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.

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.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I watch the Chilean miner rescue play out in real time. I’m thinking of all the people worldwide who are buoyed by the happy ending, living vicariously through the Chilean miners. My mind veers off into a fantasy and I think that if the rescuers save these miners we can go back and save our own beloved Errol. I think…

They will save the miners.

The doctors will save Errol.

We will be happy.

Everyone will be happy.

But as I watch the rescue capsule emerge from the Chilean mine with the first saved miner, the crowd erupting into cheers, his family shedding tears of joy, I am all alone, sorrowfully gazing into the screen, looking for Errol.

Our kitten goes missing and we look desperately for her, the loss of Errol amplifying our rescue efforts. Two days later I find our shell-shocked cat trapped behind a basement wall, pry her out, and bring her upstairs to the light and heat of the house. But I am distraught. It was so easy. Why does the cat get to survive and not Errol? Why couldn’t we save Errol too?

One morning, out at breakfast with Owen, a smiling woman ambles over to our table. “Errol got me through the ICU.” She quavers, looking up at Owen, her eyes glistening, “I kept thinking about that sweet little boy and he helped me make it.” All this time I thought we were the ones to save Errol, but it was Errol who was guiding us out of the darkness with his joyous smile and his ringing laughter.

Monday, November 29, 2010


As the weather turns colder, reminding us of this time last year, Owen's suffering grows with ours. His grandmother bought him a little notebook with the Eiffel Tour on its cover, and when Cary found it lying on the floor of Owen’s room she opened it to see what it was. On the inside of his book, Owen had written in his sweet seven year old hand, “I Leov Errol pucuz Errol Is SOW FunE.”
I love Errol because Errol is so funny.

When she turned the page over she found scrawled on the back, “I rley wis errol was sdil uliv”
I really wish Errol was still alive.

I don’t know what prompted Owen to write these longings. I don’t know why he took the time to commit his yearnings to paper. Maybe he thought it would make Errol more permanent, or even bring Errol back (at least into his mind while he wrote), or maybe just to let the pain run out through his pencil. I don’t know why Owen writes these reminders, but I continue to find little traces of Errol everywhere Owen goes.

Tonight as we put Owen to bed we found a little exhibit of Errol’s pictures that Owen had curated on the floor of his room. Pictures of Owen holding Errol and pictures of Errol smiling up at us all lined up in a row.

We are building the boat as we sail it through this vast sea of grief.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Cousins' Ceremony

When Errol first died I was more accepting of his death than I am now because I didn’t actually believe he was really, truly dead. It was easy to accept his death if it wasn’t real.

When Cary was in elementary school, each member of her class wrote down their home address and a note and put it in a helium balloon and launched them into the sky. About a month later she got a letter from a woman from the coast, 300 miles away, who had gotten her balloon.

The strings of fifteen colorful helium balloons dangle from the ceiling. We sit in a circle, each holding a picture of Errol we have chosen. We each tell a story about him. Owen beams as he tells everyone about how he and Errol had crowed into Errol’s crib together and then Errol signed to Owen, “I love you!” Errol’s uncles, aunts, grandfather, and cousins all tell stories, but when it is his eloquent grandmother’s turn, she cannot find words. She turns the picture of Errol to face us, pats her heart, and cries and cries.

Then we all sing songs Errol loved - The Wheels On The Bus – the kids leading us in the hand motions – and then The Itsy Bitsy Spider complete with hand gestures just like we did for Errol all those times. It would be so normal to look over and see Errol in his aunt’s lap, and it feels like he is here, but as I look around the room, I can’t see him anywhere..

Then the kids tell us they have a surprise for the parents. They bring out letters they have written in secret, decorated in bright colors, replete with hearts and the word "Errol." They are going to tie their words to the balloons we will launch for Errol.

We walk to the side of the lake and at Owen’s behest, launch our balloons and notes for Errol. At first it looks as if notes are going to keep the balloons from rising very high above the lake, but then suddenly, a draft comes and the shining balloons rise and up, up, up and fly over the mountains and off to the west out towards the sun.

I’ve never seen a balloon come down, never chanced upon the husk of an old helium balloon, but I know they must eventually come down somewhere. They must run out of air and come crashing back to earth. They don’t, as some of the cousins have worried, fly into the stratosphere, up over the edge of the horizon and out through the asteroid belts into outer space until finally they burn up into the sun. I’d like to know where those balloons go and what happens to them on their magnificent journey. I look back up into the sun for one last glance at the balloons, but they are gone.

