First off, thanks to all of you who sent me messages on Twitter and Instagram today. It’s obviously been a rough day, and I apologize for not responding to all of you individually. Your messages were very much appreciated.
In case you’re not a regular reader of my blog, here’s the Cliffs Notes. On February 5, 2007, I gave birth to my second child, a daughter named Chloe. My oldest, Taylor, was 19 months old. We had big plans for the two of them together, visions of matching fluffy pink dresses and breakfast with Cinderella at Disney World and fights over the bathroom in their teen years.
I left the girls at home with my then-husband on this day, six years ago, when Chloe was seven weeks old, for an hour. I got a root canal that I had been needing for months, but put it off while I was pregnant because I didn’t want to run the risk of the x-rays hurting the tiny baby growing inside me. When I came home, he was frantically doing CPR on her. Knowing that he was not calm under pressure, I handed him my cell phone and told him to call 911 and not get off the phone with them until they got to our house, and took over doing CPR. He had already called them at least once at that point, I will give him that much credit.
An ambulance finally arrived, paramedics took her to the ambulance in our driveway and spent 15 minutes working on her before heading off to the hospital.
After a valiant effort by the ER staff, Chloe was pronounced dead that afternoon.
My then-husband told everyone that she had a seizure and stopped breathing. Taylor was immediately put into foster custody, where she remained, being bounced from foster home to foster home, for seven months. It wasn’t until after my ex-husband admitted, under law enforcement questioning, months afterward, that he suffocated Chloe.
I’ve never seen the tape of his confession; it will remain under lock and key forever, thanks to the wonderful privacy laws that are granted to American citizens. The man lived with me for four months after she died and never bothered to tell ME what really happened. Even if he told me today, even if I could see that tape, I’d have to take it with a metric ton of salt, because if someone can go through hours upon hours of questioning, and months of watching his wife google every word in their deceased daughter’s medical record to try to find a medical reason for her seizure, and watching his other daughter be moved from foster home to foster home and watch extended family members grieve, if someone can do all of that and not put an end to it by telling the truth, well, I wouldn’t trust that person any further than I could throw them.
So, it’s been six years. Here’s what I’ve learned from this experience.
1. Don’t take life for granted.
Obviously. I didn’t think anything of going to the dentist to get a root canal. I didn’t think anything would happen if I left the father of my children home with his children for an hour. I had even said to him before I left, “If she cries, put her in her swing and let her cry. Crying isn’t going to kill her.” Irony sucks.
So now, sometimes I hug a little too tight or I say, “I love you,” a few too many times, or I go overboard with gifts and kisses and stupid stuff that I see on Pinterest. That’s because I don’t ever want anyone to be taking their last breath and not KNOW how much I love them.
2. Regret sucks.
Because I CAN look back and see that there have been plenty of times, before Chloe died and after, that I should have hugged tighter or I should have said, “I love you,” or I was short with one of the kids or with Bill. I can look back and wish that I hadn’t gotten that stupid root canal, wish that I had gotten it while I was pregnant like the dentist suggested, wish that I had seen something beforehand that would have triggered a protective vibe in me. Nobody’s perfect, but situations like this sure make a person wish they were.
On the other hand, I don’t regret all the times she was rocked to sleep or worn in a sling or when she liked being awake at 2am and I hung out with her. (Any woman who has had a baby can tell you that the first few weeks are a blur, so I try hard to hang onto the vivid good memories I have of her.)
3. PTSD is real. And it sucks.
All it takes is someone doing CPR on TV or in a movie, and I’m immediately transported back to that day. All it takes is mention of the scumbag who killed her to flood my brain with sights of her laying on the floor, of Taylor crying, of the seemingly endless ride to the hospital in the ambulance, of her laying on a gurney and the doctors shouting out the words “epinephrine” and “atropine” and, having seen enough episodes of ER, knowing what those words meant. I can still see the screen that should have shown her heart beat, but there was no beating.
I remember the police officer barging into the room – that room with just chairs and a phone book and boxes of tissues, that they put people like us in when they have to tell you that your baby is dead – while we were pressing her feet into air-dry clay to preserve her footprints and getting ready to snip a lock of her hair – and the officer told me that I couldn’t touch her anymore because she was “evidence.” I never did get a lock of her hair; the Medical Examiner shaved her head before she made it to the funeral home.
The hours of questioning that night by law enforcement are a blur, but I distinctly remember, during those hours of questioning, when a strange looking man and a police officer informed me that they’d be taking my only living child away, and didn’t give me a chance to say good-bye to her. I have never felt more empty and helpless in my entire life than at that moment. I have never felt a pain like that, ever, a physical pain plus an emotional pain that can never be matched. Still in shock from one child’s death. Now they’re going to take away my other baby and not let me say good-bye.
I would have welcomed someone to shoot me and put me out of my misery at that exact moment. That’s said without a drop of sarcasm. I wanted the screen to go black and for that to be that.
