The Indian Princess Year

I haven’t written much about Caroline for the past year. I felt like I should just be done with this. So I put all my energy into other writing. But she is always there, lingering in the back of my mind. Sometimes she is an image, sometimes she is an invisible presence, but she is always there.

There’s a book to be written about her, and us, and what I think we learned, though I’m still learning it. I know there’s a book because I have the pieces scattered throughout notebooks and thoughts and memories, some sweet and some heartbreaking. I wrote another book instead, though now I’m not sure why.

Maybe I figured I was still learning, that the time had not yet come to lay it all out and make sense of it. But now I see that I’m getting to a place where I can no longer avoid the last things, which when distilled are my horror over what I saw in her final weeks, and my anger at an all-powerful God who sat in silence while it happened.

I suspect I will only get through those last things by writing about them. Counselors don’t work, prayer doesn’t work, and avoidance has only wrecked things. Of course the first two haven’t really failed, because I haven’t really tried them, not wholeheartedly, anyway. Instead I’ve focused most of my energy on the last strategy. And the wreckage is darn near total.

Many times since last March 7th I’ve thought one thing, which is that this was supposed to be the Indian Princess year. I remember learning about the Indian Princesses from a friend whose daughter was seven at the time. It’s a club where dads and their little girls get together and sing and play games and do all the fun dress-up stuff that girls like, but with enough of a frontier flavor that dads don’t feel like complete sissies.

I wanted Caroline to be an Indian Princess, but she was only three, and the minimum age was seven. I remember thinking that I didn’t want to wait four more years. I didn’t understand waiting the way I do now.

So last year was supposed to be the year I took my Indian Princess to play with her little friends, and the year I looked at her in amazement over the fact that she could sit for an hour and just read (homeschooled kids are smart that way, you know), and the year she helped me cook, and the year the beginnings of a mommy could be seen in her as she helped mind her brothers.

Instead it was another year of wondering if she’s the same age in heaven or if they grow older there, and wondering if she misses us or even remembers us. It was another year of wondering if the way heaven works is that you look back over your shoulder and see the people you love passing through the veil behind you, so that separation is only a moment in God’s time. It was another year of remembering her laid out on a gurney as they rolled her out my front door, and waking up in the middle of that first night terrified that maybe she wasn’t really dead but lying awake in a cold room at the mortuary, crying for her mommy and daddy.

It was another year of knowing that I don’t have an Indian Princess; I have a dead daughter, and God let it happen.

But I also have a loving wife and two sweet little boys, and in between the times that I worry I will lose them, too, I am thankful, I swear I am. But I can’t figure it out. Why answer every prayer but that one? What purpose did it serve, not just that she died, but that she died like that?

I demanded a miracle and didn’t get one, and I’m mad as hell about it. That’s the nature of selfishness. It’s so much easier to love God when he doesn’t let us hurt. And now I’m supposed to trust him with all my heart and lean not on my own understanding, as the proverb goes.

You think when you lose your child that you’ll dream about her all the time. I’ve only dreamt of Caroline a handful of times in the four years since she died. I dreamt about her this morning, on her birthday. We were at the end of her days again, the time when she couldn’t move and even her mouth was clamped shut because of the tumor. The doctors wanted us to let her starve to death. Their children weren’t hungry, so far as I know.

In those last weeks I would hold her in my lap, with a roll of paper towels and a couple of cans of vitamin drink on the bedside table, and I would slowly dribble the drink between her clenched teeth, and then wipe the spill from her face. It took about four or five hours a day to feed her, because only a few drops at a time would go in.

There I was in that place again, only something changed in the middle of it, and Caroline was gone, and it was me being fed through a mouth that refused to open. In my dream I knew it was God holding me and doing the feeding, though now I don’t know how I knew this.

I’ve only recently begun to understand grace — how a perfect and mysterious God can forgive transgressions like the ones I’ve committed. I understand it by looking at my own children. No matter what they do, I will always love them. Somehow, for some reason, God looks at his children that way. I can’t fathom it, but I think that’s how it works.

And yet somehow he lets us suffer. This is a mystery that I can’t unlock, perhaps because it isn’t mine to figure out, at least not here. I feel his grace around me, and I see his blessings, and yet I carry this wound that won’t seem to heal. I’m not sure if that’s because I won’t let it, or because I’ve not yet cleaned it, for fear of what that entails.

