So it’s been a year since Caitlin’s transplant. A fact that’s as hard to believe as her absence.
This post from that day, if the lungs had come a month earlier, before the weeks on ECMO…. … too painful to think about, really.
I’m going to let Caitlin’s words take over, with thanks to Kate S, an old friend of hers who has most recently, graciously, shared her correspondence. The “Caitlin book” that I’m writing has a lot to do with this search for faith.
Emails with Kate
can i ask you something personal? If you don’t want to answer I understand. I have never been that religious but i have always had faith. i hope that makes sense to you. as i get older i struggle more and more with the reality side of my brain and the side that wants to hope and pray for the best, and have faith. i am always so interested in how people like you — really smart people that is — stay so solid in their beliefs and faith. i don’t know, i guess i am just curious about it. then sometimes things happen that make me feel like i am more connected, and that it is possible. i’ve been trying this thing where i “dialogue” with my illness. it was recommended by an astrologer who did my chart, and it is something i kind of do a lot anyway but in a different way. its like visualizing sessions of going through your body and imagining healing. but this takes it a step further with actual talking to your disease. anyway i was lying in bed this morning doing that for like half an hour. andrew was there, he was like half awake, we were just laying around. anyway i never said i was doing that. then when he got up and was walking into the living room he just said casually “i feel like god was in the room this morning.” It was so odd, that is not a normal thing for him to say (obviously). It was just kind of cool.
i am pretty open about everything, but religion is one thing where I am both curious and less knowledgeable. There is so much craziness around religion, that I am always compelled by the smart and grounded ones who find their faith in it, like you. And there have certainly been times when I have reached for it (and it is christianity, because that’s what I was raised with, however weakly). When I was 11 I was very sick for a long time, and I had a hospital physical therapist who would come in and do chest pt (a treatment for CF). She would talk about God and Jesus, almost in an awkwardly preachy way…she was southern. But I was so sick and so detached from anything normal that an 11 year old kid thinks about, that I just fell into it. And she encouraged me to pray and so I did, and I prayed a lot all through my teenage years. And I can still remember her talking to me as I stared out the window and I can’t believe that was an 11 year old kid. It was like I stopped being a kid that year.
When I got older I got interested in reincarnation. Stories of children remembering details of lives that they couldn’t possibly have known, the idea that we are here to learn lessons in this life. Figure out what those lessons are, be good people, and evolve our souls. The idea of souls. It was fun to read about, yes, but mostly the ideas of reincarnation resonated with me. I was interested in the fact that most of the religions embraced the idea very early on in their inception (or so I have read), and even though now it is considered maybe “new age-y” it was in fact very “old age-y.”
When I was very sick that time, my mother had an experience of lying on the couch in our living room sobbing, just crying really hard. Thinking, how will this ever be ok. She said she heard a voice say clear as a bell “have faith.” She has told me this story lots of times since then. She says it was so clear she sat up immediately and stopped crying. Yesterday she bought me a card. She picked it based on the quote on the cover by Frances Hodgson Burnett (author of the Secret Garden) “Hang in there. It is astonishing how short a time it can take for very wonderful things to happen.” She came home and opened it to give it to me and inside it said “Have Faith.” She didn’t even know that, …how odd?! And wonderful.
Anyway — things like this, and the moment with andrew, are just examples of many validating moments I have had during whatever my spiritual journey is. They have made me believe that there is something there. Sometimes I am more connected to it, and sometimes I am not. Perhaps that is the drawback of not having a solid religion to keep you connected, to draw from when you feel like you are losing faith. I don’t know. This might all sound insane to you. I don’t want to think of myself as one of those people that everyone seems to be nowadays which is just “i’m spiritual but not religious,” because I think it is more than that. It is more than just liking the idea of something. I think you have to believe in the GOOD of something, solidly, in order to stay the course.
Email to Nick
So what I always loved about Early Christian art was that it was so …early. Really the beginnings of Christianity , and thinking about what that meant is neat for me. This was years before even the crusades, the first really violent time in the name of “Christ” (well except for Christ himself obviously ). So there was violence of course … In Rome and in the Byzantine empire. But Christianity hadn’t even reached a point yet where people were “fighting in the name of the Catholic Church” etc and things were still more modest.
