Out of My Hands

September 1, 2011

MY EYES SCAN THE breaking waves one last time. The deep blue cold of the ocean mirrors my emotion; its rhythm keeps time with the slowing beat of my heart. I can finally cease searching the tumbling surf. After three wrenching hours of watching and waiting, I’ve learned that my little girl’s body has been recovered. I turn my back to the sea. A heavy sense of loss hangs in the air and clings to my shoulders as I lift the hatchback to the dusty Xterra and dig through camping gear for my bag. I pull out the first set of clean clothes I get my shaking hands on. The sight of Mikayla’s car seat, toys, and clothing scattered through the car—a sight so familiar—now stops my breath.

I couldn’t wait to take Mikayla on her first camping trip, and we were both glad to have our good friend Jeanne come along. Jeanne was one of the first and best friends I made after my husband and I separated. She knew when to just listen, when to talk, when to bring food, and when to let me cry and scream. Mikayla and Jeanne adored each other, and we’d become a practically inseparable trio. The three of us had been so excited as we loaded Jeanne’s SUV with our bags, gear, and coolers of yummy food—one thing Jeanne and I always agreed on was the importance of good food and lots of it. Another was our love for the calming majesty of the ocean. We both escaped there often to allow the salty sea breeze to carry our troubles away. When we decided to take a camping trip together, Jeanne chose a location far up the California coast for the beauty of its towering redwoods, climbing green ferns, and the rhythmic ocean, all meeting together in one place.

At the end of our adventurous trip, on our way home we stopped at a rest area for a break. Mikayla was excited to run down by the water, so we explored the beach, climbed on driftwood, drew with sticks in the wet sand, and took a few more pictures. Then we made our way back to the dry sand, where Jeanne and I sat and visited on a blanket and Mikayla played a few steps away, far from the shoreline. The surf rolled in the background, not even coming close to where we sat. I never imagined a wave could be large and strong and fast enough to reach us. No wonder they call them “sleeper” waves, these unpredictable forces of nature that flood the beach without warning. One moment Mikayla was digging in the dry sand, the next she was surrounded with water that pulled her back toward the sea.

Adrenaline pumped through me as I ran to her rescue, with Jeanne a few steps ahead. Without hesitation Jeanne broke through the crashing waves and grabbed Mikayla by her gray sweatshirt, and my hand clutched my heart in relief. But seconds later, another wave crashed over and sucked all three of us out into the ocean, Jeanne and Mikayla in one direction and me in another.

I struggled as I was tossed in the frigid water, disoriented and searching frantically for the surface. I felt my lungs burning; stillness came over my mind and time seemed to spread out in slow motion. I knew Mikayla wouldn’t survive, and that all of us might die. As I continued to fight for my life, I prayed that Jeanne could somehow keep hold of Mikayla in the tumultuous waves. I surfaced and gasped for air before being tumbled forward again. Hitting the sandy sea bottom, I clawed and scratched for a handhold. The current suddenly pushed me forward and I managed to crawl to shore.

I stood on wobbling legs and turned to search the water for my friend and daughter. I spotted Jeanne far from the shore, holding Mikayla’s lifeless body with one arm while using the other to stay afloat. She called out my name for help. I pulled my drenched, heavy clothes from my trembling body. Her pleading tugged at my heart as I ran through the surf and plunged back into the ocean, but the waves knocked me backward again and again, draining my little remaining strength. I could still see Jeanne, but before I could make another attempt to reach her, I heard a voice: Do not get back into the water. I could feel an unseen force restraining me from action, and I obeyed. I prayed, as Jeanne continued to call to me, that she would understand—I had done all I could. I knew then that my daughter’s fate was out of my hands.

I turned and ran up the empty beach, screaming for help. An older couple that had just pulled into the rest stop came to my aid. The woman stayed by my side on the beach and her husband called 911 from the parking lot. Far out in the ocean I spotted Jeanne again, alive but alone, struggling to stay afloat. Mikayla’s body was nowhere to be seen.

As rescue helicopters approached to retrieve Jeanne, I continued to search the shoreline in the direction of the current, scanning the ocean with desperate eyes. Every mother has protective instincts, but because of the circumstances of Mikayla’s birth, mine were magnified from the beginning. She was born severely premature, at one pound and fourteen ounces. Miraculously, she survived without any long-term impact, but I never forgot how fragile life can be. My later divorce only strengthened my protective urges and focused my attention solely on my daughter. We’d been a team of two for years, until the ocean pulled her from my reach.

I paced the beach, praying and hoping for more than three hours before I received word that her body had been recovered. I cannot express the despair I’d felt before that moment or the relief that followed. I knew Mikayla would never again fill the air with her ringing laughter or explore this world with wondering eyes, but at that moment it was enough that she was found.

