Errol Milner Clifford 2006-2009

Errol Milner Clifford was born with a significant heart defect and a cognitive disability that prevented him from walking or talking. As we grieved the child we had anticipated, Errol’s full-bodied smile and irrepressible laugh turned our sorrow into joy, and taught us that many of the best things in life are unexpected. Inspired by Errol’s delightful spirit, friends, family, and neighbors rallied to support our family’s significant emotional, physical, and financial needs, through countless acts of selfless generosity. When Errol’s courageous heart finally failed him on December 23, 2009 we were left numb with grief. In these dark hours we listen hopefully for the echoes of Errol’s brilliant laugh. This blog is the story (starting from present and working back to Errol's birth) of the life and times of the amazing Errol Clifford.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Next Month I'll be joined by two dear friends in the 2012 Hospice Hope Run!

In preparation for this year's Hospice race, I've completed weekly 5K training runs through Old Salem, Washington Park, and down the Greenway - all places Errol loved.

Thank you all for your support, encouragement, advice, gatorade, and generosity!

If you'd like to donate to Hospice.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011


The mornings find frost on the south facing car windows, the days end earlier, my gut tightens as our half of the earth tilts away from the sun. The slant of the weakening light reminds me of the thinning days when we were losing Errol. At night, I lie mute, alone on my bed, falling asleep while Owen reads alone in his room. I stare up at the crumbling plaster ceiling, my mind tracing back over the contours of my life with Errol, trying to understand something that cannot be reckoned.

I pick up a picture from the bedside chest, one of the many pictures of Errol that litters our house like empty wrappers, and rub Errol’s shining face. I rub little flecks of ink off on my fingers, slowly wearing a hole into his picture. I hold the picture, looking down at Errol and think back.

Errol looks back up at me, a mute supplicant. The camera that I hold to my face hides my smile as I gaze down upon Errol’s buoyant face through the lens. I see his wet eyes, his surprise at the metal attached to my head, the smile spreading across his lips. He is my only hope, I think; so forgiving, so gracious. The light streams into the camera and then the lens snaps shut.

When Errol was alive, we were so connected that sometimes it was like my nerves were inside Errol. When we were at the doctor’s office and the needle entered Errol’s vein, I could feel the cold metallic taste on my tongue. But now my nerves feel nothing, and as I hold Errol’s picture close to my face, I wonder if his goodness, clarity, generosity was real, if I could have imagined him, if Errol could have all been a dream.

I put the picture back on the windowsill where it sits fading under the sun. I walk around the house unsure of what to do with so much time. Thinking: when you have a dead child, you never get home. Home is always somewhere else. I pace around my empty house looking, looking, looking everywhere in the thinning light.

Other loses come and go, are sloughed away by time, but Errol’s loss sits hard in my gut like the pit of a peach; indigestible.

That night, I finally sleep, but I still can’t dream about Errol. Instead I dream that Owen and I are swimming. As we swim, a few tiny sharks approach and swim harmlessly around our legs, then a huge dark figure emerges below us, and before we can scramble from the water, a huge Orca lunges up out of the water, and I scream to warn Owen to get out of the water, but he cannot hear me. Then the image shifts and Owen and I are walking home for miles and miles and we walk up a steep hill, crowned with tombstones, white like Errol’s hair, and Owen asks me where we are but I do not answer and we walk on silently through the crowded graveyard trying to get home as a steel blue sky swallows the light from the east, and the night falls upon us like a blanket and we were still far from home.

I wake and realize that it is the start of daylight savings time, and I reach to turn the clock back an hour, and then fall back into my bed and try to go back to sleep, but I just lie there in the bed staring up at the ceiling, wondering where the hour we lose this weekend will go. I remember that last hour we sat with Errol before he had stopped breathing, knowing the moment would finally come, when there would be no going back, no turning the clock back. When there would be nothing to look forward to. He was lost to us and there was nothing to find in the steel blue night.

Friday, May 27, 2011


As my life unfolds and I look back upon it, almost all of it seems inevitable. Of course I went to college. Of course I married Cary. Of course there is a wild seven and a half year old sleeping in a bunk bed right down the hall. But as it rattles around my mind, Errol’s death feels like the opposite of inevitable. In fact, what seems inevitable is that he should still be here with us now. After all, the hopes we held for our frail boy were so real, the future we imagined so vivid - the boy turning seven, learning to talk, learning to walk, graduating from his beloved school – that my mind plays tricks on me, and at times these aspirations meld with my actual experienced history and seem completely real.

Our family is out to eat, sitting around a thick wooden table, telling stories and playing games, when Owen becomes distracted by a girl with Down syndrome, who wobbles into the restaurant, hand in hand with her younger teenage sister. Her family is slightly embarrassed of her heft and the amount of space she takes up as she totters into the restaurant and they look down to avoid the eyes they imagine will be gawking at her. They have good reason to feel this way and I worry they will see Owen staring at her and scold him for gaping, but I know what he is seeing: himself with Errol in the future he imagined. But instead, this girl is here, plodding through the room with her slow unwieldy steps, hands entwined with her sister, and Errol is a year and a half gone.

