Friday: The Visitation

The Visitation: Friday

I want to start by saying that nothing I write here, no decisions made on my part, are in any way a judgment or a declaration about what you, the reader, should do for your loved ones, should you find yourselves having to arrange an unexpected funeral.  When I have told the story verbally, I can see people immediately think, “Oh, we didn’t do that, maybe we should have” and all manner of other woulda-shoulda-couldas. I can see the fear that I would judge their decisions all over their face.  I am writing this not as a guide to anyone’s grief, save my own.  It is MY guide to grief.  I am writing it in retrospect, and created it completely on the fly. I’m just spit-balling here. I don’t have the time or energy to judge what others do, and I pray for the same tolerance in return.

I woke up Friday morning, like the other mornings, with a pit in my stomach first, and the realization that my daughter was dead, second. And then came the sobs. I managed to get six hours of sleep Thursday night, which was a record, but I was still mighty sleep deprived overall. But six is better than four or zero, so I was as well rested as I was going to get.

Like the two previous days, I was consumed with the thought that “Oh, my God.  I could possibly live for 40 to 50 more years. I could live 40 to 50 more years FEELING LIKE THIS.  How in the name of God, am I supposed to live as long as I have already lived, feeling like I do now?”  On Wednesday, I wasn’t sure if I could live to the end of the day. I wasn’t going to kill myself, but I did absolutely, positively feel like the feelings I had were so big, so intense, so overwhelming, and so bad, that the feelings themselves could kill me, unaided by human hands. I was gutted by the fact that Alice may end up a beautiful two-year intermezzo exactly in the middle of my life.   Just a blip in the screen of my life.  This feeling also seemed like it, alone, could kill me.

After sobbing for a few minutes that Friday morning, the peace I felt the night before returned. Out of nowhere. I felt ready to face the day, despite the fact that this was certainly not going to be an ideal Friday.

The visitation was going to be held at my house at 11:00 a.m. Some of the family was not due to arrive in Los Angeles until just before the visitation. The family that was already here arrived around 9:00 a.m. to help. Fran was already here, of course. Those without jobs were sent to the back yard, to get out of the way, I suppose. Again, I wasn’t in charge, so I am unclear on how the flow was being managed.  Bubba, Rey, Stacy, Todd, Jon, and Clara arrived early to help out as well. Stacy, a fashion merchandiser, brought me a great maxi skirt, having noticed that my wardrobe had not been updated since I first started reproducing. I dropped trou and put it on immediately.  It was classy, and soft, and comfy, and perfect for the day I was about to have.  I would have made do with something from my closet.  What a great friend.

Maybe I ate? I don’t know. Maybe I had coffee? Probably not, it would have likely made me sick considering the small amount of food I’d consumed and how tired I was. I know Fran made me more anti-flu stuff and that I consumed that at least.  Fran also cleaned my kitchen so well; I should have never let her leave my house.

I decided I needed to sage the house.  Yes, I have sage, and yes, I use it on occasion, but no, I am not ruled by superstition or an overwhelming need to sage the house every time I get a parking ticket or double-schedule myself.  But someone had died in this house. My daughter had died in this house. And she was being brought back to this house today. I wanted to do whatever I could do in order to be in a good place myself, and to make this a good place for Alice’s soul to leave, or visit, or whatever was going on with her. I would have geeked a chicken if someone told me it would help me feel better or be good for her soul.  Luckily, no one suggested this.

Saging the house is generally part of my spirituality I keep to myself, or at least away from my Christian family.  Not that I am NOT Christian, mind you, I just have found things from other religions and philosophies that ring true to me, and I guess I have become a religious mutt of sorts.  I am pretty sure the family thinks me a bit kooky.  And that’s okay, I don’t mind, really. And on this day, I really didn’t care. I wanted to do whatever in this world might help to clear the air for Alice’s soul.  And I am of Native American descent, after all, so I thought I could explain it away that way.

Letting down my guard in this respect paid off in the end.  I knew that they loved me anyway, regardless of my religious kookiness, when, after becoming distracted and having put the sage down, I saw my 15-year-old nephew Tucker walking through the house with the sage.  He had silently taken over for me when another task had called my name.  And I will forever be grateful to him for quietly assessing what I found helpful that day and taking over without being asked to do so, despite the fact that this was very likely new to him. Tucker has always been a great kid, and that day, I knew he was also going to grow up to be a great man. I was so touched by what he did for me. My brother, sister-in-law Sara, and my other nephew, Zeke, 13, were also helping out in a similar manner, and I will be forever grateful.  I am extremely close to my brother, his wife, and kids, and I was just so thankful that they were here.  Every friend, every grandparent, every sibling helped in some way.  And I am grateful to them all.