Monday, November 01, 2010


I remember one of Errol’s very favorite games.
Cary gently slides a large napkin down over Errol’s head until it just covers his eyes. Then she sings to him "Where is Errol?" There is no response. She sings again, a little louder, “Where is Errol?” There is a little vibration under the napkin. She sings once more, asking more emphatically, “Where is Errol?” There is a mild eruption and Errol’s little hand pulls the napkin away to reveal a white-haired boy with a huge grin on his face, chortling with laughter.

Monday, October 25, 2010


In February, a friend from Errol’s school whose seven-year-old disabled daughter died a year ago, brings her youngest daughter to our house for dinner. We tell Owen that this little girl might understand how he feels. As soon as they arrive, Owen’s mood changes completely. His tired and sunken eyes grow bright, his cheeks flush, he looks like his old self. And while they never speak a word about their siblings, as they alternate between playing happily and listening to their parents cry, these two young mourners are bonded in grief.

Our friend asks us, “Is the party over?” The mania of Errol’s memorial service is fading, and our shock is slowly wearing off. The reality of life without Errol is settling on us like snow.

Our guests step into the bathroom for a moment and as soon as they close the door, Owen asks if we can look at Errol’s ashes. I gingerly lift the beautiful pottery urn down from the mantle and remove the plastic bag that holds Errol’s ashes. I rub the nameplate, “Errol Clifford” and dissolve into tears as Owen stares into the ashes as if they hold the secret to the universe. When our friends leave, the little girl reaches to give Owen a big hug on the way out the door, but she squeezes a little too tightly and Owen cries and cries as we try to comfort him.

After our guests have left, Owen goes right to sleep. Suddenly at midnight he wakes up, vomits, and then falls right back to sleep.

The next morning he doesn’t remember any of it. I understand. I am forgetful too, and often feel nauseated, but mostly I’m just cold - cold and tired.

The next day, Cary and I dive out to Hospice to meet the art therapist who will be working with Owen, trying to heal the hole in his heart. I remember driving Errol to his doctor one afternoon. Errol’s doctor’s office is right across the street from a retirement community, which is conveniently located right down the street from a funeral home. A huge banner at the convalescent home read “Hospice Days!” and even with Errol sick in the back seat, I couldn’t help but laugh. “Hospice Days” sounded like a geriatric harvest, and I imagined workers from Hospice, dressed in Hazmat suits, driving rental trucks to haul away all these old folks, clearing out space at the retirement home for the next batch. And even with a sick kid (was it pneumonia? Croup? Bronchitis?) who wasn’t expected to live to see 20, laughing at Hospice didn’t seem morbid because, at the time I knew that Errol would live forever – he always had.

We meet Owen’s art therapist who describes the sand tray that will be the set for Owen to act out his emotions and memories of his brother. It is a safe and confined place where Owen can unbind his fear and grief and know that they won’t take him over. She explains that we can expect to see Owen in the midst of grief one moment, and then laughing the next. “Grieving kids,” she says, “are like stones being skipped across water.”

Just last week, I walked into Owen’s room and found him dissolved into tears. He cried and cried and then suddenly got up and started playing happily with his Star Wars Legos. “Owen,” I rasp, in my best Darth Vader imitation, holding my cupped hand to my mouth, “I am your father!”

Then we meet the therapist who will be working with Cary and me. She asks us to tell her the story of Errol’s life and Cary begins. “When I was a few months pregnant I went to get an ultrasound of Errol. The doctor told me that everything looked good, but I was convinced something wasn’t right, and I asked if the doctor was sure. ‘Yes,’ the doctor replied, ‘everything appears totally normal.’”

We take turns telling the therapist how joyful and delightful Errol was, then, very slowly, we are in the midst of Errol’s last days at Duke Hospital. “In mid December, right before his final surgery. Errol and I were footloose and fancy free for an hour.” I say. “We hooked him to a mobile oxygen tank and monitors and headed straight outside!”

“I hadn't been outside in two and a half days and Errol hadn't been outdoors for a single breath of air since he arrived a week and a half earlier. We sat on a bench at the front of the hospital for a long time, watching people scurry out of the hospital smiling, surprised by the balmy breeze.” I look away for the ending.

“Our trip outside the hospital turns out to have been Errol’s last time outside. As lovely as the evening was, we had to head back into the hospital to give Errol his medicine, but the medicine didn’t work.”

One afternoon, searching for solace in the library, I glimpse Errol in the words of William Blake,

Some are born to sweet delight,

Some are born to endless night.

Now that Errol is gone, so too is our delight, as if an eclipse has blocked the sun.

As much as I think about Errol, I can’t ever think him back.

It is like riding a merry-go-round. You travel far but you never get anywhere.

My favorite French particle physicist turned monk, Matthieu Ricard, traded a scientific career at the Jonas Salk institute for a life of contemplation in a hermitage high in the Himalayas.

“Isn’t it the mind that translates the outer condition into happiness and suffering?” Asks this smiling Buddhist monk. Somehow, Errol’s unusually wired mind makes him smile at the nurse who draws his blood, the doctor who taps his spine. By all rights, Errol’s physical life was endless night. But some switch flipped in his mind and made him delight in the little life he had. Although he couldn’t speak, his whole joyous self laughed out his answer to the monk’s question in sweet delight. I try to translate these long dark nights into something light, but without Errol’s steady smile I’m at a loss.

Owen is trying hard to think his way back to the dawn. He retreats from his empty room to his best friend’s house for some imaginary play: Roman in the role of the mother cat, Owen as mama cat’s six-year-old kitten. Mother cat has had a new baby, who is just back home from the hospital. The baby kitten, Mama cat says, is a little like Errol. He is going to have heart surgery, but the doctors are going to be able to fix him. The cats are singing to the baby kitty and giving him presents. They are telling him not to worry. The baby will be in the hospital for only two weeks.

The doctors have fixed the baby, and he's out of the hospital now! His name is Water Brother and the cat family is opening presents.

Two months after he died, I am finally able to watch a video of Errol. He is in the backyard swing in the summer of the postponed surgery - that saved his life for another year-and was probably the highlight of his health. I am holding Errol in the swing, close to my chest and then I let go and he swings far away from me and up, up, up to the end of his arc and he is laughing uproariously and then gravity pulls him back to earth and he is swinging toward me, and that is funny too, and his laugh continues as he swings past me to the other end of his arc and when he comes back towards me on the way back I yell, “I’m gonna’ get you!!!!!!!!” and reach out for him and he swings past me and he laughs and laughs and this goes on and on and he never tires of the fun.

The smiles and laughter become more rare as the summer wears on and Errol outgrows his heart. And by the time the next summer – his last summer – rolls around he is very sick and weak.

We miss Errol so much. More each day, it seems. The further we swing from his life, the more we miss him. Our heartache grows, the space between sadness contracts, our despair deepens, our ability to do other things diminishes. Can it get even worse still? Is there an arc of grief that will one day bring us back to earth? How hollow can you get without breaking?

Early one morning, about the time when Errol used to wake me up, I am lying in bed when I hear Errol. My heart leaps. I am thrilled. Has his death just been a horrible dream? But just as quickly, I am deflated, distraught. It is just the cat.

One night after dinner, our little family, now numbering three, watches videos of Errol. On the small screen, Errol is flapping his hand, his chin wet with spit from laughing, and he is smiling - so alive to the world. Suddenly, the video is over and Errol vanishes again.

The video upsets Owen, and after a few cloudy minutes he has had enough. We stop the tape and Owen brightens. A few minutes later, Owen jumps to the top of the sofa, mumbling something unintelligible, as Cary and I look at each other, wondering what he means. Then Owen whispers, “Errol’s ashes went with us to the movie today.” I must have misunderstood him, I think. But then Owen says, clear as day, “Errol’s ashes go with us everywhere. Errol is with us wherever we go. His spirit is always with us.”

Monday, October 18, 2010


At first, after he died, Errol was still in my muscle memory. My muscles flexed when we went out the front door and I reached for his stroller. Flexed when I got in the car and braced my legs to counterbalance his weight in my arms. The longer Errol is gone, the more my muscles lose their memory and relax. It’s only when we go to the doctor, or Errol’s school, or to the farmers market, or do something we often did with Errol that my muscles tighten and warm.

But Errol is still in my head, in the constant loop of memories that conjure him.

