A Tribute to Brittany Ann O’Connell (December 22, 1975 – January 19, 1999)
written by Candace Abel, January 2004
Over the years, I have been asked many times about our beautiful daughter, Brittany. People see her name in all our literature, and are naturally curious about her story. When people ask, I am always happy to talk about Brittany’s love of children and her desire to make a difference in the world. Visitors to our web site can read about her aspirations and dreams which became the basis of our foundation. However, I find myself reluctant to talk about the essence of who she was as a person and her niche in our family; not because I am ashamed of her nor because I care less about her than my surviving children.
The simple truth is like any bereaved mother, sharing bits of our personal relationship… intimate moments both good and bad…stirs up the slow ache of losing her. This time of year in particular, with Brittany’s birthday on December 22nd, the loss of this vibrant life renews with the gathering of our family for the holidays. The sad quiet January days following the joyous hubbub of activity highlight the loss. This anniversary it will be five years since our Brittany left us, and it feels right to draw back the curtains on memories we held close for so long. Perhaps in the recalling of this resilient and luminous young woman, I can express the profound blessing adoption can be to both child and family.
Brittany joined our family in 1989 at the age of 12, following the desertion of her father, and the diagnosis of her mother’s terminal cancer. She was desperately in need of a stable home where she could process her mother’s death and let go of the anger she held for her father. We tried hard to be that family for her. It was not always easy to parent an angry teenager; we were young and inexperienced ourselves, Brittany being older than the other children in our home at the time, then age 9, 4, and 8 weeks old. I recall one particularly difficult day shortly after her first Christmas with us, when she tested us by breaking several rules in the house. Knowing that the festivities had churned up some grief issues, we did not deal with her harshly, but grounded her all the same. The following morning we found her bed empty and a note on her pillow. Panicked we raced out the door only to discover her sitting on the back porch, suitcase by her side, crying with her dog on her lap. I sat down beside her and wrapped her in my arms. “The dog didn’t want to leave,” she said. “Just the dog?” I answered back. “Yes,” she said, “HE is the only one with any sense!” Britt’s wonderful sense of humor saved the day, and many more to come.
Britt soon figured out that we were not letting go of her (or the dog), and in that knowledge she was able to let go of her pain. What joy we experienced as a family as Brittany gradually emerged from her suffocating rage and blossomed into a radiant young woman!
I am woman.
I am Britt.
Hear me ROAR!
Never one to hold back, Britt was zany and outgoing, and at times irreverent in a charming way. She held opinions about everything from abortion to cafeteria food. She was indignant at injustices she saw around her, and stated so loudly. She walked in the Pro-Life March every January, saved turtles from roads and brought home stray cats; her last stray, Sigmund (“It’s short for Freud, Mom!”) still resides with us.
Politics fascinated her, babies delighted her and old people were “cool.” After she spent hours every Saturday night staying with an ailing neighbor lady, she came home and announced, “You know, Lawrence Welk is a kinda fun old dude!” And when the sweet neighbor lady died, she cried for weeks and cherished the porcelain angel the woman had given to her.
Britt thoroughly loved her family, especially enjoying the cultural components of her adopted siblings. I recall her excitement at Mai-Lynn’s arrival from Vietnam in December 1995. On Christmas day itself, Mai-Lynn seemed overwhelmed with the parade of visitors, until Brittany plunked wrapping and bows on her head, and declared herself, “The Present Princess!” We were lucky enough to capture the wonderful moment of Mai’s reaction on film to be enjoyed forever.
Britt loved her siblings, but she completely adored her littlest sister, Elizabeth, twelve years her junior. They had a special bond the rest of us were privileged to watch from the outside. They spent hours playing Barbie and dress-up and slept together in a twin bed, even when they were too big to do so. When Britt went away to college, she gave Liz her beloved Cabbage Patch dolls “to take care of” and called home so often we installed an 800 number.
During her college years, Brittany grew into a beautiful young woman and I gained a friend eager at a moment’s notice to shop, travel, or go to the theater. In truth, I loved these years, when distance afforded us the opportunity to relate as equals. We began to share thoughts and feelings that only come with maturity. I was the person she called when her first real love broke her heart.
No, I am not getting a social work degree.
I am getting a degree in socializing!
She changed her major three times before settling on Social Work and minoring in political science; my pictures of abandoned children in orphanages, taken on travels to Vietnam and India, really struck a chord deep within her. She loved her little sister so much, it was impossible for her to understand anyone abandoning or abusing a child. She began to talk of law school and working to “help abandoned children” someday.
Shortly before she died, Britt spoke the special words that form the core of our mission, “I dream of a world where all children know the peace and love only a family can provide.” Brittany would die in an icy car crash, but her dreams would not; Brittany’s Hope Foundation is building Brittany’s dream one child, one life at a time. The same sweet joy I felt in watching Britt grow, I now feel every time I watch another granted child come home and flourish. This wonderful and powerful work is healing my heart each and every day.
Recently, I had a dream of Brittany walking through a garden of flowers, much like the garden in our foundation’s symbol. She seemed so peaceful and content, enjoying the sun and inhaling the heady scents. I would like to believe this is what Britt is doing today, strolling in our Eternal Garden of Hope, humming and happy, stooping to pick the sweetest and prettiest of God's floral gems, and smiling every time a child comes home.