Memorials Unlimited

Last April, I heard about a memorial service held jointly by The Valerie Fund Children’s Centers* at Overlook and Morristown Hospitals. This special memorial for children who had lost their struggle to cancer or blood disorders takes place yearly in the Morristown Hospital’s Malcolm Forbes auditorium.

The idea was so natural and loving that I wondered why neither my husband Ed nor I had thought about it thirty-five years ago when we first established The Valerie Fund. A memorial was appropriate then. It is appropriate now.

The death of a loved one is devastating. A child’s death, however, is that and more; it can be likened to a piece of flesh torn out of a parent’s heart. It does not heal. That pain endures. Knowing this from personal experience — our two daughters were both lost to cancer, Valerie at 9 and Stacy at 37 —  a ceremony of remembrance for the Centers’ bereaved families and their friends is a thoughtful and touching way to commemorate the children.

Because I wanted to know more about the service, I talked to one of the social workers at the Morristown Center, marked the date of their next memorial, May 5, 2011 at 7:30 p.m., discussed the program, and promised to attend. Ed would go with me along with two good friends, Cherie and Mary Beth. We were going as objective observers, so I believed.

A few days later, I was asked if I’d like to include photos of our girls in the memorial video. I said, “Of course,” and sent in a photo of the two of them, both smiling broadly while standing in back of a lush rhododendron near our side porch.

Still trusting in my objectivity, I wondered how many would attend the ceremony, how would it be organized, and who would speak? I was convinced that I would be emotionally uninvolved.

On May 5th, the four of us arrived at the Morristown auditorium. People were milling around; some were chatting in small groups, some were silent with eyes lowered. We knew several of the staff members and the pediatric oncologists, said hello to them, did the introductions, and were handed small candles to light during the ceremony. I politely refused my candle since I wasn’t a participant. I was an observer.  

We moved into the auditorium with approximately 100 other people. Most sat up front and close to the stage. We chose to sit in the back. One lone woman sat behind us.

It was something, that memorial. Poems were read, music was played, social workers and parents spoke.  A list of the memorialized children was attached to the Service of Remembrance booklet. Moving down the list in order, each of the parents and those with them stood and read out loud their children’s names.  All four of us stood up when it was Stacy and Valerie’s turn; we softly spoke their names. My objectivity was fading.

A little bit later in the service, Cherie poked my arm and whispered about the woman who sat alone in back of us. I whispered back, “Get her attention and ask her to sit with us.”  And Cherie did. The woman got up, moved down to our row, sat next to Mary Beth, and became the fifth member of our group. She was no longer alone.

Cherie poked my arm again, this time to hand me some tissues. Oh yes. The objective observer had vanished. Out of control, I was now an active participant. My cheeks were wet and I was using tissue after tissue. Ed was stone-faced, his arm tightly around my shoulders, my hand on his thigh. Both my friends were openly crying and using tissues galore. How can you not cry for those children? And I re-learn something about myself daily. At this event, I learned, once more, that it’s okay to let others see your pain. I just forget that from time to time.

One Dad stood up from his seat a few rows away from the stage, hesitated, and then said “Today would have been my son’s eighth birthday,” and sat back down. Another Dad went up to the podium and spoke about his recent bout with cancer. “I know now what my son went through. He was too young to be that sick but he was very brave. I try to be brave like him.”  Moms got up and spoke as did a few of the siblings. They read poems or letters, and shared memories.  The Valerie Fund Centers’ staff did the same.

At some point, Johnny Cash’s “We’ll Meet Again” was played. I was never a big fan of his, but that night I loved him and that song, and I know I will love them both forever.

Next on the program were the photos of the children who had died. They were displayed one after the other on a huge screen over the stage. Various musical scores melded harmoniously as the photos flashed by. And then I saw our girls on that screen and, at the very same time, heard the music to “Over the Rainbow.” It was Stacy’s favorite. How extraordinary was that? She had watched the 1939 Judy Garland movie, The Wizard of Oz, yearly and when he was old enough, Stacy’s son Jonah joined her. It became an annual tradition that was now broken.   

Finally, the ceremony was over.

People wiped away their tears and roamed around the auditorium and the hallway. Parents spoke to other parents and told stories about their children as if part of a giant support group. Both the medical and the social services staff listened and told their own stories. Which brings me to . . .

September 11, 2001. It will soon be ten years since the destruction of the twin towers and the dear folks who worked there. Yet most of us remember where we were that morning, what we were doing, what our first thoughts were.

Early on the morning of 9/11, Ed called me from his office in Union and asked what was happening in New York City.  He sounded worried. An employee had a radio but there was too much static to hear anything clearly. I turned the TV on and saw the second plane crash into the south tower. I called him back, told him what I had seen, said “Come home,”  hung up, and phoned our daughter Stacy. Without thinking, I told her to grab Jonah, the au pair, and Willie the dog, put them all into her car and drive over to our house immediately. She did not argue with me.  In our mutual distress, we would be together.

And together our family sat and watched and listened in horror as the news unfolded.

Memorials of all kinds. They are sad, they hurt, and we remember those lost to us. We recall their voices, their smiles, their hugs, their tears. We do not forget, no matter the ordeal, no matter the anguish. We remember the stories and retell them freely to family, friends, and strangers. One story triggers another.  Episodes thought forgotten are brought to mind. We laugh. We cry. But we remember. And in the remembering, we keep the children and the adults who died, from whatever cause — accident, disease, terrorism, or war — close to our hearts and in our minds.

Memorials: whether in tribute to The Valerie Fund Center children who died from cancer or blood disorders, or to those who perished in the twin towers calamity, and to all the other loved ones who are gone from us. We remember you.

Sue Goldstein


 *WWW.THEVALERIEFUND.ORG  The Valerie Fund provides support for the comprehensive health care of children with cancer and blood disorders in hospital-based medical centers throughout New Jersey and in New York City. While child-centered, the medical staff, the  social workers, child-life specialists, psychologists, and counselors at the Centers work together to help bolster the entire family.

Suzann B. Goldstein lives with her husband Ed and a tree named Buster, (12/1/2010 post, A Half-baked Story About a Crazy Dog and a Nutty Squirrel. Source:   Sue is co-founder of The Valerie Fund, has her Master of Arts degree in medical sociology from Rutgers University in New Jersey, is a freelance writer and poet, and has just recently completed her memoir, Unexpected Lives
Editor: Edwin C. Goldstein