You can see the change in how Christ is portrayed in the art in these small churches. He’s still a shepherd but he’s wearing roman robes and looks more regal. So it’s the beginnings of it…. But it’s unlikely that these religious people then were implementing awful atrocities on people
I think the area seems beautiful and peaceful. But also something I can’t really place, and don’t necessarily need to figure out. I just would like to go.
There is always going to be bad in the world. I think that is what makes being good so important.
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.
April 27th, 2012 I am grateful for — My parents My friends My apartment & car My dog 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 everysingleday.
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:
In December, we barely knew what we were doing as we quickly put together the most beautiful funeral service we could. We wanted to include everyone who wanted to come. But the chapel at the cemetery was tiny. We could only accommodate 100 or so people. Plus it was the holidays. A few dear friends were away and we didn’t want to put pressure on anyone to come. So we held our small service and I announced that we would have a big memorial service at some future time.
But honestly, the service on December 30 could not have been more perfect. The large, luminous portraits of Caitlin gracing the walls, the stained-glass windows, the music, the friends who spoke, Uncle Mike’s tribute film, the service program, the atmosphere–all was perfection and we can’t imagine repeating it.
So there will not be a memorial service, per se.
A Dedication, Instead
From the very beginning, Nick knew that he wanted to build a private mausoleum for Caitlin, one made of stone. In December, he found a beautiful little knoll at the cemetery and arranged to procure it. He originally planned for the new structure to be ready in July, in time for Caitlin’s birthday, but instead we had to deal with six months of red tape from the town. At long last, we have now received permission, and Nick will build something beautiful, magical.
We are collecting heart-shaped rocks to use in its design and construction. We found a few on the beach at Provincetown last week.
And others have already started collecting them for us!
If you would like to contribute a heart-shaped rock to Caitlin’s memorial, we would be honored to include it. The address is 11 Cordaville Road, Ashland, MA 01721
At some point after it is constructed, we will have a dedication of some sort. I will post about it when we do. I’d like to think it could be soon, but…….
What the Medium Said
One of Caitlin’s friends, back in January, visited a medium, as I’ve mentioned before.
Medium to friend: Do you know if her parents were thinking of putting a memorial place that has some rocks in it? She’s showing me no, not Plymouth Rock but rocks. They may move rocks around, make sitting places on the rock? Not a place where people would frequently visit but you would walk past it or something.
Friend: A mausoleum.
Medium: In the 15-16 years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve never been shown a mausoleum. I think Jim Morrison is in a mausoleum. Okay, she’s saying “yes yes yes. New is the way to go.” She is talking about creating a shrine or mausoleum–they look the same to me. She’s saying, “No, we make our own garden, a place where people can come and visit, where no one can bulldoze it.”
Medium: I feel that … so she passed away before Christmas?
Medium is quiet a moment, says she’s trying to understand what she’s being shown. Then says:
It’s a rainy day, people in cars, windshield wipers… brave ones endure cold rain, It’s fall, close to Thanksgiving, before Christmas, we have come together for an unveiling of something to do with rocks, a place made of stones, beautiful stones, she’s saying “this will be my gift, the gift of the people to me, and I will love this gift, she’s putting trust in people to do it as they are inspired to do. I feel that someone in the group of friends has what was supposed to be my Christmas present, a mug or something, that we are toasting, and we are saluting life. Like when Jewish people say l’chaim, toasting to life, ‘And I will be there with you.” I also see where this garden will be, there will be a few stones put in place on the ground, flat stones, I don’t know if they are man made or with hand prints, something written in them, cement? We are writing love messages in stone or concrete that are there forever, “a beautiful shrine in my memory and I love it.”
Notes & Cards
To everyone who has sent messages, thank you so much. I’ve been slowly trying to get through them and respond with postcards I made. (I want to.) But there are hundreds, and at some point someone ‘helpfully’ took a bunch of them out of their envelopes, so I don’t always have addresses and can’t always read handwriting. I hope to eventually write to everyone. Please know that all the reaching out has meant everything to us.
At an event the other night, someone asked me how we were doing, said, “There must be good days and bad days?”
Actually, every day is a mixture of both good and bad. Sometimes more bad than good. That’s the honest answer.
This is a tough month, her birthday month. She loved being a July baby, a Leo. We will be celebrating the day on the Vineyard with some of her closest friends, remembering how much she loved that island, and grateful that she had so many good life memories.
