Last Wednesday morning, my niece Keren woke up with labored breathing. My sister Loren called me to come take care of the younger girls, Clare and Evelyn, while she took Keren to the doctor. On the way, Keren stopped breathing.
Loren turned toward the emergency room and called 911. An ambulance met her along the way and took over the efforts to resuscitate Keren, but she didn’t come back to us.
I’ve been writing, it’s how I think. But I haven’t share it broadly yet. Today I will. This is long; it’s a lot, I know. And you don’t have to share this time with me if you don’t want to. But I want you to know, if you read, that we do not mourn like those who have no hope. We rejoice.
Loren and Kraig chose a few verses to go on Keren’s memorial service bulletin/flyer thing. One was Isaiah 57:1-2:
The righteous pass away; the godly often die before their time.
And no one seems to care or wonder why.
No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come.
For the godly who die will rest in peace. (NLT)
Thursday, 29 January 2009 – 6:30 AM
The conversation is forever imprinted on my memory:
There it was, bald-faced, laid out in black and white. I’ve always hated euphemisms for death, but the words were so stark by themselves.
“Are you alright?”
“Don’t tell the girls yet.”
“I’m gonna try to come over to you soon.”
To hang up that phone and turn around to face Keren’s little sisters doing watercolors at the kitchen table was so hard. “Who was zat?” Clare asked.
“Aunt Jessie.” I kept my voice light.
“She might be coming over soon.”
I returned to emptying the dishwasher. I needed to keep my hands busy. Later in the day that wasn’t always true. I could help, and I did, with folding laundry and washing dishes, and organizing cupboards, but Jessie is the task-oriented one in crisis. Loren’s the dreamer, but Loren’s the one who’d just lost her daughter. I’m somewhere in between, always have been. I tried to help where I could, but sometimes, like Mary, I just needed to sit with Loren or Kraig.
This is going to hit Kraig hard, I thought, looking at the picture on the bookshelf of him and Keren, joy pouring out of their eyes into each other’s. Mid-afternoon I looked into the family room and saw Kraig sitting on the end of the couch, surrounded by people but completely alone. A piece of his heart is gone, my brother, my big brother. Give me pen and paper and I can write, but yesterday I had no words. I sat down next to Kraig, just to be with him.
Every once in a while it washes over me again, Keren died. I see her waxen body with its blue-tinged lips lying still on the bed in the hospital room, so still.
“She wasn’t my Keren-girl, even then,” Loren said about when she tried to get her breathing again and called the ambulance.
She was gone, so quickly. I think I may have known it then, though I held onto a hope. The first call, “Keren stopped breathing on the way to the doctor’s. I’m following the ambulance now.” I hoped the paramedics could help, but I think I knew she was gone.
“That was mommy; Keren’s very sick, so can we pray for her?”
“Is the new house ready?” Clare asked. A seeming non-sequitor.
“You’re in your new house, Clare,” I said.
“No, the new house Jesus is building for us. In heaven.”
“Oh.” Maybe Keren’s new house was occupied right then, and she could run, and jump, and talk, and do so many things that her body on this earth couldn’t do. “I don’t know if it’s ready yet, Clare. But it will be a wonderful day when it is.”
“But you don’t want to die!” Clare said.
“Not right now, no.” I smiled at the girls and gathered them in my arms. “Let’s pray for Keren.” Unable to tell them everything that was happening, I couldn’t pray with any specificity for my little niece, so I repeated the same words over and over, “God, take care of Keren.”
Thursday, 29 January 2009 – 3:00 PM
Her skin had a yellow tinge to it. Like wax. Her beautiful eyelashes lay spread across her cheeks. Those eyes-deep, blue, sparkling-would never open again. I had to grasp her hand. I needed to touch her once more. The face wasn’t her, but her hand was still warm, and her fingers still curled as they always did. No grip, just her never-straight fingers. Then I kissed her forehead, quickly – barely a touch, really. Someone started praying, and I took Loren’s hand on one side. I wanted to take Keren’s, but she wouldn’t have closed around my fingers, so I just lay my hand atop hers above the blanket.
Larry’s prayer was exactly what we all were thinking. How much Keren can do now in heaven that her body would never let her do on earth! I was so glad he was there, that he could put into words our gratitude for Keren’s life, for every moment God lent her to us. We received her with open hands, and when she’s taken from them, we cannot grasp her back, that’s not part of the deal. When you give her over to God, you have to trust Him with her.
The room began to clear out and I turned to kiss Keren’s forehead one more time. That peck earlier wasn’t enough. Her skin was cool, slightly chilled, even – wax, like wax. My lips held the chill, and I wanted to wipe them, but I wanted to keep that kiss. I fought the urge to rid myself of the chill…I feel it now. Keren was no longer there.
Thursday, 29 January 2009 – 9:00 PM
Sometimes the moments of normalcy are worst of all, for, right in the middle it all washes back over me. I hear the words again, Keren died. And I see her small body lying on the bed at the hospital, covered with a sheet – so pale, ivory, so still.
