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Authors: Elena Stowell

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BOOK: Flowing with the Go
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In April 2007, my universe came crashing down, creating a spiritual vortex that enveloped my sense of caring about myself or my future—my daughter Carly died in my arms from a fatal arrhythmia just a week shy of her fifteenth birthday. In the midst of providing CPR, the arrival of the EMTs, the ambulance ride to the emergency room, and the finality of “I'm so sorry” from the doctors, I lost my faith and my sense of security and entered an empty life, shrouded by the uncertainty of whether or not I mattered anymore.

I began seeing a grief counselor at the insistence of my dearest friends, who also drove me there because I couldn't be alone with my thoughts. Without their persistent compassion, I would have slept all day, drank wine at night, and cried every moment I was awake. I felt as though I was wearing a lead blanket. I did not have the energy or desire to care about anything, least of all myself. Who was there to care about? Who was I, now that Carly was gone?

Carly was my firstborn. She was a precocious child with the ability to focus on tasks for a long period of time. For this reason, she began playing the piano at age four and could read, write, and memorize ahead of her peers. Carly would continue the legacy of her father's family and excel at music, playing not only classical piano, but clarinet and saxophone. She played in the top jazz band and wind ensembles as a freshman in high school. My role in this aspect of her life was simply to listen, watch, encourage, and support. Without even a hint of musical ability myself, I could easily, and equally, be awed by an elementary or high-school performance. Once when I asked Carly about the importance of music in her life, she pointed to a scar on her knee that was shaped like a quarter note and said, “See this, Mom? Music is my destiny.”

It was in athletics that Carly was most like me. In fifth grade, Carly approached her father and me and, with her ever-confident tone, told us, “I like soccer, but I really LOVE basketball. So I'm going to just focus on that.” And focus she did. In seventh grade, Carly was asked to play on an elite travel team that competed at several national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) tournaments throughout the year. That first summer, Carly was not a starter on the team. In her mind, she didn't get nearly enough playing time. Instead of pouting like so many kids her age do when things don't go their way, upon her return from the age thirteen and under (U13) Nationals that August, she said, “Take me to the gym. I want to train.” And for most of August, Carly spent up to three hours a day with Mo, her coach, improving her shot, ball-handling, footwork, decision making, and passing from the point. She was tenacious, never wanting to stop a drill until she could do the prescribed task correctly. I have always told my children that “hard work pays off.” And for Carly it did. That fall during tryouts, people constantly remarked on the improvements to her game. Not only did she start, she led the team in shooting percentage and efficiency (positive stat points per minute of playing time). That spring, after a recruiting tournament in Chicago, Carly received a letter from Notre Dame. It was pretty clear that college basketball was in her future.

It is no secret that I was entrenched in Carly's life. Like Carly at that age, I had made college athletics my goal. Her work ethic reminded me of my own. The only difference was choice of sport: she loved basketball, and I loved volleyball. Her dad and I coached Carly and a team of her school friends from fourth to sixth grade. When Carly began playing on her travel team, she insisted on also playing with her school friends on the original team. This meant four practices a week sometimes, but she never seemed to mind. Staying connected to her friends was a priority for Carly. At one basketball camp they all attended, Carly was asked to “play up” with the high school players, but she turned down the offer, preferring that she and her friends stay together.

I was the “team mom” for the elite team. I traveled to all of the tournaments, attended every practice and training session, and filled in when they needed a “big body” to push around the post players. I loved this life. I was with my daughter, watching her live her dream, and she wanted me there. Before I accepted the assistant's position, I asked her if my close involvement would make her uncomfortable. I didn't want to cramp her style or step on her toes. I wanted her to be free to be herself and did not want to do anything that might taint our relationship. She said, “I want you here. You are my biggest fan.” And that is why I was with her the day she died.

We were in North Carolina to play in an NCAA viewing tournament. We had spent the day on the campuses of Duke and the University of North Carolina. The team had dinner together, and I will never forget that final evening of teenage restaurant antics. All of the laughter, smiling, and lightheartedness were infectious. I will be forever grateful as well for the hug and “thanks for dinner” I got as we left the restaurant.

