I woke up Monday feeling fairly well rested. I am willing to bet I cried. In those early days, I recall bursting into tears upon waking most days. It didn’t last long, but it did happen. And the sense of dread, oh, the sense of dread was paralyzing.
My Mom and Terry came over early that day. They knew I wanted some time alone while Alice “went in,” or was “transformed,” as they say, so they came over a little earlier than they had in past days in order to help out. They had told me the day before that they wanted to hike that day, and I said I wanted to join them. I thought getting out in nature would help me, as it always does. Meleva was still at the house as well. The other grandparents came a little later that morning, I believe.
I felt numb.
Shari called to say she was on her way to the crematorium with Alice. I believe this was around 8:30 or so, but I might be off a bit. I felt like I was punched in the solar plexus and the heart simultaneously. I became a bit nervous. I paced.
I had wanted to plan a meditation to do during the time she was transformed, but hadn’t gotten around to that. I felt a little panic about this. Perhaps I should read from one of the religious works that inspires me? I pondered this. And I paced.
Shari called to say that traffic was bad; it was taking longer to get there than she expected. I had time to get something together. But I wasn’t able to get anything together, because I was pacing and my mind was completely blank. I warned all of the grandparents that the timing was going to be a bit different than expected. I paced some more.
I spotted the Tibetan brass bell I brought back from India. One of those singing bells, you know. You can strike it like a gong, or rub the wooden stick around the base to make it “sing.” When the bell is “singing,” you can hear the sound move in whirring circles around you, around the entire room, really. It is an incredible and highly enjoyable experience. The Tibetans use it to call on Buddha. It is often used before prayer in other faiths in order to clear the mind of worldly matters, and dispel stress and tension. My pacing indicated to me that I could use a little stress relief before trying to focus on prayer or mediation while Alice was “transformed.” I hadn’t played it in a while, but both girls would stop in their tracks when I did. They would stare at me wide-eyed and smiling. Alice particularly loved it. I grabbed the bell and took it to my bedroom.
My bedroom décor is inspired by the Far East. I have a Chinese armoire that I love, and some beautiful Indian design-based paintings I bought in India (for approximately three dollars total. The framing was not three dollars.) I also have some small statues and candles in the room. I lit some candles. I was starting to feel calmer already. I was not happy, but I was calming down.
Finally, Shari called, and in a somber voice, told us that it was time.
My stomach lurched. My eyes welled up with tears. I felt a sickening dread too large to express in words. I grabbed the bell, and shut my eyes, and took a few deep breaths before rubbing the wooden stick around the base to make it sing.
The singing bell was very soothing, and I found it easier to play than usual (it’s not as easy as it looks to pull off the singing without “hiccups.”). With each circumnavigation of the stick, I felt more and more at ease. Although playing the bell has brought me some peace many times, I was surprised by my unfolding peace that day—I won’t lie. I honestly thought I was a bit of a lost cause that day, but I wanted to try to meditate, because it felt like the right thing for me to do. What followed is might sound like malarkey, but I swear on all that is good it is what I experienced.
I continued playing the singing bell, eyes closed, observing my response. I noticed I was smiling a small smile. I thought, “Oh, that is promising,” and continued.
Suddenly, I felt a sense of warmth at the crown of my head, and this warmth traveled down my body. I then saw—as much as one can see with one’s eyes closed—a cone of light above me. I was in the large base, and the tip extended some distance above me. I instinctively looked up in my mind’s eye, in fact, I felt like I was floating up toward the tip, and when I did look up, I saw three shadowed figures: one in the foreground, and two smaller figures on either side and slightly behind the central figure. They appeared to be robed. The light behind them was so intense that they were in complete shadow and I could make out no features, only outlines. I was in awe, but I kept playing the bell.
There came a point where I could tell that I was not going to be able to float up any closer to them. This did not frustrate me, or them, it did not hurt, in fact, there was no negative feeling at all associated with the inability to get closer to the figures. They seemed friendly enough. I mean, they didn’t offer me tea or invite me in, but I was not afraid. In fact, I felt both peaceful and euphoric; two feelings I would have guessed were mutually exclusive before this experience. I felt warm, loved, peaceful, euphoric, and safe. Very safe. The feeling of safety was overwhelming. And I somehow knew that this meant that Alice was safe. I somehow felt and knew that they were there to receive Alice, and to let me know that she was in a good place. Just then, I saw her—from the back—grab the robe of the figure in the foreground, and walk behind him/her. She peered out from behind him/her. She was now also in shadow, but I could make out her outline. The beautiful, crazy hair gave it away.
