The teacher teaches and, in so doing, learns from her student

Cameron loved dresses.   She liked to wear makeup and fussed over her hair.  She loved it when it was straightened and hoped fervently that it would stay that way.  When we traveled by plane, I would buy her and Kylie “trash magazines;” the ones full of celebrity gossip.

Cameron liked having her Mama paint her nails in bright colors.   She didn’t like wearing earrings but she liked rings and necklaces and made colorful string bracelets to wear around her wrists and ankle.

Cameron and Kylie spent part of their summers watching cake shows, wedding shows and America’s Next Top Model.  After she died, I learned the one big secret she kept from me:  she liked to watch The Bachelor on her computer on Saturday and Sunday mornings when I was at yoga.  Imagine that.  Of all the trash TV I tolerated, she was probably right to hide that one from me.  Kylie knew.  She joined in when she was home!

Cameron fell hard for a boy band.  She was learning to play the guitar and to tap dance.  She played the piano by ear and sang with an a capella group. In her first Coffeehouse appearance, she had the solo in 7th Avenue’s opening number.

People called her a jock.  They saw her size, her strength, her physicality, her skill and her determination and they labeled her.  She knew it.  I don’t think it bothered her but she did comment, in her last Christmas letter to me, on how everyone thought of her as an athlete even though she only played one sport.  She had even told me that if this year’s fall musical was one on “her list” she’d consider trying out for it instead of playing soccer.

Cameron knew who she was and had the strength of self not to be bothered when others only saw her as having a single dimension.   She was also strong enough and secure enough to help me see when my sense of what she should do was clouded by my own limited vision.

Cameron made the Varsity basketball team her freshman year of high school.  It was good at the start.  Kylie was a senior and Cameron knew well all the other players on the team. She’d gone to Strom’s basketball camps since she was in the 3rd grade and she felt like she was ready to succeed. In a stroke of perverse luck, her former best friend (and now freshman nemesis) was out with an ACL injury which would dramatically reduce the drama and tension that their playing together would have created.

By Christmas it had all gone sour.  Cameron hated going to practice.  She loathed playing in games.  Whereas Kylie lived in a “happy bubble” and was never criticized by Strom, Cameron was a one of two freshman who played and, in Strom’s mind, who weren’t living up to their potential.  She would silently count down the hours remaining until practice, dreading its onset.  And then she would endure the ride over with Kylie in silence – all the while knowing that Kylie was psyched to be going.

I’ll never forget the game when Strom pulled her from the floor and berated her by saying:  “You are either lazy or you just don’t care!”  It was a home game against John Carroll or maybe it was Bryn Mawr.  Either way, it was embarrassing as she had former club soccer teammates on the opposing team.

She and Eboni both got benched that game –  in the first half.  Out of stubbornness, Strom would have refused to give them any more minutes that day. His assistant, who’d been on the receiving end of many of his tongue lashings herself, knew that in order for the Gators to get the win, they needed both freshman back on the floor in the second half.   Mercedes coached the girls on what to say at half-time so they could get back in Strom’s good graces and get back in the game.

I would later learn that, by then, he was right … she didn’t care.

After the season ended, she told me in one her letters how much it hurt to have Strom favor Kylie and berate her.  Logically, she knew he loved them both equally and that Kylie’s seemingly exalted status was hard earned.   Kylie didn’t want to be a starter that season; she would have been more content to have not played at all as had been her role the previous year when the team won the IAAM Championship.  But, when Strom told her he needed her to play, she did and she played right up to the edge of her ability.   Cameron, on the other hand, was often too terrified of making a mistake to play freely.   That’s not to say there weren’t times when they were in sync, when it was fun, when her ability and desire overtook her fear.  She won one game in the Christmas tournament’s final minutes almost singlehandedly.  It was Cameron they looked to to pull down key rebounds when the other team had to foul to regain possession and she calmly sunk her free throws and helped her team inch further ahead.

That one long-awaited season took so much out of her.  Kylie never wanted it to end and Cameron couldn’t wait for it to be over.  I wasn’t at all surprised when she told me she didn’t want to play AAU basketball in the spring.  Although she loved her AAU coach and the fact that her teams had gone to Nationals each year for the past three years, she needed a break.  Starting freshman year with back to back Varsity seasons in soccer and basketball had been very, very draining.

We were all excited about a spring of coming home right after school with no practices to account for and no tournaments and travel on the weekends.  It would be the final few months of Kylie’s time in high school and all three of us knew we’d so enjoy a slower pace and more free time.

It was in the middle of that spring that Cameron started talking about quitting basketball all together.  She was thinking about not playing Varsity basketball as a sophomore.  I didn’t get it at first.  I should have but I didn’t because my thinking was clouded by what I thought, by what I wanted, and by what I perceived as her duty to Strom, to her school and even to her grandmother.

Gram had stayed with us all winter during that year, when Kylie and Cameron played together. Gram loves her grandchildren and watching them play ball was something that brightened those long winter days.  Sure she grumbled some about how Strom pushed Cameron, but deep down we all knew coaches can be tough in season – it’s their job to encourage young athletes to do more and to become more.

I told Cameron I wasn’t sure if she could quit.  I asked her to think about her obligations to the larger community and wondered aloud to her if she was being selfish.  I asked her if she was shying away from the first athletic endeavor where she didn’t just show up and become a star. Where things didn’t come easy.  Where a coach said he wanted more.  To succeed on Strom’s team, she’d have to work harder, think more and take some risks.