I was fairly clear-headed Friday morning. This was surprising to me.  I woke up feeling like I could handle what was about to go down.  I did not LIKE what was about to go down, not one bit.  But I woke up thinking, “Today, I can do this.  Yesterday, I could not have.” I suppose I felt like that from Wednesday on.  Wednesday, I felt ready to accept guests, and talk it out. Thursday, I did not feel like guests, and needed to hunker down and plan things, so I did.  Today, I felt like I could handle seeing my deceased daughter for the first time since the day she died. I felt a little nervous about it, sure.  I could tell I was pacing around like I was waiting on a flight, or a first date.  But I felt I could do it without ending up in a heap on the floor. To what I owe the gift of this temporary strength, I have no idea.  I suppose it was the source of whatever had given me that feeling of all-encompassing peace in the bath the night prior. I noticed that I felt a bit more “in my body.” I could feel my arms and legs a bit more. I felt a little less like I was slumped over a pole that ran through the center of my body.  I felt a little more “here.”

I noticed I was a bit nervous. Not nervous about anything specific, I just had an air of generalized nervousness. I distinctly recall feeling like an observer of my emotions on this day, and the days previous.  I felt like someone had dropped a sociologist into my body, and that she was observing the person who is/was me.   This sociologist invasion was not uncomfortable in any way.  In fact, it was somewhat comforting.  I suppose the Buddhists would say that this is how we are supposed to operate all of the time.  Again, I guess all that meditation paid off, because when the shit hit the proverbial fan for me, I just kind of fell into becoming “an observer of my own mind.”  Is this the “right” thing to do?  I have no idea.  It just happened.  And there are far worse things I could have fallen into, so I made friends with “the sociologist.”

Around this time, a giant floral easel arrangement arrived at the house, but we could not decipher who it was to or from. I walked around, asking the relatives and inner circle if they recognized the sender—perhaps it was from one of the grandparents’ friends? A short time later the delivery guy showed up with a large picnic basket arrangement, full of the sweetest, sunniest flowers you have ever seen.  He had mixed up his orders, providing a bit of comic relief for my dad who had opened the door for the flustered guy.

The flowers were perfect for the location and type of visitation we were holding for Alice.  The arrangement was just so, so sweet.  It turns out that it was from Melissa and Bob, our friends that had flown my brother’s family out here. It was so incredibly thoughtful of them, and it brightened up the place a bit.  I had not thought to order flowers for my daughter’s service. Mother of the Year Award—I did not earn it that day. Having never thought of what I’d do for my daughter’s funeral, some things, like floral arrangements, had slipped my mind.

I set the arrangement on the trunk at the end of the bed, and began to arrange some of Alice’s favorite things at the top. If she could indeed see us from where she now resides, I wanted her to know that her happiness was still of paramount importance to me.  I wanted her to know that I would love her until the day I die, and hopefully beyond.  I wanted her to know that I would never forget her.  I wanted her to know she was still my beloved little Alice, and that I intended to take care of her in death, as I had in life.

I placed Alice’s beloved Matchbox cars and trains at the head of the bed, most of which she had pilfered from school. She was extremely proprietary about the entire collection of cars at her school, but she had a white one she really loved.  Every day, upon leaving, she would shove it behind her back, cock her head to the side, and with an expression of deep sincerity say, “My car, Mama. Myyyyyyy car.”  She had her teachers wrapped around her little finger, and they eventually let her keep the damn car.  And several others.  My brother Steve, the beloved Uncle Stevo, had also loved cars as a kid, and had given a few to the girls. They loved the Uncle Stevo cars.  Grace also knew Alice loved cars, and likes them quite a bit herself, to be honest.  So one day at the store, not long before Alice passed, Grace suggested we get Alice a pink Matchbox car she eyed, as well as a few more. It was a rare act of generosity on Grace’s part, so I relented. I placed her favorite cars from Grace and school and Uncle Stevo at the head of the bed.

