Certain names have been abbreviated in an attempt to be sensitive to the family.
At 9:04am, on Friday November 29th, I received a phone call from a co-worker and friend of mine, J.L. She was asking for our bosses cell phone numbers. At first I was groggy as I had been woken up by this phone call and it took me a little while to get the numbers she needed. I not only work with her, but her daughter, J.G. as well. When I finally got the phone numbers to her she said she was going to tell me why she was calling. She started to cry and at first, my heart sank afraid that something had happened to J.G.
J.G. has a heart condition. I had gone to college with her and had known her for a few years. Since working at the theatre with both of them, I grew closer in my relationship with both of them. On many occasions, they have opened up to me about their personal lives, and we shared a great bond. While J.L. tried to regain control about a thousand scenario’s went through my mind in a flash, but the real reason never occurred to me until she said it.
“Olivia died today.”
J.G.’s 6-month-old baby, Olivia.
I couldn’t believe this news. I was immediately awake, all the grogginess totally shaken from my system in an instant. Our conversation was cut short when another phone call rang through on J.L.’s line. She promised to call me right back, but the return phone call never came. I had not actually anticipated the return phone call. I sat down in my living room in shock. I needed coffee, something to bring me back to planet earth. This was not a dream, this was reality. I waited a while before sending a text to J.G. just to let her know I was there if she needed anything. I hadn’t expected a response and was surprised when I received one. She told me she was heartbroken, I told her I was too and to please let me know what I could do, if there was anything.
When my husband came down stairs about an hour after J.L. called, he found me on the phone with our boss. Our boss had called to make sure I had heard the news. There was a somber silence between us on the line. I think we were both in shock. I then had to explain to my husband the news, who also knew and worked J.L. and J.G. We are a small family at our theatre.
When I gave him the news I watched the wind get knocked out of him. He grabbed onto the kitchen counter to keep himself from falling over. We stood there, silent for a very long time.
For almost two hours after the news, we said very little. Our house was strangely quiet. It wasn’t until his father called for an unrelated reason that afternoon that the actual reality came crashing down on me. Olivia was gone, and my friends were devastated. And when this really sunk in, I sobbed. I wept like this little one was my own.
Just before she was born, I remember I had gone on an epic quest for a gift basket for J.G. I remember how much fun that was. Not being a mother to anyone more than cats, I really enjoyed getting a bunch of fun things not just for Olivia, but for J.G. too. Many of the items I wanted to give were available all over town: diapers, baby wipes, baby soap, binkies, the regular things that every parent needs. But there was a special item that I really wanted to find. I wanted to get a little pink teddy bear. And for reasons I cannot explain, there wasn’t a single pink teddy bear anywhere. I went to about seven or eight stores including baby stores…nothing. There were pink kitties, pink bunnies, pink everything-and-anything-other-than-teddy-bears! Finally, after hours of searching, I decided I would have to settle for something else. And since I couldn’t find that pink teddy bear it would need to be something no one else would get and as far removed from pink as possible.
The answer to this was a little smiling giraffe. It was a music box, and when wound up it would sing lullaby and the little head would rock back and forth.
And because the birth of Olivia was so close to Mother’s Day, there were plenty of “Mom” charms everywhere. So, I picked up one for J.G. and then a “Mother/Daughter” set for the both of them.
When I presented this bag of goodies to J.G. I remember her face when she saw these necklaces, and the little giraffe. She took the charms in her hands and started to cry happy tears. She loved the giraffe. I told her of my epic quest to find a pink teddy bear and eventually having to settle for something else. I remember J.G. being pleased that the giraffe wasn’t pink. She had received so many pink things for her baby that the giraffe was a welcome change of pace. I later learned that this little giraffe was one of Olivia’s favorite toys and that she slept with it every night. I was so blessed to learn that.
I remember when J.G. brought Olivia to meet us all at work for the first time. She was so very small, maybe only two weeks old, and J.G. plopped her into my arms. I have never been very comfortable holding other peoples babies. I think I’m afraid I will drop them. Little Olivia wriggled right out of her little dress and I had no idea what to do, and then eventually asked J.G. to fix this ridiculous situation before I was holding a naked baby.
I remember J.G.’s wedding. She was so beautiful, the bride that had wanted to be married five years ago and finally getting her big day. Just before the ceremony, J.L., (J.G’s mom) came in holding Olivia. J.L. put Olivia’s carrier between myself and my husband and asked us to keep an eye on it. Then, J.L. asked me to help her dress Olivia in her little dress that J.G. made just for the occasion. We were silly, the three of us, J.L. holding the little one and me trying to get the dress over her little wriggly feet, all the while little Olivia grumpy because she was cold. We made it happen eventually and had it not been for J.G. in her wedding gown, Olivia would have stolen the show!
