October 18, 2002
I like being a father. The other day I was holding Eli, and with his soft little fingers he was stroking my ear. I turned to give him a kiss and saw why he was being so attentive; he was simply trying to hold the ear in place while he endeavored to steer his wide-open mouth -- with its two sharp teeth -- onto it. So much for boys and gentle.
Caleb is starting to exercise the child logic which when coupled with an expanding vocabulary is amusing. A couple of days ago my wife tells him she's "a little frustrated" with his behavior.
"You're not a little frustrated, Mommy, you're a big frustrated. I'm a little frustrated."
He likes to watch a videotape we have of his sister. He calls it "The Caroline Video." Occasionally he asks, "where is Caroline?"
"In Heaven," we tell him.
Tomorrow evening will mark the third year since she went there.
The funny thing about some kinds of memories is that they respond to our desire to avoid pain by making themselves scarce. I don't know how the brain works, but I think sometimes this isn't healthy; they store up like water under pressure, and sooner or later they find a way out. What makes the whole process difficult to manage is that when you try to let them out at a safe rate, to "work through things" as therapists and soap opera characters like to say, they all try to come out at once, which only increases our urge to shut them in.
But we can't, and eventually we have to get comfortable living with the memory of what we've already lived through. It's taken me about two and a half years to figure this out, though I suppose it's common knowledge for some.
I think my remembrances are subtly changing. Where before I would turn the worst parts over and over in my mind, letting the sharp edges gouge new holes, now my mind is drawn increasingly to the moments of grace amidst them.
For example, last night I lay awake thinking of that night she died, and my thoughts settled at first on how tired we were in those last weeks. In my dresser I keep a little notebook where we tracked her medications during that time. It's written in columns, one for each primary medication, but I read it in linear time. One of the worst days reads: Benadryl (2:35 AM), Morphine (6:40 AM), Morphine (7:40 AM), Decadron (9:15 AM), Zantac (9:25 AM), Morphine (9:50 AM), Morphine (10:45 AM), Morphine (11:00 AM), Morphine (12:15 PM), Benadryl (12:55 PM), Morphine (1:35 PM), Morphine (2:20 PM), Morphine (2:55 PM), Morphine (4:20 PM), Morphine (5:35 PM), Morphine (6:35 PM), Decadron (7:50 PM); and then eat and shower and sleep until she needed Benadryl at 4:45 AM the next morning.
I don't know why I kept the notebook at first, but now I keep it because it reminds me of the time we lived Philippians 4:13. Eventually her strength failed, and our borrowed strength left us. On that night, after she died, we gave her a sponge bath. We didn't have to be so terribly careful because of the pain; we could just wash her like any other little girl, though for the last time. We brushed what little hair she had left, and dressed her in warm clothes. Then I went downstairs and called our pastor, and then the doctor's phone service.
"What doctor please?"
"Your relationship to the patient?"
"I'm her father."
"And what's the problem?"
"She just passed away."
The women on the other end gasped, and then whispered, "Oh. Thank you."
Back upstairs we sat on our bed holding Caroline while all over town calls were being made, and friends who had long waited to do something sprang into action. Our pastor arrived first. I heard him walk slowly up the steps, and then he was standing in our doorway with a Bible in his hand. He didn't open it, though, he just came to the edge of the bed and took all three of us into his big arms. I never loved him more than at that moment. Then he read something from Revelation, I think ("no more tears nor crying, for all the old things have passed away..."), or maybe a Psalm, and then went downstairs to wait.
Soon after, the home care nurse came to verify that Caroline was dead, though I already knew for sure because I had a stethoscope. We showed her pictures; she hadn't seen what Caroline really looked like, before. I realized it had been months since we last heard those words which we used to take for granted: "You have a beautiful daughter." I don't think she used the past tense, or at least I didn't hear it that way.
Friends gathered in the living room, and soon the mortician was with them, and we knew we had to take her down. I carried her the way I had not in months, cradled like a baby, because the paralysis along her left side was gone now, leaving her limp. I heard some of the women start to softly cry when I appeared at the top of the steps, but all I saw was the gurney waiting by the door.
After some time I put her on its thick blankets. Underneath them was the black body bag.
