I have always believed that we all have a guardian angel that protects us and guides us throughout our life. I have not personally lost a child to an illness but I have gone through the pain and grief of losing three young children in our family. Most of all, it is very hard and painful to guide a child through the loss of losing a cousin or a family member. After the tragic deaths of my two nieces and nephew, I told my children that they were very special to have not one guardian angel but two guardian angels for each of them. This brought to me a special kind of comfort just knowing that Matthew, Jennifer and Lori were walking beside my children on their daily walks through life.
This is a love story, you might say, between two small little girls. The love they had for one another was beyond their years. All children are special gifts! In April of 1974, a little boy was born in a Kansas City hospital. His parents give him the name of Matthew, which means, “God’s gift to the Lord.” Six months after Matthew’s birth in October of 1974 in a Kansas City hospital, my daughter, Shannon, was born and Matthew and Shannon became cousins. They hardly saw one another because in January of 1975, 9-month old Matthew died suddenly leaving 4-month old Shannon without a cousin. Just three weeks before Matthew’s death, I took a photo of the two babies lying together on a blanket on Christmas Day. When I took the picture, I had visions of the two of them growing up together and how cute they looked lying side-by-side looking up.
Several months following Matthew’s death in October 1975, Shannon celebrated her first birthday, and a few days later, another girl is born in a Kansas City hospital and she is named Jennifer. She is Matthew’s sister and a cousin for Shannon. When Shannon was 18-months old and Jenny became 9-months old their unusual love story unfolds.
These two little toddlers actually respected one another; when one cried the other one was sympathetic. They rarely fought; they shared toys, clothes, and secrets and jokes as well as fears. They cherished every moment they could be together! Nicknames came along for Shannon and Jenny, Shannon was and is very particular about who will use her special nickname, and Jenny was nicknamed “Jenny Bird” because of her love for Big Bird on Sesame Street.
In April 1978 Jenny’s mother gave birth to Lisa, her third child. While mother and baby recuperated, Jenny stayed with us. Shannon and Jenny each had one good time engaging in play for hours on end!
Holidays are a tradition in any family and our family was no exception! Even a Baptism called for a family celebration to welcome the newest addition into the family circle. When one of the children received First Holy Communion, there was a reception to honor that child afterwards. Christmas in our family was the most hectic of holidays but brought us endless memories. It was such a pleasure to watch the children open their gifts with glee. One Christmas their mother, Diane, and I bought the same exact outfit without each other’s knowledge. It was funny when the girls opened their gifts to find the exact same thing! Easter brought the girls together to show off their new dresses and Easter Baskets. On the fourth of July we would have a family gathering and they would eagerly await the night to come so they could see the fireworks. Our annual “Turkey Day” brought two hungry little girls running to the table. They even celebrated their birthday together by having double birthday parties on numerous occasions. Their friends were theirs to share. Overall, their laughter made all our holidays and gatherings worthwhile.
Diane and I would often go on shopping treks with Jenny and Shannon. Often while shopping, people would take notice of Shannon and Jenny. They would then ask if the girls were twins. Those two little imps seemed to enjoy being asked that question for they would look at each other and smile real big and they would look up at the person and giggle with pure delight! We would tell the person(s) that the girls are cousins but they could have very easily passed as sisters.
October 19, 1979 was the last time we saw Jenny. I fell ill with a bad cold that kept me inside for a month. Jenny would call and beg me in her tiny voice to bring Shannon to her house so they could play or she wanted to come to our house to play with Shannon. She wanted Shannon’s companionship so much! The last time Shannon talked on the telephone to Jenny was on November 10th and, again she begged me to bring Shannon to her. She was crying as she asked me repeatedly to get together so she and Shannon could play. I told her that I was still sick, but she and Shannon could talk on the telephone to one another for as long as they wanted.