I also placed a little recorder that Alice had swiped from Teresa and Sal’s house the Sunday before she died.  Only two days before she died, she walked up to me nonchalantly and confidently producing noise from the recorder.  She had never done this before, but you would have never known from looking at her. Alice was one confident kid, even as a young toddler. She gave me a cursory glance from the corner of her eye while she marched around blowing it, a far cry from my general greeting where she would run up to me half-crying, “MAMA!!!!!!!!” before motioning me towards her belongings so that we could leave.  Alice was showing off that day.  God, what I would give to see what she could be showing me right now.

Alice loved for me to read to her, so I placed some of her favorite books in the room for her as well.  The Icky Sticky Frog was one of her all-time favorites.  As the story goes, the frog slurps down several different bugs (before being devoured by a fish), each time with a hearty “SLURP!”  I would ham up the slurp, and Alice would just fall apart laughing. Every. Single. Time.   Once the book ended, she would page back to her favorite slurp and make me do it again.  “A-gain, Mama!” And again. And again.  Goodnight Gorilla was another favorite. If you are familiar with the book, you will know that there are few words, and some pages have no words. Alice’s favorite pages were the black ones. One has different sized bubbles saying “Good night!  Good night!” etc. The next one is completely black except the wide-open eyes of the zookeeper’s wife. I always read this page with a dramatic “HUH?!” which cracked Alice up. She would turn back to the previous page, and I would then be “forced” into reading the black pages several times in a row.

Alice loved a box of block-sized books my stepmother Sandy had given to the girls, so that was also placed on the bed as well.  I Love You Through and Through, given to her by my friend Alison, was also included, as Alice loved the book—and Alison—so much.  I read it in a certain cadence, and I would often overhear Alice, using the cadence to “read” the book to her dolly. Heart wrenching. A Peekaboo flap book my mother had bought for the girls was also a favorite of Alice’s, and so was included in the mix.

Alice loved music, and loved to sing and dance.  As a baby, the only toy that could earn me enough time to go to the bathroom or put something in the oven, were her egg-shaped musical shakers, so those were placed on the bed as well.  She loved those things. They were also the impetus for Alice making her first friend that I did not choose for her. She and a little girl named Evie fell in love at a baby yoga class when Alice was about eight months old. They both absolutely lit up when they saw each other, as if they were old friends that hadn’t seen each other in a while—except they had never met. Evie coveted Alice’s shakers, and Alice would sometimes share them. They bonded over those shakers and were friends until Alice died.  We eventually gave one of the shakers to Evie’s mom to remember Alice by, and we keep the other on our mantle in front of Alice’s picture.

Elmo. Alice LOVED Elmo. She really didn’t watch Elmo on TV, but she loved Grace’s old Elmo doll, and she loved the Elmo Facetime app. Our Elmo went missing at the girls’ preschool one day a few weeks before Alice died. When I went to pick up the girls that night, and it became obvious that we were down an Elmo doll, Alice’s three boyfriends in her class (Frank, Jake, and Neyson) all scurried around the room helping us look. None of these three boys spoke but a few words, but they all knew their girl was missing her lovey. I’ll never forget how my heart swelled watching three 18-month old boys help Alice search for her beloved doll.  We never did find our Elmo, but one of the little guys went and pulled an Elmo doll from the school’s toy box, and handed it to Alice.  That’s pure love, folks.  Pure love. That Elmo also sits on our mantle, to this day.

Remembering this love between Alice and her little boyfriends, reminded me that Alice would never know heartache. She died having only known 100% pure love.  Love from her parents, her sister, her grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins.  Love from her teachers and caretakers.  Love from her friends, and our neighbors.  Love from strangers. Alice would never manipulate love, or be manipulated by love.  Alice would never find out the boy (or girl) she loved, loved somebody else.  Alice was a conduit for pure love, and I feel fortunate to have borne witness to it. I tried to focus on this while I continued to select the toys that would be laid with her.

Alice had recently started to play “Mama” with some of the dolls, and so the doll that Grace liked least was placed up on the bed. The one Alice liked best was also the one Grace liked best, and had been a present to Grace from my mother.  Bella Linda, is the dolls name (my mother named her after herself.)  I did not want to risk alienating Grace by placing Bella Linda with Alice, so we chose a runner-up. I knew Alice would understand.

Also placed on the bed: her purse that Grace bought for her, filled with crayons that she pilfered from Grace; her beloved balls, oh, how she loved balls; an apple—no,  “ap-o!”—and a tangerine, also referred to as “ap-o!”;  the plastic train that had held the candles on her birthday cake just two weeks prior.  Oh, God.  How could we have gone from such a happy day, to the saddest day I will likely ever have, in such a short time, I thought.  It was sickening.

