Last Days (Sasha)

January 25, 2013
On a winter Friday, with snow falling lightly in the dark, I left work and took the bus to pick up Delphinium at the afterschool program at her school.  The two of us walked through Fort Independence Park, enjoying the fall of the snow and catching flakes in our mouths as we hustled to get Magnolia before 6.  We ascended the stairs and rang the doorbell, and when Altagracia opened the door, Magnolia was standing behind her grinning, pleased that we were there to get her.  I put on her coat and hat, grabbed the bag with her dirty clothes, and we all wished each other a good weekend.  As always, Magnolia and I held hands and went down one step at a time, with Delphinium ahead of us.  At each step, Magnolia turned around to wave and say “Bye!” to Altagracia, sometimes blowing kisses as well.  Altagracia stood in the doorway without a coat, saying “Bye!” at every step, shivering but with a big smile, loving every wave and every kiss.

When we reached the bottom and said our last goodbye to Altagracia, we started on our way up the block to our house.  Delphinium stomped footprints into the thin layer of snow, and Magnolia happily followed suit.  She let go of my hand as she experimented with making marks in the snow and pointing out the marks that Delphinium and I were making.  Delphinium started to drag her feet through the snow, and Magnolia was thrilled with the idea, dragging her own feet to make lanes through the snow.  And so we walked up the block, the two of them dragging through the snow and admiring their marks, and me, so pleased with my daughters and so happy to be a part of the scene.

Delphinium tired of the slow pace, and complained that she wanted to get home more quickly.  But Magnolia was committed to the slow dragging, so Delphinium sped up, and ran ahead to go inside our front yard, to accumulate snow in her gloved hands.  When we caught up, Magnolia began picking up snow and squeezing it in her ungloved hands.  Pretty soon, she realized how freezing cold her hands were, and started to cry.  It was then that it really sunk in for me that she had so little experience with snow, having been through only one significant snow last winter, before she was walking, and only the remains of snow on the ground this Christmastime in Denver.  She knew a lot about the feel of dirt and sand and water, but hadn’t learned how it feels when you squeeze snow in your bare hands.

I took Magnolia inside and worked on calming her, while Delphinium lingered on the stoop.  I took off Magnolia’s coat, hat, and boots as she cried, then picked her up and carried her around the living room on my hip, warming her cold hands in mine.  Once she had calmed down and I mentioned dinner, she happily climbed up into her high chair, in the independent and athletic way she had developed, and waited to be fed.  I heated up rice and beans for the three of us (Kendra was out with a friend), and we ate and chatted.  Delphinium and I each shared something we’re grateful for, as our family does every night, and mine was about being grateful for a nice snowy walk home together with the two of them.

I gave them a “sister bath” after dinner, then did the staggered bedtime, first putting Magnolia to bed while Delphinium took care of herself.   I dried Magnolia off in her room, put on her diaper, pajamas, and sleepsack, then cozied up with her on my lap on the chair and read lots of books: Feast for Ten, Barnyard Dance, Subway, and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt.  She followed along intently, turning the pages and exclaiming the words she knew: “Beyuh!” “Duck!” “Eat!”  Afterwards, I gave her a big hug and placed her down in her crib for songs and  “I love you”s, before heading to our room where Delphinium was waiting with books of her own.

January 26, 2013
The next morning, Magnolia woke up first, around 7:45, and I went and got her and brought her into our room before she woke Delphinium up, though Delphinium was already stirring when we walked out.  Kendra got herself ready while Magnolia waited with me, anxious to go downstairs.  Saturday was my morning to sleep late and Sunday was Kendra’s, so I went back to sleep.  When Kendra came to get me up in the late morning, she was frustrated with Delphinium, but full of pleasure from the hour and a half she spent with Magnolia while Delphinium spent time alone in her room.  She glowed while she told me how wonderful it had been to sit there and have Magnolia climb all over her, just having a great time together.

