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Mom’s Music Box

My new family had given me so much joy following Mom’s death. How could I find hope after losing my daughter?

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My sister, Carol, and I sat on the floor in my mother’s room in her house sifting through her belongings.

The moss-green sweater she wore when she gardened, her favorite clip-on earrings, the brown pocketbook that she took with her everywhere. Mom had put up such a valiant fight against cancer, struggling to live until the birth of my third child. I had only one more month to go, but Mom would never see this grandchild.

“Here’s the brooch you gave her in fifth grade,” Carol said, passing me the ninety-nine-cent pin Mom had worn as if it were from Tiffany. “And here—you and Mom loved listening to this music box.” She handed me a small painted chest with drawers. “You should have it.”

I wound the key on the bottom and listened. It took me back to my girlhood, being in this room watching Mom dress, buttoning her blouse, and adjusting her collar. I’d wind up the music box and let it play. It was the theme from the movie Romeo and Juliet, but for me it said Mom. “She never kept much in here,” Carol said, opening the velvet-lined drawers. A strand of pearls, a hair ribbon, a seashell. “It’s the song,” I said. “That’s what I remember.”

A month later I brought baby Lindsay home from the hospital. How I wished Mom could see that lovely, gurgling bundle. I played the music box instead, rocking Lindsay in my arms. “This was your grandma’s song,” I whispered. “You would have loved her, and she would have loved you. Oh, how she would have loved you.”

Lindsay grew into a bright little girl with a sparkle in her eyes. “Music box, Mommy,” she could say at the youngest age. I’d take the box down and wind it for her. Lindsay would pirouette across our braided rug. Sometimes she asked to see inside, where I kept her older brother’s and sister’s baby bows and bracelets, jewelry the kids made me, Grandma Betty’s brooch.

A few years later my husband and I, who’d been having problems, divorced. The kids and I moved into a smaller house, and I worked as a neonatal nurse practitioner. Staving off loneliness late at night, I’d wind up the box and let it play its song. It was as though Mom was saying, “God is with you. Things are going to be all right.”

And they were. I remarried, and all three of my children—Lindsay, David and Rachel—became close to their stepfather, Allan. The music box found a new home in my new bedroom.

Then one day when Lindsay was nine she came up to me at the kitchen table. “The music box is broken, Mom,” she said. “Come see.” I followed her to the bedroom and turned the key. It didn’t budge. I gave the box a jiggle, then tried again. “I’m so sorry, honey,” I said. “Maybe it just needs a rest.” I tried again many times over the years. Silence.

Maybe I didn’t need the music from the jewelry box so much anymore. The kids were in and out of the house constantly—laughing, shouting, listening to their own music or talking on the phone. In junior high, Lindsay took up the violin. She was in the school orchestra, and her music floated down the stairs and into my bedroom.

Lindsay and David signed up for a weeklong trip our church was sponsoring to West Virginia. The morning they’d left I kissed Lindsay and David good-bye and hugged them extra hard. “I’m proud of you both.”

“We love you, Mom.”

All week I thought about the kids. The group would be teaching local children and adults, and sharing Bible stories. On Wednesday night I talked on the phone with Lindsay. She couldn’t stop talking about all the things they had done.

That Friday I came home from visiting friends to find Allan on the phone. His face was pale, his voice tight. “We’ll be there as soon as we can,” he said. He hung up and turned to me. “It’s Lindsay,” he said. “She’s been in an accident.”

My knees buckled. I grabbed the doorframe. Allan caught me.

The group had been on a white-water rafting trip. Lindsay’s raft flipped over. The others got to shore. Lindsay was pinned against a large rock. More than 10 minutes elapsed while rescuers frantically worked to free her. They brought her to shore and resuscitated her. Now she was in a coma in a Charleston hospital. Ten minutes, I kept thinking in the car. She must have been terrified.

Lindsay lay in a bed, her limbs almost indistinguishable from the tubes that enveloped her. How I wanted to help her, but there was nothing I could do. It was hopeless, said the doctors. I sat down on the bed, taking her in my arms, rocking her one last time. I kissed her good-bye on the forehead and lay down beside her. Within minutes she was gone.

In the bleak days following my daughter’s death, I couldn’t bring myself to go near her room. I asked her best friend to pick out her clothes for the funeral. I insisted on Lindsay’s bed and bureau being replaced as well as her spreads and curtains. I couldn’t look at the familiar ones. Some families never change a room like that. I couldn’t bear to keep it the same.

Family, friends and our church community held me up. I attended Compassionate Friends meetings and met other parents who had lost children. Finally I had the strength to go through Lindsay’s belongings. “I need to do this alone,” I told Allan.

I sat on the floor of her old room, much like I’d sat on Mom’s floor with Carol, tiny Lindsay kicking inside me. I went through boxes of things. I lifted out a flowered summer dress she’d worn as a toddler. I unearthed her old Barbie dolls from under a pile of books. I ran my fingers over the wood of her violin and held up a wind chime she’d made in Girl Scouts. When Mom died I’d been comforted by the promise of new life. Now there was just sadness. Sadness and a life ended too soon.

“Lindsay is with God,” my pastor had reassured me. But I wanted to know there was someone in heaven doing the things that I could do for her. Fixing her hair, giving her a hug, reminding her that it was time for violin practice. It was silly to think that all those things would happen in heaven. After all, it was heaven. People didn’t need help with their ponytails or violin practice, did they?

One gray November day I was home alone. I stood in my kitchen and screamed out loud. “God, I can’t stand this pain anymore! Please let me know Lindsay is okay, that she’s really being looked after.” I pounded on the refrigerator, slammed cabinet doors and sobbed until my shoulders ached and there were no more tears left. Then I went into my bedroom and sat on the bed with my head in my hands.

I heard a chime, a silvery ping. What? The room was quiet.

I heard it again. A tinkling I barely recognized at first. Then it came back, the sweetest memory. A song. A love song. On the other side of the room the music box was playing. After all these years. Playing for me. The song my mother loved, that Lindsay learned to ask for as soon as she could talk. My song.

Mom and Lindsay, I knew, had met at last.

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