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Brother Eli

Caroline's Dad

Caroline's Journey

It's hard to compose a story about Caroline that makes sense. Setting it all down at once would be too close to living the bad parts again, which I can't do yet. I can only think about it a little bit at a time. But if I capture those snapshots as they come to me, I might be able to tell her story after all.

March 1996:
Caroline Elizabeth Woodlief is born March 7th on a freezing night at Providence Hospital in Michigan. Her first sound is like the frightened mewing of a kitten. The nurse wants to take her so we can rest, but instead I hold her all night in a hospital chair, trying to get used to the idea that I can be a father.

I can't believe they let us leave with her the next day, as if we are qualified to be parents. I drive 20 miles an hour all the way home. She is fussy for the first few weeks. I prop myself up on pillows in bed at night and hold her on my chest so that my wife Celeste can sleep. It is a happy, deliriously sleepy time.

A relative says to me some weeks later: "You can't remember what it was like before you had her, can you?" I tell her that I can remember, but everything before Caroline was black and white, and everything now is in color.

May 1996:
I finish teaching for the semester, and Celeste goes back to finish her school year and do her Montessori training. I stay home with Caroline. She doesn't like getting those first few bottles of breast milk from me, having gotten used to Mommy. On the second day we both have a good cry and then feel much better. We develop a good routine. Eat, sleep, read, sleep some more. I pretend to finish my dissertation, and she pretends to let me. Most days Celeste comes home and finds us napping together.

August 1996:
We confront the awful reality that daycare sounds better when you don't have a child. We visit the best we can find, and they are terrible. We decide that Celeste will quit her Detroit Public School job and take half the pay to work in a local Montessori school that encourages her to have her child in the class with her. It's insane, and it works really well, only because the school has a nursery run by Ms. Becky. Caroline falls in love with Ms. Becky, and Ms. Becky, naturally falls in love with Caroline.

December 1996:
Caroline has an ear infection and we are flying to North Carolina for Christmas. The anitbiotic has given her a rash -- she looks like a pink-spotted leopard. In the Detroit airport we are dutifully winding our way through the roped aisle to the check-in counter when a woman with designer luggage steps over the rope in order to get in front of us. Caroline throws up all over her luggage and shoes.

April 1997:
I have decided to forego my academic job offers in order to take a consulting gig in Kansas in May. We think we are rich, and buy some furniture and two nice bicycles. My teaching is done, and I spend my days biking all over town with Caroline in the attached seat behind me. She is such a sweetheart, and is learning to walk. When Ms. Becky walks her down the main hall at the Montessori school, all the children wave from their classrooms and say "Hi Caroline!" She waves back and gives them an exuberant "Hey!"

June 1997:
We have a beautiful house, I have a job good enough that Celeste doesn't have to work outside the home, and Caroline is growing up. She is so much fun. She chatters allthe time, and wiggles her behind like a puppy when she's excited. I read and sing to her every night before bedtime. When she gives a hug she makes her fiercest sound to show how hard she is hugging, even though she is light as a feather.

February 1998:
We start attending a church after Celeste gets involved with their Women's Bible Study. One Sunday the pastor explains that we can no more lose our salvation than we can earn it, thereby wiping away years of guilt and opening my eyes to the real meaning of grace. Caroline starts calling the preacher "the creature."

April 1998:
Life is good. My little girl runs to greet me when I come home, and we spend lots of time outside and at the park. She is my shadow. She is also in love with our pastor's teenage son, Stephen. After service she makes me take her to see him, but she doesn't say anything; she just stands there, smiling at him. At home she pretends to talk to him on her Playskool phone: "Hey Stephen. What are you doing?" She giggles, as if he is saying something witty in reply.

June 1998:
Celeste and Caroline are baptized on Father's Day. We were worried because Caroline is shy around men, especially bearded men (like our pastor), and she doesn't like getting water on her head. As the pastor prays and then puts water on her head, I brace myself for a scene. Instead, she is perfectly still. Afterwards, people tell me that she had a look of incredible peace on her face. Now she calls our preacher "God." He likes that better than "creature." She tells everyone we meet about her baptism. A few weeks later she bumps her head, and declares that she needs to get baptized again.

September 1998:
We take a late vacation to a North Carolina beach. It is Caroline's first and last visit to the ocean. We build sand castles, and she calls them "can sackles." It is a little cool and windy, and after a while I sit down on a beach chair. She comes over, sits in my lap, and leans back against my chest. I wrap a big towel around both of us and hold her that way. We watch the waves and the seagulls for a long, peaceful time. I remember thinking that I would never be happier than at that moment.

November 1998:
We have some friends visit for Thanksgiving. Celeste makes us do this corny exercise in which we each write down three things for which we are thankful, and share them with the group. Caroline's list is "The blue sky; Mommy and Daddy; Stephen" (our pastor's son). She has become a beautiful little girl, and a sensitive soul who cries when Tigger is sad in that scene from the Winnie The Pooh video. She is also incredibly chirpy, and loves to sing at the drop of a hat.

March 1999:
Caroline turns three. Something isn't quite right; her personality has begun to change. She is more easily upset, and doesn't like to be around most people besides us. Celeste has been diagnosed with probable multiple sclerosis -- we think Caroline's mood change is just a reflection of greater stress on her parents.

April 1999:
Caroline has been playing in her room. She comes downstairs and tells Celeste, "I'm going to die." Celeste thinks she's talking about when she gets old.

May 1999:
While going through some old video, I find clips from our beach trip in 1998. I get a sick feeling as I realize that Caroline's speech was much clearer then. Caroline asks to see it over and over. One day she cries after watching it, and doesn't want to see it again.

