I left out a couple of facts:
We saw a box on the porch after the coroner left with Alice. We brought it inside and forgot about it for about a week.
I sent two emails that Tuesday night. One was to my friend Carol, who had written back about the video I’d sent her. The other was to my friend Dawn who had written to see if Alice was feeling better, knowing that she’d had a cold that morning. In both cases, in my state of shock, I think I wrote back something along the lines of “Oh my God, she’s dead.” I was in total shock, and it appears I had no ability to elaborate further.
Eventually Bubba woke up. We made coffee and plotted out what was most important on our incomprehensible list of things that needed to be done. All overwhelming. None foreseen. Twenty-four short hours before, I was planning my patient load, booking Grace’s dance classes, and planning play dates for Alice. Your life can change in an instant. You make the adjustments, and go through the motions, but your mind just keeps saying, “are you sure this is REAL? Are you? Are you SURE?”
There were people that needed to be called. I had appointments that needed to be cancelled. We had to find a funeral director and begin arrangements in that regard. Family would be arriving soon. We needed to tell the neighborhood families, and the parents of the charter school we helped to open.
And we needed to tell Grace.
We needed to pick up my four year-old and tell her what happened. Holy Toledo, this was nerve-racking, to say the least. What if we said the wrong thing? Would she understand? How would she take it? Well, she probably wasn’t going to take it well, how could she, but what brand of bad would it be? All of these things went through my mind, but they really did just pass through; I watched them go past like you watch traffic go by. I felt no emotional response to these thoughts. I did not grab a thought and ride it to some conclusion, logical or illogical. I simply watched them, noticed that I was doing so, and thought, “Well, I guess all that meditation, however sporadic, paid off, thank God.”
Jen C., our wonderful neighbor, mother of Alice’s great friend Aria, volunteered to tell the neighborhood moms, and she asked one of them involved in our school to let the school folks know. Dawn was going to tell our friends in the music community. Bubba was going to make the calls to our inner circle of friends and orchestrate the clearing of my schedule with my business associate, Stephanie. He was also going find some potential funeral homes. We were going to start with Natural Grace, the company whose card had appeared in our stack of business cards. We would have surely found them without the card, for some friends and I had made a “green” funeral pact with each other in the past. It was a pact we’d confirm again from time to time which went something like this: “Do NOT let my family fill my body with embalming fluid and put me in some overpriced cement hole in the ground.” We were committed to finding a “green” funeral home option, so this really narrowed the field. In fact, as it turned out, and as far as “green” funerals go, this company was really the only game in town. Shari, the funeral director from Natural Grace, was scheduled to come to the house to talk to us after we brought Grace home.
I was actually fairly calm that morning. In retrospect, I know it was because I was still in a state of shock. Also, my brain had something logical to chew on for a bit; I had to plan what to say to Grace. We practiced what we would say as we got ready to go pick her up. I really, really wanted to try to tell her without crying. Not because I felt any shame in crying over my deceased daughter, but because I had the strong feeling that while it would be okay to eventually cry in front of Grace, I needed this morning be about HER initial response. I needed to be a loving, blank slate that accepted whatever she had to dish out, and do so without judgment, or any other “negative emotional response.” I needed to be her rock that morning. I could let her see me cry another time. Lord knows there would be plenty of opportunities.
We were basically going to follow Fred Rogers’ advice on this issue:
- No euphemisms. Just lay it out straight. “Alice died.” Gut-wrenching. Saying “we lost her” can make a child think we’ll find her. Saying “she went to heaven in the sky” can be confusing if you are going to bury the person in the ground. Saying that “death is like going to sleep” can cause a child to have sleep issues. Especially if the deceased child actually did die in their sleep like ours seemed to have done.
- Use words the child understands when explaining what death is. This seems like it’s stating the obvious, but it’s tricky to find age-appropriate explanations for death.
- Children can be overwhelmed by the sadness, and may think it may never go away. Offer opportunities for the child to share in loving, happy memories, so they can see that a grieving person can laugh too.
When we were driving to get Grace, I felt a bit nervous, as if I was on my way to a new job or a first date. And I suppose I was. I was on my way to start my new job as a mother of one, on my way to my first date with my sister-less daughter. It felt like I had a knife in my heart. I could still barely feel my body, though I could see it moving around. But, I was strangely quiet and composed.
