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.