One of my favorite times of the day is when I first hear my 22-month-old son Miles talking in his crib in the morning. Sometimes it’s earlier than I want it to be, and I know that when I step out of bed and walk past the balcony door, my ankles will be hit with a cold draft. I know that as soon as we go downstairs, I’ll be filling cups and cutting toast and refereeing squabbles and gathering gear for outings.
But right now, one of the sweetest moments is about to take place – the moment I open Miles’s bedroom door. He’ll pop up and giggle, smiling crookedly at me, one eye half-closed. I’ll walk to his crib and he’ll hop up and down, shoving Curly Bear into my arms. I’ll pick him up and try to hug him, but he’ll push back from my chest, putting his face close to mine, looking into my eyes and saying “Mommyyy! Mommyyy!” And I’ll know that he’s really saying I love you.
Sometimes, in these moments when life is so delicious and sweet, I’m hit with a pang of sadness. I think about him growing and changing, going out into the wonderful, scary world. I feel vulnerable. I wish I could keep him safe forever.
I wish no babies would ever be starving, hurt, or abused. I wish no babies ever had to get sick and die.
I think about my friends, the Sternhagens, and little Blake, just a few weeks younger than Miles, facing the challenges of life with Spinal Muscular Atrophy.
I think about mothers who have held this kind of sweetness in their arms, and then lost it — mothers like Becky Kleikamp, who have more tales of pain than one person should be able to tell, who have written shining stories of love and family, only to revise them again and again.
I think of the way our whole life can change in one day, one hour, the way it did for her.
This is Becky’s story, a braid of joy and suffering, of being knocked down and rising, somehow, again.
In the year 2000, Michael Gregory Kleikamp was a happy, healthy one-year-old boy. He adored his older sisters, Britney and Amanda, and loved going to school with his mom to help out in their classrooms with events, field trips, and parties. The staff and students loved him, with his deep inquisitive eyes, round cheeks, and tousled brown hair.
When Michael became ill in January with what appeared to be influenza, Becky brought him to the doctor, and he was then admitted to Dickinson County Hospital. His symptoms quickly became severe and he was flown to a hospital in Wisconsin. Within hours, little Michael died.
Becky and her husband, Terry, were horrified. They had expected to bring Michael home after a few days of hospital care. “Imagine the devastation of having to drive home and tell your two daughters, ages six and seven, that their brother was not coming home,” Becky said.
The extended family and community were shaken as well. Little Michael was so loved by the school community that counselors were called in to help students and staff process his death and cope with grief.
Becky said, “Little did I know that the counselors who worked with Britney and Amanda and the other school children would have a great impact on my girls’ futures. As they grew up, they decided they wanted to pursue careers working with children, helping them as they were helped when Michael died.”
As if it wasn’t difficult enough to grieve the loss of a child, Becky and her husband Terry found themselves under investigation by law enforcement from the county in which they lived, the county where Michael was admitted to the hospital, and the county in which he died. In a time when the Kleikamps were burdened with their own questions of what caused Michael’s death, how their other children would cope, and how they would face each future day, they were subjected to dozens of investigative questions. They felt as though fingers were being pointed at them as they were asked about Michael’s routines, whether he fell from his crib or highchair, whether Becky had dropped her son.
A few weeks later, Michael’s autopsy report cleared Becky and Terry of negligence when it revealed a spontaneous bleed in the brain with no injury sight. Doctors explained to them that only five percent of bleeds have no known cause, and that Michael’s was one of these rare circumstances. Concerned for her other children, she spoke with several doctors, all who assured her that this was a fluke, and she had no reason to fear for the well-being of her daughters.
Though Becky and Terry were mourning, they knew immediately after Michael’s death that they wanted to have another child. Some friends and family members discouraged them from doing so, but they knew it was the right choice for them. She explained, “Within twenty-four hours, we went from diapers, bottles, and being up in the nighttime, to our son being taken from us, and going home with empty arms.”