It was a somber scene when I walked in to get Grace. Teresa had other kids there already, and though her eyes were moist and red, she was trying not to cry. Her husband Sal was also fighting back tears. Teresa’s sister was there helping her, and also on the verge of tears. These folks love my kids so very much, it was all I could do to fight back my own tears. But I did. I needed to be strong for Grace, until after the moment that I told her at least.
I took Grace to Teresa’s backyard for the talk. I had to do it right then, because I knew I couldn’t keep it together much longer. As I suspected, Grace had a thing or two to say about why we didn’t tell her that Teresa and Sal were picking her up. I told her we had an emergency. She asked, “what emergency?” I took a deep breath.
“Honey. Alice died.” I let that sink in a second. Let’s face it, I needed that second as much as Grace did. Grace’s face screwed up into a mix of sadness and confusion. “Alice DIED?” she asked.
“Yes, honey, Alice died yesterday, and we are very, very sad. When a person dies, their body doesn’t work anymore. Alice can’t run and jump and play anymore. Her heart doesn’t beat anymore, and she cannot breathe anymore. But, she will always be your sister, and our hearts will always love her.”
Oh, God, help me, I thought. This was the single most difficult thing that I have ever had to tell someone. And that someone was four. Four measly years old. And that person was my daughter. I pray to God I never have to relay a harder message than I did that day. I prayed and prayed that I said the right thing, in the right manner, at the right time.
Grace buried her head into me and began to quietly weep. She asked some questions about what dead people can and cannot do. She asked if Alice was still at home. She asked if the doctor could help her. “I’m afraid that the doctors can not help you once you are already dead, honey. The firemen, and policemen and the doctor all came to see her, and sometimes they can help, but they couldn’t help Alice, and Mama is very, very sad about that,” I said.
She asked if we knew Alice was going to die. “No, honey. No, we did not know Alice was going to die.”
I asked her if there were something fun she would like to do, while we talked about some things we loved about Alice. She asked for ice cream, which was not a normal request from Grace. At 9:30 a.m.? Sure! Anything to ease this horrific pain. You want some Cheetos and a side of Sour Worms with that? Seriously, whatever you want right now, kid. Whatever you want. We got in the car and headed down the street for ice cream. Grace asked about Alice’s car seat and what we planned to do with it if Alice wasn’t coming home. Great question, but it nearly made me lose it. I knew that we likely had weeks of things like this on the horizon: what to do with Alice’s diapers? Alice’s stroller? Oh, look, there are Alice’s cars she loved to steal from school. Surreal.
We walked down Larchmont Avenue with our ice cream, and remembered some of the times we’d walked this street with Alice, only days before. She had walked this street just hours before, and now she would no longer. How can this be? HOW CAN THIS BE?
We brought Grace back home. Bubba was here, and she ran to him and threw herself onto him. She loves him so much. Some other inner-circle friends were beginning to arrive as well. The events after this point become very, very blurry, because an incomprehensible amount of stuff needed to happen in a very short time. No one person could have done it all, even in their right mind, and I was certainly not in my right mind. From this point on, I surrendered to my wonderful friends who drove the car, so to speak, so I could coast and only have to make the crucial decisions. May you all find yourselves surrounded with people as wonderful as those that surround me. I am truly blessed.
It’s-not-just-a-cliché #2: In times of tragedy, you find out who your real friends are.
I found out I had a lot of very real, very amazing friends. And this has made all the difference.
Our friends Todd and Stacy came by with insane amounts of food. Dear friends Clara and Jon came by. They were here all here all day, and began assisting Bubba and Rey with the incomprehensible to-do list. Grace wanted Bubba, and was suddenly not so keen on me, so Bubba took over where Grace was concerned. My phone was blowing up. For the most part, I was unable to answer. Some people very dear to me, with whom I had lost contact, called me. I was beyond touched. But, I was unable to talk very much. I just didn’t feel I had enough breath to make sound or energy to make my mouth move.