That relief sustains me now as I face the empty car seat in Jeanne’s Xterra. My loss is beginning to seep into my awareness. Mikayla’s lifeless yet precious form is en route to the hospital in the Life Flight helicopter, and a Parks and Recreation worker will drive me there in the SUV as soon as I change my clothes. I slam the hatchback, walk quickly toward the rest stop building, and enter the women’s bathroom, grateful for a one-room stall to lock out the world for now.

In the mirror, my brown hair hangs wet and limp around my face; sand scratches and coats every inch of my body. I am trembling from a biting cold that has sunk deep into my bones, and from a devastating ache that grips my heart. Life as I know it has crumbled and dissolved; its last remnants cling to me like the remainder of the soaked garments clinging to my body. I strip them off, rinse the salt and sand from my face, and tie up my tangled hair. As the day’s events replay in my mind, the realization that I am beginning a whole new existence, one I am completely unprepared for, begins to overwhelm me. Yet, against all logic, I feel calmness descending upon me. The clean, dry clothes wrap warmly around my skin, a much needed comfort, and as I take in my reflection in the mirror I feel the warmth of the Spirit enveloping me. Although this calm reassurance does not replace my heartache, it softens it and takes me to a place of strength I didn’t know existed. I raise my eyebrows and sigh, knowing the road of life has forked and there will be no looking back.

I take a deep breath, my throat burning, raw, and coarse. Then I pull open the restroom door and see the Parks and Recreation woman waiting for me. We walk over pebbled pavement toward the car. Emergency vehicles with lights flashing now crowd the once-empty parking lot. Emergency response crews mill around, fuzzy sounds from radios at their hips filling the air. A gathering crowd of onlookers follows me with their eyes, whispering to one another. Some must be thinking, “That poor girl, it hasn’t all sunk in yet.” They have no idea of the comfort breathing into me like the salty air filling my lungs.

A man dressed in rescue gear approaches me. He was one of the Life Flight crew that transported Jeanne to the hospital. Choked up, shoulders hanging, he tells me that he was unable to save Jeanne.

“I pounded on her chest, begging God to let her live,” he says.

I purse my trembling lips and pull him into a tight embrace. The pulsing wound in my own chest tears wider as I remember hearing Jeanne call out my name. I truly thought they would be able to resuscitate her. My thoughts return to Mikayla and the helicopter delivering her body to the hospital. I need to be there with her. I thank the rescue worker and climb into the passenger seat of Jeanne’s SUV, while the Parks and Recreation woman waits in the driver’s seat. As we pull onto the highway, I look back in awe at the vastness and power of the ocean.

I wish I could remember her name, the woman with the gentle eyes and soothing voice who accompanied me to the hospital. It was so surreal to see her sitting where Jeanne belonged. It was even harder to look back at Mikayla’s empty car seat and realize that I was the only survivor.

“Don’t lose hope—they may have been able to resuscitate her,” she reassures me with a warm smile.

But I know my daughter is gone. I can feel the Spirit comforting and reassuring me that she is in a safe and happy place. I don’t know how to explain this to the kind woman who’s trying to console me.

“I’m so grateful they found her body,” I say. “If they hadn’t, I don’t think I could’ve left the beach.”

I’m feeling a different hope than the one she is offering—not hope that Mikayla is alive, but hope that things will be okay even though she is not.

That hope grows stronger as we pull into the hospital parking lot and I see two men dressed in suits and ties heading through the emergency doors—the priesthood elders that have been contacted at my request. I know they are not here to attempt to heal Mikayla’s body, but to comfort me in my time of need. As I enter the hospital I am greeted by a gray-haired doctor in a white lab coat, who tells me that they were unable to resuscitate Mikayla and they have laid her in a room for identification purposes. The men in suits now approach, and as I greet them I feel a soft tingle of the Spirit radiate from the top of my damp head to the tips of my toes.

That same spirit burns deeply as we enter the hospital room, dimly lit by afternoon’s light glowing around a beige, pleated window curtain. The floor tiles, walls, and ceiling are all a naked white. The only furniture is a lone cushioned chair and a hospital bed with a white cotton sheet folded over my daughter’s lifeless body. I reach out longingly to touch my only child, drawn affectionately to her small body but aware of its emptiness. This is my first experience with death, and I am amazed by how clearly I can sense the separation of Mikayla’s spirit from her body. I feel her spirit embracing me, and recognize this spirit as the life, the joy, and the unconditional love I knew as her mother. The hands of blessing are laid gently on my bowed head as I weep at her bedside, and warmth fills me even as I hold Mikayla’s cold hand in mine, cherishing my final moments with this daughter God gifted to me for four and a half short years.