Memories of Errol reverberate though our days like aftershocks of his life, disrupting our plans to move forward.

As the family stands there, waiting for a table, I want to walk up to them I know how hard their life must be, tell them how jealous I am of them, hug each and every one of them. Instead I watch Owen watch them walk off to their table, and I remember the elderly woman at the cafeteria two years ago who kept looking over at me feeding Errol his special bottle.

The old woman turns to us, across the room and through tears says, “They really are special.” I nod, lost in the shuffle of buttering Owen’s biscuit and mixing up another bottle for Errol. “I lost my boy when he was 32.” She says, and then went back to eating, unable to keep her eyes off our little family the whole meal. They sit for a long time after they have finished eating then her husband takes her arm to help her out of the restaurant and she looks back through glassy eyes at Errol laughing at his brother pushing slices of Jell-o across the table.

I remember thinking, that’s sad, unable to imagine Errol dying at 32, which seemed so far away, much less at 3 and a half. And now I realize that she was a prophet and I wish I had listened more closely to her warning and held Errol even more closely after that meeting.

I steal a glance at the family seated uncomfortably around the table, their younger daughter helping her sister keep her straw in her drink, and my mind is full of memories of Errol – imagining him here with us, wondering if things could have turned out any differently.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


In the fragile days after Errol's death, art therapy, grief counseling, and Camp Carousel at Hospice has been a salve for our mourning family. There isn't much I'd run a mile for (much less 3.1) but Hospice has kept us moving, and so on April 16, I will run for Hospice.

I don't set an alarm for 3 in the morning to practice getting up each day, and being opposed to the idea of running, I had decided that my training for the 5K would be the race itself. But after numerous warnings about the necessity of training, the fear of being lapped by toddlers, and the beautiful April weather, I began my 5K training in earnest last week.

The hardest part of the training was the first block, I cursed the asphalt, rued the invention of running, and scorned my shaky body that disobeyed all my positive thinking. But as my panic passed, my muscles relaxed, I settled into a rhythm with the breeze, and thoughts of Errol propelled me along under the bright sky.

On Saturday, April 16, with Errol's name written across my shirt, in a sea of runners propelled by memory, your generosity will push me through the day, as I run in honor of Errol.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hope Run

I hate running, but Hospice meant so much to our family that I'm running the annual Hospice Hope Run 5K in honor of Errol.

Monday, March 07, 2011


Errol was born on March 8, 2006.
He loved to celebrate.
It's hard to believe Errol won't be with us for his big day.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Spring’s first attempt comes early, as the fledgling January sun pokes a hole through the winter, and warm sky fills with cotton candy clouds. Owen and I return to Hospice, and when his art therapy session is over, Owen bounds happily into the hallway, “Daddy!” he shouts. His smiling counselor, following behind, suggests Owen and I walk the labyrinth that is laid out on the floor in the conference room.

A table covered with candles, sprigs of sage, and a basket of small smooth pebbles sits just inside the conference room. Owen and I light a candle each for Errol, I slip a soft cool pebble into my palm, we slide our shoes off and walk towards the labyrinth.

The circular design of the labyrinth comes from the 15th century floor mosaics of Chartres Cathedral. There is one narrow path that twists and turns around and around itself, leading to the center of the circle and then out again. I step into the labyrinth, and follow the path through the lunations - the partial circles that form the outer rings of the labyrinth – and towards the labyrinth’s middle. The journey in is supposed to center my mind on Errol, and then after I leave my stone at the labyrinth’s center and follow the path back out, quiet my mind.

I step across the shards of light that break across the path, and Owen rushes ahead of me, tongue clicking – his happiest noise - hoping to beat me in the race he has imagined. The lane I follow coils in upon itself, snaking at once towards the center and then suddenly back out. My mind hums and crackles, alive with memories. Then Owen comes abreast of me, we are separated by only a thin line, and as he plunges ahead I hit one of the labyrinth’s 112 foils, which doubles me back upon myself, and away from Owen and the middle. The farther we walk, the farther we seem to get from the middle, but Owen doesn’t care, and skips happily onward, at triple my speed, his bobbing head catching the late afternoon light. “I’m already on my way back, Daddy!” he shouts out, triumphantly, as he passes me, returning from the middle. He skips across the labyrinth like a stone, while I sink deep into thoughts of Errol.

