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Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare

How My Daughter's Death Taught Me
The Meaning of Life


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For the most part, I felt I was holding it together emotionally, but there was one time when my deep sadness and welled-up panic became unbearable. Michel had just come back to the apartment after walking with his dad to the car to say good-bye. As he entered, Jenny and I ran to him, threw our arms around him, and burst into tears. We were all three in a huddle, tightly holding on to each other while Bob helplessly stood by, knowing the moment had come when Michel would have to get on the airplane.

Through my tears I managed to say, "Michel, I'm sorry. I'm just so sorry I can't protect you."

"That's okay, Mom," he said. "I have 300 Marines protecting me." We all burst into laughter — much needed at this point in time! I promised him that I wouldn't camp outside the guard station to the base, as I'd heard one mother had.

Later it hit me that I was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder when I said out loud how sorry I was that I could not protect my son from harm. Thirty years before, I had silently expressed the same thought — I'm sorry I can't protect you — but had never said it out loud to my bereaved little nine-year-old boy. The death of his sister had hurled him into a world I had never wanted him to experience. I wished I could safeguard him from the pain of grief and the loss of his own childhood, but knew I could not stand in his way. Now, in this transformed apartment, moments before he would go to war, I felt myself sliding into a similar emotional abyss.

Thank heaven I remembered what Elisabeth had said so often as Michel was growing up. She told me that parents do a great disservice to their children by shielding them from the storms of life. As they grow older, she said, we need to send our children out into the world with love and support, while always keeping the home fires burning. This is particularly difficult when a sibling has died, because the tendency is to hold on even tighter to our remaining children. Somehow I had known in my heart that to hold on to Michel for my needs would have destroyed him. With Elisabeth's help, I had encouraged him to explore his dreams wherever they might carry him. The fear of harm was often there, but I needed to deal with that fear, not Michel. Now, clearly, the same, long-dormant fear had again exploded to the forefront of my mind with his deployment to Iraq.

When Michel walked away from us to the plane that would carry him to war, Jenny and Bob and I tried to keep the moment light by waving and cheering and giving him the thumbs-up. In return, he gave us his great big Michel smile and disappeared into the hangar. I prayed I would see him again.

We did know that Jenny, although fluent in English and familiar with American business after working for Ernst & Young in Bolivia, was going to have a tough time if she stayed on alone at the Marine base. She hadn't had a chance to make close friends, and she missed the intimacy of her family, which had been so precious to her in Bolivia. So Bob and I had invited Jenny to come live with us in San Francisco while Michel remained in Iraq, and happily for us, she accepted.

On the plane ride home, I sat in the middle seat between Bob and Jenny. As I looked over at Jenny, I thought, "Oh my gosh! This is one of the most important relationships in my life, and I don't even know her!" We had enjoyed our talks after she first arrived but not again until the frantic days before the wedding. Now Jenny's new husband had been deployed, and instead of going on her honeymoon, she would be living with her in-laws — not part of her wedding dream plans. Michel had said earlier, "Thank you for having Jenny come live with you. Now I know I don't have to worry about her." I took that as a great compliment.

As it turned out, Jenny was the blessing in all of this. She was more than well-versed in English, and her curiosity and sense of adventure were a joy to live with. More important, I understood why Michel had fallen in love with her. She had a great sense of humor, which charmed us all. It still makes me laugh when I think of her comment after returning home one evening from an English class. We were in the midst of remodeling our bedroom, and that day the contractors had moved our bed into the living room. Bob and I happened to be sitting on it when Jenny came home, so we waved to her from there. Jenny took it all in and said, "Now we really are family."

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