Too Beautiful for Words Her time with us was short. But 21-month-old Claire Renaux left a lifetime of memories for parents and her adopted aunt, Sun columnist Susan Reimer.

March 06, 1997|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN COLUMNIST

I believe a baby is born knowing all she will ever know, all that can be known.

I believe she has seen the face of God, that she comprehends the universe and can number the stars that sparkle above her cradle.

But soon enough, babies begin to talk. And when they try to fit all they know into an inadequate language, most of this knowledge falls away, lost forever. Soon their great wisdom shrinks to fit "ball" and "baby."

Claire Catherine Renaux died Tuesday of leukemia, three months short of her second birthday and, more importantly, without ever getting around to talking away all that she knew.

Claire's father is French, her mother is American. As is often the case with bilingual children, Claire understood every word said to her in French and English, but hadn't gotten around to speaking either language yet.

She managed to make her mind known with a vocabulary of finger-pointing as delicate as a princess might use to choose the fairy cakes for her afternoon tea, but as easy to understand as a first-grade primer.

And Claire enchanted me and all who met her. Without ever lifting one of those fingers, without ever saying a word.

The first meeting of Claire's parents, Kathy Helzlsouer and Jean-Luc Renaux, could have been a scene from a Cary Grant-Ingrid Bergman movie: the dining car of Il Palatino, the train linking Rome to Paris, in May 1990.

Kathy, a doctor and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, had just finished working in London and was doing some sight-seeing before she returned to the United States. Jean-Luc, a manager in strategic marketing and international relations with the French railway system, SNCF, was returning from a meeting with Italian railroad officials. They were traveling in the same sleeping car and found themselves across the table from each other in the dining car one night.

"I wasn't sure, but there was something about him that made me want to know more," says Kathy. But there was no time, and she returned to Baltimore.

Two letters passed each other over the Atlantic and each said the same thing: This is crazy, but maybe it could work. Would you like to try?

A trans-Atlantic courtship resulted in a wedding Aug. 3, 1991, in St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore. Children were the first order of business. But when you are in your late 30s, that is easier wished for than accomplished, and Claire Catherine Renaux was hard won.

"It was harder than I ever thought it would be to get pregnant," says Kathy. "But I loved every minute of carrying her. I loved the morning sickness. I loved how hard she kicked. I loved how I felt every day.

"My friends wondered how I could have worked so hard to just give up my freedom, but I never minded. I loved holding her, rocking her. I never minded when she would get sick and keep us up at night. I loved it all.

"And I was never away from her."

Claire had a passport at 5 months of age and traveled everywhere with her parents.

When she was 6 months old, she went with them to Brussels, Belgium, stayed in the courtly Astoria Hotel, and was invited to dinner by one of Europe's top transportation executives.

Claire, dressed like a princess in mint-green velvet, began her life of conquests that night.

"She charmed everyone," says Jean-Luc. "The manager arrived and took pictures. She was delightful."

And Claire was with Kathy last May in Philadelphia when her mother presented a paper at a medical conference. But she was feverish so Kathy and Jean-Luc returned to Baltimore, and Kathy missed the afternoon session.

The topic was acute myeloid leukemia, the deadliest form of leukemia.

Confirming the worst

Claire's fever passed, and her first birthday party went off as scheduled. "She perked up, but something was not right," says Kathy.

Claire was just learning to walk, so the bruises on her legs were no surprise. But the bruise on her ear troubled Kathy. She put it on her list of questions for Claire's well-baby check-up later that week.

Blood tests at that check-up alarmed Claire's pediatrician, Dr. Frances Gmur. It could be viral or it could be leukemia, she said.

Kathy looked at the slides. "My heart sank."

She knew what she was seeing. Kathy is not just a doctor. She is an oncologist. A cancer doctor.

Jean-Luc, working at home, grew alarmed when his wife and daughter did not return promptly. When Kathy called, he said, he realized within seconds that his daughter was likely to die.

"It was the most terrifying 25 minutes of my life," he says of that phone conversation. "I felt that I could not stand up."

On May 29, a bone marrow test confirmed the worst. Claire had AML. The bad leukemia.

There began the battle that Claire and Kathy and Jean-Luc would lose. From that day on, there was never any good news. Test results came back bad and worse. There were six courses of chemotherapy. Then a bone marrow transplant. Then more chemo. This was not just bad leukemia, this was smart leukemia.

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