Sometimes a bottle cap can change your life. This is the bottle cap that changed mine.
When Donna was in the thick of her cancer treatment, we were blessed with tremendous support. Our family cooked for us, cleaned for us, laundered for us, shuttled us around, comforted us, and supported us so we could support Donna. Truly, we were lucky.
During that time, despite all the help we had, I remember just pining for simple things. I wanted to shop for ourselves. I wanted to fold our socks the way I wanted to fold our socks and felt embarrassed when my undies had been folded by someone else. I wanted to do dishes. It’s hard to imagine the simple things you take for granted when your world is turned upside down and inside out. And that pining for the ability to just simply run our household by myself always made me feel like an ungrateful jerk. I have no doubt that the beautiful folks who provided us with so much help sometimes felt that from me (I’m sorry, Grandma! I’m sorry, Papa! I’m sorry, Auntie!). I still feel guilty about that and only hope they understand and forgive.
One blessed day, I got the chance to do dishes. In the midst of chaos and uncontrollable circumstances, having a task with a beginning, middle, and end feels like pure bliss. It makes sense, you know? The kitchen starts out with crumbs and dirty dishes and coffee rings under mugs left on the counter. Twenty minutes later, the sink is empty, the crumbs are gone,the counters are clear, and the dish rack is full. This is a simple pleasure of life, if you can get past the oppression of its constancy.
So the cap. On this eve of the Mayan apocalypse, this bottle cap that now hangs on my bulletin board is worth some consideration.
As I was clearing dishes into the soapy sink that day years ago, I found an iced tea bottle. I rinsed it out and saw its companion cap. As I was rinsing the cap, I noticed the words on it. Huh. Then, Whoa. Followed by, Wow.
The quote is falsely attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. These words were actually spoken by Martin Luther of the Protestant Reformation Luthers. Apparently, Snapple doesn’t sweat the details. Pfffft. 16th century theologian and 20th century civil rights activist — they all look the same, you know?
When I read these words, I knew that my world would shortly be going to pieces. I knew that my first born would die. I knew this intellectually and emotionally. It is crippling to have this knowledge about your child. Just typing that sentence makes me burst into tears, leading Mary Tyler Son to offer me the green car he is playing with at my feet, as he knows well what his mother’s tears are usually about.
And yet, after last week’s shootings in Newtown, I remain so very grateful that I knew of my daughter’s death. That knowledge, crippling and brutal as it is, is like all knowledge. It is power. Because of that knowledge, I had the power to say goodbye. Because of that knowledge, I had the power to try and prepare Donna to die. Because of that knowledge, I had the power to try and prepare myself for Donna to die. Sigh. None of these are anything that I would wish for, but in the face of uncontrollable circumstances and the harsh reality of life (life = death), having the ability to know your child’s fate is a blessing. My heart will always hurt when I think of those twenty families who sent their child off to school where the worst thing imaginable awaited them and no one knew. No one said goodbye.
My family had what those twenty families did not. We had the opportunity to plant those apple trees knowing what we were doing. Martin Luther’s words are, in essence, all about choosing hope. Despite knowing the end of the world is nigh, plant those apple trees, he advises. Hope for something better, a different outcome, eternal salvation, whatever it is that brings you comfort and solace. Our apple trees were more concrete: buying a larger home that could accommodate more kids and guests, pre-school for Donna in the last weeks of her life, welcoming Mary Tyler Son into our lives in the midst of such a sad, sad time, dance class for Donna in the face of four relapses, and the forming of Donna’s Good Things, the charity created to honor Donna’s memory.
I look back, three and a half years after I first wrote about choosing hope and this bottle cap. I am so grateful for the proverbial apple trees we planted. In August 2009, just two months before Donna died, I wrote of these choices, “These are our apple trees. And my latest hope is that these trees will sustain us when our world does go to pieces. That these trees will feed us and shade us and shelter us from the inevitable storms that will be.”
Yes, there have been storms. Some days stormier than others. Some days the rain falls steadily in our hearts and out our eyes even though the sun is shining brightly outside. But those apple trees have done exactly what I hoped they would do.
We are still in the home we bought when Donna was diagnosed, and it is large enough for our next child to have their own room. The pre-school that Donna loved so much welcomed Mary Tyler Son this fall. The warmth of the school community, the connection to Donna on a regular basis, is so very sweet to have. The dance studio where Mary Tyler Son takes his weekly class has been renamed, “The Donna Quirke Hornik Dance Studio,” and there is a photo of Donna above the door that he walks under as he enters. 700+ students from Rogers Elementary School in Chicago now receive weekly dance instruction thanks to those apple trees and our generous donors.
Choosing hope has and continues to feed us, shade us, and shelter us from the storm of grief over losing a child. Those apple trees, the decision to choose hope, most meaningfully benefits our beloved son and the next child we will be blessed with through adoption. Choosing hope and planting those apple trees both allow us to keep our roots, the memories of our dear Donna, and grow and reach and still produce the sweet fruit of parenting other children.
Thank you, Martin Luther! Thank you, Snapple! This sad, grieving, joyful, agnostic mom thanks you.
I also thank Moms Who Drink and Swear, who asked that I write about a quote that inspires me, then specifically asked me to write about this quote. I love her dearly. If you like this, please consider pressing that little “like” button above, so all your peeps can like it, too. We all could plant some more apple trees, right?