Tuesday, November 13, 1979, 1 heard a knock on the back door. Shannon’s (and my son, Sean) grandparents stood on the back porch as I opened the door to let them in. Their faces were sullen and their eyes were red and puffy. I knew instantly that something awful was wrong! Three words came out of their mouths, “JENNY IS DEAD.” They entered the house and I looked over at Shannon and noticed that she had a very confused look on her little face. Grandma Casey went and knelt down beside Shannon and gently explained to her 5-year-old grandchild that Jenny went to Heaven to be with her brother, Matthew. My little girl began to cry hysterically and I ran to her and hugged her ever so tight as Jenny had hugged her in the past. That November morning turned into a very dismal one for us. I felt so very sorry for Shannon because she cried so much and mourned the loss of Jenny. All Shannon had are memories in which she held so close to her heart. I knew that she felt anger, confusion, and grief as she tried to comprehend Jenny’s death. The week after Jenny’s death, Shannon moped around the house and was very depressed. I became concerned that she would die from a broken heart. When she talked about Jenny, I would listen to what she was saying. We hugged each other and I held her close to me to comfort her in any way I could. We talked about death and dying and she wanted to know why Jenny left her. It was hard to discuss with a small child about death and dying and we did not know what caused Jenny’s death.
On November 15th we went for Visitation and the Rosary. My mother and father came to the funeral home. When they entered the building, Shannon ran up to my parents, and reached out and took their hands into hers and led them to Jenny’s side. I watched her walk with them up the aisle and stand with them as they gave their respects for Jenny. I also knew that she was in her own small way, saying good-bye to her as well. I held back tears to the point my eyes ached because I did not want Shannon to see how much I was hurting inside because I did not want my little girl to hurt more. I looked around and then caught a glimpse of Shannon standing alone next to Jenny looking lovingly down at her with tears in her eyes. I started to walk towards my little girl but Jenny’s father went over and picked her up and held her tightly as if to say to her, she is still with you and always will be. Much later she told me that Jenny had told her that she has a cloud waiting for her in Heaven and Shannon must of found comfort in this message from Jenny.
Jenny’s funeral was on November 16, 1979. Her brother, Matthew’s grave site was about twelve feet from Jenny’s grave. We stood there at Jenny’s graveside and listened to the priest’s prayers, but his words seemed muffled and miles away. Later at the cemetery, Shannon placed some flowers on the graves of Matthew and Jenny. I watched her facial expressions as she knelt beside Jenny and I saw her lips move ‘why Jenny, why?’ She then stood up and followed me quietly back to the car and she sat there in silence for the ride home.
It took several months for Shannon to deal with Jenny’s sudden and untimely death. We want Shannon to keep the memories and love of Jenny close to her heart. She would request that we go to the cemetery so she could spend time with Jenny. Once while we were there, I glanced over and saw her sitting next to Jenny’s headstone and she was picking leaves, twigs off her headstone. Again I saw her lips move “why Jenny?” and tears rolled down her cheeks.
The Casey family grew after Jenny’s death. In August of 1980, Diane had her fourth child, another daughter, Lori. In January 1981, I gave birth to my third child, Gregory. The family continued to expand. The children’s grandparents have sixteen grandchildren in all. In March 1984, Diane had her last child, Jill. In July of 1984, Lori passed away leaving another huge gap in our family circle and questions to be answered. Her parents, Lisa and Jill traveled to a New York City hospital in November of 1987 to find answers and it was there that they learned that a fatty oxidation disorder (MCAD) claimed the lives of Matthew, Jenny and Lori.
Shannon is now an adult and I know that she still finds herself thinking of Jenny. I have a feeling she thinks, like I do, about what Matthew, Jenny and Lori would look like today. What type of person that they turned out to become; if they were married, single or became parents. What type of vocation they chose to enter. I still think that, at times, Jenny is watching over Shannon more so than usual as Shannon goes through her daily tasks, and takes care of her own two small children, Neve’ and Stacie. Neve’ was born November 10, 1995. 1 wonder if Shannon will tell her girls about her love for Jenny and their story of childhood memories they shared. It would be wonderful if Shannon shared her childhood with them.
Jenny gave Shannon a very special gift on November 13, 1999. This date marked the 20th anniversary of Jenny’s death. Shannon gave birth to her second daughter, Stacie Lynn. We think of Stacie’s birth on November 13th as Jenny’s way of bringing us a second coming to something wonderful because Matthew, Jenny and Lori are also special guardian angels to two very special little girls!