Nine Years Later

November 3, 2020

I’ve spent the better part of a week trying to articulate what was circulating inside me.  I wrote paragraph after paragraph of emotions that were authentic to how I was feeling, but it never just felt totally “right”.  I was missing something.  Tonight, I felt the dam inside break.  I held my head in my hands and felt the tears slowly work themselves out. 

I’ll be honest.  This day, November 3rd, doesn’t always feel this hard.  It truly is a day of mixed emotions.  But this year, for some reason, it’s felt different.  There’s been this persistent nudging the last few days that has left me teary at times, prompting flashbacks, and left me wondering why it’s been a struggle. 

And then, it made sense.  It clicked in my head. 

It’s never the day itself.  Despite the sheer tragedy of that day, when the anniversary rolls around, I usually find myself full of gratitude for the sparing of Elena’s life, for all the good that has emerged in my life as a result, for the faith on which I’ve relied, for the strength in which I’ve found.  I truly am grateful for this journey I’ve been set upon.  It has wholly changed me, top to bottom, inside out.  That day, nine years ago, I was cracked open, the shell of old me fell away and a new self awakened and stepped into this life.  It has been ugly, grief-laden, heart-breaking, enraging, and a thousand other things that I never knew one could feel.  It’s been that but it’s also been the most rewarding experience of hope, perspective, gratitude, joy, love, faith, truly the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. 

What I realized tonight that it isn’t November 3rd, it’s the preceding days that rattle me, that dredge up that uncomforting swirl of dread and remembrance.  It makes me remember. 

The flashbacks of that day do still hit me, more often than I would probably admit, with an overwhelming rush of memory and emotion.  Sometimes it’s me weeping, running down a sterile, fluorescently lit hospital hallway into the arms of a beloved family friend.  It’s the image of Elena in a white diaper, under the brilliant lights of the ER, her tiny body laid upon a sprawling gray, cold examination table.  I remember what I wore:  mustard colored sweater, striped collared shirt, jeans, boots that made a clunk, clunk sound that echoed off the parking garage walls as I sprinted from my car to the ER at Riley.  I can still feel the freefall of my stomach, the thud of my heart against my chest, the nausea rising in my throat, the tears that rained freely and constantly down my cheeks.  I can envision Dr. Smith’s serious eyes and the calm intensity about her face as she asked permission to drill a hole in Elena’s skull at her bedside to relieve building pressure in her brain.  The one that haunts me the most, the drive to the hospital where my thoughts went scattered, my mouth could not form words, only hysterical screams that clawed their way from some unknown part of myself.  All of these, and more, still grip me from time to time, especially around this time of year, each time forcing tears that sting my eyes and usher in a reminder that all of these were actual things I lived.  Real life moments I experienced.  I witnessed. 

But more than just November 3rd itself, I have distinct and vivid memories of the last days with that little, precious baby.  I remember how she looked in her chicken costume on her first Halloween, cheeks squeezed together by the white feathered fabric hood.  I remember the last walk we took with her, our typical stroll under the falling leaves of the tree-lined streets of our neighborhood.  She was wearing a little pink hoodie on the last day I picked her up from daycare.  It had been a beautiful day, the babysitter taking her out for a walk.  Our last dinner the night before, we ate spaghetti with dear friends, Chad bouncing her on his knee at the dinner table.  Those memories are the last, of that little girl, and the end of a life I would never know, making them precious, almost sacred.  The fading sunlight on a closing chapter of my life, the calm before the biggest of life’s storms.  And that’s what I’ve been grieving the last few days.  That’s what I grieve every year from October 31st to November 2nd.  I grieve for that lost innocence, those unmet expectations and most of all, for my baby girl, whom I would never get to know. 

As you’ve read time and again, God spared Elena’s life on November 3rd, but to me, metaphorically, everything died that day and was returned in a different way.  We were all reshaped, reborn, reset on a path we couldn’t have imagined.  There was a time where I was angry about it, unwilling to accept, but I’ve come through that.  I will always long to see how things would have turned out and of course, I would give anything, anything for my dear Elena to be whole, but what I have found on this side of it far outweighs whatever I thought I lost.  Despite the tragedy our family had to endure, the gifts we have been given as a result are far beyond anything I ever could have asked or imagined.  God’s promise reigned true.  He delivered.  He was faithful.

What I realized tonight is that it’s okay to still grieve a life I will never have.  It’s alright for me to still, nine years later, mourn that little girl whom I will never know, while still loving the Elena that was given back to me.  I can both grieve and feel a deep satisfaction of how my life has turned out.  I can both grieve her and remarkable, overwhelming joy when I look into her eyes.   I can both struggle and be strong at the same time.  I can wonder what a life could have been while being incredibly grateful for this abundant life I have been given.  Joy and sorrow.  Grief and gratitude.  Pain and purpose.  These can all go hand-in-hand. They have all been woven into the fabric of my life.  I can grieve the last memories of that life and still wake up November 3rd and be overwhelmed by joy and thankfulness for this life I live.  It doesn’t have to be one or the other.   

I’m finishing this as the sun dawns over this day, forever memorialized as the day our lives were forever changed.  I get to wake my girl with our morning song, kisses on her cheeks.  The grief of yesterday is a memory.  The rising sun brings with it a profound love for my family and the well of joy within springs forth, exploding my heart with gratitude for this life of hardship and abundance God has called me to.  Acknowledging the sorrow of the last few days does not replace the peace that holds me today.  Instead they work together to remind me of the love and privilege I have in Elena, this daughter of mine, who has stolen my heart in a million different ways, taught me more about resilience and unconditional love than I ever thought possible.  All of these emotions work together to remind me of the privilege of each breath, each dawn, each opportunity to bring love and goodness into this dark and flawed world.  And so, today, November 3, 2020, nine years later, I hang onto the pain of this day with one hand and hang onto the hope that always lies in tomorrow with the other.  It doesn’t have to be a choice.    

Emmalee Hinton with daughter Elena
Elena Hinton in her wheelchair

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This is Elena. Our Light. You can see all the goodness and joy that shines from those deep blue eyes. She loves sneezes, yawns, industrial toilet flushes, automatic paper towel dispensers and The Star Spangled Banner. Music is her everything, specifically Moana, Frozen (really all Disney), Queen & Taylor Swift. Nothing makes her squeal quite like swimming, fast boat rides and her two brothers in trouble. In addition to her megawatt smile, Elena reminds us to cherish the smallest of victories, to live in the present, and to daily dwell in a posture of gratitude for every breath and every blessing.  

More About Our Story

I’m Emmalee, an ordinary gal born and raised in the Heartland. Wife to Chad, and Mom to Elena, Calvin & Turner, I spend most my days ridin’ dirty (literally so much trash) in my minivan carting kids to and fro. When I’m not being a Momager, I excel at self-care, cooking gourmet meals my kids won’t eat and deep-diving all the feelings. Most days, my attitude is gratitude, just taking life one step at a time.

Emmalee & Elena

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