On the day she would have been eight, I wonder if It was all a dream.
Did I really have two babies and lose one?
The beginning: Julianna, 2 wks. Photo by Stacy Newlin Nyikos.
Surely, it’s not possible, not when we wanted her so much. It didn’t really happen, right?
In my head, it’s simple. I was there for her beginning and for her end. She was here, then she was not – and I was there for all of it. It was my privilege, but also the source of my greatest pain.
She was herself until the very end. On her last day, she received a unicorn and deemed it awkward…
My heart knows it too, but in a way that’s not easily expressed with words. Imagine the most oppressive blanket. It’s heavy enough to constrict your breath, but its weight falls just shy of crushing the life that’s left in you. It’s a continuous stream of blazing hot tears (sometimes a trickle, sometimes a torrent) or the searing pain of an open, angry wound.
Oppressive heaviness and exquisite pain: this is how my heart knows she is gone. It’s too much, and that is the source of my disbelief. When it’s this painful, a little disassociation is not a bad thing.
My heart knows something else too: if someone is a part of you, they never really leave. She’s in vivid pink sunsets and in the stories her brother tells, the ones that make us remember and laugh. She is behind every colorful item of clothing and sparkling accessory that I own. I think of her every time I see a baby, because nobody has ever loved them more. She’s in flowers, on mountaintops, and part of everything beautiful, bright and lovely — because she was everything beautiful, bright and lovely.
So, on the day she would have been eight, I am blessed and bereft. I am thankful, but so sad. I celebrate and I mourn, because her presence and absence are undeniable.
Mt. Hood is the best part of the landscape here, and is visible on most days. Earlier this year, we put some of Julianna’s ashes on “Mountain Hood”
She’ll be part of every good day. No matter what. — “The Book of Polly”
I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do on the anniversary of your child’s death. It’s not just another day, and it’s impossible to ignore.
It’s like a great, looming cloud. It feels unsettled sometimes, and you wait for the storm. There should be a massive storm, you think — something that breaks things open and shakes the earth. Something vital was ripped from the deepest part of me, and it needs to be acknowledged.
But there is no Zeus, and I am not God. I don’t control the weather, and I couldn’t cure her disease: acknowledge that, and everything changes.
Sometimes, the answer doesn’t come in words. We lack the language, I think, of a higher truth. So we listen, and we wait. We plan, but we do not control. It’s maddening sometimes, but it’s the best we can do.
I heard it many times during that awful, surreal, first year, from many different members of the “club.” I didn’t believe it, though. How could I? How could it possibly get worse?
But it was. For me, year two without Julianna was most definitely worse.
The new normal has become…life. Our house is quiet. There’s no reason to walk through the girl’s section at Target. I make travel plans for a family of three. I’m getting used to the fact that she’s gone – and I hate it. ( I recognize that it’s necessary — “healthy”, perhaps — to accept reality, but I don’t have to like it. We live in a messed up world, and it hurts.)
I miss her most in the evenings. She needed someone at her bedside at all time. It wasn’t a burden: how I loved sitting there with the familiar lullabies playing in the background. She was usually chatty and often profound: the best conversationalist I will ever know. She didn’t like to sleep (“God says Julianna is not tired.”), but no one can defy physiology, not indefinitely. So she’d drift off and I would watch…my lovely girl, finally at rest.
It was the best part of my day. I’d be exhausted but grateful. We had gotten another day and she’d be there again in the morning.
Two years ago, she drifted off for the final time. The mornings have come – 730 of them –without her.
On that first morning after she died, I wrote this:
Thanks to those who reached out (and kept reaching out :), and I’m sorry for the silence.
I haven’t been able to write, and thought for a while about taking down the blog, because the idea of a fading or stale anything associated with Julianna is not acceptable. But, then someone reached out and told me that Julianna’s story helped them during a low and desperate point. And then I heard it again from someone else…
I always thought that she needed to be shared, and her story is not over. I’m not sure how, when, and via which medium…and on many days, I’m just overwhelmed by grief and deficient on hope.
But today — there is this.
Thank you for reading, and for remembering Julianna.
Grief fallacy #1: Time heals all wounds
It does nothing of the kind.
