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My 15-Year-Old Daughter Died. I Recently Found A Box Of Hers — And What Was Inside Left Me Shaken.

Ana at age 5, on her first day of kindergarten.
Ana at age 5, on her first day of kindergarten. Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

When my daughter Ana was 11, she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called inflammatory myofibroblastic tumor (IMT). Five years later, on March 22, 2017, Ana died from her disease.

In those first months after Ana died, grief manifested as an ache in my chest and an inability to do much more than sit in my yard and watch the birds at my feeders. I stopped working for about six months, outsourcing my freelance marketing projects to subcontractors while I moved through life in a daze.

As each year passes, my grief shifts and changes. It never fades. It’s just... different. For me, surviving grief requires adaptation. It’s taken me a long time, but I’m finally OK with not hanging on to every single memory, ritual and symbol that reminds me of Ana.

As I approach the seventh anniversary of losing Ana, I don’t need or want to keep retelling the story of her death. I want to remember her life and the unique things that made Ana, well... Ana. There’s one memory, in particular, that is still sharp and clear in my mind — Ana’s imaginary world. She called it Arkomo.

Ana loved tiny things. She collected them like treasure : Minuscule stuffed animals. Shells that fit into the palm of her hand. The world’s smallest plastic frog.

When she was a toddler, Ana would gather her collection of toys into a huge pile in the center of the living room and throw a major tantrum if I tried to clean it up. She would sit and play beside the pile until, inevitably, she got tired. Then she’d curl up on some stuffed animals and take a nap. She was like a little dragon fiercely guarding her gold.

Ana eventually moved on from those piles of toys to more structured worlds. She built cities out of wooden blocks, Legos or cardboard. She placed her tiniest toys inside them. She played with them for hours, drawing her younger sister, Emily, into these magical places. Ana was always the boss. Her animals always had starring roles in every adventure.

Ana at age 8, during a day of apple picking.
Ana at age 8, during a day of apple picking. Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

For a very brief period of time, Ana’s worlds dominated my home. They appeared on the dining room table and the floor of the den. They appeared in Ana’s bedroom and in Emily’s. They appeared on my coffee table, taking over until I made the girls pack it up and put it away. These initial worlds would inform what was to become Arkomo — Ana’s most beloved world.

***

Ana built Arkomo from clay, Legos, bits and pieces of Playmobil sets and more than a few Polly Pocket dolls — the kind that were about an inch tall. It was a world that unfolded on Ana’s dresser incrementally with trees, houses, roads made from bricks of red and brown vinyl (secured from a local store that sold model train supplies).

She made a sign that read “Welcome to Arkomo” — a name she came up with on her own — and populated the little world with ridiculously small toys called Squinkies. They were rubber people and animals that stood about half an inch high.

The foundation of Arkomo was shaky. It was made from wood blocks secured by blobs of clay with some baked polymer components. The whole thing was wobbly and precarious.

Every time I put Ana’s clothes away, a half dozen Arkomoians would topple from the dresser like vinyl raindrops. I always diligently put them back, trying to restore them to wherever they’d been when they fell. I would find Squinkies on Ana’s floor for years after that dresser — and Ana — were long gone.

Arkomo took up valuable real estate in Ana’s cluttered bedroom. I’d once complained about this to a friend who advised me, with a raised eyebrow, that I should clean it up while Ana was in school. There was no way I could do that. Ana had spent hours building and expanding Arkomo. Destroying it would’ve broken her heart.

In the way of parents who don’t want to create little sociopaths, I worried. I thought that maybe I was spoiling Ana and that she wouldn’t learn how to clean up her messes if I didn’t crack down on the toys. I worried that maybe Ana was getting too old for imaginary worlds.

Ana at 11, about a month after her liver transplant.
Ana at 11, about a month after her liver transplant. Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

Ana eventually reclaimed the space on top of her dresser. She turned 10, then 11, and she wanted a stereo and some speakers. She became obsessed with My Little Pony and Funko Pop vinyl toys. She began collecting gemstones, incense and candles. She needed a place to display this stuff. She removed Arkomo, dumping the contents of the little world into a box for easy retrieval.

***

By the time Ana was diagnosed with cancer, Arkomo rarely resurfaced. When she pulled out the box, it was to scavenge a plastic tree or a tiny house for a school project. About a month ago, as I was cleaning the den, I found that box. I knew what was in it. I opened it anyway.

Arkomo was still there: the plastic animals, the vinyl roads, the Playmobil trees. The bits of clay that had held it all together are now crumbled and dry.

I don’t remember the last time Ana played with this stuff. It was likely a decade ago, at least, probably longer. I’ve learned, after seven years of grief, that last times aren’t something that always announce themselves.

Sometimes they’re quiet and subversive. For every last day of school, there are a dozen less grandiose lasts: the last time she watched SpongeBob, the last time she had a sleepover and the very last origami crane she ever folded. I don’t remember the last time Ana played with Arkomo.

I don’t remember the last time, before this year, that I’d opened the box that contained these things that Ana had loved. I don’t remember the last time I sat down on the floor and played beside the child whose face I haven’t seen in so many damn years.

I wish I had taken a picture of Arkomo when it was still on Ana’s dresser. I wish I had paid more attention when she brought her world to life. I wish I had written it all down.

That’s what I would say to you, if you asked me for parenting advice — My God. Write it down. Write it all down.

Ana at 14.
Ana at 14. "Her hair is turning white from chemotherapy," the author writes. Courtesy of Jacqueline Dooley

On March 22, Ana will be gone seven years. It’s a magical number — seven. A child who is 7 can invent entire worlds. If you break a mirror, you get seven years of bad luck. There are seven colors in the rainbow. Seven Chakras. Seven musical notes. 

Seven years is almost exactly half the length of Ana’s life. She died at age 15, just seven weeks shy of her 16th birthday. I don’t know what any of this means or if it means anything at all. Time is a construct, especially when your child dies before you. These expectations we have of ourselves and our children are meaningless.

As our kids grow up (or even if they don’t ), the details we recall of their childhood — of the children they were that only we got to see — fade. This loss is typically softened by the promise of their lives and of their futures. Growing up is always traumatic. We lose some kind of special magic as we get older. But not growing up — that’s even more traumatic. 

The dusty, broken remnants of Ana’s imaginary world reminded me that the child she was — the child only I really knew — is gone. The woman she was supposed to become is also gone. There are no more firsts or lasts for Ana. 

For the seventh anniversary of her death, I wanted to share something about Ana that only a few of us still remember. I wanted to invite you into Arkomo, a place ruled by the tiniest of keepsakes and the imagination of a girl who is deeply missed. Ana was here. She was amazing. She invented entire worlds. Now you know something private and wonderful about her. Take it with you. Make your own worlds. Remember Ana when you behold tiny treasures. 

Jacqueline Dooley is a freelance writer and essayist in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on grief and parenting have appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Modern Loss, Al Jazeera, Pulse, Longreads and more. You can find much of her work on Medium, where she regularly writes about grief, parenting and other things. You can reach her via her website, https://www.jacquelinedooley.com/contact-me.

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