the courage to come back. one last time.
i went back to my old hospital, children’s memorial in chicago, on a sunny sunday afternoon this past weekend, for what was billed as a “closing ceremony” for families who had had a child die there. the old hospital is coming down soon, and before its nine stories are crumbled to a pile of shattered bricks and twisted rebar, the hospital’s biggest hearts and best minds understood that those families needed a chance to say goodbye to a cornerstone of their life story, no matter how dark the chapter.
it was a story and a moment i had to honor. as a nurse i was there for my beloved troupe of kids, the ones who died on my watch: julie joiner, a girl i loved, a girl who had cancer in her spine, and who, lying flat in her hospital bed, once made me a papier-mache pumpkin head and painted it green. she called me her “irish pumpkin queen.” and did i mention i loved her dearly, still think of her, still remember the gift it was to be her nurse? i was there, too, for joe, and for pebbles, and for jeffery, and for denise, and even for the kids i loved whose names i don’t remember. i was there for their mothers and fathers, who allowed me to care for and to love their children, straight through to their dying breaths.
i was there as a writer, too, because over all these years i have learned that words are the finest instruments i can reach for as i carry on my nurse’s promise: to shed light where there is darkness, to hold up the human spirit, and to aim to heal through whatever form love flows. here is the story i wrote. even though it won’t run through printer’s ink in any newspaper, sharing it here is rich enough for me.
By Barbara Mahany
Most of all, it took courage.
Even before they got there, it took courage to scribble the date and the time and the event — Closing Reception for Bereaved Families — onto the calendar.
It took courage to get on the plane in New York or Arizona, or to climb in the car or the pickup truck in Iowa or Highland Park or Tinley Park, and head back to the corner of Lincoln and Fullerton and Halsted streets in Chicago, where for 130 years, Children’s Memorial Hospital has stood, a brick-and-mortar reminder to everyone who walked or drove by that it is not to be taken for granted that children are full-cheeked, and blessed with mops of hair, and can romp in the sunshine.
To go back there, to go back to the place where you heard your child’s last breath, where you held that child in your arms one last time, or kissed him or her on the forehead, or where you crumpled over their lifeless body, is to open a deep dark vault of pain and emptiness that never goes away.
And so, once there at that unforgotten place, you could see the courage it took just to push the “8” button on the elevator of the parking garage, to get to the rooftop on a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon domed by a blue sky pocked with puffy clouds.
You could see it in the faces of the mothers who looked as if they held back a seawall of grief. You could see it in the way a grown son wrapped his arm tight around his mother’s shoulders as they strolled down Lincoln Avenue and turned in at the parking garage, or the way a father clenched the hand of his wife, and leaned hard against the glass. You could see it as the mother in big dark sunglasses squeezed her grown daughter’s hand so tight her knuckles blanched white.
For the 350 or so mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, all from families who had had a child — a newborn, a toddler, or a highschooler — die at Children’s, it took a rare brand of courage to come back, one last time, to whisper yet another goodbye.
This time, though, the goodbye was to the building that, for many, had been etched into their darkest memories — the floorplan all but memorized, the steps from the nurses’ station to the door of the room still known by heart, the view out the window frozen in their mind’s eye. Even the nubby fabric of the seats in the chapel, those are the details of a dying and death that are never forgotten.
“One of our first concerns when we started making plans to move to the new hospital was the bereaved families,” explained Kristin James, director of the hospital’s Heartlight bereavement program, which provides support for at least two years to the families of any child who dies at Children’s. (The name of the program, she says, came from a mother who said her heart “went black” when her child died, and not until she met another bereaved mother did she feel the light again.)
“Children’s represents a time, a moment, a chapter. It’s part of their child’s history,” James, a family therapist, continued. “For some of those children, their whole life was spent here. For some, just a few hours. Either way, this becomes a sacred space. So, for some of our families, closing this building felt like a whole other loss.”
She went on: “Children’s is not contained within walls, it’s not limited to a space. Those children who died here, those memories, they are coming with us to the new hospital. It’s very important for the families to know that we carry those children in our hearts.”
And so, some 2,000 invitations were mailed back in March to each family whose child had died there in the last 12 years. Through word of mouth, even the family of a girl who died in 1932 responded. Every day for weeks, James said, dozens of those families have called, just to retell their story, just to make sure all wasn’t lost.
Because until moving day — Saturday, June 9, when the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago officially opens — the Lincoln Park hospital was still treating children on its medical and surgical floors, in its intensive care units and emergency rooms, the “closing ceremony” was held on the rooftop of the parking garage across the street, looking onto the concrete-and-blue-tile tower, just below the helicopter pad where the sickest and most critically injured children have been airlifted over the decades.
Purple tulips and blue hydrangea, tucked into silver cups, teetered on tabletops in the afternoon’s wind. Chimes clanged. And the elevator doors began to open and close, ferrying the somber families.
