When Ella went back to the hospital for her second and final time, she had a full head of wavy brown hair. Little girl had some awesome hair, and I had looked forward to watching it grow in, curious to see what it would finally be like – straight, curly, kinky, soft, coarse? Who knew? I just knew that she was a beautiful baby, and her sweet head of hair added to her beauty.
But spending most of her time in bed, in a hospital bed no less, wreaked havoc on her hair. We were never 100% sure, but we believed that the stress of hospitalization and probably the variety of medicines she took greatly contributed to her hair loss. She started losing almost all of her lovely hair until all that was left on her head were wispy strands. To add insult to injury, the hair she did have on the back of her head developed knots that were too far gone to comb through. Those knots had to be cut out of her hair. That’s how Ella came to have her first haircut, and that’s why those knots were saved in a ratty, folded piece of tape.
While we were at the hospital with Ella, my husband and I were required to wear purple plastic wristbands, labeled in permanent marker with Ella’s patient ID number. The bands identified us as parents of a patient. We also had similar wristbands as residents of the Ronald McDonald House, though they were yellow. We wore these bands for the entirety of Ella’s hospitalization. By the time we were finally home, the wristbands were pretty worn. Months had passed since the bands were first placed on our wrists, so the colors were faded, the edges rolled, the ID number no longer quite as clear or dark.
My husband and I had worn similar wristbands during Ella’s first hospital stay and had removed them upon bringing her home. We were finally home with our sweet girl, and even after those “short” five weeks at the hospital, the bands were nothing to look at. A bit on the ragged side and no longer needed, we didn’t give their removal a second thought. We wanted to get on with the business of living at home as a family and no longer needed to be easily identified as PICU parents.
Unlike our homecoming that first time, we didn’t immediately remove the bands after Ella died, when we were finally home again but without our baby girl. In those first days upon our return, we were still too shell-shocked and too numb in our grief to think about something as trivial as wristbands. When we did finally think about it and talk it over together, both my husband and I had already privately decided that we weren’t ready to cut off the bands. We weren’t ready to remove that symbol of Ella’s life at the hospital, to remove the outward signs of our roles as parents of a sick child. We weren’t willing to let go of something, even a small, dirty, seemingly insignificant sign, which represented the place that had been her home and the time that had been her life. We wore those bands when she was alive. To cut them off would be to acknowledge how unnecessary those bands would forever be.
My husband and I wore those wristbands for several months following Ella’s death. The yellow RMH band was amazingly sturdy, lasting through all manner of activities, but the purple PICU band took a beating. It peeled, its layers separated and the formerly purple shade replaced by a paler, discolored version of itself. We tried to use tape and glue to keep our bands together. Toward the end, my husband’s band finally gave up the ghost; mine was held together by paper clips and sheer willpower. Those raggedy wristbands had surprising staying power. It was only after both of my husband’s wristbands had finally fallen off in October, well over a year after they were first placed on the wrist, that I considered removing mine.
October was a rough month from start to finish for my husband and me. Not only was I dealing with my second cold of the season, but I was also grappling with a frustrating bout of writer’s block. In addition, my husband and I were bracing ourselves for two anniversaries, the one-year anniversary of Ella’s adoption day and the ten-month mark since her death, anniversaries that happened to sandwich my husband’s birthday. Last year I had jokingly told my husband that I got him a daughter for his birthday, so how could he ever top that? This year we didn’t feel much like celebrating any of it. To top it all off, we were mentally preparing ourselves for a return to the children’s hospital where Ella died. It was a lot to handle mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, all in one very somber month. It was only when we as a family decided to return to the hospital for a service of remembrance that I considered removing the wristbands.
Surprisingly, my boys had more of an issue with the removal of my wristbands than I did. They knew that I had been thinking about obtaining a more permanent reminder of my sweet Ella, so they didn’t want me to remove the bands until that reminder was in place. It was time, though, and my decision was made. I brought scissors in the car, and I cut the bands off during the drive to the hospital.
There are so many reminders of my sweet Ella in my everyday life. There are so many things that keep memories of her so close to the surface, whether it’s something as obvious as her picture on the fridge or something as subtle as a random line from a random song on the radio. There are so many reminders; yet there are so few relics. There are so few things that she touched or that touched her, so few things that were strictly Ella’s or here because of Ella. And it is because there are so few that it was difficult to let go of one, even a ratty plastic wristband or knotted hair in a folded piece of tape.
