By my sister, Henry’s beloved Auntie B.
Last Beach Trip With Henry – He’s Holding His Little Sister Charlotte
Every year for the past eleven years, my family and my siblings’ families go to the beach in South Carolina together for a week. For the cousins, it is perfection – uninterrupted family time in paradise. Last year, that all changed.
Our beach trip was planned for the last week of May through the first week of June, dates chosen long before Henry was admitted to the hospital on April 27th. From the moment of admission through the entire 38 days he was hospitalized, we made sure that a family member was with him 24/7. I was there every single day.
As the beach trip got closer, we were torn. None of us wanted to leave Henry but we had all of the other kids to consider. We made the difficult decision to go, leaving Katie, Jon, Chris, Melissa and grandparents to care for Henry. Just days before the trip, Henry was moved from the rehabilitation facility back to UT Medical Center because his condition was deteriorating.
I will never, ever forget the last time I saw Henry. I had brought our wonderful barber, Rusty to the hospital to give Henry a haircut. We had decided that we needed to shave off his beautiful curls so that doctors could more easily access his head for testing and procedures. At this point, his brain was swelling again and he was barely there.
I walked in and gave him a kiss. Rusty began to shave his head. Katie and I wept as his curls fell onto the bed. Instinctively, I grabbed a big handful and folded them into a piece of paper. Looking back, I now realize that I knew that he was going to die. After sitting with him for a while, I got up and gave him a kiss and said (as I always did), “I love you Henry”. Then he, after no communication but moans all day, said, “I love you too, Aunt Betsy”.
I tried to walk out of his hospital room six or seven times, but I kept being compelled to go back for one more kiss. Again, I know now that I knew he was going to die. I finally walked out, and we left for the beach that afternoon.
The plan was that my family and Robert’s family would go ahead to the beach that day, and that Jon would bring Henry’s siblings the next day. By the end of the first day at the beach, Henry was much, much worse. He was back in the ICU and his brain was continuing to swell. Katie and Chris decided that Jane and Elliot should spend time with Henry before they went to the beach. But they wanted them to go; they didn’t need to watch their brother die and their parents in agony.
After Katie, Chris and the kids spent time with Henry together, our wonderful friend Jay drove Jane and Elliot to the beach to be with us. I can’t describe how difficult it was to be at the beach, Henry’s favorite place, knowing that he was dying. We all had decided that we should not let on to the kids that it was so grave. Every hour I would check in with Katie and the news would be worse. I would then go hide in a closet and sob. Then I would come out and put on a happy face for the kids.
On the third day of our trip, we realized that he was going to die soon. We told the kids that he was not doing well but left it at that. Katie would alternate between asking me to come back and saying that she wanted me to stay and continue to care for her other kids. It was a nightmare. We all decided that I needed to be with the kids.
On the fourth day, May 31st, we knew he would die at any moment. He died late that afternoon. I’ll never forget sitting in the closet and getting a text from my Uncle John saying, “it’s over, he’s gone”.
Katie and Chris had decided that they wanted to tell Jane and Elliot. Our wonderful friends arranged to fly Chris and his wife Melissa to the beach on their private jet so that they could tell the kids. Katie was very pregnant and unable to fly.
They weren’t able to get there until the next morning. That night was excruciating. I felt that I was betraying the kids, but I knew that we were doing the right thing. I didn’t sleep at all that night. The next morning, all of the adults made a plan for how we would handle it. Ray and Robert drove to the airport to pick up Chris and Melissa. I waited for the call telling me that they were almost to the house.
We had all of the kids upstairs watching a movie. When Chris and Melissa arrived, we snuck them into a room at the front of the house. I called Jane and Elliot downstairs and walked them into the room. They smiled and asked why their father and stepmother were there, and then immediately knew. As I closed the door, they were wailing.
At the same time, my sister in law Nicole had taken all of the other cousins out to the beach. I walked out and sat them all in a circle. They knew too. I told them that Henry had died. I told them that he was in heaven with all of the people we had loved and lost. I told them that he didn’t hurt anymore and that he had a new heavenly body. We all wailed and screamed. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. All of the adults held them and let them cry.
A few minutes later Elliot came out and crawled into my lap. I held him and rocked him. I could tell that he was angry. I asked him if he wanted to run. He said yes, so I told him to run. Our cousin Thomas was there, and he followed behind Elliot as he ran down the beach, until we couldn’t see him.
That afternoon we all sat down and talked again. I told the kids that Henry loved the beach and he loved them and that I was sure that he would say that it was ok to be sad and have fun at the same time. They seemed relieved. We all went back out to the beach. Some swam, some walked, some just sat.
The next morning Chris, Melissa, Jane, Elliot, Nancy Cat and I got on the private plane and flew back to Knoxville. The rest of the family was going to drive back the next day. The next week was a blur of planning the service, picking up his ashes, caring for kids and Katie, and being heartbroken. Every time I thought of those days at the beach I felt sick. I thought that I would never want to be there again.
We usually try to plan our annual family beach trip months in advance. This year, we haven’t. I don’t think it has been a conscious decision. I think it’s just so hard to consider. In the past few weeks though, all of the kids have been asking us when we are going to the beach. So here we are, scrambling to find a house that will fit all of us and fit our budgets. I think that it will be hard to be there, but it will also be a time of healing.
Henry would want us to go. I even think he’ll be there with us. We will gather on the beach again. We will share memories of Henry, feel his presence and celebrate him. We will be sad and have fun all at the same time, just as he would want it.