I felt peaceful then, but I am in tears now. I could handle this experience then, but the memory of it is tearing me apart.
I can’t recall how long after that experience I kept the bell going, but it was not long after. I sat in silence for a spell after that. I felt peaceful. I even smiled. I daresay I was even somewhat happy. I sat with that feeling for a bit.
Eventually, I felt “done” playing, and soon after, Shari called to tell me that the process was completed. I expected that call to really do me in, and I won’t lie, it hurt, but I still felt peaceful, and warm and loved and calm. And deeply hurt. But I felt deeply hurt and loved and calm, a unique combination of emotions, to be sure.
The last time I had felt this peaceful and calm was after that bath I described on Thursday. And like that Thursday, this peaceful feeling lasted for a few hours afterwards.
Was this experience wishful thinking? Was it my subconscious going on autopilot? Was it “real?” I have no idea. All I know is I felt better on one of the worst days of my life, so how bad could it be, even if it were wishful thinking? The main reason I do not think it was wishful thinking is that I had not formulated any fully formed idea on what I hoped had happened to Alice. I felt like she was in a better place, certainly; she had done no wrong in this life. I had no doubt she would go to a place of love. But I do no pretend to know what the afterlife looks like or much about the particulars of it, really. I had always hoped there were mountains and a stream involved, but I know that that concept is an earthly one. I had no predetermined notions of who or what would greet her, if anyone. I don’t know how the newly called are ushered in. So, that leaves a subconscious on autopilot, reality, or something I do not understand as possible explanations of my vision.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. I am going with: Alice is safe, and it’s not my time to join her.
I can’t lie, there are many days I wish it were my time to “go play with Alice.” Don’t freak out, I am not going to commit suicide. But there are days I wake up, and think, “Crap. Sigh. I’m still here.” I get over it as the day goes on, with a little help from my friends.
No, really. I do. The Beatles were right.
I have meditated somewhat regularly for many years, but that was, hands down, the most awe-inspiring experience I have ever had. One other experience comes to mind as an event that could even come close to approaching this one. I was housesitting. It was 1996 or so. I read about a mediation where you were supposed to imagine your mother on one side, and your father on the other. Again, my parents are divorced, but I thought, hey, why not. I began. It started as a fairly normal mediation experience. I felt calmer; I felt my mind quiet a bit. Then I began to see the three of us in traditional Tibetan attire, which I thought was odd, but I went with it. We looked like figures in a Tangka painting, and not at all like ourselves. In fact, it was if we had all three become other people, but I was still looking through the eyes of the person in the center. I did not look like me, and my parents did not look like my parents. This was unexpected, but I kept with it. Suddenly, my meditation mother and father leaned in front of me and embraced.
I gasped. I literally could not breathe and felt like I was sucked to the back of the room. Like that carnival ride where the centrifugal force sucks you to the wall and the bottom falls out from under you. That is EXACTLY how I felt. I snapped back to reality and cried. I had no idea why I was crying, or what the hell had just happened.
Later, I realized that children of divorce can sometimes feel split. I thought I was “fine,” and had done a lot of work on myself over the years to get there, but this meditation showed me that the split runs deep. I am not blaming my parents, mind you. They have their path and I have mine. But in the days that followed, I somehow felt healed from a hurt that I didn’t even realize I harbored. And I was not expecting any of that in any way.
The other grandparents were due to arrive soon, if I recall correctly, they were waiting until after the cremation was completed. There was talk of a hike. Mom and Terry had said the day before that they wanted to hike on Monday. Other folks seemed to want to get out a bit as well.
I suddenly had the idea that we could all hike up to the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and do a balloon release for Alice. It was the perfect time for this, I thought. And everyone was eager to get outside a bit. And Famke and Grace could use a kid-friendly way to express their feelings about the death, it seemed. And Alice had gone up there with me a few times, and one particularly great time with my dear friend Alyssa. I did not reason this all out before I had the idea; I had the idea, and then the reasons it was a good one starting popping up in my mind.
