Surprising Strength

Oh Angel of God, my guardian dear

To whoms God’s love, commence me hear

Ever this day, be at my side

To light and guard, to rule and guide

Amen

(Catholic Prayer)


My sister-in-law is the coolest. Really. Everyone I know seems to talk about their in-laws like they are aliens from Mars or worse. But I totally lucked out and I am not sure how! My sister-in-law is totally cool, thoughtful, successful, kind, fun and well, just the best. I don’t think of her as a sister-in-law, I think of her as my sister.

One of my goals in life has been to try to be there for the people I love when they need it the most and to be stronger than I thought I could be just once.  One Nov. 20, 2009 on a day I least expected it my destiny called my name.

We were packing to go out-of-town for the weekend. I was in fact,on my way to pick up our youngest from school a bit early so we could get on the road. My husband called as I was pulling into the school parking lot. “You need to pick up Maggie and come home as fast as you can. We have had a change in plans. Maggie can stay here with Sam and you and I need to drive to the hospital. A social worker from PSL just called me and said we needed to come as soon as we can. The are taking Jason into surgery right now. They think he might have a perforated bowel. If he does they can try to repair the damage” The air went out of my lungs like a puff of smoke. “I will be right there ” I managed to reply.

Jason was our nephew. Our premature, extremely tiny 32 week gestation, 4 week old baby nephew. Jason and his twin brother Joshua were born very early. In fact, they arrived at 29 weeks, a full 3 months early. When they arrived they weighed 2 pounds 11 ounces each and were immediate residents of the ICU Neonatal Unit at Presbyterian St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver. The most specialized NIC Unit in the region.

The boys were born to my sister-in-law and her husband after a long and difficult pregnancy. Sonja and Bruce had already gone through so many challenges in trying to become parents that when the boys arrived we all felt like everything would be OK in spite of the fact the boys were extremely premature. They had been doing very well considering their tiny size and in many ways were doing better than the doctors had predicted. This is why this phone call took us by such surprise. “wait, we thought things were going well” was all my husband and I could say to each other during the long, frustrating drive into Denver on a Friday rush hour.

Trying to convince each other that all would be fine we stayed confident as we covered the distance between our home and the hospital.

When we arrived we hurried to the NIC Unit expecting to find Sonja and Bruce in the large waiting room. Instead it was quiet and empty. Not sure where to go we started to walk toward the nurses station but were stopped when a door opened right in front of us. A tall distinguished man in a doctor uniform stepped out. He looked at us and said. ” I am sorry.” I thought he meant he was sorry for stepping out in front of us. He then asked us if we were her for Sonja and Bruce. “Yes” we answered in unison.

The man gestured us into the room. I looked into his eyes and I saw pain and sadness, maybe even sympathy.

Still not aware of what was going on, we stepped into the small, dark room. Sonja and Bruce were sitting on a small couch, a table and lamp gave the room a soft glow.
Bruce looked like he was in shock. Sonja was crying into a Kleenex. I ran to Sonja and gave her a hug. “Oh honey” I murmured trying to calm her worries.

A strange man sat in a chair across from them. He looked at us kindly.

Sonja sobbed. She asked us if we knew. “Knew what?” we asked.

In a heartbeat, the unthinkable happened.

Sonja had tears running down her face as Bruce shared with us the news that had just shattered their world.

“The doctor just left. He just told us that Jason will not make it. They opened him up and their was nothing they could do. His intestines were basically dead. There is nothing they can do. He will not make it” Bruce managed to whisper.

I looked at my husband. Our eyes met and we looked at each other as if looking for answers. Neither of us had an answer for the other.

“Oh my God no.” I said as I stared in disbelief at my sister. Suddenly I had no air in my lungs.  I watched in horror as she explained further details.

To try to explain what this experience was like is pretty much impossible. To be a witness to such raw and consuming sorrow changes you. We all changed that afternoon.

The doctors explained that this is rare but it does happen to preemies. Apparently he had an infection, a fast-moving one that attacked his intestines and destroyed them before the doctors even knew to do surgery. The doctors had told them they would sew up Jason and put him on a ventilator. When they had him ready they would come get Sonja and Bruce and they could say good-by to him.

When we walked into this room we did not expect to be met with this horrible reality. We sat with Sonja and Bruce while we waited we cried and cried and cried. Then we held each other and cried some more. We were unable to do anything else. Bruce seemed so lost in his shock. Sonja just kind of disappeared into her grief.

After a long time the nurse came back and said they could go see him. We stayed in the room and made calls to family. Sonja and Bruce went to see baby Jason.

Later we were asked to go join them. My memories are fragmented. I recall a large room, bright lights and lots of medical equipment. The staff gave us space and time but each nurse and doctor had the same far away look in their eyes. Everyone was hurting.

Jason was breathing thanks to a loud machine he was wired to. He was so tiny, but so perfect looking. He looked like a baby doll, each feature so perfectly created it was impossible to think something could be so wrong with him on the inside. We gathered around him and each tried to find a way to say our own goodbye to this precious baby we had not even had the chance to meet yet. All I could think about was all the things that were not going to happen now. Things like birthday parties, games of chase, eating ice cream, playing with trucks, fighting with his brother…….

We left and Sonja and Bruce gave him a bath and prepared him. The nurses brought down baby Joshua so the brothers could be together, the family could be a complete unit.

We were kindly escorted back to the room. The tiny, dark, sad room. The room where our hearts were broken.

Eventually family started to arrive. Everyone was numb from shock, we were all too shook up to even speak. We all gathered in the room and waited. Sonja and Bruce resumed their positions on the couch. The nurses brought in two tiny bundles wrapped in little blue blankets. They handed each boy to a parent. We all gathered as one and sat in the presence of a baby going to heaven in his parents arms. To be in the presence of a child passing from this earth to heaven is the deepest, most spiritual thing you can imagine. Everyone in that room prayed, cried and felt the pieces of their heart shatter around them.

The next week was one full of raw sadness. All I could think of to do was try to hold my sister Sonja and her husband Bruce up for just a little bit so they didn’t have to try to hold themselves up. Just be there somehow holding them up just until they could do it themselves again.

I don’t know how any of us got through that tragedy. We did something none of us thought we could do. We took turns holding it together and falling apart but we all just tried to hold Sonja and Bruce up.

Sonja and Bruce themselves were nothing shy of amazing.  Even with shattered hearts, lost dreams, and a sadness that permeated their ability to breathe they still managed to hang on.  They hung onto their baby Joshua who desperately needed his mom and dad, they hung on to each other and to family and friends.  I knew they were married before all this happened, but now I know they have a marriage.  There is a difference.

It was the hardest thing I have ever done. I hope I never have to be that strong again.

The anniversary of this tragedy is upon us now.  This little baby is and forever will be in my heart.

So my friend, I ask you “what’s next on your list”.

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