I receive a visitation on Easter Morning. My head is full of beautiful dreams, backed it seems, by a soundtrack of loud brass music filling the night air. Then I awake disoriented, and realize I’m not dreaming, that it is Easter morn (barely – it’s 3:30 – don’t these people ever sleep?!) and the sounds in my dream are coming from the Moravian brass band assembled on our street corner to play hymns about resurrection and everlasting life.

Bands of peripatetic Moravians roam the city streets in the middle of the night every Easter morn to herald the good news of Jesus’s ressurection. Or at least that’s what they say they’re doing. I had heard a late night Moravian band once before when I was recovering at home from an illness, so this concoction of music, suffering, and healing seems very natural to me. At least, at 3:30 in the morning, half asleep and half clothed, it feels reasonable that a brass band would be on our street corner, playing 18th century tunes, to herald spring and rebirth. Of course, these insomniac Moravians blowing their wake up call into a sleeping neighborhood probably don’t have the first idea about Errol’s death. Most likely, they have picked our house at random and aren’t doing anything more than just playing notes. But that morning, walking out into the dark, standing on the front porch in my underwear, listening to the hymns float through the humid night air, my head is filled with Errol and in my mind, these Moravians know our story – our loss, and this is an annunciation – a direct call - to us, to bring good news of our dearly departed Errol.

I fall back into a deep sleep but I still don’t dream of Errol.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Owen speaks of Errol in the present tense. “Errol loves butterflies,” he says as we walk around The Children’s Center, where our boys once went to school together. When Errol died, his teachers erected a birdhouse in the school garden as a memorial. The garden is planted in raised beds separated by a smooth path so anyone in a walker or with crutches or in a wheelchair can get right in the garden and reach up and touch the poppies, hear the butterflies, smell the coreopsis.

Here, at the end of summer, perched above the riotous flowers and buzzing insects is Errol’s fanciful copper roofed birdhouse. Errol would have loved it all.

Owen learned to ride his bike today. He went from not being able to ride to riding in about fifteen minutes. But what a fifteen minutes they were. There was a moment, as I ran alongside Owen, gripping his bike seat, as he wobbled from side to side, that I thought he would tip over. And it was there at the height of my terror that Owen suddenly reached his balance and I immediately let go (or he broke free), and just like that, Owen was riding his bike. He was gone.

As Owen rode down the parking lot, my huge grin vanished and tears welled in my eyes. Errol never got to ride off into the blue wondering how the hell he was going to stop this crazy metal contraption.

I never let go of Errol until it was too late.

Owen On His Own

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Owen's Book For Errol

Our friends bring their seven month old to dinner. His sweet little sounds remind us of Errol who, when he died at age three and a half years, was developmentally about seven or eight months old. After our friends leave, Owen disappears into his room. He returns a few minutes later with the book he has been writing about Errol. We begin to add a second chapter to it.

Owen dictates and I type:

Chapter 2

I really, really, really miss Errol because he died seven months ago.
He is my best companion in the family.

Errol is the nicest brother in the whole universe.
Errol was so important to me.

Errol, my mom, and my dad are my best companions in the family.
Errol was so great to me.
I really liked how when I held him he would giggle sometimes.

I really miss Errol and I wish he were still here with us.
If Errol were here I would tickle him, and play peek-a-boo, and hold him and never put him down.

Errol would really like the summer time because he loved warm weather.
He would have really liked the pool we went to the other day. I really miss him.

Errol would have really liked Owen’s birthday party.
He would have liked the big splash Owen makes on the diving board and he would have liked opening Owen’s presents.
He would have really liked playing with the wrapping paper of the presents.

After I write his words out for him Owen turns to see if I am crying, reaches to embrace me with a big hug, and says, “it’s ok, Daddy.”

But it's really not.

Owen, Cary and I go into the boys’ room to put Owen down for the night. Cary reads Owen’s book about Errol out loud and Owen says, “We should get Errol wrapping paper for his birthday this year.” Cary stares ahead and says, ”I sure miss that little boy” and she starts to cry.

Unasked, Owen rushes to the bathroom to gets his mother a tissue, but before he can come back we hear him break into a high lonesome cry. After a minute, Owen reappears with a tissue to his watery eyes and a fist full of tissues for our tears. We tell Owen that he is the best kid in the world, as we fall upon one another like rain.

When our tears finally slow, Cary says, “I was going by the food co-op today when I realized I had forgotten to pick up Errol.”

And this morning, I made the same mistake. After I drop Owen off for school I steer the car - for a nanosecond - towards Errol's school until I remember that Errol is not with me.