“It’s 31 years; it’s never left me, you know,” said Charlene Wexler, whose then-12-year-old son, Jeffery, died of leukemia on Sept. 11, 1981, and who pulled from her purse a clutch of snapshots of the full-cheeked boy who once had a shock of jet black hair. She was shaking, and already dabbing at tears as she filled out the name tag, and wrote the name “Jeffery,” after the word, “Remembering…”
“It’s like I can play everything back,” she said, as she began to pull story after story from her memory. She hadn’t been sure she’d be able to make the trip back to Children’s, she said, but her husband urged her, and her sister and brother-in-law met her there.
“Our tears are our trophies,” said the brother-in-law, Jack Segal, as he wiped one off his cheek.
Not far away, another mother, standing in line for a cup of water, didn’t even try to brush away her tears.
“Why come? I had to come. How could you not come?” said Barbara Pinzur, whose son, Brett, was just five days old when he died in the neonatal intensive care unit, back on May 22, 1994. He had been born with three, not four, chambers in his heart, and just the week before the closing ceremony, Pinzur, of Highland Park, said she opened his baby box. She pulled from her purse the card the NICU nurses had sent after Brett died.
“It’s incredible that the hospital remembered all of us,” Pinzur said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘Your child didn’t die for no reason.’ A child dying has to have an impact on somebody — a nurse, or a doctor — to do more, to do better.”
And so, after the reciting of the children’s names, and the tinkling of chimes, and the reading of a poem or two, the mournful bagpipes of the Emerald Society shattered the near silence of the rooftop crowd.
One by one, the mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and grandparents, aunts and uncles and friends, dipped itty-bitty wands into vials of bubbles, and exhaled. A cloud of iridescent spheres up and wafted across the rooftop, out over Lincoln Avenue, and toward the place where so many children have died.
At last, a smattering of smiles broke across the sea of somber faces. One of the mothers ran to the rooftop’s concrete half-wall, pulled out a camera and tried to capture one last snapshot. And just as the camera clicked, the bubble exploded and was no longer.
the photo above was taken on the hospital’s parking garage rooftop, and the magnificent city skyline is the backdrop to a red jewel crabtree that will be planted in a park across from the old hospital’s site. families were invited to fill out a tag with a name or a memory, and hang it from the branches. when the tree is planted, the tags will be buried at its roots, so that the families always have someplace, some sacred place, to come back to.
The most powerful putting together of words that I’ve read in a long time. You are a master at wielding those instruments with precision and a deft, loving touch.
Just beautiful, Barbara. And you made me cry at work.
Beautiful, Barbara. I hope you’ll share this with the hospital. They could email it to the participants as a follow up–a gift to all who attended. Thank you for sharing it with us all.
So hard but so beautiful too. Thanks so much for sharing this.
WOW! What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing!
I am so sad I couldn’t be there. As a former NICU nurse, I am familiar with this process and how holy and full of grace it is. My favorite quote is,”How could you NOT go?”
Had I not been hosting my own son’s graduation celebration –and counting my blessings as I knew this CMH event was happening simultaneously–I”d have been there to bear witness.
So glad, you were there, Barbara and could be my eyes and ears. Bless you.
I spent some time there with one of mine – outpatient, thank God – about 6 years ago. The place and its people were an answered prayer. I think of the place as sort of a crazy quilt…patched together from bits and pieces of Lincoln Park properties. Our visits there involved elevators and stairs and underground tunnels that twisted this way and that way. And the basement McDonald’s. That crazy quilt of a place wrapped itself around us with its quirky charm and amazing staff and comforted our minds, bodies and souls.
beautiful, beautiful. i love love love that crazy quilt description. it makes me smile. it is so perfect. there are so many characters who make that place what it is, and the nurses and doctors are only the beginning of the list. i have loved its cleaning ladies and its night cooks, its janitors and chaplains. the aides who’ve worked there 40 years or 50 years, some always on the night shift. the women who sit at the front desk and field phone calls and pass out name badges. through and through, they dole out love in oversized spoonfuls. xoxo
Reading this reminds us to stop and say thank you. Thank you to God for our own healthy children, thank you to the hospital, Drs and nurses who so valiantly tend to our sickest children, thank you to the parents who bravely march on despite suffering unimaginable loss and thank you Barbara for writing this so that we can remember and reflect.
I second angelaval2’s comment – please share it with the hospital if you have not already. I’m speechless, but I think you know how my heart is feeling, and filling. Bless you.
i did, i did. i gave it to them, and told them to use if they could, however they choose….
I shared your link on Fb and heard by a friend’s comment of his time at Children’s. He is one of the lucky ones, tho his life has not been easy. He is a wonderful soul.
just beyond. but i think i’ve said that before. this time i mean it….even more. thank you for expressing what is sacred.
As always, no dry eyes here…that’s a good thing.
Thank you so much for sharing.
We love that hospital. Now I know why even more. Thank you!
Barbara: As always, your words fill the heart. What an extraordinary love letter to Children’s, the children, the families, the staff. But, for me, the true, pure grace note of your piece is the photo “caption” and the mental images it conjures: first, of the tags fluttering in the breeze amid the green, living leaves and, second, of the buried tags being held together by the tree’s roots as they dig in and deeply hold on to the place, forever. kac
I’m speechless — about the children who are gone, the families who love them, the hospital that acknowledges them this way and your dedication to be there with them to bear witness. Your words hit just the right note in this very difficult and beautiful story.
