As I entered the hospital a feeling of dread came over me. What would I find once I entered Cindy’s room; she just lost her 18 month old little girl, Vanessa. Should I even have come, after all we had never been close. When her mother Brenda married my father I was thirty as was Brenda and Cindy only seven. Brenda was not the easiest person to get along with and after eighteen years of me biting my tongue for my father’s sake I had finally had it out with her several years ago. While I kept in touch with my father I had not spoken to Brenda or Cindy in at least eight years.
As I stood waiting for the elevator the events of the prior day played in my mind, the phone call from my sister telling me that Cindy was in a car accident and that Vanessa had died. Vanessa was in a car seat so how could this have happened? As I shook from head to toe the story unfolded. Cindy was driving home with Vanessa who was properly secured in her car seat. This day was no different for Cindy she had travelled the expressway everyday, she knew the route well, it was just a ten minute drive home. As Cindy merged onto the expressway from the on-ramp not far ahead of her there had been an accident between two mini vans. Cindy did not see the accident until she came out of the turn onto the expressway and by that time, while she had tried to stop she could not and her car collided with the two mini vans. The domino effect was what officers at the scene had said.
As fire fighters and EMT’s arrived at the scene they found Cindy pinned in the front seat with a badly damaged leg, while little Vanessa lay quietly in her car seat. Fire fighters went straight to work to get Cindy out while EMT’s reached for Vanessa. As they pulled Vanessa from the car seat they found that she wasn’t breathing and feverishly went about providing CPR, reviving her at the scene. Both mother and child were rushed to the nearest emergency room and taken into surgery.
Many hours into the night Cindy was wheeled from surgery to her room. As she slowly came out of the anesthetic and surround by family she was told of her daughter’s death. Doctors had tried everything possible but little Vanessa who had suffered a fractured skull did not make it through surgery. The doctors likened it to shaken baby syndrome, the sheer force with which Vanessa’s head whipped back and forth from one side of the car seat to the other was what caused the fractured skull. I am told while still groggy Cindy let out a scream that almost shook the hospital. Little Vanessa was brought to the room so all present could give their last kisses and say goodbye. While always a possibility no one present had anticipated the outcome and some ended up in the emergency room for high blood pressure issues, shock and severe anxiety. Cindy’s husband Danny slowly dropped to the floor sobbing for the daughter he doted on, their only child.
There was no malice between Cindy and myself but I had not seen Cindy in many years. I had also not meet her husband Danny nor little Vanessa yet I was compelled to come, as a mother and as a grandmother I was compelled to reach out. The ding of the elevator opening its doors brought me back to the present. Once on the elevator my mind again wandered playing over in my head potential conversations, over and over like a broken record. Everything just sounded so lame. How can one tell a mother that everything will be okay when in your heart you know that nothing can ever be the same after losing a child.
When the elevator doors opened I exited onto the third floor; my body seemed to slow, my breathing now labored by my building anxiety and my legs feeling heavier then when I had started out this morning. Hospitals are the dreariest of places, no matter how much artwork they hang you can still tell that the once bright white walls are now a dingy grey and the inadequate lighting only adds to the uneasiness of patients and visitors alike. The walk down the corridor seemed longer than it should have been and as I neared Cindy’s room I heard several voices and even some light laughter, I entered. There was Cindy looking very drawn surrounded by several of her friends.
Cindy’s room was only slightly more cheery than the halls of the hospital. Perhaps it was the many flowers and plants that continued to arrive throughout the day that provided a little color to an otherwise stark room of two beds and the usual hospital furnishings. The window shades were drawn all the way up allowing the sun to shine in which provided much light but also brought ones eyes to the coldness of the room. I made my way toward the chair that the nurses had Cindy sitting in so that her leg could be better elevated. The doctors had to put plates and pins in the lower part of her leg and some bone grafts would have to be done sometime down the road because much of the bone was destroyed in the accident.
With a glazed look in her eyes she said “you came”. Of course I came, what made you think I wouldn’t was all I could say. I leaned over and hugged her telling her how sorry I was when in a soft tone almost like the whisper of a child she said ”they took my baby”. With that the flood gates opened and tears rushed down my face. Still hugging her I told her that I knew and how very sorry I was. I asked about Danny, her husband. I asked if there was anything I could do for her; all heartfelt but somehow very inadequate. Without her saying it I knew that the only thing she wanted was to wake up from this nightmare and have her baby back.
I settled myself in a chair nearby as Cindy introduced me as her stepsister. Old enough to be the mother of any of these young women I listened and participated in the conversation when and where I could. I took a particular liking to Erica as she was very supportive and protective of Cindy suggesting that she would find a group for Cindy of others who had suffered the loss of a child. That she and Cindy and Danny would all go together. Erica was determined that she was going to help them through this. Cindy just nodded in agreement but one could see that she was still in shock and the enormity of the horrific tragedy had not yet been fully realized either by Cindy or by Danny.
Just as I was getting ready to go Brenda arrived. She entered the room with her eyes red from the tears that kept raging forward for her granddaughter. Angered by flowers that had arrived from a family member whom she and other family members are estranged from, she barely noticed me. Those eight years had taken a toll on her. Always thin and shapely Brenda had now gained an enormous amount of weight and had I not known that we were both only fifty four years old, I would have taken her for a much older person. After she stopped ranting on about the flowers I moved toward her and hugged her while extending my condolences. Together we moved out into the corridor so we could talk. Why did you come here, the viewing is tomorrow and Friday Brenda said. I wanted to see Cindy and I wanted to see here away from the masses. Brenda began to cry uncontrollably and I held her. There is so little one can say in a situation like this and I tried telling her that in time she would move past this and her memories of Vanessa would one day bring back a smile to her face and fill her heart with comfort. Brenda continued to cry and I continued to hold her. She began apologizing for the past and how she never intended to alienate my sisters and me. I told her that it was all in the past and that if she wanted to we would start fresh today. With that I said my goodbyes and told both Brenda and Cindy that I would see them on Friday.
