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december 7

I was sitting in Miss Dickemore's fifth grade class, wearing jeans and a white shirt that had blue flowers on it, and reading Maniac Mcgee when the PA came on.  The office was requesting me.  When I walked in to the office, I was greeted by my Grandma Cozie and my second grade younger brother, Nick.  Grandma told me to go get my things, and that we were leaving.  When I asked what I should tell my teacher, the secretary told me that she knew what was going on and I didn't need to worry about it.  When I got back to class, Miss D asked where I was going. I told her she was supposed to know, shrugged my shoulders, and grabbed my stuff.  We loaded up Grandma's white van, and headed downtown.  Nick and I sat in those green velvet captain chairs firing off a million questions to an uncharacteristically serious grandma and grandpa.  They said very little.  When we pulled into the emergency room parking lot and exited the van, Nick stuck out his belly and said in a silly voice, "Am I having a baby?!" The only experience we had ever had with a hospital was welcoming a new sibling or two into the family.  Tears brimmed grandma's eyes, and we walked through the automatic doors.  The first familiar face I saw was Paul Bryner--a neighbor, family friend, and religious leader of ours.  He had the same serious expression grandma had when he saw us, and immediately turned on his heels to head the other way.  Then came dad.  Dad had a strange look on his face that at first looked like a silly grin.  It wasn't until he dropped to his knees, reaching desperately for a hug from Nick and I and muttering "my kids, oh my kids," that I realized it wasn't a grin.  It was the face my dad made when he cried.  I had never seen that face before.

Dad took us, with two strange women, into a private room and sat us down.  He brought up a family night lesson we had had a while back of the plan of salvation.  He asked if we remembered how we learned that families last forever. And then he sat there crying, unable to say much else.  I don't know how, and I don't know why, but in that moment I knew what was wrong.  I had never experienced the death of a loved one, but clear as day I distinctly remember my mind and heart hearing and understanding that my 5 month old baby sister was gone.  I started crying, and asked my dad where mom was.  I don't recall Nick saying much of anything, which was pretty typical.  Dad led us to another room made private only by a curtain, and there I found my grandparents, my sister Kaylee, my mother, and in my mother's arms a beautiful bundle wrapped in a yellow blanket--the small infant body of my baby sister, Cortney Joann.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind, but I remember small details vividly.  I remember Grandpa Dean bringing us kids meals from Burger King.  I remember our neighbor coming in with cookie sheets full of food.  I remember my Aunt Denise bursting through the front door shortly after we got home and grabbing both my mom and dad in a giant hug, all three crying in the entryway.  I remember answering the phone when another neighbor called and telling her my mom couldn't talk because she was in the front room crying.  When the neighbor asked why and I told her because my little sister had died, I received radio silence.  What do you say to a 10 year old when she throws that news your way, anyway? I remember going to pickup my cousin, Kyle, from school that afternoon.  I remember hearing that my cousin, Lindsay, had checked herself out of school.  I remember plants taking over our house in the days following.  I remember going shopping for dresses for the funeral and seeing my mom sitting on the floor crying.  I also remember being angry.  Angry that SIDS was even a thing.  It seemed like a cop-out to something doctors just made up because they didn't have a reason babies died.  That wasn't good enough to me.  I remember being really angry at myself.  I had heard Cortney crying in her room while I got ready for school that morning, and remember the distinct thought that I could go get her and let mom sleep.  If I had just gone in and gotten her, she could still be alive.  It must have been my fault, then.  I was her oldest sister.  It was my job to protect her.  I remember wanting to go to school the next day and my dad driving me there in the morning before the buses.  When we found my teacher, she was walking out of the office.  I remember her dropping to her knees and bear hugging me while she cried.  I also remember her taking me to a play the night of the funeral.  Miss D was arguably the greatest teacher I ever had. She is easily top 2.

I remember hearing Kaylee talking in the tub one night, and hearing her telling my grandma that she was asking Jesus to take care of Cortney. I remember being visited by our stake president the morning of the funeral.  I remember the small white casket--which by definition means treasure box--and I regret not letting my mom take my picture by it.  I regret that decision so much. I remember watching the women--family friends and neighbors--warming up their voices in the bathroom as they practiced the musical number He Sent His Son for the funeral services.  Julie Saunders wore a green dress.  My friends treated me weird for a while after it was all over.  Like they weren't quite sure what to do.  I don't blame them.  I wasn't sure what to do either.  I remember wanting to document daily life, so that when we were reunited I could fill Cortney in on all she had missed, so I wrote her letters in a little notebook every day.  Then my aunt at the time found and read them when I was spending the night there.  She told me she had read them, and I was embarrassed.  It suddenly seemed so silly, and I stopped writing them.  I'm still angry about that encounter.  That was when I started writing.  It was therapeutic, but for years I hid everything I wrote.  There are still so many memories.

Years went by, and it slowly got easier.  Her presence never left our home, and we had multiple reasons to gather as family--every birthday, memorial day, anniversary of her passing--and form traditions.  After a while, the questions no longer bothered me, and I was happy to address them.  Then, I became a mom.

The night of December 6 when Rhett was 8 months old I fell headfirst into what I recognize now as a full blown anxiety attack.  I had no idea what was going on, and I had no idea how to tell my concerned husband what was happening either.  I was laying in bed, thinking about Cortney and the upcoming day, when I put myself in my mother's shoes.  I now had an infant, just barely older than she was, and thought about what it would be like to lose him.  I couldn't breathe.  The sobs were uncontrollable.  And I found myself in the fetal position on my couch unable to speak.  All of a sudden, I had a small glimpse into what my parents might have felt.  It was like I needed to re-grieve.  This time, though, as a mom and not just a sister.  It was that year that my appreciation for my mom launched into hyper-drive.  I have very vivid memories of December 7, 1998 and the weeks thereafter, and none of them include my mom staying in bed.  None of them include her immobilized by grief, slacking on her parenting responsibilities, lashing out in anger, or checking out of daily life.  In fact, in my memories she was the exact same as she had always been--strong, steady, and consistent--although slightly less silly.  I remember seeing my dad more emotional, but still showing up and taking care of things as well.  I am sure that they remember the events differently, and I'm also sure that there was plenty of grieving on their end that I didn't see, but my vivid memories depict two stalwart parents experiencing the most horrific tragedy a parent can undergo, and standing brave and firm.

Her presence continues to influence our family, and we could all tell you different experiences when we have felt her guidance.  We cannot wait for the new additions to our family to meet her, but until that day we will talk about her and continue to bear testimony that one day she will be reunited with our family.  We love you Cortney Joann, and we miss you, but we are forever grateful for the role you continue to play in our family.


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