Beautifully written from the heart. You captured the feeling in the room I want a printed copy, and can’t get it
beautiful charlene, i will print one out and send it to you. i will dig up your address. i was going to send you a note to tell you i was putting this here, at the chair. thank you for letting me be at your side. xoxoxox
Such a beautiful article, Barbara. I also have so many incredible memories as a nurse on the old 3 Center. Now I am the mother of a teen with chronic medical issues and (sadly) I can appreciate and love Childrens from “the other side.”
Thank you for articulating all of the tumble of emotion that is CMH.
Thank you for sharing this!
I remember CMH for the successes. Always on the cutting edge, my wife, as a two year old toddler with a burst appendix was saved by a skilled surgeon and his decision to use penicillin, never before done on a child that young in the 1940’s. Our eldest son with chronic asthma at the age of two, accurately diagnosed and expertly and very successfully treated. As a young police officer in the 018th District I remember the children broken by accidents and sometimes violence. CMH was their haven for repair. Later, as a homicide detective, my partner told the tale of being one of the first “blue babies” successfully operated on, again in the 1940’s. If any building can have a soul, this one does.
Thanks Barbara for writing your powerful tribute!
beautiful beautiful recollections. i love the stories gathered here. i especially love stories from CPD, Chicago’s finest…..thank you for coming to the table…
Thank you, Barbara, for your breathtakingly beautiful piece, which was forwarded to me by a friend of a friend. Although our beloved Johnny actually left this earth at Rush Hospital, we and he spent many hours and days at Children’s. I will never forget how much the staff cared for us and for him. Thank you for providing a space for us to share our memories.
This could have been cloying or maudlin. Instead, you painted something powerful and poignant. Such a gift to the families!
do i just jump on the bandwagon of telling you what a really great writer u r in painting word pictures and this from a former newsman. memories crowded, not of chicago, but of slc when i did stories in wards of polio children in iron lungs and later in sacramento the volunteer work for patients at childrens mercy hospital who often were gone for my second or third visits. bless you and your talent. colleen
you have walked the halls of CMH in so many different ways and different times, but you always seem to take each step with reverence. Your ears are open for the underpinnings of hope and your heart is open to receive grace. Thank you for speaking truth to the importance of ritual, gathering to remember together, and that above all the stories need to be shared again and again. If it had not been for a midnight visit at CMH, I wonder how our paths would have crossed?
When I read this I was on the train and could not hold back the tears. It made me think about a classmate of mine who died of a brain tumor when we were in the 5th grade. What a great tribute to the children and their families.
I paused on my remote here in Phoenix, Az on a story about Rising Children’s on WGN. I did not know they were moving to a new building downtown. I was fortunate to work with Dr. David Hsia in the Department of Biochemical Genetics in the 1960’s. I was a control for many of their studies of inborn errors. I was always amaized at the work, compassion and dedication of everyone at Children’s. I remember one baby I was holding as Dr. Hsia told the parents the child had Glycogen storage disease and would not survive very long. Six weeks later the mother called to tell us the baby had died. To this day I remember the touch of that baby. To this day, or yesterday when an Anestheiologist was putting in an IV, I tell with pride that I work at Children’s Memorial In Chicago.
Barbara, what a beautiful tribute to all those who spend their last breath at this great institution, not institution, this place of compassion. But think of all the children who went home to their families too. If could have been there, I would have taken a brick or something to hold close to my heart to remember all those wonderful learning years I spent there with such pride. I can imagine how the staff of today feels, but you are going to a newer and better place to serve the children in your care.
…”to this day i remember the touch of that paper….” such is the power of the soul of a children. to seep in deep, and never leave us……bless you for bringing this story to the table. thank you.
Thank you for your lovely story but also for informing us it was closing. Not living in Chgo, I miss the local news. I used to be a lay minister at Children’s and you have reminded me of all the children I used to visit there and the wonderful times spent with them. Thank you for honoring them with your words.
Beautifully told. I haven’t been back to Chicago in years and will always think of CMH at Fullerton and Lincoln. I have such wonderful memories of the families and staff who collaborated to give kids a bright spot in an otherwise difficult time. My first experiences seem to have truly been the cornerstone of my career and I couldn’t be more blessed than to have had those times with you!
Paula sent this to me and invited me to your book signing last night. Bravo on both accounts! I too was a nurse at Children’s and in fact that is where I met Paula. ( I too think of the place and of the privilege of being entrusted with other peoples most precious children )
I introduced Paula to her husband and she introduced you to me through another one of your beautiful pieces that ran in the Tribune about John’s love for his grandmother. You ability to exquisitely assign words to deep feelings is remarkable. I was able to purchase a number of copies of your book last night for my dearest friends but was not able to come up to you and personally thank you for inspiring me to breath deeper, appreciate more and pledge to slow time…even if only for a bit.
Perhaps when I am not running to help out with homework I will be able to meet you face to face—-