I remember the first time someone asked me about our final minutes together. I'm sure they were curious to find out if we had been arguing. Earlier that day, Carly had left her cinch bag behind at the Wendy's, where the girls went for lunch. Of course, it was not there when we went back to look for it. In that bag were her new video iPod and my digital camera that was a birthday present from my parents, which she had borrowed without my permission. Everyone knew that her oversight weighed heavily on her mind. One of my favorite pictures of Carly was taken in the Duke cathedral. She is in the second pew, holding hands with her two best friends, eyes squeezed shut as she prays to find her bag.

That evening, back in the hotel room, she was lounging on her bed, hair wet from the shower, Reese's Peanut Butter Cup wrapper in her lap, talking to her boyfriend on her cell phone. I overhead her lamenting to Tyler about her situation, and I walked to the end of the bed to get her attention and said, “Carly, let it go. YOU are so much more important than THINGS.” It was maybe five minutes later after she hung up that a strange noise made me look over my shoulder. She was having an irreversible arrhythmia.

A lot of what you hear about death and grieving sounds cliché until it is happening to you. There is a saying, “Let not the sun go down upon your anger.” I believe it was by the grace of God that my last words to Carly were words of love and comfort. I hope she took them with her and, in her new role as guardian angel, can whisper wisdom into the ears of people who are in the midst of death, so that they will not suffer the torment of unkind last words.

“My heart
Where did you go?
Wounded companion went
Away from me to bathe in tears
Come back.”

— Elena Stowell

Family Mug Shot

“I know. It's going to be OK. We're going to get better.
We're going to heal. And everything's going to be OK.”

— Wonder Woman
Comic book #175, Phil Jiminez

ost people think that Chuck and I are complete opposites. We probably are. I met Chuck while I was a student teacher of biology at a high school in Kent, Washington. Chuck was the band director. This was also the high school that Chuck had attended as a teenager and the same high school in which his father had been the band director.

There is a lot of musical genius on Chuck's side. I am musical only if I don't sing or try to play an instrument. When the kids were little, Chuck told me I had a lovely voice (tolerable), but to please not sing in front of the children. I did not think it was possible to sing “Old McDonald” out of tune, but apparently it is. In an effort to preserve prodigal possibilities, I complied.

Family gatherings on the Stowell side are intimidating. When the invitation says “Charlie D, bring your trumpet,” I know that I will join the other “married ins” as a wallflower. I recall the lineup one Christmas: Tom on piano; Rosie, oboe; Marlys, flute and vocals; Danielle, French horn (full ride to Julliard); Evan, bassoon (full ride to Julliard); and Danielle's boyfriend at the time, trombone (professional symphony player). Marlys rifled through a pile of music— “How ‘bout this?” —and gave everyone a sheet. Chuck said, “Hey, this is clarinet music.” And they started in on Handel's Messiah. Chuck transposed it all to trumpet on the fly. (Transposing while playing is the equivalent of turning a book written in a foreign language upside down and reading it as fast as everyone else who is reading a copy in English.) I don't rate even a triangle, but I do know when to clap.

The paths of a potential science teacher and a music guy were not destined to cross within the confines of the main building on campus. I didn't know where the band room was, and Chuck passed the science wing on his way to the staff mailboxes. We met coaching basketball. I had volunteered with the volleyball team, and so when the girls' basketball program was short a coach, I was asked to help out. Chuck was tall and quiet when not coaching. When he did talk, he was really funny. I found this intriguing. He drove a sports car, and the girls on the team accused me of being a “tire-biter” when we became an item, but we had gotten to know each other the way many sports people do: over beers after the games.

