Hannah Van Sickle
As a child I recited poetry, by rote memory, every week in Mrs. Rowe’s fourth grade classroom. On Sunday evenings I would painstakingly choose a selection from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. It was a well-worn volume, cloth bound and threadbare, from my father’s childhood library. The camel colored cover depicted a young boy, head tilted back, sounding on a long, slender horn. “What is he announcing?” I remember thinking. And from the tidy, well-ordered pages of that conventional text, I carefully contemplated the inherent challenges faced by his narrators–from early bedtimes to the duplicity of one’s shadow–never daring to fathom the heavy subjects of loss and death.
Today, after four decades and three children, I have more books than I know what to do with. They spill forth from myriad shelves and accumulate in stacks on night stands and coffee tables. Some gather dust from sitting, their jackets unscathed by the wear and tear of favoritism; others, dog-eared and well-loved, bear coffee rings on covers and sport once soggy pages that have dried but refuse to lie flat. My back seat boasts board books, their spines filled with ancient crumbs and prints from sticky fingers. And titles that I tire of reading to my kids are often relegated to the dark place under the couch.
New books make me giddy, and unfamiliar titles are rare; these coveted gifts can elicit sheer delight, even in unfavorable circumstances. When I was in the hospital with my third daughter–not for her birth, rather to receive a precious second chance at life: a heart transplant when she was just shy of her 6th birthday–books became a welcome escape from our oppressive landscape. In spite of having been born with a congenital heart defect–hypoplastic left heart syndrome–and spending countless hours, days and weeks in the hospital, reading together provided rhythm and comfort to our days. In the aftermath of her transplant, as Cora’s lanky body became dwarfed by a room full of medical equipment that threatened to engulf her, an unexpected gift appeared. It came in the form of a quotation, printed on a simple slip of white paper, and I scarcely noticed it at first. Taped to the foot of Cora’s bed, on the morning following her long-awaited surgery (she was on the transplant list for 18 months), I received a note printed in vaguely purple ink: “If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that should suffice.” A handwritten note followed: “Keeping you and Cora in my prayers. Reverend Mary.” I had never met Reverend Mary, but I took her message to heart. I was thankful, of course, for the second chance Cora had been given; I was thankful to be by her side; and, as I contemplated the magnitude of organ transplant, I was thankful for another child and her parents who–in the midst of their own unimaginable grief–had given our family the most precious of gifts. But I did not ponder the message much longer, quickly turning my attention to mustering the strength to nurse Cora back to health.
Weeks after the sliding glass doors to Cora’s room had been emblazoned with the requisite, “Happy Transplant Day” poster, she suffered an acute attack of antibody mediated rejection and was placed on life support; the prognosis was grim. With too much time on my hands, and no one to read to, I found my way to Reverend Mary’s office to seek solace. There, hidden among carefully curated titles to assist grieving families, I found a new book. I was drawn to Nancy Tillman’s, On the Night You Were Born for reasons unbeknownst to me. The slender, blue spine of the hardcover volume had an impeccable dust jacket, and the cover illustration was seemingly unremarkable: two polar bears, dancing beneath the moon, while music notes floated above their heads. I quickly returned to her side with what would be the final book we read together. Looking back, it was a curious title to choose.
Amidst the chaos and discord of 8 South, the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit at Boston Children’s Hospital, I read this new book to Cora countless times over the span of 17 excruciating days; outside the windows of bed space 26, the waning days of August turned to fall, as if ushering in a palpable transition to ready me for the one that was coming. One for which I could never prepare. As I read aloud, there would arise a tremendous lump in my throat as I spoke the author’s words: The sound of your name is a magical one. Let’s say it out loud before we go on. “Cora,” I’d whisper. “Cora Campbell Barrett,” I’d repeat over the din of the beeping pulse oximeter, the audible drip of countless infusions and the rhythmic inflating of her blood pressure cuff, unsure as to whether or not she could hear me.
And then Cora died. It was a brilliant early September, rife with bright sunshine and transitioning foliage. As blue skies dotted with poufs of cotton-like clouds loomed overhead, I was confused. I reflected on the profundity of the book’s final lines: Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn, on the wonderful, marvelous night you were born. Of course I could see the cause for celebration–that Cora had come to me was an invaluable gift. But suddenly, she was gone. What I did not understand at that time was that the lessons in her leaving would be nearly as priceless as those in her arriving. On the warm, September afternoon that I held my youngest daughter for the last time, she handed to me a proverbial baton; at the moment, I did not see the transaction. It was a clear hand-off, Olympic in nature, but my perspective needed to shift before I would recognize it as such. In retrospect, Cora and Reverend Mary provided me with invaluable gifts that had been present all along. Reverend Mary’s words–at once simple and profound–coupled with Cora’s spirit, had allowed me to be present without any regret of the past, all the while propelling me forward. They allowed me to be thankful that Cora had come into this world and lived so fully; they had helped me to see the beauty–the wonder–in this wildly unpromised life. And Nancy Tillman? I have capacious gratitude for her compilation of words that simultaneously albeit unexpectedly celebrate a daughter and a mother who–despite one just arriving in the throes of the other’s departure–are forever connected through a refreshingly unconventional perspective.
Why did this book, about auspicious beginnings, land in my lap as I navigated a profound ending? I looked for it to make sense, found none, and did the most logical thing I could fathom: I digressed into living. I eventually bought my own copy of Tillman’s book and, with time, I noticed a peculiar detail of those dancing polar bears on the cover: in their jubilation, each had raised one leg and one paw so that, as the moon cast their shadow onto the snow, it reflected but a single creature. As if, mysteriously, the two physical beings had in fact become one. My ensuing journey–in retrospect–has left an indelible mark on me. On my being born. At the tender age of 40, the birth in the story was suddenly symbolic albeit wholly unexpected–standing in stark contrast to the formulaic volumes from my youth. And now it is clear: Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn, on the wonderful, marvelous night I was born. A great feat facilitated by a beautiful little girl who simply read with her Mom.