That morning, with my inner circle here, I cycled back to the “It’s all my fault! I should not have taken a nap! How am I going to live with all of this intense guilt?” These fine folks did and said all they could to talk me out of these feelings. Again, I didn’t really believe them, but I hoped they would not stop trying. I could actually point to one small part of my brain, a thin sliver on the left side of my brain, that believed Alice’s death it was not my fault. The rest of my brain thought this was utter horse crap. I needed my friends to keep telling me it was not my fault, hoping that the little sliver would eventually grow enough to replace the guilty part.
Everyone, and I mean everyone that saw me those first days, said that I should not feel guilty. And I will tell you what I told them:
The guilt is inevitable, I am sure. As parents, we feel guilty if they skin their knee, don’t share with friends, don’t eat their vegetables, or act out in public. So, when you find your child dead in their crib, I don’t know who wouldn’t feel guilty. It seems impossible to avoid guilt over an event such as this. But I am trying.
A little before noon, my Dad and his wife Sandy arrived. It was devastating to see their grief and confusion. I cried. I cried a lot. We hugged. We hugged a lot. I didn’t know what else to do. No one really knew what to do. How could they?
My dad was going to fly my brother Steve here, but none of us had enough cash on hand to get my brother, his wife, and his two boys, Tucker and Zeke, out here. Steve and his family love my girls as much as humanly possible, so my primary mission from this point on became finding a way to get them all out here. I told Bubba that this was now “Item Number 1.” I didn’t care if we had to beg people to donate air miles, or forego a memorial service in lieu of getting my family here. They HAD to be here. They had to be here for me, and I knew that their grief may never heal if they didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to Alice. People were swamping our phones with offers to do anything to help. This is the item towards which I wanted all offers of help directed.
Soon after, Shari the funeral director arrived to discuss our options. She spoke directly to me, and I stared back at her, but my brain could not take it all in. I kept looking at Bubba, who sat in with me to take notes, to translate what she said. I have no idea what happened to my brain. It was gone. Gone. Bubba and Shari were both extremely patient with me and my failing brain. She talked about cremation versus burial. In a “green burial” you basically wrap the body in a sheet and place it in the ground. She also spoke about options for a wake/visitation, which, because Alice would not be embalmed, were essentially endless. She said would accept no fee for her services, that in a case such as ours, the unexpected death of a baby, she just could not accept a fee over what the cremation or burial would cost. I could not get that into my head. Does not compute, does not compute.
Cremation or green burial? For your child. For your baby girl. “Um, neither, thank you very much. I don’t want either of these options. I do not want this to be happening at all,” I thought. This simple question, cremation or burial, was my first meeting with denial. I would not like to cremate OR bury my child. I would not like it in a house, I would not like it with a mouse. I would not like to deal with the disposing the remains of my child here, I would not like to deal with the disposing the remains of my child anywhere. They both sound awful. I know that I want to be cremated, but Alice, well, we never had a chance to ask her what she might want. I felt a lot of pressure to do the right thing by her on this issue, far more pressure than all of the other issues combined. It was the thing that hung me up for a few days.
Shari told us we could do the visitation anywhere, even here at home. We all looked at each other with wide eyes. I thought it was the perfect idea. It was definitely going to be better for Grace to be here than having it at some horrid 1970s funeral home where she would be expected to be “on” and have to behave. It was going to be better for us, because it could be a more relaxed atmosphere. This was an easy decision. Well, easy is perhaps not the right word, but this decision took less than a second to make. We were having the visitation at home, old school style. We were going to have her laid out in our bedroom, so that people could have privacy when they went in to see her, and so the rest of the house would be full of loved ones, and food and drink. The rest of the details we had to sort once we figured out when Duff’s family could get here. We did not have long, however. Because Alice was not going to be embalmed, we had a small window of time for this viewing to take place.
Shari was hired then and there, and she made arrangements to pick up Alice when she was released from the Coroner’s office. Shari promised to be there waiting so that Alice would not be there one second longer than necessary. I know in the end it didn’t really matter how long Alice was at the Coroner’s office, because Alice was gone. But I was an illogical grieving mother who did not want my baby there any longer than necessary. I wanted her out of there in a flash. Hell, I didn’t want her there in the first place.