Let it go or dig into it — there’s a dilemma for you doctors of the soul out there. Sometimes it seems like there are so many of you, writing books and drifting over the airwaves offering solace, and yet I don’t want to hear from anyone who has all his children healthy and happy on this earth. Talk to me about God working all things together for good when you’ve put a child back into the ground.

There is no comfort in leaning on my own understanding, because it leads me back to that anger. Instead I try to live the 42nd Psalm. “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” When we ask this we ask it not of ourselves, but of the God who, as Bebo Norman wrote, sometimes can’t be found. “I will say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?'” If David could ask it, perhaps I can too, and God will forgive me for forgetting that he surrounds me even when I cannot feel his presence.

I only meant for this to be a couple of lines about Caroline on her eighth birthday, and now look what I’ve done. There’s more here — a book, in fact, but not for this place, and not today. So enough for now.

Happy birthday, Caroline.

My Indian Princess.

Comments

  1. sid

    Happy birthday from Ann Arbor, Caroline. Too bad I never got to meet you and your mommy and daddy when you all lived here.
    Thanks for this very moving tribute to Caroline, Tony
    -Sid

  2. Jeff Brokaw

    Tony – I think you’re right that writing is the only way to really work through your grief. I for one will read every last word, if you choose to do it in a public way like this.

    Happy Birthday little Caroline.

  3. Jeff Brokaw

    My attempt to make sense of this is here – for whatever that’s worth. Likely not much.

    Lots of things I could say, but it all boils down to this: Tony, I really hope you and your wife and your two little boys can find your own best ways to arrive at an understanding of all of it, yet still keep your hearts open, or as far open as still feels safe to you. That’s about the best one can hope for, I’d guess.

  4. MoJo

    Happy Birthday Caroline.
    You are missed sweet girl.

    You have your own personal guardian angel Tony.

  5. Dean Esmay

    There is no possible way for me to say this without sounding awful. But… when I read your story, it reminds me of how much I have to be thankful for.

    I suppose every parent thinks that and is afraid to say it.

    I wish I had the power to bring her back for you Tony. I really do.

  6. Janelle

    Tony I too lost my son and he when he was buried I remember looking at that little casket wondering why he had to pass away so young when he could have had a long life with his sister and brothers. I was mad at God for quite sometime and could not find my way back until my older son really questioned me over and over as to why his little brother had to go to heaven and when was he going to die. We started talking a lot about God, and then I got him books that I thought might inspire him and get his mind of the pain he was feeling. Over time he came to understand that he would be around for a long time and he had a purpose… and so did his little brother, even for the short time he was with us.

    I, like you Tony wonder if Michael is growing like Caroline, and he is just about 30 in heaven now. I want you to know I understand your feelings and I wish your Indian Princess A Very Special Happy Birthday.

  7. Alan Kellogg

    (Found you through Dean Esmay.)

    I have two things to say about your loss. 1. Damn. 2. It comes for all, the good and the evil, the rich and the poor. Damn all you can do about. Mourn, go on, and always remember.

    I have no idea where your Caroline is now. She may be with God. She may have a new life with a new family. Either way I expect she’d wack you upside the head for not getting on with your life, if she could. She’s gone, let her go. Let the dead care for the dead, your concern should be with the living. Recriminations of what happen do nothing to change the past, and will hurt you and those you love.

    Remember Caroline, but never let the memories rule you and all you do. You have a family to raise, grandchildren to prepare for in the not as distant as you think future. Above all, cherish each day, for each can be a bit of glory brought to Earth, if you let it.

    Sometimes they’re there at our graveside when we die. Sometimes we’re there at their graveside when they die. But however long our children are with us we can always see the world anew.

  8. MarcV

    Happy Birthday to Caroline. Thank you Tony for sharing your heart. May Jehovah-Shalom lift you and your family up to a true heart-healing.

    As I read and felt my tears form, and tried to understand why I felt such strong emotion for someone I have never met, it turns out that I felt pity for myself (and then shame). You touched on my greatest fear, and He tells me not to fear, but I still do. Your writing has helped me to deal with it, and I appreciate that very much.