My dad loves a mission, and loves to drive (I did not inherit this trait) so we sent him to the store by the Overlook to get 12 or so balloons. My mother-in-law had just had knee surgery, so they were going to skip the hike, sadly. I believe that left my two sets of parents, Caitlin, Meleva, and the girls.
The rest of us took off in our cars for the trailhead. The girls had gone with my dad to pick up the balloons because that seemed like a good job for the girls, and the girls seemed like they could use a “job.”
We all began to walk up the hill. It was windy and we were having trouble keeping the balloons untangled. Grace and Famke were taking good care of the balloons. There was some quiet chitchat as we ascended. It was a beautiful day.
The view. Spectacular.
There was a newly built circular area at the top of the hill. It had a cement ledge around it and was surrounded with natural, drought-resistant vegetation. It was here we did the release. I think I said a few words. Maybe others said a few words. Grace insisted we keep two behind: one for her and one to remember Alice by. Sniff. The other balloons were released and went basically due east, toward downtown, before heading a bit north. It was a very clear day, and we were able to watch them for several minutes, a shockingly long time, really. Famke said, “I sure hope God gives those balloons to Alice.” I said, that I thought he would. Grace was somewhat reserved during this, and hugged me. Eventually, Grace asked, “What is heaven like Mama?”
Oh, my. Is that all you want to know? I took in a deep breath, and hoped I would say the right thing.
“I’m not sure, sweetie, because I haven’t been there yet, but I have heard it is very bright, and beautiful and everyone is very friendly,” I heard myself say. I just spat that out.
I didn’t want to pretend to know something I do not know, but I also wanted to convey something positive. I hope that sufficed. It seemed to do the trick. Both girls were a bit quiet, but they seemed to be relieved that Alice was somewhere friendly. In fact, I seem to recall Famke talking about what a happy baby Alice was, while Grace hugged me around the legs. There were lots of tears, but quiet tears.
It was a somber walk back down.
It was a quiet day at home that day. Eventually Shari called and said she was ready to come by with Alice’s ashes that afternoon. I believe she came by around 4:00 p.m. Now, there is really nothing that can prepare you for receiving your child’s ashes. Not even preparing to receive your child’s ashes can prepare you to receive your child’s ashes. But Shari made it as beautifully simple as one could imagine. She was as respectful, reverent, calm, and well, normal, as a person could be. She made it seem normal. Which, I suppose in a way it is. We all joke that the only two things that are certain in life are death and taxes, but taxes have not always existed. Death, on the other hand…
We have a story in our heads, a story we tell ourselves, that we are born, raised by loving parents, released to impose our arrogant stupidity on the world, get our ass kicked a few times before learning to live in the world without imposing our stupidity on it, grow old, and die long before our children.
Yet it doesn’t always work that way. We tell ourselves, “It’s so rare, it won’t happen to us.” Yet, here I was, in my dining room, receiving my child’s ashes. I thought it would be horrid, and it was, but Shari made it seem normal, which, was shocking really. I don’t mean this in a bad way. I do not mean to say that she trivialized this moment in any way. I just mean that, there I was, sitting in the home I raise(d) my girls in, the only home Alice ever knew, and talking with the funeral director who quietly, respectfully, gave me my child’s ashes while the rest of the family enjoyed the backyard. Not like a usual Monday, mind you, but still, it did not feel as completely foreign as I imagined.
Alice’s remains were in a pouch made from her blankie. She was in her final resting place all wrapped up in her beloved blankie. The chosen blankie—chosen by the coroner really. The coroner had us keep the one that Alice died on, and suggested she take the other blankie that had been in her bed so that Alice had a blankie with her at the coroner’s office. I mean, really, how kind is that woman? The blankie is white muslin and has a pattern of red caterpillars on it. In hindsight, after so many butterfly encounters, I cannot help but believe that Alice’s ashes are covered with caterpillars, while Alice’s soul seems to dance with the butterflies.
Cheesy, I know. But, you gotta let me have this one, OK?
It was a heavy moment, but the ashes themselves were not heavy, and did not take up much space. My mind could not grasp that my child, who not seven days before was running around the playground at school, and following her sister around, and begging for more “gogurt!” was contained in this pouch.
There are no words for the feeling I experienced at that moment.