Shari left, and by this point, it was clear to everyone that Bubba was in charge, because I was quite glazed over. I was still fairly calm at this point, but my brain was clearly not firing on all cylinders. Janet came by and announced, “I’m in charge of food. I’m Southern, after all!” She began to get a lunch assembled. My Dad and Sandy were playing with Grace and helping Janet. There were already several friends and family in the house, and some neighbors trickling in with more bags of food. Bubba and Rey and Stacy and Clara were manning phones and taking care of business. This was the start of my surrendering. I looked around, saw I was not in charge, and for once in my life, thought, “Thank God,” instead of “Shit!” I was walking around in a daze.
Grace was mad at me, but could not say why. It was probably because the house was full of crying people, to be honest. She would walk in, huff at me, and walk away like a little tiny teenager. I was mesmerized by this behavior. I didn’t have the energy to do anything about it, so I just let her huff at me. In fact, I still believed I deserved it in large part, as I was sure Alice’s death was somehow my fault.
Bubba came up to me in the hallway and told me that he had told Bob what happened. Bob and his lovely wife Melissa B are dear, long-time friend of Bubba’s. They all met as newbies in show business, had been poor together, had lived together. None of them are poor anymore, but they had struggled together, and great friendships had formed. I’ve known Bob and Melissa B through Bubba for years, and we had just gone to Bob’s big birthday party the previous Saturday. Bubba grabbed my shoulders, and began to speak to me looking dead in my eyes. It was becoming a theme. Anyone that needed me to really listen to what they had to say seemed to know they had to force eye contact for the words to sink in to my failing brain. He held me there and said, “Bob is devastated. He wants to help. Whether you need help paying for the service, or if you need to move out of this house, or fly your brother’s family out here, he wants to help with whatever you need.”
I argued with the offer to help, as was my way. I couldn’t possibly accept, we don’t know them well enough for that, it is far too generous an offer, etc. etc. Bubba strengthened his grip on my shoulders and said something that changed me forever. He said, “Melissa, Bob can do this. He WANTS to do this. You need the help. Say yes.”
It’s a simple thing, really, this thing he said. But it never sank in until that moment. I ended up saying “yes” because it became crystal clear that this was a life event too large for heroics. This was not an inconvenient situation. This, was a whopper.
The service was not going to be as expensive as most because green funerals are by their nature cheaper. You do not pay for embalming, and plots and headstones. We were having the visitation here, so that was free. I knew immediately that although some people would understandably need to get out of the house where this tragedy took place, I was not one of them. And I did not think that would be best for Grace, even if I had a strong need to move. Grace needed to be at home. But my brother getting out here was still the number one priority, so Bubba went with that, and he and Rey and Bob and Melissa began making it happen. They handled it entirely—finding the flights, booking them, paying for them. That conversation was the last I knew about the travel plans until I had confirmation that they had tickets for Steve and family. For this I will be forever grateful, and they all have my undying love. This was a relief of immense proportion, and brought me a little peace of mind at a time where peace of mind was hard to come by.
This succumbing to say “yes” was possibly the most life-altering thing I have ever had happen to me, and for that, I will forever love Bubba. I have always loved and adored Bubba, but it grew five sizes that day. It grows five more every time I think of all he’s done for me. My God, what a friend. This was the day, only hours after my baby died, where the horrific tale began to become a little bit beautiful. It was here that I began to learn how amazing people can be when you give them the chance.
My friend Mandy S, who is one of our neighborhood moms, and had been my doula long before we moved into this neighborhood, texted to see what we needed and if we wanted guests. I did. I did want guests. I said “yes” to the guests. And guests I got.
People started to literally flood into the house. I mean, there was a constant stream of people. My inner circle, “Melissa’s Private SEAL Team” my mother called them, were already here. And then the neighbors came. Many of them I did not know by name, but they knew us because of the girls, and especially Alice, who we all joked was “The Mayor of Smallsville.” She worked this neighborhood like an incumbent seeking re-election. She sang out her pleasantries, but with a confidence that dispelled any suggestion of desperation. This was her neighborhood, and she knew it. And she loved it. And she wanted to take care of it, and all the people that lived here. I can’t count how many of our immediate neighbors that came by, and brought food, and cash, and hugs, and tears. Emily, a young gal with a gorgeous dog named Buster, was one of Alice’s favorites. She walked in, and I lost it. Alice would never again hang her little hands from the gate, with her little face pressed through, to say “hIIIIIIIIIII!” to Emily, or try to kiss her dog through the fence.