We worked through these questions on paper of course.  We always exchanged letters when there were things we needed to talk about.  It gave both of us space to contemplate what to say and what the other had said.  Letter writing was always our tool for communication.

I told her in one of my letters that I wondered if this was one of those parenting moments where I needed to hold her “feet to the fire” so to speak:  To push her to do what she thought she couldn’t do or didn’t want to do.  I told her I was wondering if it was my role to make sure she didn’t back away from the challenge.  I knew SPSG sports were a loving, supportive environment where she and he both wanted her to succeed.  Would I regret letting her walk away?  Would she regret it?

Layered on top of all this was my friendship with Strom.  I knew how much he loved basketball, loved coaching, loved his players.  I thought about his needs, too.  His team would be greatly diminished without Cameron there.  She was a hard worker, always prepared and invested in the success of the team.  In short, a perfect role model to younger and older players alike.

When I finally admitted to her that this was the first time in my life that, as her Mama, I wasn’t clear what the right answer was, that I didn’t intuitively know what my decision should be she stopped me short by sharing her clarity.  She asked me to consider what I had in it?  In her mind, she couldn’t see why was leaving school ball was such a momentous decision when we had both been in instant agreement that giving up AAU ball was the right choice?

The teacher teaches and in so doing, learns from her pupil.

I was confused and conflicted because I was inserting my needs and my thoughts about the needs of others rather than thinking of her.  When she called me on it and offered me the chance to reflect on my indecision, the answer became clear instantly.  Of course she shouldn’t play if she didn’t want to.  It was then that she told me she wanted to learn to play the guitar.  The next season, after soccer ended and basketball was beginning, she joined the a cappella group.  She knew it was time to grow, to shed some of her earlier “jock skin” and to grow more fully into the young woman she was becoming.  She had found her voice and her voice gave me wisdom.

Of course, her quitting the team helped Strom too.  We didn’t know it at the time.  But the immediate effect on her was very noticeable. I remember waiting for her one spring day in the car outside the gym when she went in to tell Strom she wouldn’t be playing the following year.  According to her, he told her he’d likely never understand her decision but he’d surely support it as he only wanted what was best for her.  What resonates in my mind is what she said to me when she got in the car and heaved a sigh of relief: “He doesn’t hate me Mama.”

After that, when he was no longer “Coach” and she was no longer one of his young players to be molded, their friendship grew.  It became more like Strom and Kylie’s friendship.  Neither wanted anything from the other.  They had history in common, they had interests in common and they both cared deeply for others and each other.

On the day Cameron died, Strom was met at his office door by a senior who had captained the soccer team and played basketball for three years.  Sarah had played with both Cameron and Kylie.  When Strom saw her standing there, his first words to her were “I never told Cameron I loved her.”    I don’t think he had to.  She knew.  She knew because although he didn’t know the part of her that loved dresses and make up and secretly followed “trash TV,” he knew enough to listen when a young girl was brave enough to stand up for what she knew was right and true for herself.  That’s love.

Today Varsity basketball tryouts begin at SPSG.  Tim and Kylie never knew the depths of the pain she felt in her first season on the team, her only season on the team.  She didn’t want others to know. She kept that uncomfortable side of herself private, even from them.  It may be that each of them thinks that had Cameron been a junior this year, she might have re-joined the team and be in the gym today.  I know better.  She made me promise to never tell Strom how painful that season was for her.  I’m glad for that now: for his sake, I’m glad.

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Home is an empty place

Cameron and I shared a special connection.  Kylie knew.  Most of the time she seemed nonplussed about it.  It only bothered her when Cameron and I tried to pair up in Pictionary.  Even “go with the flow” Kylie drew the line there.

We flaunted our connection only once.  I did it for her, to keep her mind occupied while she was starving.  We were traveling in Utah, it was breakfast time, she was hungry and the service was slow.  Things were getting tense as the four of us waiting for our meals to be delivered.

It was a simple demonstration; a parlor game without the hidden trick. I took all the jellies in the tabletop holder out and told her to turn them face down while creating a pattern.  That’s all she needed to do, consciously create and remember a pattern.  Grape, Grape, Grape, Strawberry, Raspberry, Strawberry, Grape etc.  She did it over and over again and I matched her turn for turn.  She’d create the pattern and I’d tell her what she had done.  I don’t recall Tim even commenting but I know Kylie saw. That was the day Kylie learned what Cameron and I already knew.  I really could read her mind.

As she grew, I reminded Cameron that she’d have to find her own voice.  I reminded her that life was a bit too easy for her, knowing that I knew what was wrong even if she couldn’t find the words to describe it.  In my mind, our connectedness wasn’t a realistic model for future friendships or relationships.  She understood but she liked that it was so easy between us.   So did I.

I read her mind about sports and about school.  She had such a tough outer persona that it seemed as though nothing bothered her on the field, on the court or in the classroom.  What she was reluctant to admit, but couldn’t avoid acknowledging since I already knew, was that her persona held her back.  That didn’t make her unique – we all are held back by our sense of who we are.  By our limited definition of what we are.

Cameron didn’t want to ever appear weak so in class so when she didn’t understand, she just pretended she did.  She didn’t want to ask questions and appear not smart.  That was another part of her reputation, the smart kid in all the honors classes.

