Monday, November 23, 2009

Reflections from a November: A Lasting Impression

Walt Disney World, a magical place

"C.J." , a magical child (and the hugest fan EVER of Walt Disney World) :)

Death is, unfortunately, a huge part of what I do every day. The doctor in me always wants to intellectualize it--dissecting every aspect of the clinical details--but the mother in me knows that sometimes I cannot. This is one of those times. This loss taught me to love harder and to celebrate little things much more. Having more love and more joy makes me a better doctor. . . .and makes me enjoy and better relate to people, especially my patients. The thing about mixing joy and love together is that you just can't help but pay some of it forward. . . .

This is a story about the lasting impressions of love and joy. . . .

November 28, 2008

It was pitch dark and raining the night we drove in to Fayetteville, North Carolina from Atlanta. The usual chattiness that Harry and I share on long car rides was replaced with a palpable reticence. I could hear every single drop of rain as it slammed against the windshield, the tires on the wet asphalt, and the rustling "mapquest" paper in my hand that lead us to our destination. Occasionally, we would look at each other and want to talk, but instead we rode in silence. This was not a trip we wanted to make.

Just four days before, we had received the awful news that our dear friends had lost their beloved three year old son. Perfectly healthy. Absolutely beautiful. Wonderfully precocious and bright. Undoubtedly cherished. An overwhelming bacterial infection invaded his bloodstream, quickly spreading through his little body and ultimately taking his life in less than twenty four hours. It was unimaginable. Something you gasp about on the evening news, but not attach to someone you know or love. Someone you find yourself praying for without a face or a relationship. . . .but this time, it wasn't a stranger flashing across the screen, it was very real and close to home. On November 23, 2008, just one month and one day shy to the day of his 4th birthday, God decided He needed another little angel. His name was C.J.

C.J. (Cedric Jr.) was born on December 24, 2004 to our friends Cedric and Davina C. Cedric, or "Ced" as we all call him, was Harry's roommate during his Army days and was also a groomsman in our wedding. Davina, his wife, surely proves the rule of "six degrees of separation." Coincidentally, she and my best friend Lisa D. pledged AKA sorority at Hampton University together almost twenty years ago. The two "linesisters," who happen to be members of the sorority that rivaled my own in college, poked fun at my Delta sorority sisters and me over our wedding weekend. That was a fun weekend, our wedding weekend. And as it turns out, C.J. was a part of the fun, too. He was a special secret growing in Davina's womb that she and Ced would soon learn of upon their return home.

"I don't know what to say, baby," I murmured to Harry as we approached their home. I stared out the window as the freezing rain pelted the car. I could feel myself beginning to panic. Usually wise Harry had no poignant advice this time. He just looked at me and shook his head. "I don't either, babe," he uttered quietly.

I closed my eyes and started to silently pray. I asked God to please comfort the family. I asked Him to ultimately give all who knew and loved C.J. peace. I asked Him for mercy on them and the rest of the family . . . . . and all other parents. I asked for favor in Ced and Davina's lives going forward, and that God somehow reveal to us all what He wanted us to learn. Then, I selfishly asked God to please put words in my mouth that would somehow help and not hurt. In fact, I begged Him to.

We stepped into the threshold of their home and out of the relentless rain. The room was surprisingly light when we arrived. The love in the room wrapped anyone who entered it like a warm blanket. It was morose. . .yet celebratory. Ced's parents, the ultimate matriarch and patriarch, stood vigil in the foyer greeting visitors. Mrs. C, Ced's mom, reached out and hugged me. I managed to utter a few scratchy words. "I'm so sorry." I could feel her nodding her head.

"It's like a bad nightmare," Mrs. C replied while taking our coats. I wanted to cling to Harry, as a child does to a mother's leg, trying my best to disappear behind him as we made our way into the living room. Ced immediately stood when he saw Harry--always the poised military man. There was such a raw innocence about him at that moment. . . . his eyes so quiet and tired. He walked briskly to Harry, and they both dropped their stoic guards and embraced tightly. "I'm hurting, man," I overheard Ced say, his voice muffled into Harry's shoulder. As Mr. and Mrs. C stood by, it dawned on me that they had not only lost a grandchild, but also had to watch their manchild cry. You could see how badly they wanted to take the pain away from their child. . . .take the pain for their child. . . .I shook my head and started quietly praying again. Pleading with God. . . please God. . . .please. . . . .

Glancing around the room, my eyes finally rested on the kitchen table. Four women sat at the around it talking and laughing softly. Three of them were Davina's close sisterfriends, fiercely loyal and lovingly flanking her, and directly across from where I stood sat Davina. She looked her same beautiful self, but her grief stricken eyes told it all. I willed myself not to cry. Please don't. Don't. Then I made the mistake of scanning the rest of the kitchen. C.J.'s Thanksgiving artwork was proudly displayed on the refrigerator and his "kiddie table" still held his Lightning McQueen placemat. Why Lord? Why? I lost the fight not to cry right then. I quickly tried to regain my composure. Please Lord. Please. Give me a word. Just give me a word. Something. Anything. Not just "sorry". She knows I'm sorry. Davina slid back from the table and came toward me. Please God. Please. Anything. Something.

"Hey chica," she said hoarsely with a halfhearted smile. We hugged for a few moments in silence, sharing so much. Mothers of pre-school aged sons. Believers in God, desperately wanting to accept His will on something so unconscionable. Both of us knowing that there is nothing natural about a mother burying her child. No words to smooth it over, no real gesture to make it better, nothing. "It's as awful as you could imagine it to be," she once said to me. "Everything about it, girl." During that embrace, it came to me that although we had both been pregnant together (Isaiah was born six months after C.J.), and although our husbands were the best of friends, schedules, work, and life never allowed Harry and me the chance to actually meet C.J. in person. Right then, after that realization, God gave me something to say.

"Introduce me to your son," I spoke softly while holding her two hands. "Please. Introduce me to your son."

And that is exactly what she did. We locked arms and walked over to a shelf that held several family pictures, and of course, even more shots of photogenic C.J. at every stage. Davina picked up an 8 x 10 of C.J. wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. She smiled as she rubbed her index finger over his lips. "This is one of my favorite pictures." She gently kissed the glass covering his angelic face. Then, she shared with me stories of his experiences of going to Disneyworld "many times" before he was even four. The funny things he did, the parts that scared him, and how he liked to ride on his daddy's shoulders as they walked around the park.

We sat side by side on her couch and Davina took me on a photographic journey with C.J. to parks, museums, vacations, trick-or-treating, and even the most every day places of all. Unlike many of moms who promise that we will put those pictures in albums some day, Davina is one of those moms who actually did. One picture was taken in a restaurant, C.J. smiling brightly next to his mother. "What were y'all doing here?" I asked Davina--knowing that there was a good story behind it.

"Girl, we were at C.J.'s favorite restaurant, Outback Steakhouse. Most kids want chicken fingers, but this boy orders like a thirty-five year old man!" We both laughed. "We were there for me and Ced's anniversary. C.J. was my 'hot date' since Ced was deployed at the time."

I turned the page and saw several consecutive pictures of C.J. wrestling on the floor with his paternal grandfather, who he lovingly called "March." (They loved to be silly and march around the house together--hence the name, which according to Davina, really stuck.) Riding on "March's" back like a horse, playfully laughing on the floor with his uncles and cousins. . . .then I saw another photo of Ced lying in bed reading a book with C.J. perched right beside him, mimicking his every mannerism. I peeled back the next page, gasped, and looked over at Davina. Then, I threw my head back and laughed at the sight of Ced standing beside his spotless Harley Davidson, and with his "mini-me" C.J. right next to him -- and beside his own miniature "hog." "Girl, you couldn't tell C.J. nothing about his Harley!" Davina added, eyes sparkling. What a delight. She reached for a stack of black and white photos that were spread before us on the coffee table. "This is from the last time Ced returned from Iraq," she said sighing. The first one I saw was a great snapshot of C.J. in his daddy's arms, Ced fully clad in Army fatigues. There were other photos of the entire family of three, reunited and smiling. . . .Davina proudly wearing a t-shirt that read "I love my hubby." And finally, a photo of Davina holding C.J. with her back to the camera looking to the horizon. If you looked closely, you could make out a faint silhouette of Ced and the other soldiers who'd just stepped off the plane in the background. There was C.J. with his arms wrapped snugly around her neck, and with a tiny American flag in his tightly clenched hand, staring into the camera hauntingly. . .his young face was so serious and peaceful--and his eyes--almost knowing.

I was introduced to C.J. that day, and also learned from Davina during that introduction how to truly celebrate the ones we love. Her pictorial biography of C.J. was a glorious carpet ride of life through a child's precious eyes. Laughter. Imagination. Innocence. It is the best introduction I have ever had--with the most lasting impression.

Our hearts connected that weekend as more than just wives of old Army buddies. We forged a friendship of our own, growing sometimes over simple text messages, and other times over laugh out loud phone conversations, but in its every form special, easy, and authentic. The fear of talking with her about her son, and especially my own sons, melted away that day and never returned.

"Please don't let anyone forget my son."

A few years ago, one of our college friends, David S., passed away after a sudden cardiac arrest. A loving husband, a cherished father of three, and a beloved son also swiftly taken away from his loved ones. At his funeral, his grieving mother embraced my older brother, Will, and implored him-- "Please, don't let anyone forget my son." Will was a close friend of Dave's, yet all who knew him would tell you that he was adored by countless people. For that reason, I found it especially moving that his mother trusted Will with those words that day. . . and that charge. And by telling me what she said, he honored her request. Part of me believes that the Lord spoke to her that day, too. . . .and through those words she shared with Will, ultimately spoke to me as well.

I vowed to regularly remember Dave S. that day, and to do my small part not to let others forget him, either. In that same spirit, I also vowed to remember little C.J., and to be unafraid to talk about him, share about him, and to bring him to life just has his mother did for me on that dark and rainy November night. Even if it hurts a little.

"Tell me a story, Mommy."

This is a common request from my kids, especially Isaiah, (most often a thinly veiled effort to delay bedtime after being tucked in.) Usually, I'll tell him one of Davina's "C.J. adventures." I try to get every detail right, doing my best to honor his memory. I even placed a picture of him in the boys' playroom, and told them he was our "playroom angel."

"Is he a kid angel?" Isaiah asked one day.
"Yep. He's a kid angel," I answered.
"Why are some angels grown up angels and other angels kid angels?" Ut oh.
I swallowed hard and give my best reply. "If God takes you as a child, you are a kid angel."
He looked puzzled. "But why would God take a kid?" he asked with wide eyes. He really wanted to know. So did I.
"I don't know, baby. It's a lot of stuff God does that we don't fully understand. But you can ask Him when you pray tonight."
He looked down quietly. "Was his mommy sad when God took him?"
"Yes, baby. His mommy and his daddy were very sad and a lot of times they still are. But they are happy God gave C.J. to them for a little while, even. And now they have there very own angel and so do we."
"Oh," he responded, not completely comforted. Later on that evening, Isaiah told me he thought it was a good idea for C.J. to be our playroom angel, "'cause there are lots of toys in that room, and I bet kid angels like toys."

One day, I came in the playroom, and Isaiah had taken down the framed photo of C.J. "What are you doing with that?" I asked him.
"Oh, just playing with my angel," he replied with a smile. "We were going to watch the Care Bears Movie, and I thought C.J. could see better if I took him off the shelf." I could feel my eyes welling up.
"Actually, angels can fly, so he could see without you moving him," I said matter-of-factly.
"I know angels can fly," he quipped, "but I wanted to see him better." Of course.

Isaiah, C.J., and the Care Bears that day (courtesy of my iPhone)

"Please don't let anyone forget my son." This was one mother's plea, and is every mother's wish. We don't passively remember. It has to be deliberate. . . . .kind of like love. So today, I am remembering C.J.. . . . . I am running through toy store aisles with him, marching with high steps around the house with him, giggling out loud on carpeted floors with him, and sometimes crying, too. I am describing him to friends-- to you--and to my children. . . .promising to make his memory a living one and paying a little of that love mixed with joy forward, just like he did.

Dear C.J.,

Thank you for teaching me so much about love and joy. Thank you for your spirit and for continuing to be our special angel in so many ways. I am so honored that I finally had the chance to meet you. I look forward to continuing to introduce you to others, and to teach them what you and your mommy have taught me. You have both taught me how to make love a verb. . .active and always evolving.

It has been a year since you made your transition, but I promise to keep you fresh i
n my heart and my thoughts every day. . . .and to never let anyone forget you. Ever.


One of the many people who love you

Marion Cedric "C.J." Carrington, Jr.
a.k.a. "Heaven's Angel"
12/24/2004 - 11/23/2008


  1. Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing C.J. with us.

  2. I'm getting over a cold. I went to see Precious and now, CJ. Just call me Snotty Jackson. Wonderfully written. I love you..

  3. I know this is an old post, but I just had to tell you how beautiful and moving your words are. How blessed Davina and C.J. are to be comforted in their grief by your eloquence.

  4. Alison, thanks so much for reading and for commenting. This was a long post, so I really mean that. I'm so happy you were introduced to C.J., too.

  5. Beautifully written. Davina told me about Isaiah and the playroom angel last year. This year when I sent a text to say I was thinking of her and Ced, she asked me to read your blog. I'm so glad I did. Beautifully written!

  6. Beautiful! I'm sitting at work reading this blog and I'm overwhelmed with tears of joy and sadness. I've known Davina and Ced since 2003. I work at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and this is where I met Davina. I never met Davina and Ced's little angel, but now I feel that I have. Thank you so much.

  7. i am reading all your remembering Cj posts. I want to honor his life, too. So brief was his time here, but the love remains. isaiah in the playroom watching Care Bears with CJ just about broke me. but in the best most love-filled way.

    what a soul you are.

  8. This post is so touching. Glad you are able to help the world remember C.J. I will pray for the family. I know this time of year must be difficult but they will make it through b/c C.J. is watching over there. (Big Hug to Davina. Wanted to give Soror Davina a special hug from a fellow Gamma Thetian.)


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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