The day of her funeral it was sunny and bitter cold, even for Wisconsin’s January standards. We had what I call “snow sparkles.” It wasn’t a true snow, it was more like the intermittent essence of snow that swirled in mid-air and you could really only catch glimpses of it when the sun hit the tinier than usual flakes at just the right angle.
Her funeral was a two-day event, the showing in the evening and the mass the next morning. That is a long time to smile, even for me, but my two-day smile was sincere. Hundreds and hundreds of people, taking time out of their lives as they stood in line for what must have seemed like forever just so they could pass her small casket and hug our family, which now numbered four.
It took two decades for me to re-open her autopsy, but that morning I was ready. Twelve pages in length yet relatively inconclusive, the final sentence declaring her to have an undiagnosed degenerative neuromuscular disorder. She was seven years old.
And once again, I’m smiling. Even though I just finished reading a technical document that reduced my daughter to nothing more than body parts, tissue samples, organ weights, and measurements … I’m smiling.
And it is a huge, genuine smile because nestled within the first page, second paragraph of the autopsy I read these words, “Her auburn hair was in a loose, side braid.” You see, I braided her hair that night and I never braided her hair.
My little girl had a lifelong posse of incredible caregivers. There were six nurses doing eight-hour shifts, three shifts a day, seven days a week. And in addition to being stellar home health care providers, these women knew how to braid, they were fast and efficient. The could make fat braids or skinny braids, even those thick and close-to-the-head braids that looked just like a flat headband made out of hair. Oh, they were good at braiding. And they knew it.
That night, her very last night, after seven years of illness, shortly after my only daughter died I unbraided her hair one final time. With her nurse’s assistance, we slipped her into clean jammies.
Together we gently placed her in the center of a homemade quilt, one that I labored over specifically for this very moment in time, and then packed it away until needed. It was a simple log cabin pattern in shades of deep purple with just a little bit of sage green and a splash of vivid yellow, the three colors she always wore best.
I quietly asked the nurse to step outside for a few moments and then all alone, for the very first time, I braided my daughter’s hair. It was slippery hair and there was a lot of it. Each strand had a decent sheen to it, too.
I rearranged her hair as I finger-combed it, watching it , mesmerized as it bounced back into a tight curl each time I straightened it. I gathered it off to one side and with a little bit of a twist I started braiding right below the earlobe and I kept braiding until there just about an inch left before I tied it off with a tiny brown, elastic band.
I realized my final, most intimate act maternal act, had happened just moments after she died and had been captured as the prelude to her autopsy.
Her auburn hair was in a loose, side braid. That was my braid, she was my daughter.