That afternoon, Delphinium and Magnolia stayed with a babysitter while Kendra and I went on a rare daytime date.  We took the subway to Queens and spent our brunch imagining a future sabbatical year for our family.  A colleague was applying for overseas teaching positions, and it got us thinking about spending a year somewhere.  So we discussed all kinds of possibilities, shared about articles we’d read and things people had told us, conjectured about what ages would be best for our kids to spend a year somewhere else.  We thought maybe 9 and 13 or 10 and 14, imagined what their relationship would be then, what our family dynamics would be like.

Afterwards, we went to a No Longer Empty exhibition together at the Clock Tower in Long Island City, reveling in the opportunity to see art and explore a fascinating space on our own, while planning out what parts of the exhibition would work for Delphinium and which for Magnolia when we returned.  We picked up a calendar, and made a plan to return with them for a family art day.

When we arrived home, Kendra went to our room to do some school work and I started preparing dinner.  Delphinium and Magnolia hung out in their room, and I listened to the sounds of them bouncing on Delphinium’s bed as I got food together.  A cry came from Magnolia, and she had bumped her head and wanted to be picked up.  I carried her downstairs, and she settled down quickly and was ready for dinner.  I ate leftovers with the kids: Magnolia picked at the pizza, but was mostly filled up from a post-nap lunch, and preferred to eat some tomatoes and grapes instead.

After dinner, as I cleared the table, I saw that both kids were occupied contentedly in the living room, with Magnolia reading to herself and Delphinium singing a song she was making up as she went.  Watching Magnolia read Down by the Bay on her own, I thought about how frequently Kendra and I had talked about Magnolia’s recently-developed independent reading life, and I went to get the video camera to record it.  She was so focused on her reading that she hardly looked up as she read out the final words of each phrase: “Bay… Go... Home…”

So pleased to have captured the moment, I told Magnolia it was time to go up to bed.  I picked her up and carried her up the stairs, changing her diaper and getting her dressed for bed in her room.  We read many books, and slowly since she turned back to previous pages, wanted to point out the connections she was making.  I put her in her crib and sang, “Hey Soul Sister,” then she asked for “Mo!” so I sang part of “40 Dogs (Like Romeo and Juliet).”  Those two songs, along with “The Boxer,” were the special songs I had for her since she was a few weeks old, which I had used to soothe her in my arms countless times and sang her every night at bedtime.  As I headed out of the room, I said, “Good night.  I love you,” and she replied, “I love you,” as she had recently learned to do.

Kendra and I cozied up to watch a movie that night, but we were interrupted around 11:45 by Magnolia howling insistently.  It was her angry cat cry that meant something was really wrong,  Kendra went up to check.  When Kendra entered the room, Magnolia pointed to her bottom and said, “Poo. Hurt.”  Kendra brought her downstairs to change her, and she was still upset and crying, due to her poo irritating the bad diaper rash that she had.  I tried to distract her as Kendra changed her diaper and put soothing cream on her bottom, but she remained mildly upset.  When we asked if she wanted to hold onto a toy, or wanted me to sing her a song, she grumpily replied, “No. No. No.”

Kendra brought her back upstairs and her mood brightened once she was on her mama’s lap reading.  Kendra lingered a long time to read book after book, with Magnolia turning pages back and forth to point things out and Delphinium sleeping peacefully through it all.  Kendra put Magnolia in her crib and sang to her while rubbing her back, but Magnolia interrupted her in the middle of the second song and said, “Bye bye!”  So a little past midnight, Kendra blew her a kiss, said "I love yous" and said good night.

Kendra returned to me with a smile on her face, apologizing for how long she’d stayed away and beaming about how wonderful it was to cozy up with Magnolia and read books, how she had read more than she’d intended because she just didn’t want it to end.  We cuddled up together sharing our appreciation of her before we restarted the movie.

January 27, 2013
The next morning, I was planning to get up with the kids while Kendra slept late, and Delphinium and I were going to make waffles, as we do every Sunday.  Magnolia was a big fan of Waffle Sunday, and climbed into her chair saying, “Waffo!” the moment she heard anyone mention it, even if we were just beginning to mix the batter.  Afterwards, my sister Elizabeth was going to drop off her daughter Dalia and pick up Delphinium, so that Delphinium and Shoshana could have an older cousin day with their aunts while Dalia and Magnolia could have a younger cousin day with us, a trip to the Bronx Zoo.