She had it easier, athletically.  Most of the time, her talent was enough.  She’d grown up subbing in on almost every team of Kylie’s I ever coached and on quite a few where I wasn’t the coach as well.  She might not know the plays but she’d be there giving it her all.  She loved this part of her reputation.  The gifted athlete was a role she enjoyed.  Indeed, on the one occasion she got to work out with the girls practicing “Touch” at St. Hilda’s she was pissed about having been relegated to practicing with the C team.  Mind you, it was a sport she didn’t know and had never seen.  Yet, she gleefully reported to me later that the coach started saying to the other girls, “do it like her, she’s got it going exactly right!”

I think the strength of our connection was one of the reasons she never wanted to stray far from me and somewhat counterintuitively, one of the reasons she was able to go so far away from me on this trip.

During our final five and a half months together we had almost melded into one.  It might be that almost “oneness” that keeps me from going crazy from grief.  It is my saving grace, my salvation, my center, my port of call in this stormy, turbulent time.

Kylie went off to Haverford on Wednesday, August 25th.  We took two cars.  Kylie had lots of stuff and Cameron and I had to head back first for day two of soccer tryouts.  From the moment she and I hopped in the car to head down to practice we knew a new phase of our lives had begun.  No longer would Cameron have her best friend just a few steps away.  No more “breakfast train” partner and, more importantly perhaps, someone to split the morning “job list” with.  Yet, Kylie’s leaving was a loss and a gain.  Cameron and I lost her companionship, her humor, her availability to drive her sister places, her tutoring and quizzing time and her calm, practical demeanor.  Yet, with her gone, Cameron and I had the chance to forge an even stronger bond.

From that day forward, I never missed an episode of Jonas LA, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Glee or the Sing Off.  I followed the Jonas Brothers on Ocean Up and read both daily papers looking for celebrity gossip.  I drove Cameron to school every morning and picked her up every evening.  We ate breakfast and dinner together.  I planned each trip to yoga around her schedule; especially on Sundays when she needed her “Mama-cakes.”  We shopped together, laughed together and studied together.  Oh how she studied.  Now that I have had a chance to learn more about the contrasts between the American and Australian secondary education system, I find myself thinking about all the stress Cameron was under at school.  All the stress her friends continue to experience.

Knowing what I know now I would have encouraged her to do things differently.  So much of her time that wasn’t spent in class or in sports was either spent doing homework or worrying about school.  That’s one of the many gifts her trip to Australia gave us.  She was never more carefree than she was while she was there.  I smile when I think of her post about being “found out” as a genius.  It was so good for her to be there on her own, in a “non-selective” school setting, and away from the bright light of Kylie’s academic aptitude.

Studying formed many of our best and most intimate moments.  I’d always made myself available to both girls if they wanted me to quiz them on school subjects.  We joked about how, since I didn’t really “go” to high school, this was my comeuppance: a second and third chance to do what I hadn’t done before.  Except that what they were called on to do, to memorize, to write, create, and craft was so much harder than what I was asked in the 70’s.  It seemed so daunting, so overwhelming, so onerous.

But quiz we did.

Cameron did her best work for treats.  It was sort of like animal training – rewards were a way to motivate her and to acknowledge hard work.  Usually it was gum or candy but for a number of weeks it was silly bands.  She couldn’t have gotten through her AP US History mid-term without those silly bands.  For another exam it was tiny toy animals.  I’m not sure the “treat” was what mattered.  What mattered was that Mama took the time to make it fun, to break up the monotony, that there were games involved.  I also made quizzes.  Before every test and most quizzes and quests, too.  Matching, short answer, fill in the blank.   The essays were harder.  She didn’t want to take the time to work on the answer and I didn’t know enough about what she was studying to know if she’d done well.

Once the quizzing ended each day, it was usually time to head upstairs for be.  We took turns tucking each other in bed at night.  Or, rather, we didn’t have to count turns, it occurred naturally.  Whoever went to bed first got tucked in by the other.  What we did take turns with were the “kids.”  She got my Teddy one night and Freddy and Getty the next night.  Our rituals kept us connected even while we slept.

My Ted’s with her now.  He holds her tight because I cannot and I still have moments when I think I can read her mind.  Right now, with her classmates still in high school, I find myself able to interject Cameron into their current events.  Because of the synchronicity that existed between us, I believe that the feelings I have about the Ring Dance, the soccer season, tomorrow’s basketball tryouts, and the fall musical are pretty close to what she’d be feeling if she were still physically here.  As the PSAT’s came and went and midterms approach, it’s not hard to imagine what we’d be going through at home. I can say the same thing about the college search process.  We’d already started down that road before she left for Australia.  I know what schools we would have visited and have a fair sense, even, of what she would have found and what she would have liked.

But what happens next?  When her classmates graduate and head out of Brooklandville?  When SPSG is no longer a place where the people who fill the hallways are from our shared experience?  Where the posts from the class of 2013 on Facebook change from high school to what’s beyond? A future that doesn’t include her and me?

I’m grappling now with a quote from Eckard Tolle’s A New Earth:

People believe themselves to be dependent on what happens for their happiness, that is to say, dependent on form.  They don’t realize that what happens is the most unstable thing in the universe.  It changes constantly.  They look upon the present moment as either marred by something that has happened and shouldn’t have or as deficient because of something that has not happened but should have.  And so they miss the deeper perfection that is inherent in life itself, a perfection that is always already here, that lies beyond what is happening or not happening, beyond form.

I feel confident that she and I lived in the moment when we were together – as best as a teenager and a busy working mom could.  The challenge now is for me to learn how to continue on that path without her physically by my side.

