“It’s part of why the idea of souls makes sense to me. This place is just like a ropes course for souls. A learning center. It never changes and the collective body of humans can never sustain their progress too too much or else there is not enough to challenge the souls. Imagine all the people living life in peace ✌️ John Lennon – well that wouldn’t really work if you believe we need to be challenged to grow.” —Caitlin O’Hara
I know all the dates.
Yesterday a year ago was the last night Caitlin would ever sleep in her own bed. That night, she was so weak she did not have the strength to sit in the bathtub and let me wash her hair. I was so alarmed I emailed her doctor at 10pm.
On the 16th she was admitted to the hospital for the last time.
I wonder now, how many times in her life was she admitted to a hospital? I don’t know that I could even guess.
After I went home for the night, she texted me
Caitlin: Had to get an echo. Feel sick. And tired and can’t breathe. Love you. Hope you get rest.
Text message: 11/17/16 9:14am
Caitlin: My score is 70
Maryanne: Oh my God. Oh wow. What happened?
Caitlin: Dr hayanga came in. Because of my oxygen
Maryanne: What did hayanga say
Caitlin: He was optimistic. Very. He was Iike, we expect to get offers.
Caitlin: Andrew says we HAVE to be hopeful
Maryanne: We ARE hopeful. This is going to happen.
I drove to the hospital that morning with a light, happy heart. It was finally going to happen. The head surgeon came in and said he had been up all night fielding offers for her. None of them were a match, but with so many offers coming in, and with her score so high, a match seemed imminent.
She was on a lot of oxygen but she was stable, and felt much better than she had at home. Finally, finally, finally, after 2 1/2 years, it was going to happen.
Yesterday, another CF tragedy occurred. Mallory Smith of California, who, like Caitlin, could only be transplanted at UPMC and moved to Pittsburgh to wait, received her transplant in September. Her recovery was hard but she was recovering. She was on the other side. Just a few weeks ago, she celebrated her 25th birthday. Soon after, when the docs removed her last chest tubes, she said, “Today is the happiest day of my life.”
Then a pneumonia took hold in her chest. Without an immune system to help her body fight the infection, she became sicker and sicker. The cepacia bacteria that had damaged her native lungs began to destroy the new lungs as well.
We were all hoping for a miracle of science for Mallory, but she slipped these surly bonds yesterday afternoon, her most beloved people by her side.
She was brilliant and kind and everything wonderful. A few years ago she wrote an essay that contains these words:
My life is a miracle because I should be dead. Your life, even if you’re healthy, is a miracle, because your existence is the result of stars exploding, solar systems forming, our Earth having an environment hospitable to life, and then, finally, millions of highly improbable events accumulating over millions of years to bring you, a capable and conscious bag of stardust, to the here and now.
Acknowledge that miracle. Existing is a rare gift, a privilege. It isn’t a right. Think of all those atoms that never ended up inside a human body.
So pick something, do something, to respect that miracle. Step up to the challenge of making your own meaning out of mere matter. Let the whole, the human, be altruistic, be greater than the sum of the parts, the selfish genes of our genome.
Set an intention and get after it feverishly, frenetically. Give back what we’ve taken by paying it forward, save a life, smile at a stranger, climb a mountain leaving nothing but footprints, inspire a child, take care of your body, bring happiness through laughter, plant a tree, and sometimes, just breathe and exhale a little bit of calming energy to your environment.
Give back in whatever small way you can, any time you can, because we are not small. No one of us can do everything, but all of us can do anything. Do it because we have survived, and that is a miracle. Do it because why wouldn’t you? Do it to justify your life.
I hope Caitlin found you, Mallory.
Caitlin’s friend Shelley and I were just talking about the origins of Halloween—Samhain. She sent along a great link about all that, and about the “thinning of the veil” that supposedly occurs during this autumn/winter transition point: Halloween, Samhain, and the Thinning Veil. She said she was interested in paganism.
I said, “I agree. Connected to the earth, cycles of nature, the spiritual. And then greedy men had to turn it all into religion, for their own gain.”
Shelley: “Yesss.” She talked about having her husband read the link, because he was “all down on Halloween, hating the commercialization aspect of it, the excess. I couldn’t quite describe why I appreciate it and then that article made it really clear, how it’s this last remaining pagan holiday that’s widely celebrated, and wasn’t co-opted by the Church, aka the patriarchy. It’s really a big F U to all that. And a returning to a life more in tune with natural rhythms.”
In Mexico, these 2 days are called Los Dios de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead. People visit their departed loves ones in the cemeteries; they celebrate. Interesting to me now to remember that one of my first published stories was a musing on this holiday and how it compared to Irish Catholicism. I published “Afterlife” almost twenty years ago. The ending reflected my beliefs at the time, that there was “nothing but this moment.”
I’ve changed my mind, although I have no certain opinions anymore, other than that I do believe there is more to life than this life. I’ve believed that for a long time, and even more so these past months, when the signs I receive are outrageous and constant.
Last year on this day, we drove to Schenley Park in Pittsburgh. Andrew was going to play disc frisbee and she and I were going to go for a “walk.” A walk meant that I walked and she rode the little seated scooter she had recently bought for herself. But she didn’t have the energy for it, so we sat in the car and talked instead. It was a beautiful day. We were up on a hill with a view to the city. When the radio began to play “Monster Mash,” she got a crazy little burst of energy. She opened the door and got out and danced for a minute, happy.
The sweatshirt says I AM A CAT. The hood has ears.
My friend Diane just texted:
Thinking of Kitten. Thinking of how great she always looked in any costume she wore🎃
Such happy memories of your parties❤️
Caitlin as Audrey Hepburn was as good as the real thing. Caitlin as Mia Wallace, with a syringe sticking into her chest was typical bad ass Kitten.
( She would shake her head to know that I just had to look up Uma Thurman’s character name because I’ve never seen the movie. She used to get so ticked off at me, for not seeing movies. )
Here’s a little video I just took, of Henry wearing the costume she made in Pittsburgh two years ago. A. Red sweatshirt, bag of leaves, glue gun.
Happy Samhain. Keep your spirits aware.
From a little notebook of Caitlin’s:
April 27th, 2012
I am grateful for —
My apartment & car
My ability to be able to go out and have fun even though I’m sick.
In July of 2014, 6 months into full time care-giving, I realized that I hadn’t worked on my new novel and that it would be easy to continue to ignore it, indefinitely. So I started carving out a daily chunk of time. I would set my timer to 30 minutes and write, with full focus, for at least that amount of time. At the end of each session, I circled the date in red.
It’s amazing what you can do with 30 focused minutes. I managed 254 pages–a decent draft of a new novel. In 2+ years, I did not miss a day until I finally gave up, in the ICU, on December 11.
Last week, on September 18, which was our 35th wedding anniversary and the 9-month anniversary of Caitlin’s transplant, Nick and I walked around Walden Pond.
When we came home, I started setting the timer again — for 33 minutes, in honor of Caitlin. But instead of working on the novel, for the moment I’m compiling parts of this blog and other words into something that I’m just calling “the Caitlin book” for now.
At this point, it is painful. I started at the beginning of the blog, but now I’m into the December posts, which I had not read since I wrote them. Reliving each shock after shock, the kernel of faith, the hope, the desperation, and then that final joy when she went into the OR on December 18 and received lungs.
It’s still impossible to believe things played out the way they did.
But a week does not pass that I don’t receive a blog comment, an email, or a hand-written note from someone, somewhere, who has been bettered by Caitlin’s story. Here is a recent one (accompanied by heart-shaped rocks for Caitlin’s memorial). It’s a reminder of why I want to create something more permanent than blog posts in the ether.
It will not be a story about anger and illness. It will be the story Caitlin wanted told: about light, love, and fierce positivity; about life and afterlife.
I am still figuring out the form it will take.
I told my wonderful friend Jane, in Pittsburgh, a beautiful writer, that I was doing this, and she responded:
Happiest thing in your letter: you’ll start the Caitlin book! This has to be done. This is going to be so wise, so beautiful, such an honoring of life, of soul, of friends, of motherhood, of grief, of CAITLIN. It is going to be a unique gift to the world. And to many many people who suffer terrible illness and loss, But really a gift for everyone. Mothers! Daughters! People who need Inspiration!