In the morning, both kids seemed to be sleeping late, as they often did.  Around 7:40, we heard a lot of rustling on the monitor, which usually meant that Delphinium was awake before Magnolia and was working on a project.  Kendra and I stayed curled up together, enjoying the opportunity to sleep late together and admiring the sounds of Delphinium’s industriousness.

When Delphinium finally came in, she told us that she had been making a zoo for Magnolia.  She had created a zoo scene with plastic animals on their floor, had made a sign that said, “Wakam to the zoo” and had produced zoo passes for Magnolia.  She had put her hand on Magnolia in the crib but Magnolia hadn’t woken up, so she went on working, ready to surprise and excite her little sister with her zoo creations.

We invited Delphinium into bed to cuddle with us, and she asked if we could all spoon each other, which we did.  We all remarked on how cozy it was, and how Magnolia was too restless to enjoy cuddling but would grow into it, and then we’d get to spoon up as a whole family.

After enjoying the coziness, Delphinium and I got up at 8:30 to go get Magnolia and get the day started.  I walked ahead of her into their room and started telling Magnolia that it was time to get up.  I noticed right away that she was face down in the crib, instead of with her head to the side as always, and when I put my hand on her back to wake her up, she didn’t respond.  I shook her back harder, and felt how stiff she was.  Right away, I picked her up and there was resistance as her face was stuck to her blanket.  When I pulled her up and held her at arm’s length, I saw her yellow and purple face and the gunk from her nose and mouth that had stuck her to the blanket, and felt her stiffness.  I screamed for Kendra over and over, as Delphinium, who had been standing at my side, backed away.

Kendra came rushing in, saw the horrible scene, and took Magnolia from me shouting, "Oh God, she's dead! She's just dead."  I ran to my phone and called 911 as we both yelled “Oh my god!”.  Delphinium got her big stuffed hippo and retreated into the hallway, standing in a safe corner away from all the action.

When I told the 911 operator, “I think our daughter is dead!” she told me to perform CPR and I passed the instructions to Kendra.  Kendra kept saying, “It’s too late, she’s already dead!” but I told her to try anyway.  She sucked the liquid out from Magnolia’s nose and mouth, but couldn't pry open her jaw.  There was no response with the CPR.

I rushed to the door to guide the firefighters in, and Kendra carried Magnolia’s body downstairs and laid it on the rug.  When the firefighters saw Magnolia, their faces showed that they knew she was dead.  One of them bent over her body, listened to her chest, inspected her body and said, “I’m sorry."  They all lowered their gazes.

Delphinium had come down with Kendra, and Kendra told me to call Elizabeth to come get her.  I called and said, “You have to come here right away.  Right away!” without being able to say that Magnolia was dead.

After they had checked Magnolia for vital signs and expressed their condolences, we asked if we could hold her.  They said that we could, and Kendra picked her up while we both wept, after a few minutes she passed Magnolia to me and hugged me while I held her.  One of the EMTs gently whispered in Kendra's ear to take care of our other daughter too, so Kendra picked up Delphinium and held her tight. 

We all sat on the couch in shock and sorrow, and Kendra called her mother in Denver to tell her that Magnolia was dead and that she had to get on a flight to New York as soon as possible.  Then Elizabeth came through the door, wild-eyed and needing to know why all the emergency vehicles were outside.  When she saw us holding Magnolia’s dead body, she burst into tears as well.

Delphinium was already dressed and ready to go on her adventure, as she had been since she woke up, but we hadn’t taken a moment with her to deal with any of this.  So I held Magnolia’s body and Kendra took Delphinium upstairs so that she herself could get dressed (she was still in her night gown) and so that they could talk for a moment.  Kendra held Delphinium on her lap and told her that Magnolia was dead.  She explained that her body had stopped working and she wouldn’t be with us again.  It happened that we had put our old and sick dog, Calliope, to sleep twelve days earlier, and had talked with Delphinium about death and its permanence.  At that time, Delphinium cried and Magnolia brought her a tissue to wipe her eyes.  Connecting the two deaths, Delphinium confirmed with Kendra that Magnolia wouldn’t be coming back to us and wouldn’t be living in our home anymore, that that’s what her death meant. 

