When I met Kay Armstrong Baker in 1998, it didn't take long to find out that she roots rabidly for the basketball team at the University of Kansas, where she met her husband, John. Kay studied music education and music therapy there. Kay and John's son, Jason, is now a music therapist himself.
Two years later, the Wilde Lake couple would face something most of us wouldn't wish on our worst enemies: the death of a child.
Every parent fears it more than anything else. The possibility is, in a word, unspeakable.
Three days after Courtney Baker Slosman passed away in 2000 at the age of 28, pregnant with her first child, her mother began to keep a journal.
"I had to write down what happened that day to make sense of it, from the bagel I had for breakfast to the contract I had that morning to getting the word from John that Courtney was in the hospital in Randallstown," the now-retired real estate agent recalls. As she wrestled with her grief in the coming years, she continued to record the emotional struggle that continued (and does to this day) even as the mundane and everyday crept back into her life.
"I had yoga and exercise and music already," she says, but writing became the key arrow in her quiver of coping.
What began as a mother's way of dealing with grief, though, turned into something more when friends and other parents who had lost children encouraged her to turn her journal entries into a book. She contracted with the self-publishing house Outskirts Press to produce "Unspeakable! A Mother's Journey."
That process in itself became another struggle. The re-working, the editing, the software issues, the back-and-forth with the publisher, etc., became overwhelming. A novice as a writer, she feared having her work picked apart by readers.
"I would get frozen," she says. "I would say to myself, 'I don't know if I can put this out into the universe.' But then I would ask myself, 'Who am I writing this for?' "
The answer was plain enough: She was writing it for those like her who had faced a parent's worst nightmare, and for those therapists and other professionals tasked with helping those who grieve.
Courtney was born with a heart defect that required surgery when she was 14 months old, but other than the regular cardiac checks she enjoyed a pretty normal childhood. "She did soccer and swim team and all of that," her mother says.
As an adult, however, Courtney began to experience tachycardia and arrhythmia, then migraines that grew steadily worse. In the summer of 2000 she'd been to the emergency room on multiple occasions. She hoped that getting past the first trimester of her pregnancy would mean that the headaches would let up, but they only seemed to grow more intense.
On Sunday, Aug. 27, 2000, Courtney, who had been married for three years and was working as an ambulance dispatcher, was to have dinner with her folks.
"Brian, her husband, had just left for Fort Benning, Ga., to begin officer candidate school. That afternoon Courtney left a message that she was getting yet another 'killer' migraine and was going back to her apartment," Kay writes.
"Her roommate, Jane, told us Courtney came home and sat down on the couch after taking her medication. She began complaining of blurred vision and numbness in her arm, and then suddenly, she stiffened and fell off the couch. Jane administered CPR and called 911.
When her parents got word that Courtney was in the emergency room again and rushed off to Randallstown, Kay was concerned, but not prepared to hear the worst.
"The doctor came in. She sat down and said, 'Courtney has died.' Just like that."
One surprising lesson Kay's learned about grief is that "It isn't a straight line. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the stages of grief, but it circles back," she says. "You hear a song, a story or a movie she liked and you're back to square one."
Movies were a particular touchstone for Courtney, and in retrospect Kay believes Courtney's movie choices — "Steel Magnolias," "Terms of Endearment," both with plot lines including a daughter preceding her mother in death — bespoke her keen sense of her own mortality.