The world became the most beautiful place possible on an afternoon in October when my son, Noah, was born. And, then to be blessed again less than 22 months later with the birth of my daughter, McKenna, how could I ask for more. These two events made me the happiest I had ever been and changed the direction of my life forever.
Noah was a very big baby. Although he was born three days after his due date, he struggled for months with colic and projectile vomiting. He would eat every two hours but had trouble keeping it all down and this lasted more than a year. Always registering in the 95th percentile at the pediatrician’s office he developed early verbal skills and by age 2 could speak in complete sentences.
He loved his baby sister, McKenna who was born several weeks before his 2nd birthday and was always kissing and rubbing her little head.
A born athlete he mastered baseball in a weekend at age 4. At just 4 ½ years old he announced he had his first girlfriend, Heather, and on one memorable night, when asked about how his day at preschool was, Noah replied, “Heather got new tights!” I guess he was a leg man from the start. He was full of life and a true joy to me. When he was five, his first emotional challenges began. His father and I had divorced recently and Noah began working out his emotions by getting into fights in kindergarten. I connected him with a wonderful therapist who helped Noah identify and process his feelings.
At age 7, Noah, McKenna and I moved from Ohio to Arizona for a fresh start. He was in the first grade and quickly made friends and acclimated to our new home.
He continued his pursuit of sports enjoying baseball, basketball, football and soccer. He excelled at them all even playing both offense and defense with his football team, the Ironmen. He played for two seasons until the heavy pressure from the multiple coaches left him nauseas, emotional and unable to continue. He was disappointed because he loved the sport but the pressure was affecting his well-being. Academics also came easy for Noah and he even made it to the elementary school spelling bee. He practiced and practiced and even though he knew how to spell the first word he was given, nerves set in and he misspelled his word. Poor guy, he was humiliated. Noah took disappointment very hard ever since the divorce.
My children flew to Ohio four times each year for visitation with their father. The spring break visit in Noah’s 13th year changed dramatically. McKenna had always cried when they had to fly back to Ohio to see their father and this year was dramatically worse. She was hysterical, inconsolable. Two hours before their flight, I decided to support McKenna’s decision to stay home. Noah was terribly upset and kept saying, “Don’t make me go to Papas alone.” As each child cried and pleaded their case, each with a different goal, Noah’s to not go alone, and McKenna’s to not go at all, I felt like Sophie’s Choice, having to choose which child to save. After hours of tears and discussion I realized I had to support McKenna and not force her to go for the visit. Unfortunately, that meant Noah had to make his own choice, go alone or stay home. He chose to go. The decision continued for the next year and a half.
Other than the visitation issue, Noah was thriving. By sixth grade Noah had chosen to take his athletic abilities in a different direction. Instead of team sports, he found greater satisfaction in individual endeavors. He loved mountain biking and his skateboard. He also developed incredible flips and turns off the diving board into our pool and on our trampoline. A friend helped build a ramp for our driveway for bike tricks and Santa brought Noah a rail one year for Christmas for his skateboard tricks. He continued to be surrounded by many friends and usually a girlfriend was also in the picture.
He was also charitable to his fellow human beings. When we would do our shopping on the weekends and we came across a homeless person needing help, Noah was the first person to dig in his pocket and take out his allowance to give to this person. Noah was generous, intelligent, charismatic and a beautiful human being. We were close, affectionate and always sharing what was going on in our lives, Life was good, or so I thought, until three days after his 15th birthday.
My beautiful redhead! McKenna was on her way to becoming another large baby when my doctor suggested we choose her birthday and save me from another potential emergency cesarean. I chose, 8-9-89. She appeared healthy and on-track in her development until it was apparent she was having trouble sitting up at age 9 months. Her doctor ran tests to determine if there was a physical reason for the delay. There were none. With a few months of physical therapy she was off and running! The only other challenge we had was her high-pitched voice, you see, when she squealed with joy her pitch was as high as that of breaking glass, which always set-off our security alarm system. Too funny. Overall, McKenna was a healthy, happy and loving child.
When she was three, her father and I divorced. Although I had primary custody, their father had visitation one evening each week and every other weekend. A frightening pattern emerged in the months following. McKenna often came home from these visitations with scrapes, bumps and bruises. Each time this occurred I confronted their father who simply blamed it all on clumsiness. McKenna wasn’t clumsy. She and I would see her pediatrician each time this happened and documented what began appearing as a pattern for concern.
When she was five the three of us moved out west. Although McKenna had been attending preschool while living in Ohio, my attorney strongly recommended I enroll McKenna in kindergarten the day we arrived in Arizona along with enrolling Noah in 1st grade. I followed her advice which then secured Arizona as their residence in case their father tried for custody again. He had readily relinquished custody during the divorce and then proceeded to sue for custody several times over 1 ½ years.
