a loose, side braid


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.

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because nineteen years ago sometimes feels like yesterday

My grandmother was an artist, self-taught. We received hand-painted items for every single event … Mother’s Day, Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, our birthdays, and many times we received hand-painted items for no reason at all.

My daughter, Madeleine Rose, had my grandmother’s middle name. Her first name is because I enjoyed Madelyn Kahn, I thought she was a brilliant comedienne. I spelled it, Madeleine, because I loved how it looked when it was handwritten, there were so many vowels, and I loved the above the line loops.

This past Saturday, November 7, would have been Madeleine’s 26th birthday. She died when she was seven. Her official autopsy results declared it an undiagnosed degenerative neuromuscular disease.

This is the time of year that I usually crash emotionally, some days a little bit more than others. Madeleine will be gone twenty years this January, but today it feels as though it was yesterday. And the only thing that helps is writing about her because if I am telling her story, I’ve somehow convinced myself that her memory will live on even if it is only my version of her life.

Today was one of those rough days and I somehow needed to be closer to her. After Madeleine died, I packed all of her belongings into office file boxes and stacked them neatly. I went through the boxes several times but nothing in depth. I can vividly remember pulling her clothes out of the boxes, planning on donating the items to Goodwill but there was nothing salvageable. The stains from her tracheotomy tube and her gastro-intestinal tube were too powerful for my advanced laundry skills.

As the years went by, the file boxes wore thin and I eventually transferred the remainder of my tangible memories of her into a rose colored tote. There were so many things during her life that I could not control, but the things that I could … believe me,

I opened the solitary rose colored packing tote and on top was her jewelry box, a gift from my grandmother. I hadn’t opened her jewelry box in nineteen years. I set it aside, closed the tote, clutched the jewelry box to my heart and I left the attic. I didn’t know what to do next. I thought I would just take a nap with it, I planned on clutching the jewelry box and just sleeping. The sun was shining on my bed and I just wanted to sleep in the sun with the jewelry box. I was afraid if I opened it, the inside may have deteriorated. Today was a day that I could not handle another loss, even if it was just the decay of the fabric interior of her jewelry box.

I sat in the sun with a posse of nosy cats. I seldom sit, especially during the day. And now I fully understand why cats follow the sun. It felt good.

The paint on Madeleine’s jewelry box had yellowed and the lace had grayed, but this was one of my grandmother’s finest painting moments. Madeline’s fifth Christmas and my grandmother was beaming upon presentation. I took a deep breath and slowly, carefully lifted the lid. Everything was exactly as I remembered.

Inside was a tiny, delicate cross on a fine gold chain, a Christmas gift for Madeline. And a note, my grandmother always included notes and it felt good to see her handwriting again. Also inside was the novena my grandmother gave to me the day of Madeleine’s funeral. My grandmother had said, “I used this novena to pray for Madeleine every night and now she’s in heaven and no longer needs my prayers.”

It was my grandmother’s intent to have the necklace and the novena buried with Madeleine. I just couldn’t. I knew I needed things to hang on to for later, like today when I miss her so much.

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NaBloPoMo November 2015

life is short, socks can wait

I’ve always paired socks. I know some people that just keep clean socks in a basket and the family lives out of that basket, pairing as they go. Or not pairing, just grabbing two socks, all willy nilly and unmatchy. We are a family that pairs our socks.

I’ve got a laundry basket next to the machine. As the clean laundry comes out of the dryer, socks go into a separate basket. It is from that basket that the pairing begins. If we cannot complete a pair, we just keep the singleton in the basket. Forever. I’m always confident that the partner will show up. Eternally optimistic and perpetually hopeful, that’s me.

Some days, the pairing goes easily. I’ve got Harrison, his socks pair smoothly because he religiously pulls off his socks next to the laundry chute. He never takes them off crookedly; he pulls them off swiftly “the right way” and pitches them down in a rapid-fire, no-nonsense style. His socks are always quickly matched and returned promptly. He has a purposeful life, that boy. Driven. And at 14, accomplished. Let’s get things right the first time because there are chores to finish, homework to complete, practices to attend, goals to conquer, and of course, food to eat.

And then there is Haley, 12. I don’t know what style she uses to remove her socks, but they are always twisted into little-bitty-inside-out balls. They rarely pair quickly. Sometimes it will be days before I’ve got a match, sometimes it is weeks down the road.

She wears socks to bed, then probably peels them off during her restless sleep leaving one sock buried under the sheets or between the wall and the bed. Haley lives large and loud. With a guitar in hand, there are songs to be written, drawings to sketch because future album covers must be planned now. And when she’s not making music, she has books to read, stacks of them. Stacks and stacks and stacks of them. She’ll read three at time. Horror, romance, and a classic, alternating, positioned to turn the page. My dear daughter, forever ready for the next thing.

And then there are the socks that just will never be paired. What started as a mission, pairing socks because they belong in pairs, has become memory lane partnered with forward thinking. I’ve got one of Travis’ socks from the summer of 2007 in the basket, the last year he worked at Camp Rokilio as a counselor. One of his uniform socks remains a singleton. I’ll never find the partner, I know that. But when my now 26 year old is an adult and in the process of purchasing his own home, it feels good to look at his single sock.

He’s come a long way, that adult child of mine, and looking at that one sock makes me smile every time I see it. That lone sock is about hope. No longer hope about finding that sock’s pair but hope that his life is still full of fun and the spontaneity that life as a camp counselor had to offer.

And my dear Madeleine, Travis’ twin; two socks of hers remain in my basket. January of 2016 will mark the 20th anniversary of her departure. Somehow departure sounds better than death. I’ve got a navy blue knee sock of hers, a singleton, of course. Although her nurses tended to the majority of her needs, I typically did her laundry. Her needs were medical, exhaustive and extensive; the needs for my maternal offerings were minimal. But laundry? I’m a laundry rock star. I looked forward to doing her laundry, proudly removing stubborn gastro-intestinal stains.

My single sock stash also contains a small, sparkly green ankle sock with a holiday plaid bow. It’s from her final Christmas with us. It went with her holiday plaid skirt and her very grown-up green silk blouse. It is these two single socks that bring me the most hope. Hope that I never forget the simple things in life, hope that I always find unique beauty, and hope that I see Madeleine’s life as retrospective bits and pieces of history woven into today.

And I hope that someday, Harrison plans some spontaneous and completely safe fun into his goal-driven life.

And further hope that someday, Haley figures out how to get her socks down the laundry chute, turned the right way, in proper pairs. I know is too short to plan how to take your socks off, I know this. There are songs to be written, books to be read, sketches to be drawn.

Life is short, socks can wait.