Monday, February 11, 2013

When a Baby Dies - How Does a Father Say Goodbye?

And [David] said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who can tell whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?”
But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
2 Samuel 12:22-23 NKJV

To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die;…
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;…
Ecclesiastes 3:2a, 4, 6a


            Sometime after 3:00 AM I regained consciousness in the operating room. Evidently I was still alive. I choked on mucous settled in my airway and struggled to breathe. No one seemed to notice. Great. I survived the last four days and surgery, and now I’m going to suffocate in front of a busy operating-room staff. A nurse finally noticed my gasping and called it to the attention of the anesthesiologist, who promptly suctioned my airway. My brief episode of panic subsided as they wheeled me into the recovery room area.
            Dr. Gordon was notified of my alert state and soon came striding in to excitedly tell me everything had gone well. Well? Maybe the surgery went so well that the baby miraculously survived. My heart pounded with hope, but since I was too afraid to ask, and he didn’t offer any magical commentary, I quickly slumped back into reality. I guess by “well” he means he didn’t lose me too.
            “There’s someone outside who is waiting to see you,” he said, patting my shoulder and smiling.
            Chris quickly appeared in the recovery room and leaned over the bed. “It was a girl!” he announced jubilantly, a triumphant smile illuminating his face. He too seemed thrilled enough to make me wonder if we had a miracle awaiting us in the nursery. But further words like “She made it!” weren’t forthcoming, so I knew better than to ask fantastical questions. Chris must have been aching to convey that information, since Dr. Gordon revealed the sex of the baby to him upon his midnight arrival at the hospital. I’d been adamant about not knowing the baby’s sex before delivery and reiterated my need-to-be-surprised to Dr. Gordon, especially during each ultrasound. Dr. Gordon had honored my petition and kept the secret. He’d actually seemed delighted at the request. Somehow Chris had managed to keep the secret too.
            Dr. Gordon joined Chris at my bedside and instructed me to hold tightly to my pillow and cough up more breath-arresting mucous. When I clenched the pillow and sharply contracted my stomach muscles, the acute, stabbing pain of the new C-section incision jolted my fragile senses. This isn’t over, is it God? I have to endure more physical pain.
            Turning my head to respond to the recovery room nurse’s question, my eyes and heart were assaulted by her swollen abdomen. She was pregnant. Very pregnant. Trying to forget my own abruptly terminated pregnancy, I nervously launched into a distracting discussion about her being able to continue working such long, late hours while carrying a baby. We intermingled that topic with small talk. She was close to her due date, excited about the impending birth and termination of the aches and pains accompanying the third trimester. I felt happy for her. I needed to feel happy for her. I wished her good luck when they pronounced me ready to return to my room.
            Once back in the room and repositioned on a brand new egg crate pad – oh, why hadn’t they given me one of these before; I might have managed to make it longer! – I felt weary, but emotionally revitalized. Actually, I felt oddly, unnervingly euphoric. My neurons and endocrinology system didn’t distinguish between postnatal happy endings or heartache. The brain had successfully done its job and triggered the opioid chemical release right on cue. Jubilant, post-delivery endorphins ran rampant through my body. But I could tell Chris wasn’t sharing my blissful state when he suddenly clutched my hand and desperately, emphatically blurted, “I want to try again, right away!”
            I blinked at him, shocked. During the nausea therapy we both adamantly declared we couldn’t go through “that” again. Of course, neither of us, at any time, honestly considered the possibility of losing the baby during pregnancy. But we had vehemently affirmed our commitment. So convinced was I of our choice, that I considered asking Dr. Gordon to perform a tubal ligation of my Fallopian tubes during the C-section. Now Chris was changing his mind. He feels like a failure; he desperately wants to replace her. I simply asked him if he were sure, and he responded with an almost-too-confident “Yes!”
            “Well…we can wait to see what Dr. Gordon says about even having another baby.” I inhaled deeply and continued to stare at him. “Did you see her?” I asked gently.
            “Yes. I got to hold her right after she was born. And she was so cute; she was perfect!” The nurse midwife said she was absolutely perfect.” He barely managed to choke out the last statement. His eyes welled with tears, and he massaged them vigorously with his fingers. “I want to name her Victoria,” he continued categorically, as though making a monumental decision to which he wanted no resistance.
            “But I thought you didn’t like that name!” I was astonished. I’d selected “Cory” for a boy and “Victoria Lee” for a girl. Chris had rolled his eyes and expressed a rebuffing sniff at my girl’s name selection. “Too sophisticated and snooty,” was his immediate verdict. But I couldn’t understand how Victoria Lee sounded any more imposing than our son’s “Parker Prescott,” so I really hadn’t considered different names. And I thought there’d be plenty of time left to make that important decision. Plenty of time...
            “She looks like a Victoria,” he replied. “I want to name her Victoria Lee.”  
            I studied his watery, cornflower blue eyes and nearly drowned in their turbulent sea of anguish. He was trying valiantly to portray steadfast determination and self-control, to maintain a sense of manly composure.
            “Okay…we will name her Victoria Lee.” He gently squeezed my hand he’d been nervously, distractedly massaging and nodded in affirmation.
            “I better go pick up Parker from Carol’s and try to get some sleep before I leave for work,” he uttered after a heavy sigh. “I don’t want to leave him there all night.” Torn between staying by his wife’s side and watching over his son. His shoulders slumped as fatigue and acute, oppressive, burdening grief gained the upper hand. The momentary gratification and pride of naming his daughter rapidly evaporated.
            “All right,” I said, patting his hand. There was nothing more he could do there anyway. I needed sleep, and I sensed his deep, unspoken desire to escape the hospital confines, with its asphyxiating atmosphere of death. I didn’t think his hanging around the room would help either of us.
            Still clutching my hand, he suddenly surrendered to his crushing sorrow; enormous sobs convulsed his body. His fingers flew to his face again, and he viciously stabbed his eyes with them. “She was so little and beautiful,” he choked as his body collapsed, and his head found a resting place on my breast.
            There was nothing more to say.
            In the quiet darkness of the hospital room, I held him and stroked his hair as he succumbed to the weight of unbounded grief.


NEXT WEEK: My turn to say goodbye to my baby girl, Victoria Lee…

            Since I was indisposed, so to speak, I didn’t witness Chris’s immediate reaction to seeing Victoria for the first time. Some time after her death, he was able to relay to me his response. Initially he was shocked. Actually, more than shocked. He was shocked, bewildered. Angry. When the nurse midwife – weeping uncontrollably – brought his newly born and newly died, pink, bundled baby into the waiting room to deposit in his lap – without prior request from him or prior warning – his first, unvoiced reaction was, “How can you be so cruel? I don’t want to hold her. What in the he _ _ do you expect me to do with her?”
            But what they knew, and he quickly realized, was that he needed to see her. He needed to hold her. He needed to see her, feel her, touch her. She was real and she was his. Flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. His precious baby girl.
            And he needed to say goodbye, even while he said hello.
            Saying goodbye, I’m not sure he’s ever truly done. After all of these years, he tells me he’s still not ready.
            The words he uttered to her that night are his own – private, pained, outpourings of his severed heart. 
            Just as my hello and goodbye would be hours later.

Thanks so much for joining me.

Until next week!