"Could you wait until you're outside to zip that up?"
"We won't zip it up at all. She'll stay just like that."
The women cared for us for a while, with many "I'm sorry's" and tears. At some point we moved onto the couch in our den, where all the strength that had been propelling me for months disappeared. I heard myself sobbing "my baby, my baby, my baby," and all the women from church, now in the kitchen, grew quiet. I think it's a startling thing to hear a man cry, probably because we don't do it that often, and when we do we tend to do so badly. Suddenly I felt like vomiting, and I was shivering with cold, and my head hurt so bad I could barely see. I heard my pastor, who is also an Eagle Scout, whisper to someone that I was in shock. Eagle Scouts are good at spotting that sort of thing. Someone covered me in a blanket.
Later I called a lot of our family members, who all kept it together on the phone. In a day they would start to arrive in Wichita, and our friends would take care of them, too. Lyle Lovett wrote a song titled, "Since the Last Time," and it's about what a good thing funerals can be for the living, and hers was. The strength returned long enough for me to give the eulogy, and it felt so strange to look down from that pulpit at family spread out in front of her little white casket; I remember thinking I'd never seen them all sit next to each other before. Spread out behind and beside them was our church family, our beautiful family.
A friend videotaped the funeral for us. We asked him to; I wonder if that was tacky. I've never watched it, but I did fast-forward through it once, when I was putting together every bit of her life we captured on tape. In the sanctuary on the wall hung a woven banner, and I realized that our friend had zoomed in on it during part of the service. It reads: "O Death, where is thy victory? O Death, where is thy sting?"
Indeed. The sting lingers with the living, but it fades, and hope shines through. That's a lesson two years and 364 days in the learning.
I think we can hear some things and believe them, but not really know them without experience. So now Paul's words make more sense than they once did: "...but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts..."
We brought Caroline's ashes and flat gravestone with us out of Kansas. Tomorrow I'll dig a place for the stone in the very back corner of our lot under the willow tree, and landscape it with flowers, and we'll put a bench back there. I think that will make October 19th a good day, which it hasn't been for a long time.
Posted by Woodlief on October 18, 2002 at 08:02 AM
Sitting at my desk this morning, I cried. And as you say, men don't cry well.
I'm not a religious person, Tony, but bless you and your family and may God be with you.
My thoughts (and prayers, such as they are) are with you.
Posted by: Gary at October 18, 2002 8:58 AM
I'm a relatively new lurker to your weblog, but I have to admit, I'm a fast addict. I find your writings funny and in the case of today, quite touching.
It's nice to see a family that is (1) God fearing and (2) as loving as yours is. Take care and God bless.
Posted by: Jill at October 18, 2002 9:35 AM
Thank you for sharing your pain and your victory. It gives me hope.
Posted by: Deoxy at October 18, 2002 11:13 AM
My dad died in a farm accident a little over two years ago. My wife's parents were killed in a car accident when she was 5.
The death of someone close isn't something you "get over." The pain is always there, sometimes lurking, sometimes rampant.
And there are different sorts of pain, too. I don't know, but I think that the pain of losing a parent is different from the pain of losing a child, because at some level, we think it isn't supposed to go that way. When a cousin was killed in a car accident, his mother told me "I expected to see my parents die. You don't expect to see your own children die."
But in the pain, His grace is sufficient. I don't understand it, but somehow it is.
Thanks for sharing this with us.
Posted by: Roy Jacobsen at October 18, 2002 11:30 AM
Tony: I don't know you or your family, but I think about you & Caroline almost daily. You have a powerful gift for writing, and sharing your loss as you do makes the world a better place somehow. I know that every day with my 9- and 3-year-olds is informed by your loss. I am determined to appreciate every day with them, and for them to never, ever doubt my love for them. God bless you & yours.
Posted by: Brian Jones at October 18, 2002 11:50 AM
I am too a new lurker to your blog, I find your wit and intelligence a pleasure in this world. As I read todays entry, I too felt the tears well up and start to run down my face, watery weakness as Travis McGee would say. I have not had to bear that burden you described, and I hope never to have to, there for the grace of God and all that. I sit here and I know there is nothing I can say, platitudes to express that have any real meaning but I wish you continued strength.
Posted by: Kevin at October 18, 2002 11:56 AM
I read this column maybe ten times before I finally understood why I was so (for lack of a better term) interested in it. One sentence stood out: "we have to get comfortable living with the memory of what we've already lived through".
Tears welled up in my eyes also.
Grief is a new emotion for me even though I'm 44 years old. I'm not sure I can phrase this correctly but you helped me get further along in my own greiving process. Thank you.
Posted by: Richard at October 18, 2002 12:39 PM
Christ is in our Midst!
I wanted to say thank you for your beautiful and heartfelt post regarding Caroline. I am going to rush home tonight and hug and kiss my children profusely .
I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian and in our Tradition we typically offer the following words for the deceased:
May Caroline's Memory be Eternal.
It is reminiscient of the good theif who asked Jesus to remember him.
Thank you again...
peace and love
Posted by: James Ferrenberg at October 18, 2002 3:15 PM
Very powerful and moving. I had not heard your story before. I am very sorry. I will be thinking of you tomorrow.
With best wishes for you and your family.
Posted by: Sharon at October 18, 2002 5:12 PM
Thank you, Tony. Thank you so much.
Posted by: Devra at October 19, 2002 3:56 PM
Your brother-in-law pointed me to this blog entry and I just wanted to say how touched I was by it. I can only repeat what my mom has told me in regards to losing children. And that is that eventually the cutting memories of the event fades away, and once again you are left with the wonderful memories of their short time with you. Obviously you will still remember their loss though and have that incredibly empty feeling and questions of why, why, why. But time is the only real healing entity.
In 1973, when I was two and half my family was in a car accident in Asheboro, NC coming back from the beach. Two of my sisters and my father were killed in the accident. My sisters were 10 and 12. My mom broke 3 vertebrae and was flat on her back for 6 months. She is the strongest person I know, and is my hero. She was able to continue on without drugs like Valium, just through her willpower, and the need to care for me and my oldest sister (14 at the time).
The one mistake she says that everyone made was NOT talking about her children and husband. To her it seemed as if everyone was trying to tell her to forget about them. That is the LAST thing she needed though. Remembering those you loved so vital to the healing. We are now sure that it took her many more years for her nerves to calm down because of not talking with those who knew them. Being 2 and half I was the one that would wanted to talk about them though, so I guess in my own way I gave her a chance to remember them with me.
I was raised quite religiously. Personally, I stopped being religious over 7 years ago. The "no more death" passage is Revelation 21:4 (1-4 to get context) and is quite the hopeful passage. I was raised to beleive that it would come to be here on earth and that we would see our departed loved ones again as they are resurrected here on earth (John 5:28,29). No matter your beliefs though, the passage still brings comforth when picturing that ideal.
My best to you and your family Tony.
Posted by: Jay at October 20, 2002 9:03 AM
thank you. your words touched my heart. your children are lucky to have you as their father. may you never again know such sorrow.
Posted by: Nikita at October 21, 2002 3:36 AM
Thank you from my heart.
I needed to cry today. Heartfelt grief is the bridge to healing.
Posted by: Rene Buchard at October 21, 2002 11:02 AM
We miss Caroline. Never like you, but we remember her too.
We like to tell her story, especially to people who do not know Jesus. Because, Caroline knew Jesus, and Caroline was in the business of changing faces - mostly frowns to smiles - and Jesus is in the business of changing hearts - mostly empty to full. And, if someone could just get to know them both, it just might change their life.
If it’s ok with your family, we would like to plant a flower for her in our backyard too. Just a place for our family to remember.
We will make it a beautiful flower, for you have a beautiful daughter.
Posted by: Ryan at October 21, 2002 11:56 AM
I hope I'll never need the words to write about such a thing, but I pray I'd express myself with such grace and love as you have. My heart is with you.
Posted by: inkgrrl at October 21, 2002 6:51 PM
You've taken the pain and turned it into a beautiful, moving lesson for all of us.
I can't imagine myself enduring and prevailing with the grace you have, but I believe I'm one step closer should I ever find myself in the same position....all because you shared this.
God Bless you and your family, Tony. God Bless you.
