By: Jenn Stachula
I have always loved a good road trip, and a good story. And in the spring of 2017, our little family was in desperate need of both. In just a handful of months, we had experienced the greatest of joy with the news of a new baby in our family and endured the deepest of heartaches as she left us too soon; and we were trying desperately to find our balance again as a family in light of such immense joy and such immense sorrow.
We had wholeheartedly embraced with joyful delight the news of our new baby, Caroline Claire, due to arrive shortly after our daughter Sophie’s 14th birthday. Our son, Nate was turning 11 and was thrilled to be having a little sister and to no longer be the baby of the family. Jim and I watched with unabashed joy as this unexpected gift quickly and beautifully redefined what we thought our family would be. We were all so excited, and didn’t anticipate, even for a moment, that she would come and go so soon.
It is astonishing how immediately love is born, how completely it can transform in such a short amount of time. Our sweet Caroline’s heart may have beat for only 14 weeks, but in those few weeks, the heart of our family was forever altered. The love that came so easily for her remained firmly planted in us, and yet in the weeks that followed her loss we struggled as a family with what to do with that love. I was restless with it, and questions haunted each of us, together and separately, whispered on most days, shouting on others, Why come to us only to leave so quickly? Why mark our hearts so perfectly with you when you would leave us so suddenly? What do we do with the space in our story that was created just for you?
So three weeks after we delivered, held and buried Caroline, we piled in a car together to ask those questions as a family, to wrestle with our new reality, and try to find answers to how we can still love a little one we couldn’t hold.
Before Caroline, our family had a long history of making last-minute travel plans; often we were huddled around an atlas a night or two before a spring break or summer vacation laughing and debating on which direction to drive. We loved that hazy, lazy way of planning, yet last spring, two nights before break we found ourselves still debating, no clear answer in sight, and a bit more desperate than we’d ever been before. What had been a joyful and fun family conversation in the past was this time feeling urgent, as if we all understood that this getaway held more importance, that our motivation went far deeper than our usual making memories as a family. In the wake of all that was lost, we needed this trip to help piece our family’s story back together. We needed a place for our family to begin to heal.
It was this urgency that led me to override all family discussion about the trip and, without even thinking simply declared our destination: New Orleans. It came to me immediately, and even as the words We are going to New Orleans fell out of my mouth Jim was already smiling. Yes, we said together, yes. We couldn’t imagine a better place for our family to begin again than my beloved city, where I once lived, once learned so much about life, death, hope, and healing. It was in New Orleans that I worked with those who were dying, and in doing so learned what it meant to truly live. Jim and I were engaged throughout year I lived there, and that is where we began to imagine our life together, to dream for the family we now share. I need to dream again, I thought. I saw understanding glisten in Jim’s eyes and knew his thoughts echoed mine, and thus we hastily and excitedly packed the car for the journey back to our roots.
It’s sunny and warm there, right? That’s all I want, said Sophie. I just want a hotel with a pool, shared Nate, and maybe an arcade. Jim and I rolled our eyes and laughed with the kids, but inside, we ached for so much more. So much for this trip, for our family, for this. Let them have sunshine and a pool, and the rest will follow, I thought. We’ll start with just this.
And so we began our journey, to both the past and the future, stopping in Memphis for blues and barbecue, watching our landscape change as we headed south through Mississippi and closer to New Orleans. Sophie and Nate endured our stories of this magical place all the way there, but I suspect also heard the words I didn’t speak, we need to have fun, we need time together, we need an adventure, we need to feel something other than this heartache. They read books and played games while Jim and I talked, cherishing our time away from our too-empty house and anticipating what New Orleans teaches best: relax, give yourself over to having fun, it’s okay!, you can create a good story here. I couldn’t wait to share this piece of our past with the kids.
We weren’t in the French Quarter ten minutes before my wide-eyed Nate discretely asked, “What exactly was it that made you think this place was appropriate for children?!” It was about that time that Jim and I were looking at one another silently asking the same question, What in the world were we thinking?! We quickly set about steering the children away from Bourbon Street and toward the creative, artistic, fun New Orleans he and I had known and loved.
Our only plan was to be together and let our days be filled with memories as they came. We found ourselves having beignets for breakfast every day, blowing heaps of powdered sugar across the table as we remembered how good it feels to laugh. It feels so good to laugh. We drank coffee so strong it fairly shouted be alive, taste, burn. We declared every day to be Try New Things Day, and we truly did just that. As we walked up and down quiet streets we found new things to see and explore waiting for us around every corner. We smiled tenderly and took photos in front of a store called Caroline’s, and watched in wonder as a magician in Jackson Square reminded us that magical things do happen, every day, if you keep an eye out for it. Stay awake, my heart, along with my eyes, I prayed. Sophie and Nate admired the artists surrounding the Square, each of us choosing our favorite paintings. It seemed like art was everywhere, and music its constant companion. Let the music wash over me, let me feel again. We met other families and shared conversations, some lasting but a moment, some hours. We smelled bright flowers blooming on trees and watched seagulls float over the Mississippi; we counted alligators and turtles on a tour through the nearby swamps. We swam in the pool every night and tried every Cajun food we could find, soothing the kids’ spicy mouths with coolness of gelato from the man in the funny beret. Jim and I sipped bright red hurricanes as we walked with the kids to our old favorite restaurant, and found the food to be just as delicious as our memory. We visited my old apartment and drove through the bayou, merging my memories of the old city with the renovations made after the flood. We stood in awe of the city that rebuilt itself after devastating loss. Surely we can too, I thought. I so do hope.
We enjoyed every moment with the kids, and they saw our beloved New Orleans in all its glory. But they also saw the hurting in the city, the homeless and the broken. Nate became familiar with what poverty looked like, up close. He asked us if he could carry coins from our swear jar in his pockets so he could give them away instead of walking by someone in need. It made him feel like he could help a little, could make someone’s world just a little brighter. He is like the sun, I thought as I watched him talk to a hungry man, he brings so much light everywhere he goes. Keep shining bright, my boy. At night, back at the hotel, Nate pummeled us with questions about everything he witnessed in the people around him, from their pain to their joy, and listened carefully to our replies. Later that night, as they swam in the hotel pool, Jim and I overheard Sophie and Nate having an intense conversation about how blessed we were to have what we have in life. Our family has so much love, they said, We are so lucky to have this. They focused on the goodness, bless them, all around them. It’s what I prayed for, all I want. Them to see the good alongside the pain. I could feel our family weaving our way back together, slowly but surely.
On our final evening in the Quarter, at sunset, we found our feet walking us back to Jackson Square. An incredible band had begun to play and we lowered ourselves to the steps of the St. Louis Cathedral to listen. We joked about seeing a fortune teller, one of many in the Square, or having our palms read. Sophie shook her head at me and just smiled, dismissing that thought, her eyes drifting instead to a man as he began to dance. He danced with complete abandon around a lamppost, eyes closed as he moved to the music, sweetly oblivious to anyone watching. She smiled and remarked, we should dance more, Mom, like that. Yes, my dear girl, we should. Every chance we get. Find your chances, Sweetheart, and dance.
It was there, watching her, that I felt the catch in my throat, and knew the flood that was about to be freed in me. I wrapped my arms around her to hug her, and found that I simply couldn’t let her go. She let me cradle her, as tenderly as I did when she was as a baby, and she didn’t let go either. My tears fell on her hair and she let them. Finally she asked, “Is this why we came here, Mom? To feel all of this?”
I felt Jim and Nate move closer and their arms wrap around Sophie and I, and through my tears I whispered, Yes, this is why. I needed to remember how to dream again. I learned to dream here, and I need to know HOW, how to have a new dream. Our dream of life with Caroline was tugged away so quickly, and I needed to see what our future looked like without her. I can’t see it anymore and I was hoping, am hoping, I will be able to again.
Sophie slowly withdrew from my arms and gently held my face in her hands, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Oh Mom, your dreams didn’t die with Caroline. She is a part of us, and you don’t need a fortune teller on a street corner or anyone else to tell you that. We have so much love, and we will find a way to have a great life with her within every part of it. She grew our hearts, and the dream is to figure out how we fill that space as we live our life. We’ll live into our dreams, Mom. By just loving and living.”
Such words, I thought, such a brave girl she is, unafraid of the pain in her mother’s heart and perfectly right. I needed that reminder of what I believe, with all my heart. She speaks my truth.
And with that quiet understanding, I thanked her, marveled again over the words from my sage of a daughter, and felt the arms of all four of us embrace one another ever more tightly. And there, watching the sunset on the steps of the Square, our family began to heal. No more words were needed as we silently promised one another that we would be there, we would learn together, we would begin to heal these broken hearts with the love that was left behind for us. We held one another as our eyes turned to the sky above us, deeply pink with the setting sun. Pink for you, my sweet Caroline, stay with us as we grow. Know that my love has no bounds, and let it reach you until I can hold you again. We’ll seek and find you everywhere we go.
And we do.
Jenn joined the Share staff in June 2011 with years of experience working in various areas of social services. Jenn delivers much needed bereavement services across the country to both grieving families and care giving professionals. She assist with the specific bereavement care training and additional responsibilities. Jenn received her Bachelor of Arts in Theology and Pastoral Care from Quincy University.