June 1999:
After some horrible doctor's visits, a CAT-scan shows that Caroline has a brain tumor. They tell us the neurosurgeon should be able to operate. We spend the night in the hospital, and the next day the neurosurgeon tells us we will need specialists, because the tumor is on the brainstem. He sends us on a chartered medical jet to Children's Hospital in Chicago. I think I am in hell, but I am just at the doorstep.

The rude and uncaring staff in Chicago starves Caroline for two days while trying to make room for her in their "special" MRI machine. They also nearly kill her with sedatives - I have to help bag her in the MRI prep room. They finally decide to put her completely under for the MRI. In the recovery room she makes friends with a nurse, the first caring person we've met here.

Several hours later, the doctors file in to tell us that surgery isn't an option, and that with chemotherapy she might have six months to live. Then they leave us alone. I'm sitting in the hospital bed holding Caroline, and Celeste is sitting beside me, and we are weeping, but not screaming like we want to, because we don't want to scare Caroline more than she already is. She looks up at me and says "Daddy, God says don't worry about tomorrow," and begins to cry.

The doctors makes us wait another inexplicable five hours before they discharge us. We can't just leave like we want to do, because then our insurance won't pay their $40,000 bill. I hope they all burn in hell. While we are waiting to be discharged, we take Caroline down to a McDonald's located in the hospital. The nurse from the recovery room comes in, sees us, and asks what the diagnosis is. When we tell her, she gets a sick look on her face and leaves. She comes back with some literature on support organizations for children with brain tumors. She gives us more help than the rest of the medical staff combined.

My company sends a jet to get us, and our pastor and a good friend are on board. They pray with us on the way home. I pray that the plane will crash, but it doesn't. That night I tuck Caroline into bed, but then I can't sleep. I finally get her and bring her into our bed. She likes that.

We spend the next weeks learning about chemotherapy. Caroline is feeling much better because of high steroid doses that have reduced inflammation around the tumor. They make her very hungry, and every morning she gives me a big hug and asks for grits and eggs.

July 1999:
We are in the hospital. Caroline has a bad infection from her catheter line, and her counts are down because of the chemo. I am constantly cleaning her vomit or diarrhea; the hospital is pumping her full of high-powered antibiotics. We meet the first and only resident that we think is worth a damn. He is tender with Caroline, and she responds well to him. Caroline is swelling from the steroids designed to keep her tumor size down, and she is always hungry. My company gives me a three-month leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. They keep me on full pay, which they don't have to do.

August 1999:
The chemo drugs have caused Caroline's tumor to bleed, putting pressure on her brainstem. She can't talk or even open her mouth; her teeth are clenched and her left arm is crooked and tight against her chest. The doctors tell us that there is a significant chance she will die in the next 24 hours. I sign a "Do Not Resucitate" order. I feel like I've signed a death warrant. But I'm learning that there are worse things than death.

The elders from our church come that night, gather around her hospital bed as she sleeps, get on their knees, and pray over her. I weep uncontrollably, and some of them cry with me. She has several episodes of light breathing the next morning where we think she will die; we lay beside her in the hospital bed and pray and talk to her, and try not to cry. She stares at us, unable to talk. We take her home that afternoon, fully expecting her to die in our bed. But she doesn't.

September 1999:
Caroline can't eat, and I can't let her starve to death. I hold her in my lap each day, helping her sip a nutritional drink through her clenched teeth. It takes about five hours to feed her six ounces. The pain is bad most days. I give her morphine and Benadryl, but for several days in a row it doesn't seem to work -- she spends hours alternating between screaming and crying so hard that she passes out from holding her breath. In the midst of all that I nearly kill her by giving too much morphine. Celeste and I lay beside her as she breathes in thin rasps, staring at me. I pray to God, please don't let her die because of me. There is a thin line between stopping her pain and killing her, and I think I will go insane trying to stay on it.

She is so broken now, her hair gone, body twisted and swollen, eyes so weary and sad. We don't sleep or eat much. Everything is taking care of her treacherous body. I've begun to think about her eulogy, and I hate myself for that.

October 18th, 1999:
Caroline falls asleep in my arms in the late morning. We know something is odd because she hasn't been able to sleep more than a few hours at night in several weeks. She stays asleep all through the day. We know the end is near. That night her temperature oscillates wildly as the tumor wreaks havoc on the basic functions in her brain stem. She also begins to vomit black fluid intermittently. We learn later this is dead blood.

October 19th, 1999:
A dear friend visits us this morning, and sings a sweet song to Caroline, who is still sleeping. We spend the day holding her, praying, wondering when it will happen. That evening another friend delivers a meal. While I am downstairs Celeste yells for me, and I run upstairs to see that Caroline has vomited the black blood again. Celeste props her up and holds her in her lap while I clean her.

Then Caroline gasps, and sighs, like she is so very tired. Celeste cries out in a terrified voice that this is it, this is her last breath. Caroline's eyelids flutter and she gasps and sighs again, like she's trying to open them. I take her head in my hands and kiss her, and whisper in her ear: "It's okay, honey. Go with Jesus. Mommy and Daddy will be there soon." She sighs one more time, and doesn't breathe again.

She feels different, and then I realize that her body has relaxed. The tumor has no hold on her anymore.

Several days later, we receive a box from a salesgirl in a bookstore where we went before the funeral to buy a guestbook for visitors to our home. Her note says that after she talked to us, she felt that God wanted her to send us what was in the box.

We open the box, and inside is a statuette of a little girl, resting in God's hand.

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