I remember J.G. coming to my house to attend a jewelry party and Olivia came with her. I sat with her on my couch, tickled her little feet, and just gazed at this tiny person. My husband took J.G. on a tour of our house, and I stayed with Olivia in the living room. I mostly wanted to make sure that the cats wouldn’t mess with her, but I also just enjoyed her company. She sneezed on me. Then promptly spat up her lunch a little. With J.G. on the grand tour, I cleaned Olivia up with a tissue and put the binky in her mouth in an attempt to keep her content. Apparently I didn’t do too bad, because Olivia smiled at me.
All these little memories play in my mind. There were a few others, but these specifically stand out in my mind.
A few days after the news, we learned of the arrangements for little Olivia. It was agreed that the staff would all go to the viewing to support our friend. When we came in, I saw this tiny little person that I knew in a small coffin at the front of the room. I have been to my fair share of wakes and funerals in my lifetime, but this was an entirely different kind of sadness. Just the silence that encompassed the room, the weight of the loss, the desperate pain…it was so thick in the air. We were greeted first by J.L. and I found I just couldn’t stop hugging her. The tears were already brimming in my eyes. I gave my condolence to Olivia’s father at the front of the room. I hugged him, squeezed him a little and was surprised when he didn’t seem to want to let go of me. I barely knew him! And then my husband and I knelt in front of Olivia and prayed through our tears. This prayer hurt. When I opened my eyes to stand I saw it. Right there by her feet, the little singing giraffe I had given her. It was too much, seeing that giraffe. Even now, the memory of this moment brings hot tears to my eyes.
Eventually J.G. returned to the room and sat on a couch staring at her little one in shock. I waited for a moment before approaching. When she and I made eye contact she said no words, just a cracked sob escaped from her lips and I remember falling to my knees in front of her and scooping her into my arms and just letting her cry into my shoulder.
This wasn’t fair, this moment right now, it shouldn’t be happening. Olivia was not sick, she was healthy and happy and well-loved. This was sudden, this was brutal, tragic, and just wrong. I don’t know how I held my composure for as long as I did. Finally, J.G. said her first words to me since the tragedy. “I already made her a stocking…” I knelt before her, stroking her hair and having no words whatsoever. It is rare when I am speechless. I usually have the right words, sometimes the funny words, and occasionally the wrong words, but there are always words. There were simply no words. None.
The only thing I could think of saying was “It’s okay.” Wrong words, Terrii. Wrong words. J.G. shook her head violently and said, “It’s NOT okay.” And then I let my tears come back and I shook my head and agreed: this was not okay. There was nothing okay about this at all. I don’t know why I said it was okay. I still regret saying it was okay.
The funeral was held the following morning. J.L. came to greet us again, in tears and shaken and explained that the services would not start on time, as J.G. was having a really hard time that morning. There is something you should know about J.G. (and mind you, I say this with all the love in the world) she is almost never on time. It is somewhat of a joke around the shop. And what I thought, though didn’t say at the time (no matter how much tension it could have broken) was, “But, J.G.’s never on time, why start now?” That was a moment when Terrii did the right thing. I didn’t say something funny. I didn’t say something stupid. I said, “That’s fair.” Right words, Terrii. Right words.
I didn’t hug J.G. at the funeral. I’m not really sure why. I sat in the back and was therefore among the first to come up to pay my last respects to Olivia. It wasn’t until this time that I saw the most heart breaking thing among the toys in the coffin. It wasn’t the giraffe this time, it was the “Daughter” half of the charm necklace I gave them.
No, Olivia, that is not okay. That necklace was meant for when you got bigger! You aren’t supposed to be wearing that now! After seeing that, hiding my tears from the rest of the room, I retreated to a sitting room at the front of the funeral home and waited for the rest of the staff to join me. We would need to get back to work soon. My boss came over not too long after me and I saw the brimming of tears in his eyes. My boss is a big bear of a man, someone so strong! Seeing those tears in his eyes was too much. I could not deal with that reality. I hugged him and we wiped our eyes together. Then slowly we retreated outside and returned to work.
Every day since the funeral, I have sent a text or two (sometimes four or five) to J.G. She doesn’t always respond, but that’s okay. I try to tell her funny jokes, or silly stories, sometimes I send sappy messages of love and support. I just want to give her a reason to smile, a reason to laugh, a reason to stop crying even if it is only for a brief moment in time. And most of all, I don’t want her to feel alone. I was concerned that after the funeral everyone surrounding her would return to their lives as though nothing happened. I didn’t want her to think she and her baby girl had been forgotten.
And now, in the wake of the sorrow: I still find myself thinking of Olivia, or of J.G. or J.L. and I cry. I cry and cry and cry. I am crying now.
Why am I crying? Who was I to this little one? She wasn’t mine, she isn’t even related to me in anyway. My life goes on unchanged. It is J.G. who will never be the same. It’s her husband, their son, J.L., the entire family that will never be whole again. There may be other children, but Olivia will never be replaced. It is they who should be crying, not me. Why am I crying?
And then I wonder: do I have the right? Do I have any right to cry? Do I, someone that wouldn’t even amount to a supporting role in the movie that is the life of Olivia, have any right to feel sorrow, or grief or remorse?