Then, the moms started arriving. In droves. All the moms from our neighborhood MOMS Club and the school that we started streamed into my house. Some crying, some trying to be strong, some almost hysterical, some just looked at me like deer in the headlights. All totally appropriate responses, by the way. I judged no one, and most importantly, I was not judging myself. I just let it all hang out. They brought food, and flowers, and money for a service, and giant bags of paper products, and all manner of other things. People brought homeopathic remedies, and wine and liquor, and slipped Xanax into my palm. Apparently I was living through a situation folks thought needed some numbing. But I was already numb.
People hugged me, and said something, or didn’t. I thanked them all profusely for having the courage to come. I cried upon greeting each person, but then was able to pull it back together for a spell. I remember saying varying versions of:
- I cannot believe this. It does not seem real.
- How am I ever going to get the image of her blue face out of my mind? I cannot get it out of my mind, and I don’t know how I can survive this constant image. I feel like it is going to kill me.
- She was fine. Then, she was dead. How can that be?
- I feel so guilty. I just feel so guilty. I should have……I should have been there so she didn’t die.
I had toned down my refrains from the previous night, because, well, I guess there were just too many people there, and I saved the real guilty talk for my close friends. I wasn’t sure if people were judging me. I mostly didn’t care, but I didn’t want to open the door to it. I also told funny stories about Alice, trying to keep the good memories close to me. A couple of times, while telling a funny story of Alice, I would suddenly look over to find someone staring at me with their mouth agape. It was not clear whether this was because I was laughing through my tears or because they were just stunned in general. Later, a friend told me she had looked at me this way because she could not believe I was standing, much less entertaining.
I guess I didn’t think of it as entertaining, but I suppose I was. I don’t think I sat all day. I milled about thanking people, sharing with people, laughing some, and crying some. At one point Bubba asked me if I was okay with all of those people. I said that I was, and that we should let them come while I could take it, because I had no idea how I would feel the next day. This was a moment of great clarity, because I was definitely not in the mood Thursday.
My mother and stepfather Terry arrived that afternoon as well. Again, it was horrific to see the pain on the faces of the grandparents. It makes me sick to think of it to this day. They were a bit shocked by the number of people in our house. They could not believe we had such an outpouring of support in such a short time. It was shocking, I suppose. Not everyone had even been told yet, and there were easily 100 people through my door that day. Grace was walking around telling people that “Alice died. The doctor can’t help you when you are already died. NO ONE can help you when you are already died,” which was causing people to erupt into tears.
Some relatives called, and I talked to my Uncle Bobby for a bit. He just kept saying what basically everyone was saying, “I don’t know what to say. It does not get worse than this. There is nothing worse than this.” I can’t count how many people said versions of this to me. I appreciated and understood their sentiments, but the idea of it made me as nervous as whore in church. We had been through a heck of a lot of other difficult things in the past 5 years, and I didn’t want to invite more trouble. I begged people not to say that. And I will now say it to you, the reader:
Please do not throw up challenges to the Heavens on my behalf. I can think of worse things. I can. This is horrific, but at least she died peacefully, and not cowered in the corner of her classroom because some maniac went on a shooting spree. At least I knew where she was, unlike some parents who don’t know where their child is, or whether they are dead or alive. This is big. But it could be worse, and thank God it wasn’t. Thank God Grace wasn’t home, for instance. And, Alice, she will never know pain. She will never have her heart broken, or break a heart. No one will ever make fun of her. She will never know that the banking industry fucked up the entire global economy, and no one seems to care. All she knew was love, and blankies, and binkies, and trains, and Elmo, and songs, and her sister, and her family, and her caretakers. All she knew was love.
And with this realization, my healing began. Baby steps, to be sure. But, it was a start.
Around this time, the coroner called with the initial findings. Someone else took the call. I was still terrified that she suffocated, or that her death was somehow preventable, leaving me at fault. The coroner had found nothing, however. Nothing. Not one. Single. Thing. They were going to run tests whose results could take weeks and months to come back, but they did not expect to find anything. As of this writing, we still await the final report. I suppose I felt somewhat better that they had not found she had suffocated, but I was still just absolutely reeling with guilt.