My Aunt Polly had made Alice a beautiful quilt when she was born.  I loved it, and so did Alice, and so it was laid out in the center of our bed.  Alice was going to be laid on top of that. I am sure this was not its intended use, and I hoped that Aunt Polly would be honored, rather than horrified.

Meleva and Famke arrived at some point before the service.  I was so thankful that they were there, and I knew Grace was going to be excited to see Famke.  Meleva is a hilarious cut-up, dry, a bit sarcastic, cuts to the quick, has no time for mush, and I love her madly. But she wasn’t looking like the cut-up she is that day. She looked like someone had taken her heart out of her chest.  This hurt me more than I can say.  She basically could not look at me without welling up. She would just stare at me with a look of shock and horror, and water would run down her face. I didn’t mind, I just felt bad for her.

Right at 11, Bubba informed me that Shari was here with Alice, and asked me how I wanted this to play out. I told him that he and some other men should go get her, and that I would wait in the bedroom.  This was a split second decision.  I have no idea why I came to that conclusion, but I did.

I waited, in my bedroom, for them to bring me my Alice. I hadn’t seen her in about three days. I hadn’t seen her alive in exactly three days. I recall trying to wrap my head around that. I sat nervously on the far side of the bed, waiting. My mind went blank for a while. That was a great relief, the blank mind. I marveled at that for a moment.

Bubba and the funeral director Shari walked in slowly with Alice. You could hear a pin drop in the house. It was a moment that took my literal breath away.  Time really did stand still. My dear friend was bringing me my deceased daughter, who was on a sheet-wrapped plank.  She was peaceful, and clutching her doll in one hand, and her car she stole from school in the other. She had her blankie laid across her upper body a bit, and her binky nearby. I stared and stared but could not make this scene make sense to me.

There was no box. No coffin. I did not want my toddler in a box, so Shari figured out this plank. The plank was just big enough for Alice to fit on with the items we sent to be placed with her.  It was obviously custom made, and I was so relieved, and honored, that Shari had handled this for me. It helped me more than I can say that Alice was going to be laid out in as natural way as we could manage.

They brought her in and laid her on the bed, in the center, next to me.  Shari did a quick check, and then she and Bubba stepped out to give me some time alone. The door closed. I burst into deep sobs. The kind that come from your gut, not your head.  Deep, guttural sobs.

I looked at Alice and just sobbed my eyes out.  She looked perfect, just perfect, if not for the fact that she was dead. She was pink, just like she was in life, just like a baby should be. She was not the grey-yellow you see in embalmed bodies, she was pink.  She smelled like a baby, not formaldehyde. I was just absolutely floored over how perfect she looked, three days later, with no embalming. I was immediately relieved that we had chosen the green route.

She looked like a little doll.  She had on her pretty dress from Paul and Dani over her BUBBA onesie I had bought her to match her sister’s BUBBA t-shirt.  She had on her light-up shoes from Teresa and Sal.  She had on her headband, which I am sure would have annoyed her in life, but Shari insisted she have something on her head.  Personally, I did not care if we saw the autopsy scar. I had accepted the fact that this had to happen. Shari gently told me, that the other mourners would likely not feel this way. It was a diplomatic way of saying, “That’s nice, honey. Get me a headband anyway.”

Alice was noticeably missing some of her curly locks from the top of her head.  I sobbed again, knowing some of her hair had been necessarily cut off for the autopsy.  I touched her, and stroked her head, and arms. I peeked under the doll to see her fingers. Her fingers were blue, and not as plump as they had been Tuesday morning.  This was the only real sign of decay, and for some reason, I found myself realizing this like an emotionally detached scientist. I am not saying that scientists are emotionally detached, I am only saying that I felt 1) emotionally detached from the decay of my daughter’s body, and 2) at this point in the day, I felt like a scientist had joined the sociologist. The real me seemed to have been given some time off for good behavior.

I lay down next to Alice, and cried.

