Monday, October 29, 2018

Two Years Ago Today

Two years ago today, I was a witness to something so powerful, I will never forget it.

I've never told this story. I have never felt like it was my story to tell. It's a story of absolutely life-altering, catastrophic pain. But not my pain. Someone else's.

Still, two years later, this experience stays with me. I am realizing it always will. I think some good could come from telling it - as long as I'm extremely clear that I'm under no impression this is in any way about ME. I was merely an empathetic bystander.

A few years ago, I got a call from my dad while I was at work. It was (is) unusual for him to call me during work hours, so I know it's important if he's calling. I answered the phone and he explained that his co-worker's new grandbaby had just been born! I know, this seems pretty random. Let me step back for a minute and give some background.

My dad worked with this guy for quite a few years. They were friends. This guy's son worked for a company that I dealt with through work. And, that son was married to a young lady who happened to be a friend of my cousin. (Gotta love small town life.) We had met them a couple of times in passing, but didn't really know them at all.

I remembered, a few months prior to this phone call, my dad mentioning that his co-worker's son and daughter-in-law were expecting their first baby after trying to start a family for a while. I think he knew that I would relate to them on some level since we also struggled to have a family. He wasn't wrong. I would ask every so often how they were doing. I saw the expectant mom's interactions with my cousin on Facebook and every time I saw her growing belly, my heart would tingle a little. I was so happy for them.

Infertility is one of those things you simply can't understand if you haven't been through it. It's hard and it's uncomfortable and a lot of people don't talk about it because they think it's shameful or awkward. They aren't really wrong either. So I guess I always felt some kind of connection to these people, but I doubt they even knew that. We didn't really even know each other.

So, when my dad called that day to tell me the baby had been born, I wanted to be excited... but I detected something in his voice. Something wasn't quite right. He explained that when the baby was born, the doctors quickly discovered she had Spina Bifida. (This is basically a birth defect wherein the spine and spinal cord don't develop correctly.) Their baby was born with a hole in her spinal cord that was actually open to the outside of her body. I knew very little about Spina Bifida before this phone call, but I quickly did some research. I realized that they were going to need help dealing with this.

Baby A went almost immediately into surgery to place a shunt to help keep pressure from building up around her brain due to the spinal cord defect. My heart was breaking for these people and I just wanted so badly to do something - anything - to help somehow and make them feel less alone.

Not knowing what else to do, I messaged A's dad on Facebook and I asked if they would approve of me starting a GoFundMe to raise some money to help with their medical bills and time they'd undoubtedly miss from work dealing with this unexpected issue. (Babies are expensive even when they don't have any problems, so I couldn't even imagine what this was going to cost.) He was a little taken aback, but agreed to allow me to do this for them.

Over the next couple of months, that GoFundMe made something like $5000 to help them take their minds off bills and work so they could focus on their beautiful baby girl. Baby A stole many people's hearts right from the day she was born! Her parents expressed gratitude for my help many times over (which I assured them was unnecessary!), the three of us became Facebook friends and got to know each other better. We still never really hung out, but I felt like we had a bond going forward.

Thanks to Facebook, I got to watch that baby, despite the odds being firmly against her, learn to roll over, sit, crawl and even walk! Her loving parents made sure she had everything she needed to beat those odds. She had little braces for her feet and a special walker to help her get around and be independent. Most importantly, she was enveloped in love and support from many sides. I suspect this is why she also had a grin that could light up an entire room. Her future was so bright. I couldn't wait to see what she would accomplish and what other obstacles she would knock down.

When A was two, I got a random Facebook notification. I will never forget that I was standing in line at Target on my lunch hour. It said something about A needing prayers. I opened the app and saw the post from A's mom - something about her baby girl fighting for her life. My heart sank and it felt like all the blood rushed out the bottoms of my feet right there in the checkout line. Tears filled my eyes and my heart seized. I didn't know what was going on, but it was not good at all.

I'm still not entirely sure what the series of events was that led up to this day two years ago that I talked about at the beginning of this post. All I know is that Baby A ended up being medevac'd from their small town to the larger one (where I live now) and that she was in the pediatric ICU of the local hospital. She was in a coma. I reached out to her parents to offer my support and see if there was anything I could do. They were, I'm sure, completely overwhelmed and bombarded, and I didn't hear too much back, understandably. I just wanted them to know I was here if they needed me.

I prayed so hard for A and so many other people did, too. Facebook blew up with messages of love and support for A and her parents. I wanted so badly to do something, to show support somehow, but I had no idea how. I didn't want to just show up at the hospital and make them feel as if they needed to let me into their private crisis or entertain me. I felt that I would be intruding or imposing.

So, like most others who knew them, I waited. And I compulsively checked Facebook, hoping for a post about a miraculous recovery. That post never came.

