Other than when I made the three calls, this was basically the first time I’d let go of Alice since she was declared dead. My head was swimming. I felt ill. I was breathless. I wanted to die. And that is not merely a saying. I really wondered how I was going to find a will to live, because mine left with Alice. I was not scared by this feeling. It was just there, clear and simple.
I had been cradling Alice for probably an hour, her head above her heart, so she would no longer be blue when the first loved one arrived. The rigor was also no longer present by this point. I did not want anyone else to see her that way. I would not wish it on anyone. Anyone. Not even the worst person in the world.
The events after this point are even blurrier than the ones I described in Part 1. In part, I am sure that this was because I no longer had to go it alone. Adding to the blur was the fact my proverbial record seemed to be skipping. I was still wailing variations of:
▪ It’s all my fault!
▪ I should have checked on her all the time!
▪ I should not have taken a nap!
▪ But she just had her birthday! All of her birthday stuff is still up!
▪ What kind of mother does not protect her sleeping child?!
It was all I could think of to say. When I wasn’t saying one of those things, I was silent. I was not in a good place.
At some point, we were informed the officers were going back to see her room, but that this was only to help us. “Oh, my God, they think I killed her!” I cried. I can’t recall what they said to me, only that I felt reassured that no one thought I killed her; this was protocol, and the officers were clearly not any happier about it than I was. It occurred to me that there was a pillow in her bed, and books, and I started to fear she had suffocated. Fear, is perhaps the wrong word. I was filled with a sensation of horror and paralyzing guilt too large to describe. The guilt I felt was so overpowering that to this day, I don’t know how I made it past the first night.
There were still firemen and officers milling about. Quietly. They were giving me a wide berth. They were oh so respectful.
At some point, we were informed that “the child’s godfather” was here. Bubba had arrived, but they weren’t going to let him in until we’d spoken to the coroner, who had not yet arrived. Around this time, I heard the voices of elderly female neighbors outside my window. They were wailing, “Lord, have mercy! Lord, have mercy on this house and family! Lord, have mercy!” This wailing and the fact that Bubba had arrived reminded me that whatever scene was unfolding here, there was a whole additional scene happening outside. That fact hadn’t occurred to me yet. This was the beginning of my understanding that this was going to be horrible for more people than just our family unit. I never did look outside. I couldn’t.
At some point I sat on the couch with Alice. I sat there holding her, cooing over her, whispering to her, and staring at her for quite a while. We were largely left alone for this time period, and I held her much of the night. I did not want to let go. We had maybe two hours with her before the coroner arrived. I hoped they wouldn’t come. I hoped this was a terrible, hideous nightmare from which I would wake up. While whispering to her, I lifted up her eyelids because I wanted to see her eyes, her beautiful, little hazel eyes. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do so ever again, and I was correct. Sitting there, that Tuesday night, was the last time I ever saw my baby’s eyes. Her signature twinkle was not there. My baby as I knew her was not there. Seeing her eyes stare blankly off was difficult. Gut-wrenching. But, it ushered in the fact that THIS. WAS. REAL. In fact, this was perhaps the realest thing that has ever happened to me, and I knew I was forever changed. It was evident, right there, looking at her lifeless eyes, that the old Melissa was gone forever. I did not know this new Melissa, but I was meeting her whether I wanted to or not.
As it turns out, you mourn not only your child, but the “you” that you used to be minutes before, and yet know is no longer possible. You mourn for the death of the family unit as you once knew it. You mourn for your husband, your daughter, your parents, your siblings, your friends, the first responders, and everyone else you know that will be shattered. You mourn for your best friends who just found out they were pregnant with twins, knowing that this will likely result in some (additional) anxiety once their kids arrive. You mourn for every parent that ever lost a child. And you just keep sitting there, rocking your dead baby, mourning for her and for everyone, staring at her lifeless eyes, trying to wrap your head around this giant change in your life.
It’s-not-just-a-cliche #1: Your life really can change irreversibly in one second.
And it is probably a good thing that we rarely know that is coming, or we would surely screw it up.
It suddenly occurred to me that often people soil themselves when they die, and so we thought of changing her diaper before the coroner got here. There was no need, however; she was totally dry. I was shocked. Then, sickened. She must have been gone awhile, or she would have been at least a little wet. I had to put this out of my mind in order to keep going.
At some point, a fireman told a loved one that Alice had most likely been dead at least an hour. No one told me this at that time, which was good thinking on all of their parts. That knowledge, at that point, would have driven me over the edge. I owe a debt of gratitude to the first responders and my inner circle for assessing the situation well enough to know that this information, was not going to be helpful to me that night, to say the least.
At some point in this period, we called our parents. I distinctly remember calling them; I know where I sat, what I was wearing, and every visual detail, but I can’t remember what I said to them. I think I just blurted it out. I remember my stepdad saying “What? What? What did you say? What? Let me get your mother.” Nearly everyone had the same reaction. They had a lot of questions, and I had no answers. Telling the grandparents was a whole new heartbreak. It makes my stomach hurt just typing this. It breaks my heart all over again.
I asked my parents to call my brother and my stepsiblings. I could not go through another phone call. I could not tell my sweet brother. We love each other’s kids like our own, and I just could not tell him myself. Our families had just spent a week together in Flagstaff with my dad, his wife, our stepsiblings and their kids. It was idyllic. The kids, ages two to fifteen, all ran around together every night, playing hide-and-seek, and miniature golf (or “magical golf,” as Grace calls it). The kids had such great quality time with their cousins, and for this, I will be forever grateful.
At some point, one of the fire captains knelt down next to me in front of the couch, and began to speak to me in a very quiet, soothing voice. I have no idea what he said, because I was entranced by his mellifluous voice as well as his appearance. He looked like an Irish priest. He acted like a priest. He was so soothing, it did not even matter to me what he said, I just let myself stare and be soothed for a moment. As he was wrapping up, I began to hear his words, “……if there is anything you need at all, anything you need at all, do not hesitate to call. My name is Captain Morgan, and we are all here for you.” I looked at his badge and confirmed that it said Captain Morgan.
Some female detectives arrived. I was introduced, and then they went in to look in the girls’ room. They came back in rather quickly, and quietly sat at my dining table. I was told that they would sit in on my interview with the coroner so that I did not have to verbalize the story more than once, which was unbelievably thoughtful. To this day, I don’t mind sharing the information at all, not even the slightest bit. But I generally don’t feel like I have enough breath with which to tell the story. So, I write instead.
The coroner, a wonderful woman named Denise, finally arrived. Denise is the one that comes in any case that involves a child. Denise deserves a medal—what a gut-wrenching job. I can’t even imagine. She gave Alice a cursory look, and then she and one of the two female detectives sat in chairs in front of us on the couch to get the interview started. The other detective sat at the piano, and often had to turn to look out of the window. Denise conducted the interview; I don’t recall the detective saying a single word. She asked what medication I’d given her, and asked to take them with her so they could test them for possible contamination. This set off a whole new string of guilt. Had I accidentally given her too much? Was it tainted? Should I have waited until her fever went over 102? And, then, back to the original: I should not have taken a nap. I should have checked on her more. The guilt was a demon, and it was consuming me alive.
Denise then asked about some medical history, and how Alice appeared earlier in the day. It occurred to me that I had those videos of her playing that morning, and showed them to the ladies. They watched with interest, and then Denise turned to look me in the eyes and asked, “What do you think they would have done if you took this child to the ER today? Or even just the doctor?”
“They would have sent me home and told me to give her fluids,” I responded.
“That’s right,” said Denise. “They would have sent you home, because this kid was clearly not sick enough to sound any alarms. There is nothing you could have done.
Now, I still thought this was utter bullshit at that point—I was SURE there was something I could have done—but I did give her some props for knowing, without my saying a word about it to her yet, that I was consumed with guilt. She went on to say that she wanted us to be prepared for the fact that they might not find a cause of death. She could just tell by looking and listening, I guess. There were no obvious signs of trauma or injury, she had not appeared especially sick that morning, blah, blah, blah. She told us about SUDC (Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood), and that she thought Alice might be a rare case. She said she’d only had one other case like this before, a family from earlier that year. “A family that we know,” I told her. She looked at us with utter shock. Denise and I sat and stared at each other. The chances of knowing someone else who suffered the horror that is SUDC is pretty damn low.
There was going to have to be an autopsy. On my baby. On my Alice. Alice, was going to the coroners office that night, instead of taking a walk around the corner, as she generally did on Tuesday nights.
I reflected on Rachel, the friend of my friend Pamela that had lost her 19-month-old, and remembered that I had wondered how she could even make toast. Or, how she did anything at all,really. And then I realized that I was going to have to learn how to make toast again. In a blink of an eye, I had joined a terrible club: the club of mothers that lose children. I was in a state of utter shock that this event was not only now a part of my life’s story, but very likely THE pivotal event in my life’s story. I was now a mother that had lost a child. To this day, I can hardly believe it.
After the interview, they asked me to step into the other room so they could examine her and take pictures. This did not take long, but it was excruciating nonetheless. I knew my final moments with her were coming to a close, and this was a sickening feeling.
Denise told us that the doctor would conduct the autopsy first thing in the morning the next day, Wednesday. She told us that “Alice would be ready to be picked up” by a funeral director probably Wednesday afternoon, Thursday morning at the latest. We were assured that she could stay there for as long as two weeks if we needed the time to get her arrangements in order. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I think I made it pretty clear that while we had not even the slightest clue what would be doing, I did not want her at the Coroner’s office even one second longer than was necessary. Denise told us that while she was not allowed to make referrals, but that after speaking to our family, she thought we might explore a “green” funeral director for Alice. I have to hand it to Denise, she was in our house for probably less than an hour, but she had our number.
Later, we found a card for Natural Grace Funerals, among the pile of all of the cards from policemen, detectives, firemen, coroner’s, and grief groups. This would turn out to be one of the beautiful parts of the horrible aftermath.
Bubba and his husband Rey were finally allowed inside, and they immediately sat by us on the couch. I asked if they wanted to hold her, and they did. Something about handing your deceased daughter over to your shocked friends makes the reality of the unfolding events really sink in. They cried. I kept crying that it was all my fault. And they kept assuring me that it was not.
I asked Bubba what time he’d arrived, and he said he’d been outside for maybe two hours. “Oh my God, then you probably heard me wailing,” I cried. He burst into tears and said, “I DID! I DID! And I wanted to break the door down and come in here to hold you, but they wouldn’t let me!”
These, are beautiful friends, folks. Bubba was directly beside me when I gave birth to Alice, and he was there holding me when she died. Rey came to the hospital with champagne and hugs immediately after she was born, and he was also here to hug me when I had to say goodbye. I am so lucky to have such friends in this life.
Denise walked outside so that we could say our goodbyes to Alice in peace. She suggested that we send her off with her blankie, and other personal items if we wished, but she handed me back one blankie in particular. “She died on this blanket. You should keep it.” And I did. It has some of her bodily fluids on it, but I will never wash it. I keep it safe in my room and pull it out from time to time, when I need to feel close to Alice.
I felt time speed up. I did not want Alice to go, to go to the damn LA County Coroner’s office. I have been to the LA County Coroner’s office. This is no place you want your baby to go, I assure you. I can’t recall what we did exactly in these last moments. I was just a whir of emotions. I do know that we held her. I do know that I cried a bit at this point. Other than that, I have no recollection of what transpired.