Because Alice was not embalmed, we could hold her. And I did. I picked her up carefully and immediately noticed that her center of gravity was different. I could tell her weight had been distributed differently, likely by the autopsy, and also, by death. Her head didn’t move much, which struck me as well. Her eyes were sewn shut. Oh, God, her eyes were sewn shut. That fact really got me for some reason. I held her, noticing these things, and whispered sweet things in her little perfect ears. I held her for some time. You can’t do this at a regular funeral home, and I am so, so grateful that I had the chance to do this. At one point, I realized that what I was doing was somewhat unconventional. I did not care. I did not care what people thought. My baby was gone. If they didn’t like how I handled it, they could step away. No one said anything.

We invited in the grandparents next, two at a time. This was devastating. I have no other words to describe it. It was simply devastating. The aunts and uncles and godparents were next. Also devastating. I stayed through all of the grandparents’ viewings, but I couldn’t take it anymore, and left before the majority of the aunts and uncles and godparents had their time with her. I may or may not have stayed in the room with Bubba and Rey, I just don’t recall.

I don’t recall what I did after that, exactly.  I walked around a bit, I know.  I think I talked to people. I was in a daze. I was still sick as well, but much better than the day before. I have little recollection of the noon hour that day. I walked around. That’s all I really recall. I remember that it was sunny, and that this was somewhat annoying.  I remember seeing the people there. I remember trying to talk to them, but not being able to last much more than a few seconds. I had enough breath to breathe, but not enough to talk. That is how I felt.

At some point, an alert went off on my phone to sign Alice up for the gymnastics class we were excited to begin attending with her.  For one second, for one glorious second, I went to call.  For one glorious second, I forgot that she was dead.  Even as she lay dead in my house, I forgot that she was dead.  This realization made my knees buckle.

At some point after 11:00 a.m., Catie and Grant had arrived with Grace. They had picked her up from Kristen and Eddie’s house, took her for a manicure with their daughter Elizabeth, and then brought Grace here with them.  Like the two previous days, Grace was not terribly interested in talking to me. I told her that Alice was here, but that because Alice was dead, she could not move or talk or play. I told her that she could see Alice if she wanted to do so, but that she could skip it if she preferred. She looked interested, but said, “Maybe later, Mama.”  This is basically what I expected. Grace needs a bit of time to wrap her head around new people and situations. Except vacation. Grace vacations like a pro.

My Aunt Polly had come in from Vegas along with my cousin Jessica and her family.  They had never met Alice, but they keep in touch with me, and were devastated.  My stepsister Mandy had arrived from Peoria, and my stepsister Sarah had arrived from San Diego.  My stepbrother Darin and his family had driven in from Arizona. My Uncle Danny and Aunt Nancy from Alabama were in route (they drove all the way here and back) and my sister-in-law Caitlin was en route from London with her boyfriend, James. All of those relatives knew Alice well. I could barely look at them.  The pain was just too intense.

My inner circle was all there.  The folks who had taken care of my girls—Teresa and Sal and Miss Julie—were all there.  I couldn’t look at them either. They were a mess, understandably. Teresa had taken care of Alice since she was eight weeks old, and Miss Julie had babysat for nearly as long. Alice loved those two ladies, and Sal, with all her little heart, and would just burst with joy when she saw them. I knew that the caretakers were completely freaked out that this could have happened on their watch. They understandably felt like the rug had been pulled out from under them.  It had never occurred to them that such a thing could happen to a toddler. My heart broke for them. It still breaks for them.  Alice had a very special bond with those three folks.

Janet had food out that day, but I couldn’t eat, really.  I was still sick and my tongue still hurt.  Fran pumped me full of the Mexican chicken soup and coconut water.  Those items didn’t need to touch my tongue for too long. Mark poured me a vodka tonic. It seemed like a good idea at the time.  I nursed it for a couple of hours.

My brother-in-law Colin and his gal Heather came out of the viewing room and informed me that Clarence was sitting at Alice’s feet, and had been doing so basically since I left the room. They said he was lengthwise, at her feet, as close as he could get, facing the window away from the door.  Apparently, each time someone would walk in to see her, he’d turn to look at them, acknowledging their presence, and then turn back to look out the window, as if to give them their privacy.  It was as if he took over for me: guarding her and hosting the grievers. This was another thing that could have never happened in a traditional visitation.  This is one fine cat, people.