A couple of days later, on October 29th, a mutual friend of mine and A's parents' was coming to the big city and asked me if I wanted to go with her to the hospital to visit Baby A and her parents. I was so relieved and glad she reached out! We met at the hospital that morning and made our way to the pediatric unit. We weren't sure exactly what we were walking into, but we wanted to offer some love and support.

What followed plays in my mind like a movie I wish never needed to be made. It turned out we were arriving something like five minutes after the doctors informed A's parents that she was about to be declared brain dead. They were running one more set of tests first, but that was to be finished within the hour.

We walked into the middle of her parents trying to come to grips with the fact their daughter was, though still breathing, already gone. Both of their mothers were there, along with my two friends and I, in a small family waiting room just down the hall from the room where A lay, still in a coma, being kept alive only by machines.

I don't know how long we were there. Maybe an hour or two. All I can remember is sitting with, crying with, and holding these two beautiful, strong, amazing people as they processed this. The first time I ever hugged A's dad was on this day. He crumbled in my arms, as anyone would. I held this young mother in my arms - all of us did - and tried to comfort her through heart-wrenching, body-wracking sobs that can only come from this kind of pain. The kind of pain no person should ever have to experience, ever.

I am a very emotional person. Emotions and expressions of emotion are well within my comfort zone. But I have never had a front seat to emotion this raw and powerful. The best way I can think of to describe it was almost primal. My heart was absolutely breaking.

We all cried. We told stories about A and what an amazing little girl she was. We tried to assure her parents that they had given her a better life than anyone could have imagined for her, and that she knew she was loved beyond measure. There were moments we all sat in silence, just at a total loss for words. We laughed a little bit about funny things A had said or done.

I was there when two hospital social workers came to inquire about organ donation. I sat with Baby A's mother as she began to fill out paperwork to donate her two-year-old's organs. She was so incredibly brave and strong - they both were. That's who they are. In their moment of completely devastating loss, they chose to endure even further discomfort to help others. They said that is what A would have wanted. We told them she got that kind and giving spirit from the two of them. We meant it.

Eventually, the time came for Baby A's parents to return to her bedside to be with her as those machines were unplugged. We said some very tearful goodbyes and tried our hardest to make sure they knew we would be thinking of them and praying for them constantly. I remember her mother, during our last hug that morning, whispering in my ear, "please just pray we survive this." I didn't think that my heart could break any further, but it did.

As we all left that waiting room, A's mom told my friend and I to go home and hug our little boys tightly. We promised we would.

Dave and Aidan had dropped me off at the hospital and left to run an errand while I was visiting. When I got back to the lobby, I summoned Dave via text. He headed back toward the hospital to pick me up. It was chilly and raining that morning. I sat down on a bench outside, beneath a canopy, near the front door of the entrance. I wanted to be outside in the rain, where I could feel nature near me.

I could not make the tears stop. Even with strangers walking by. I couldn't stop. I became restless. I couldn't stop thinking about what was happening upstairs and how badly I wanted to do something to fix all of this. Sitting still was no longer an option, so I began to pace in front of that hospital entrance. All I could think about was that baby, and her family, and how completely unfair all of this was. And how I would feel if I were in their shoes. I felt like my heart was in a million pieces, so I could not even fathom how they must feel. I hoped to never feel that myself, then felt selfish and guilty for even thinking that.

And I cried harder. I wanted to pick up my baby boy, who was then six, and put him in a bubble where nothing could ever harm him.

At some point I noticed an elderly woman approaching me. I tried not to make eye contact. I kept thinking what a mess I must look like. I figured she must think I was crazy, or a crackhead or something. (Hey, I wasn't so rational at this point.) She walked right up to me, looked me right in the face like your grandmother does when she really wants you to hear what she is saying.

She said to me, "sweetheart, I don't know what has happened, but can I hug you and say a prayer for you?"

I accepted that hug from a stranger. I needed it. I asked her instead to pray for my friends who were saying goodbye to their baby daughter upstairs. She wiped away her own tears and she said a beautiful prayer. She hugged me again and she went on her way into the hospital. My heart relaxed just a tiny bit.

When Dave and Aidan showed up minutes later, I flung Aidan's door open and I stood there in the rain, hugging my baby and crying, for a long time. He didn't understand what was wrong. I don't remember what I told him. I just remember I didn't want to let go. Of course I eventually did, but I remember I was extra protective of him for some time after that.

I will never forget this day. I will never forget Baby A. I will never forget her parents - both their intense love and support for her, and their utter devastation at losing her. My feeling of helplessness and sadness in trying to comfort them, and feeling totally inadequate at it.

None of us knows when something unexpected could happen. All we can do is to try to appreciate every day, every moment, especially with our children. They might drive us crazy sometimes, but there are people in this world who would do anything to have those hassles again. I try to honor Baby A's memory as much as I can. I think of her so often. Her life was important and meaningful and worthwhile. And I won't let her be forgotten.