Long after Owen, who is already untying the knot of the maze, I arrive at the middle of the labyrinth. I uncoil my hand, and there is the pebble I had forgotten I was carrying for Errol. As I stoop to drop the stone in the basket, I see that there are already nine stones there: nine other lives, nine other deaths, nine other memories. Who are these rocks are for? I wonder. At the end of the day will these rocks be returned to the table for tomorrow’s mourners to carry with them? It all seems so futile. The maze. The circles. The rocks. Around, and around, and around we go. But Owen is smiling and running, running, down the lanes, making a game of it.

And then I drop, unexpectedly. I find myself on my knees, like a penitent. I should get up, I think. This will look odd. With the sunlight streaming through the window, and Owen hopping across the lines of the labyrinth, I think, What a silly thing to be on my knees, trapped in this web. I peer down into the basket, like it might hold an answer.

I remember a day almost twenty years ago when Cary and I were just married. It was late Saturday afternoon, the rains had left the city wet, and now, the sun had come back out for one last stand, the asphalt paths in the park steaming. Everyone had retreated inside, and as the sun returned for a moment before being swallowed back up by the evening we had the park to ourselves. I rode my bike ahead of Cary, following one pleasing sight and then another, and then I rode off the path and out into a wide green field that was bisected by gigantic power lines carrying electricity above the earth. Then, finding just the right place, I came to a stop and dropped my bike beside me onto the ground, and the next thing I knew I was on my chest, lying flat in the field, holding tight to the earth. I let go, turned over, and my eyes swept up and down the power lines, following the gray cables to the horizon where they stretched on, beyond my seeing. I imagined that the lines ran so far that they circled the earth, and met back here above me. The lines buzzed overhead, house lights brightened, the evening swelled like a wave, and I breathed in as much of it as I could. Twenty years later, back on the ground, encircled by lines, I exhale, stand up, and walk back down the path towards Owen.

Following his own rules, Owen speeds down the path like it is made of ice, heading back for a second pass. After a moment, we cross each other again as I head out of the labyrinth, and Owen, always in transit, skips away. As I shuffle forward with my eyes focused on the path, my vision narrows, and the room flattens like a horizon. The more I concentrate on the steps right in front of me, the further all thoughts fade until I find myself, back outside the labyrinth. Owen slides past me, “I won, Daddy!” and we sit beside the burning candles, put our shoes back on, and slip back into the warm afternoon.

Friday, December 31, 2010


Outside our cozy house the earth is white. Mercifully, this long cold year is finally coming to an end. Perhaps in the new year something will grow from the hard lessons we have unhappily planted in the ground.

Dirge Without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Thursday, December 30, 2010


As we get closer to December 23, our trip to Guatemala for Cary’s brother Roy’s wedding is a warm respite from our swelling grief. The historic town of Antigua sits in a valley between three volcanoes, and one morning, Owen and I sit on the roof of our hotel and watch ash billow from a volcano. The day after Owen’s Uncle’s wedding, the family leaves the comforts of Antigua to climb the 8,373 foot volcano, Pacaya. As we hike above the tree line, steam rises out of vents in the earth, and during a rest break we have to stand because the ground is too hot to sit on. After our break, we continue up, sloshing through volcanic ash, over pumice and rock, making our way, higher and higher. When we stop at a deep steaming fissure, the stick Owen throws into the searing crevice bursts into flame before it reaches the bottom.

One night, back home, the rush of Christmas passed, Owen dreams about Errol. He wakes in a golden mood, and the story of his dream spills from his mouth.
I was in Guatemala. These monkeys were throwing coconuts down to us. My brother was giggling. He really liked the monkeys chittering. We all liked what the monkeys did because most of the time it was funny.

The next day, at art therapy, Owen builds a sand volcano that buries all his figurines. At the end of the session, as Owen squirms between us, his therapist reports, “Owen is really working with an intense volcano metaphor!”
“The metaphor is intense,” I agree, “but Owen really did climb a volcano last week.” His therapist looks impressed. “Well, the volcano keeps erupting and Owen keeps trying to save everybody. And Owen is also scared about what might happen to him. He wants to be invincible.” We both look at Owen, who seems to have grown a foot taller over Christmas. “Remember what invincible means, Owen?” she asks.

Owen looks past us, into the thinning winter light, searching and searching.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


I can barely remember Christmas day last year, just a day and a half after Errol died. The Christmas presents my mother had bought him were quickly wrapped and stowed in drawers where they remain.

This year, we receive our first white Christmas in memory. We drive through the fine snow to my parents’ house where Owen’s jolly cousins great us, and we march into the living room in chronological order singing, We Wish You A Merry Christmas. After the gifts are opened, my mother brings us Errol’s Christmas stocking, in which each family member has written down a gift Errol gave them: “his smile,” “his courage,” “his laughter.” The children gather around their grandmother, hoping to hear their own memories read aloud. The delicate flakes drift down from the luminous sky and cover the house like a blanket.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Silent Night

On Christmas Eve last year our abridged family awoke without Errol for the first time since his birth; the way we will awake every day for the rest of our reduced lives.