacon cooking, sunflowers in the garden, a postcard album from the boy next door, something on the table wrapped in yellow paper that once belonged to her grandmother.  To Emily, now an outsider looking in at the life she once took for granted, every minute detail of this long-since forgotten day is cause for delight and heartbreak.  So clearly does she see the fleeting, ineffable beauty of what is.  So urgent is her wish for connection, meaning, recognition.  But her distracted mother — rushing around to get breakfast on the table and her children hustled off to school — is oblivious.  Gently, appealing to her mother to wake up and really see her, Emily implores, “Just for a moment now we’re all together–Mama, just for a moment, let’s be happy.  Let’s look at one another.”

I have read this soliloquy so many times over the years — never without tears in my eyes — that I pretty much know it by heart.  And yet, again and again, I have to remind myself:  Just for a moment now, we’re all here.  Just for a moment, let’s be happy.  Let’s look at each other.

And so on Sunday afternoon, with a  heart full of sadness and confusion and gratitude all mixed up together, I did the best I could.  I looked at our big extended family — my brother and sister-in-law and all her folks; my petite, feisty niece and my earnest, easy-going nephew, my own dear parents, my husband of twenty-two years, our six-foot-tall son.  When Henry called in from his summer job in Maine, we passed the phone around.  Three-year-old Gabriel ate the first hamburger of his life.  Angelique tolerated her party hat. Plates were filled, food eaten, pink frosted cupcakes handed out to all takers.

“Oh earth,” Emily cries when she can bear the poignance of her visit no longer, “you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize you!” Turning to the wise, omniscient Stage Manager, she asks, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”

“No,” he says quietly.  And then, “Saints and poets maybe–they do some.”

How I aspire to be one of those poets.  To allow myself to know the ache of sadness, but to remember as well that life offers us good reason in each and every day to be lovestruck. To learn to see by learning to write. To “realize life,” as Emily would say, by truly inhabiting every moment that’s granted me, without ever holding on too tight to what’s already passing, changing, turning into some new, endlessly surprising present.

Mary Oliver is surely our patron saint and poet both.  Reading her words, I get a sense of what it might mean to let experience flow freely through an open heart, suffused with the tenderness of true compassion.

 

To live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

 

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go

 

Happy first birthday dear Angelique.  Peace be with you dear Abby.  And the world spins on.

 

 

for my reflections & inspiration

your comments

  1. Oh, Katrina!
    You are IN MY HEAD. First of all, that Mary Oliver poem is one of my absolute favorites, and I think of it all the time, and have written about it … I adore it. It’s the letting go part that I simply have not mastered at all yet. At all.
    And I have Our Town on my table to re-read, next on the list, at the urging of Martha McPhee … I can’t wait. Now that your voice has joined the chorus encouraging me I will start it immediately.
    Thank you, thank you. I sometimes feel it is unbearable, this mix of endings and beginnings that animates each moment, the loss that haunts every single day. I really do feel I cannot stand it some of the time. Words like yours make me, at least, feel less alone in that. Thank you.

  2. This is such beautiful writing. I wonder also so much how to live with the joy of life and the inevitabity of its end. Of so much joy and so much sadness. You say it so well, we can be happy for this moment and truly gives thanks. To give joy then, to embrace it within us and try and extend it outside of us, is all we can do. Thank u for reminding me of what is important.

  3. You have moved me to tears. Thank you so much for sharing this powerful message with all of us ♥

  4. "life offers us good reason in each and every day to be lovestruck" Yes, yes, yes. I think I’ll make a list.

  5. The vision is pure poetry. Thanks for witnessing and sharing the power of that magical thing we can only see in love- love for each other and the mystery that makes life so. I am so grateful for the opportunity to share a slice of that with you as family. xo

  6. Thirty-one weeks pregnant, I just returned from a week in Seattle where I attended my grandfather’s funeral — my last living grandparent finally gone. I couldn’t help but clutch my belly during the gun salute at his military service, wondering how life and death could be so intimately intertwined. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a reading at the reception following the service, and I focused on the pen-and-paper relationship that we struck up in the final years of his life. Most of his letters were like Emily in "Our Town": snippets of very ordinary days. In my reading I said, "The letters were always rife with apologies for not having more to report and amazement at my own busy life (‘limited horizons, limited content,’ he said), but I always looked forward to tearing open the envelope and reading about his accounts of an extraordinarily ordinary life." If you’re interested in my ode to my grandfather’s very ordinary life, you can read the full version here: http://www.lifeinpencil.com/wp/2010/06/28/memorial-day/

    For now, thank you for these words. I love that darling photo of your niece.

  7. Lindsey, I share your feelings – and yes, it is such a great comfort to know that we are all walking this road together. Katrina, thank you for the constant reminder and your eloquent words.

  8. Oh why do you do this to me, my friend? I just finished posting on my blog, an essay about missing my children and the rhythm they put in my life, while they are gone now, visiting grandparents. It makes me yearn for them so much more now. For the everyday-ness of our life together.

    I loved the picture of your niece. A beautiful picture of a beautiful baby, who can resist?

    I am glad you had a nice visit with your family, and you were able to be there to celebrate the ordinary moments with them. And thank you for coming home and putting it down on paper so eloquently. Of course you made me cry. But that’s okay. Because it means I not only read your words, I felt them too.

    I will now go and find some ordinary moment in this day to cherish.

    (P.S. I have wonderful pictures to share with you, of my boy, hiking mt mondadnock, with my sister and brother in law. Know you’ll love them!)