    I suspect Alan K. does not have children, because once you love on your child as a parent they own a part of your heart. This love helps us to understand the unconditional love that God has for us. I don’t think he was being fair to Tony since he can’t know how well Tony has been “getting on with (his) life”.

    “I demanded a miracle and didn’t get one, and I’m mad as hell about it.” There’s an answer in there somewhere, I’m just not sure where. I pray that the Holy Spirit will show you and that you will have the strength and wisdom to grasp that answer.

  9. Gray

    Tony, and family, I love you and mourn the loss of your beloved child. I pray for you, peace.

    Perhaps if we consider things this way: We were created in God’s image. We were given the ability to love our children in away that childless individuals can not grasp by God. I don’t believe that you should be angry at God, but God loves you. God understands you. As you wrote on March 3, God understands your pain through his Son Jesus Christ.

    I won’t say that things are ever going to get better, but I know that you will grow. I believe this because I have witness your growth here in these pages and in conversation with you at various times over the last 4 years.

    We are all a work in progress. Our faith is a miricle of grace. Please continue to strive, I know you will.

    Happy birthday Caroline.

  10. Tom K.

    Tony,
    Mere words are so hollow, so shallow, so base and ineffective to you who grieve from us who feel only a small portion of your pain. But they spring from a desire to somehow, someway, mitigate that pain; to console, to comfort, to somehow make it go away. We try to do what only G_d can do…I pray He brings you consolation, comfort, peace and some degree of further understanding this tragedy. G_d bless you and your family.

  11. Cam

    I don’t have the words. I can only say I am so sorry for your loss, but I thank you for your speaking so eloquently about what you’re feeling.

  12. pds

    “I demanded a miracle and didn’t get one, and I’m mad as hell about it.”

    You have every right to be mad as hell, probably not so much that you didn’t get a miracle, but that one was needed in the first place, especially for a lovely three year old.

    Does any of this diminish what happened on the Cross 2,000 years ago? No. You have reminded me before in this context that all things will be explained in the last days. Maybe so. But, in the meantime, I think your emotions are entirely warranted, and you should not feel an ounce of guilt–or regret or anything else–for having them. PDS

  13. rita

    i dont know you but your article on caroline was brought to my attention by someone and im told one never knows pain like the loss of a child so i dont really know what you have gone through tony its hard for your heart to heal and your anger was justified but there is always a reason that things happen the way they do===maybe your suffering brought you to a greater understanding of life but what ever the reason you have an INDIAN PRINCESS ANGEL watching over you and you can pray to caroline and she will answer and guide one thing is for sure she does not want her dad to suffer so try to accept the love she gave you for her short time here and keep it close to your heart for good and forgiveness for things we dont understand===god bless you and yours====rita

  14. Jared

    Tony,

    I’ve no words for you. Nothing to ease your pain. My wife and I adopted our first child in August of 2003, and I am striken with fear as I fleetingly entertain the thought of my little girl being taken.

    I am so sorry.

    Damn the deceiver, damn his cruelty, and damn his servant death. They have been overcome, and your little girl has the victory as she plays at the feet of her Savior.

    God bless you and your family.

  15. Capsu78

    I had a knock down drag out “clash of the generations” with my 18 year old daughter yesterday where I had to deal out an ultimatum to either get up and go with me to a presentation regarding her selection of a college, or ride over to my office to pick up all of the college acceptance files I have been organizing for the last 90 days, and she could take over the decision making process by herself.
    She called my bluff. She chose the silent ride in the car to my office. I handed her the files and said good luck,and told her she made a lousy decision today.
    She is my “indian princess” and the story above reminds me that I should get a kick in the ass for wasting a day on ultimatums that made both of us miserable. I have tears in my eyes as I write this…

  16. Aimee

    Tony,

    I have never lost a child, but my husband and I have gone through so many traumas that I spend a lot of time looking to heaven and asking “WHY?” One thing that helps me to continue on in the midst of the Job-like disintegration of my life is the knowledge that God never condemned Job for asking “why.” God chose not to answer the question – but He never told Job he was wrong to ask.