I have printed her words out and hung them over my desk, to keep me going.
I’d like to recognize/document summer, and appreciate the continued kindness and interest in what is going on with us.
They started with Caitlin’s “main” ICU nurse, Erin, who visited us with her husband and three charming little daughters (3 under age 5!) in June. They called me “Miss Maryanne,” and Nick, “Uncle Mike.”
In July, Dr. Penny, the CTICU director who did everything she could to save Caitlin, visited us, too.
Emotional times. But anyone who’s lived inside an ICU knows how intense it gets there. These people became part of our lives.
And next week, four wonderful friends/Pittsburgh neighbors are coming. I guess we will always be tied to Pittsburgh.
MORE PICS FROM CAITLIN’S BIRTHDAY
Turns out Nick took some photos I didn’t know about. I’m usually the one taking pictures, so I’m in some, for once.
People have been continuing to send us beautiful heart-shaped rocks. There was even an anonymous, perfect one in our mailbox. Thank you! There is no time limit. We haven’t even started building the memorial, and will always have room for more. Here are some more pictures.
The Islands and Irma
We are worried about our beloved islands and everyone in Irma’s path. We haven’t made many firm plans yet, but going back to St. John is one of them. Like the Vineyard, Caitlin’s spirit is surely there.
I made a good friend in Pittsburgh, Barry Lavery. He was living with ALS and — talk about an inspiration. He had a wise, expansive spirit. I looked forward to our weekly visits/conversations, and after I left, we would text and I would send him videos of New England beauty and the wildlife. He was a lifelong photographer and photography teacher, a bird lover and hawk expert who volunteered at the wildlife center after he retired from teaching at the Art Institute. He was a lifelong student of philosophy, a Taoist. A man who never lost his sense of humor. I will write about Barry in whatever I end up writing about all this. He was certainly a part of the whole story. He left us during the August eclipse and promised he would seek out Caitlin. It’s a welcome thought.
This was his public Facebook profile pic, so I feel comfortable sharing it. It was obviously taken when he was still well, still volunteering at the wildlife center. The hawk connection is so interesting. I still haven’t written about the hawks, but I will.
This hasn’t happened much, but when it does it’s kind of awkward. We think of Caitlin all the time and talking about her is part of this new life.
I keep thinking we can turn back time. An illogical thought, of course, and one which only lasts for a second, but which comes to me every single day.
Inside my kitchen medicine cabinet, I have always tacked up recipes, poems, cholesterol counts, phone numbers of relatives in Ireland. I noticed this calendar last week. Early in 2014, at the beginning of the transplant nightmare, I had taped it up.
I remember looking at all the days still to come and wondering what they would bring. I wrote, What will happen??? Knowing there would be an answer, impatient for it.
Then, a day later, cleaning out a desk drawer, I came upon an email Caitlin had sent me, again in early 2014. I don’t generally print out emails, but had printed this one, and oddly enough, when I mentioned it to Katie, Caitlin’s closest-to-a-sister (is there an easier word for her??), she said that she, too, had just happened upon the same email, which I had forwarded to her, back then. Another funny coincidence.
Caitlin to me:
This is what has been bothering me most about our argument the other night. We need to make this time as ok and as enjoyable as possible. Who knows what’s going to happen once I get that call. I don’t want to live this time as if “this sucks” or “this time is really crappy and stressful.” I just can’t do it and I don’t think it’s true or smart or good for our hearts. I feel like this is your underlying sentiment despite that your brain tells you to “appreciate what we have.” The truth is is that this could be it. As hard as that is to say, once I get the call I’m going into a hugely risky surgery. There aren’t any guarantees. So this isn’t just a time to get through –it’s a time to try to be happy and make something worthwhile of it.
Everything from the bottom up here is unknown- someone has to die for me to get a transplant, so it doesn’t get any more unknown or unplanned than that. The only option is to go with the flow as best we can and that means basically, assessing everything as it comes, and dealing with things but letting them go just as quickly. That includes like stress and freakouts and fights. There’s no way to avoid them so just deal with them.
