Keeping my head down means that I’ve become well acquainted with our neighborhood streets and sidewalks. It means that I see (and save!) lots of earthworms that are baking in the heat. It means that I can avoid stepping in loads and loads of goose poop. But it also means that I can see the random soda can tab. I can see it, pick it up to bring home, and be reminded once again that my little girl is no longer here.
There are so many reminders of Ella’s absence in my everyday life. Heck, every breath in and out, every heart beat is a reminder, and cheap therapy or not, my daily walk is a reminder because I had envisioned strolling the subdivision with her. So while I’m out walking and finding those soda can tabs – the type that the Ronald McDonald House collects and recycles, the type that the boys and I collected on the PICU all those months Ella was in the hospital – I’m faced with another small reminder of a huge void in my life. I sometimes wish that I had a more typically lovely and universally beautiful reminder, like a butterfly or a flower or a rainbow, but in the grand scheme of things, a reminder is a reminder, as though I would ever need any reminding in the first place.
This past Sunday was the seven month anniversary of Ella’s death. It's been seven long months since I last held her in my arms, but at the same time, it’s hard to believe that it’s been that long. I still think about her last day so often and can recall so many of the details as clearly as if it all happened yesterday. My older son’s birthday was on Tuesday. As happy as I was to celebrate his special day and life, I could feel the melancholy creep in - melancholy that comes from knowing my boys will grow up without their baby sister. Melancholy that Ella will never celebrate a birthday, that she never even got to celebrate her first birthday. Melancholy that kept both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day so low key as to be off the radar, and melancholy that makes me dread celebrating pretty much anything right now. Melancholy because days and events that we had looked forward to celebrating with our daughter will never happen, and some of those days – birthdays, gotcha days – are now just passing anniversaries. I can’t help but wonder if every special occasion, every moment of joy in the future, will have a tinge of sadness and the bittersweet acknowledgement that someone will always be missing.
For so many weeks and months after Ella died, I couldn’t look any babies in the eyes. I couldn’t stand being near those sweet little reminders of what should have been my daughter – happy, healthy, chubby, cooing little bundles of life. Babies became the enemy, and the enemy was every-freaking-where. It seemed like no matter which pew I chose at church, I'd end up surrounded by babies, and not just babies but baby girls. I’m as staunchly pro-life as they come, but couldn’t that life just sit a little farther away? And it seemed like no matter where I went, babies and all their accoutrements were there. They were in stores, restaurants, libraries, everywhere.
One day while running errands, I dropped into our local Target. I know the store’s layout very well...too well! So as I neared the baby department, I did the only thing I could. I averted my eyes. Ha! I thought I was so smart. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Except I forgot to plug my nose. The smell of baby lotion hit me like a ton of bricks. It was overwhelming. Just like that, I was knocked low by something so innocuous and mundane as a scent. For all of my baby-eye-contact avoiding schemes and plans of baby-item-evasion, I hadn’t accounted for that. I had foolishly convinced myself that looking in another direction, even if only for a moment, would make the hurt less tangible and the absence less real. That the truth of what is in my face every moment of every day would go away if I simply turned my face away. But this is my life now – no sweet Ella but tons of reminders of her. So many people, places, and things that stir memories, both good and bad.
When the one you loved so intensely and so completely is suddenly gone from your life and lives only in your heart and in your memories, when you count the passing weeks and months not in terms of your own life but in terms of their significance in your loved one’s life…that is when everything becomes a reminder and every day an anniversary.
When every single thing is a reminder, how do you function? Do you not look, listen, or feel for fear of being reminded of your deep, constant pain? Or do you just suck it up, move on and stifle your reactions and emotions? If you could eliminate reminders, would you? Would you feel relieved with the reminders gone, or would you feel guilty about not wanting to deal with them anymore because your heart can only take so much?
My cell phone was acting wonky this past week, so I took it to the phone store. When I was told that a hard reset of the phone had to be done, I got a bit twitchy. I had pictures of Ella on my phone that I hadn’t texted or emailed to anyone, so they were only on my phone. I was petrified that I would lose them. Thankfully, the salesman was able to save all of my pictures - praise God! It just didn’t even dawn on me that I would lose all of my old text messages with the reset.
My phone still had text messages between my husband and me from before Ella died. Those texts talked about her last week and her declining health. They talked about how I was scared out of my freaking gourd, how I didn’t know how much longer she could hold on, and how I couldn’t understand why her miracle was taking so long. They asked where God was and why Ella had to suffer so damn much. They told my husband to get to the hospital ASAP. They asked him to not let the nurse start her final bath without me.
I lost all of those texts. It breaks my heart to even retype the gist of what the texts contained. Was it wise to hold onto them for so long? Was I standing in my own way of healing, recovering, and learning to live again because I didn’t delete them sooner? They are gone now, and even though it pained me to lose them, in a sense I'm glad that someone else was responsible for deleting them so that I wouldn’t have to be. For whatever irrational reason, it felt like a betrayal to even consider getting rid of them, even though they were hugely painful reminders of the worst time in my life.
Reminders can be painful. There are some that I know I’ll eventually be glad I’m rid of, like the text messages, but there are others I choose to keep close. The pictures and videos of Ella, her wee, cute clothing, her much loved daddy blankie…I choose to keep them close even though they’re just stand ins for who’s missing. Anniversaries are empty when the person you’re remembering can never celebrate with you, but the alternative – pretending that the day is an insignificant and ordinary one – is simply out of the question. I choose to remember because anything less is unthinkable. Anything less would dishonor the awesomeness that was my daughter.
Reminders are everywhere because Ella is not. She’s not in my arms. She’s not in her crib. She’s not at the hospital waiting for a heart, and she’s not in our home. Reminders are everywhere, and every blasted thing is a reminder. And until I can escape time, I cannot escape the anniversaries. She was born on a Friday and came to our family on a Monday. She died on a Thursday. She was born on the 15th, came to us on the 18th, died on the 22nd, and is missed every day of every month.
So if you happen to see me running errands, sitting quietly in a far corner in church, or out walking with my head down, and I greet you with a smile that doesn’t quite reach my eyes, it’s probably because I’ve just found a soda can tab or smelled that unmistakable baby smell. It’s probably because I’m thinking of my sweet girl. If I come off as moody, somber, and totally antisocial some days, if I act like I’m all alone even though I’m in a crowd, if I have trouble following conversations, it’s probably because that day is an anniversary. It’s one more day in a long line of days without Ella.
St. Ella, pray for us!