4. It doesn’t matter how much you think you know a person, you can never truly know them.
My first marriage wasn’t without it’s ups and downs, that’s for sure. But if you had told me that my ex-husband would kill one of our children, I would have told you that you were crazy. He never hesitated when I asked him to change a diaper or hold either of the kids so I could get an hour to myself. He took Taylor to car shows when she was a toddler; his little sidekick. Never in a million years would I have predicted what he did. He was under the care of both a psychologist and a psychiatrist and they didn’t foresee this happening. My family knew him well, and even after they arrested him, most everyone still believed that he hadn’t done anything to her.
5. The justice system in this country sucks.
My ex-husband was in the Navy at the time this happened, so he had a court martial, not a trial. Because the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS, yes, like the show) botched the confession, it opened up the door for him to get a plea bargain. A five year sentence for killing a baby and lying about it.
He served less than four years.
That’s justice, y’all.
6. Child Welfare Services in Hawaii is a mess. A big fat mess.
You don’t even want to get me started on this one. Let’s just say that I am still battling with them to this day, and a federal lawsuit looks to be on the horizon. I cannot think of one good thing to say about Child Welfare Services in the state of Hawaii. Not one. Let’s just say that they break state and federal laws – of the Constitutional variety – on a daily basis, state legislators are aware of it, and nothing is being done about it.
I’m actually working on a book about the aftermath, the hell that Child Welfare Services put me through. Yes, it’s interesting (and I mean that in an I-couldn’t-have-made-this-stuff-up kind of way) enough, with enough twists and turns, to make for a decent book. I used to give Bill snippets of the story here and there, and I always thought, in the back of my head, that maybe he thought I was embellishing some of it, because parts of this story truly are unbelievable. Unless you lived it. Anyway, one day I dropped the stacks of paperwork and court hearing records in front of him to prove it all.
7. The parental rights laws in the state of Tennessee are iffy, at best.
The kids and I were on welfare and food stamps for a period of time, while my ex-husband had three hot meals a day, a cell to himself, and access to a sand volleyball court. The taxpayers of this country even helped him work on a degree. Your tax dollars at work!
Meanwhile, I was struggling to make ends meet, and most months, they didn’t. When he got out of military prison and got a job, he never gave me a dime in child support. But he did have the audacity to petition the court for visitation of Taylor and Blake.
I couldn’t even petition to terminate his parental rights to the kids until I had someone lined up and ready to adopt them. Tennessee State Law says so. That means, in theory, if Bill and I had never gotten married, my ex-husband could have walked into Taylor’s elementary school and signed her out and would have been well within his rights to do so. Nice, right?
8. There is a “new normal,” but it can be anything but ‘normal.’
All of the bereaved parent books tell you about finding your “new normal.” Let me tell you, my new normal consists of being hyper sensitive to any bump or bruise my kids get. To not wanting anyone else to be anywhere near them when they are infants. To being extremely sensitive to any commentary on my parenting, whether innocuous or otherwise. The level of anxiety I had the first time I left Bill with Ellie when she was an infant was insane. Luckily, he cuts me slack, and empathizes, but the poor guy has gotten way more second glances from me than he has ever deserved.
It’s not normal to look at my fourth child as she learns to walk, and start crying because Chloe never got to learn how to walk. It’s not normal to hear Taylor trying to talk Blake into playing princess dress-up, and break down because she should have been doing that with Chloe. It’s not normal to have to explain to people who just don’t understand (cough-my Mother-in-law -cough) why I’m sad at Christmas and on Chloe’s birthday.
It’s not normal to have to stop and assess the situation before answering the question, “How many kids do you have?” Answer by only counting the ones that are alive and it feels like you’re disowning the one that’s not. Answer with some semblance of, “Three living children,” or, “Four,” and then you have to explain why, on your Facebook (or in real life), the other person has only seen three.
People love being shoved into a situation where they have to figure out how to react to hearing that the person they are talking to has a kid that was killed.
9. Kids are ridiculously resilient.
Taylor doesn’t remember a day of being in foster care. She doesn’t remember the day her sister died, or being taken away that night, or endless court visits, or the strange man who drove her to and from supervised visitation. She doesn’t remember her biological father. She doesn’t remember when we lived with my dad for about a year after Blake was born. She doesn’t remember the days that our water or our electricity would get turned off because I couldn’t pay the entire bill. She put up with a lot of my bouts of snippiness and periods of apathy that came from me being supremely depressed. I expect the most out of her, because she set the standard pretty high, but she also does get spoiled from time to time, because I recognize how awesome she is.
She also doesn’t know that if it wasn’t for her and her brother growing inside me at the time, I wouldn’t have made it out of that experience alive.
10. This experience was absolutely life altering.
I hate to use the term “life altering,” since I’m talking about a dead baby and all. But I do my best to dream big and set big goals and work my butt off to accomplish them now. I think back on all the time I wasted, going nowhere, no goals, just hanging out. My baby never got a chance to learn how to walk and talk and see the world and achieve her dreams.
So it’s a disservice to her for me to not live big. I know she’s with me, particularly in my big moments. It’s extra cool when she makes her presence obvious, but I know she’s my little guardian angel in everything I’m doing.
It’s totally cliche, but I do have to end with this. Go hug your little ones, and your big ones, and whoever you love. Right now. Hug them extra tight and tell them how much you love them.
You never know if it will be the last chance you’ll get to do it.
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