When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
—Horatio Spafford, “It Is Well with My Soul” (1876)
We were in Venice when we learned that Caroline was not well. It was the year 2000, and my husband and I had gone to Italy for our tenth anniversary, leaving our four children in the care of their grandmothers. Aside from a week in England on our way back from Pakistan in 1991, neither of us had been to Europe. Just being free from the responsibility of caring for four children ages eight and under would have been a vacation in itself, even if we hadn’t been in a country so renowned for its art and history. We had flown into Milan, immediately boarded a train for Florence, and three days later traveled to Venice.
I can remember exactly where I was when my mother told me about Caroline: in our room with the green shutters at the Hotel Bernardi Semenzato. After I’d inquired about our children, I casually asked, “How is Elizabeth doing?” My sister Elizabeth was pregnant with her third child; her son and daughter were four and two—the same ages as my two youngest children. Elizabeth’s birthday was in two days. There was a long pause. Then Mom said, “I wasn’t going to tell you, but . . . Caroline has cancer.”
Pivotal moments, good or bad, stay with you. Hearing that my two-year-old niece had been diagnosed with cancer—an aggressive neuroblastoma—was one of those moments. I had been writing in our travel journal each night, but on July 29, 2000, the entry is in my husband’s handwriting: “Phone call. Caroline diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Prayed for them.” Somehow, we pushed through with our touring in Venice, but, as I wrote in the journal, “our thoughts did keep returning to Caroline and her grave illness.”
Two days later, we traveled from Venice to Como. In Como, amid that beautiful, serene lake and the encircling hills, the news sank in. My memories of Como are tinged with sadness. In my entry for August 1, I wrote:
. . . Almost immediately, even though it was nearly 10:30 and we hadn’t eaten since our panini in Milan [where we boarded a train for Como], we called my mother, as we hadn’t had a chance to call her on Sunday. It turned out that she’d just gotten off the phone with Tari [a family friend], who providentially had been in Atlanta for a conference and had been with Elizabeth for the afternoon.
Caroline had had a hard day: she’d needed general anesthesia for the biopsy, and had had some sort of breathing problem, which caused her to need a chest tube and a night in the ICU. Tari described Elizabeth as being ‘white as a sheet,’ and Mom had decided that she needed to return our kids to [their other grandmother] and go on to Atlanta the next day to give emotional support to Elizabeth. Her idea was that Bryson’s mom, who was giving a bridal shower on August 5, could get babysitters to help her with the kids. . . . .
In the end, some dear friends watched our children at home in the states while we finished our anniversary trip, but little Caroline’s battle against an unseen opponent was just beginning. In the midst of trips to Scottish Rite Hospital in Atlanta and to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, my sister gave birth to her third child—a healthy boy—in November. Family and friends rallied around Caroline and her parents, but, despite repeated plans for surgery and bouts of chemo that caused Caroline to lose her beautiful golden hair, she succumbed to cancer on March 11, 2001. She was two months shy of her third birthday.
Later, my sister and her husband had three more children: a boy, a girl, and another boy. Beloved as those children are, they do not take the place of Caroline, whose first two years of life were filled with the typical delights of a child: playing outside on the swing set, driving the Cozy Coupe, celebrating her second birthday with a Blue’s Clues cake and party hats, “cooking” in her small kitchen, singing to herself, playing with her Bitty Baby, having tea parties, dressing up. Not long after Caroline’s second birthday, my mother traveled to Georgia, where my sister lived, to take care of my two youngest children and Elizabeth’s two children for a week: I was commuting to and from a Suzuki violin institute with my two oldest children, while Elizabeth and her husband were away at a conference. No doubt it was an intense week for my mother as she entertained four children ages four and under, but I am so thankful for the times of dress-up and playground outings that my children had with Caroline. Who knew in June that Caroline’s carefree life would change dramatically in a month?
Caroline loved birthdays; I remember her singing “Happy Birthday” to her older brother, who turned four shortly before Caroline’s cancer was discovered. During the seven and a half months following Caroline’s diagnosis, my sister and my mother celebrated many birthdays with Caroline: my mother would buy a cake, candles, and decorations, and a celebration would take place—sometimes at my sister’s home, sometimes at the hospital. While Caroline celebrated only two “real” birthdays, she enjoyed many such birthday parties with family members. Stickers and videos were a welcome distraction from her pain; Pete’s Dragon and Waiting for Santa, which featured the purple dinosaur Barney, were among the videos that she requested again and again. None of us had had much use for Barney before Caroline became ill, but Caroline loved Barney and found comfort in watching Barney videos, so we learned to love Barney. Rather than despairing, my sister and her husband tried to celebrate each day of life with Caroline, choosing smiles and hope over tears and anxiety. Despite their doubts and fears, they found little things to be happy about; their faith in God, already strong, became a constant source of strength and renewal.
The Christmas that Caroline was battling cancer, our extended family came to Georgia for the holidays. My mother had moved into an apartment near my sister’s home so that she could help my sister and brother-in-law with Caroline’s needs and with their two other children. Somehow, we all squeezed into the apartment. Wanting to try out the editing software on his computer, my younger brother made a home movie of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol, while we were in Georgia: my five-year-old son was a rather temperamental Ebenezer Scrooge chastising Bob Cratchit, played by his cousin, for daring to request Christmas Day off, while my older daughter took on the dual roles of Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past; my older son and nieces completed the cast, with the younger children having small parts. Still, the effect was charming (to our biased eyes, at any rate). Caroline played Mrs. Cratchit, and the scene with the Cratchit family celebrating Christmas never fails to bring tears to my eyes.
Cherished is indeed the right word to describe the short life of Caroline Elizabeth, this darling little girl who loved to ride the carousel and to color pictures, who enjoyed Easter egg hunts and puzzles and “Ring around the Rosy.” Caroline touched so many people—nurses and doctors who cared for her, neighbors and friends who reached out to my sister’s family, her cousins who were too young to grasp the extent of Caroline’s suffering, her aunts, uncles, and grandparents who wanted to help in any way they could. Every picture, every video, every memory of Caroline is treasured by her parents and her siblings, some of whom will not meet their sister until they see her in heaven.
On May 27, 2001, I wrote this prayer in my journal:
yesterday was Caroline’s birthday—and how I ached to be unable to rejoice in her being three at last. Instead, she is FREE at last. And, we are left with nothing but to trust You, Lord—‘where would we go, Lord?’ We must believe that Caroline, a beloved covenant child, is with you in Paradise.
Please give us peace—
Sixteen years have passed since Caroline left us. Looking at the beautiful calendar that my sister made—filled with pictures of Caroline and other family members—helps me to remember her life and the small joys that made each day with her precious. As I think about Caroline, the ache is still there, and I am only Caroline’s aunt, not her mother or father, grandmother or grandfather. My sister, her husband, and their family still cling to the faith that carried them through those difficult days of Caroline’s illness. While they will never forget their beautiful girl, they have chosen to be grateful for the time they had with her and to live each day with joy because of the hope that they have in Christ.
This post was written in loving memory of my niece, Caroline Elizabeth, and as part of the Cherished Blogfest hosted by Dan Antion in collaboration with several other bloggers. I began writing this post as part of Linda G. Hill’s Stream of Consciousness Saturday event, using the prompt “well”; however, it took me a couple of weeks to finish writing, and I eventually began quoting from old journals. Still, the prompt “well” was helpful in giving me a place to start telling a story that is not easy to tell, even though many years have passed.