Friday, August 30, 2013

By the Light of the Full Moon

August 5, 2009, dawned like any other lazy summer morning. The sunrise was quiet and serene, and created little rainbow prisms in the morning dew. Even though it was summer, our 15-year-old daughter Aly rarely slept in. Instead, she rose like clockwork at 5 a.m. for early morning swim practice. Wrapping her favorite fuzzy blue blanket around her small 5’2” frame, she grabbed her bulky swim bag and crept downstairs to wait for her daddy.

The drive into town every morning was a treasured father-daughter time. Classic rock from the truck radio played softly in the background while Aly rested her sleepy head on Lammy, her favorite stuffed animal. On this morning, the 17-minute trip to the pool was nothing out of ordinary. 

“Bye-bye, Daddy. Love you,” Aly murmured softly as she and her bulky swim bag slid out the truck door, leaving Lammy and the fuzzy blue blanket behind. 

"Bye-bye, Lovey. Love you. Have a good day,” my husband tenderly replied. He watched fondly as his youngest daughter made her way through the aquatic center's door. 

My husband, Jamie, usually enjoyed their morning drive to the pool, but as he drove away on this particular morning, a bad feeling swept over him. He couldn't put his finger on it, so he said nothing.

Excitement was in the air. After morning practice, Aly and a handful of senior swimmers planned to carpool to Seattle to watch the U.S. Open, a championship long course meet. Home of the 1990 Goodwill Games, Aly had competed in this pool many times herself. But today, she and her teammates would be spectators watching the nation’s top swimmers compete for a spot in the Olympics, one of Aly’s own goals.

Following practice, the small group stopped for breakfast and then divided into two cars driven by parents before continuing on. It was an exciting day for the kids and I heard from Aly several times, her voice always full of giddy teenage excitement. Although glad the kids enjoyed the field trip, by day's end I was anxious for their return.

As day gave way to evening, and evening to dusk, a brilliant full moon eased its way over the horizon. It hung high and bright in the dark summer sky. Our other kids were out that evening, offering my husband and I rare quiet time. 

With her beloved cousin Jasmine
At 10:20 p.m., Aly called home one final time saying they had just dropped off two swimmers. Aly and two boys, Donovan and Patrick, would continue the final leg home on their own with 18-year-old Donovan at the wheel.

Aly had deep respect for Donovan, a quiet yet popular swimmer with a strong work ethic. Like Aly, he was greatly admired as a powerful athlete. Just weeks away from starting his senior year in high school, he was a solid team leader and respected by all.

Patrick was just a hair younger than Aly, and one of her favorite teammates, both in the pool and out. He and Aly enjoyed a spirited friendship and rather than sitting “shotgun” next to Donovan on that fateful night, Patrick chose to sit next to Aly in the back seat, a move that would save his life. 

In that final phone call, Aly said they were 30 minutes away, and would meet me at the local aquatic center. I told her I loved her and would see her shortly. I hung up the phone, kissed my husband goodbye, and headed out alone into the night. 

Because of the late hour, the drive to the pool was quiet and peaceful. Arriving in the deserted parking lot, I sat in my husband’s truck playing on my cellphone to pass the short time until the swimmers arrived.

As 11 p.m. drew near, the day’s fatigue was setting in and I began to wonder where the kids were. I texted Aly but she didn't reply. I waited a few minutes and then called her phone. She didn’t answer. I waited a few more minutes and then tried again, twice, three times. Still no answer. Assuming her cell battery had died from overuse during the long day, I had no choice but to sit and wait.

Suddenly my phone rang, startling me in the dark. It was from an unknown number.

"Hello?” I answered, wondering who would be calling at that hour. 

“Lynda, this is Sean….Donovan’s dad. There’s been an accident. We are on our way now, 911 is guiding us.” 

I was positive it was nothing more than a minor fender-bender. I didn’t panic as I told Donovan’s dad that I too would make my way to the kids. I drove out of the parking lot and was soon heading south on the freeway towards Burlington, a 30-minute drive away. 

I called my husband, “Honey, the kids have been in an accident. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I’m heading that way now.” Panicked, my husband pleaded with me to come pick him up, but since that was in the opposite direction, it meant a delay of at least 45 minutes. I told him that would take too long and I wanted to get to Aly as soon as possible, but promised to call him as soon as I was by her side. He pleaded again, but not wanting to waste precious time, I held firm and kept driving south.
Playing in the home pool

I tried to call Donovan’s parents to let them know I wasn’t far behind, hoping they could tell me exactly where the accident was, but this time I received no answer. I tried again, and again no answer. I then remembered they had called 911 for directions. I decided to try the same. 