Friday arrived too quickly or perhaps I only felt that way because wakes are never pleasant affairs especially one for a child. As I readied I was mindful of the time because I had to travel by public transportation. Needless to say even with the best laid plans things go array; the buses were slow and I arrived a half hour before the first viewing ended.
Danny’s stepfather is a big mucky muck with the police department and as I entered the funeral home it was filled with officers. No sooner had I stepped into the viewing room when the police EMT’s flew into action, Cindy sitting in a wheel chair near her baby’s coffin had fainted. There was much scurrying to wheel Cindy into the lobby where they could better access her condition. As all this was taking place I looked around the room noticing the screen that had been set up which flashed pictures of little Vanessa at different stages in her short life; tears began to well in my eyes. Flower arrangements of all kinds lined every wall and every corner of the room. Atop the mantle of the fireplace were framed pictures of Vanessa with her bright blue eyes and all with big smiles from ear to ear; by all accounts a happy and energetic child.
As I turned to where Vanessa lay I saw my father and headed toward him. Giving him a kiss and hug I inquired as to how Cindy was. They’re just giving her a sedative he said and then they will bring her back in. We paused by Vanessa for a few minutes and said a prayer for her. She was laid out in a white satin Christening dress and bonnet to match with a pink rosary around her neck and laid down the bodice of her dress. She looked like she was sleeping ever so soundly. She was surrounded by some of her favorite toys; a toy cell phone, her purple Barney dinosaur and some other stuffed animals. Big burly police officers came by and paused, prayed and turned weeping for while they’d seen many things in their line of work; the death of a small child was too much even for them.
I awoke Saturday tired from the late night before. I had decided to stay for the second viewing since I had arrived so late to the first and it was near eleven p.m. when I arrived home. The mass would be starting at ten and I was not going to get there late. By eight I was already making my second connection on the bus.
Sacred Heart was a small but beautiful church. The church was built from big stone blocks and the two entry way doors were painted in a beautiful bright red. As I mounted the steps I had to pass through the police honor guard that waited for the family. Behind the honor guard stood a bagpiper in a traditional kilt. Once inside the church I seated myself in the back pew. I felt it would have been too presumptuous to sit further down when I had not known Vanessa and given my relationship with Brenda. The church had no balcony but was surprisingly spacious however deceivingly small from outside. Beautiful stained- glass windows lined both sides of the church and the bright sun shined through illuminating all the colors of the windows. Churches have always given me a sense warmth, peace and calm; Sacred Heart was no exception. I sat quietly and waited as people flooded into the church packing the pews fuller than at a Sunday mass. From outside I could hear the bagpiper begin to play.
The heavy wooden doors were being opened into the outer entrance hall of the church as the bagpiper played. Atop the shoulders of four young men was the little white casket with gold handles that carried Vanessa. The poll bearers like many in the procession were wearing sunglasses to hide their crying eyes. They walked slowly down the aisle and rested the casket on its dolly. They were followed by Cindy in her wheelchair, her husband Danny and other family members; Cindy still looking dazed and far away from the reality that was all around us. Members of the procession seated themselves in the front pews. All was very quiet as the priest began to speak. He spoke of the tragic accident and of the great sorrow of family and friends. He spoke of Vanessa, just a baby whose life had barely begun. He cautioned about placing blame for God had called his child home. The choir began singing the hymn “Here I am, Lord, Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night…..” When the funeral mass had come to an end the poll bearers again lifted their charge to their shoulders as the procession and other mourners followed behind; and the bagpiper played. Outside on the steps of the church with the honor guard still at attention we all waited. Following the lead of Cindy and Danny out attention was drawn to a young woman standing at the top of the church stairs in front of a wicker basket. Once everyone had exited the church and gathered round she lifted the lid of the basket thereby releasing six beautiful white doves and we watched as they gracefully flew toward the sky escorting Vanessa’s soul to heaven; and once again we all broke into tears, it was all too heartbreaking.
The procession to the cemetery was one that a dignitary would have been proud of. All the officers of the honor guard, the police bagpiper, the police EMT’s, and those officers providing a clear path to the cemetery were doing so on their own time. Every street was blocked from traffic, traffic was halted on the opposite side of street until we passed, and there was no traffic in front of us, none behind. It was the same once we entered the expressway, officers blocked entering traffic then sped ahead of the procession to block the next entrance allowing the procession to move unhindered. Onlookers could only wonder whose funeral was so important that their journey was being delayed. Little could they know just how important this child was to so many. Only in the movies had I ever seen such a sight.
As the long procession rolled through the cemetery stopping when we had reached Vanessa’s final resting spot I noticed that the bagpiper was already in place at the gravesite. All the mourners filed out and waited; we were each given a single flower. One by one we fell into place behind the poll bearers as they brought this dear sweet baby to her final journey.
The priest from Sacred Heart accompanied us to the gravesite and led us all in prayer. One by one with heavy hearts and tear filled eyes we each placed our flower at the foot of the tiny white casket and headed toward the cars; and the bagpiper played. It was the end of several very long, very emotional days. It was just the beginning of a long and hard road ahead for Cindy and Danny.