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Messages from the other side

I’ve been told by two mediums that Cameron died instantly without pain.  That she was immediately transported out of her physical body and as quickly as we blink, she was in the next moment, in the next realm. I never asked either of them for an answer to that question.  I never felt the need to ask. Somehow I always  knew.  I was as certain about that fact as I am about being her mother.

In those first few weeks, there was one piece of the puzzle about the accident that I did have wrong. Even more compelling is the fact that she corrected my misimpression – after she had died.

Shortly after learning that Paris, Cameron and Dodie had been tubing when the two girls died, Tim and I had each commented, rather blithely, about our sense that Cameron had not even been scared as the accident was happening.  We had each created our version of the circumstances surrounding the accident (not being there forces one to do so) and we found that they matched in that way.  Cameron had a zest for adventure; she loved  physical challenges.  It was an arena in which she had great confidence.

A few days before she died, she had competed in a “Survivor” like challenge at a camp connected with St. Hilda’s.  She was so delighted at her performance, in borrowed shoes no less, that she sent me a photo of the bruises on her legs.  That’s all that was in the photo – her bruised legs from the quads on down.  In her words, she had “gotten shredded on the rope bridge” and she was so proud!   Knowing that, and knowing her, we figured, we believed, we wanted to believe that as she and Paris came loose from the raft, Cameron experienced the thrill of the adventure alongside her customary certainty that it would end OK.  (Broken bones, in her world qualified as “ok.”  Such was our closeness with her orthopedist that Dr. McCambridge even came to her viewing.)

Tim likes to tell the story of the one time he remarked to her – after she had been falling and simultaneously calling out that she was “OK” – that she’d be better off waiting to hit the ground before she declared herself  unhurt.  Doing so while she was still falling undermined her credibility!

So the narrative of no fear was the one we carried those first few days.  My naivate ended 6 days after her funeral on Friday, April 22nd. That day, at work, I was awash in tears.  Now, I’m not known as one of those people who cry at the drop of a hat, or commercials, love songs, and sappy movies. However, since my daughter died, I do cry and I do so whenever and wherever. I don’t fight back the tears…I just let them flow.  I know that it only hurts so much because I loved so much.  When the hurt causes my eyes well up with tears I honor her and cry rather than begrudge myself that simple expression of natural human suffering.

But that Friday was unusual.  My tears were coupled with a gut level of unease I had theretofore not experienced.  The disquietude had gnawed at me from the moment I had awakened at 5 a.m. that morning.  I had been asked to go to lunch that day by a friend from work.  It was a lovely gesture and, initially, I had accepted but as the noon hour approached, I knew  I couldn’t go. I had something I had to work through and wasn’t up to lunch.  Even with someone as dear and undemanding as Joe.

Then it hit me and the unease evaporated as swiftly as it had come.  Cameron had been afraid.  I had the story wrong.  She was known as a “tough kid.” She had a widespread, well earned reputation as someone who went hard.  She was relentless in her pursuit of the ball.  Yet, as her Mama, I knew better.  I knew the side of her she rarely showed others.  I knew how nervous her tummy got, how challenging life could be, how she’d blossomed as a sophomore on the soccer team and become a leader simply because she “wasn’t scared to death anymore” as she acknowledged she had been as a starter during her freshman year.  It was as simple as that.  And as soon as that feeling came upon me,  that I had been wrong, my unease vanished. I apologized to Cameron for having made an assumption based on her reputation alone.  And I thanked her for showing me our special connection endured, even after her death.

As I describe it, the change seems and sounds so simple. It felt like that at the time.   The difference between gut wrenching nausea and feeling transformed in to lightness happened like the flick of a switch.

After that moment of connection, of transmission, I revised my internal story of how things happened, how she felt as she lost her grip on the raft.  I even shared my “discovery” with Tim.  It didn’t change his mental version of her story.  Why should it?  The honesty and connection, the pureness of her ability to trust that she was loved as she was, that showing weakness was just an expression of self not an indictment of self,  was something she and I shared, something precious and special between her and her Mama.

Oddly enough, knowing she had been afraid brought me peace.  Learning that what I had thought had happened had been wrong and finding out that even that early on, she had the power to set me straight, to help me see and feel clearly was worth all the tears.

Cameron helps me still.  She helps remind me to live knowingly, intentionally and in the moment.  I nonetheless stand in awe of the fact that my growing clarity arises out of a split second where she was scared and helpless and her Mama was, literally, 10,000 miles away.

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I’ve had just enough time.

“If I Die Young” by The Band Perry is plays frequently on the radio these days.  (A little too frequently from Kylie’s perspective I believe.)  I first heard about the song from Kylie.  I think she heard of it from the girls at SPSG; the ones who decided to choreograph a dance in Cameron’s honor at the spring dance concert.  There was lots of Facebook chatter about which song they should choose.  Much of it centered on two of Cameron’s favorite artists: Bruce Springsteen and the Jonas Brothers. “If I Die Young”  was one of the suggestions.  It wasn’t chosen for the dance but we did play it at her Celebration. Tim did the most amazing slide show of photographs from Cameron’s life and set it to that song.  It was a brilliant tribute to a beautiful girl. It took so much out of him, doing that.  He says he is numb to the song now.  I’m not.  It still pains me to listen to it.  I still punch the radio station button when it comes on.  I change the channel rather than listening to it.  But sometimes, the song comes through.  Last time I heard it, it came through loud and clear.

