For the past 16 years, I have lived and breathed as a military spouse. In this lifestyle, change is something you grow accustomed to and learn to accept. Of course, acceptance of change is the ideal for someone in my position and, for the most part, going along for the ride is something you know you can make it through. Most of the time. There are some changes that are more difficult to accept.
After nine moves in 16 years, I’ve packed and re-potted my family’s roots over and over. This time, though, it was different. Harder. Not only were we leaving another home, but it was the only place my daughter had ever lived—and I couldn’t take her with me, because she was gone. As I packed our belongings, I knew I was saying goodbye to so much more than a random space. She had lived here. Breathed here. Died here.
For 16 months, we created a world that revolved around her many medical needs. Our family thrived in our creation, for we reached to delight her and our reward was plenty. It seemed that every corner housed a suction machine, oxygen tank, a bouncy seat, a stack of soft blankets and diapers, and piles of books and toys. With three older sons we were accustomed to a noisy household and were defined by joyful chaos. The sound of monitors going on and off in between the hustle and bustle of home health nurses, therapists and respite workers blended in to our busy world. The delight of her twinkling eyes and willing “raspberry kisses” were worth it when the days came to a close and we could be as normal as we could manage.
It was in those relatively calm periods that I would cuddle her in our special place—a cushy brown recliner where a mother and daughter could spend hours together reveling in alone time without any intruders. I would stroke her fine golden hair and sweet little hands, loving her beauty and her smile. I suppose I thought it would always be that way…cuddling in our chair together. As a military mom, I prepare my children for change. I accept it myself. With strength. Pride. Military spouses have to thrive in spite of, or even because of, change. But packing boxes and changing locations pales in comparison to the change that occurs when your beloved child stops breathing.
She was 16 months old. The silence of her ever present monitor was the loudest sound that ever entered our world. It was a change I could not pretend to anyone was “for the best.” Stillness settled around me and the icy numbness of reality whispered the truth into my ears. My little girl would not be coming home. Ever. The abundant noise in our home stopped as suddenly as my daughter’s breath. Nurses stopped coming and agony ripped through me. I couldn’t believe I was expected to function without my daughter…and without anyone’s aid. I wanted to talk about her with other people who had known her. Silence. I wanted to understand why this had happened. Silence. I wanted someone to stop by to cry with me, and to laugh about how wonderful our little girl had been. Silence. I wanted answers to the violent questions that demanded to know how a little girl could be playing one moment in her crib, and then, only an hour later, be lifeless in a hospital. Silence. Not being able to “visit” her, I didn’t know what to do. I carried her blanket with me and slept with her little sweater. We had poster size photos of her from her funeral. I placed them all over the house. In all of “her places.” I would sit and stare at her, my body throbbing with the ache of missing her—in the solitude—in the silence. Everything changed in the blink of an eye, and all I was left with was the cruel sound of silence.
This was a change I could not embrace. It didn’t make sense. It wasn’t fair. Our chair sat empty because I couldn’t bear to sit in it without her—in the silence. Her bedroom lay under relentless dust only bothered by my groping fingers as I snuggled clothes that had once been close enough to her skin to embrace the scent of her body. Her sweet, living body.
I knew that this new normal of panic attacks and rooms where her memories wafted through my heart would soon change. As a military family, I knew all too well that there would be a day that we would have to leave my daughters only home. I knew that someone else would paint over the colors in her room when we left, would change everything that her eyes had sparkled over, would leave nothing as it had been when she was part of the world.
As I packed boxes to leave that place—the only home my little girl had ever known—
Memories of the despair that her absence demanded poured over me. As a military family, we know that for each one of us, no place is ever truly a resting place. We had been forced to accept that not only would our daughter not be coming “home” with us, but she would never make a new “home” with us; wherever we would be called to live, she would not be with us. Our new home would be without her essence. The walls would not ring with the joy of having her home. Her scent…would be absent. It would be like losing her all over again.
It was as this thought thrashed through my body that I understood that I could only lose her again if I didn’t fight to bring her essence with me.
So I fought. And won. It is because of my undying need to be close to my daughter that I embellished our new home with photos of our little girl. Her smile is close and comforting and fills my heart with unexplainable love and joy…and even peace. Change is part of a military family, but there are some things that we can deny access to the change forced upon us. Keeping our daughter close to us is something death has failed to prevent. No matter where I live, she will be with me—that is something that will never change. The sound of silence now has the whisper of raspberry kisses.
Amy O’Connell lives in Springfield, VA. She is military spouse and the mother of four, three boys and her Precious Baby Girl, Madeline. Madeline was born July 4, 2009 with Down Syndrome and Congenital Heart Defects. Madeline died from heart and other medical complications, she was 16 months old. She writes about the antics of her three sons and her beautiful baby girl on her blog, Life According to John. You can read more about Madeline and her brothers at www.lifeaccordingtojohn.wordpr