At some point, Clara came up to me and said she Bubba and my mother were concerned about my complete lack of sleep. It occurred to me that there had been a backyard meeting about this. They contacted my doctor and arranged for a phone interview so get me a non-narcotic sleep aid so I could sleep that night. This all seemed a bit premature and unnecessary to me, but they weren’t backing down. So, I said yes.
While I milled about visiting, I found that my friend Alison was doing my laundry. I am a little, okay, a lot, OCD about my laundry, so tried to beg off, but she wasn’t having it, and I realized that it was likely to be awhile before I got to it. So, I said yes. Rey was booking plane tickets. Lynn and Betsy were colluding with Bubba and Stacy about what to do with the money coming in. A client of mine took it upon herself to set up a Memorial Fund. She just did it, so I didn’t even have the chance to say yes. Clara was working the doctor. Jon helped and then went home to care for their kids so that Clara could stay with me. Janet was working food, which was quickly becoming quite a thing to manage as we were running out of space. Someone turned the playroom into a serving area. Jen C. and Dawn were helping everyone out. Mark quietly brought tables and chairs over and put them in the back yard. My parents were all shocked at the level of organization already in place. All of the aforementioned people did so much more, but I was totally out of the loop, and to this day I am not sure exactly who did what. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all of those people for all they did for me.
Later in the afternoon more friends came by. Chrislie and Tommy, parents of Grace’s best buddy Elle, came by. They loved Alice so. Fran came by, and brought a giant bottle of my favorite vodka, as well as coconut water, knowing I’d be dehydrated. Fran wanted to even out her hand I guess. Eddie and Kristen, parents of Grace’s great buddy Sophie came by. I didn’t even know they knew. They saw Grace having a hard time, and drove all the way back to the valley to get Sophie so that Grace would have a playmate. These are some fine, fine friends.
Ex-boyfriend Michael came by. Pamela came by with her baby girl, who I held, and Rachel, who had lost her girl that was Alice’s age. I could not believe Rachel or Pamela had the strength to be here. I still can’t. Rachel has been a wonderful friend in the aftermath of this, which is astounding, considering she had gone through the same thing only recently.
So many friends came by in a never-ending stream. So many calls and texts came through, in a never-ending stream. Calls from family, former boyfriends, current and former students, former bosses, current and former clients, former classmates, former neighbors and teachers, and just a shocking number of people. People offering to do anything, anything at all that I wanted them to do. My friend Crista told me she’d do literally anything, but that if it were illegal, just let her know in advance so she could get bail money ready. Crista is a love. My friend Kim called to let me know that she’d told my great friend Ramsay, who lives in Austin now, and that he bought a plane ticket to get here immediately. Again, I have some fabulous friends.
We experienced all of this outpouring of love, and we had still we had only called inner-circle people. But word gets around fast when an adorable two-year-old dies for no reason. Rey had told me to stay off Facebook. I did. I didn’t have time to do that anyway.
Food was placed out and people kept coming. My friend Big Mike brought me a meatball pie. People brought all manner of things, and they came late into the night. I was especially touched when my friends Rob and Rhonda showed up. I’ve known Rob since the early 90s when we both lived in Chicago. He and his wife Rhonda own a wonderful restaurant here in LA that they run themselves. They take about three days off a year. But they came to me that Wednesday night. They came, and I cried. I knew they didn’t leave work for nothing.
Near the end of the night, a bunch of us sat around talking. My parents had gone to the places they were staying. My eyes were so red it looked like someone put food coloring in them. I was so dehydrated that my tongue was sore and it hurt to eat. Eventually, my head kind of fell to the side and I felt like someone had let all my air out. This must have been visible, because everyone immediately became very quiet and began to move out. I think Clara spent the night that night. No one said anything to me, but it was clear that a sleepover schedule had been arranged. No one trusted me to be alone at this point. Nor should they have. I put on a decent game face that day, but those in my inner circle knew I was still paralyzed with guilt. Still, I knew I had to go on for my darling Grace. And, for all of these people that were clearly there to lift me up.
I was given my prescription for Trazodone, and instructed how to use it. And then, I tried to sleep.