Meanwhile, I was holding Magnolia’s body on mine, with her head lying on my shoulder, and mixing tears with disbelief.  I paced back and forth with her, as I did so many times when she was younger and I was trying to put her to sleep.  Elizabeth asked to hold her, and she took her for a moment while I called my parents.  To my mother, I was able to say, “Magnolia’s dead.  She died in her sleep last night, and we don’t know why.  I need you to take a cab up here.”  After Delphinium came back downstairs, Elizabeth took her off to spend the day distracted by her cousins.

For the next three hours, there was a stream of firefighters, EMTs, police officers, detectives, and medical examiner investigators filing into our house.  We were grateful that they were willing to let us hold Magnolia’s body for most of that time, first downstairs, then up in her room, and eventually in our room.  The detectives needed us to put her back in her crib for a brief time, to take photos of the scene, but then let us pick her back up.  And for the last stretch of time, we sat on our bed holding her body and crying, with my parents standing silently by.  The detective and the medical examiner investigator asked us necessary questions and we answered them, but everyone left us alone as much as possible.  The collection of police officers down in our dining room all looked very somber and pained, and tried to stay out of the way.

It felt so important to hold her, and so impossible to let go.  She didn’t look like herself, all purple and yellow, and her body was so stiff.  But the weight of her felt right, like so many hundreds of times we had carried her.  Holding her on my shoulder and swaying back and forth, it was possible to feel like it was just her there, that she wasn’t actually dead.

Finally, the moment came when we were told we had to put her body in the crib and the people from the medical examiner’s office would take her away.  We each held her body one last time, and Kendra told me that I needed to put her down and walk away, which we did holding hands and crying.  From our bedroom window, we watched as a worker from the medical examiner’s office carried her body, zipped up in a black body bag, and loaded her onto a shelf in her van, and drove away.

Soon, everyone else cleared out.  We asked my parents to clean up the muddy tracks and other physical evidence of all the people who had filled our house that morning, and we retreated to our bedroom.

And there it was, noon on a Sunday, and our precious daughter was gone.  We had laid in bed a few hours before, looking forward to a nice day, trying to figure out when Magnolia would get her nap in, and imagining with Delphinium the days when all four of us would spoon up happily together.  And then we had gotten up, and our whole life had changed.  Now, a few hours later, our house had emptied, and we were left holding each other, curled up in a ball on our bed, in the middle of the day on a sunny Sunday, shocked that our life had changed so suddenly.  Filled with disbelief and confusion, forced to begin our lives without Magnolia.


Reading to Remember Magnolia

We are asking folks to read together or on their own this weekend to help us remember Magnolia.  She loved books and being read to and we like to think of people cuddling up with their kids or partners, or with a good book on their own to think of her, say her name and share one of her very favorite things. 

Check out the tab above called "Reading to Remember Magnolia" for more about this shared memorial and to see what folks are reading.

The Countdown (Kendra)

I said goodbye to my 3 year old flip phone and bought an iphone on December 29, 2012.  I was excited to have a smartphone and especially to have a camera handy at all times.  I didn't take a million pictures right away, mostly I forgot that I could and had to actively remember that I had a camera.  So, there are only about 30 pictures and videos on my phone before Magnolia's death.

But they comprise a slow motion countdown of sorts.  This whole month we have been obsessed with what we were doing last year.  We look on the calendar, piece together our memories of weekends trying hard to figure out what happened on each day.  We have been really desperate to remember all of those last weeks and days with Magnolia--often writing down what we remember and revising the calendar to include new memories.

Part of it is not wanting to lose anything, which we have struggled with all year.  Sharing memories around the house, consulting the 2012 calendar to see what we were doing the year before, writing down memories, looking through old pictures and trying to recreate what our family felt like before has become a regular part of life around here.  However, the desperation we feel about it this month has so much to do with the end of "last year with Magnolia."

After the 26th of January there will be no more memories of what was happening with Magnolia last year.  The memories will be about the day of her death, preparations for her memorials, the surreal plane ride to Denver without a squirming toddler on my lap, and the long slog through numbness, shock, pain, sadness and slow realization that dominated the beginning of 2013. 

