Christine, my daughter, my daughter Christine
(When my daughter Christine was 17 she was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosis. This event began 27 years of hard work to stay alive. She had good years and bad years. After three years as a Mennonite Central Committee volunteer, she moved to Chicago and spent time with the poor and homeless as well as in a parish nursing ministry. She had completed a degree in nursing at Northwestern University in addition to her B.A. degree in English at Tabor College and had started a master’s of fine arts degree at Wichita State University. She wanted to become a writer and so wrote copiously about her struggle with health as well as her work. The following are journal entries about my grief work after the death of a daughter. She died May 24, 2000.)
May 27, 2000 I kneel to scrub the floor. And to pray. It’s been a long time since I’ve knelt to wash the floor—or to pray. I do each the more modern way—standing, with a long-handled mop I swish across the floor, or sitting, at my desk, with my journal and Bible close at hand.
But the floor is dirty from the many feet that tramped through the kitchen to talk, to cry, discuss, to plan, during the last few days. And the mop is broken. Prayer doesn’t reach the ceiling even from the elevated position of a chair. So I am on my knees.
Yesterday we buried Christine. I am now the mother of a child who died too soon. Her death was expected, yet unexpected. We buried her as she had wished—in a simple pine coffin built by her friends. The staining of the exterior became a celebratory event in the church parking lot with several dozen friends each making a few brush strokes. One took the dress we had chosen for her burial to a fabric store to find matching lining material. She draped the interior beautifully and covered several pillows from her bed to rest her head on. A quilt made by sister Susan draped her feet.
The church cemetery is small, distanced from the hustle of the city. Our small family group and a few friends gathered around the oblong wound in the prairie. White clouds drifted lazily across the clear blue sky. A meadowlark trilled a clear message of joy from a fencepost. A white egret headed for its destination. Life did not stand still for our grief.
The young pastor read Psalm 131, which I had read to Christine the last night she was home: “I have quieted my soul like a weaned child.” Her soul had seemed quiet as we prepared for another long night.
Around the grave a few people sang a hymn. A few people spoke briefly about their loss. When it came time to lower the casket no family member had thought to bring straps to lower it into the grave. We had agreed on minimal mortuary services. No canopy. No artificial grass. No hearse. No ostentatious display of anything. We were burying a loved one who would live on in memory, not in a shiny metal casket. The funeral director had left behind the lowering straps with this different arrangement. Someone had a new ski rope in his trunk. The men took over, business-like, and lowered the casket in its bright yellow sling into its final resting place. Christine would have liked that. We each threw in a small handful of dirt and left. The backhoe waited in the distance for us to finish.
I have moved from the twilight zone of waiting for death to the darkness of grief. During twilight the sun is below the horizon. Somewhere I read that the twilight zone of the ocean is the lowest dept to which light can penetrate. For months now I have waited in the twilight zone for Christine’s death. But now I am in that time period when twilight loses and night wins. Morning twilight leads to sunrise; evening twilight leads to night. The curtain of death has been lowered. Evening twilight has ended. I am in the dark night of the soul. I long for dawn.
On my knees I think over the last weeks. Late in April Chris sideswiped a car, scratching both vehicles and breaking the other car’s side mirror. Her own car was drivable, but it only made it as far as my alley. Battery problem. She was shook up. I was shook up. Whenever she failed to arrive at my place at the agreed upon time, in seconds I pictured her in the emergency room with another heart attack or a car crash. Her eyesight was weakening because of cataracts even at age 46. Her strength was limited, although she refused to admit it.
That evening I drove her to her home. The car stayed with me. I insisted. She was upset because this meant she was dependent on me once again. She knew she shouldn’t be driving, but she feared dependence. I hated having hard feelings between us.
Three weeks before her death, May 4 Chris is getting weaker. She faults me for not letting her drive her car home and causing her to lose self-confidence. She threw up yesterday—again. That is happening more often. She is losing weight steadily.
May 5 Christine is depressed, angry, frustrated, because she sees life disappearing. She grieves the steady departure of the things she loves –taking walks, doing volunteer work, eating foods she loves, writing poetry, talking to friends. Her kidney function is worse. I am discouraged with her. Friend Donna agreed to bring her car to her, but then didn’t because she knew Christine was too weak to drive it. We promised to drive her wherever she needed to go. Her list of medical appointments each week is long. The pastor, Donna, and Kathy have agreed to help with driving.
May 15 Mother’s Day noon meal at my place. Christine walked in looking like death warmed over. Cyanotic, medical student Susan said. I wanted her to spend the night with me. She wanted to go home, so I took her home against my better judgment.
Is Chris dying?
“Why should I stay alive?” she asks. She is now down to the basics of living – trying to eat something that will stay down and trying to sleep—both functions that no long work well. “Something doesn’t feel right,” she said.
The mourning doves coo loudly outside my bedroom window. I heard their plaintive cry for the first time the year we moved to Kansas in 1962, in those weeks before Walter died. Do they mean anything? Are they mourning her approaching death?
May 16 Christine phoned about 10:30 a.m. “Mother, please come and take care of me.” “Can you unlock the door?” I asked. She thought she could. I drove quickly. I found her in night clothes crouched in fetal position in an armchair, barely able to walk. We called the doctor for an appointment. I helped her dress, made some lunch, washed the stacked-up dishes, cleaned the bathroom which had obviously been the scene of several accidents.
Before we left she slowly looked around her home, tastefully decorated, which she loved because it meant independence, if only for a few weeks. I watched her saying silent good-byes to tea parties at the oak table, to checking her e-mail, to cuddling the cat.
The doctor had little help to offer though I brought with me a long list of her medical problems. After about four hours with several professionals I took Chris home with me. The evening meal didn’t stay down. I returned to her house to look after the cat, a morning and evening procedure for the next weeks. People may die but cats have nine lives. I seem to be always in the car.
May 19 I think Christine is throwing up blood. She had a bad night. I did too. The doctor said to bring her to the hospital. At once we were sucked into a medical whirlwind – doctors, tests, decisions, waiting for medical pronouncements. Kidneys, liver, heart are shutting down. I refuse to believe it. Son James wants to call his sisters to tell them if they want to see Christine alive, to come at once. I am convinced if I deny what he says, she will revive as she always had after other similar crises—severe attacks of lupus, heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrest, several arrhythmia episodes. Roger called her “Christine ‘Lazarus’ Wiebe.” Denial stops us from listening. I want a healthy Christine so I can get on with my life.
May 23 Since I brought her to the hospital she has had tests upon tests. One on-call doctor, a stranger, says we are headed toward the end. The other says little. So I decree no more tests. Palliative care only. Tuesday was a little better day, a little perkier. I tell myself she will rise like Lazarus again. It has happened before. It will happen again. Daughter Susan has the same thoughts. She is going to beat death once again.
May 25 Christine died yesterday, in the hospital, alone at night. We wanted to stay but she wanted everyone to go home. So we all left. The call came at 3:30 a.m. that she had passed on. We all rushed there. Lying on her hospital bed, she looked so peaceful, so calm. No more panting for breath, free from the challenge to stay alive. We watched and cried. I touched her cold hands and kissed her face. Son James prayed for us all. The nurses thought he was a preacher. I blessed my three remaining children.
After a momentary lull – breakfast at my place of bacon and eggs for anyone who showed up. Life took on whirlwind speed as we made arrangements with the mortuary, minister, funeral service, reception. People called, bringing food.
May 29 Christine was buried May 27. Joanna left yesterday for Ontario. She had already been gone from home for a week on business when James located her in New York. Susan returned to her medical studies at Kansas City to prepare for board exams postponed to be with Christine. James has a business trip scheduled for tomorrow. Only my grief stays with me. And you, Lord. I know you’re there somewhere. I’m not quite sure where as yet. I am numb with pain.
Her obituary in the paper was preceded by that of a 100-year-old man. That’s the right time for people to die, not age 45.
[To be continued]