Clarence did not leave the room the rest of the day.  At one point, when no one was sitting in the room, he had gone up and cuddled up next to her, his head on her shoulder. He looked sad. Really sad. He stayed on that bed for hours in to the night, long after Alice was gone.  He did not come out to steal food, which would have been easy that day, or to ask for dinner, or use the litter box, or drink.  He stood guard over his baby.  “Kai,” she called him, because she couldn’t quite get “Clarence” out.  She loved Clarence, and he apparently really loved her, because he tolerated some not-so-gentle behavior from her. He never swatted her when she tried to ride him like a horse. He never bit her when she kissed him square on the face or stuck her finger in his ear. He did scratch her once when she was waving a donut around in front of his face, but really, she was asking for it then.  Even the baby knew Clarence was gluttonous and had no self-control.

After Colin and Heather came out of the room, Grace decided she was ready to see her sister, so I took her in and shut the door. She sat on my lap on one of the dining room chairs we had brought in for people. She asked some basic questions about death. She noticed that Alice was not breathing. She asked if she could touch her. I told her that she could, but that Alice would not be able to touch her back. She went over and tentatively touched her sister; on the head, on the arm, on her tummy, her shoes. She asked, again, “When you are already dead, no one can help you, right, Mama?”  “No, honey,” I said.   “No one can help her anymore, but she doesn’t need our help anymore either.”

Grace, who is nothing if not meticulous, checked out the collection of toys on and around Alice.  I tried to choose things that would not start a “sharing” fight, if you can call it a fight when one party is deceased.  Grace approved of all toy and book selections, and thought it was a good idea that Alice had her blankie. She placed Alice’s binky closer to her mouth. She asked to have her picture taken with her sister, so we did that. Grace sat next to Alice, put her arm around her, and gave the most melancholy smile I have ever seen in my life. I have yet to look at that photo.   She came back into my lap, and cried. Really cried. “I’m so sad that Alice is dead, Mama!”

A while later, when there was a lull in the tide of visitors, I walked back in alone and just lay on the bed next to Alice. I was still sick, I was exhausted, and I wanted to cuddle with my baby, one last time. Oh, who am I kidding?  I never in life got to cuddle on the bed with her either. She was toooooooooo busy.  If you wanted a cuddle you had to 1) stand, 2) put a blankie on your shoulder, and 3) catch her in a sleepy moment. Then, she was all yours. But the conditions had to be perfect for her to relent. Today, she could not fight back. I was out of tears. I laid there somewhat dazed, and completely exhausted.

My mom came in and joined me after awhile. All she could really do is cry and shake her head. It was heartbreaking. Never again would Alice light up when we Facetimed with Grandma and Grandpa Duck (thus named by Grace because he liked to make Donald Duck noises at the girls, which really cracked Alice up). Alice would never again try to imitate those duck noises. It was like a knife to the heart and a punch in the stomach realizing this.

Catie came in and sat with us for a spell too. She laid down with Alice and I a bit before leaving us to it. Meleva and Bubba came in a bit later. We just sat around and talked, while I cuddled up to my baby girl for the last time. I was still completely racked with guilt. They kept telling me not to be, that I was a great mother and I kept saying, “I must be the worst Mommy in the world to let my baby die alone in her crib.”  I have cried very little while writing these accounts—I sort of have to go to a place just above myself in order to write these pieces—but I am in tears over this memory. Four months later, this all still feels impossible.

We told stories of Alice, and what Alice might have grown up to be. Something someone said reminded me of Tina Fey’s “A Mother’s Prayer for her Daughter,” which is hilarious. My mother and Meleva had not heard it, so I went to get it, and had Bubba read it. I still did not feel I had enough breath to get through something like that. We all shared a tearful laugh, sitting there around Alice. Meleva and Bubba left, leaving me with my mother and my deceased daughter.

About this time, Grace appeared in the doorway, looking shy.  I asked her if she wanted to come in, but she scampered off into the hallway. I followed her. She wanted her friend Famke to come in with her, so someone went to get Meleva to see how she felt about Famke viewing Alice. Soon, Meleva, Grace, and Famke walked in to the room.  The little girls approached Alice slowly and with reverence, but no discernable fear. Meleva knows me very well, and is a wonderful writer. She wrote a moving account of the girls visiting Alice, so I will skip my assessment of their visit here and share Meleva’s piece soon.

As it got closer to 4:00 p.m., Shari came in to tell us that it was time. The family and a few friends said their final goodbyes. A few of them held her, and some passed on the opportunity. Bubba and Rey held her, I recall distinctly. Bob came in, hands on his face, and asked if he could kiss her forehead. I said, “Of course. You can hold her if you want.” He merely knelt down, and kissed her little forehead, and then left. It broke my heart.

