Friday, May 07, 2010

Remembering Jessica Colleen Wood

On this date, May 7, in 1984, my wife Susan Adams gave birth by emergency C-section at St. Mary's Hospital to our daughter and first child, Jessica Colleen Wood. She weighed 9 pounds, 9 ounces and was 20 inches long (and yes, I had to look at her birth announcement for that information because guys are genetically predisposed to forget such details). That was the only birth of our five children that I missed - they were moving quickly to the operating room and didn't want me in the way and to tell the truth, I didn't really argue too much.

Susan was 26 and I was 27. The grandmothers came up from Southern Illinois to help out for the first two weeks, but what I remember is the feeling when they left. Suddenly we had this very small person living with just us. Jessica, The Baby J as she soon became known (later just The J) came with no instructions whatsoever. Any new parent who hasn't felt at least a moment of panic just isn't paying attention.

Today, May 7, 2010, if you were around the Monona Public Library you may have noticed that the library was renamed the Jessica Colleen Wood Memorial Library of Monona. Renamed for a day because we contributed to the successful Booked for Life campaign, Memorial Library because on June 5, 1987, just three years and twenty-nine days after she came into our lives, Jessica died in a car accident.

...So now I've been sitting here at the keyboard for a good long while trying to think what to write, what do I want to say, should I write anything or publish it if I do. I'm writing and publishing, but whether it stays up, I don't know. This is not going to be a story with a happy ending or a lot of happy parts.

And there seems like there should be a profound lesson learned to pass along, but there really isn't. Any words that I can conjure just seem banal and inadequate. A phone call late on a beautiful Friday afternoon in June, bright sun and incredibly blue sky, crashed the world, but gave some hope that she would be OK. A frenzied drive to the hospital. Arriving at the same time as the ambulance, seeing an unreal gray version of Jessica being rushed into the OR. An eternity in fifteen minutes and then the impossible words from the red-eyed ER doctor that opened a chasm of pain.

And I was lucky. Susan was there at the accident, saw the blood, held her, cradled her, rode with her in the ambulance, saw the life slipping away from her and knew before I did.

June 5, 1987, the worst day of my life. June 6, 1987, the second worst day. June 7, 1987, the third worst....

Sometimes people will say after some terrible event, 'life must go on', which isn't quite right. Life will go on, life does go on, the Earth revolves and orbits regardless. Whether you are there taking part in it is a question of interest mainly to you and a few others (a very few really).

If you know someone who is living with this kind of loss, don't ignore it (or them), acknowledge it gently and briefly. Less is more. Their loss is unique so don't tell them you know how they feel because you don't (even if you've experienced the same type of loss). They'll let you know if they want to talk.  

Eventually the pain subsided from the surface, the literally physical pains ended, and life was rejoined. Prod it a little and even today, just 29 days short of 23 years later, and I can still visit the consuming sadness.

Thankfully, I only make that visit a few times a year now and so this post doesn't reflect my whole life today, but it is enduring part of my past never disappear.

Anything good? No. OK, I learned that 'closure' is a stupid word and a damaging concept at least the way lay people use it. You don't get closure. You may experience the loss differently, but it's still there and real and much of it cannot be undone.

Unfairness. Jessica's death was damaging even to those too young to understand and even not yet born - her sisters and brother. You don't go through that kind of loss and come out 'better' anything, especially parents. Her death changed each of their lives in ways unequal, unknown and unknowable.

Perspective. Children shouldn't die before their parents. The death of your child gives you loads of perspective; indeed, a dangerous, seductive amount of perspective. After all, what could possibly really matter compared to that loss? Nonetheless, I deeply value the perspective on what really matters  - and they are few indeed - that Jessica gave us in death. Figure out what those things are for you.

Hug your kids, love your kids, cherish today, nothing is promised. It's not all small stuff, but a whole lot of it is.

Life is hard. I think it was Miles Davis that used to say all black Americans over 50 deserved a medal just for putting up with all that sh*t. I used to think that was pretty funny and probably very true. Now, I think it applies to just about everybody over 50 because by that time life has probably kicked you in the ass and knocked you down a few times (figuratively speaking for most of us). If your experience makes you think otherwise, watch out, your luck may be overdue for a change.


Susan found considerable comfort in a support group, The Compassionate Friends.


The Booked for Life campaign is over, but the opportunities to support the Monona public library go on.


  1. How sweet. Please hug your other daughter on National Hug Your Kids Day - July 19.

  2. Speaking from the heart is hard you have done it in a thoughtful, kind manner that brought tears to my eyes.

    I read something that said all of us our nothing more then wounded children trying to get through life with our wounds.

    I know exactly how you feel when you said poke very hard and it will bring tears back that are difficult to stop-I do not have your event but I hold deep something else that is not buried very deep and probably never will be-

    aaah heck-you deserve better words on this topic then I am finding-

  3. "aaah heck-you deserve better words on this topic then I am finding-"

    Nope; your words are fine.

  4. Thanks Doug. For those of us who have had to learn to live a "new normal," it helps to read your words.