    You may never know until Heaven why God allowed Caroline to die. But God will never condemn you for asking. He designed your love for her, He knows your pain, your grief and your anger, and He’s big enough to withstand it.

    You are in my prayers. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. Happy birthday, little beauty. I wish we could have known you – but I look forward to meeting you in Heaven.

  17. Gary Woodbridge

    Tony,

    Like others here I have not lost a child. I lost my first wife in the Oklahoma City Bombing and I know what I went through then. Now that I have remarried and have children of my own, I think about what it would be like to loose one of them. I don’t like to go there with those thoughts, but every year about this time they start up again.

    I found what helps me is to help others. I started working with a group called The Kid’s Place (http://www.kidsplace.org/). This is a grief support center for children who have lost loved ones. I have found that helping the kids helps me.

    You and your family are in my prayers. I hope and pray that you find peace.

  18. cj

    Dear Tony:

    I think the fact that you are writing about this publicly years after your daughter’s death is a testament to your capacity to love. I think it is a testament to the love Caroline created in your life. I don’t pretend to know why she was taken from you, if it was God’s Will or A Horrible Chance of Fate. But I feel strongly that the lesson to be learned is that we here on Earth are blessed to be able to experience such Everlasting Love. Nothing — nothing — will ever diminish the fullness of the love she wrought in you, nor the love you have for her.

    Some search a lifetime to actualize such love.

    I pray for Peace for you, and that you may cherish the love you share with your daughter, absent the anguish of your Earthly loss of her.

    She will always be, because she was. Your love for each other will always be. May you find peace in that love, which is everlasting.

  19. jim

    Tony:
    I wrote to you about Caroline once before (probably on a previous anniversary) and said that I cannot imagine a greater cause of enduring grief than the death of a child. I’m sorry that the passing of another year leaves you in such a state of sadness.

    Perhaps I’m just a nabob of negativity, but I must suggest that your attempt to make sense of your tragedy might not give you the peace of mind that you desire.

    Earlier today I was reading a review of a new biography of James I of England. The reviewer noted that James and his wife lost four of their seven children in infancy. Their experience would not have been unusual in the age of Shakespeare. Even among my parents generation, the loss of a child was still relatively common. I can’t believe that God is somehow smiling upon us by taking relatively fewer children, or that he was punishing those who lived in the past by taking relatively more.

    You have channeled at least some of your anger and sadness into your writing. The comments above are strong evidence that your writing about your daughter’s death can elicit some very life-affirming and God-affirming sentiments from people who you have never met. Perhaps that’s a small consolation to a father grieving his loss, but perhaps that’s all there is. And it IS something. It really is.
    All the best.

  20. Mr Bob

    Tony,
    The only scripture I have really ever been able to find to comfort anyone in this type of situation is this and you probably already know it.

    Isaiah 57 NLT
    1 The righteous pass away; the godly often die before their time. And no one seems to care or wonder why. No one seems to understand that God is protecting them from the evil to come. 2For the godly who die will rest in peace.

    or the NIV
    1 The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away
    to be spared from evil.

  21. Angela

    Oh Tony, no wonder I have thought of you so often these last few days. As others, my heart breaks for you, but not as God does. Truth be told, He is the only one who knows your pain. And you ask why as long as you need to, and know he is not mad!

    Love and Prayers,
    Angela

  22. Joanie

    I still think about Caroline’s story and say prayers for you and your family often.

    When you write that book, I’ll be among the first in line to buy it. Your courage and strenght are a wonderful testament to her memory.

  23. Amy

    I’m willing to bet, because I’m a sinful gambler and all, that Caroline would be so proud that her daddy has written the book he has written. It goes without saying that she would also be proud of the books he will write.

  24. Jim

    To Caroline,

    Happy Birthday dear little girl.

    To Tony,

    I wouldn’t dare say “I know what you are feeling”, it would not be true. What I will say is this; I went through a traumatic illness this year myself, I have spent nearly the entire year of 2003 in hospitals and physical rehab centers. I sympathise with your questions of God and his plan for our lives. I too spent many nights praying for a miracle, that God would take this cup from me, either through death or through curing me. It is hard to trust him sometimes, but he tells us he has a plan for us and I believe that.