I held Alice, and sang to her and bawled my eyes out. I felt like someone had removed my heart from my chest like that awful scene in Braveheart. I did not want to let go. I did not want to let go. I did not want to let go. But I had to, and so I did.

Bubba and Shari carried Alice out or the house, and I followed. It was sunny. The sun hurt my eyes.  I stood there in a trance watching them get ready to place my girl in the converted van. At this point, I realized that every single person at the viewing had followed us out. They kept a respectable distance, but they all were there, on my lawn, on my steps, silently saying goodbye to my Alice. This image tears me to pieces to this day.  Looking behind me to see all of my loved ones silently watching me say goodbye to my daughter is something I will never forget as long as I live. It was like a scene from a movie, a movie you never hoped to see, much less star in.

Someone, I don’t recall who, walked me inside after the van left. Someone held me while I cried. Someone brought me tissues. Someone brought me a vodka tonic that was not watered down, as I could not seem to actually finish a drink. I can’t recall who did what, but I am deeply grateful to them all.

I snuck outside, to the side of the house, to be alone for a spell. Bubba found me, and within minutes, had me laughing through my tears. Bob joined us, and we all shared some philosophy and jokes. Bob noticed I had lost my drink. He didn’t like this. He went to get me a new one.

My dear friends Rob and Rhonda, the owners of Masa of Echo Park who had left their restaurant Wednesday to be with me, insisted on catering for us one day that week, and it was decided that the visitation would be the best time. Promptly at 5:00 p.m., Rob and Rhonda appeared at my door with enough food to feed a veritable army. I was so touched that they had delivered it themselves. They really could not be kinder people, and their food is amazing and comforting and was truly perfect for this occasion. They brought tons of pizza, both Chicago style and Bistro style. They brought pounds of my favorite salad in the world—their Manchego salad. They brought Cuban sandwiches and pasta and just insane amounts of food.  Everyone loved it. I actually ate this time. They would accept no money. More angels in my midst.

Bubba and Rey needed to take off, because for starters, I am sure they were exhausted, and secondly, Bubba needed to get ready for Alice’s service the next day.  I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, and I’ll say it a million more times. These are the finest of friends. Stacy was aiding and abetting Bubba, so she and Todd left soon after. I noticed Bob milling about doing magic tricks for the kids that were here—Grace, Famke, and my cousin’s two girls. Apparently, he had been entertaining the masses in the backyard all day. When he wasn’t doing magic, he was fetching drinks for people, and basically hosting the party. At one point, he asked me to walk him through all the pictures in the house, and tell him about each one. And I mean every single picture. All the pictures we had blown up for the service. All of the pictures on the wall in the dining room. Every picture on the fridge. Doing this was healing, and I could see that Bob was deeply interested and amused by every story, which was so incredibly touching and healing. I was somewhat surprised he was still here, again, I know him through Bubba, and so assumed Bubba had asked him to take over in his absence. I was grateful, for I was in no shape to host.

Bob looked at every single birthday card of Alice’s—they were still all up on the piano—and took a special interest in a homemade one that my dear friend Nancy’s son five-year-old son Julian had made for Alice.  Julian had drawn all of Alice’s favorite things: a binky, and blankie, the word Mama, and on the back, a Christmas scene. Nancy and her family had spent the previous Christmas Eve with us, and the kids were quite taken with our customs, apparently. Bob said, “This is a keeper. You need to laminate this. I have a laminator at my office. I’ll have my office do it.”  Meleva and Fran heard this and chirped in that they wish they had an office like Bob’s. Meleva batted her eyes and him and said, “Bob. I reeeeeeally want your office.” Unbeknownst to me, Bob’s office had been very busy that day, making hotel reservations for all of my relatives that had driven in that day. God knows what else Bob’s office did that I will never know about. I am deeply grateful for all of it. Bob’s office is now legendary amongst my friends and family, and everyone wants an office just like it.

As I nursed my dinner, I felt the overwhelming need for some comic relief. I could tell my stepsisters, who are from different sides, but who are both hilarious, needed some as well. So, I pulled up the video most likely to make me laugh, a video of a lady complaining about the heat. On our way home from Flagstaff in June, we stopped in Needles, CA on the hottest day in decades. I think it was 121 degrees or something hideous. When you got out of the car, it felt like your throat became burned from the vapor coming off of the blacktop. Dawn had sent me a video-selfie of a woman complaining about the heat.  This chick was MAD. I mean, MAD. And she uses rather salty language while she literally prays to God to cool it down. I’ve watched that thing 100 times at least. I showed it to my sisters that night, and we all fell apart laughing, despite our tear-stained eyes. I looked up to see Bob and my dad staring at us with stunned smiles. Yes, I was laughing at my child’s visitation.  Because if I didn’t, I was afraid I was going to die from grief.