Becky and Terry had always known they wanted a family. They met at a campground when Becky was twelve, and Terry fifteen. The two grew fonder of one another, spending summer evenings together at Becky’s home until Terry’s 9:00 curfew. When they were finally allowed to date in public, Becky was forced to allow her twin brother to chaperone their dates! The two dated through high school, and became engaged to be married during Becky’s senior year. They were in love and wanted to be together forever — they didn’t want to wait. Becky graduated and turned eighteen in June, and married that fall. Soon afterwards, they began trying to conceive a child, but because of Becky’s endometriosis, it took over a year for them. In the meantime, Becky’s older brother, Greg, was stricken with cancer and died at age thirty-three, leaving a six year old daughter behind.
“What a joy when Britney Marie, our little 5 pound, 13 ounce bundle, was born. We knew what a gift she was after living the fear of possibly never being able to have a child, and after losing my brother.”
Becky was a natural at mothering from the beginning. She adored her newborn daughter and wanted to savor their time together. She explained, “When Britney was born I worked for a couple months and then quit my job. I couldn’t stand the thought of working and leaving her with a sitter. I started doing daycare, which afforded me the luxury of staying home with our children, yet being able to help support our family.”
Less than two years later, they were blessed with Amanda Lynn, and six years later, Michael Gregory. Becky and Terry were delighted with their family. “Those kids were the light of our lives,” she said.
A month after Michael’s death, Becky was glad to be expecting her fourth child. Though deep in her grief over the loss of Michael, new life was thriving inside her womb, holding space in her heart and bringing hope for the future of their family. In 2001, Becky gave birth to a son, Nicholas Michael.
Becky and Terry were overjoyed at the blessing of a baby boy. There was a little person in the house again, a baby brother for the girls to cuddle and love. Becky began the hard work of rebuilding her family, creating fun and adventure for her children, trying to make things right again, all the while remembering Michael, keeping him alive in their family legacy.
When a mother loses a child, her worldview changes. She may pick herself up and pull it together for her family, but her perspective shifts. There is a vulnerability that creeps into her days and keeps her awake at night. She hopes never again to be thrown into deep despair, but is aware, now, of the possibility. She relishes moments with her family and finds joy in simple delights. She hopes and prays for protection for her children, her family.
In 2013, when Becky’s oldest daughter, Britney, started complaining of severe headaches, Becky tried not to worry. She expected a diagnosis of migraine headaches, something with which Becky is afflicted. She never expected the doctors to order a CAT scan, which would reveal a very large tumor in Britney’s brain.
Immediately after the procedure, Becky found herself giving Britney’s medical history to a nurse. She said, “They would not let me call Terry or any family at the time, as they needed to get the paperwork in line to have Britney airlifted quickly to Green Bay. The tumor was that bad. I found out afterwards that they did not expect her to survive the flight. Well she did, she showed them! They were shocked when she arrived at the hospital talking. That’s our girl–a fighter all the way.”
Soon, Britney was diagnosed with a Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) tumor, the most aggressive malignant tumor found in humans. Specialists estimated that Britney would live for two weeks to six months. Becky began revising her vision of the future again, and this time she had to help Britney with her own revisions.
“How do you tell your 20 year old daughter who just graduated from college, just got engaged and was planning her wedding that she would not live that long?” asked Becky.
She continued, “Why were we chosen to carry such a load? We have worked very hard for everything we have, and yet again, another child was being ripped from our arms. There are no words,”
Following Britney’s diagnosis, Becky made a promise. Just like when she quit her job twenty years earlier to be home and care for Britney, she vowed never to leave her daughter’s side.
Britney was optimistic about beating cancer. She had plans to marry her fiancé, Mark and one day have her own family. Always an organized and reliable young woman, she loved her job as a legal secretary and asked her parents to stop into the law office where she worked to make sure everything was going smoothly, and to remind her boss that she would be back as soon as she beat her cancer.
Though angered and frightened by her diagnosis like any young woman would be, Britney committed to following recommendations for care, with hopes of overcoming her illness. She moved into treatment with grace and honesty. Becky recalls, “She did not care about what people thought about the fact that she lost her beautiful long hair. We bought a lot of hats but she preferred to go hatless. What a girl.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before Britney’s condition worsened and discomfort and pain were part of her daily life. It became harder to focus on things she cared about. At one point, while flipping through a People magazine, she suddenly began to cry. When Becky asked what was wrong, Britney replied, “I don’t remember how to read anymore.”
Britney fought hard against cancer. She fought longer than the doctors expected she would – six months and eight days from the day of her diagnosis. On Christmas Eve of 2013, Britney left this earth and joined her little brother Michael in heaven.
Once again, Becky and her family faced grief and unanswerable questions. How can a couple lose two of their precious children? How does a parent go on after losing a child once, let alone a second time? How will Amanda and Nick cope with another loss?
“We still struggle every day as a family,” Becky says, a year after Britney’s death. “We still haven’t figured this whole thing out. Britney is gone. She is out of pain, but our hurt is still there. Our hurt will hurt forever.”
In the middle of pain and loss, Becky still finds room for deep gratitude. She’s thankful for friends, family, and community, the kindness of other human beings, the memories shared to encourage them in their time of mourning. She’s thankful for fundraisers and benefits to ease the financial burden of caring for someone with cancer.
She says, “I cannot imagine the additional stress of worrying about losing my job, paying bills, who would be taking care of Britney or where she would be cared for. It’s the support of family and friends that carried us to where we are today and afforded me the opportunity to take care of my child.”
Becky feels gratitude for her in-home childcare and what it meant for her children’s early years. “Daycare is the BEST thing I have ever done, especially looking back now that we have lost both Britney and Michael. I have no regrets! I spent every possible moment with them that I could.”
When Britney was sick, there were occasions when Becky had to call the parents of the children she cared for and ask them to make other arrangements. She was touched by how loving and understanding they always were. Eventually, when it came time for Becky to focus all of her attention on Britney, Becky was worried about having to close the doors of the daycare, of what it would mean for the future. All of the families understood and encouraged her to take care of her daughter. After Britney’s death, when she decided to reopen, she wondered if any of her daycare kids would be back. Becky said, “What a blessing when I opened my doors again and all of my families returned.”
Today, the rhythms of life continue on at the Kleikamp house. Energy fills the house as daycare kids are dropped off in the early morning hours. Terry leaves for work and Nicholas heads off to school. Amanda comes and goes, juggling her time between NMU and her internship.
Becky bundles little ones and brings them out to play in the fresh snow. She rolls a giant snowball for the base of a snowman and gathers twigs for his arms. She smiles at the children running and shouting in her yard, singing songs and giggling from beneath snowy hats. Back inside, she hangs soggy snowpants and mittens to dry. The kids play in the living room while she fills cups and spreads jelly onto bread. They share a simple meal. After a story, the little ones go down for naps. Becky tidies the kitchen and organizes materials for crafts and games. When they wake, the fun and activity begins again.
Twenty-one years ago, Becky Kleikamp left her job to raise her firstborn daughter, Britney. She didn’t know then that her choice to open a daycare would prove to be one of the best decisions of her life — that she would be a mother not only to her own children, but to a community of children.
She didn’t realize that she would become a teacher of the most important lessons –
how to be silly,
how to be kind,
how to keep trying,
how to love,
how to get up again and again,
how to keep on giving, pouring out into the world, even when so much has been taken away.
In many ways, Becky is a mother and teacher to us all. Through her actions, she reminds us that loving people is the most important thing. With her example, she demonstrates that the noblest, most worthwhile endeavor of our lives is togetherness.
Revisions are a part of life. No mother should have to lose two children, but Becky is comforted that Britney and Michael are together, loving and caring for each other. And Becky continues on. During this season of rebirth, offer up a thought or a prayer for this incredible woman and the love she continues to share despite the ache she continues to endure.