This isn’t a sad time we should be waiting for to be over. It will be over soon enough and you could be wishing we were back here. Or we could be glad we never have to go back here. The point is we don’t know, we can’t know, and I don’t want to live like I’m just trying to get through it, when this is still my life.
I love you
Sent from my iPhone
I love you.
It is interesting that while you were writing that, I was making coffee and thinking about how I needed to tell you that I feel shame when you have to talk to me like that. You do a very good job of taking the high road, and restraining yourself from fighting and all that.
You are completely right about all of this. Let’s make today a happy day !
We are into September already. September of this year 2017 that has not had Caitlin alive in it. I look at my calendar from a year ago. September 7, 2016: Kitten admitten.
It was the first of three separate hospital admissions she would have. One each: September, October, November.
During the final admission, with such a high score, we were actually happy, expecting that transplant would be imminent, but she was more scared/somber/nervous than I realized. Of course. I see now, reading through much of her stuff, how much she kept inside. One of the things she sent to me then, and which breaks my heart a little:
I haven’t been writing in the blog all that much. I plan to write this story in a more contained form. I’m still figuring out how.
If someone had told us, last summer, that Caitlin would get her transplant and that we would be celebrating her next birthday on the Vineyard, we would have been overjoyed.
Caitlin loved it here. We came here for two magical weeks after her months in the hospital when she was 11. There were teenage years visits to Uncle Mike when he lived here part-time. And during their early twenties, she and Jess would stay at Jess’s mom’s house on the island for restorative weekends. ‘We don’t party,’ Caitlin would say. ‘We drink milk, eat pie, go to Lucy Vincent, and sleep.’
Soon Nick and I started visiting more regularly, too. The last time we were here, in 2013, Caitlin was independent and daytime oxygen-free. Obama was our president. It is truly bittersweet to be here, in every way. But the island has welcomed us.
We are staying in a house we found as if by divine intervention—a house named LovingKindness Retreat, owned by an angel of a woman.
The house has a lot of bird imagery, and the gardens and trees are full of birds.
We decorated it for Caitlin.
On Saturday afternoon, we hosted a gathering of some of Caitlin’s closest friends. It was so special, Jess’s very good idea.
I wish I had thought to get a group shot of everyone. But here are some favorite faces.
After dinner, everyone received an individual pie with one gold leaf candle, a glittery golden bird, and a little box of matches bearing photos of Caitlin on the Vineyard. I asked everyone to ‘please light your candle and make a wish for Caitlin’s spirit and for your own.’
Later, we lit sparklers for Caitlin…..
….and remembered happier years.
Caitlin was born on the 31st at 1:17am, but I spent every minute of July 30th in labor. It’s always been the day where I reflect the most, the day that feels most like her birthday.
After she was diagnosed with CF, on August 1, 1985, I never again took any birthday for granted. But I’m grateful for those two years of ‘ignorant bliss,’ when we thought she was just like any other baby.
33 to 34
On Mondays, I get an email from something called ‘Joe Photo.’ I don’t remember ever signing up for it, but I like it because each Monday brings an image of some random beautiful spot on the planet. This morning I opened my phone just as 7:33 was turning to 7:34. My Joe Photo pic was the first thing in my inbox, and here it is.
–Maryanne, and with love to all from Nick
In the past hour, I’ve heard from a few people who said how nice it was to read Caitlin’s words, to “hear” her.
I’m going to share a few snippets of iPhone video here. I often think that not long ago, people didn’t even have photographs of loved ones. All they had were drawings (if they were lucky) and memory. These are comforting when I can bear to view them.
*Click HD in the lower right corner to enable HD quality.
Most of the videos are of Kitten joking around. She had a great sense of humor.
The next one was a year ago, at the Andy Warhol Museum. We both did “Andy’s Screen Test,” where you stare into a camera for 3 minutes. Playback is 4 minutes.
This was the first go. For some reason, Caitlin decided she wanted to go back and do a second one. She let her hair down and then, seemingly presciently, threw off her oxygen and smiled at the very end. We used the entire four minutes to conclude the tribute film
Pretending to be an old washer-woman, at our apartment in Pittsburgh. This was the fifth take. She kept laughing.
More joking around: