Robin, Camila's mom

Singing in the Car with Camila

A break in rehearsal of Rent. Camila as Mimi, 2010.

After Camila died, it took me some time to do certain things. I tossed through the sympathy cards. I wasn’t ready to be comforted, and I wasn’t ready to face the feelings of others.

I appreciated the cards, and their number was an initial comfort, but I couldn’t face their words or their intent: to comfort me after my daughter died. I wasn’t ready.

In time, I realized I “wasn’t ready” for a lot of things. Some things I could postpone; others, I simply cancelled. But most, I relegated to do “later.”

My first decision was to postpone Camila’s memorial service. She died at 23 and her death was the first death many of her friends had faced – and she was my only child and I would not be ready to be seen in public or be of help to any of those friends unless I could wait awhile. And so I did. We announced in her obit that a Celebration of her life would be held three months hence. We gave time and place and that was that. And by the time Camila’s Celebration came around, we were ready to acknowledge her happy life and turn it into a party.

It took me a little longer to read the cards and a lot longer to read the sweet notes her friends had written, capturing a favorite memory, that they had presented to her father and me after a beach bonfire they had had in her honor. They gave them to us at Camila’s Celebration in a big square Memory Jar filled with sea shells and note cards, wrapped with a crepe ribbon that hung a pewter “C” on the jar’s face. It had heft – and it held testament to my daughter’s life, penned by best friends, childhood friends, and new friends. I knew I would find my girl in their sweet sentiments – yet it took me eight months to read them.

It was at that same bonfire that the first notes I read were written. The mother of one of my daughter’s life-long friends had handed her a small book, In Loving Memory, and a pen just as she was leaving for the bonfire, along with the suggestion that she and her friends address notes to Camila’s father and me. The memorial book was given to me shortly after the bonfire. Holding it in my hands, I was immediately skeptical. Never one to rely on Hallmark for the important messages, I doubted I would find anything on the printed pages that would touch me. But I was wrong.

That book was the first thing I read – and the first thing to bring me comfort. The printed content, rather than being artificially sentimental, proved to be a sensitive balance between the sadness of loss and the pleasures of life and love. And the notes Camila’s friends had written moved me more than anything I had yet read. Their tender heart-felt narratives touched me, soothed me, and in a wonderful, surprising way, brought my daughter back to me. It was treasure.

 

Camila was an actor who performed musical theater. She was an actor, and dancer, a belter – and a great singing partner in the car. Before every road trip, we’d make a playlist. If we were driving a five hour piece of road, we’d build a five hour playlist, and we would sing together all the way. She was a soprano with a great range and I could contribute simple harmonies. But the best thing was that our voices matched. We sometimes hit the same notes in exactly the same way: one voice. We’d always look at each other and smile when that would happen. We blended beautifully, and singing together was one of our special shared pleasures.

Her freshman year of college, Camila made a 2-CD set of vocals for her dad and me. She used Apple’s GarageBand to make the CDs, and all the songs were performed a cappella. When we listened to them, her clear unadorned voice went straight to our hearts. But after she died, I just couldn’t listen to them. I was afraid of hearing her voice, afraid it would break me down, tear me up. And so every time I wanted to hear her sing, I’d say to myself “later.”

Until one day as I was driving, a particular kind of sadness descended on me: I was lonely for her voice. I missed our music. In that moment, my loneliness and sorrow seemed much bigger than my fear. I realized I would rather hear Camila sing – and pay whatever toll would be taken – than spend one more day without her voice with me in the car.

So when I got home, I got out the CDs. And I listened to them. Just as I thought, I began to cry. It broke my heart to know I would never sing with Camila again. Through the first song, I cried. Through the second song, I cried. In the middle of the third song, I tried my small sad voice, tried to bring it up to her steady one. By the fourth song, I no longer cared about my sense of my sorrow; I was just so grateful to be hearing her sing.

It took me a while to find my voice that day. But I found it. And by the end of that day, I was lifting my voice, singing with Camila as I hadn’t sang since she died.

I keep her songs on my phone now and listen to them all the time. I am enjoying them now as I enjoyed them before her death: We sing together in the car – and sometimes, we belt. Every time it happens, I am reminded of our road trips and the simple pleasure of matching our voices. And even though I sometimes cry, I am always comforted.

 

By the time I was ready to read the notecards in Camila’s Memory Jar, I had come to understand what came to me as revelation: I could not find comfort until I moved through my fear of facing the souvenirs of my daughter’s life. Each fear I faced revealed treasure beneath it. Everyone in the circle knows that the tears are always there. They are part of our memory and part of our parenthood now. Comfort can also become a part of our parenthood. But sometimes, we have to find it. I found it by facing my fears, by finally acting upon my “later” list.

Though I can’t pick up the phone and talk to Camila and though I cannot see Camila, I can listen to the music she gave me and I can read the book and the notes her friends gave me. These experiences, in their unique ways, bring her back. I have realized that hearing what others have to say, reading their words in a card or on a page or in a text message, and listening to Camila’s songs, looking at her pictures, and watching her videos transform each experience into comfort I can keep. They are the kind of comfort I can savor again and again.

I have learned that comfort is found in many places, in contexts both traditional and unexpected. The memories of my daughter’s life are shared. We all hold treasure. Nearly a year after my daughter’s death, I am discovering new things about her life, and the stories act like alchemy: base iron turned into gold, into treasure I can keep.

 

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