I was out for a simple 5 minute errand.  Off to my pals at the Post Office to mail a parcel to Australia.  I do it almost every week.   I had a random FM station on.  The song came on and I quickly changed stations.  My errand accomplished, I hopped in the car and drove home.  It came on again – this time on the second station I had chosen.  Remember yesterday’s lesson: There are no coincidences I thought so I stuck it out and listened.  It was raining outside and soon tears started rolling down my cheeks.  I’d never really listened to the song, only the chorus.  So this is what I heard for what seemed like the first time:

If I die young, bury me in satin

Lay me down on a bed of roses

Sink me in the river at dawn

Send me away with the words of a love song

Lord make me a rainbow,

I’ll shine down on my mother

She’ll know I’m safe with you when she stands under my colors

Oh, and life ain’t always what you think it ought to be, no

Ain’t even gray, but she buries her baby

The sharp knife of a short life

Well, I’ve had just enough time

What would you say if I told you that that very day, Tim, Kylie and I were headed to one of the girls’ favorite places? The Chester River – to see the Annie D and the tribute plaque they put on the refurbished boat in her honor?   I’m thinking, by now, you are joining me in saying “there are no coincidences.”  I didn’t see a rainbow that day.  Doesn’t mean it wasn’t there – but it did snow.  In October.  We all thought that was pretty cool.

I guess the final refrain is what I am working on today, on this trip to visit Lara and Rowan.  No doubt I’ll still be working on it tomorrow and next week and this month and this year and likely for the rest of my lifetime: honoring the message of that song.  I had just enough time.  I guess she did.  I guess I did.  Why think otherwise?

In a way, I am trying to live with my pain rather than avoid it but, at the same time, make some space around it, some stillness so it doesn’t eat me alive from within.  That space I am seeking has been defined by Eckard Tolle as what comes “when there is inner acceptance of whatever you are experiencing in the present moment.”

I’ve had just enough time.

Such a simple truth.  Life is about is how we use our time, the choices we make.

I’ve been walking this path for a while now.   In 19xx, JoAnna and I went on a girls weekend to Annapolis.  I remember Tim commenting on how ridiculous he thought it was.  That she flew out to Maryland and then we went away to Annapolis.  Well, for us, it was magical.  We stayed in a simple bed and breakfast and slept and shopped and drank champagne and walked around and she ate seafood at O’Learys. I can’t recall a thing about what I ate, why would I?  But I can remember asking for restaurant recommendations and Alan Hornstein recommended O’Leary’s on the Eastport side.  I’m guessing JoAnna enjoyed her meal.  I think I’d be more likely remember if she didn’t.

During that shopping trip, we happened into a small shop selling all kinds of gift items.  Mostly upscale, items for home; vases, sculptures, wind chimes.  They were tasteful and pleasing to the eye.   I also remember that the shop was closed.  It must have been Saturday evening after the end of the shopping day in town.  The fact that it was closed mattered because, you see, there was something in the window I wanted.  A small piece of art that spoke to me.  We looked at the time the shop reopened on Sunday and asked ourselves if it was possible.  I was on a short leash.  Tim and the girls were back in Lutherville and although I enjoyed being gone, I disliked being away from them for too long.  My feeling now was that I had to be home by a certain time.  In fact, if I looked it up, it might well have been that Cameron had a soccer game.

Like all things that are meant to be, it worked out fine.  We needn’t have worried.  The shop opened and we had enough time.  Indeed, it was actually unlocked and available even before the posted time.  That day I bought 3 8 x 10 prints by an artist whose work I’d never seen but whose name I now know – Brian Andreas.  That day I only knew that his work, actually it was his words, that compelled me.

Since that day, one of the prints has hung in the downstairs powder room of our home.  Last time our property was on a house tour, roughly half of the female visitors asked me about that print.  It reads:

There has never been a day

when I have not been proud of you,

I said to my daughter,

though some days I’m louder about other stuff

so it’s easy to miss that.


The second one I took to work.

Everything changed

the day she figured out

there was

exactly enough time

for the important things in her life.


Having it on my desk speaks my priorities.  I wonder if the people who were surprised when I later quit my full-time job had ever taken time to read it?

The third one I purchased I knew was either going to be a hit or a bust.  Things were troubled in my marriage then.  They have been troubled, unfortunately, more years than they have been good.   I wondered if Tim would share my sense that the humor the artist conveyed spoke to our reality in a way that always went unspoken between us.  I don’t think he appreciated it.  He rarely appreciates my efforts in that regard – trying to acknowledge, with humor, the pain that permeates our relationship.

His reads:

Do you ever listen to me? she said

& I said I did but sometimes it took a couple of days to sort it out

in a way that didn’t make me want to murder her in her sleep.

JoAnna bought one that day, too. She might have bought more.  I can only remember one:

For a long time, she flew

only when she thought no one else was watching.


I went back to that store after Cameron and Paris died.  This time I was with Paris’ best friend Ashleigh.  Australia is the third country Ashleigh has lived in and the second continent.  She’s traveled extensively and had even been to America before.   I thanked her for following through and told her I thought she was brave to have done so.  No one would have given it a second thought if she had declined to participate in the exchange to St. Paul’s.  She said she did if for Paris – because coming to America was such an important dream of hers.

We all have just enough time.  Does that thought resonate with you or repel you?  I figure it’s now part of my life lesson.  I may spend each day of my time working on this lesson.

I think I will know I have learned it when I stop asking myself if there couldn’t have been a simpler way, a less painful way to have been brought to reckon with it.  “Ain’t even gray, but she buries her baby.”

