The Greever house looks like Christmas. Michelle gazes down on it all.
She watches from a photo hanging above the hearth. From another picture, she smiles in the dining room. And she’s in the living room - framed, golden, 9 years old still.
On the Christmas tree, there’s a figurine inside a stocking. It has sat in that sock since Michelle put it there. Nine years ago.
In the hutch is her music box. It’s ceramic, a mother mouse tucking in a baby. Wind it up and you hear “Michelle.”
The scene is all tinsel and pine. Happy holidays. But when Cindy Jo Greever wound up the mouse last week, she choked hard and cried.
Michelle is dead.
She was struck by a car as she headed out to meet the school bus on Nov. 5, 1993.
It was a gorgeous fall day - sunny and crisp. Michelle wore earmuffs and a backpack as she walked to the bus stop. Then she dropped something. As she turned to get it, a car slammed into her, hitting her in the back.
The Greevers say they know Michelle lives on in spirit - and in practical ways, too. Her donated liver saved the life of a little girl, and the hearts of two young boys beat with her valves. Two men see through her corneas.
“The greatest gift of all is life,” Cindy Jo Greever says. “Michelle is living on in many others, and that is a big comfort.”
Greever deals with the hole in her heart by helping other bereaved parents. She started by searching through obituaries and sending sympathy cards to strangers.
Now the 42-year-old woman writes, edits and publishes a newsletter for them from her Colbert home. She also is an editor of a National Kidney Foundation newsletter for people grieving loved ones who were organ donors.
Greever credits it all to a girl who seemed to know her life wouldn’t last long.
“I think she’s turned her grief in a very positive direction and uses her energies to help others,” says Kathleen Casey of the kidney foundation in New York.
Greever’s 24-page quarterly, “Heart to Heart, Hope & Healing,” goes to about 120 families from Washington to Florida. The Kidney Foundation newsletter circulates to 30,000.
Readers are thankful for it.
“I was glad,” says Linda Smith of Spokane. “… Sometimes, parents who lose kids crawl into themselves, and they don’t even want to live.”
Smith lost her 16-year-old son, James, in a car accident in 1994. Unexpectedly, Greever sent her a sympathy card stamped with a picture of Michelle. About five months later, when Smith was ready, they talked.
Through Greever’s newsletter, Smith found a circle of friends afflicted with the same sadness, a sadness bereaved parents say never goes away.
“It’s not natural or someone you give life to to part before you,” Greever says. “You never, ever, ever - and I emphasize never - get over it.”
Michelle’s palm prints still blur a pane of Cindy Jo Greever’s window. She won’t wash them away.
But she says it helps to believe there was a reason for her daughter’s short life.
Greever’s memories of Michelle’s last weeks are filled with conversations that seem prophetic.
This bright-eyed fourth-grader started talking about death, faith and a future without her.
Greever keeps binders and albums that brim with mementos of Michelle.
There’s a note the girl left with their neighbors. It pledged that she’d be their friend for life “unless I die today, but I do not think I will.”
A few days before the accident, Michelle told her mother that if she ever died, don’t worry. “Just look at the sky and see the brightest star, and that will be me.”
Four days before she died, Michelle drew her mother a picture of a girl standing on a crescent moon. In looping kid-cursive, she wrote, “Rove you! Love you! Wove you! Goodnight Mommy, and love sweet dreems.”
Two days before she died, Michelle said she didn’t want people to see her after she died. “Mommy, I don’t want to be remembered like that.”
Her family had her body cremated. Her urn sits in the living room near some photos of her and a ceramic moon Greever bought in remembrance of her daughter’s final drawing.
After Michelle died, her teacher brought Greever some papers from school. One was a picture of a school bus driving down Michelle’s street. “Oh no,” said the caption balloon coming from the bus.
“It was her time,” Greever says. “And God took her home.”
When days are hard, Cindy Jo Greever thinks of her first birthday without Michelle.
That night, Greever was rummaging around in a closet and found a card drawn thick with glue and glitter: “Happy Birthday Mommy.”
Cindy Jo Greever can’t prove these things. But she can show visitors the drawings and the birthday card, and she talks a mile a minute while she does.
Greever and her husband, Dave, are raising two children, 17-year-old Michael and 16-year-old Melissa. On the family Christmas card, the Greevers pose together with Mom holding a framed photo of Michelle.
The photos, the card, the toys, this near veneration - none of it seems to bother Michelle’s siblings.
“It is a way to keep her alive in our hearts,” Melissa says. “It’s comforting.”
It helps them deal with the loss.
Other members of the club no one wants to join understand. No one else can, Linda Smith says.
“People really say some …” Her voice trails off, and she sighs heavily. “You won’t believe what people say.
“‘You have other children. Live for them. Forget about James.”’ Smith says that’s impossible.
Greever agrees. She declined a friend’s offer to help her pack up Michelle’s things. He said, “I think it’s time. I’ll help you.”
Greever asked the friend: If he were blind, deaf and couldn’t touch, would he still love his family? Yes, of course, he replied. Greever said that’s what it’s like with Michelle.
The Greevers have plenty of company.
In the lobby of the Sacred Heart Doctors Building, a Christmas tree is decorated with paper snowflakes and pictures of about 150 people. Some are organ recipients, but 100 are donors, most of whom gave posthumously.
“There are some powerful pictures. Some young children, some young adults,” says Phyllis McFarland, a social worker with the hospital’s heart and lung transplant program.
That’s another of Cindy Jo Greever’s battles. She wants more people to be organ donors. She wants state Department of Licensing offices to display posters promoting the practice.
She sat and listened once as people lined up for their driver’s license pictures. When asked by the clerk, not one wanted to be a donor.
“No one wants to think about death, much less about organ donation,” Greever admits.
But Greever thinks constantly about both.
Dave Greever doesn’t help directly with his wife’s newsletter. He’s there for technical support when the computer crashes. But he talks about her crusade with pride.
And helping others helps the Greevers now, during the season when families are supposed to be close. It’s when the Greevers draw their family circle tight, though a link is - and always will be - missing.
“Every year, it seems to be a little better,” Dave Greever says. “We’ll never be the same. But things are getting a bit easier.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo