Written by Erin Santos, ISF Executive Director & President
Erin, Grant & Sophia
We are moving. Hoping to have the house on the market April 1st and in a new home between SouthPark and Uptown the day after the kids finish school. I’m so excited I can barely stand it. This house that was once purchased 8 years ago was for a family I no longer recognize. A husband and wife, 3 kids and dog and a cat has now dropped to a Mom and 2 kids. The house is huge (which I know is inappropriate to say) but we needed it when Isabella was fighting cancer. My Mom was living with us on and off and with a revolving door of help – we used every inch of the home. The kids played in the yard because we needed to keep Isabella close and Bailey and Jake roamed free alongside them. The Marvin school system was our backbone for support with an amazing free education and my neighbors became my extended family.
But 6 years after she has passed, a divorce, a dog that passed away and a cat that one day left and never came back – this house is a graveyard of my past life. I have no idea how to fix things in the house (although I’m learning) and an acre of yard that the kids no longer play in has me dumbfounded on seeding, aerating, lime and who knows what else. Other than Sophia’s best friend next door – we keep to ourselves and find our inner circle is completely new. In fact, the majority of people close to me have never met Isabella and sometimes one step removed friends don’t even know I have a child that passed until I throw it out on the table. I need a change badly.
I have been going about this change fairly mechanical. Any free time I get is spent devoting my time to a room, a closet, a drawer. There are very few items in my house that mean much to me at this point. My goal is minimal living, kill all these toys the kids don’t play with and trinkets that junk up my life. I’m plowing through each area with very little emotion. We had done a few passes on Isabella so luckily I’m not tripping over her in every drawer, which helps. I’m throwing everything away. Tubs that have crap in them that I haven’t even looked in – the entire tub goes in the trash. If we haven’t used this in the last 60 days – it’s gone. Goodwill is making out like a bandit and my trash screams of a purge.
Grant has been okay with the process. He’s a lot like me with very little attachment to stuff these days. Other than his Beats headphones, his phone and some items he likes to sleep with – the rest of it can go. He is stuck in a little boy’s room and the promise of a new room is enticing to him.
Sophia would keep a speck of dust. She struggles a lot with Isabella still and Mommy and Daddy not being together so her “stuff” is on lockdown. The only way I can convince her to purge is her little cousin Eden who is 3. “Wouldn’t Eden love these books you read in preschool?” Sophia’s heart is bigger than anyone I know – so of course, the thought of giving to her little cousin throws the book right in the box. God, I love her.
The house is about halfway done now with the purge. I’m enlisting the help of my Mom to come for Sophia and Grant’s room because I need a little reinforcement. But there was one last room that deserved some attention and I have been holding off for 6 ½ years for it. The time had come. My hand was being forced.
My first step was explaining to the kids what I needed to do. I had to assure them her stuff was not being thrown away. In fact, it’s just being boxed up and moved with us so we can still have her in our new house. I was just merely “cleaning and organizing” her room so we can find a better place for it when we move. They seemed okay with this idea. However, I knew that I couldn’t have them there for it because they would freak out if they watched. Thankfully, two families graciously took my kids for the day and night so I could focus on the task at hand.
Now, how do I focus on the task at hand? I knew myself and I knew that I had to be very strategic in how I went about this. If I didn’t do this right, I could tailspin into something that could put me under water for days. Do I bring my Mom down, or will that be too hard? Should I bring in some friends who don’t have a connection to anything? I honestly almost went this route. But, I figured that I would be too quick with the process because I didn’t want to explain every item I picked up. Otherwise, that would be another tailspin. Then it finally hit me. Miss Chrissy. If Isabella wasn’t with me or my mom, she was with Miss Chrissy.
Miss Chrissy & Isabella
I knew Miss Chrissy would be perfect because sometimes she comes over and just to kick herself in the heart she goes up there. She fingers through her dress (that she mostly purchased) and revels in the tailspin for a brief time. This is usually done at Halloween when she comes over and we drink waaaaay too much on the front porch, passing out candy and listening to 90’s hip hop and some 80’s favorites. It never fails, the alcohol content rises and we find ourselves stumbling up the stairs. She and I like to torture ourselves together.
Of course, she accepted the invitation because it may be the last true torture. This woman… there is no one like her. Love.
She arrived and I tried to be organized. Boxes, plastic bins, loud music… I was ready. We walk in the room and we stand there quietly. Then I start to cry. Well, that was fast. We start to attack it piece by piece and the conversation stays light. She gets the update on my crazy life and I get to ask her about hers. We stop every couple of seconds as we hold something up and we just pause. A large sigh comes over the both of us.
We have a system. Trash, goodwill, Eden and keep. The system works well because the trash really is just stuff others have brought into her room to play with. Sure, there are random beads and broken Barbie arm but otherwise, it filled up easily. Some things were hard. It pained me to get rid of anything that her handwriting was on, which was honestly stupid. I remember saying, if Isabella were here – she would say, “Mom… why are you keeping that? It was a homework assignment.” But, I figure in a couple of years I will hit those papers again. For today – I wasn’t ready.
Goodwill. Stuff that I have no idea why she had, who gave it to her and no memory of her wearing. I have a memory that is a steel trap, so if I don’t remember then this is why Miss Chrissy was perfect because she would remember. “Do you even know what this is?”. NOPE! Then off to Goodwill it would go.
Eden. This was easy too because if you know Isabella, you knew she was picky about her clothes. Anything that was pants – definitely for Eden. I’m not sure if I can remember her wearing pants 10 times. She hated them because of how they fell on her bone marrow scars on the front and the back. And if she did wear them, it was because I forced her and a day of Mommy hate was to come, and I hated those days. Needless to say, Eden has enough pants to last her awhile.
Isabella’s pumpkin outfit
Keep. This is where things got weird and I thank god we weren’t being watched. The mounds and mounds of dresses that Chrissy bought her that were over the top. These dresses were ridiculous and are why Janie and Jack are still in business today. Huge dresses with sweater cover-up and matching headbands. The outfits that were purchased specifically for holidays that you could only wear maybe twice. My favorite, the orange tulle ballerina skirt with the cream shirt that had pumpkins on the collar and the matching cream button-up sweater with pumpkins on it. One outfit sends you spinning into a memory. She wore this Janie and Jack pumpkin outfit (estimated value $150, ridiculous) one October and got a massive nosebleed due to low platelets. We were in her bathroom and it was pouring out of her, all over this outfit. We couldn’t stop it. We called Miss Chrissy to come and stay with our kids and rushed her into the car – driving 30 minutes to Levine. We stopped at a light and flagged down a police officer to escort us up, allowing us to run lights. She was bleeding everywhere. The outfit was ruined and it was all that mattered to her. Not the fact that she was bleeding out in the back of Stuart’s truck.
In Miss Chrissy fashion, the outfit was fully replaced – with a matching outfit for Sophia. The both wore these outfits together proudly almost into December. That is what you call a keep outfit.
I could go on for hours on the clothing but I will spare you the details. Although, just to add a funny story to the mix. Let’s talk about Isabella’s underwear. Bear with me. If this girl wasn’t in a full-length gown, she was just in her underwear. A constant mix of fevers made her body temperature a little above normal. So most times you were with her, she was walking around in a pair of princess underwear. We open the drawer and this one shocks us. Every little pair in the drawer I could see her in. But now we feel weird because we are saving a little girl’s underwear. I’m actually laughing as I type this because we felt like creepy women. But it was actually an outfit. We couldn’t figure out what to do. “I feel weird taking a pair!”, Chrissy said with a laugh. But I got what she meant. We saved a few in her clothing box and decided not to judge ourselves. I swore if it had a memory, it needed to be kept. So there. I kept some undies. Ugh.
Isabella’s unopened letter to her best friend
The rest of the day proceeded and we found lots of really amazing things. We found so many pictures she kept of her and Soliel (her best friend) and even notes she had written her that were still sealed. We hated to open them but when we did we found they just said things like asking her to come over. They were simply just notes a 7-year-old writes her BFF. We kept them all. We found pictures she had drawn of her and Grant that we knew he would love. We found a box of letters her class had written explaining how each of her classmates were going to live their life differently now that they met her. All saved.
In the end… we finished. Miss Chrissy took some items, pictures of them together etc. And then there she was… all in boxes.
I don’t remember what all I said to Chrissy when she left but I know it wasn’t what I really needed to say. She needed an hour-long thank you for what she did for her, for me all while killing herself I’m sure in the process. The definition of selfless. I hate that she doesn’t have her anymore and I know she aches as much as I do. I hate that. But all I can give her now are these torture moments – that’s all I have left.
I just rocked
I took her sheets off the bed to wash them and then I just sat in the empty room. I sat in her rocker that I used so many times to rock her to sleep. I just rocked. Then I sobbed like I never have – for a long time. Sobbed like it just happened all over again, which I rarely do anymore. I couldn’t stop. I think I just let it happen because the house was empty and there was no one there to console me or hear me. I was truly just crying about losing my daughter and how completely awful the whole thing is. I can’t tell you what was all going through my head. I can only describe it as the worst pain I have felt in years.
I could barely move the rest of the day. I ordered food and seriously ate a bowl of pasta in my bed. Forrest Gump was on TV and just stared at the screen. I was in a full coma of heartache. So many people reached out to me that day and I’m so thankful for that. I’m not sure anyone could understand what that was like, but it really felt like my last goodbye to her, which is silly. We talk about her every day in our home, at work and casually in life – but for some reason, it felt different. Closure that I had never had – but I needed.
And now we just have to move on. I’m ready to be somebody other than just her mom. I’m honestly ready and excited.