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Published: Friday, 3/9/2012

COMMENTARY

Caitlyn, our partner on walks in the woods

BY MATT MARKEY
OUTDOORS

My dad always held the belief that daughters will test your patience, warm your heart, and put all the gray in your beard. He ought to know -- he raised eight of them and had the salty beard to prove it.

I've got three girls -- two who are performing all of the above on a daily basis and one of them who never got the opportunity. She is probably sitting on grandpa's knee right now in a place where the fish bite every day, and each one is a trophy.

Years ago we lost our little Caitlyn before we actually had her, but to this day she remains a part of the family.

Caitlyn came into this world too soon, like that earliest bud in spring that can't survive the frost. She was too tiny, too fragile, and too weak to take even that first breath.

In a world where we demand a source of blame for everything, sometimes none exists. The doctor said no one did anything wrong. It just happened.

He let us hold her for a few minutes -- an experience that created the most unique confluence of torture and joy. She barely filled my hands, but you could still see every toe, every eye lash, and her beauty that was frozen at five months of development. And of course, another "Markey nose."

For lack of a clinical explanation, we accepted the fact she was a little angel that just skipped the earth part and went straight to heaven's gate. Caitlyn doesn't leave her backpack by the door, she doesn't have a bowl of cereal at 10 o'clock at night or take a half-hour prep time in the bathroom, but she is never not a part of the family.

Caitlyn is there on every camping trip, every family fishing venture, the days at the water park, and on every holiday -- there's even a Christmas ornament one of her sisters made with her name on it.

She comes up regularly in conversation, and the tears don't follow anymore. Instead, we often talk about "what if." We let our imaginations fill in the huge blank manuscript that would have been Caitlyn's life.

Caitlyn would have been 17 years old this week, probably a junior in high school, and driving us crazy with her driving. She most certainly would have already crossed that bridge where teenagers suddenly become smarter than everyone else in the world.

She likely would have been a great student and a good athlete like her sisters. She would have known how to pray, and why we do. She would have had a deep love for her grandparents, and a respect for all God's creatures, great and small. By now, Caitlyn would have been a proud young woman ready to take on the world.

But I always think of her as the 5 or 6-year-old outdoors feminist, independent and head strong, curious and creative, and able to fill you with pride and give you a spontaneous migraine -- both in the same moment. Her sisters were exactly that.

In my mind's family portrait, Caitlyn would have been pretty, like her mom, and like mom she would have learned how to fish in waders, build a camp fire, or seine for minnows. Like mom, she would bristle at the suggestion that a female couldn't pitch a tent in the dark, sharpen a hook in three-foot swells, or back a boat trailer down the ramp. She would have had mom's exceptional blend of femininity and toughness: She can catch fish all day and still smell good.

Caitlyn would follow her siblings' lead, but still branch out on her own. She would not hesitate to pick up an earth worm, stare eye-to-eye with a praying mantis, or grab a slimy fish that was one flip away from freedom.

She would have loved counting the stars or skipping rocks, or sleeping in the tent and listening to the chorus of crickets and peeper frogs fill each night's broadcast. Only when the roll of thunder got too close would she inch her sleeping bag a little closer to the security of mom and dad.

We planted a tree for Caitlyn, a gorgeous flowering apple right out front. Each time the breeze blows in late spring, it fills the sky with dainty blossoms that are the softest shade of purple, a color so beautiful only nature's palette could create it.

We put her ashes around grandpa's headstone, figuring she'd be safe there. He would take good care of Caitlyn, just like he did with those thousands of kids he patched up and praised in 45 years as a family doctor.

When we go for a hike through the orchard or around the pond, I'm sure Caitlyn would be the little girl refusing to hold my hand, and instead running ahead and chasing a frog to the water's edge, examining a killdeer nest, or climbing a tree.

Caitlyn's direct passage from this world to another leaves us no life to relive, no photos to frame, and no birthday to celebrate, but there's still a very important place for her.

She just presents us with a very awkward enigma, because we terribly miss something we never really had. We never got to put ice on her bee stings, bandage a skinned elbow, or watch her catch lightning bugs. We didn't get to experience her many individual heartaches and triumphs.

But each time we pitch that tent, catch bluegills off the dock, or go for a walk in the woods, we still know Caitlyn is there. She's part of the family.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068



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