I dialed the number and calmly explained who I was and why I was calling. The dispatcher was hesitant but agreed to give me directions. I asked if she knew which hospital the kids had been transported to, but she offered no further information. 

I reassured myself that the accident was minor, and hospital transport probably wasn’t warranted. The dispatcher then shared that support staff was on the scene. Support staff? How strange. They were called only for fatalities. Why in the world would they be dispatched to a fender-bender? My brain simply didn’t comprehend the possibility of anything worse. 

Despite the bright full moon, I soon got lost on the dark and unfamiliar roads, and once again called 911 for directions. I finally saw the lights of multiple emergency vehicles off in the distance. But this accident was far more serious and didn’t even remotely fit the scenario I envisioned. I assumed I had come upon the wrong accident. Feeling confused and having nowhere to turn my husband's truck around, I approached the scene. 

As I drove slowly up to the emergency roadblock, law enforcement stepped into the road to greet me. From this moment forward I recall the events as if in a dream, like little snapshots of time floating around in a snow globe. 

I rolled down my window but my voice left me as the officer approached the truck. For an awkward moment we just stared at each other. Finally, I manage to utter two tiny words: “My daughter.” 

The words came out in a flat statement, not a question. 

The officer stared at me, hesitant, as his eyes searched mine. 

He then quietly asked, “15?” 

“Yes,” I confirmed. 

“Alyssa Fell?” he continued in our hesitant exchange.  

“Yes,” I mumbled. I stared at him as if pleading to tell me this wasn't really happening.

The officer continued standing outside my window, his eyes piercing mine. He was unsure what to do with me. 

Others approached my window. In that moment—with all those faces gazing at me—I knew. 

My world had suddenly shattered into every parent’s worst nightmare. 

The gathering group grew larger as I quietly mumbled my final query, “She’s here….isn’t she?” 

It was more of a declaration than a question. All those faces continued to stare at me. The night became very quiet, still no one replied. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I softly commanded. 

Not one person moved. They were all frozen in place as they watched my face for signs of hysteria. 

“Take me to my daughter,” I repeated. 

Not waiting for a reply, I opened the truck door, climbed out, and began making my way toward the two crumpled vehicles in the nearby field. I was vaguely aware the group was following me though no one dared stopped me. 

Instinctively, like a wild animal searching for her young, I knew where I would find my youngest daughter.

On the ground next to a rear passenger door, my precious baby girl with the smooth tan skin and long blonde hair, the strong swim shoulders and tiny waist, my stellar student with fierce determination and dedication with eyes on the Olympics, was strapped to a backboard and draped by a stark white sheet.

I knelt beside her as my eyes surveyed the car’s blood-spattered interior. Reaching across her covered body, I searched for her hand under the sheet’s edge. Finding it, I held it as I sat next to my beloved Lovey, too shocked to cry. Her soft skin was still warm and I could feel the random muscle twitches of dying nerve cells. I fought the urge to lift the white sheet from her sweet face for fear of seeing disfigurement I would never forget. 

Behind me stood a growing group of officers and responders, hushed respectfully as they took in the scene. As I held Aly’s small hand in mine, I could feel the powerful and raw compassion from those standing behind me. 

And then, for no particular reason, I looked up into the dark field that stretched before us, and that is when I saw her: my beloved deceased grandmother had an arm around Aly and was gently leading her away. Aly was looking over her shoulder at me as she walked beside the great-grandmother she never knew. Walking away from me, forever.

The intrusion of my cellphone's ring suddenly pierced the stillness. In shock, my body automatically answered. It was Jamie. He was impatient, wondering why in the world I hadn’t yet called him. In a robotic monotone voice I remember telling him Aly hadn’t made it, that I was with her now, in the field next to the crumpled cars. I don’t remember his reply or the rest of the conversation.

That point forward is a blur, and would remain so for many months. From among the many snapshots floating inside the snow globe, I recall only fragments.

Being led to the hospital by support personnel. 

Jamie arriving at the hospital, driven down by our brother-in-law. 

Sitting together in a small private hospital room, discussing Aly’s organ donations with the coroner. 

Kissing Donovan and Patrick on their foreheads as they lay strapped to ER gurneys, crying.

Telling them both that it will be alright, hoping I could convince myself of the same. 

Of walking out the hospital door at 4 a.m. with an ER full of people watching, my legs threatening to give way as we exited into the night. 

Leaving for home. 


Without our precious daughter. 