We didn't share many beers after we got married because I got pregnant right away. Remember how I said Chuck was funny? One of my OB/GYN appointments was on April 1, and my OB/GYN was an old basketball buddy of Chuck's. Unbeknownst to me, Chuck had arrived early to my appointment, got the ultrasound nurse to point out multiple sets of arms and legs (all looked fuzzy to me), and had me convinced I was having twins. I cried, “How are we going to do this?” . . . “No wonder I'm so huge” . . . “I'll never work again.” Chuck patted my hand, saying, “Isn't this great?” The nurse who was in on the joke was smiling, and then the doctor popped in. They all yelled, “April Fools.” If I had known Jiu-Jitsu at that time, I would have choked him out.

Chuck doesn't make many requests, but when we first found out I was pregnant, he told me that if we had a daughter, he had always wanted to name her Carly Dawn because his family calls him Charlie Don. Eighteen days after that hilarious April afternoon, Carly Dawn was born on Easter morning. We always told her that she arrived in my Easter basket.

Our family rounded out with the births of Eason (named after me, E's son) and Carson (a hybrid of Carly and Eason). The kids were all involved in sports and music and followed a typical birth-order pattern. Carly was driven and wanted to try everything. With robust passion, she would bound down the stairs and ask, “What's the schedule?” Eason liked to blend in and not draw any attention to himself, except that he had a pestering way of contradicting everyone just to get a rise out of us. We used to call him Carl Contrary. Carson was a model youngest child. He flourished in that sense of security that youngest children often have. He learned from the errors of his older siblings what to say, or not to say, to make mom happy and get what he wanted. Chuck and I were blessed to have a brood that was sincerely each other's best friend.

Mothers and daughters share a special bond—special, but not always easy. Carly and I butted heads for a while, like in most such relationships—particularly with two headstrong women in the same household. We played a lot of family basketball in the backyard, and when Carly realized she could dribble and shoot much better than I, things between us smoothed out. I think that was about sixth grade. After that, her transgressions ranged from tipping back on her chair at the dinner table, texting her friends after bedtime, and constantly forgetting to put enough to drink in her gym bag.

Chuck and Carly spoke the language of music, and I was left completely out of that. They would disappear for hours, writing music and practicing. I never ceased to be amazed by how they could listen to something and then start playing it within minutes, adding their own personal touches. Truly a gift.

Boys are different, but the bond is nonetheless special. From my boys, I learned that Lego is not a toy, it's a lifestyle; that there is a meat-to-bun sandwich ratio that must never be deviated from; and that “yo Mom-Dawg” is a term of endearment.

Carly's passion for life and for having fun sticks with us to this day. She loved practical jokes, like her father. She would stick her head out the window and bark like a dog—just because it was fun. Her friends still do this on her birthday to honor her.

Fresh off the Couch

he first three months of my grief, I wanted to disappear. I didn't want to die, but I didn't care if I lived. I had paralyzing social anxiety. I felt like everyone could see through me to my bare and irreparable broken heart. I did not return to work. This was my first example that people grieve differently. My husband went back to work right away. He found comfort in keeping his routine the same. As Carly's band teacher, his classroom was full of Carly's music friends who had known her since kindergarten. He wanted them to know that he was okay and that they would be okay. I found that admirable.

I, on the other hand, could have cared less if anyone else was okay because I was at the lowest point of my existence. By this time, I had become puffy with twenty extra pounds of depression around my midsection. I had gone through a couple of cases of wine and several books about “the afterlife,” which people apparently felt compelled to give me. I couldn't keep two thoughts straight in my head. My body was in the house, but I wasn't there.

If asked, most people would remember me on the couch. But I had crazy manic episodes too. I would become the whirling dervish of Kent, Washington, moving constantly at a frenetic pace. I couldn't sit still. I would sit, get up, putter around, write for hours, sit—heart racing, my insides shaking. If someone else was around, I would talk and talk and talk about anything. This was just an active way of distracting myself from what I didn't want to think about. I could sleep the day away or fill it with superficial activities so that I never stopped moving. I didn't set out to act this way— “Hmm, today feels like a manic Monday” —but I would get caught up in it before I knew it.

BOOK: Flowing with the Go
10.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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