FEBRUARY 23– Eleven

Caitlin O'Hara, Cystic Fibrosis, Little Matches

A powerful pulsing of love in the vein

We are in Arizona. We packed up Pittsburgh, sent all those boxes back to Massachusetts and came to another ‘bigger-than-we-are’ place to regroup.

Pittsburgh was tough. It was also comforting. We were able to see a few of the good friends we made there. Mary and Ralph, our wonderful neighbors in our equally wonderful building, hosted a gathering for us on Friday night. We included some new friends: Diane and Mallory Smith, who, like us, had to relocate to Pittsburgh to wait for a lung transplant for Mallory. They’ve only just arrived. They are from LA, a crazy long way from home. We introduced them to some of our Pittsburgh people.

People have asked, as did Mallory’s mom, Isn’t it hard to be with people who still have a chance? Or who have had successful transplants? Of course. But is it easy to be with them once you overlook your own pain and come to love them and realize that you want only good things for everyone? Yes.

Organ donor awareness must continue, please.  For the brilliant and beautiful Mallory, and for everyone else.

Boarding a Greyhound in Pittsburgh…

On Monday the 20th, at 5:45am, we left in the dark. It was so hard to walk out of our home of the last two years, to take one last look and close the door.

We had arranged for our favorite driver, Jim Stanley, to pick us up. You feel safe with Jim. He is an ex-Marine and an all-around good guy. He drove Nick and all of our visitors back and forth from the airport the past two years.

Jim is also a very talented acoustic guitarist. As we merged onto the on-ramp, he said it was hard for him to talk about hard things, but that he wanted to tell us that our family had inspired him, that witnessing the support of all our friends and family had made a strong impression on him.

He said, ‘Your daughter was teaching herself guitar.’ And told us that after we flew in from Boston picked us up, he had been inspired to do something he’d planned to do for 20 years. His brother, he said, had battled cancer on and off for years, and had lost his struggle at age 41. The two used to play guitar together and Jim had always meant to record a favorite song of theirs.

Well, he’d finally done it. He said, ‘I’d like to play if for you and if you like it, I’ll send it to you.’

The Sound of Silence filled the dark car. A gorgeously complicated acoustic arrangement that was perfect, beautiful. Nick and I clutched hands, and he passed me a tissue, and as we sped along the highway, high in the sky was a waning crescent moon, inverse to the waxing crescent moon that had hung outside the medical jet when we flew to Pittsburgh, 3 years earlier, so full of hope for a speedy and successful transplant.

Our plane departed from gate 33. A few hours later, we landed in Phoenix.


In July of last year, I wrote on this blog about coincidences, and about how Caitlin once had something called a soul reading done. The reader had asked Caitlin if anything had happened to her when she was 11?

Age 11 was the time she came very close to dying. After the year of surgeries and complications she endured (she would hate me using that word–she so disliked drama regarding her health), Arizona was our first family trip.

I was struck, back then, by how calming this place was. It still is. We’ve been hiking the desert mountains every morning. It’s so quiet, so still. There are so many birds to remind us of Caitlin. We’ve shouted her name into the canyons and the echoes are pleasing.

Penny sightings

I had never heard of pennies from heaven until about a few years ago, and then only from my sister, the very practical Kate, an RN. But Kate is also rather intuitive, and when she says something in her no-nonsense voice, I tend to listen, even though this particular  phenomenon seemed too far-fetched to make any sense.

But I’m just an earthling, a human. What do I know? And anyway, regardless of how coincidences happen, the way you read coincidences can be helpful with self-reflection. Here are some recent, striking penny stories:

We knew people could have ‘dry runs’–offers of lungs that didn’t work out, but we didn’t really expect it to happen more than once. At one point during the last week that we crisis-waited, I went into the hospital bathroom I used each morning and saw 4 pennies. She’d had 3 dry runs at that point. I hoped those pennies meant she would indeed get a transplant, get one more chance.

Washroom pennies

She did. She got her transplant on the 4th offer, on December 18th, one of the happiest days of the last three years. But it was all too late for her beat-up body.

On December 20th, as they turned off the ECMO machine, I saw that there was a penny on it.

On December 21, Nick and Andrew and I walked over to the Fairmont to get out of the apartment, to get a quiet lunch, to get out of our heads. The Fairmont is two blocks from our apartment, and to get to it, we had to walk through all the holiday goings-on–the ice rink and gingerbread house display signs, the European Holiday Market stalls in Market Square.

On our way back, as we were walking by the ice rink, an urge came out of nowhere. ‘Let’s go see the gingerbread houses,’ I said. I veered sharply to the right to lead the guys toward the building where they were on display. Near the entrance, I saw a bunch of pennies on the ground. I picked them up, counted them.

The day-after pennies

There were 11.

I put them in my pocket and walked into the crowded atrium containing the giant displays of gingerbread houses. Standing right in front of me was Kwesi, a young man who had a lung transplant in 2014. I’d only met Kwesi twice before. I knew he lived miles from downtown. I couldn’t believe he was right there in front of my eyes and I almost couldn’t speak. But I did, and I stammered something about Caitlin.. and then we left.

Because I’d had no real interest in seeing the gingerbread houses. I’d seen what I was supposed to see. 11 pennies and a successful transplant recipient.

11 Mourning Doves

11. 11 has been knocking on our heads. Before coming to Pittsburgh to help us pack, my sister had 3 instances of mourning doves settling in the branches of a tree outside her window, not on the ground the way they normally visit.

Each time, the branches contained 11 mourning doves. Each time, she took a pic.