I remember going through something similar when Jesse Buryj passed away. I remember feeling like I had no right even going to his funeral, that I had no right to cry, no right to be sad or to miss him. He and I parted on less-then-decent terms.
Olivia? She didn’t even know who I was. I was just a person that held her once or twice. In the grand scheme of Olivia’s life, I was terrified of dropping her, I put her in a dress she didn’t want to really be put in and once I pissed her off waking her up from her nap.
So, why am I sad? Why am I still sad? And do I have the right to be sad? Are my tears saving any from J.G.?
I don’t know the answer to all of these questions. I do know that these feelings are real. I also know that the tears are real. I know the tears I cry aren’t really taking away any tears from J.G. no matter how much I would like to think they are.
One month has passed. I have texted J.G. everyday. I’ve chatted with her on the phone or on the internet. I was even lucky enough to take her out for a ladies night. I do what I can for her.
I’m not good at a lot of things, but I am good at making people laugh. And I know that healing comes through laughter. So I try to give as many laughs as possible. I try to be a supportive and loving friend. Just this morning, I misunderstood a conversation we were having and thought she wanted me to come over. So, without even finishing my first cup of coffee I threw on pants and drove over to her house in the snow. She wasn’t there and I managed to only look like a creepy stalker standing on her porch, then walking down the street while on the phone with her mom, J.L., confirming that no one was home.
Of course, I did have a great conversation with J.L. this afternoon, and I had a great adventure, too. And I proved to myself that when J.G. calls on me, I am there. And maybe that’s really all she needs.
Olivia saved three babies when her heart valves were transplanted. Baby Olivia is a hero to three families. In her short time, she changed the world. Because of her, three moms, three dads, three babies, six grandmothers, and six grandfathers are forever changed. That’s 21 people! That doesn’t even count brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, godparents, and friends unknown and unaccounted for!
Instead of one lifetime, Olivia gets three. And the successes of these three babies will be her successes. And they will be J.G.s’ successes, and her husbands’ successes, and their sons’ successes! These children could grow up to cure cancer, discover warp speed, end hunger, or change the face of medical science! It’s one of those long-term life stories that force us to wade through time hoping, praying. These children will always have a piece of Olivia with them, in the most special of all places: their heart.
She also changed my life. Now, every day, I wake up, make a cup of coffee and sit down to find a good joke for J.G. I can spend a half an hour or more on this task alone. There’s criteria. It has to be funny enough to make me, in my grogginess, laugh. Because, let’s be honest: there is no shortage of groaners out there. It needs to tell a story. The punch line needs to be unexpected. And when I have enough time, I stock pile jokes for days when I’ll have less time to sort through the groaners. Because of Olivia, I am a better friend.
Because of Olivia, I made a new friend! Another mother: K.S. She also lost her 5-month-old son, Owen, just two weeks before Olivia. She knew J.G.’s husband in high school. Finding out about the passing of Olivia, she reached out to J.G.’s family. She came out for ladies night, and I stood with them at the bar and listened to them and cried with them and cared for them. And then I added K.S. to my daily joke routine to make sure she gets them too.
I don’t know if Owen was an organ donor or anything more about Owen’s story. But I know he is a little hero too. He met Olivia in the next life and brought her along to be a forever friend. He made it possible for J.G. and K.S. to not be alone. Because of Olivia and Owen, these two ladies are together and they cry together without the need for words. They can be there for each other in a way I can’t be. When my words fail, maybe K.S.’s or J.G.’s succeed.
Despite the beauty of these gifts, the pain does not go away. There is still a void that can never be filled. These babies, Olivia and Owen, are gone. We will never see them again in this life. And there are still tears shed for both of them from so many people. They are shed from grandparents, parents, a big brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. And they come from me too: someone who has no reason to be heartbroken at all.
But I do have a reason to be sad. I do have a reason to be heartbroken. I am heartbroken for my friends. I feel sorrow, I feel grief, I feel hopelessness and helplessness. And through this month of healing, and through the writing of this work, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I do have a right to feel these things. Because I may not have a supporting role in Olivia’s movie, but there is still time to be a supporting role in J.G.’s movie! There is still time to be a rock to someone swept downstream. There is still time to be a light in a dark tunnel. And there is a long, long path that must be walked. And that path should not be walked alone.
I want to walk that path with these people. I want in a year, two years, five years, ten years to still be sending jokes to my friends. It makes them laugh and it makes me feel good too. It fills an aspect of me that I didn’t know I needed filled. And that’s a beautiful gift too.
Olivia got me writing again. I wrote this true story that took five pages in a word document and a month to finish. And I got my inspiration back. I started writing a children’s book; which evolved into a second children’s book. And there will probably be many more. And, in time, maybe a mommy I will never meet will read my books to their baby and that baby will think about Olivia and Owen as they drift off to sleep. And in a way, Olivia and Owen will live forever.
“If a writer falls in love with you, you can never die.” ― Mik Everett
To Olivia and Owen, the tiniest heroes.