3 years ago this Monday my family’s life and the lives of those closest to us forever changed. I have never written this story down and my fingers are stuttering against the keys, so forgive me if my words sound robotic.
About 5 years ago my 15 year old cousin became pregnant. She was young, and scared, and this just seemed to be the icing on a self destructive cake she was baking. Jess decided to raise the baby with the help of her mom (my aunt) and numerous others.
She called me the morning that CJ was born and told me she thought she was going into labor. It was still 5 weeks before her due date and I confidently assured her it wasn’t labor — like I would know :) Daniela had a friend over and the girls were giddy with the idea of a new baby. I kept telling them it wasn’t time yet — we still had a few weeks! A few hours later I had to call my girlfriend to come pick up her daughter because sure enough, that little boy was on his way and we were headed to the hospital! And oh, was he little :)
He was beautiful and perfect and so very tiny. He stole our collective hearts and quickly became the center of our attentions. For reasons I can’t remember right now, he stayed a few extra days, but I have never been a more cautious driver than I was on the day I drove them home from the hospital. I thought for sure every other car on the road was going to hit us. Jess laughed and told me to speed it up a bit. That little boy brought so much life and light and happiness into our family. He was truly something else.
When he was 19 months old I was sitting in a work meeting and got a call on my cell phone from my mom. I wouldn’t normally have picked it up, but something told me I should. She told me that CJ was in an ambulance and all she knew was that he was bleeding, she thought from his nose. CJ was a 19 month old rambunctious boy. A nosebleed didn’t seem catastrophic, but in my heart I think I knew something was terribly wrong. I called Marco and sounded more upset than I actually felt, but I decided to go to the hospital — I was less than 2 blocks away anyway. When I got there, CJ’s ambulance wasn’t there yet, but my aunt (CJ’s grandma) asked me to go to her house and be with my cousin Chris. He had been watching CJ while everyone was at work. I raced there, hoping I could get more information from Chris on exactly what we were dealing with. I was convincing myself that this was just a heavy nosebleed.
When I pulled up,the house was blocked with crime scene tape and officers were standing guard in the driveway. I ran past them and got one step inside the door when an officer pulled me back and told me I couldn’t go in because it was, well, a crime scene. I was speechless. Chris came to the door and at first they wouldn’t let him outside, but they acquiesced as long as we stayed in the driveway. We hugged. For a long time. He looked so scared. He told me that CJ went down for a nap and that when he went to check on him, his face was blue and his nose was bleeding. My heart hurt for Chris. He said the paramedics worked on him for a long time before they took him to hospital, but I took this as a positive sign. Chris didn’t seem to believe me. Never did I even entertain the idea that we were talking about a life or death situation. CJ had been in the hospital 6 months earlier with pneumonia and that had been serious. This? A discolored face and heavy nosebleed? Nah, we’d be grinning and shaking our heads at this story in no time. I was sure of it.
The officers said it would be a few hours before Chris could leave, so I decided to meet Marco and Daniela at home and go from there since Daniela was just getting out of school. I had barely gotten onto I-75 S when my aunt called. Before she could say anything I told her where I was going and that I would be up to the hospital soon. She told me to pull over, but of course I didn’t. I could hear Jess in the background crying and demanding to talk to me, so my aunt passed her the phone. Jess was a hysterical mess. She just burst out “He’s dead! Christi, CJ is dead!” The world spun. I could physically hear the oxygen whooshing out of my lungs. I have no idea what I said or how the conversation ended. Somehow I found myself pulled over on the side of the road, right between exit 220 and 217. I was bawling like a baby when I called Marco. I don’t remember our conversation, but he was in Blockbuster with Daniela and somehow held it all together while she picked out her movie. I hung up with him and got myself under control. I’ve always been good at flipping on autopilot when need be.
I met the two of them at home and took Daniela into my arms and just loved on her. We sat on the couch, her on my lap facing me, Marco curled up next to us. I just remember looking into Daniela’s face and having no idea how to say what I had to say. How do you shatter your child’s heart like that? She saw the look on my face and said “Mommy I’m scared”. And I told her. I told her that CJ had gone to heaven. The horror on her face; as if she was begging me to tell her I was just kidding. It was a sick joke. The way her face twisted and the tears started is like a slow motion reel in my mind. I held onto her (while Marco held onto us) and the three of us just cried. The sobs that came from her little throat were unlike anything I have ever heard in my life. They tore open my already gaping heart. I remember noticing how warm her skin felt. How soft her hair was as I caressed her head. I remember feeling her chest heave against my own as she gasped for the breath that would bring new tears. I remember Marco slipping her shoes off so she could more comfortably sink into us. And I remember clearly what she said to me.
I kept repeating words, whether for her sake or mind I don’t know, but they were like a mantra: I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know why this happened. Idon’tknowwhythishappened. She looked up, hair plastered to her wet and snotty face, and said between gasps for breath “I know why” “You do?” I said. She shook her head, tears still flowing and said this: “I think there was a baby in heaven that was lonely and needed a friend. Jesus knew that CJ would make the best friend.” And we cried some more.
Daniela didn’t want to go up to the hospital that night, but I felt compelled to go. Jason, our pastor, was outside with me before I could even get in the door. He ushered me into a doorway on the side that Jess was walking out of. It was the first time I’d seen her. We hugged quickly, but the police officers were hustling her away. Jason stayed with me the whole time the officers and detectives and DCF people questioned me. They questioned all of us, protocol and all. I don’t know who called Jason, but he rallied the troops and loads of friends, our village of support, where there to comfort us. I stayed long enough to see my family, but my heart was pulling me back home with my husband and daughter. I left, but did what every good American family does in a crisis, and picked up pizza on the way home. I remember sitting outside the Hungry Howies because I just couldn’t take the normalcy inside, and realizing that I had phone calls to make. I called my girlfriend Maria, because I was suppose to deliver dinner to a sick family the following day and I knew she would take care of it for me. I called my dad, he was flying in as quick as he could. I called my cousin stationed in Afghanistan, because I was sure the news hadn’t reached him. I called Daniela’s mom, blended family logistics and all. And she was a gem. Positively understanding during a horrific time. Of all the silly things to worry about, I was suddenly concerned that I didn’t show enough emotion while talking to her. But by that time the words had become mechanical, my emotions shutting down to protect against any further devastation. I contemplated calling her back and explaining that I wasn’t really so cold hearted, but even in my head that sounded utterly ridiculous. The things we think of in crisis mode :)
CJ’s death was a complex situation that grew more so as the days wore on. WHY? was the million dollar question that no one seemed to have answers to. Not doctors, not coroners, not toxicology reports. Officially, they declared that a viral infection leaving his body met up with his asthma and he stopped breathing. I imagine the doctor mumbling and scratching his head as he related his findings to whoever types up death certificates for 19 month old boys.
While we never really got a concrete answer, I realized that for whatever reason, CJ was no longer suppose to be on Earth. I don’t have to like it, I don’t even have to agree with it, but I do have to accept it. Now, 3 years later, when we talk about CJ, it’s the fun things we remember. It’s watching him roll over for the first time; me trying to film it and my aunt singing this ludicrous song I swear she made up just for the occasion.
It’s CJ spending the night at my house and me having absolutely no where to lay him down, so I put some (pink princess!) blankets in the bathtub and turned it into a crib.
It’s Marco and me packing up Daniela and CJ after dinner for a spur of the moment trip to Orlando to see Marco’s family before they went back to Peru. That turned out to be CJ’s only trip to Disney and it was the middle of the night in a Disney pool :)
It’s coming home to find Marco and a friend playing ping pong in the garage while CJ is strapped into his high chair, laughing ridiculously at their game.
It’s watching Daniela and CJ speak a language of their very own. It’s listening to CJ screech “BITE! BITE!” every time someone ate something. It’s sitting in church with my aunt and the two of us trying to hush CJ as he adamantly points to the poor guy doing sound and proclaims “Dada! Dada!” It’s the day I called in sick at work because there wasn’t anyone to stay home with CJ, and I’m pretty sure that was the same day I called poison control because CJ managed to cover his legs with Gorilla Glue. It took weeks for that stuff to flake off. Don’t ask.
It’s the nights I crawled out of bed and took him for a drive in the wee hours of the morning because nothing else would get him to stop wailing and go to sleep. It’s that time I spent an extra hour rocking him after he fell asleep — having no idea that it would be the last time I put him to bed.
The memories go on and on, and the lives this little kid touched in his short 19 months goes on and on too. It sucks that he died. It sucks big time. There are still times when it takes my breath away, and there are times when I panic because I can’t really remember his voice. I had a really hard time the month Daniela’s little brother was 19 months old. It hurts to think that CJ should be going to kindergarten. Though truth of the matter is, his poor teacher would have gone crazy. That kid would have taken over any classroom. Just ask the parent of the child CJ bit last time he was in nursery :)
3 years. I can not believe it’s only been 3 years. I did the math twice because it seems so much longer than that. But the 19 months he spent with us seem longer too, and for that I am forever grateful.
Sadly, all of the pictures from just after birth to about his first birthday are lost on a damaged hard drive. What I would give to have those pictures now :)