Back in the old AOL days, I sometimes lurked inside a chatroom full of astrologers. One of them struck me as bright and very good. Once, I emailed her a quick question about Caitlin. She ended up responding at length, gratis.

First, I need to tell you that the prime focus of Caitlin’s chart is her sixth house. For all intents and purposes she has 4 out of 5 of what I call the “god” planets there. The god planets are the planets that represent energy we think of as coming from God, as opposed to those energies we ordinarily think of as “human.” And 3 out of those 4 were, until recently called “malefic”….Pluto, Saturn, Uranus. That is way too much energy for one house, especially one having to do with health.

She then told me that Caitlin was lucky to have survived the year she was 11, that there had been great stress on her from several angles in her chart.

During her wait for transplant, Caitlin’s lung function hovered around 20 percent of normal. Last week, I found a pulmonary function report from the year she was 22, 11 years ago. Her lung function was averaging 35-40 (bad) then, and at one point was as low as 24.  Those were the years when she really declined, when she started needing oxygen at night, and to fly, when she avoided stairs and much of regular life.

She lived with invisible struggles for a very long time.

PFT report, age 22

It’s crazy, but 30 percent can look like this:

Screen Shot 2017-02-22 at 3.46.46 PM.png
One tough kitty.

CF. It’s a demon and it’s mostly, until its cruel end, invisible.

So maybe 11 is a reminder that we got 22 ‘extra’ years. That Caitlin lived 33 years with a killer disease during this time of miracles and wonder that we live in.

It does provide some comfort.


PS to those in the know:

Across the Universe is playing in my hotel coffeeshop right now, as I get ready to publish this post.

Author: kittenupdates

I am the author of CASCADE and LITTLE MATCHES: A Memoir of Grief and Light

23 thoughts on “FEBRUARY 23– Eleven”

  1. Me too, just sitting her weeping deep, deep, heavy sobs. Gutted. I am just overwhelmed the ability you have, Maryanne, to share your love with us and the power of the symbols and the fucking horrible loss. There are monsters walking the earth but a beautiful soul like Caitlin isn’t. Why? We can’t know… but somewhere she knows. And my mom knows. And one day, if we’re lucky they’ll tell us. I want to believe they will. (And there will be a couple of little white dogs that I’ve loved there too.)

  2. And, with the PS, tears. Magical. Thank you for posting, I want to curl up inside this blog post right now. Eleven has always been my special number as I was born on an 11. I’ve been listening a lot to The Sound of Silence lately too, Simon and Garfunkel was mostly all I played for Juni in her hospital room when she was a baby. And I don’t think I’ve told you but Across the Universe has been important for so long I even considered getting a Jai Guru Deva Om tattoo at one point (my Dad was also a follower of Maharishi).

    Two nights ago I had a dream that the name Caitlin was once again on top of the most popular baby names list.

    All the 11s, and the 22s, and the 33s here. No coincidences. ❤ ❤ ❤

      1. I don’t know! I picked it from a stack of many signed ones. The first one I picked up was a normal signature but for some reason I put it down and picked up another one and it was the fun signature. Is yours like that too?!

  3. Thought of you this morning. Was going to drop a note to say that You and Nick continue to be in my prayers. But You beat me to it. Thank you for the post. It is comforting and somehow full of good energy. For the record….. The Barrys have a thing for pennies too. I save them. They are in one of Maura’s old pocketbooks that hangs in my front hall. They are always accompanied with good news. We laugh about it now. I love signs and symbolism. It is my good Irish sentimentality. Going back to our heritage. Hope your time in Arizona is peaceful. Be kind to yourself. My best….. Lorraine

  4. Thank you again, Maryanne, for this beautiful post, for letting us continue with you on your journey. I thought of you and Nick last week, when I was in DC for the AWP conference. I attended a reading by Aminatta Forna, a writer who spent part of her childhood in Sierra Leone. Some of her writing deals with the trauma of the war in that region, and she began talking about why she thinks some people who experience trauma are resilient; they are able to move ahead and handle it, while others are so damaged that negativity consumes their lives. She put it in the context of stories, which I loved (and knew you would too). She said, “It’s how you tell yourself about the event. If you tell the [traumatic] story, and find a way to make it matter, then you can value it and find the positivity to go forward. But if you continually tell the story of loss, pain, and bitterness, you are ‘stuck.’” I thought of how some previous readers on this blog mentioned they knew people who were stuck in their grief, and how your writing shows such inspirational resilience. So, thank you for continuing to tell this story. You’ve made it matter to all of us in the most important way. Knowing Caitlin through you, and sharing your journey of grief and healing, is helping us live our lives and be better people.

  5. I know I’ve been remarkably quiet over the past several months/years. But I do want you to know that not a day goes by without you 3 (well 4 including Henry) included in my prayers. Bob has told me he does the same. We’ve read every single post. We cannot imagine enduring what Cat endured nor what you & Nick are trying to adjust to now… I’m loving my husband, grandkids and thanking God
    for all we have. Imperfect, yes, but we have each other. love to all of you. And thanks for keeping up the posts, it is a great tribute to Caitlin, and a reminder to all of us that love doesn’t just end. It grows.

  6. Wow, Maryann. As a Math person who thinks a lot about the power of numbers, as soon as I read that Caitlin’s 11th year was a tough one, I thought to myself, “There’s gotta be something to her having lived three times that age. How cool that she lived to the year that was a multiple of 11.” Thank you for continuing to share your incredible stories & memories like this one. I’m praying for & thinking of you & Nick always. XO Mary Ellen

  7. Dear Maryann, eleven is a power number. A high energy number. A special number. I’m a big believer in signs. It’s wonderful that these came to you, but how I wish she were here with you.

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