As the bright full moon gave way to dawn. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Aly's memorial bench

National Grief Awareness Day 2013

As we approach National Grief Awareness Day on August 30, please share Angie's story, a 12-minute video on YouTube, to help others better understand our journey.  Thank you.  - Momma Felly

Angie Cartwright's story.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Grief & Public Awkwardness

"Why is your name so familiar?  Where do I know you from?”  I cringe every time I am asked these questions.  My mouth automatically mumbles a rehearsed, “oh, I don’t know.”   Even though I know the probable answer, I play dumb yet again.

Why do I avoid confessing why I seem so familiar to you?  To shield us both from the inevitable awkwardness that accompanies the moment of truth.  Once, I made the mistake of assuming I was being asked that question because of Aly's accident.  After all, the accident made headlines across the state.  One media photo showed our 13 year-old son and myself sobbing into Aly's favorite stuffed animal.  Who wouldn't remember that?  But this one time, to my horror and that of my acquaintance, my incorrect assumption resulted in a really uncomfortable situation for us both.

It is also uncomfortable waiting for one's friendly smile turn to utter pity as my name is suddenly recognized.  Yes, I am THAT mom, the one who lost her swimmer daughter in that tragic car accident.  Oh yes, they remember.  And while I am enormously grateful they haven't forgotten my daughter, I desperately wish, even muse on occasion, that I could be recognized inside our community for having done something notable, honorable.  Something not associated with a tragedy involving my child.

Losing a child thrusts us headfirst into an association with tragedy from which we cannot escape, and we will forever be publically associated with it.  Our pain and loss naturally create a great deal of discomfort not just in ourselves, but in those around us and some even find it so unpleasant they avoid us altogether.  Knowing this stark reality can compound our selfconsciousness when out in public.  But aside from isolating ourself at home for the rest of our life, the only alternative is to go about our public routine and accept having to witness the pronounced pity and compassion reflected on the faces of others when that inevitable “ah-ha” moment of recognition happens.

You see, it takes an enormous amount of courage and effort to reintegrate back into society after losing a child and when we do, it can be extremely awkward.  Coupled with our natural tendency like all wounded animals to seek seclusion, the eventual return to our public routine can be filled with anxiety and dread.

So next time you encounter a grieving parent, resist the urge to avoid them and instead extend an encouraging smile and gentle embrace.  These simple actions encourage us and helps ease our transition as we move from isolation back into society.  Eventually as we find our footing, we may be able to return a genuine hug and smile when you are in need yourself, offering healing to us both.
Much love,
Momma Felly

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Grief & Divorce

"Many couples divorce after losing a child," offered one well-meaning friend after another in the months following Aly's accident. I can't help but wonder why people feel compelled to share this with newly grieving parents. Meant to be comforting, it is anything but. Yet hear it, we do. And repeatedly.

So why is it that two people who love each other until-death-do-us-part might find themselves, in the aftermath of a tragedy, in divorce court?

In the immediate days and months after losing a child, both parents are in "the fog" of shock. They cling to each other as terror fills their days and nights like a never ending nightmare. The only way to cope with the fog of grief is through autopilot. Our brain no longer functions, but our body continues to instinctively go through the daily motions of making dinner, doing laundry, washing dishes. We have “to go on" for the sake of the family. Although our body seems to automatically manage everyday tasks, our heart and spirit are in the Intensive Care Unit. Our lungs keep breathing, our muscles keep working, but our mind and spirit are frozen in shock.

In the early days of the aftermath, family, friends, and neighbors help care for the bereaved. But, as those of us grieving know all too well, intense pain lasts long after the meals stop coming. Furthermore, whether physical or emotional, intense pain is incredibly distracting, consuming, and exhausting. Our entire focus remains on getting through the worst until the next wave hits. Now imagine living like this day in and day out for months and months. Just getting through the day is exhausting, leaving very little reserves for anything else, including our marriage.

Add to this the biological fact that men and women are just wired different. As young girls, women learn from older female relatives to talk, share, and discuss. In contrast, boys are often taught to hold feelings in, to "toughen up.” So the coping mechanisms we use during great hardship are vastly different. Grieving mothers often seek comfort under the wings of other communicatively nurturing females. Grieving men tend to shut down, preferring instead to find comfort in solitary activities such as working alone in the garage or spending longer hours at work.

These conflicting styles can cause a couple to separate from what started out as parallel paths, sometimes leading to a complete and permanent disconnect. And when grief shatters both of us into unrecognizable versions of our former selves, it can be a challenge to find mutually familiar ground again, if ever.

But grieving parents can find satisfaction, even happiness, in a marriage given time and the right tools. Consider resisting the urge to share baseless divorce statistics and, instead, support the parents as they walk the journey as husband and wife, and encourage them to hang tightly to one another as they ride the waves of pain together.

Mark Twain once said, "Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable." In the face of tragedy, ignore public perception and allow patience, compassion, and tenderness to fill your marriage until solid footing once again takes hold.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Anniversary

Here it is again.....August 5. That dreaded date on the calendar. As the hot days and warm summer nights of July lazily march forward, August 5 continues to advance on our family with as much foreboding as always. A date when, no matter how busy we force our bodies to be, our minds replay the painful events from that night over and over. Why is August 5 different from all the other painful dates we navigate through each year such as her birthday, Christmas, Mother’s day? For every person in our family, August 5 will forever be a permanent life marker of “before the accident” and “after the accident.” It also serves as a milestone, an unspoken anniversary of our own personal healing. Do I cry less? Smile more? Function better than this time last year? 

On this particular day, in addition to my own pain, I'm fraught with worry over how our remaining three children will cope through the day. I know DJ will seek solace in fishing, Natalie will focus on work and her young son Caleb, and Shaun, I pray, will focus on his next drum corps performance. But what if he falls apart and forgets the choreography in front of a stadium full of fans? What if DJ, too distracted by the grief, falls into the river and drowns? What if Natalie has a meltdown at work, or worse, in front of her young son? These are the additional worries my mind juggles on this day. 

The single most popular piece of advice we hear is that we must move forward, get on with our lives. But those very words grate on our exquisitely sensitive nerves like nails on a chalkboard. For you see, each and every day I work hard to help our family move on by attempting to put the pieces back together. But gluing it back together isn’t as easy, neat or tidy as repairing your favorite mug. Some days the glue is set hard as stone, the mug seemingly appearing whole and good-as-new to the outside world. On the inside however, the glue might inexplicably be wet in spots, soft to the touch, ever threatening to spring a leak without a moment's notice. Even if the glue carefully holds all the pieces in exact position, it will never truly again be a whole vessel, free of blemish or fracture scars, forevermore announcing to the world it once had shattered. 

So you see, August 5 will always remain the one glaring date every year when our family's smooth, colorful, comfortable mug suddenly and violently fractured beyond recognition in 2009. August 5 is, and always will be, our personal day of "before" and "after." 

Yes, I will always hate August 5. But I’m grateful that tomorrow is always just around the corner, bringing promise of a new day full of healing, another day of hope. And for that, I am thankful.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Life of a Grieving Mother

The warm summer day started out just like any other. I was busy organizing the kids, planning dinner, making a mental note to fill the car with gas and pick up a gallon of milk on my way home. Suddenly without warning, I was engulfed by a raging fire. I suffered third degree burns over my entire body—not an inch of me was spared.

People rushed to my side to help but there was nothing they could do to ease the excruciating pain. Medical resources were limited in the face of such devastation. Even their best medications did little to ease the agony. I wasn't sure I could survive such intense suffering. Worse, nobody could tell me how long the agony would last.

The medical community gently advised me that although my physical self would heal, the disfigurement would remain for life. My family, friends, and coworkers no longer recognized me. I no longer recognized myself. Mirrors were to be avoided at all costs.

At first doing little things like sitting up in bed or standing were so excruciating,  they took my breath away. The mere thought of eating, bathing, and dressing left me feeling nauseated, helpless and hopeless.

Pity and sadness were apparent in the eyes of everyone who came to visit. I understood the sadness, but I hated the pity. Why on God's green earth was I spared the peace of death?

Learning to live with complete disfigurement and extreme pain is overwhelming. It is excruciating, slow, and exhausting. Years of great effort is spent trying to master even basic activities. Some days I hurt too bad to even try.

Other days, when out in public, I pretend to be normal so as to ease the discomfort readily apparent in the eyes of those who are brave enough to glance my direction. Some avoid me altogether, adding further angst to my broken spirit. Pretending to be normal is exhausting, and quickly depletes all my reserves. By the time I finish errands and return home, I'm utterly spent.

Worst of all, there is absolutely nothing that I—nor anyone else—can do about it.

For you see, that complete disfigurement and intolerable pain described above is on the inside of my body. The pain is unchanged, the disfigurement is still complete and the scars are permanent. The new life that was thrust upon me that day when my child died caused a firestorm that engulfed every part of my life. The only differences between me and the patient who suffered third degree burns over her entire body is that I lived. And my pain is invisible to the world.

Welcome to the life of a grieving mother.