Mom to Jack Daniel
Chicago, Illinois (Living in Bucharest, Romania)
05-11-15 to 05-12-15
The best things in life aren’t planned, or so I’ve been told. And that’s exactly what everyone said to me when I found I was pregnant just two months shy of my fortieth birthday. I wasn’t trying; on the contrary I was actively trying not to get pregnant. “Bob” and I had just decided not to continue dating. After a great vacation he’d called it quits at the airport. A few weeks later we got together for one last hurrah. And what a last hurrah it was, our son was conceived that day.
To say that Bob and I were surprised by the news is an understatement, like saying Chicago winters are mild. He had two children already and wasn’t looking to have more. I’d embraced my life as a single, adventurous traveler living overseas. We were both shocked and half expected, given our ages, that the pregnancy wouldn’t last. But the months went by, the genetic tests were passed with flying colors, our son grew bigger, his heartbeat was strong on every ultrasound, and he kicked and flipped happily every time he appeared on the screen.
In late February I returned to Chicago to get the best medical care possible during my last trimester as well as support from family and friends. Bob and I both live and work overseas. Medical care isn’t fantastic in our current location and I knew that infants are hard to stabilize if they need to be evacuated so the NICU at the hospital where the baby is delivered is likely the one they will end up receiving care at if they should need it.
Back in Chicago there were baby showers, birthing classes, breastfeeding classes, infant CPR classes. Needless to say if there was a class that was recommended, I took it. At forty I had been pretty sure children weren’t in the cards for me. Although I’m a teacher, infants weren’t something I knew a whole lot about so I started preparing. I remember the instructor at my birthing class asking everyone what he or she was most worried about. I answered “Getting in shape after the birth.” Looking back it seems such a silly, frivolous worry. I should have answered, “That my son will live. That he will survive.” But I didn’t know. I’d made it past all the big milestones, survived some bleeding at the beginning. I thought I was past the part where things went wrong.
May rolled around and Bob arrived in Chicago a week before my due date. We were going to try and make things work. I’d rented a place around the corner from him back in Romania so we could ease our way into co-parenting. The last days of my pregnancy were spent discussing our future together, finalizing a name (Jack Daniel after his dad and mine) choosing the outfit Jack would wear home from the hospital and making all the other last minute purchases. We’d had a rocky start, but the future was about to arrive and we both embraced it.
Hours before my scheduled induction I went into labor naturally. By the time I got to the hospital I was already six centimeters dilated. Hooked up to the monitor I remember the nurse saying “He’s really happy in there!” My blood pressure was low. I was fine; Jack was fine, the epidural kicked in. Bob napped on the couch in the hospital suite while I rested my eyes and thought, “This isn’t so bad, I might even do it again!” Until all of sudden it was bad, it was awful, it was a gut wrenching, heart breaking nightmare that would forever alter who I am as a human being, the way I see the world, the course of my life.
Dilated ten centimeters, Jack’s heartbeat suddenly stopped. An oxygen mask was shoved over my face, a room that had been dim and calm just moments before was crowded with nurses and doctors searching for a heartbeat, paging the anesthesiologist Careening down the hallway I was wheeled into surgery and put under for an emergency c-section. From the time Jack’s heartbeat was lost until he was delivered only eighteen minutes passed. The pediatrician on call was able to resuscitate him and he was immediately whisked away to the NICU. That place I’d seen on my hospital tour but never thought my baby would end up in.
I awoke to find Bob and my mom by my side. Our son was being prepped for a transfer to Lurie Children’s Hospital in downtown Chicago, one of the best in the country. When I heard that, I started to doubt, I began to think Jack wasn’t going to make it. Bob didn’t know the reputation of Lurie and how they dealt with the worst cases, the kids people thought were going to die. But I knew and the idea that my son wouldn’t live started to register. I saw him briefly before he left, hooked up to monitors and machines, eyes closed, barely alive. My precious son, the biggest surprise of my life, the baby I’d watched on ultrasounds, felt kick inside me, read to, walked with, chatted to for the past nine months. The future I’d been envisioning the little person I’d been washing cloths for in special baby detergent. Everything I imagined my world would be was hooked up to more machines then I’d ever seen, barely hanging onto life.