  25. Brian

    Almost 22 years ago my brother died. As for me, I dreamed about him nightly for several years. Slowly it became a less common occurance, but sometimes the dream still happens.

    Many times the dreams are teary eyed reunions; it was all a big mistake; he never really died; he just needed to get away for a while.

    My mother says he told her he wouldn’t live very long too.

    Just know that there are people out there who love you and your family. Real love too. I can’t begin to address why God seems to let things like that happen. But maybe God answered another prayer by providing you and your wife to help a sweet, sweet child in pain. Oh I am so sorry.

    Your wound will heal eventually, but it will leave a scar. It took my mother at least a decade to even get a scar, it was an open wound until then, although sometimes covered with a bandage.

  26. Susie

    Tony,
    From someone who understands, once again you’ve articulated some of my own feelings and emotions. As I’ve told you several times before, you have a wonderful, God-given gift and I have always believed that the book should be written and written by you. I, for one, want an autographed copy.

    Keep up the writing – it’s good for me, and, I pray, good for you.

    God bless . . . Caroline is always in my thoughts.

  27. Anonymous

    Some practical advice from one who lost a son at about two more than thirty years ago. Forget this angel in heaven stuff. My son is in heaven with God…wonderful but I’m “down here”.
    Here’s what I tell people. Pretend you just got one arm cut off. The amputation site will heal but tying your shoes is always going to be difficult. Plus a million other chores of life. You are now forever lopsided. Why are you thinking this is going to heal or go away? Less in the angst department over time certainly but never to be gotten over. Ever.
    That’s fine and the price of love.
    More practical: go have a good bawling, screaming cry every so often. I still do. In your car on the highway go can really let loose and nobody hears or notices. Great release.
    You pray for me and I you.
    Ellen

  28. Anonymous

    Our first was a preemie, born just over 4 pounds and quickly dropping below it. And he was born needing surgery–surgery that couldn’t be done until he got bigger, . . . but how could he get bigger when he could not swallow even a drop of water? All his nutrition came through needles pushed into tiny veins. In his arms, legs, scalp. He was running out of veins.

    One day the head nurse asked me to leave the room while they looked for a new vein to puncture. Why? I asked. I’ve seen it dozens of times, and usually helped. I can handle it. I know that sir, she said. But my nurses can’t handle it with you here.

    When there were no more veins to use, the doctor put in a “central line,” which nearly killed him. But eventually the surgery was done, we got to feed him the milk that my wife had been pumping and freezing all those weeks, and he got to be a kid.

    Our second was born perfect, and looked huge by comparison. We worried that it would not be possible for us to love him as much as his brother, who had put us through such agony. Be careful what you wish for. For five weeks our second son got sicker and thinner without explanation. When we finally got the explanation, it was almost too late. He had a metabolic defect, and milk–his mother’s milk–was poisoning him.

    He was blind and brain-damaged. When I got the call from the neurologist, I just curled up in a fetal position with him in the middle. I couldn’t tell my wife, and she didn’t need me to.

    We had some difficult decisions to make, and some difficult years. But we managed to save one eye, taught him sign language and then speech, and now he has thrived beyond all prognoses. And we love them both beyond all reason.

    Tony, though it is little consolation, I suspect that losing Caroline has caused you to love Caleb and Eli all the more. Just as our suffering, albeit temporary, augmented our love for our sons. Both of whom you met today.

    –Brian

  29. michaelh

    I’m way late to this. I just saw it through Stuart Buck. But Happy birthday Caroline!

    I certainly cannot begin to understand. I have no children. Though I do have a precious niece who shares her name with your daughter. I will only say this. Romans 8:28 is often quoted. My Caroline’s father, my twin brother, put that verse in perspective for me. It is about eternal grace. The good toward which God is working everything is eternal. Your Caroline is already there. We are still on the journey. And you are surely playing a role in the working of this to that eternal good. Your thoughts took my breath away.

    “…and it was me being fed through a mouth that refused to open. In my dream I knew it was God holding me and doing the feeding…”

    I can’t describe how that thought has pierced to my soul. I can’t know what burying a child is like, but I have often been the one with the clenched teeth. Thank you for remindng me that God is that tenacious in his love for me.

    Grace and Peace,

    Michael

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