McKenna excelled in kindergarten even thought the year was half over when she started. She was bright, fun-loving and attracted wonderful friends. As an old soul she connected with everything deeply. She was passionate about everything in her life. Animals were her top priority. She rescued newborn kittens abandoned at her elementary school and loved the countless pets we had including her cat, Sunflower, our dog, Wolfgang and Noah’s cat, Bubba. One of her favorite things to do was dress up poor Wolfgang, or Wolfie as we often called him, in her t-shirts, then take him for a walk while wearing her rollerblades. The two adored each other.
Writing was also one of her passions, from poems to short stories. I keep a framed poem of hers, talking about how much she loves me, in my bedroom as a daily reminder of the kind of person she was and the bond we shared.
Although not as athletic as her brother, McKenna enjoyed her own physical activities. When Noah joined his football team, McKenna felt strongly that they needed a cheerleading squad to support them. So, ever the go-getter, McKenna recruited her friends and we found a young teacher from the area that agreed to lead their squad. Oh my, was McKenna in her element. As the most petite one she got to be the top cheerleader in their pyramid. She had so much fun with her friends and supporting the big brother she adored. Frankly, they adored each other.
McKenna and I were always very close and affectionate. We had this routine of blowing kisses and catching them when we would part. She even insisted that I fill a sandwich baggie with blown kisses so she would always have them with her if she needed one. She also wanted me to wear a t-shirt to bed and then give it to her to sleep in, so she had my scent surrounding her every time she left to visit her father. She was like a mini-me, we looked alike, both had passion for the interests in our lives and lead with kindness. Unfortunately, she also got my insecurities and vulnerabilities.
In fourth grade she was invited to a school dance. She told the young boy that she would go on three conditions; first, there would be no hand holding, second there would be no kissing and finally there would absolutely be no dancing! It took everything I had not to giggle at the boundaries she set. Off to the dance they went, and everyone had a wonderful time.
Around this time, she developed a urinary track infection which took us to her female pediatrician. When her doctor tried to examine McKenna she became nearly hysterical. It was a sign that something was terribly wrong but I didn’t put the pieces together at the time. As it came time to have ‘the talk’ with her about her changing body and the birds and the bees she would freak out. I wasn’t even allowed to say the word, sex, without her becoming unraveled. The other clue was how McKenna acted at the airport with each flight back to see her dad. She would become very emotional, crying and clinging, at the gate each time I took them to the airport. And soon after these visitations began, McKenna would call me on the third night of the visitation crying and begging me to come get her. Their father refused to have a productive conversation with me, always resorting to name calling and emotional abuse, so the only person I could ask about her behavior was her big brother, Noah, who assured me it was just homesickness. I held on to that idea while my gut kept telling me that something sinister was going on. Unfortunately, I didn’t act until years later.
One day McKenna announced she was a vegetarian and the unique cooking experiments began. I remember one Saturday morning she brought me breakfast in bed. I had to choke down undercooked eggs with raw carrots and raisons. I don’t recommend that recipe. Then her grandmother, my mom, sent her a Junior Betty Crocker Cookbook. Each dish only has three or four ingredients and where the beginning of much more tasty treats from McKenna’s cooking. Thanks mom.
Next she tackled volleyball and loved it. Again, the most petite on her team, she was successful in getting the ball over the net and serving well from the last row. She cheered on her team and loved every minute of it. This was also the time she chose not to visit her father. That lasted for 1 ½ years although I would often find her sobbing in her bedroom, when her father called, and would hear him screaming through the phone at her, “You’re not my daughter!” I would reach for the phone and she would pull away as if she thought deserved to be emotional abused by him. My children had heard him screaming through the phone at me for years. This is when her OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder surfaced. I took her to a child therapist, remembering how helpful it had been for Noah when he was five. Her therapist recommended McKenna also see someone for medication which we did.
Other changes I noticed included hints of her wanting to dress older than she was. Fashion had always been an interest of hers and she went through several phases until she found her look’. I remember the year she only wanted to wear her big brother’s hand-me-downs. Her tiny frame was overwhelmed by his baggy jeans and t’s. Then there was the more reserved look followed by an interest in Abercrombie and Finch. Next was the Hot Topic phase and finally she settled on a pulled-together, casual look.