I really miss Errol and I wish he were still here with us.
Errol was so great to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Errol's Quilt

Errol’s quilt, made from his clothes by our dear friend Stephanie, sits on the back of our sofa by day, and covers Owen by night.

Red and white plaid frames the quilt, and within the border are Errol’s black jeans handed down from his brother and now handed back down to us. I remember putting Errol on his tummy on a soft blanket, and folding his legs in these black jeans, up under him, hoping he would use his body, bent into the start of a crawl, to push his trunk forward. I hoped that would lead to crawling, then walking, then running. Of course, Errol had his own idea, and he just laughed and rolled over and then I tickled him.

There is a swatch of Errol’s blue denim jeans and their little man pockets that made him look like a little farmer.

There is the light blue plaid shirt that Errol’s mother especially liked and that I would dress him in on special occasions.

There is a blue and white plaid long-sleeved shirt that we put Errol in to go horseback riding.

There are the striped jean corduroy overalls that made Errol look like a train conductor. I have a picture of Errol in these pants with his train conductor hat, smiling for all the world. All aboard!

It is the little pockets adorning the quilt that get me - so empty.

The quilt is more than just Errol’s clothes; it brims with his smiles, and love, and joy.

Then there is the Joan Miro back of the quilt: riotous color and joyous patterns filling the canvas with broad stripes of red, blue, and green from Errol’s plush pajamas. It is what I imagine the flag of a country ruled by happy children would look like. There are the pjs with the stegosaurus and triceratops gleefully riding baseballs and footballs through outer space, enjoying impossible, happy dreams! There are Errol’s red velvety pjs that looked like a smoking jacket and made him look like a little playboy. And there are Errol’s sporty pjs that say GOAL above the upright, soccer playing alligator - uh oh! Errol wore these pajamas with his orange glasses that Sunday before his last surgery.

These are the clothes we put Errol to bed in, as we kissed him good night and wondered what he would dream of and how long we would be able to hold him.

Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Errol Laughing 2009

Pure Joy

Owen's Ceremony For Errol

We’ve never had a day like this at the beach before. The wind is blowing strong - out to sea - and has wiped the humidity from the air. We ride our bikes down the bike path along the canal and collect fallen bark husks from palmetto trees. The sun has bleached the outsides of the tawny husks, but the smooth concave insides – hollowed out like tiny canoes - are a cool dark brown.

Owen has the idea that that each member of the family will write a message to Errol on a piece of bark and then send their greeting out into the ocean. We have no idea where the messages will go, or if they will even float.

We sit on the porch, where we spent so many hours holding Errol, with pictures of Errol, a handful of magic markers, and the palmetto husks. We think of Errol and pen salutations, poetry, drawings.

I write: “Errol Is Pure Joy” and draw red hearts all over his bark.

After everyone is done we put our greetings in a basket and carry them out to Granddad’s boat. We push away from the dock and the wind kicks up. Owen sits on my lap, his mother beside us, and then Owen alternates sitting in Cary's lap, then mine, chirping nervously all the way on this lonesome journey. Grandma, Granddad, Cary’s siblings Jay, and Hope, and the three of us sail down the canal and into the wide river as the strong winds, choppy waves, and the outgoing tide pushes us out towards the sea. “Errol would have loved this!” Cary says.

The waves have never been higher on the creek, the wind never stronger. Gulls fly above, peering down into he basket to see if we have treats for them. My salty tears flow as I read the wishes his family is sending Errol.

It hasn’t been the same around here since you have gone.

You brought us such joy!

I remember your smile

Surrounded by a rainbow of hearts.

Owen simply writes:
Errol Errol Errol Owen Owen Owen

We sail down to the end of the island where Errol’s’ cousins, aunt, and uncle wait on the shore, waving to us. We anchor in the rough water and lift the basket of bark up to Owen. He starts with his own message and gently launches it into the tide. It bobs along in the waves and makes for the open ocean.

Errol Errol Errol Owen Owen Owen

Then Owen sends his uncle’s poem out to Errol, to the sea, to the universe…and then I follow with my own.

Cary sends her love out and then Owen follows with all the other messages that float and bob in a straight line out to the open ocean beyond.

Will someone catch one of these boats one day? Will the messages be wiped clean by the sun and the sea? Will they be blown back to us? It’s all a mystery.

