i'll make you a rainbow

By Linda Bremner

Looking back, I've often thought the doctors should have written a death certificate for me as well as my son, for when he died, a part of me died too.

Andy was almost twelve. For over three years he had been battling cancer. He'd gone through radiation and chemotherapy; he'd gone into remission and out again, not once but several times. I was amazed at his resilience; he just kept getting up each time his cancer knocked him flat. Perhaps it was his pluckiness and grit that shaped my own attitude about Andy's future or maybe I was simply afraid to face the possibility of his death; whatever the cause, I always thought Andy would make it.

He would be the kid that beat the odds.

For three summers, Andy had gone to a camp for kids with cancer. He loved it and seemed to relish the week he could forget about hospitals and sickness and just be a kid again. The day after he returned from his third camp adventure, we went to the clinic for a routine check-up.

The news was bad.

The doctor scheduled a bone marrow transplant for two days later in a hospital 300 miles away from our home. The next day we threw our things in a suitcase and left. One of the things I tossed into my suitcase was the present Andy had brought me from camp - a plastic sun catcher shaped like a rainbow with a suction cup to attach it to a window.

Like most mothers, I considered any present from my child a treasure and wanted it with me. We arrived at the hospital and began the grueling ordeal the doctors said was my son's only chance. We spent seven weeks there. They turned out to be the last seven weeks of Andy's life. We never talked about dying - except once. Andy was worn out and must have known he was losing ground. He tried to clue me in.

Nauseous and weak after one of the many difficult procedures he endured on a regular basis, he turned to me and asked, "Does it hurt to die?"

I was shocked, but answered truthfully, "I don't know. But I don't want to talk about death, because you are not going to die, Andy."

He took my hand and said, "Not yet, but I'm getting very tired."

I knew then what he was telling me, but tried hard to ignore it and keep the awful thought from entering my mind.

I spent a lot of my days watching Andy sleep. Sometimes I went to the gift shop to buy cards and notepaper. I had very little money, barely enough to survive. The nurses knew our situation and turned a blind eye when I slept in Andy's room and ate the extra food we ordered off of Andy's tray. But I always managed to scrape a bit together for the paper and cards because Andy loved getting mail so much.

The bone marrow transplant was a terrible ordeal. Andy couldn't have any visitors because his immune system was so compromised. I could tell that he felt more isolated than ever. Determined to do something to make it easier for him, I began approaching total strangers in the waiting rooms and asking them, "Would you write my son a card?" I'd explain his situation and offer them a card or some paper to write on. With surprised expressions on their faces, they did it. No one refused me. They took one look at me and saw a mother in pain.

It amazed me that these kind people, who were dealing with their own worries, made the time to write Andy. Some would just sign a card with a little get-well message. Others wrote real letters: "Hi, I'm from Idaho visiting my grandmother here in the hospital . . ." and they'd fill a page or two with their story, sometimes inviting Andy to visit wherever they were from when he was better. Once a woman flagged me down and said, "You asked me to write your son a couple of weeks ago. Can I write him again?"

I mailed all these letters to Andy, and watched happily as he read them. Andy had a steady stream of mail right up until the day he died.

One day, I went to the gift store to buy more cards and saw a rainbow prism for sale. Remembering the rainbow sun catcher Andy had given me, I felt I had to buy it for him. It was a lot of money to spend, but I handed over the cash and hurried back to Andy's room to show him. He was lying in his bed, too weak to even raise his head. The blinds were almost shut, but a crack of sunlight poured in slanting across the bed.

I put the prism in his hand and said, "Andy, make me a rainbow."

But Andy couldn't. He tried to hold his arm up, but it was too much for him. He turned his face to me and said, "Mom, as soon as I'm better, I'll make you a rainbow you'll never forget."

That was the one of the last things Andy said to me. Just a few hours later, he went to sleep and during the night, slipped into a coma. I stayed with him in the ICU, massaging him, talking to him, reading him his mail, but he never stirred. The only sound was the constant drone and beepings of the life-support machines surrounding his bed. I was looking death straight in the face, but still I thought there'd be a last minute save, a miracle that would bring my son back to me.

After five days, the doctors told me his brain had stopped functioning and it was time to disconnect him from the machines keeping his body alive. I asked if I could hold him. So just after dawn, they brought a rocking chair into the room and after I settled myself in the chair, they turned off the machines and lifted him from the bed to place him in my arms. As they raised him from the bed, his leg made an involuntary movement and he knocked a clear plastic pitcher from his bedside table onto the bed.

"Open the blinds," I cried. "I want this room to be full of sunlight!"

The nurse hurried to the window to pull the cord. As she did so, I noticed a sun catcher, in the shape of the rainbow attached to the window, left no doubt, by a previous occupant of this room. I caught my breath in wonder. And then as the light filled the room, it hit the pitcher lying on its side on the bed and everyone stopped what they were doing in silent awe.

The room was filled with flashes of color, dozens and dozens of rainbows, on the walls, the floors, the ceiling, on the blanket wrapped around Andy as he lay in my arms-the room was alive with rainbows. No one could speak. I looked down at my son and he had stopped breathing. Andy was gone, but even in the shock of that first wave of grief, I felt comforted.

Andy had made the rainbow that he promised me-the one I would never forget.

© 2001 Chicken Soup Enterprises, Inc.


christine longaker discusses the loss of a child

By Gilles Bédard

Q: How can people deal with the death of a child?

A: I myself don't have direct experience with dying children but I've learned a lot about it from others who do. Children pick up the feeling and the view point about death from their parents. If they have a very negative or frightening view of death, this is what the child will feel. If the parents have a more positive, life-affirming, or spiritual view of death, then a dying child will feel more secure. Thus it is vital to support the parents, because when they can come to terms with the loss of their child, then the child will have an easier time as well.

It is important to acknowledge all of the layers of the parent's pain, to allow it to be expressed and released. Of course, there are no words to describe how difficult it is; there's nothing, in this life, like seeing a child in pain without being able to do something. But we can also help parents to see that their own attachment and fear may make the child's pain worse.

So it is vital for parents to find sources of support and release -- perhaps through a parent's support group, with a counselor, or by writing out and releasing their fears and attachment. We are naturally afraid to let go, afraid that by accepting the death, it means we do not love our child. But beyond our attachment, there is still a pure love there. As Elizabeth Kübler-Ross says, "Your child may die, but real love doesn't die."

Q: It seems easier for children to die because they don't have a lifelong habit of attachment and grasping as we do.

A: That's true. If children are given good support in their process of being ill and dying, if they have really caring caregivers and a good communicative family, for them dying is not so difficult. They have often a natural trust or confidence in life and a very natural spirituality. It makes sense for them to pray or to call out for help. So, letting go, as you said, is not so hard for them. The pain they often suffer is worrying about their siblings or parents.

Of course, we have to be kind to ourselves. It's natural to have an attachment for children. It's equally important to realize that when it's time to really let somebody that you love go, we need to think about what is best for them in that moment, and not make them suffer more on our account.

©2006 Gilles Bédard

Read more about Christine Longaker here ...


Grief: different experiences, different expressions
Anger and depression
Trauma + recovery
Illness: a new perspective
Suicidal urges
Learn about Antonella Gambotto-Burke ...
A healthy life
The healing power of hope
In debt?
The laughter page
Find your own North Star
Optimism - the key
How to feel better about yourself
Feel like a hug?
An inspiring interview with Louise Hay

Support groups for the bereaved

Buy Healing Grief
National Center for Victims of Crime
Compassionate Friends
Great free guided audio online relaxation exercises
Parents of Murdered Children's Website
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder