When Chloe was diagnosed last February, our family became property of leukemia. We were grabbed by the back of our shirts and slowly hoisted high into the air. The ascent grew faster as weeks dissolved into months, slowing only occasionally for results of a certain course of chemotherapy.
Chloe left us ten months later: November 14, 2006. On this day, time returned to 24-hour increments, yet my husband and I still dangled miles above earth, our pockets weighted down with the lessons and tools we picked up along our journey. Some of them explained the meaningfulness of life; others exposed the underpinnings of reality. Death, for example, does happen — even to 15-month-olds. Nature is stronger than man. Hard work doesn’t always win the game.
Instantly, we became disoriented with this life, and felt an urgent need to meet others led blindfolded into the same dark room.
Such company is hard to come by. While everyone acknowledges that nothing’s more painful than losing a child, few can vouch for it. Well-intentioned souls equivocate: “Luckily, she went quickly.” “Fortunately, she wasn’t in pain.” When someone avowed, “She’s in a better place,” I was sure I was on my own.
And still I craved a connection with people who know…with those who have been to the land of the non-negotiable, where your input isn’t asked for, wishes aren’t granted, and outcomes go unexplained.
More than 1,500 Americans die of cancer every day. Some are children, all of whom have parents, a few of whom must live in our ZIP code. But where? Where are they sharing stories and buying groceries and photo albums and thank you notes?
I returned to the institutions that treated our daughter, hoping they had a match.com for parents like us whom cancer has kicked to the curb. One said grief groups were cut from their budget. Another offered an eight-week grief “course” on alternate Tuesdays in February, March and April. Chloe died in an off-peak month. Our grief would have to wait. Finally, we attended — by accident — a workshop for grieving teens. (Who were they to turn away two kids in their thirties looking for a hug?)
Then, one day, a little boy from Chloe’s stem cell transplant days sent us daisies. The card read, “I will miss you, Chloe. But I know you are okay now.” With this, the recesses in my heart spontaneously repaired.
Days later, a Mom I shared laundry detergent with during one hospitalization told me her son is swollen on cancer-stunting steroids to unrecognizable proportions. This, too, allowed me to exhale for my daughter, who escaped this one lousy by-product of treatment.
With these as my cues, I returned to our long-time traveling companions — the parents, kids, doctors and nurses we met along the way. They too can recite the laws of randomness by chapter and verse. They too question god. They too have complimentary parking passes for Emergency Rooms all over town.
They are us. We are them.
Anyone who watches her spouse cry himself to sleep knows there is no conceivable upside to a child’s death. There are, however, excessive enlightenments and a handful of privileges. Knowing Chloe, and the club that surrounded her is one such gift.
They leave us with more than a raft of photographs on the mantle and an empty crib we could crawl into and cry until tomorrow comes. We have the newfound, indelible knowledge that when a life is taken, not all is lost.
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