We planned Dorothie’s memorial service for later in the summer. It gave us time to contact family, and for our friend, and former priest, to officiate. It really is a surreal experience to be sitting down, with family, planning a memorial service for your child. I had helped plan services for other family, from grandparents to my in-laws. But having to plan a service to “remember” your child is a pain like no other. It is unnatural and cruel. And Dot had been such a huge part of our lives for a quarter of a century.
We knew we wanted to have her service at the same church that had been so loving and accepting of her. She was 6 years old when we first visited our church. Ted was considering taking the job as the church’s director of music. The interview team wanted us, as a family, to stop by unannounced, to check things out. From the moment we walked through the doors we were welcomed, loved, and accepted. Perhaps most of them knew who we were. It is a small and close-knit congregation, so news travels quickly. The team interviewing my husband knew about our “special” family.
Our journey to this particular church actually began six years before when Dot was first born, and spent the first two weeks of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit. Several times during her stay, a priest stopped by to pray over her incubator. Ted had met him on his way to the funeral home to take care of Sarah’s remains, as the church was on the same street. Ted felt the need to ask about what to do for our Sarah. It seemed logical that a church, especially an Episcopalian church, would have the answer. Ted had been raised an Episcopalian, so he felt comfortable enough in his grief to walk into the office, unannounced, to seek guidance.
The priest invited Ted into his office and explained the options, then prayed with him. Ted had no idea just how poignant that moment was to our future.
Five years later I found out I was pregnant with our second child. I was working at a bank, and had every intention of returning after the birth. When the time finally came, I tried my best, but in less than three months I knew I couldn’t be away from our baby. Ted agreed, and started looking for a second job. A choir position at a Lutheran church opened up, and he took it. It was a long drive twice a week, and the pay wasn’t great, but Ted made the most of it. The girls and I tried to join him, but there were no programs for children and young families, and Dot, in her manual chair, had to be carried up to the choir loft. It made it hard to get involved.
When the organist decided to move back to England, we took him out to lunch. He talked about how much he’d miss us, and we let him know that he would certainly be missed. He asked if Ted intended on staying at the church, and Ted remarked that he’d stay as long as they paid him. Then I chimed in, “I just wish there was more for families. I want our kids to grow up in church where they are treasured and loved, not ignored and unimportant. I wish there was an opening at the church you visited about Sarah. I hear great things about all of the programs they have for children and families.” We all agreed that the best part was that it would also be a lot closer to our home.
God certainly has a way of opening doors and answering prayers. In less than a week friends of ours told us that there was a music director position open at that Episcopal church. We were floored. How could that be? We were just saying…
So, after a few weeks of interviews, and visits to the church, Ted was hired as the music director, and continued in the position for 16 years. Both of our girls were baptized there. Both girls sang in the children’s choir and attended Sunday school. I worked at the preschool, then became the director of family ministries for 8 years. And we developed amazingly strong relationships and friendships with the community. Dot was loved well, and accepted so beautifully. She loved going to church there, and would sometimes drive her chair right up front during the sermon, and no one would bat an eyelash. Unconditional love. It made a huge difference in our lives as a family. Several times, when Ted and I were out of the country for either vacation or a mission trip or his job, our congregation, along with my family, would care for both girls, or just Dot. In fact, two congregates organized the care schedule for us. It gave us such piece of mind to know that we could depend on them. That is how much this community cared about our little family.
So we knew that her celebration of life had to be at one of her favorite places with some of her favorite people. We spent time with our former priest, working on the different elements of the celebration, and talking about Dot. He teared up talking about his favorite memories, and about how special it was that they shared a birth date. Because he was officiating at several other functions during the summer, we scheduled Dot’s celebration a month away, in mid-August. That would allow family and friends enough time to make arrangements.
The weeks prior to the service seemed so long and sad. Our youngest had returned to her job as camp counselor, and my husband and I tried to take our boat out on small trips. Dot had loved the boat, mostly because she knew her dad loved it, so there were so many happy memories of her all around us, and it took its toll. I had a hard time finding joy in it. And my husband sensed my lack of joy.
I just wanted to sit in my condo and cry. Knowing that this amazing child who had brought so much to our family was now gone from us was unbearable. Even though we’d become used to her living a part from us, the idea that she wouldn’t be calling us 20 times a day, or welcoming us for a visit, or meeting us at the grocery store, or coming with us to family birthdays and holidays seemed unimaginable. To say losing a child causes a hole in your heart is an understatement. I really just wanted to sit, and remember, and cry.