So far, all time has done is create distance from the happiest time of my life: eighteen months of love and life and celebration and intent, the kind of life you create when you’re not sure how long it will last.
Magical. (notice all the pillows). photo by Charles Gullung
Distance creates numbness, but numbness is not the absence of pain. It just masks the pain, and in some ways, that’s worse. A certain amount of numbness is needed to live in a world that my daughter has already left, but too much is dangerous. I know the numbness has been too deep when pain feels like a relief.
It takes my breath away, this pain, and it hurts in ways I cannot describe. I feel it in the weariness of my bones and in the heaviness of my spirit.
And there’s sharpness too, exquisite and intense emptiness when I realize (in yet another way), that she is really gone.
The other day, a bag of pillows did me in.
Julianna had about a dozen pillows on her bed at any given time. They were all grandma-made, mostly pink and came in a variety of shapes and sizes. The little flat rectangles cushioned her heels when she sat up in her Tumbleform chair. The long cylinders cradled her back and kept her in a less aspiration-prone side position as she slept. The medium rectangles propped up her arms when sat up in bed (only possible with the hospital bed and a plethora of more pillows, of course).
They were so important, these bespoke little pillows. They supported her small body and prevented bed sores and propped up weak limbs so that she could wave her forearms about and delight and direct. They had to be just right, and it was something that only the experienced Julianna caregiver would know. How lucky was I to be one of them! It was my privilege to know these things and to do these things. I miss these little acts, the thousands of tasks that were a manifestation of love for the girl with the loveliest of hearts.
A five pillow arrangement. Her right side always needed support. (“stupid scoliosis!!” –JYS)
Memories flooded and tears flowed freely at the sight of these pillows. I held them close and took in their scent, but I smelled nothing but a faint staleness.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. The pillows have been hiding in a closet corner for almost two years, and Julianna never really smelled like anything to me. Maybe that’s what happens when someone is so deeply a part of you: I can’t smell her any more than I can smell myself.
The pillows — and other things I can’t give away.
I sat in my puddle of tears and imagined what she would say…Put them in the washing machine…let’s PLAY!!..I smiled as I ugly-cried.
It always comes back to love. It’s greater than the pain; it’s what remains.
This week, I partook in two of my greatest loves: public speaking and flying redeye.
(To quote Julianna, (who was quoting Calvin and Hobbes), sarcasm will get you nowhere.)
About that…Julianna came across this phrase while reading with Steve. She asked what it meant, and he explained. For some reason, he thought that she’d have an opportunity to use this phrase on me.
S: So, when mommy says something sarcastic, say it. Wait for the right time – there’s no rush. Wait for the perfect moment – it will be funnier that way, OK?
J: Mom, come here!!
I run over.
J: Mom, SARCASM WILL GET YOU NOWHERE!!
(I digress, but it’s a funny memory. And I think that sarcasm is pretty great.)
Anyway, after work on Wednesday, I took a redeye to the east coast so that I could talk about Julianna.
The event was the Tenth Annual Pediatric Bioethics Conference at Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville.
This was the title of my talk.
I came prepared.
And this was my name tag.
I was asked to share our story and talk about how we let Julianna participate in our medical decision making.
I had three main points.
One of the reasons I never wanted to go into pediatric anything is because I thought that babies and young kids couldn’t tell you what’s wrong. Adults, I thought, were much easier to figure out.
I was an idiot.
(The other reason I never liked pediatrics is because I don’t think that kids should get sick. That worked out well, didn’t it?)
Kids communicate with us all the time — sometimes verbally, often nonverbally.
Julianna was incredibly articulate. She told us — with words — that she did not want to go back to the hospital. But all along, she was communicating with us in other ways. Her body spoke to us in with its decline. Her eyes sparkled when we went into her magical world (“Let’s play!”) and filled with tears when we asked too much of her body. They expressed everything we needed to know.
Though most of the response to our story was positive, we were also criticized by some who felt that we didn’t make the right decisions, and by others who felt we gave Julianna too much input into those decisions.
We made our decisions out of love, and with the support of our medical team.
Julianna was the most stoic person I’ve known. When she cried, you knew that something really hurt, and you wanted to fix it immediately.