Posted by: Da Goddess at October 21, 2002 9:34 PM
My Friend . . .
Having lost a child myself, and endured what you so eloquently, and in heartfelt passion described above, I thank you for putting the eternal upon the mortal, and celebrating life more abundantly.
As to a man weeping, it was even as He knew He would raise His dear friend Lazarus as a stunning prequel to His own death and resurrection, that the Man-God Himself revealed tears and weeping to be, indeed, Divine. Death is the interloper, and the empty tomb forever our hope.
Why seek ye the living among the dead? We do not, for Caroline's angels always behold the face of the Father who is in Heaven. For of such IS the Kingdom of Heaven . . .
She lives yet even now, because Christ lives.
Pax Domini. jb
Posted by: jb at October 21, 2002 10:38 PM
I am in tears as I write this comment. God bless y'all - I cannot even imagine the pain of losing a child.
Posted by: Gary at October 21, 2002 10:42 PM
Thank you for sharing your beautiful words and memories. Please never stop sharing your Caroline stories. The love that shines through the stories give hope, the sadness gives pause. Thank you.
Peace be with you.
Posted by: michele at October 22, 2002 5:53 AM
Nicely -- and courageously -- done. We just lost a 17 year old nephew in a car accident: odd the way links online connect to your real life, unexpectedly.
When my Mom died almost 8 years ago, she made a point of having her entire funeral planned out -- she chose all the readings and the music, and left specific instructions, e.g., that her six sons were to be her pallbearers and that we should wear 'gray or black suits and white shirts, with black shoes and dark ties.' (Like if on our own devices, we were gonna wear, what -- Hawaiian shirts ? I love my Mom.)
She also selected this reading, which has now become something of a tradition at family funerals, from a book called September by Rosamund Pilcher:
"Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, thnk of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well."
We read that for my Mom. Then my Dad. One of my uncles had it read at his funeral. And now for Robbie -- just 17.
Beautiful, ain't it? Bless you and yours -- including Caroline.
Posted by: pauldonnelly at October 22, 2002 5:37 PM
That was the most heart-rendingly beautiful piece I can recall reading. Thank you.
I find your last sentence the most touching of all. I hope you were right.
Posted by: JPS at October 22, 2002 8:32 PM
add me to the list of those crying...and deeply touched... and deeply grateful for you taking the time and energy to share even a little bit of caroline's wonderful family with us. :)
Posted by: dan at October 23, 2002 12:55 AM
...........amen, my friend.
Posted by: Pandora at October 23, 2002 1:34 AM
I'm not a little weeping - I'm big weeping. Thanks for sharing your pain and your daughter with us. Your story and Caroline's is an inspiration, and I hope you all find the peace you deserve by that bench.
I have to go kiss my daughter now...
Posted by: John at October 23, 2002 3:34 AM
You have captured with words what many of us want to deeply express about our own dark ordeals in life.
Our loved ones live in death and we, the survivors, actively participate in keeping them 'alive.'
Thank God for memories ...
Posted by: jozef imrich at October 23, 2002 7:41 AM
I wish you and your family well.
Posted by: Palmer Haas at October 23, 2002 5:25 PM
No, having the funeral videotaped was not tacky.
As Roy Jacobsen said, losing a father hurts, but it's "normal" in a way that losing a child is not.
Tony, you've become a hero of mine, and I don't have many.
Posted by: Jay Manifold at October 23, 2002 8:50 PM
Posted by: julia at October 23, 2002 9:02 PM
Tony, I just found your blog today because your story of Caroline's passing so touched another friend of mine, who linked here in her blog. What can I say? Jesus has sustained you through pain and you have found joy in the midst of it; our lives as Christians were never promised to be easy, but we were promised a Comforter and He is certainly that. God bless you.
Posted by: Gardenwife at October 24, 2002 12:05 AM
Thank you for sharing such a beautiful piece of your heart. Peace to you and your family.
Posted by: terrilynn at October 25, 2002 10:01 AM
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His godly ones. Psalm 116:15
Posted by: Rick Godley at October 26, 2002 3:37 PM
This is the piece I always wanted to write about my own sister's death.
God bless you all, and thank you.
Posted by: Mitch Berg at October 26, 2002 3:45 PM
You reached into our home in Melbourne Australia with Love.
ron and linda.
