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Grief doesn’t ever let us go
Marlee Lou Smith (1937-1949)
This is the second post in a series about 65 women who have shaped my life. For more posts, visit Accidental Mentors.
Although Mom’s first daughter Marlee died after a prolonged battle with polio six years before I was born, her shadow has always lived within me. Marlee spent months in an iron lung, first at the hospital and then at home; one of the first to ever use an iron lung in a home setting. The massive, life-prolonging, mechanical breathing machine was positioned next to the living room window. With only her head and hands free, she could see outside and, occasionally, chat with a friend through the window—that is, if their parents were daring enough to let their child come near the disease-ridden house. I can’t imagine the trauma of hearing that rhythmic, robotic sound reverberate through the house day and night knowing it was the only thing keeping your daughter alive.
Sometimes kids would place Catholic patron saint medals on the front stoop to signify that they were praying for her, and then they’d run away, back to the safety of the sidewalk. I imagine Mom pinning these medals to a cloth and then hanging it as decoration over the mammoth machine. As the universe sometimes does, those medals eventually found their way to me in the form of a charm bracelet more than fifty years after Marlee’s death. They are among my most sacred talismans.
Just three weeks before I was born and six years after Marlee’s death, Jonas Salk announced that the polio vaccine he had developed was effective in large-scale field tests. A polio vaccine would be made available to the public and the nightmare of the polio epidemic would soon be over. I can only imagine the relief my mother felt upon hearing the news. My older brother was not even two years old at the time. Knowing both her children would be spared Marlee’s fate had to be immense for my mother—a rare answer to her prayers.
Mom seldom talked about Marlee. I was a teenager before I ever saw a photograph of her. One day, when we were in my parent’s bedroom, Mom dug out a photo she had hidden underneath the sweaters in her dresser drawer. “That’s Marlee,” she said as she showed it to me but maintained her grip on it. I could hear the depth of Mom’s pain in her breathless words and in the way her eyes crinkled at the corners, as if she were holding back tears—tears she rarely shed.
In the grainy black and white photo, I could see a young dark-haired girl wearing jeans and a plaid shirt sitting atop a dark-colored horse. She looked toward the camera with a half-smile and her hands gripping the reins, as if to say, “Let’s get this over with so I can ride!”
“She loved horses, even though it scared me to death when she rode,” Mom whispered. That’s all she said before she stuffed the photo back into the drawer, underneath the Neiman-Marcus cashmere sweater Dad had brought back for her from his last trip to Dallas, and the pink ribbed sweater she had splurged on for herself out of her “mad money.” It was years before I ever saw that photo again.
I wish I had known Marlee so she could have taught me the things an older sister can teach, like how to follow your dreams—in her young life, horse-back riding, even when Mom would have preferred different choices. However, if Marlee had lived, Mom’s life would have taken a different course, and I would never have been born. Funny how that works. The one thing you wished had never happened, no matter how big or how small, would have changed the course of history and life as you know it would not exist. That’s one of the things I’ve learned as I’ve reflected on Marlee’s life. Yes, Mom would have been a different person if Marlee had lived, but her death was necessary for the circumstances to exist for my conception to occur. I’m grateful for her sacrifice, even if she didn’t choose to make it.
I might not have gotten to have a big sister, but Marlee taught me things anyway. She taught me that grief doesn’t ever disappear. Some people find healing enough to risk loving again, while others, like her father, die of a broken heart. Mom hid her grief underneath the sweaters in her dresser drawer, but it affected everything she did and everyone she loved for the rest of her life. She struggled to let her feelings show, to be vulnerable to anyone. She protected her heart as much as she could and, as much as she tried to hide it, never overcame the intensity of her grief.
Learning to risk loving again after experiencing a great loss is the hardest lesson of all. I’ve tried hard to learn it, and as challenging as it is, I believe I have been reasonably successful at it. But whenever I’m grieving, which has been all too often in my life as far as I’m concerned, I look to Marlee’s spirit, to the love she brought to the world, to guide me through it.
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