The countdown feels very real to us and Sasha and I are both dreading the one year anniversary and the threshold into another part of our life without Magnolia.  This makes the pictures and videos on my phone feel so precious.  They document the last days of our life as a family of four, the last days of "before" when we knew how nice our life was and were so sure we were lucky and blessed in a million ways.  When we were still so naively happy.

So here is the countdown of memories and images stored on my phone:

December 31, 2012:  D has a lovely little porcelain tea set that Magnolia was beginning to be interested in (very aggressively, interested). D was worried about it being broken, so she sent it to the basement for semi-permanent storage. So last year for Christmas, we got both girls a tin tea set that they really loved. Magnolia spent a bunch of time loading the tray and carrying it all over grandmas house giving tea to anyone who would take it. We celebrated New Year's Eve with Ruth Hart (who loves tea) and D and M had their first "real" tea party with their new set. (The box with the new tea set and other Christmas gifts took a week to mail from Denver, then sat at our school for a couple of weeks before we finally brought it home...after Magnolia's death. So this also turns out to be the last time she played with her new tea set. Procrastination and a sudden, unexpected death were not allies in this case.)

January 9, 2013: D was especially excited about regular access to video and created many reasons to be recorded. These often included props, costumes and special lighting. M really enjoyed these filming events, but D would ask for one of us to take her away for the filming so she wouldn't "mess everything up." So almost every video of D in January of last year looks and sounds like this--D happily performing while M howls and screams in the background because she has been removed from the premises. This common sibling scenario was just beginning to happen regularly and would have continued for some time. Poor M just wanted so badly to be cool like her sister! 

January 12, 2013:  At the beginning of last year we were preparing to renovate our basement, which meant moving everything out of the basement. We hired the ever wonderful Sarah Whitney to take care of the kids for 2 saturdays so that we could clean out the basement.  The first weekend they went to the American Museum of Natural History with her cousin Diana and sent us these pictures from their adventure.  

January 14, 2013:  The girls were sitting on a stool in the kitchen watching something bake in the oven. The picture is fuzzy and in another world it would get lost among better pictures of the two of them together. But, it is the last picture we have of our two wonderful sisters together. I love how Magnolia is holding Delphinium and how smiley they both are. They had developed a strong bond and they showed us so often how much they really loved each other. 

January 15, 2013:  On this day a year ago we took our dog, Calliope, to the vet and had her euthanized. She had been living with a tumor for over three years and her health declined suddenly. We came home on this day and found her curled up in the bathroom with a swollen belly. We had been talking to D for awhile about Calliope's health and how we thought it was getting close to time for us to euthanize her. We explained what that was and talked about what it meant to be dead. We read children's books about the deaths of family pets and she cried and said she would miss Calliope and didn't want her to die.
Our neighbors took care of D and M while Sasha and I took Calliope to the vet, where we cried and stroked her fur and told her what a good girl she was and how we loved her while the vet administered the chemicals. We sat with her for a long time and then went home without her, feeling really awful.
Sasha and I often say it was Calliope's last great gift to us that she died that week. A little over a week later I was sitting in our bedroom holding D on my lap explaining that Magnolia was dead. In that moment I was so grateful that I didn't have to explain what death was, that in her 5 year old way she already knew what it meant to be dead. Calliope's death got lost in the events of last January, but we miss her too and are grateful that she helped prepare our family (and especially D) a little bit for Magnolia's death.
We took these pictures before we took Calliope to the vet. The girls were saying goodbye.

And this is a picture of them having dinner with our neighbors that night:

January 19, 2013:  Sarah returned for another Saturday of kid care and went to the zoo with D and M.  She took this video of Magnolia late that afternoon.  Magnolia was 22 month old when she died and was just beginning to put words together into phrases and short sentences. Unfortunately, we have very few videos with her saying very much. I love all the language in this video. Words we had never heard her say and combinations of words that show so clearly where she was developmentally with her language: "open door", "moo dis", "it huby". We only wish it went on forever.

