Monday, June 14, 2010

Annual Memorial Service at Seattle Children's Hospital

"I got half-a-dozen paintings from that shattered plate." - Georgia O'Keeffe
Oh, how I loved this quote when I read it! I got it, right away. It's what I've been doing for the past couple of years, writing and speaking, with "that shattered plate" as inspiration. I wish the plate hadn't shattered, but it has.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of being invited to speak at Seattle Children's Hospital's Annual Memorial Service for all of the children who have been patients of the hospital, and who have died.
Sounds like fun, huh?
We've never attended the service before. We were invited, after Katie passed away, but I'm going to be brutally honest here and say that it simply sounded like the kind of thing that would make me run in the opposite direction. One memorial service for our daughter was one memorial service too many, to my way of thinking.

But I was wrong. It was beautiful, and it was a deeply moving and refreshing experience.

What a wonderful hospital, to provide such a sacred space for its grieving community. Who would have thought of it? Since Seattle Children's Hospital was founded by a mother (Anna Clise) whose son had died, I have a feeling that this way of thinking and caring has been part of the culture of the hospital from the very beginning.

I was nervous. I am always nervous before a speaking engagement, but my last talk (for the Moyer Foundation) really set me back a bit. I think it's because they didn't know Katie, or have any involvement with her, personally. Every other group I've spoken for/to felt as if there was a direct tie or connection to her. Though the Moyers and the foundation staff couldn't have been more gracious or efficient, and I loved being able to raise awareness and support for the Hutch School and the other charities the foundation supports, it was just more draining emotionally than the other speeches have been. So I was a little extra nervous after that experience, and I was feeling depleted and tired from a really busy couple of weeks on the home front.

 [And I know he can't help it, but Gregg has been snoring for the past few weeks, so loudly that I can hear him, even when I'm wearing earplugs. It's kind of like having a newborn wake you every hour or so...and you may recall that I'm over 50, now. I know why they use this sort of thing as torture for prisoners.]

So I was praying for help, praying for God to speak through me and to me, and others were praying for me (thank you for your prayers). In the midst of this, the Center for Action and Contemplation sent this email, which seemed perfect for the situation:

"God of life, bless our days.
Keep us alive and in love. Keep us listening.
Keep us growing, Mother-God. Keep drawing us closer to you.

Help our words, Father-God, not to get in the way of your Spirit.
Help the words we use not become too many or too confusing.
Our faith, Holy One, is in you
and not in any words or in any teaching.
We just want these words to open us up to you
and to your Spirit among us.

Help us not to be afraid of Jesus,
the companion you have given us for our journey toward you.
As St. Bernard prayed, 'Jesus, you are honey in our mouth.
You are music in our ear. You are a leap of joy in our heart.'
Amen." - Richard Rohr, adapted from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations

When I arrived at the hospital, I had with me a batch of 22 quilts for donation; that always makes me happy. And by grace, I ran into a kind and courageous woman who we met in Indianapolis (at the Hope & Empowerment Event), who has traveled here so that two of her children can be treated for cancer at the same time - yes, they both have it (unthinkable, but true). It was wonderful to be able to hug her, and welcome her to Seattle.  She said, "Thank you for the comforters," so I know that her kids have received quilts from our guild. I'm so grateful!

Then Janet D. arrived, as we had arranged, so that she could donate 9 more blankets made by her group, West Coast Oddball Knitters. Janet allowed me to take her photo with the blankets (and her husband), and she took the 3 huge bags of yarn (donated by Lucile) so that the W.C.O.K. can knit more blankets for the hospital. There is a new posting up on Katie's Comforters Guild's blog all about this. The guild's blog also has a new look - check it out!

After making the donations of blankets, I went to the ladies room, locked myself in a stall, and practiced my speech again. Then it was time to go into the auditorium and meet the coordinator of the hospital's Journey (grief) Program, Jackie. She led me to my seat, brought me a glass of water, and I tried to get comfortable. I prayed. I remembered that people were praying for me, and I started to relax.

I was overcome by a feeling of profound love for that hospital. I don't know what it is, but I felt I would do pretty much anything for them. Maybe it's because nearly everyone I met there gave their very best to help Katie and our family. They loved her. It's not a scary place. I feel "at home" there. (That's pretty amazing, coming from someone who was raised as a Christian Scientist.)

Families were filling the auditorium, bringing photos, stuffed animals and mementos of their child's life. I saw people weeping; candles were lit, the memorial book signed, and ribbons tied onto the memorial wreath. With love and awe at the families' devotion in coming to this memorial service, I knew I was going to be okay with my part in it.
I've written about my Nana Emilie before - she's the one who studied for a year in France on scholarship, and received a Master's degree in education (Mills College, Class of 1925), and who didn't really like children in a hands-on way. She had a live-in nanny for her only child (my mother), and wasn't domestically inclined; she was an intellectual and a committeewoman, a member of the Board of Trustees of Mills College and Seattle Children's Hospital.
Nana Emilie & Coco (my mother's parents)
And here I was, the very hands-on mother of a patient, about to speak in the same hospital that was my grandmother's greatest charitable passion. It was a pretty surprising circle of life-events.

The other speakers did a beautiful job. A member of the board spoke - she's the mother of a patient who died. That had a huge impact on me: she's not just an administrator, or a figurehead; she knows what this is like, first-hand, and in her talk, she said she wanted us to know that from the board on down, the hospital is ever-mindful of the lives of our children who have died.

The prayers were lovely, and varied. Here is one of my favorites, for the dedication of the memorial book, wherein all of the children's names are written:
"O God, we dedicate this book to the memory of our children.
We bring to this act our grief and pain, our longings, our hopes and our dreams.
We bring in fact, our whole life's journey to this moment.
We have wanted with all of our being for what has been not to be.
Yet now that it is, we ask for the grace to accept the unacceptable.
May this book be a symbol that the memory of our children will endure...
That their struggles, their courage, their love will continue to inspire us to live more fully and to love more truly.
May this be our promise and our prayer.
One father told the story of his son's brief life, only 2 or 3 weeks, all spent in the hospital. He told us that after weeks of pre-natal and a day of post-natal bad news, a NICU doctor at Seattle Children's came up to him and said, "Congratulations; your son is beautiful." He said this was a wonderful gift to him, and he wept as he spoke; many in the audience wept with him. And in fact, this was the first time that I have wept as I spoke in public. I didn't lose control completely, but my voice broke, and I had to slow down. But I was among my people, grieving parents like me, and it was a privilege to be with them, to address them, and to share what I now know, especially with those who have just embarked on the path that no one wants to walk.

A physician spoke, tenderly and compassionately, and he said something important: "I miss my patients who have died." He said that he cries when they die, but that their courage and strength, and ours (the parents') gives him courage and inspiration to go on.

I am thankful to have been asked to participate in such a sacred ritual, and honored to have been in the presence of the families of all of those precious children who were treated at Seattle Children's, but who still died. Seattle Children's Hospital truly does care about each one of our children, and about us. It was beautiful to see that love and caring expressed in this memorial service.
Nana (in her 90s) with Katie & David


LeighSW said...

Wow. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of the talk, as well as what others shared. It sounds like a very powerful time for everyone.

Truth Ferret said...

The picture of your Nana circling your Katie brought tears to my heart. You say she wasn't a hands on sort of mother, but look at what great she did for Katie, and so many others.

You are a blessing to all of us who journey with you by the way of your blog. Thank you for including us.

Warmly, Ferret

Busy Bee Suz said...

What an experience Karen.
You are so wonderful to keep going back and gifts of yourself. I imagine when this was all done, that you felt good about it all.
I am astounded to learn that your Nana was not a hands on mother. You just don't hear that very much and I can see that part of the DNA did not last. :0
Hugs to you,

Anonymous said...

Karen, this post is so touching and honest and raw. Thank you for sharing. I know from attending a remembrance service for my grandfather at our hospice for the dying how, paradoxically, these things can be happy occasions.

So pleased the quilting is going well.

Praying for you,


Maggie said...

You have been on my mind sooo much Karen. I have been keeping up with you, but just popped in to say hello, and you are, as always, in my prayers.

Anonymous said...

The Memorial Service sounds so beautiful and touching. It surprises me that this is the first time you've broken down, even somewhat, during one of your talks. You have nerves of steel! Even though you may not take after your Nana in terms of hands-on child-rearing, you certainly follow in her footsteps in terms of the good that you do for others with your volunteer work. And the work you do is not that which can be done by just anybody, so it is extra important.

I love the dedication in the Memorial Book. I am going to forward a copy of it to our dear friends whose son died 4 years ago from lymphoma. I suspect that it will ring deep and true to them also.

Karen B.

Elizabeth said...

I love this post, Karen. You've shared, again, something very intimate and powerful, and your strength and grace are an inspiration. I can't wait to hear you speak one day --

rebecca said...

thank you.
your courage and candor are precious.
as is your heart.
you are such a strong and comforting force.
thanks for gracing me with your thoughtfulness.

Anonymous said...

Dear Karen, Thank you for sharing that; I love reading what you have to say. And I love the picture of your Nana holding Katie—xo (and see you soon!) Jiffy

Anonymous said...

WOW. I am so impressed that you can do this - I cannot talk in front of people. I would love to hear you speak sometime. (Well, I've heard you speak, but you know what I mean...*wink*). I understand about the shattered plate, also, although not on such a deep level. Once cancer touches your family, especially your child, you are NEVER, NEVER the same. But, it is usually the parents of these children that raise the money to find the cures for future generations. I think it is so wonderful that your grandmother was involved with Children's so many years ago. What a legacy.


Karen said...

This post touched me so much, I cried and couldn't answer yesterday. The picture started it all--the nature-made hearts on the sand with Katie's name. So very beautiful. And then the memorial service, (which I think I still would lack the courage to attend), and your brave willingness to speak. Your courage often amazes me. You appear to have some of your bold Nana's genes, and combined with your own ability to nurture, that's quite a package of love you cast on the world. So glad I know you. Thanks for being there.

deb said...

I hope to have some quiet to catch up here, Karen.
Your thoughts deserve true attention. They are sacred.

that quote pierced me .

I am so so thankful to have found you. You know that, right?

Kay said...

It would be very hard to attend such a service. We've been invited each year since our loss and have yet to attend even once. I don't think I could bear to stare into the beautiful faces of child after child that didn't make it.

You are a braver soul than I if you can get through a talk especially in that environment! Hats off to you, girlfriend. : )