The busy house, a-bustle with adults and kids finding dinner and vacuuming floors and washing up dishes. And we’re all together so there’s laughter and children running around. I stand at the kitchen sink and the words echo in my head, Jessie’s voice on the phone, “Keren died.” And I see it all again. My heart aches, my throat constricts, my fists clench. I take a deep breath; I shed a few tears perhaps, and then I take a rag and wipe the counter. Even when tragedy strikes, life goes on.
Monday, February 02, 2009 – 10:00 AM
Can I say how wonderful it was to see people yesterday? Over and over again, the words came out from my lips, “It’s so good to see you!” We wish the circumstances were different. We wish we didn’t only gather for funerals and weddings. But these friends, this family, they are beloved.
Saturday evening we gathered together, my family. My whole family. It’s always hard to explain our relationship to outsiders. For six and a half years we’ve been able to say, “We share a niece.” That first niece is gone now, others remain, but among ourselves we don’t need them to explain our connection. We know we’re sisters, brothers, parents, children; somehow, long ago, two families were forged into one. We came together long before marriage or shared grandchildren bonded us with legal or blood connections. Last names no longer mean much: Givens, Warnemuende, Bash, King…it’s one family.
It’s my family. Together we’ve shared hard times, good times, tears, laughter, grief, joy. Governments have been struck down; bombs have fallen; marriages have been celebrated; children have been born. Together.
Now we face a struggle that may be the hardest yet. We bury a child. But we look at the earth-suit that held her for six and a half years and we know she’s no longer there. Her three-year-old sister attempts to understand why she looks different. “Keren’s not there, Clare,” we say. “Keren’s with Jesus.”
Kraig points out that Clare probably never saw Keren’s body before. She knew Sissie as a person, not as an object, a thing. Clare asks about Keren’s eyebrows, those Warnemuende eyebrows, “What are those?” We have to chuckle, we’ve always thought how distinctive they are, but Clare’s never seen them before; they were merely the housing for Keren. Keren was within.
Grammy and Clare have a talk: “You know when you go to Barakel, Clare? And you put up the tent and you go inside and there’s all sorts of fun and activity in there? But then, when you’re finished, you take down the tent and undo the poles and it’s just an empty piece of cloth?” Clare begins to grasp it: that body is just the tent Keren lived in.
Evelyn is just forming words. “Sissie sleeping. Resting. Jesus.” Yes, Bug, Sissie’s resting. And you won’t remember her laughs and squeals. But you’ll know her heart, because your Mommy and Daddy will never forget it. And they’ll teach it to you, and to the next child who’s coming.
Keren’s tent was “damaged” by earthly standards. She couldn’t walk, or talk, or eat. She flung her head from side to side because it was something she could feel. She poked her fingers in her eyes or down her throat, driving us all to distraction at times. But a look in her eyes, deep into her eyes, revealed the person trapped inside that stiff, awkward body. And when you looked, she looked back, and put out her hands and brought your face close to hers, and wrapped her arms around your neck, and hugged as tightly as she could. The life inside that tent wasn’t damaged in any way; it was the kind of life that we all wish we had: loving not only our neighbor, but the stranger, as ourselves.
Sunday, 08 February 2009 – 4:30 PM
“Well, I’m back.” So ends Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Sam returns to his home and family after seeing Frodo sail away from the Grey Havens, having been entrusted with the red book to continue writing the story. He returns home.
I’ve often wondered, when I’ve returned from a long journey back to the world I left, how Tolkien knew – the feeling of alienation, of difference – that you’ve changed, but no one really knows or understands. Had Tolkien been on a great journey? Had he had that experience? And the telling of the tale – I’ve wondered about that, too. Was it some innate instinct of the storyteller within that made him leave a character to tell the story? Or had he, having had some great experience, have lost those with whom he’d journeyed, attempted to tell their story to a misunderstanding world?
Before Keren was born we nicknamed her Baby Baggins. Loren and Kraig loved Tolkien’s stories and the first film was still in theatres when Loren found out she was pregnant. The theme continued with her birth: she was small, like a hobbit, and she even had pointy ears. Loren and Kraig saw even then that her journey would be something like Frodo’s, arduous, hard, painful, and the only way through would be with the help of friends.
When the third film came out, the final song, “Into the West,” sung by Annie Lennox, caught our hearts. For Tolkien, the West is heaven, and Frodo goes there, leaving Sam with the commission to tell his story. The song was also written in honor of a young man, a friend of the filmmakers, who died of cancer while they were making the film. Sometime after Loren heard the song, she said to me, “I hate to think about this, but if Keren dies I want this song at her funeral service.”
Loren remembered that last week, and once again we were reminded how like Frodo’s Keren’s journey through this life was. And our role, her family and friends, was confirmed to us as well – we have gone on this journey with her and remain behind to tell her tale.
Well, I’m back. And I wake in the morning and make and serve coffee, and I walk through the grocery store or fill my tank with gas, and all around me, speaking to me or going about their own business, are people. And when I look at them I want to scream out, “Can’t you see? Can’t you see that I’m different? My world has changed and I’m looking at you through a lens that has transformed my view. I know I look the same, but I’ve changed; I’m different!”
I want to tell Keren’s story. I want to write it in the red book and share it with those who did not take this journey with us. They need to see, to experience the changed world I know. And perhaps their lenses won’t change as definitely as mine has, but even one divot will alter their view. The story must be told by those who remain.