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Tokens, Symbols and True Knowing

Because she died in a tubing accident, the personal effects we received with Cameron’s body didn’t amount to much. A bathing suit, a hair tie and a silicone bracelet.  There was a wetsuit, too. It wasn’t ours.

The hair tie she had around her wrist.  She wore it to create a tan line.  There was a slight line when she came home.  Only I knew to look. I have the bathing suit and hair tie in my room at home.  The hair tie doesn’t fit on my wrist, it’s a bit too snug but I wanted to keep it, to keep it separate from all the other hair ties in our home.  I wonder who took the things off of her?  When?  Was there was any conscious thought or ceremony involved?  I think it must have been Phil, the funeral director in Toowoomba.  I wear the silicone bracelet every day.

On the middle finger of my left hand, I now wear a ring I gave Cameron.   It has two interlocked hearts.  Unlike the other things I wear, I don’t take the pink bracelet off and I wear the ring all the time, too.  Even at yoga. They have become part of me, like my engagement ring, wedding band and earrings.

On my right wrist I wear the purple “Cameron and Paris” bracelet SPSG had made last year.  The 10th grade girls sold them as a fundraiser – we’ll use the proceeds from the sale to plant a tree in Cameron’s honor and a butterfly bush for Paris.

The silicone bracelets are visible reminders of the girls and they symbolize part of their story.  I find it fascinating how they bookend each other.  Paris was wearing her pink one when she died, too.  They form a version of “before” and “after.”

I wear three necklaces every day.  One connected to me the very day she died.  I couldn’t recall the specifics about it but I knew Cameron had had me buy a dog tag that was designed by Nick Jonas and supported his diabetes fundraising/education efforts.  I also know she wore it when she needed extra courage and on special occasions.  If you look carefully, you can see the chain in almost all of the photos where she is wearing dress clothes.

Imagine my surprise when I googled it that night – the 5th of April – and was reminded of the inscription:  “Just a little bit longer and I’ll be fine.”   There are no coincidences.

I ordered three that night – after I shouted out the inscription to Kylie and Tim, they, understandably, wanted one, too.  But get this, when our three came, they were cheap imitations of the original.  Same content, ordered from the same place but clearly a different and cheaper version perhaps from a different vendor. Guess what I did?  I kept hers, the “real” one as my own and we buried Cameron wearing the “imitation” one.  On to the dog tag chain – next to Nick I placed a tchotchke from another necklace.  You rarely see it hanging there but I know.  It says “sisters’ and has two hearts on it.  I gave matching necklaces one year to my girls.  I want to honor their sisterhood.

The second necklace I wear is the one she chose for me when she went on the SPSG trip to Costa Rica in the 8th grade.  I used to only wear it intermittently.  Perhaps not even enough.  But I started wearing it again in January before she died.  I wonder, too, about that sometimes – there are no coincidences.  The shirts I got from JoAnna and Gram for Christmas has the exact color purple in them.  The necklace complemented the shirts and the shirts the necklace.  I am sure it made her proud that I wore it.  I am grateful that I wore it more those final few months.

The third necklace I wear is from Angus Wilson.  It’s a beautiful piece of “adult” jewelry. Better suited, perhaps, to Sandie his wife and Cameron’s “upgrade” of a mother.  In fact, Sandie and Angus and I laughed a little in New York about his buying me jewelry.  I’m not much of a fashionista.  I am so proud to wear it.  I honor the Wilson’s and the gifts they gave Cameron ever morning when I put it on.  The beautiful butterfly reminds me of Paris and how carefree Cameron felt when she was there in Australia.  How light of being.  How loved. As I write this, on the back deck of Lara and Tim’s place in the Bahamas, I can see all three of my necklaces reflecting in the screen’s monitor.  There are no coincidences. I smile – seeing them as I write this.

I have a fourth necklace too – are you thinking now that maybe, just maybe, I look like a professional athlete with all my “bling?”  I don’t.  Even if I did, I wouldn’t care. I’m just not the type to be overly worried about what others think about me.  What’s the sense in that?    The fourth one I only wear around my neck when I don’t have pockets.  Most every day, I am able to loop it around a belt loop and place the two dangling Team Jonas Fan Club emblems in my left pocket.  One of the emblems is on a guitar pick.  Cameron learned to play the guitar after she quit basketball.  There are no coincidences.

When I put the necklaces on in the morning and when I take them off at night, I repeat a mantra to myself.  “I love you – the Nick one I bought for her; you love me – the Costa Rica one she bought me; and we both love the Jonas Brothers – the fan club one.  And then there is the Wilson’s – acknowledging Paris’ butterfly.”   There are lots of stories about butterflies.  I’ll have to remember to write about them, too.

Around my left ankle I wear a leather bracelet with beads.  Kylie’s name is etched on one of the beads and Cameron’s on another.  You see, I isn’t just Cameron I carry with me each day in my heart and through my tokens.  I carry Kylie, too.  There is the love for her as my daughter, my first born and the love I have for her as the sole surviving child.  The big sister whose little sister went away on a dream come true trip and never came back.

In my back pocket – usually the left but today I only have a right pocket on these shorts – I carry two pocket-sized cards by Blue Mountain Arts.   They are number 430 and 463.    I bought them at a gas station convenience store near BWI.

One I gave to Cameron a long time ago, probably around the time she turned thirteen.  She always kept it on the nightstand next to her bed.  She didn’t take it to Australia.  I’d like to think it is because she knew it by heart having had it for years.