One project that helped me deal with my grief was creating Dot’s memorial video. I love creating videos, something I started to do when I worked at the church. I dove into the project and had our old reels of 8mm film and video tapes of Dot converted to discs. I gathered old pictures of her, scanned them, then had them stored on my laptop. I listened to my extensive iTunes collection for the perfect songs. Then I started to put it all together. It was hard not to cry seeing her come to life in the pictures and videos. There were so many things we’d done as a family with her that I had forgotten. Now I watched them and, through tears, absorbed every minute. It was good seeing and hearing her again. But it also reminded me of just how much we had lost. She was such a blessing to our family.
Then the day of the service finally arrived. My husband, youngest daughter and I had spent the previous day fighting. I actually left the condo and stayed with my parents over night. I just couldn’t handle any more, especially knowing that I needed to be strong for our family and friends as they came together to grieve the loss of Dot. I know the largest reason for our anger with one another was our grief, but I was unable to be rational in handling it. I don’t even remember what the fight was about, and it really didn’t matter. I just needed to get through the day without completely falling apart again. The only way that would happen was to have my family by my side. Somehow we were able to put our anger with each other aside for Dot.
The church was packed. We knew a lot of people were not going to be able to attend, so we thought there would be around 50, or maybe 75 people. It was standing room only. And the summer afternoon was hot and muggy. It didn’t help that the church had no air conditioning. And yet, these people from the various aspects and years in Dot’s life stayed for the entire 70 minute service. We had several speakers share their memories about Dot. They all contained funny stories about her, and these clearly showed that it was her sense of humor and stubborness that defined her. Thank God for her sense of humor, and her amazing laugh. I can still hear her snort to this day.
Our friends, who had accommodated Dot in their small mountain cabin several times, provided most of the music. They performed her two favorite songs “Beauty and the Beast” and “Over the Rainbow”. A high school friend of mine also sang. It was a song that spoke of God’s love for us, from the beginning of our lives until the end. It was simple, and powerful. Dear friends, who had been so much a part of our church and family life, read scripture. I am so grateful that they were there for her, and us. My brother in law read letters family members had written to Dot. Somehow he remained strong, and accentuated the humor she was known for. And the priest gave one of the best sermons I can remember. He spoke honestly of his journey with Dot, from the incubator in the NICU, to praying over her lifeless body at the house. And he didn’t even try to hide his emotions. He loved her deeply, and it showed.
The original plan was to have a reception after the service where others could tell their Dot stories. But the line of people wanting to give us their condolences took over an hour. We had our coworkers there, some who knew Dot, some who did not. We had former teachers and para-educators and therapists, some whom we’d never met before. We had families and friends that had walked the journey with us through our children’s school years. We had current and former neighbors. We had camping friends and high school friends. We had the three other residents of Dot’s adult family home. And we had family. My loving, supportive and compassionate family, some who’d flown in just to say goodbye, and support us. It was incredible to feel such love and support. And it reminded us of just how wide a swath Dottie had carved during her time on earth.
On what would have been her 25th birthday, and one month after her celebration, we held another, private service as we interred her and Sarah’s remains in the cemetery across from our condo. It was a beautiful day, and our priest again directed the short service. We lit candles for her. Talked about her. Missed her. Then, before we left for a dinner at her favorite restaurant, we released a purple balloon with white dots. She loved the color purple, and she was the one who chose the name Dot. My parents watched the balloon as it drifted into the blue sky. Then, they both noticed a white bird fly close to, then follow it. They asked each other if what they were seeing was real. When they looked again both the balloon and the bird were gone.
And now, in the nine months since her passing, the world continues to move on. And yet, our grief remains. It doesn’t get easier. It never subsides. It reminds you, daily, just how much you have lost. But, because of my faith, I have found joy in the darkest of moments. God has been good to us in spite of all the challenges we’ve faced during Dot’s life, and death. The blessings far out weigh the sadness. So I lean into them, embrace them, breath them in, then continue to take as many steps forward as I can. I will never not speak of Dot. I will talk about her every day, even if it is just to myself. I will cherish the moments, good or bad, that defined her life. And I will cherish the small, incidental moments. It is the creation of those moments that I miss the most. We will celebrate our birthdays, which she dearly loved, missing her. We will celebrate holidays, which she also loved, missing her. We will watch our youngest graduate from college, get a teaching job, marry and have children missing her. In everything we do, we will miss her.
And my grief journey continues. But I find comfort in knowing that one day I will have a bit more time with her. And that will be a wonderful day.