    Judy
    justonefoot.blogspot.com

  9. I have a six year old, a three year old, and a 21 day old, and it never fails that when I have another baby, the preciousness and the fragility of life overwhelm me. Every tragedy is mine, especially if it pertains to a child. I spend some of my days breastfeeding, weeping on top of my poor child’s head for the moments that are slipping by, for the moments I will soon forget. Most chalk it up to hormones or poo-poo it as silly sentimentalism, but it is deeper. And as I read your piece (crying, of course) I was reminded to stop fretting the house, the laundry, and the dishes. Just enjoy my three beautiful daughters, if only for a moment, and not grieve the moments I believe are slipping away from me.

    Thank you for writing this.

  10. Simply beautiful!

  11. Thank you, Katrina, for daring to be poetess and priestess while deftly pointing to the others toiling above in the pantheon, who in the end, are none but ourselves—all of us loving and losing and trying to stand the intensity of awakened life in this staggering beauty and heartrending agony together.

    Here’s to holding on tight, even to those of us in the midst of letting go.

  12. "To learn to see by learning to write. To “realize life,” as Emily would say, by truly inhabiting every moment that’s granted me, without ever holding on too tight to what’s already passing, changing, turning into some new, endlessly surprising present."

    So poignant, so true! I’m learning myself through my own writing and it’s a beautiful journey. But I’m learning even more in reading wonderful writers like you.

  13. Katrina:

    I sit here reading your words and I am blown away once again.

    You see, my beautiful, smart, talented daughter of 13 years left for a three day Environmental Camp with Amherst Middle School on Mar 19, 2007. One the first day, after a snow-shoeing trek … she passed away from an undetected congenital heart defect. I ache for her … I miss her terribly. Our life is forever changed and this blog, especially, brings to my heart such truth. Although we always appreciated every moment with our two girls, you seem to be able to get that message out … to others who perhaps are victims to the busyness of life.

    I am writing a book – WHEN TOMORROW NEVER COMES … and I am so encouraged by your writings. Your HELLO/GOODBYE article reminds me of what a very wise woman told me – not too long after my McKayla died …

    "Joy and Sorrow will sit side by side … when Joy steps in, Sorrow will not be jealous because it knows it will soon take center stage" …

    It is so true … almost four years into this nightmare – we are faced with life still happening around us … births, deaths, weddings, graduations, … and the list goes on. Life is hard, but we have a beautiful surviving daughter … who deserves for us to be present, even when that is at times so very hard to do …

    I have to share her personal Narrative … I am so proud of her .. and I know that McKayla is an angel watching over her sister … I hope you enjoy this … it gives me hope that one day, perhaps, I too will be able to live totally life again …

    NOVACAINE
    (BY AMANDA GEISINGER IN MEMORY OF MY SISTER MCKAYLA GEISINGER)

    Awake. Birds. Crickets. Wind in the trees. I finally hear these things.

    For two years I was asleep. Asleep, like the long shadows outside my cloudy house, where the sounds of laughter fell silent against the drenched walls. My senses were frozen: no taste, smell, feeling, or noise could penetrate the safe, bulletproof wall I built around myself. My life had become a perpetual winter. Numbness was all I felt. Smells, like flowers blooming in the spring, freshly-cut grass in the summer, apple pie cooking in the oven in the fall, and the smell of the newly decorated Christmas tree in the winter, were lost. I would stare out the bleeding windows, into a grey sunlight. Every day was the same as the day before. I was on a train speeding blankly through a storm; everything outside the windows was a dark blur. I kept my head low, and dove forward into daily life, never really understanding what was going on around me.

    The storm lasted two years, and finally the sun breached the clouds. I no longer saw the flashing lights. I no longer heard the piercing sound of the heart monitor as her heart fell silent. I no longer felt the coldness of her skin and the rough hospital sheet. Instead, I began to see her smile. I saw the way her eyes would glow and widen when she smiled or laughed. I saw the look she made every time I hugged her spontaneously; rolling her eyes in a look of annoyance, but a smile appearing, erasing any of her unconvincing pretenses. I saw my sister. For the first time, I heard myself laugh. The curtains opened and allowed light and color to fill my life.

    It took two years to realize that after every freeze there is a thaw, after every winter there is a spring, after every ending there is a beginning. I found the glue to piece my life back together. I realized that even though the puzzle that connected my sister and me together was broken, it could still work. A piece would always be missing, but the other half was capable of functioning and having fun. The grey shadows disappeared, and sunlight took its place. The occasional shadow would emerge, but I found ways to fight the shadows off and stay happy by keeping the warmth and light of the sun visible and strong. The numbness, like Novocain, wore off and I was able to realize that even though this huge part of my life was missing, everything would be ok, and things would get better. I found hope and strength.

    My sister’s death has been painful, but also encouraging. I have transformed into a person I am proud of. I have found who I am, and much of this has to do with the growth I experienced after her death. I have developed a sense of self and confidence, none of which I had before my sister died. This change and self-realization though, wasn’t something that happened in a day. Slowly, I began to wake up. It could have been a number of events that spurred this change; whether it was excelling in school, getting my first horse, or celebrating traditions we had halted after her death, I realized things will get better, and everything will work out. I can’t put a finger on what was the actual cause of this transformation. It happened gradually. I began to realize that there were plenty of things to look forward to, and it was possible to be happy and keep her in my heart. I also realized that even though she died, I still had an entire life to live. I decided to live this life for her. For the both of us.

    I will never have late night conversations under the covers with my sister, or sing incredibly ridiculous songs at the top of our lungs, but it will be these memories that carry me through life. No matter what happens in life, things will always get better, they may never be the same, but it will get better.

Share your thoughts

*