A note she wrote to a good friend while waiting in Pittsburgh:
i am longing for a new england feeling day. even as i type it i can feel the feeling of just being somewhere like that. going into a place to get an iced coffee. heading to the beach. walking around a rental house. packing a tote bag. ugh, i miss martha’s vineyard. for a couple summers we were renting this little house in chilmark. i found it the first year, and it was actually kind of a dump. very rustic, but clean…and i LOVED it. my mom liked it too, but only for a week, and my dad was skeeved out by it haha. but i dont know what it was, i kind of LOVED that it was so rustic. my friend jess’s mom lives in chilmark, and so jess would always go there too, and some of my happiest memories in the past few years are of being there in the summer when she is there. because her house was right down the road. we’d have our cars there, and it was like being on vacation together, but also in high school…because we were “living at our parents” sort of. i’d call her and pick her up 3 mins later…we’d drive around, spend basically all day and night together doing lazy stuff. and i would be a total hippie, and never watch tv, and read all the time. one summer for 2 weeks i didnt wash my hair. hahahaah you are probably so grossed out. i would take showers of course, and go in the ocean and get it wet, but i didnt wash it, i just would braid it and brush it and keep it tied up in a scarf. it was weird, it didnt even look that bad. and when i went home to boston i washed it and it was AMAZING – my hair was like a commercial.
anyway i miss that so much. its probably the most relaxed ive ever been.
I am not the first person to compare time to a river, but from my desk here, the comparison is ever-present, the imagery apt. Drop something into the river and off it goes. It’s never coming back.
It’s six months today. And a Tuesday, just as it was then. Another solstice.
And the great world spins.
Inspirations–4 of Them
When Caitlin was born, she weighed 9.4 lbs and measured 21 inches long. For the first year of her life, until she started developing one pneumonia after another and ‘failed to thrive,’ she was in the 95th percentile for height & weight. And when she was little, I mean really little–1st-2nd grade little– she loved to run. She could run as easily as anyone else and always won the races.
Years later, we would all do 23andMe and see that she and her naturally-athletic father shared a special genetic variant.
I always wondered what if.
As a college freshman in DC, her up-and-down health was at a ‘good’ level and she rediscovered running–doing miles at a time, big loops between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capital. Even after she transferred to Boston College because of declining health, she liked to run when she felt well enough. But by 2004 or so, she needed oxygen to sleep and to fly, and to do pretty much anything that raised her heart rate. (Blood oxygen levels drop with these activities.)
By 2011, she had to move to an apartment with parking and an elevator. She needed to plan trips around what kind of walking or climbing would be involved. But she and Andrew discovered that she could still ‘hike.’ Andrew would carry her up a trail and then she could walk down.
Eventually, she bought one of these things: an adult carry pack. It made her weight easier for Andrew to carry.
The last couple of years, with hope for new lungs a reality, she cautiously let herself hope that she would really run again. And just last fall, she bought herself this book, and had a plan for recovering, post-transplant, by climbing all the featured stairways.
By chance, two of Caitlin’s cousins challenged themselves physically and mentally this past weekend, in honor of Caitlin. In Australia, Janet Jordan faced her lifelong fear of heights and climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge to raise funds for the pediatric Cystic Fibrosis Unit at the John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle, NSW.
On her page, Janet talks about a dream she had in which Caitlin challenged her to climb the bridge. As the day of the climb approached, nerves set in. On Saturday, she wrote, “Today’s the day I face my fears, and keep my promise.”
Her next update: “I did it!! What started at 4.30 with an hour long safety induction ended at 7.50pm with the greatest feeling in the world. Photos to come.”
Back in western Massachusetts, Caitlin’s cousin Melissa Bavaro Klevans and her husband Sam challenged themselves to a 26-Mile, 1-Day EXTREME Hike.
⬆️ One of those peaks is called Misery Mountain.
The hike started pre-dawn and took them 13 hours to complete. It was tough and toward the end, Melissa’s feet were in such pain she didn’t think she would be able to finish. But she looked at Caitlin’s photograph, took off her boots, and hiked to the end in her socks. She shared her thoughts with me:
“After the hike I was able to process everything that I had gone through on the mountains and it came down to this one little thought. It’s NOTHING compared to what my sweet and beautiful cousin had to go through. Nothing.”
About the breakfast the morning after the hike, she said, “We were able to speak if we wanted to. I hate public speaking, but I needed to say something. I talked about organ donation. I expressed the importance of going online and signing up and that the license sticker was not enough. The great thing about me moving past my fear was that I got through to people. I had at least four people come up to me after and thank me for my speech. They had no idea, as most people don’t. That was powerful.”
While I was in Pittsburgh, I met some incredible people. One of them was Barry Lavery, who went into the hospital for routine surgery three years ago and discovered he had ALS.
Like Caitlin, Barry has faced his fate with grace and humor and tenacity. He and Caitlin had lots more in common: a love of philosophy, a love of birds. Wise, witty senses of humor. But they never got to meet.
He’s now on hospice care and he tells me that when he “hops his perch,” he’s going to seek out Caitlin. “We will drink good Haitian rum, grow wings and feathers and soar…”
Last week Nick and I were out on the river at dusk, and the air was full of the sounds of birds and waterfowl. I sent Barry a little video, to share the moment. He texted a response that ended, “Let the river heal you. Remember the quote from a River runs through it.”
Caitlin was actively listed for a lung transplant on April 24, 2014. We were ready, expectant, full of hope.
She kept herself strong and she kept herself busy.
She was grateful.
She had plans.
We never, ever expected that she would have to wait 2 1/2 years. But when she went into the hospital for the last time, with her high score, she was told that offers were coming in. We figured it would happen any moment. We were excited and lighthearted, and on the night of November 20, she asked me to push her chair through the hospital as fast as I could, to music.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
It’s crazy, but 30 percent can look like this:
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.
I have a cold and haven’t been able to breathe through my nose the past few days. I’ve been trying not to mind. It’s the least I can do. Being unable to breathe through her nose was just one more thing that Caitlin had to deal with. Her sinuses were blocked–a common CF problem–and after 2 1/2 years of nonstop oxygen blowing into little nostrils, they were irritated as well. She got to the point where she had to sleep half sitting up and tilted to the side, against four vertical pillows, to try and get relief.
Not that she ever slept through the night–she also had to take a beta-blocker every day at 4am. And then 8 hours after that, and 8 hours after that. Her failing lungs had put such a strain on her heart.
As Andrew said in the service, Caitlin climbed a mountain every day. He is planning to climb Mount Kenya this week. He wrote: “The air on Mt Kenya will be so thin. I will struggle to breathe. I’m actually looking forward to it.”
Every time I wonder whether I should still write these posts, I get another email–often from someone who didn’t even know Caitlin–thanking me for writing them. Even when I write about things like altitude.
Not all that long ago, in 2013, Caitlin and I drove out to Lenox to visit Edith Wharton’s house. As we drove along the turnpike, she began to feel tight, breathless. As we climbed a slight incline, it occurred to her what was wrong. She checked the altitude app she kept on her phone. 1200 feet.
She was still living independently then, and functioning ‘normally,’ but that change in altitude was high enough to hurt.
This past weekend, Nick and I spent two nights in her apartment. We are trying to use it, take comfort in it, and slowly accustom ourselves to this vast change.
One afternoon, we walked home from Back Bay via Charles Street, which I had been avoiding because memories are literally everywhere on that street. After college, Caitlin worked at the Polly Latham Asian Art Gallery there. And the yearly Holiday Stroll, in 2013, was the last time she ever went to an event without wearing oxygen. Two days after that stroll, she was in the hospital. She began to need oxygen 24/7. She knew, although the rest of us refused to believe it for a while, that the oxygen was permanent. The forever-change we had been dreading forever had come, at last.
Jess left me a message yesterday. One of the things she said was something along the lines of, My mom always said the only thing that’s certain is change.
Polly Latham closed her storefront quite a while ago. I think the space has been a few things since, but I somehow knew that something new had opened there. As we approached, Nick was doing a nice job of listening as I tearfully described the vanilla eclairs Caitlin used to love at Cafe Vanille. (That space has changed, too. It’s now Tatte). And how she bought me a favorite shirt for Christmas at Dress (which used to be in a different location). I was outright weepy by the time we got to Polly’s old shop, remembering the layout: big front window looking into a small display area, then a tiny staircase that led to an upper balcony area where Caitlin used to work and where she would give everyone who came through the door a big, bright smile.
It’s now a handmade jewelry – slash – antique jewelry shop.
And like everything these days, it felt like there was a message in this window.*
*More about messages, signs–the wild stuff later. Like Caitlin listening to David Bowie in the sky. Still need to wrap my head around it all.