Nurses came in to tell us they were going to need the room, so they were going to move us to another one where we could spend as much time with Catherine as we’d like. I remember thinking how nice that was and at the same time thinking, “Of course they need the room – they can’t just wait around for us.” Little did I know that that would be one of thousands, if not millions, of competing thoughts that were in store for me. Some bubbled up with cynicism; some with ache, some with unwavering hope, some with love, some with anger, some with confusion, some with dismay… the list goes on and on.
That meant our next stop was room 12 – my favorite number and Brian’s. Catherine died in room 8. Sarah waited in room 7 – the number for perfection and completeness. And we said goodbye in room 12. Brian immediately wanted to hold her. He treated her as if she were alive. He talked to her and covered her up and made sure she wasn’t cold. “This all looks so normal,” I said at some point to someone. “We’ve held her a million times when she’s sleeping or out of surgery and she looks just like this.” I don’t think I ever said it out loud, but the implication was desperately waiting under the surface… “Are we sure she’s not alive?” I wondered. Maybe she was. I had to keep the hope suppressed, though. It kept wanting to fly up and carry me away, only this time there was nowhere to carry me.
I finally determined that I wanted to hold her. She held much easier than she had in life. She didn’t resist or arch or push back with her own will. Instead, she snuggled. She curled. She fit exactly in the little pockets of my body that ached to have her fill. I’m so glad I held her. I wish I could still hold her. I wish I had held her more when she was alive. That was usually Brian’s role. He always held her best and she always loved to be in his arms. I think on that day, she liked being in my arms, too.
I imagine her spirit floating above us like on the movies where they talk about near-death experiences. I imagine her watching us hold her and telling her how much we loved her and hearing me hum Brahms’s lullaby – the same one I’d hummed since the day she was born and nearly every single day in the NICU.
Sometime – I can’t recall exactly when – the hospital chaplain showed up. He looked like Santa Claus. He had a fluffy white beard and I thought, “Wow, Sarah gets a visit from Santa Claus!” Since it was 20 days before Christmas, it made sense. Santa does visit kids in the hospital before Christmas. He said a nice prayer with us, expressed his regret that he hadn’t gotten there sooner, and we changed rooms for him to meet Sarah. I think I asked her, “Who does he look like?” How could it be that Brian was holding dead Catherine’s body a few rooms over and I was talking with Sarah about Santa Claus? Does that even make sense? Truth is that none of this makes sense. None of it! So, if the man looked like Santa Claus and I wanted to think of it that way, then so be it.
I kept bouncing back and forth between Sarah’s room and Catherine’s room. I was used to that. That seemed normal. I’ve balanced the two of them for 10 years, so that felt productive and comfortable and safe. Plus, my doctor friend was hanging out with Sarah and that helped a lot. Her brother had died when she was young, so she knew what Sarah might be experiencing. She gave her some wise perspective, which she shared with me so I’d know.
“I told her she’s going to feel sad at times and she’s going to feel happy at times and both are OK. And you don’t need to feel guilty for feeling happy. It’s OK to feel happy, too,” she explained.
I’ve tried to hold onto those words for myself, actually. It’s hard. I feel incredibly guilty during the little moments where I start to feel happiness eek into my soul. For example, Sarah sang in her first solo performance at a restaurant the day after Catherine’s memorial service. She was really good. I was impressed she was able to get up there and pull it off given her lack of sleep and all the stress surrounding her. I was proud of her. And in awe, frankly. And I felt a little happy about it. As soon as I recognized it as happy, though, I felt guilt put a lid on it and push it away. “How can I be out watching Sarah in a restaurant when Catherine died less than 2 week ago?” Honestly, that feeling comes up all the time and it feels worse than most of the feelings I have right now.
Eventually, during all the bouncing back and forth, my priest showed up. I had texted her when we were in the ambulance, and I guess she decided she needed to come. She was a welcome presence and she anointed Catherine which felt safe. I was holding Catherine when she leaned over to give me a hug and my ear got pressed against her chest. All I could hear was her heartbeat, loud and strong. This sound – or really absence of sound – juxtaposed the silence I had heard when I listened to Catherine’s chest to convince myself she was no longer alive. It was too much. I broke down into the loudest, strongest tears I had had in the moments since I had been told they were going to stop CPR. Catherine didn’t have a heartbeat any more. This woman did. And that was the difference in the rest of my life. That was the moment when I think it actually first really hit me. My 14-year-old baby was dead.