                                                      For My Teenager          


I have so many wishes for you.  I want

you to be safe, smart, cautious, and

wise beyond your years.  Don’t grow

up too fast.  Come to me with your

fears.  Get your feet wet with new

experiences, but never get in over

your head.  Realize how capable you

are!  Your possibilities are

unlimited.  You are loved

beyond words, and I will

love you beyond all

time.  So many treasures

await you in your journey

through life, and being blessed with you….

has been mine.

Here is the second one:


From Mother to Daughter

In your life, if I could give you

a very special gift, it would be this.

When you look in the mirror in

the days ahead, may you smile a

hundred times more than frowning

at what you see.  Smile because

you know that a loving, capable¸

sensible, strong, precious person is

reflected there.

And when you look at me,

may you remember

how very much I love you…

and how much I’ll always care.

~ Laurel Atherton

I tucked the second one in the things I sent with her to Australia.  We buried her with copies of these cards.  I frequently told her how much I loved and respected her.  Yet, we both didn’t mind when I found small ways to reinforce the message.

I wear her clothes now, too.  Not all of them.  You’d have to double check with Kylie or Kate but I think I have enough sense to try to choose tasteful, age-appropriate clothes.  Cameron was born right before I turned 33 – did you know that her official due date was my birthday?  I always said I “didn’t want to share my birthday.”  Really what I didn’t want is for Kylie’s first day of her new preschool to be interrupted by my giving birth.  Ever the wise one, Kylie at two told me that “it wasn’t nice to not want to share with the baby.”  I stopped saying that about September 7th.  Cameron and I were 32 years and 10 days apart.  At least we used to be.  Kylie and I will always be 30 years apart but now that Cameron will be forever 16, I’ll start aging without her.

Sometimes I sleep in her bed.  There were a few times in the earliest days when I didn’t want to be in my bed – the one week anniversary comes to mind so clearly and I think there was one other.  Now, however, I give up my room as the guest room (the 3rd floor is sometimes too hot and now it’s too messy) and I move over there.  I wish the room had a hold on me. I wish it made me feel happy or sad – just something when I stay in there.  It seems to have no power.  It’s a room, her room for sure but it hardly even smells like her anymore.

Saturday will mean it’s been 7 months since she died; 8 months since she left for Australia. She left on the 5th and died on the 5th. There are no coincidences.

Rituals and tokens are mere symbols.  I know that. I took the pink bracelet and heart ring off only once since she died.  Kylie wanted me to go in the Atlantic Ocean with her in Rehoboth this past summer.  Something her sissy would have done every day.  I took them off because I was afraid of losing them in a rough wave.  Things didn’t feel any different when I did.  The same “no change” occurred when the pocket sized “poney” that I had given her ran away.  I carried that “poney” with me from my first trip here to the Bahamas in April until Sunday of Labor Day weekend when I realized he had headed for other pastures as I made my way back from a wonderful weekend in Charlottesville.

I wish things had felt different, when I lost my “poney” or when I took my ring and bracelet off.  I wish I’d felt a diminishment of self. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the bracelet really did have an actual connection point between her and me; like an electric current, a lifeline?  Then we’d know that she had the capacity to find me on the other side of that line and I her.

Rituals and Tokens are mere symbols.  Cameron’s love, her presence, can stay with me.  But to be carried on by me, she must exist inside me.  External things are reminders – ways of acknowledging and honoring her each day.  In the end, however, it is my life, my purpose, my being that will continue to live.  To love.  To thrive.  I must find a way to see that what she and I had/have carries forward with me each day. The memories we made and the choices I make are how I honor her now.  How I will water the secret garden that grows in the place where our love resides.

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The Power of the Written Word

Happy Birthday…I know that you don’t really find as much excitement in birthdays as I do, but that’s ok, because no matter what, Birthdays are a really good thing.  You asked me to write you a letter again, and you said that it doesn’t have to be by your birthday, but I am going to do my best.  You are the best mama anyone can ever have! You do everything for me but at the same time, you raise me like a good child.  Yes, sometimes I might get mad at you, but I always get over it.  Sometimes, I feel like you are my best friend just because it is so easy to talk to you and have fun.  If I don’t play AAU I will miss being able to go to nationals and spend a whole week together doing whatever we want!

Also, I really want to thank you for everything you do for me, just to make me happy.  Not just you, but kylie and dada all really like to make me happy and do so many things.  Such as the never ending birthday month, no matter if I show it enough then, I really appreciate everything that you do.  thank you mama for everything, for being my mother, my friend, and my biggest supporter. You are there for me always and I will always remember that.  I really love everything you do for me, and even If I get mad at you, it’s just because Im a teenager and that’s whats supposed to happen. 

Oh how I cherish the letters I have from Cameron, the cards, the notes, the memories but above all the letters.  For that I have Jana and Richard to thank.  (I wonder if they have someone to thank? I have never asked but I will. I know now that I will.)  Ours is a wonderful friendship.  We went to their house when their three boys were young and growing and they started coming more frequently to ours when their boys were grown and our girls were growing.  Our friendship with them morphed from their being our adult friends to their being friends of ours and of our children.

In the 25 years we have known each other, Jana had mentioned to me once, or maybe even more than once, that she and her boys exchanged letters more frequently than gifts.  That stuck with me.  I’ve never been one to want gifts.  I recoil from celebrations involving me.   I love giving but receiving isn’t something I do well.  But now, because of Jana and Richard, I realize how important some gifts are.  How lasting they can be, how much they can be treasured, both in the moment and long after.