Denise came back in to tell us “it was time,” and that we should step out of the room for a moment. When we came back in my baby was wrapped in a white sheet, lying on the couch. I lost it. Denise took Alice out to the Coroner’s car, a white sedan. I was discouraged from following. Someone, I do not recall who, was trying to get me back in the house. I insisted on at least standing on the porch, and I watched as Denise put my baby in her car. I saw the remaining officers in my yard. I saw my sweet next-door neighbor Kaye bawling in my yard. I could not believe this was fucking happening.
I noticed that they put Alice in a car seat, just like an alive baby. This made me cry, but for some reason gave me some relief. Thank God they did not put her in a hearse. I would have come unhinged. The officers were leaving now, and asked if we wanted to talk to volunteer grief counselors that were waiting on our lawn, but not before Kaye ran up and gave me the biggest hug you can imagine. She said she was not going to stay, but she had been prepared to wait all night, if necessary, to simply give me a hug. She was sobbing, and kept saying she was sorry. She LOVES my girls. She lives with her elderly father next door, and they had been so excited that Alice had recently begun to say their names. My heart broke again.
The grief counselors were sweet, but I mainly just stared at them. I was shell-shocked. I wanted to talk to Rey and Bubba. I wanted to figure out what we were going to do to get Alice out of the Coroner’s office ASAP. I wanted to figure out what the hell we were going to tell Grace. Oh my God, how do you explain this to a four-year-old?
At some point, I began to list people that needed to be called, and Bubba and Rey began making the calls for me. Again, these are some amazing friends. We looked up advice on how to talk to a pre-school child about the unexpected death of a sibling. It was all, well, surreal. There is no other word for it, really.
Some of my clients that are my parents’ ages were the first to be called. Lynn is like another mother to me, and my kids both went with me to her house for workouts before they started pre-school. She liked me to bring them, because, well, she is not what you would call my most enthusiastic student. I’ve trained her, her daughter Betsy, and the whole family at some point, for over 15 years, so let’s face it, the lack of enthusiasm is somewhat of a game, but a game we both clearly enjoy. We are simpatico. My girls adore(d) her, and so do I. She is a very important person in my life. She arrived shortly after getting the call, and I will be forever grateful. Long-time clients/friends/surrogate-local-grandparents Janet and Mark came too. I adore them both. Jen C, our awesome neighbor and the mother of Alice’s beloved buddy Aria, ran over as well. She sat down for a second, and when we mentioned funeral home, she burst into tears and ran into the bathroom. Everyone was trying not to cry in front of me, and I’ll tell you what I told them:
I do not want you to be “strong” for me. I want you to be real for me. First of all, real strength does not equal no tears. That our society pushes this agenda, especially on young boys, galls me to no end. We teach young kids, especially young boys, to “suck it up,” and then wonder why half of marriages end in divorce and wonder why “my husband won’t talk to me about his feelings.” It’s no mystery why this is. Can we just stop that nonsense already? It takes cojones to have your emotions and to deal with them accordingly. But I digress. Secondly, another person crying, or not crying, has no bearing whatsoever on my likelihood to cry. My daughter died for no apparent reason; I am gonna cry. I would have to be mentally ill NOT to cry. If you feel like crying about it too, go for it. You can not possibly make this worse for me, no matter what you do or do not do. In fact, I have found it helpful to see other people cry. It helps me see that my daughter’s life had value beyond the walls of our house. It helped me see that, yes, this really is as terrible as it seems. It helped me feel loved and supported. That said, I also felt loved and supported by people who did not cry in front of me, so do what you will. I love you all the same whether you cry or not.
Shortly after the grief counselors left and Janet and Mark arrived, Bubba pulled out some vodka left over from a party and asked if I wanted a drink. This had not occurred to me. In fact, it was probably 8:30 or 9 p.m. by this time, and it occurred to me that I had not eaten, gone to the restroom, or honored any other bodily needs since before noon. I was unsure what the drinking protocol was here, or if I even wanted a drink. “Should I?” I asked. Janet and Bubba replied “Yes” in unison, and Mark silently nodded, as is his way. I sipped on a little through the night. Did it help? I don’t know. Maybe? My nervous system was pretty fried, so it’s hard to tell what helped and what didn’t.