January 23, 2013:  Last year on this day I was home with Magnolia and realized she had never painted. It was a moment of second-child revelation. D had been painting and glueing and making marks on paper for almost a year when she was Magnolia's age, basically since she was coordinated enough to handle each material. It was no great travesty, but I felt bad. So we got out the paints and she painted for over an hour! 
It was everything I love about watching kids discover a new material: exploration, choice-making, thoughtful consideration, new discoveries and always questions. It is why I love my job as an art teacher so much. I am so grateful that we had that morning of painting together and for the wonderful paintings that remind me of that experience. 
I posted a picture of her painting that day on Facebook, smiling and proudly holding her paint brush. Like so many memories and pictures from these last weeks it feels so impossibly incongruous with the post 4 days later announcing her death.

January 26, 2013:  Sasha and I had been out on a daytime date to Queens.  We had brunch and went to an art exhibit, talking alot about the girls and plans that we had for the near and far future with them.  We returned in the early evening and Sasha did dinner time with them while I went to our bedroom to get some schoolwork done.  After dinner, D was amusing herself singing a song she was making up, dancing around the living room.  M had climbed into the chair near the bookcase with some board books and was reading to herself.  Sasha took this video of her reading "Down By the Bay" saying the words at the end of each phrase.  A little while later he took her up to bed.  This is the last captured image we have of her alive.  We love her cat ears and her happily reading to herself with another book ready to go right next to her.  

The countdown ends here.  And then all the pictures are from "after" when she was already gone and our family suddenly felt so wrong. 

The Holidays: Differentness and Not (Kendra)

There is so much about this year that has gone on like normal without Magnolia.  The outside world—and even the inside world of our family—continues to churn and move forward because in reality life does go on.  It is so hard to see this and also so hard to live with it.  There have been so many times this year when I just wished life would stop, to acknowledge the fact that Magnolia is gone and nothing should be the same.  But it is the same, whether I like it or not.  Delphinium’s birthday (also Magnolia’s birthday) came and went with celebrations and parties, D hunted for easter eggs, we attended the Passover seder at Sasha’s parent’s home, the school year ended and we went to Denver for the summer, where D made a cake with grandma to celebrate our birthdays.   

School started this fall along with a new pregnancy for me.  As I began to feel more and more sick, I decided that if the world wouldn’t stop moving forward, I would just exit the world for awhile.  It is a huge luxury to leave my job, and was grateful for the opportunity to just give up on the world for awhile. 

The truth of our life without Magnolia was inescapable once I took a vacation from my life.  The weeks and months of constant nausea and throwing-up kept her ever present in my mind.  The truth of this pregnancy is that we wouldn’t be having this child if Magnolia were still alive.  Another fact of this pregnancy is that I would do almost anything to have Magnolia here rather than this new life that is forming inside of me. I miss the child I knew and loved and cuddled every day.  In so many ways, I just don't want this new child—I want Magnolia.  This was my new reality, since I exited the world.  

I am grateful that my months in my personal physical and heart-sick bed have allowed me to miss many of the ways that the world continues to turn without my girl.  My mother took care of D’s Halloween costume.  She sent all the parts—there was nothing for us to do except help her get dressed and to help her get her make-up on.  There were no jack-o-lanterns on our stoop and I barely made it through the gathering at our house before people headed out to trick-or-treat.  But there was very little for me to do and in that way it felt different from other years—different in a good way.  My mom did all the work because she knew I couldn’t or didn’t want to because Magnolia was gone and it was too hard.  It should feel different.  It shouldn’t be just the same as always.

D was aware of the differences and let us know that she wasn’t o.k. with it.  She asked, “Are we even going to have latkes and a Christmas tree this year, or is it like the pumpkins?  We just won’t do it.”  For her sake, we knew we had to pick up our game and actually make a bigger effort, or at least enlist more support.  So, we asked Sasha’s parents to host us for latke making—again, so we didn’t have to do it. 

On the morning of Thanksgivikah, Sasha went to the basement to look for our Hanukah and Christmas boxes, so that he and D could take their menorahs to Thanksgivikah for lighting later that night.   He looked for a long time, and then we went down together and looked for a long time.  The boxes were buried somewhere far from their normal spot.  We both were shaken momentarily to realize, that they weren’t in their usual (easy to find) spot by the door because a few weeks before Magnolia’s death we had completely rearranged the basement to consolidate all of our stuff into one room, so that we could begin a big renovation project.  Our thinking at the time was that the project would be done and we would have everything sorted out and rearranged by the time December came around again.  So, moving the boxes to the back of the basement wouldn’t have mattered.   

