Above you will see a photograph of all my family, taken four years ago on my daughter’s wedding day. Today, two of those people are gone. The groom, one of the prettiest grooms I have ever seen, passed away one month ago. The young woman with the long black hair was my daughter-in-law. She passed away one year ago this month. September 25th will mark one month since Jamie passed, and one year since my son lost his wife, Karina.
My daughter Libby, the bride in the photograph, is pregnant with twins after years of infertility. They are due in January, and are doing well. But now, she has lost her husband to covid. He had been on a ventilator for three weeks, and it had been hard, but there were hundreds of people praying their hearts out for him. He was not fighting alone. Prayers for Jamie consumed my days, and complete strangers followed his story, praying and waiting for updates from my daughter every day. And he seemed to be getting better. Even on the day he passed, we really believed he was coming out of the woods. We expected it to be a day of celebration. But instead it turned into a day when the world came crashing down.
I struggle to find ways to express all that happened. Honestly, I’m going to direct you to my daughter’s facebook page. I don’t think she is accepting new friends she doesn’t know, but her posts about Jamie are all public. You can go back to the end of August, witness the battle, the heartaches, the hopes. Libby had actually recovered from covid, rather miraculously actually, just as Jamie was being hospitalized. Because of that, she was able to spend every single day with him in the ICU, because she was not in danger and was not a danger to others, having tested negative. Every day, from morning to night. She would get up and take a shower. She would call me and we would actually stay on the phone for the duration of the shower. I was a half a continent away at the time this happened, and she didn’t want me to go out there because, as she put it, “I can’t afford to lose you both.” We started these shower chats because at the start she was still weak from her own illness, and we were afraid she might pass out, but then we just kept it up all the while Jamie was hospitalized. Then she would spend the days at the hospital, watching the monitors, waiting for test results. A vigil of hope and prayer.
It turns out this daughter takes after her mother. She writes beautifully, expresses her feelings in a way that you can feel them in her words. And Jamie, well, he is another Michaela. Libby has made him alive to people who never met him. He is loved by the world at large. Even in his loss, he has done good in the world. He has saved lives. I can’t tell you how many people who had refused to be vaccinated have been because of Jamie’s story. He was young, healthy, fit, but it took him down. Make no mistake, this is a brutal illness. Even if you survive, it is brutal. And it’s especially hard, because unless you wind up in the hospital, you fight it alone. Nobody can come to your aid without endangering themselves. Libby and Jamie were both so sick neither was able of taking care of themselves, much less each other. I remember just a couple of days before Jamie was hospitalized, sitting in church sobbing because of this. Then two days later, Libby mustered her strength and took Jamie to the hospital, actually to get a monoclonal antibody treatment. These are available but scarce, way too scarce, and Jamie had to get an exception because they usually only gave them to people over 55, and he was younger. Libby helped him out of the car and into a wheelchair, and he had a seizure right there. She actually had to call 911 from the parking lot at the clinic. He did not get the antibody treatment, because it was determined he was too ill by then. He was hospitalized. The next day Libby actually tested negative for covid for the first time, and was allowed to visit her husband. It was their wedding anniversary. “How did you get in here?” he asked. “Ain’t no mountain high enough,” she said to him, quoting the lyrics of the song. The next morning he was put on a ventilator, and transferred to the ICU in one of the larger hospitals in southern Oregon. Coronavirus was at that time in the ember phase of what would turn into a local conflagration in southern Oregon. So many things, so many regrets, so many if onlys. Libby has said that if Jamie had witnessed the lighting of this blaze of covid, he would have been vaccinated. If he had known anyone who’d had it, he would have been vaccinated. But instead he was one of the sparks at the beginning of the delta virus explosion.
I always knew Libby and Jamie had a great relationship. I loved Jamie. He used to prod me to tell him that he was my favorite son in law (he was my only son in law), but honestly he was one of my favorite members of the family. I used to joke that when I was old I would go and live with Libby and Jamie because I knew I could count on Jamie to take care of me. He was so kind. He was always looking out for the needs of others, always stepping in to help with even the tiniest things. It was one of my comforts in life, knowing that my daughter was well loved and well cared for. But it wasn’t until the last month or so that I really got to see into the depths of that relationship. I’ve told my daughter she could teach relationship classes at this point. Libby and Jamie had a beautiful love, but they also worked at their relationship. They committed to doing certain things to keep their love strong. Every time they parted or came back together, they exchanged four kisses. Every night when they went to bed, they exchanged their highs and lows of the day. They had a ring doorbell, and I have seen the videos, how every time Libby pulled into the driveway after work, Jamie went outside, opened her car door for her, and greeted her with love. And all of these things, all of these little commitments and practices, were initiated by Jamie. He taught Libby more about love than most of us ever get to learn.
“I have lost my person,” Libby said. And she did. There are relationships of all kinds in the world. There are loving, beautiful relationships. But Jamie was Libby’s person in a way many people in the world never experience. They made each other feel loved, whole, alive.
There is no competition when it comes to grief. I lost my child. I felt her loss deeply, noticed it in every minute detail of life. When I put out three cereal bowls instead of four. When I subconsciously counted the heads of my children when we were out. All the years before, all the love, all the promises … the feelings ranged from rage that anything like this could have happened, that someone could come along and take my child, to disbelief, even disbelief that she had really been there at all, and all things in between. And of course, that damned combination of hope and fear that she might actually still be alive, wondering if she was suffering, planning celebrations for when she came home.
But I was Michaela’s caretaker. Jamie was Libby’s caretaker, and for him to be taken away, especially at this time, when they were expecting twins in a few months. Well, I’m just going to let you read Libby’s words.
Libby has poured out her heart not just to me, but to the world. She was three years old when Michaela was kidnapped, so she doesn’t really remember her sister, but she will tell you that she feels as though she knows her, because I kept her alive. She is doing the same with her husband. Jamie has two adult daughters, and one of them posted about hearing a song in the grocery story, and how her dad used to sing it to her. It broke my heart to think that Libby and Jamie’s babies will never hear their father sing to them, will never know how much plain fun he was. But they will know their father, because Libby is keeping him alive for the world, and will keep him alive for them.
My son, he still grieves the loss of his wife, a year later. When Michaela and Alex were in school, I always knew about all the kids in Michaela’s class and how she felt about them, but I knew nothing about Alex’s class. Neither of my boys are very talkative. If you ask them how they are doing, they are most likely to sum up their entire lives in a single word. I have heard Alex talk more about it since Jamie became ill than ever before. He was distraught, because he did not want his little sister to have to go through what he went through. My deepest experience of his grief is in a photo someone sent me of him, sitting outside, his head hanging between his knees, such a posture of sorrow and helplessness. It’s honestly too personal to share.
In my life, I have suffered. And you know, that’s fine. I can do that. I can walk those paths through the darkness, and find the light. But unfortunately, my own greatest suffering has been through my kids’ suffering. And this I cannot take. Finding the light in this darkness is hard.
In memory of Jamie McDowell and Karina Kinney.