Princess in the Promised Land

Welcoming another's baby makes grieving a dead infant unbearable. There goes Kennedy Anne Wilson. Here comes Francine Anne Blase. Three days after Kennedy, my niece, died at home from complications

Welcoming another's baby makes grieving a dead infant unbearable. There goes Kennedy Anne Wilson. Here comes Francine Anne Blase.

Three days after Kennedy, my niece, died at home from complications from a birth defect, Francine's daddy, Darren, left me this message: "Dean had the baby last night at 8:55 p.m. Francine Anne. We're at home, where we'll be for the next 18 years." Funny.

Since then I've misplaced the giddiness I'd felt when I first learned my friends were having a baby, one who would be Kennedy's friend, her playmate, her pigtailed buddy.

I'd kept meaning to call. To stop by.

To promise to love and baby-sit. But I didn't.

I'd have to answer for Kennedy. "How's your niece? How do your nephews like her?" Any question.

Sound your death knell in one fell wail when a baby dies. It eases the pinch of repeating your speech.

I made a round of calls to close friends between the early morning of Oct. 24 and Oct. 28, the day of Kennedy's memorial service. Though I took three days off from work, I honored all my public engagements.

I honored Kennedy by going through. She'd fought for 25 days.

I never took to my bed out of grief. I didn't rope off my emotional self. I moved. Grief can't strike a moving target.

Then I just gave out. My heart was broken.

I'd seen Kennedy only through a half-open car window; never even held her.

Then her memorial service set me free.

Wife Kelly at his side, my brother Kenny dispelled rumors and speculation about Kennedy's illness and death. He described her birth defect and the turmoil it wreaked on him. During the throes of self-pity, he smashed his hand through a wall.

"God," he said, "is a stud finder."

Kenny always jokes inappropriately, but this time his humor wasn't a shield. It was an outspread blanket.

He stitched together a timeline of catastrophes felling his family this year culminating in Kennedy's diagnosis, Kelly's premature delivery, the prognosis and the hope Kennedy would live defiantly. She died on Oct. 23, what should have been her actual birth date.

My nephews, K.J. and Kyler, said goodbye to Kennedy at home. They called her Princess.

She taught everyone to stand up. K.J. promised his dad that he and Kyler would be everything Kennedy would've been.

Sadness wants a home. Sometimes I let it rest, but it cannot stay.

My favorite way to trick myself is to cry in the shower. Tears mix with water, and I can't tell the difference.

In the days since Kennedy's service, I've meditated on family. It takes work to untwist decades of domestic damage — hurt feelings, unrequited affection, emotional aloofness, selfishness and abandonment.

Our family is complicated. Multiple marriages have produced stepchildren and half-siblings whose paths rarely cross except for reunion hugs at weddings, funerals and occasional holidays.

I have three half-brothers, a half-sister, two stepbrothers, a stepsister and countless stepnieces, stepnephews and on. Then there's Devin, really my half-sister from my mother's marriage to her second husband. But Devin doesn't get the "half" designation except for genealogical explanations.

All the mixed blood bleeds tangled emotions and bloodstained relationships. When my folks split for good and my father remarried, his new union divided my two brothers and me so decisively that where we spent our holidays sometimes was a testament to parental loyalty.

And we were known by the company we kept. Once a daddy's girl, I leaned toward my mother. Randy, my oldest brother, went where the food was. Kenny, the middle child, learned to look at life from both sides now. He remains closest to our father.

In all this holding a tight grip on my immediate family — two brothers, a sister, a sister-in-law and two nephews — comforts me. The swirl of our blended family was tumultuous for me, and I haven't sustained those relationships as well.

Going back to the blood. I've got work to do. Reconciliation is the greatest task before me, and I have never felt so small and so mighty.

Writing this took three days of hand-wringing and head-holding solitude, and it still isn't close to how I really feel about an infant I didn't know and a family I sometimes don't want to know. But Kennedy's making me be a woman.

Losing her means letting go. It means losing control of emotions I'd depended on to keep me bound. I took being bound up by disappointment and hostility — I took it all for granted.

I didn't know I was allowed or supposed to be free to forgive my father his improprieties, my brothers their male-centered arrogance and all the in-between emotional interloping.

I've forgiven myself for doing what I had to do to get through it. Today I am free.

Kenny, Kelly, K.J. and Kyler gave me the high sign to get through my grief any way I please. I choose to tell the truth and to reconcile those truths, to pick them apart not to obsess myself into anger but to put it finally behind me.

Kennedy's name means "helmeted warrior." Her life and death mean freedom to me.

I'll see her when I get there, and this time I'll hug her.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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