A gull hovers above us and grandma sings a song to Errol; one that she’s sung hundreds of times at home and in the hospital:

“Hey Mr. Errol, Errol, Errol.
Hey Mr. Errol, how do you do?
Errol, Errol, we love you.
Errol, Errol, we love you!”

But there is no laughter or giggling response, just the sound of our sobs, the waves slapping the boat, and the incessant ping, ping, ping of the wind blowing the mast of a catamaran on the shore. Ping, ping, ping, ping, ping, ping.

Owen wants to sing another song to Errol, and we join him:
“Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly.
Somewhere over the rainbow, why oh why can’t I…”

Errol’s two cousins wade out into the murky water and Owen, Cary, and I jump off the boat to join them. I dive under the water and Owen and Cary join me under the surface, baptized in the mystery of the day.

Errol Errol Errol Owen Owen Owen

And then Cary, Owen, and I wade out of the ocean, up onto the shore, and dripping wet, walk home, alone - with no one to push - all the way back to an empty house.

Friday, July 09, 2010


And it’s all a mystery to me: why one person lives, and another dies. Why? Why? Why?

And we are at the beach – our first year without Errol - boating up a tidal creek and there is a cumulus cloud as high as Mount Everest, looming 30,000 feet above us. And the wind is slack, and the water looks like it has been wrapped in cellophane, and the dense green forest stretches down to the water. And we slow to watch the porpoises play in our wake and a gull flies overhead, calling down to us, and I think Errol accepted this mystery and enjoyed it as well as anyone. But that doesn’t make the space in my arms, where he should be, any less empty. And tears flood our little boat as we sail home into the orange sun.

We wipe the tears from our eyes, but it’s no clearer than the day Errol was born, or the day he died. It remains a mystery.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Six Months

Today marks six months without our beloved Errol.
He brought such pure joy to the world.
He would have enjoyed this day, as he did all days.
Still, try as I might, I am filled with such sadness.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Three Little Pigs

Early in the morning, the students release the pigs into the school. It is April Fools Day, after all, and to make things more interesting the pigs are painted on their sides with the numbers 1, 2, and 4. It’s easy to imagine the administrators, on their walkie-talkies, roaming the school, sweating, out of breath, looking for number three and reporting to home base, “We’ve got one and two down in the physics lab, and four’s up here in the cafeteria, but we can’t find #3 anywhere.”

And here I am looking for Errol. It’s only been five months since we left him, and the other day someone said, “You must think of him every day.” And I think: Every day?!?! How ‘bout every hour, every minute, constantly! I am a glass of warm water and Errol is ice, and he has melted away-dissolved into me- and he makes me better and more than I was.

My senses are attuned to Errol: I see an automatic paper towel dispenser and there we are in the hospital, I hear bath water running and there he is, I smell sweet potatoes, and I am at the dinning room feeding Errol; but he is not really anywhere except within me, and I can look as long as the administrators look for number three, and I won’t find him out there. And I keep looking!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Good Night, Sleep Tight, Wake Up Bright In The Morning Light

Last night I put Owen to bed and said “Good night”
And his mother said, “Sleep tight.”
And Owen said, “Wake up bright in the morning light!”

Owen’s words joined with ours to make the song we sang Owen and Errol to bed to every night of Errol’s life.

Good Night
Sleep Tight
Wake Up Bright In The Morning Light

And he always did. And he always was our bright morning light.

When Errol lay dying in his mother’s arms, when there was no hope he would get better, when it was time for his suffering to end, we wanted to do whatever we could to help ease his passage out of life. We unplugged Errol from all the ventilators and machines that were keeping him alive, and then we turned off his oxygen. As his little breaths got shallower and shallower and the space between them got longer and longer we sang Errol the goodnight song to help him let go. To help end his suffering.

Through sobs and moans Cary and I sang, over and over again, “Good night, sleep tight, wake up bright in the morning light.” Errol slowly stopped breathing until he was gone.

We have not dared to sing this song or even say these words since then.
But last night, Owen was ready to sing this beautiful song.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Errol Word Cloud

Wordle: Errol Take 2
Click on the image above to see the words from Errol's blog transformed into a word cloud! The more frequently a word is used, the larger it is in the word cloud.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mother's Day

I stood behind Cary, jumping up, waving my arms, trying to get Owen's attention as he shared his big news, “Mama, I’m going to wake up early to wrap up your secret presents; the bowl and necklace, and then Daddy and me are making you a surprise French toast breakfast.” He gets it from me. I have a hard time waiting for big celebrations. And today was a big one: Cary’s first Mother’s Day since our beloved Errol died. We’ve been dreading it for some time, but that didn’t stop it from getting here.