The grandmas and Janet and other ladies had cleaned up the food and the kitchen, and the crowd was thinning out a bit.  Meleva was going to stay the night here with Famke, and my neighbor Jen C had come back with some clothes for me to look at in case I wanted to wear one of her dresses to the service the next day.  Bob was still here, hosting, and I again, was a bit surprised, that he was.  I was glad that he was, but I was surprised, and wondered if something was going on that I did not know about. Eventually, he handed me a drink, walked toward the front door, and said, “Melissa, wanna join me outside for a minute?” So I followed.

I wish I could remember everything Bob said to me as we sat on my front steps, because it was perhaps the kindest, most encouraging monologue any one has ever delivered to me. I will do my best.

He started by asking me how I felt about this house. “Do you mean, do I feel like I need to get out of this house, or do I feel like this is our house, a house where something unimaginable happened, but still our house?” I asked.  “Yes,” he said, “that’s exactly what I mean.”  I said that I felt like the latter, and that even if I felt like the former, I did not think moving was what would be best for Grace right now. He sighed, and said that he was relieved to hear that. He said that, before coming here, he couldn’t imagine how we could stay in this house, that he was prepared to help us get out and into a new place, but that once he arrived here, and saw this house, this adorable neighborhood, he saw what a wonderful home we had established for our children, and hoped that we could stay. Still, he reiterated his offer to help us get a new place should we need to do so. I was dumbstruck, and so grateful.

He went on to say, that he was very nervous coming here for this viewing. He had never seen a dead person before, as it turns out.  I was shocked. “Oh, Bob.  This is a hell of a way to start. The viewing of a two-year-old is a rough introduction. I just can’t thank you enough for braving this.” He went on to say that he was glad that he had. He said that he thought it was the best thing we could have done for our loved ones and ourselves. He told me that most of the guests were concerned about seeing Alice, and about seeing Alice unembalmed, but that people had been won over by the concept, and that it had helped everyone to start their healing. Again, I was dumbstruck. Again, I was grateful.

I had no idea that folks were so nervous about it.  I certainly did not think that anyone was HAPPY about it, but I hadn’t thought about anyone’s reaction to our decision to have a green viewing. I was happy that people found some comfort in it, but I must say, I would have done the same thing even if every person here had voiced their opposition. I knew it was right for me and for my little family.

Bob heaped other praise upon me, leaving me slack-jawed. He asked a million questions about my emotional state and my decision-making process.  In short, he was truly interested, and he was sharing his own feelings, and the whole thing was very healing. He went on to say that prior to Alice dying, he had not been aware that our family had had some rough times over the past few years.  He said that he was sorry that he hadn’t known, and that he never again wanted to find out we had a problem that he and Melissa could fix in seconds. He was serious.

I cried.  And I hugged him.  Bob and his wife Melissa were two more beautiful angels in my midst. Their kindness, generosity, and total openness to a painful process that was not their own will never be forgotten.

I can’t recall what happened after that, except that I went to bed, remembering the kindness and love that had been bestowed on me that day, and knew I would eventually be okay.  Well, okay-ish, at least.

3 Comments

  1. Sherry McDonald
    December 15, 2013
    Reply

    Dearest Melissa, Thank you for sharing your thoughts and allowing me to learn about your beautiful daughter and YOU! Please know you are an amazing person,friend and Mother. My prayers are always with you and your family. I was so honored having dinner with Grace. I hope that it can become a ritual during my visits. Hopefully this will be a blessed season for you and your family. Always remember Bubba will always be there for you. We love you . Nana. Give Grace a hug for me.

  2. Virginia Sandford
    December 16, 2013
    Reply

    Melissa, Your writing about all of this has been so magnificent. I hope it helps you to heal. I keep trying to send all three of you healing thoughts. It seems to me that this whole journal of yours would serve as a wonderful help to anyone experiencing deep grief. I wish we lived closer.

  3. Monica
    January 7, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you thank you thank you for your honesty and openness.

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