Eight grade followed her 13th birthday, finally a teenager. We had her usual birthday party that August with loads of friends and a pool party in our backyard. These celebrations were always a blast and I absolutely loved having the house full of kids. When McKenna learned that there was an 8th grade choir she knew she had to be part of it. When she tried out and didn’t make the cut she was crushed. Then her passion for singing and her writing abilities kicked in and she penned a letter to the choir director selling him on the reasons she should be part of their choir. It worked. The choir director said that anyone as passionate about singing as she was should be included. For weeks they rehearsed and their first concert was book for October 15th.
As McKenna entered the eighth grade, Noah entered high school. Their father decided he would fly to Arizona for the 3-day fall visit, his first effort to travel to see the children instead of always expecting them to travel to him. McKenna hadn’t seen her father in a year and a half. She decided that she was O.K. seeing him since it had been a long time and it was such a short visit. My greatest mistake was not stepping in and keeping her home.
The long weekend visit was to take place at a hotel near the fair grounds. They would go to the fair for a couple of days and could invite a friend to join them for dinner one night. What I didn’t know until later was that he had reserved a room with only one bed and made each child take turns sleeping with him while the other child slept on the floor. I dropped them off at the hotel on Friday evening and expected them home Monday evening. I was completely surprised when the doorbell rang on Sunday evening and found Noah and McKenna on the doorstep, bags in hand, and a taxi waiting to be paid. They offered no explanation as to why they were home a day early and I only learned much later that during the previous night’s dinner when their friends were included, that McKenna sat mute the whole time.
The next day and a half seemed normal to me. That second day home was the evening of McKenna’s first choir concert. A friend walked home with her and stayed awhile, like usual, while Noah came home and ran out the door with his skateboard to join his friends. Around 4 pm, after her friend had gone home and while Noah was out and about, McKenna retired to her room for what I thought was a nap. As the evening came on and time was approaching for her to get ready for the concert, I found her door locked and I knew something was terribly wrong. I remember that feeling as if it were yesterday. When I finally got her door open, I found that my dear, beautiful daughter had completed suicide. When I rushed in, I started CPR as I reached for her phone to call for help. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was about two hours too late, nothing could be done to bring her back. The details of that night will forever be branded in my memory. It is your worst nightmare come true.
At the hospital where they took McKenna’s body, I prepared to call their father with the news. Noah kept trying to pull the phone out of my hands because he wanted to deliver the news. After I talked to their dad his only reply was, “My war with you is over.” A few days later he flew back out here and we held McKenna’s funeral attended with countless friends and family. Even Wolfgang was in attendance.
With McKenna’s death came heavy drug use by Noah that haunted him throughout the rest of his life. I was so deep in my grief that I hardly noticed. Violence also followed as Noah struggled to come to grips with the death of his baby sister and reconcile the abuse we all suffered. McKenna couldn’t survive the abuse, now was the time Noah and I had to find a way for us to survive. Previously an A student, Noah now fought tooth and nail to simply graduate from high school. After graduation Noah decided to serve in the US Army and off he went with me worrying that I might lose my other child through war. Then life threw us another curve ball when I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. Because of the seriousness of my diagnosis the Army gave Noah an honorable discharge due to family hardship so he could come home and be with me. At one point, while in the hospital, the doctor even told Noah and my mom to start discussing funeral arrangements because I probably wouldn’t survive. I did and together we continued our journey of grief and healing.
Noah continued his pursuit of adding tattoos to tell the world about the pain in his life. He was so proud of the tattoos on his back because they were all in memory of McKenna. Across the top of his back was the word, “Forgiveness” with McKenna’s initials below, followed by her birth and death years and finally large praying hands beneath it all.
Later he asked me to pick an image or saying that would represent our love and relationship and I chose a Native American XX symbol of two hummingbirds connected forever that represented our dedication to each other. Many more tattoos followed including the American flag over his heart and the words, “Pain is Progress” across his chest. He loved his ink.
Noah began working in a furniture warehouse where his abilities shined, and he was promoted to supervisor. With his own apartment and dogs that he loved, he seemed happy with his life. He enrolled in a community college and got sober on his own. But the demons of addiction returned time after time until he ended up in jail and in a 24/7 substance abuse program while in jail. For several months I visited on weekends and watched as my Noah, the kind, clear-headed, wonderful young man returned. When he completed his six-month sentence and recovery program he was out on his own again, healthy, working, looking at returning to college and in a relationship he thought might be ‘the one’. In April of 2012 I remember a conversation we had about how wonderful his life was and that I felt I was finally turning the corner in my grief and despair and that life was good again for us. One-month later Noah was dumped by his girlfriend, whose little boy Noah adored, and publicly humiliated. He relapsed under the pressure of this pain and died.
McKenna and Noah are buried together. Their last photos adorn their shared tombstone with my final message to them, “I Feel Your Presence in All I Do.”