Posted by: ron robertson at October 26, 2002 4:46 PM
After being directed to your page via Instapundit, I tracked back on your blog to Caroline's Page. I do not know how you and Celeste lived through those horrendous months between diagnosis and death. Your healing and continued faith is a miracle. Thank you for so eloquently sharing your family's story.
Posted by: sally at October 26, 2002 4:46 PM
Please except my sympathies for your great loss.
I hope writing about it helps, if anything can.
Did you ever read "Under A Greenwood Tree He Died" By Sean O'Casey re the loss of his son?
It may no longer be in print; if you want, I could xerox a copy & send it to you.
Posted by: Tom Comerford at October 26, 2002 5:02 PM
I sat down to innocently surf the web and stumbled upon your site. Ten minutes later, after reading this post and "Caroline's Story", I'm sitting here stunned and overcome with emotion.
I have a three year old boy, and your words unlocked and gave shape to my deepest fear. I look upon him everyday with a love that shocks me with its intensity and depth - but one that is also tempered every now and then by thoughts of the unthinkable.
But every time I confront the prospect of losing him, I ask myself whether enduring such tragedy would still be better than never having known him at all, never having been touched - even for just a moment - by his innocence and grace. I always find myself answering "yes."
I hope it works that way. And I think I see, through the incredible power of your writing, that your relationship with Caroline - though brief and tragic - was truly divine. God bless you and your family.
Posted by: Tom at October 26, 2002 5:40 PM
I followed a link from sekimori design, and I found this.
I have my own stories of losing a child - my niece, in my own weblog and journal.
It's not easy, but you have written it so well.
Peace, and love, to you and your family.
Posted by: melanie at October 26, 2002 5:57 PM
Thank you Tony. You are a good man.
Posted by: Kevin at October 26, 2002 6:58 PM
Tony, I too am deeply touched by your eloquent testimony to sufficiency of God's grace. Thank you.
Posted by: Tim Plett at October 27, 2002 8:28 PM
I was extremely touched by your post, here Tony. I felt the tears coming to my eyes before I got halfway through it. I have not had the blessing to be a father yet ... but I could not imagine if I would ever be able to cope with losing a child.
I only pray that if such a thing ever happens to me, that I'll be able to be as strong as you have proven yourself. Your child was lucky to have you as a father Tony. God bless you. I am a Muslim ... and I know that may be a negative nowadays. But for what it's worth, in Islam, all children go to heaven, ALL. Caroline is with God now. And I'm sure she's proud of the man her father is ...
Posted by: Martin Knight at October 27, 2002 9:33 PM
Amen and amen!
Thank you all for loving our Caroline whether in life or in words.
Posted by: Tony Woodlief at November 8, 2002 12:52 PM
Hello, Friends -
a mere detail, but the quotation attributed to Rosamund Pilcher, from "September," "On Deth," was written by Harry Scott Holland. I have always been curious about whether this was plagiarized by Ms. Pilcher, or whether she prints it in quotations, or whether she might even have given Mr. Holland credit. I wonder if you might know. Blessings, Leddy Hammock
Posted by: Anonymous at November 23, 2002 5:14 PM
I want the list to books to Rosamund Pilcher(quer a lista de livros da Rosamund Pilcher)
Posted by: Andreza at May 24, 2003 2:46 PM
What a moving account. I wept as I thought of my own children and my feelings for them. Last year a little 4 year old girl I know was diagnosed with a brain tumor on her brain stem. Fortunately her family was spared grief like yours, her tumor was benign and removed by surgery. She has had 3 MRI's since and all show her being clear. I hope you pain has eased and you can celebrate Caroline. Peace.
Posted by: Steve at August 26, 2004 10:06 PM
God Bless you Tony and your family.
You're a good dad, and a good writer to tell this story so clearly. Your story reminds me to thank God for my son. Thank you for sharing this.
I hope that you and your faimly will continue to heal.
Posted by: Ed Hill at August 27, 2004 5:51 PM
I am so very sorry, words are so empty in such circumstances. I hope the intervening time has bought you all a little peace.
Posted by: Emily at August 28, 2004 1:46 AM