After blessing me, the elders quietly depart and I am alone with my daughter. I gather her body into my arms and gently stroke down her full, rounded cheeks and over the scratches on her neck where Jeanne grasped her in the tumbling waves. These are the only marks, other than the haunting cold of death she wears, that are proof of her being tossed through the ocean and carried by a current down the coast three miles from where she was playing in the sand. I realize why it was so important to me for her body to be preserved. I feel responsible for her body. I’ve been its guardian from the very beginning.

Ringing echoes through the room as my denim pocket vibrates. I pull out my cell phone and answer. When I hear my father’s voice, it softens me and tears stream down my cheeks. His voice carries a shaky devastation as he tries to comfort me. It will take my parents about seven hours to travel the winding roads from our home in Elk Grove to Humboldt County where we were camping. “I’m sorry you’re alone,” he says. “We’ll be there with you soon.”

“Don’t worry. I needed this time with Mikayla. I love you.”

“We love you, too.”

I hang up the phone, feeling the wide gap in space and time between my parents and me. Although everyone has been so sorry I am left alone, I am profoundly grateful for these few hours with just Mikayla and me. During these hours alone, our spirits mingle as I share my regrets and new promises with my sweet daughter. While these moments are a gift from my Father in Heaven who has called her back home, they are bittersweet as I become increasingly aware of the distance that will soon separate us.

My shoulders slump forward with the awful weight, knowing I am not the only one who will grieve this loss. In my mind I replay the phone calls I made earlier in the day, each one shattering a peaceful reality as the tragic news washed over them, crumbling their emotions. Mikayla brought such joy and delight to my parents—to everyone who knew her. I worry that I have let them down, that I have let everyone down. Especially Mikayla herself. I recall the horror of her tiny fingers scratching trails in the sand, her face frightened and pleading, as she was pulled backward into the ocean. I’ve done everything I could to protect her since the day of her fragile birth, but I couldn’t protect her from the terrifying moments of confusion and helplessness she experienced in her final moments of life. It is a comfort to know those fearful moments passed quickly, as her spirit was carried from this life to the next. Now she is home.

I take Mikayla in my arms. “I have a family here on earth. They are so good to me. I want to share my life with them through all eternity,” I sing as I cradle her in my lap, running my fingers through her golden brown hair. “Families can be together forever, through Heavenly Father’s plan. I always want to be with my own family.” I sang this song to her at bedtime to comfort her, and now it comforts me. I feel the warmth of God’s promises wrapping around me, even more powerful than the ocean’s overwhelming strength. A profound understanding of His plan roots itself in my heart. The loss of control that so terrified me before now brings sweet relief. She has slipped out of my hands, into His.

I know the process of absorbing this loss has only just begun, although I don’t yet know what that will entail. I can’t foresee the challenges that will come as I try to rebuild my identity after losing my only child. I can’t foresee that even after four years pass, the pain of seeing Mikayla carried away on that chilly October afternoon will not fade; that it can be set aside like the many books on my nightstand, but that pain, when recalled, will not be lessened. I can’t yet foresee that I will struggle at times to recall a happy memory of Mikayla—how she felt as she snuggled close in the mornings; how she sang from the backseat, mouth wide; how she growled, arms outstretched, pretending to be a lion—or that likewise the images I wish I could forget will surface so easily and vividly, without warning, like a sleeper wave in my mind.

Yet I also cannot foresee that the events of this one day will play out in other unexpected yet beautiful ways. I don’t know that my relationship and trust in my Savior will be solidified as He carries me, sharing my grief and strengthening my soul. I also don’t know yet that her father, Jake, and I will soon remarry as a result of our shared loss, that this event will put things into perspective, and that one day we’ll tell stories of Mikayla to her little sister, Paige, and baby brother, Wyatt, and sing, “Families can be together forever.” I don’t yet know that, as time passes, I will become more and more certain that this tragedy was God’s way of swooping down and gathering up loved ones who have done all things required of them, a way of bringing them back to His presence.

I don’t know any of these things yet, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is savoring these final moments with Mikayla’s earthly body, here and now.

So that is what I do. Gazing at her, I fondly take in each of her unique features. Her dark, full eyebrows resting in a soft curve over her almond shaped eyes, skirted with thick, black, curly lashes. Her button of a nose I “beeped” while she rubbed it playfully against mine each night before bedtime. Her little ears pierced just like Mommy’s, her pink lips set against her smooth, olive complexion, all framed by soft brown hair that my fingers now play through. Her expression of peace is familiar; one she would wear tucked in bed at home. I place my hand over her heart, and even as I long to see her chest rise and fall in the rhythmic pattern of sleep, I feel her presence close by, still within my reach.

September 1, 2011