It was a quiet night. The grandparents and relatives all took some time with the ashes. The grandmas heated up some of the many leftovers. I think a few friends came over, but I can’t remember who came on what night after this. Meleva was going to have to go in the middle of the night, and so we made Famke a little bed on the floor by the door so that they could sneak out. I cannot thank her enough, for making the trip, for being a great friend (and thanks to her wonderful mom, for lending her the car). I was sorry to see her go, but I was going to see her soon. Just prior to Alice’s death, Grace and I had scheduled a 24-hour trip to Sacramento for Famke’s birthday. We would be there in less than two weeks. Still, I cried during our goodbyes. Her support was impeccable and irreplaceable.
I had developed an eye spasm—a blepharospasm, if you will. (Blepharospasm being my second favorite medical word after “borborygmus,” which is so good it makes me feel whole. Look up the meaning of borborygmus. Then say it while you ponder the meaning. This is good shit, people. Every once in a while those linguists really nail it.)
It started the day after Alice died, and was still going strong. It would go on for weeks, as it turns out. It was fairly annoying, but it was the least of my worries. I marveled at it more than I cursed it really. It sometimes made it a little difficult to fall asleep, but eventually I would manage slumber. It really kicked up when I tried to read in bed, and after crying. Those two things often happened at the same time, unfortunately.
Sometime during those first few days after Alice’s death, I cannot recall which day exactly; I looked up SUDC, the suspected cause of Alice’s death before going to sleep. Colossally stupid idea. The term “suspected cause” is doubly ridiculous in this case, because no one knows what causes SUDC, the suspected cause. I read for only a few seconds before becoming literally paralyzed with agonizing guilt again. Breathless, heart-pounding guilt and regret. I had to stop reading. It was taking me down a spiral I was afraid I would not be able to get out of. Had I thought my investigation would have done any good for me, for Alice, for my community, I would have soldiered on. But it was pages and pages of suspected causes, all of which whipped up my guilt into high gear, at the end of which, it would basically say, “but we aren’t really sure.”
“It could be…medical stuff setting off my guilt…but we aren’t sure.” It did not seem to be productive for me to read this at that time.
I have no doubt that I will one day become involved in researching, or supporting research for SUDC. I have no doubt that one day I will be able to support other families who lost children to SUDC. But that day was not the day for me to start. I still can’t go there, to be honest. That day, I had to stay focused on maintaining a will to live, and the information on SUDC was not helping me. This is not the fault of SUDC, their organization, or even me. It just was. It wasn’t helping me then. One day it might. It may help other parents who recently lost a child, but for some reason, it sent me spiraling down, and I could not let that happen.
I suppose I felt it futile. There are pages and pages of suspected causes, but no real answers. And if I had an answer, it wouldn’t help Alice anyway. She was already gone. It did not appear I was going to know what caused her death anytime soon, and maybe I would never know. And finding out wouldn’t bring her back anyway. I needed to know what happened to her SOUL. I had an overwhelming need to know what happened to her soul, since no one knew what had happened to her body.
There was no logic to her death. No medical reason to be found, as yet, and I was warned that this would unlikely change. So spending time digging around into the cause of death just felt to me like I was spinning my wheels in a direction that was very bad for me. When logic leaves the room, that leaves the woo-woo, I always say. I’ve always been interested in the woo-woo. I have always had an interest in religion—all religion, not just the one in which I was raised. I have always had an interest in the esoteric. I have always had an interest in extra-sensory perception, and philosophy, and psychology and physics and psychics, and, I suppose, all the weighty subjects that start with a “P.”
Logic left the room with Alice’s soul. And so, I began to go way down deep in my woo-woo.
This has saved me. Hey, it’s not for everyone, but it has saved me, this I know. And when you find yourself in the midst of an existential crisis, I suppose it helps to just say, “Screw it. I guess I’m about to spend a lot more time on existential faire. Goodbye, gossip. Goodbye, self-criticism. Goodbye, stupid tabloid reading in line at the store. Goodbye, spending time ruminating on minutiae that really doesn’t matter in the scheme of life.” Sure, I still do these things sometimes. But you know what? Not much. Not much. And that has been a gift. I realized that as early as that first week after she died.
I hope it lasts. I hope this is not merely a temporary response to the shock and grief of losing a child. I hope I do not return to letting petty things consume my day. I hope, like the balloons, and Alice’s soul, I released my pettiness as well that day.