The tears, you see, came from a little girl who had endured a lifetime full of tear-worthy events but shed very few. She simply did not have the time, not when there were stories to tell and fashion advice to dispense and people to love.
“Let me tell you something…” I am so grateful that she was able to see her words in print.
One thing that upset her greatly was when she was not understood.
As her CMT got stronger, her physical voice got weaker. Her voice got softer, and it had to fight against the noise of the BiPAP – which kept getting louder because her chest muscles needed more and more help moving air.
A little microphone made all the difference. Along with the pink koala and happy manicure.
Through all this, her need to be understood never changed. She wanted us to understand her stories, agree with her opinions, and appreciate the nuances of language. She cherished words and insisted on proper enunciation (in one of her stories, there was an Ella, an Ellie and an EEliza. Different people, different names – and they had to be pronounced correctly.)
We did our best to understand her words and intent. When we failed, tears would spring from her beautiful eyes and she would shake her head in frustration. This is how important it was for her to be understood.
Sometimes she dictated, and we were just the scribe.
I share Julianna’s love for words, and I communicate best through written word. I can’t paint, sing, dance or emote. But I can put my feelings into words, and I need to put them into words – just like Julianna.
And now, words fail me.
I don’t know how many more ways I can say I miss her, or that it hurts, and that nothing feels the same.
I’ve used all the words I know, and they’ve expressed just a tiny portion of what I feel — and only the smallest, most palatable bit.
These days, I have no words – so I knit.
I have a lot of pink yarn
I learned via YouTube and I make a lot of mistakes – but life is far from perfect, and my knitting can match.
I knit with bright colors and soft yarn. I want her to approve of everything I make.
She would like this.
This yarn is called “Unicorn Sprinkles.”
I knit to fill the quietness that is our “new normal.”
I knit so that I don’t have to think, and I knit to help me think.
I knit because life didn’t stop when my world did, and I resent that sometimes. Knitting slows it down.
I knit because I’m starting to forget things she said and how she was. I’m getting used to this life without feeding tubes and syringes – and I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that I seem to be tolerating it so well.
If I knit until my hands are on fire, I feel something – and sometimes that’s better than nothing, even if it hurts.
I have a lot to work out, apparently.
I knit because I miss her so much, but I seem to have used all my tears (they went away with my words, I think) and I can’t just go back to the person I was before she was here. Something has to be different — because she changed me fundamentally.
If only her nerves worked. (Not the metaphorical ones that are equated with bravery. Those, she had in abundance and they worked just fine.)
If only they were able to carry the signals from her remarkable brain down to her arms and to her legs. Where would she have gone? How hard would she have hugged?
If they had done their job, the muscles she needed to breathe would have been strong, and she would…not even notice. Because breathing should be effortless. What would her laugh have sounded like?
If those stupid nerves worked, she would be here now. There would be cake, and it would be pink and she would be able to eat it with her own hands. She would swirl around in a flouncy dress and tear open presents (Or maybe not. She never let us rip up wrapping paper. She couldn’t hurt anything that she found beautiful, and to her, most things were beautiful.) She would run around, fueled by a little extra sugar and an abundance of love. It would be what every little girl should experience on the day she turns seven.
Instead, she is five. She will always be five, except for the times I think about her at two weeks (the most wonderful peach fuzz baldness), four months (COLIC!) or two years (sparkling eyes). She will always be my baby and my big little girl; never a teenager, never an adult.
I have always loved bald babies.
In between rounds of colic. She looks deceptively sweet here…
Trying on her flower girl dress. Her gold walker is in the background. She is almost two here, and I was sure that she’d be able to walk down the aisle if we worked hard enough. We did — and then worked hard to turn a wagon into a cloud-like carriage fit for a princess-to-be.
Maybe it’s a waste of time to think about the “if onlys.” It’s like reasoning with a thunderstorm or asking gravity to take a little break.
Julianna body was her Achille’s heel. We propped it up, outsourced what we could to machines and coaxed it along, but it was a losing proposition. The problem was in the DNA, and it could not be fixed by twenty-first century science: my heartbreak was guaranteed.