I adopted Jana and Richard’s ritual for my own.  I asked the girls to write me letters in lieu of gifts at Christmas, on my birthday and for Mother’s Day.  I had always stressed that “homemade is best” when it came to their giving gifts but I waited too long to ask for letters.  There could have been so many more.  But that is just me being greedy, I am working on remembering, on knowing, on living with the knowledge that what I do have is perfect, is just enough.  I need to release the egoic me, the part that desires more than I have, the part that wishes for more rather than simply rejoicing in what I had/have.  I am working on honoring the fact that what is is already enough. I think that might be the biggest lesson to learn from Cameron’s death.

Last night in my reading in James Van Praagh’s Meditations book, the one I turned to when I chose at random was:

Think of today as an opportunity to discover and grow beyond your mental and emotional discomfort.  When a difficult situation is upon you, reach into the depth of your being and find a greater meaning to your life and your purpose on Earth.  Some of the greatest agonies are the greatest triumphs for your soul’s evolution.


And when I read Rumi, this is the part I tagged, the part that spoke to me.  Is it any wonder since I am here in the Bahamas watching Lara with Rowan Cameron O’Neill Calver?

Give your weakness

To one who helps.

Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.

A nursing mother, all she does

Is wait to hear her child.

Just a little beginning-whimper,

And she’s there.

God created the child, that is, your wanting,

So that it might cry out, so that milk might come.

Cry out!  Don’t be stolid and silent

With your pain.  Lament! And let the milk

Of loving flow into you.

The hard rain and wind

are ways the cloud has

to take care of us.

Be patient.

Respond to every call

that excites your spirit.

Ignore those that make you fearful

and sad, that degrade you

back toward disease and death.

On this trip, the process of trekking to the beach each morning to indulge in the written word is a breach in my stolid and silent self.   I am able to let the milk of loving flow for my daughters. Just as Cameron knew she was loved, I, too, know that there is love surrounding me.

The love surrounding her continues even though she has left her physical being. I think there is more love from more places and people than she would have comfortably claimed as her own during her time on Earth.

She is not the only one.  So many of us are loved more than we know. It is in loving that we live.

Thank you Jana.  Thank you “PH.”  Thank you Lucy and Poppy.  Your love lives on in my life, too.

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Have you ever been there? Have you ever dreamed of or even thought about going there?

I remember a report I did in the 5th grade about duck-billed platypuses (or is it platipi?).  You know, those crazy mammals that lay eggs.  Don’t they live there?  Australia has kangaroos and koalas. Before this happened, before Cameron died, I’d never known anyone who lived in Australia.  I didn’t know they had “states” like we do, didn’t know they had American pop music, “Australian Idol” and “Top Chef Australia.”

Now, in the land of “after” of “forever,” I now have family there.  “Family” in a place I have never seen, a place I have never been, a place that would have made my list of places to see but one that didn’t draw me in as it does now.  I think about Australia a lot now.  (They call it “Oz” amongst themselves. That seems to fitting.)  I think about Australia every day.  I don’t think I could go through a day without thinking about Australia.

Yet, this new me, with so many things on my mind, with so many things that have changed still has room to wonder and, literally, I find myself wondering if Alexander ever made it?  Surely you remember Alexander, he of the “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day?”  Remember, he told his family he wanted to move there? His mom kept writing books after that one.  I just Googled her and she actually wrote a book about Alexander as an adult – his coming back home to live with her.  I wonder if she mentions his wanting to go to Australia in any of her subsequent books?  One thing I know for sure, if Alexander made it to Australia, he also made it home.

Like Alexander, my daughter wanted to go Australia.  She made it but she didn’t make it home.  She died there.  She was 16.  That’s why I am writing  I guess that’s also why you are reading.  Do you want to know what goes on inside a mother’s mind, inside her life¸ inside her heart when the unthinkable happens?  Is reading about someone else’s loss akin to the fascination rubberneckers have with peering over at the accident by the side of the road?  Is it like moviegoers flocking to horror flicks and violent movies?  Do humans feel drawn toward experiencing, voyeuristically, what it is like to be in those terrible, terrible places – from a safe enough distance that it doesn’t hurt or even affect you?   I understand that.  I accept that. Better to be a voyeur than a surviving loved one.  You aren’t one of those are you?  Someone who has also experienced love and loss?  If so, I welcome you, in fact, I want to embrace you.  As someone said, there is enough room for us all on this “mourner’s bench.” More that that,  I hope you find something in what I have written to be healing, even in the smallest, tiniest, infinitesimal way.

Let me be clear, I welcome the rubberneckers and the survivors.  But I do have one word of caution.  If you think that by reading this, about her, about me, you might be able to keep tragedy from happening to you….if that’s what you want, put this down now.  Stop reading.  It won’t help, it won’t inoculate you or your loved ones against harm; random, deadly harm.  The scariest part of her story is bigger than what happened to her or to me.  It scariest part is the realization that no matter what you do, who you are, how much you love, how much money you do or do not have, there is NOTHING you can do that can guarantee  your child is safe.  That’s right, NOTHING.  I’ve watched grown men, tough men, brave men break down after realizing that very fact.  So, if that’s the lesson you needed to learn, you got your money’s worth right here.  Just as I have learned that “there are no coincidences” you must learn “life offers no guarantees.”

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