Eventually everyone left but Bubba. We discussed the amazing firemen and police officers, and he asked if I remembered the names of the key officers and firemen. I did. There was Captain Trujillo and Captain Morgan. Captain Morgan. Really? I became a little undone. Someone has to give that guy a promotion or a name change, because his having the name Captain Morgan was really screwing up my “grieving process.” There was no room in my traumatized brain for the fact that my fire Captain shared a name with a popular brand of rum. This was no time to laugh, but how can you not? Reality had just become ridiculous. By the way, I have to put “grieving process” in quotes, because even that night, the idea that I was considered to have a “grieving process” made me want to do the Archie Bunker raspberry. I loathe that term. I do. I have no idea why I loathe it, but there it is, nonetheless.
Bubba spent the night, and in doing so, probably saved my life. Eventually he fell asleep, but I knew there was no way I could go to sleep. My eyes were wired open. I went outside, sat on the porch, and called my friend Paul in the UK, knowing it was morning for him. I had just sent him Alice’s videos right before she died, and this was going to be quite a shocking development since I last chatted with him a few hours ago. He was so wonderfully supportive, and we spoke for quite awhile. Then, I sat and stared and marveled at the quiet night.
It occurred to me that I needed to tell my friend Pamela myself (Pamela’s friend and neighbor Rachel was the gal who lost her young daughter earlier in the year). Pamela and her family had just been to Alice’s birthday party. I knew Pamela should hear this from me, because this was going to be quite a shock. She would surely think it was a horrible joke if she were to hear it from someone else. The chances of toddler crib death happening to two people that you know, and know very well, are probably next to nil. It was late, and Pamela has an infant and a toddler, so I sent her an email and asked her to call me when she woke up to nurse. I hated, hated, hated to have to tell her. She was understandably shocked, horrified, and just devastated, really.
Because of the hour and time difference, I also sent an email to Grace’s godmother Jen Rooney Cianci to call me when she woke up. Alice’s godmother Catie was local, so she was called that night, but we hadn’t reached her. Both of these ladies had received video clips that day. I could not believe all of those folks were probably looking at those clips while that baby lay dead. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it.
I went in to the girls’ room, lit a candle, and tried to meditate. I tried to feel Alice. My heart rate came down a bit, but I could not feel her. In fact, this house had never, ever felt so empty. This was probably the point that it really hit me: She. Is. Gone. And, she is not coming back home.
I went outside and paced and thought of what to say to Grace. I thought of who needed to be called. I did mental notes, and became overwhelmed. My phone rang several times that night/early morning, but I could not answer for the most part. I just couldn’t speak of it again; I couldn’t say that she was dead and that we didn’t know why again. Nevertheless, I thank all of the family and friends that did reach out to me that night. I couldn’t speak, but I did feel your love, and it helped. It really did. Early that morning, Jen Rooney Cianci called. She had the same reaction as everyone else. “What? What did you say? What? What? NO!!!” Heart wrenching.
I went back out and sat in the yard and just stared. As I sat there, I began to be aware of my body. It felt very strange. I felt like my head weighed 700 pounds and was on a stake that went down into where my body should have been. I felt crushed under the weight of my head. But I couldn’t really feel my body. I could see my arms and legs moving, but I could not feel them. It felt like they were floating away. It was one of the most profoundly bizarre feelings that I have ever had.
I could see the first glimpses of sunlight breaking and realized that I had already moved past the day my baby died. I remembered having a similar thought the day after she was born, but that was a much happier occasion. I was SO HAPPY in the days after Alice was born. I was literally bursting with love. And now, I still had all that love, but it was mixed up with shock and intense grief.
I went back inside to face the aftermath that would unfold that Wednesday morning.