And so was my joy, as long as I let her in – just a little bit.
For a while, I tried to resist. Her disease was a beast. We threw everything we could at it, but it only grew stronger. At my lowest point, the little girl lying in the bed — the one who couldn’t even scratch her own nose without my help — terrified me. She would leave me one day, and I would be broken.
And yet, I couldn’t help myself. She was so easy to love. You just had to take her hand and say “yes” — yes to her brightness and her beautiful way of seeing the world. She made me better, in so many different ways.
Love was her superpower and it overcame my fear.
It hurts — in a way I cannot yet describe – not getting to seven (or ten or forty five). But love is stronger than the pain and bigger than the emptiness — every second of every day.
The day after Julianna died, we got rid of all her medical equipment. We were indebted to the machines (they kept her alive, after all), but when they were no longer needed, I wanted them gone. Stupid machines; stupid disease. I hated it all.
So the machines went away, and our house went quiet. I no longer heard the whirring of Julianna’s feeding pump (it ran thirteen hours a day) or the constant whoosh of her BiPAP.
Of course, the sound I missed most was Julianna’s voice, her constant observations and ridiculous wit.
Let me tell you something…
Ooh, what’s that?
And so much more…
Last summer, the silence of our house was overwhelming. It shouted at me, cruelly: JULIANNA IS GONE. SHE IS REALLY GONE.
One year later, it feels different. It’s still too quiet, but it no longer taunts me. We gave her the most beautiful life that we could. She was surrounded by love. She is free. There is peace in this kind of silence.
I don’t think that time heals all wounds, not when the wound goes straight through the heart. But the pain is not quite so exquisite. It’s less likely to maim. Is this what one year does?
And then, I see it. It’s pure gold, a forgotten photo:
My heart is filled with joy, and then it is crushed.
This is her pre-K class photo, her only class photo.
She was able to sit up – by herself. This was before the scoliosis destroyed her spine.
Her fingers aren’t that curled. Why didn’t we paint them that day?
Her jumper was from Costco. It seemed like a good back-to-school outfit. I often had a hard time getting out of Costco without getting her another frilly skirt or princess dress. Her eyes lit up and she always said “I love it!” I still can’t go into that section. I miss that.
Her pink tennis shoes. Finding shoes that fit over her orthotics was work. They had to be big but light, and not completely ugly. I usually bought ten pairs of shoes and was lucky if one worked. When I found these, I bought the next size up –but she never got to use them. A few months after this picture was taken, her CMT took over, and we started our year from hell. She lost the ability to stand, then sit.
Her hair is in her signature bob. Could it be any cuter?
And that face, that smile, those eyes. Her mischievous, knowing, beautiful eyes. What was she thinking? What would she have become? What would she be doing now?
There are wounds that cannot be healed on this side of heaven. This will not go away.
This weekend, we attended a bereavement retreat. The theme was the “Wild West of Grief.” Each family made a craft project that depicted their grief journey.
This was ours:
It was a bit too much, but I think that she would have loved it.
This is your last chance to get the 2017 “Love is a Superpower” t-shirt. All proceeds will go to CMTA. Orders need to be in by 31 July 2017. Adult and children’s sizes are available.
The guided part of our trip was done by Adventures by Disney, which is fitting given the fact that Julianna was — well, Julianna. (“All the Disney princesses are real — seriously!”).
(Yes, Disney does guided vacations – I didn’t know that either. And no, they are not led by Disney characters. But it was magical.)
Our fearless and energetic Adventure guides.
At check-in, our Adventure guides asked if we were celebrating anything special. I stayed quiet, because the truth is complicated. Were we celebrating? Running away? I had no idea…apparently, at one time, I thought it was a good idea to take a big trip on the first anniversary of my daughter’s death.
“We are celebrating the life of my granddaughter. She died a year ago, but we don’t want to make this a sad occasion,” said my mom.
“Yes,” I thought. “Exactly what she said.”
The truth will set you free, even when it iscomplicated.
For Julianna, life was a celebration and princesses were real.
The Italian Lake District is just an hour away from Milan, but it feels like a different world. Our first few nights were spent in Stresa, a town that manages to be both stunningly beautiful and quaint.
Stresa sits on the banks of Lake Maggiore.
Near the town square in Stresa.
We stayed in a fancy hotel
and ate gelato (at least once) every day.
We visited Isola Bella (the beautiful island), site of a magnificent palace and gardens. It belongs to one of Italy’s noble family, the Borromeos.
Garden side view of Isola Bella.
No shortage of chandeliers in this place…
Just like us.
Switzerland is educated, prosperous and pristine. They are known for chocolate and neutrality. And, like the Disney princesses, it is real.
It’s also a ridiculously beautiful country. Photos run the risk of looking fake, it’s so pretty.
This, for example, is from a rest stop.
In full disclosure, it was a mildly forced spontaneous moment of beauty — we made Alex hold the unicorn.
And these are some of the highlights.
On our last full day in Switzerland, we went to Mount Titlis (elevation 10,623′), one of the highest peaks in central Switzerland. You reach the top via gondola. About halfway up, we stopped acclimate and take in another stunning Alpine vista.
On that gorgeous mountainside, our Adventure guides presented us with a unicorn, and we all celebrated the fact that Love is a Superpower.
(Later, I learned the backstory. The Swiss town we were visiting was devoid of unicorns, so our Adventure guides found a pony and fashioned a horn out of pipe cleaner and glue. (Love + a bit of Swiss ingenuity = Swiss Unicorn. As Julianna would say, “Perfect!” And touching.)
And we went on one, last big adventure — the biggest of them all.
Walked through a glacier cave,
The glacier ice was impossibly smooth, but somehow not slippery.
And it was very Frozen-esque.
and took a stroll on a suspension bridge — way, way up in the Alps.
At the farewell dinner, we enjoyed music from a trio of alphornists.
The alphorn is a musical instrument, but it was also used to communicate between villages.
Their final song: Amazing Grace, one of Julianna’s favorites.
For the parent who has outlived their child, the world is different. If we’re honest, it’s a little less dear, for it no longer contains all that is most important to us.
But there’s a lot of beauty left in this world. It’s in the mountains and pastures and oceans and lakes, in people and gestures and laughter.
It heals, this beauty, because I know that it is but a fraction of what she sees. And it reminds me that life is still an adventure.
There is a certain freedom that comes after you’ve endured a monstrous loss. When you’ve gone through the worst, is there anything left to fear?
As it turns out, yes. Anniversaries, holidays, social gatherings, polite conversation, fading memories – all terrifying.
For months, June 14th loomed large and ominous. What are you supposed to do on the anniversary of your child’s death?
The answer to this terrible question is as individual as a fingerprint. For me, one thing was clear: We would have to go away. And considering the thing we were escaping from, it would have to be big.
Has it really been one year? .
Enter Italy and Switzerland.
Switzerland, because my mom has wanted to go there. Italy, because I found only one guided travel package that would get us to Switzerland around the right time, and it started in Italy.
My spirits lifted as we made the reservations. It would be a grand adventure. Julianna would definitely approve!
Such an adventurous soul
A few months later, I regretted it. Travel requires stamina and an open spirit; grief is exhausting. I felt like spending June 14th in bed.
Fortunately, the deposit was nonrefundable.
Julianna’s First Heaven Day
The group tour was set to start on 16 June. To accomplish my goal of being AWAY on 14 June, we flew into Milan a few days early.
Breakfast at the hotel looked more like a tea party.
This may have been Alex’s favorite experience in Milan…
We visited the Duomo, Milan’s massive gothic cathedral.
(It reminded me a little of this picture — the Duomo is not subtle…)
“Too much is never enough” — one of my favorite Juliannaisms.
We lit a candle in front of the picture of the Madonna and Child.
And learned that it is the only cathedral in Europe that is made of pink marble — who would have thought?
We also saw a castle.
Sforza Castle, built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan.
Alex did log rolls in a former moat.
Then I spent the rest of the day in bed nursing my jet lag and my grief. I listened to recordings of our sweet girl and I missed her, just as I have every second of every minute of every day that she’s been gone.
Like the love that causes it, grief never stops. You have to make room for it, even when you are halfway around the world on the trip of a lifetime.