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A Little Family Tradition

On October 31, 2005 my 4 day old daughter, Kellan Victoria Cowan passed away in my arms at 10:40 in the morning. I had spent every waking hour of those four days either at her bedside in the NICU or my wife’s. Her short life changed me forever. In some good ways, and in some bad ways. I’ve written about this before but I’ll say it again – when you lose a child, their ghost grows with you and never, ever leaves. The last time I saw Kellan she was a tiny, beautiful baby girl. So perfect in fact that there was no way to tell that anything was wrong with her, except for the tubes and IVs. But now, when I close my eyes to see her, she is not that baby anymore. She has grown. She grows every year. She wears jeans, has long beautiful hair, doesn’t go barefoot as much as her older sister, Lillian, and she loves to snuggle. She is a ghost, but she is growing. She’s my little angel child on lay-away, and I will hold her soon enough, and smell the flowers of her brilliantly auburn hair.

Every year on her birthday (October 27) we make a trip to her headstone where we lay flowers and talk to her and release balloons into the air for her. One for every year. Later that night my wife sends me to the basement where I get Kellan’s box. It’s a large green rubbermaid plastic tub. In black sharpie, Suzanne wrote, “Kellan’s Belongings” on the lid. After Lily is asleep we set the box on our bed and open it up. It’s full to the top of every tube, blanket, card, picture, hair clipping, and nick knack that pertains to her. There are letters from the nurses who attended to her. There is the blanket she was wrapped in as she died in which I held her for hours after her death. There are cards and little notes that people left on her NICU crib. There are napkins from the hospital cafeteria. Everything is there.

The most precious item in that whole box is in the very bottom. In a ziploc bag we have the hospital onesy that she wore, the little hat, socks, and blankets she laid on in the crib. But the most precious part of those items is the smell. When I open the bag and press my face against the soft knitted blanket I can still smell her. I can smell her on the blankets, the socks, the onesy…all of it. It’s a pure and clean smell. It smells of life and hope. It is her, and when I find her in heaven and wrap my arms around her and bury my face in her neck, it is the only thing that will be familiar to me up There. For that one tiny moment, every October 27th as I close my eyes and inhale her deeply into my body – she is alive again – only for an infinitesimal instant. Smaller than a grain of sand. But as real as the Earth spinning beneath me.

Now October is passing and soon it will be Thanksgiving and Christmas and gradually she will fade from me for the rest of the year. I cannot think of her often, as the longing to see her run, to tickle her feet, to kiss her perfectly heart-shaped lips can easily overwhelm. But I have found that when you truly love. When you honestly and wholeheartedly love someone, just a tiny moment, with your eyes closed and the smell of them filling your mind and easing your memories – is somehow, just enough.

My beloved Kellan, I miss you, love you, and laugh at the commotion you must cause in heaven daily. I will see you soon.


17 thoughts on “A Little Family Tradition

  1. I’m glad you had the courage to write and post this for others, including strangers, to read. It shook me. I’m shaking still.
    Earlier this year my elderly father died and that prompted me to write about death. I posted two poems on my blog. But the death of someone in their nineties is not heartbreaking, no matter how sad. I tried to extend my reflections by thinking about the worst case of grief – the death of a child. I wrote a poem about that too, but then threw it away – I didn’t have the capacity, or the right, to handle such an untamable pain.
    Someone like me, who has children and grandchildren but not known this loss, can only offer you fruitless, formal condolences. But we can learn from you. And I do.

  2. i love how you love… as a father, as a husband, as a poet and musician… the tenderest of touches a child in a father’s arms…. an image i shall not forget anytime soon… my heart aches for your family’s loss…

  3. This post was such a beautiful way to remember…. and explain the unexplainable. Thank you for sharing and I’m sorry…

    We send balloons up to my father each year… but, I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a child. I have a friend who went through something similiar… and she’s always saying, “she would have been 3 by now…”, etc. I know the wonder and pain must never go away… I’m also sure her spirit, and the love, also never goes away…

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