When you can’t hold your little girl anymore, you cling that much tighter to what you can hold – the reminders that you keep around you, the items that touched her and that were a part of her short life, the relics that didn’t go into the grave with her. You cling to them, and you try to be grateful for them because they give you something of her being that is tangible - annoying in their seeming insignificance, invaluable only to you, painful because they are not her, but tangible nonetheless.
Perhaps the wristbands were less relics and more reminders. Perhaps…but the relics we do possess have value beyond measure. We will be eternally grateful to the two off-duty nurses who came to the hospital on the night Ella died not only to offer their condolences and say good-bye but to take time to make molds of Ella’s little hands and feet. Such poor substitutes for her sweet, graceful hands and her cute, kicky feet, but we are so grateful for those substitutes! We are so thankful for the nurse who not only accompanied Ella’s sweet body to the morgue but who made sure to obtain a lock of her hair for us. I’ll never be able to brush her hair or put big, pink bows in it, but I have a lock of hair from her beautiful head. I am grateful for those relics, even if they stay packed away in a memory box for now. I might not look at them often, but I know that they are there.
Yet when I look at any of Ella’s old clothing, I will probably always experience a twinge of regret. All of her dirty laundry was cleaned shortly after we came home. Such a simple task, doing the laundry, but when you’ll never again be able to soak up the scent of your baby, such an oversight is lamentable. That’s why the jacket I was wearing when I held her for the last time won’t be washed or worn again, the small stains from her tears and her boogers still on the shoulders from when I held her most of her last day. That’s why the shirt my husband was wearing when he held her for the last time still hangs unwashed and unworn in his closet.
And that’s why Ella’s beloved daddy blankie was not buried with her but instead remains in our room on my pillow, so I can hug it to myself, so I can cover my face with it to try to figure out why in the world she liked to sleep that way, and so I can kiss it goodnight as I whisper a prayer to my saint.
Thinking about all of this and writing it down - exposing all of this to you - makes me wonder if I’m not taking it all a bit too far. Am I going overboard in my attachment to things, or is this the norm? Is this just a part of grief – the desire to hold on to everything, to cling to these relics as though they’re life preservers, to assign value simply because of who touched them rather than because of what they are? Is it wrong to be so materialistic when the materials you covet are the ones your daughter touched? If it is wrong, I don’t plan on being right. I don’t plan on letting go of these relics anytime soon.
As the first anniversary of Ella’s death approaches, I’m sure I’ll be thinking more and more of the reminders and relics we have from her too-short life. The grief I thought I had under control is much closer to the surface now, and I have at times a tenuous grip on my emotions. But I’m trying to be understanding and patient with myself. I’m not necessarily embracing it, but I’m not hiding from it nor am I hiding it from family. When the topic of Ella came up in conversation at the dinner table causing more than one of us to cry, we talked through the tears, unembarrassed to still be so sad and to cry so easily. When I sobbed in my bathroom the other afternoon for missing Ella so desperately, I welcomed the long hug and the comfort that my 11yo offered instead of hiding the sadness or isolating myself until the ache subsided. And when I cried during Mass on Friday, I didn’t try to stop the tears; instead, I let them flow and cried out to the only One Who can heal this pain, “Oh my Jesus, I miss her so much!”
I cling to the relics that I have from my sweet saint. For today it is enough to know that they are there for the holding if the need arises, if the heartache lessens enough for me to see that small hand mold and to touch that sweet foot mold, if the memory of saving that silly knotted hair brings a smile rather than a tear. Perhaps one day I’ll decide that the worn out wristbands, long removed from my arm, can finally be thrown away, having served their purpose but no longer needed.
These relics are temporary, treasured only for as long as her memory is alive. But the one relic of my sweet Ella’s life that I’ll treasure more than any is one that I may not be able to see or touch but can most certainly feel. I will treasure the intangible relic that was her love and that is my love for her. A love that powerful and that deep and that true does not end with death. A love like that is. It doesn’t become worn with age, and unlike the relics that remain in Ella’s memory box, it can be freely shared and felt by others.
The love that my sweet saint blessed me with is truly the finest treasure of all and is the only relic that I’ll be able to take with me when I see my Ella again.
St. Ella, pray for us!