That renovation work is one of the ways that our internal family life stopped—we put off the oil-to-gas conversion, and cancelled the renovation work.  A year has passed and we just began the conversion in October and are hoping to do the renovation work this spring.  So nothing had changed in the basement and the boxes were buried. 

The inability to find the boxes made so much sense to me.  Our life really had stopped—and here was evidence.  I was dreading these holidays so much, and here was actual proof that they wouldn’t and couldn’t be the same.  Our whole life stopped a year ago—in some ways—and this was proof.  Secretly, I was grateful for this revelation and for the absent boxes which meant that the holidays were going to have to be different.  So, D and Sasha lit candles on borrowed menorahs and we celebrated Hanukah the best we could, with our diminished resources (physical and emotional).  And it felt right to me.

As Christmas approached and we thought about what to do, we decided we would get a tree—for D and also because I wanted one in the house, mostly for the smell and to make an attempt at some holiday normalness.  My mother, Jim and Sarah were coming to visit (to see Delphinium in her first play) and so the lead up to our departure for Denver was already different than usual.  I figured we would wait for their arrival and then ask them to help with tree set-up and trimming.  Sasha was still hopeful that we would find the Christmas boxes with our ornaments, and I was wondering what we would do with a bare tree if we couldn’t find them.  

On the Monday before their arrival on a Friday, I picked D up from school and we went to get a tree.  It felt important to do it before everyone arrived, for some reason, and I wanted to take D since she had never gone to get a tree with me before.  We picked out a tree and then went shopping for a few other things.  As we passed the Christmas decorations area, D asked if we could get some ornaments in case we didn’t find our boxes.  I thought it made sense and she proceeded to pick out the tackiest, most glittery and bright, ornaments, foil garlands, etc.  I took lots of deep breaths and let her choose stuff that she wanted.  I was firmly placing the experience into the “only-happens-once” category, so that it was free from the anxieties of precedent setting. She picked out some plain colored glass balls and suggested we could write notes to Magnolia on the ornaments. In my own mind a tiny idea was growing—that this would just be the year of the tacky Christmas tree with ornaments for Magnolia.  That it shouldn’t feel normal and this was a way to set this year apart from others.  

We showed our shopping to Sasha, who was less than thrilled, but the small idea in my head was still small and I said we would take them back if we found our box of ornaments.  We proceeded to drive around with the tree attached to the roof of our car for the rest of the week.  Every evening we would talk about taking the tree off the car, but we just couldn't seem to get it done.  It became a fitting metaphor for our experience of the holidays in general.   We finally got the tree off the car and leaned it against the back of our house on Friday, just before everyone arrived.
That Saturday, Sarah and Jim set up the tree and Sasha went to the basement with Sarah for one last look and actually found the boxes.  I didn’t realize until I saw them, how much I had really wanted a crappy tree filled with ornaments we could give away afterwards.  Part of my wish, at times, for everything to just disappear and for all of this awfulness to just fall into a black hole. 

So, while everyone played Christmas carols and decorated the tree, I sat in our bedroom crying and upset because I didn’t want a tree that felt normal and looked like our usual Christmas trees.  But the reality is also that what I want isn't the only thing that matters, and for Sasha using our ornaments was what he wanted and needed.  

D and Sasha told stories about different ornaments and asked my mom to share stories about the ornaments from my childhood.  For Sasha it was important to experience the familiar comfort of our ornaments and their place in our family and for me it was just another reminder of how things change but stay the same.  So, the world moved on again in a painfully ordinary and predictable way and I felt sad and wanting so badly to make it all stop.  

But the reality is there will be years and decades of Halloweens, Hanukkahs and Cristmases without Magnolia and the fact that I don’t want that to be true, doesn’t change what has happened in our life or in our family.  It will always be different—not because we work to make it feel different, but because she should be there too.  And she never will be.