Bob jumped into the ambulance with Jack and I returned to my room. For a few minutes, 20 maybe 30 at the most I allowed myself to believe he’d make it. I pushed the doubt aside. The odds were so stacked against his even existing in the first place. We’d had sex one time, I was using birth control, and we were both older. There was simply no way all those odds could be beat for Jack to die now. I grabbed my Kindle and started to read, checked Facebook, logged into my work email. And that’s when any last shred of hope left me. I’ve always believed that death happens in threes. You hear about one death and before the week is out you’ll hear about two more. A good friend of my mom’s had lost her husband earlier in the week. The first email I saw was that a colleague’s mother had past away. Jack was three. He was going to be the third death this week. My son wasn’t going to make it.
Minute’s later Bob called from Lurie and my worst fears were confirmed. He’d met with a team of doctors who all told him the same thing. There was no way Jack was going to survive. His organs had sustained too much damage. Liver, kidneys, heart, lungs; they were all failing. Nothing could be done. I’d traveled all this way to give my son every medical advantage it was possible to have and now one of the best children’s hospitals in the world was telling me there wasn’t a thing they could do. My son was going to die; no one could save him.
I watched his baptism over Face Time. Tears streaming down my face as holy water was poured over his head. I’d pictured this moment so many times. Dressed in the christening gown my family had worn for generations he’d let out a loud, rebellious cry when the shock of the cold registered. But babies can’t cry when they are attached to a breathing tube, the baptism was silent.
Eventually I was transferred to Prentice Woman’s hospital. A long corridor led to Lurie and the NICU where Jack was. Nearly fourteen hours after his birth, I finally got to hold my son. I marveled at his full head of hair, how sturdy he felt in my arms, his barely-there eyebrows and lashes, the nose and lips that looked exactly like his father. Pain coursed through my body as I held him. The ambulance ride had been full of bumps and jarring traffic stops. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours and was trying not to take any more pain medication so I could be fully aware of what was going on. So I could soak in the only moments I’d ever have with my son.
Through the night I sat by his bedside, my hand resting on his leg. I’d thought so much about all the ways his coming into my life was going to change it. In all that time I’d never imagined he’d be leaving it so very soon; that his passing would change me more far more than the news of his impending arrival.
A few hours later I held Jack in my arms once again. There were no tubes this time, the machines were off. He’d been given a shot of morphine to help him with any pain. One by one my family members said good-bye as they filed out of the room until it was just the three of us, Jack, Bob and I. For just a moment I thought he might pull through. That the army of specialists was wrong, he’d let out a loud cry, kick his strong legs like he’d done when he’d been inside me, that he’d beat the odds one more time. But he didn’t. Instead Jack peacefully passed away in my arms, having known nothing but love for the short time he was here on Earth. As unexpectedly as he’d shown up the day I say the second line on my pregnancy test he left. And with him he took my dreams for a future I never thought was going to be mine. Bedtime stories, trick-or-treating, grandchildren, sandcastles, they all left with him. A chasm wider than the Grand Canyon was forming in my heart, that place where my life with him would have been was now wide open and empty.
Days after Jack left my life, his father did too. We all handle grief in our own way and I try not to judge, he did what he felt he had to. Went to be with his two living children, back to the life he’d known before. And slowly in the months that have followed I’ve begun to pick of the pieces of my own life. I’m back in Romania now too, back at work, visiting all the places I went to when my son was alive inside of me. Seeing the future I lost around every corner and wondering how I’ll ever build a new one.
Jack’s time here may have been brief, but it was meaningful. The church was full of people celebrating my son’s short life. It wasn’t a community I lived in any longer but they rallied around me when I needed them most. Held me up when I thought I’d fall down. Cried with me and mourned the loss of my son, a little boy everyone had been so very excited to get to know. Donations poured in to the charity I’d chosen, masses were given in Jack’s honor, people around the world sent their condolences and held their own children a little tighter. And I began a journey very different from the one I’d imagined being on. My son and I are still on this journey together. I can’t see him, or hold him, change his diaper or watch him learn to crawl. But I can feel him beside me. He’s teaching me how wonderful my friends and family are, he’s teaching me what really matters, he’s teaching me that I’m stronger than I ever imagined I could be. He’s teaching me that “There is no footprint too small it cannot leave an imprint on this world.”
Amanda can be reached at Amandaf_brandt@yahoo.com