Unbelievable. I sit down to write about the horrific process of taking apart and packing up Claire’s room and a gust of wind comes through the window loosening one of the Paris pictures on the wall above the closet doors. So Claire, are you helping me? Just as I had the thought, “How am I going to be able to do this?” You help me by making the first move? And yet that doesn’t make it any easier.
Every item tells a story. I stroke the soft purple unicorn pillow pet and I’m transported back to the clinic the day the volunteer was wheeling the cart full of assorted pals, offering one to Claire. She hesitated because so many of the things were geared for younger children, and she probably didn’t think she should really take one since she was older, but the unicorn caught her eye. She gave me the look of, “Should I? Is it ok?” to which I nodded and said, “Go ahead.” So now it sits among the extended family of stuffed animals covering half of her bed.
My arm rests on her pillow from Camp Make-A-Dream – the one that everyone signed. I’m flooded with emotion and memories of her excitement to go to camp and her fears when she arrived and called me a day later in tears wanting to come home. And yet she made friends who really understood what her new life was like; something her other friends would never know. The signatures in the purple ink are now surrounded by a cloud of pink stain – a result of the cool washcloth she needed on her forehead during the last two weeks of her life as she laid her bald and burning head on that special pillow.
I look over and see her face staring back at me – the large painting from her funeral. It fits so perfectly and appropriately here in her space. Where in the world will we put a 4’ x 4’ painting of her beautiful face in our new tiny house? The basement I suppose – I am so sorry – it doesn’t feel right. Yet reminds me of how she created coziness in her basement room in our even tinier house in Frogtown right after the divorce.
Raja comes walking out of her closet; the same closet in which she got stuck and tangled up in the hangars when she was a kitten. Claire and I could hear her muffled meows and when I finally opened up the closet door and found her hanging by her neck amongst the shirts and dresses, we both hugged her and kissed her and apologized to her and dared not mention the unthinkable outcome had I not found her when I did.
Photos, paintings, drawings, jewelry, knick-knacks, pottery, books, make-up, nail polish, Broadway show playbills and ticket stubs, backpacks, t-shirts, socks, bags, hats, wigs, awards, blankets, monkeys, Mardi Gras masks, cd’s, pink phone holder, dolls buried in the closets, boxes of “sewing things”, drawers full of yarn, the wall calendar stuck in February 2012, the summer reading list from 2010, and her final message to us on the white board, “can we go out somewhere to eat before a movie?” How can I pack up all these things and put them away?
This is where I come to meet her. I lay on her bed, in the exact spot where she took her last breath.
The place her sisters and I bathed her lifeless body and dressed her before her dad carried her down the stairs and they took her away on the gurney. Where we hung out and watched “Little Princess,” both crying as she begged her daddy to remember her. The sacred space of her bed – she loved her bed. She longed for it during countless nights spent in the hospital. And she resisted getting out of it on so many occasions when it was time for another clinic visit for chemo, or physical therapy, or another blood transfusion. She would eventually force her exhausted, aching, frail body up and out of her comfy bed to go get poked and prodded, finally coming back home even more exhausted and aching, but often unable to fall asleep at night because of the fierce whirlwind of her life. I can only imagine what went on in her mind; wondering what was happening to her body, just wanting the “normal” life of a teenager, worrying about missing so much school, and so much life, thinking about her new cancer friends, and losing some of them, and most likely anxiously wondering if she would be next. Things no teenager should have to lay awake at night thinking about. She bravely kept it all to herself until some nights I would get a call around 2:00 am, asking through her tears, “Can I please have an Ativan?”
And yet there was so much more. More memories to this room made before June 21, 2010. She was so much more than her illness and her death. Thoughts of her previous sixteen years before she got sick now just intensify my feeling of loss, however. The ache in my heart is indescribable and I feel heaviness on my chest. I have to remind myself to breathe. Maybe someday I will be able to breathe again, naturally, without having to think about it. I do not know.
I just have to get through this process somehow. In packing up her things and saying good-bye to this chapter I feel like she is dying all over again. As long as I had her room I could still pretend she was coming back. But she is not coming back; even though she is still here. I just can’t touch her. I am paralyzed with fear at the thought of moving forward into my future. I know my fears are irrational, but I feel like I am somehow abandoning my child. She did not get to have a future; why should I? I am her mother, the one who gave her life. I was supposed to protect her and I couldn’t.
I know something less painful, and dare I say even happy, waits for me on the other side, but getting there will be tough. Maybe that is what it was like for Claire. I feel her with me and can hear her slightly irritated voice, telling me, “It will be fine!” But I also know she understands how hard it is. If she were here she would be packing up her own room and moving on. I just need to step in and take over because she’s been called away. And that’s ok because I am the mom, after all.
Jane Frick is Claire’s mother. I first read this on a Facebook group page we joined as bereaved mothers. I think it is so lovely, and real and moving that I needed to share it here on Head In My Hands.