Owen was true to his word and woke up especially early to fete his mother, because he knows even better than I do, what a great mother he and Errol have. Had it not been for Cary’s strength, energy, optimism, brilliance, hope, tenacity, and love, Errol would not have lived a third of his three and a half brilliant years.

For this diminished Mother's Day, we did many of the same things that we did last Mother’s Day, just without Errol. We rode bikes in the morning, Owen behind me, on the tandem, and Cary on her bike with an empty child’s seat – Errol’s seat – behind her. I’m glad Cary couldn’t see herself, but I know how much lighter her bike was, and that she felt every ounce of Errol’s missing weight.

We rode to a baseball field and the whistling wind began to bend the trees. We threw our frisbee around our little family triangle and then, as the wind built, we threw our Frisbee up, up, up, into the wind which sent it right back to us, again and again. Owen always says that Errol is the wind, and I wonder if he thought Errol came to give his mother a visit on her special day.

We tried to celebrate this bright windy day, but every time the trees would bend and sway, we all thought of Errol. I remembered Errol in loving arms, on his grandfather's boat, out on the shimmering water, the sun beating down, and Errol smiling and smiling, full of joy with the wind on his face.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Life Is Round

My favorite line in a Coen Brothers film comes from the scene in Raising Arizona where the escaped convict, Evelle, asks a grizzled old store clerk about some balloons he is thinking about purchasing, “These blow up into funny shapes and all?”

The grocer looks at his customer askance and replies, “Well no…unless round is funny.”

Errol thought round was funny, he thought his brother jumping on the bed was funny, leaves falling from the sky were funny, his three crazy doggies running around the house were always funny, chickens flapping the yard were even more funny, and snow was probably funniest. I remember rolling Errol out onto the porch his last winter, and pointing up at the big white flakes falling from the sky, and as sick as he felt, Errol looked right up at the snow, smiled, looked over at me, and then let out a little chuckle. For Errol, although his life was harder by far than any I have known, life was always round. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Errol is in our thoughts all the time.

One night at dinner Owen suddenly smiled and said, “Errol is on your shoulders mama. He’s nibbling your food.”

“Hi, Errol.” Cary said gamely, turning towards her shoulder.

“Mama,” said Owen, “Now Errol is in your arms.”

Cary cradled her sweet boy in her arms while Owen looked on, his eyes smiling. Sometimes just going through the familiar motions of Errol, holding, lifting, laying down bring floods of joy and sorrow. “And he’s grabbing your hair.” Said Owen.

“Now I’m holding him, Mama.” And Owen rocked his brother in his arms. Then Owen pointed to me. “He’s on your shoulders Daddy.”

“Hi, Errol.” I replied, waving and smiling. And to explain my tears I said, “Ouch, he’s pulling my hair!” - which was Errol’s favorite game, after all.

And as suddenly as it started, Owen sang out. “Now Errol is the wind.” And that was the end of the visitation that Owen had conjured.

A few minutes later we finished dinner and went into Owen and Errol’s bedroom. I know Owen must feel lonely up in the top of his bunk bed with no one below to share his big room, but his pet chickens.

We read a children’s book about death called I Miss You and when we asked Owen how he was feeling he said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” I told him that we didn’t know either (not reassuring perhaps, but true) but that we thought things were going to get better (which they do, until they don’t) and that he was going to feel better. And he is feeling better, these days. And we know that Owen misses Errol as much as he loved him (which is a lot) and that Errol will help Owen to grow up to be a very strong and loving man. But for now it’s heartbreaking to watch a little boy's heart break.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Errol’s fourth birthday reminded us of Errol’s first tenuous day of life. As we move through these slow days of loss, it's clear how remarkable it is that we got any time at all with Errol (his sweet little body was not made for this world). It’s amazing he survived a day, much less three and a half years. How lucky we are.

Errol cheated death, and I think he knew it, and that’s what gave him that lucky-to-be alive glow that made the dark times more bearable, and the light times all the sweeter. We are so lucky.

And to think - we came a razor width away from never knowing beautiful, radiant Errol! How fortunate we are for the wonderfully joyous boy we got to share those beautiful days with.