There are so many stories I want to tell you. Stories of our daughters’ births, lives, and deaths. Stories that have ended and stories that are just beginning.
Some stories will take months and years before I can share. Some stories I will hold sacred and secret until the end of my days.
But this is the story I have to tell you now.
Margaret Susan and Abigail Kathleen were born on Saturday evening via c-section. When we finally got to sleep late that night, they were stable in the NICU. By Sunday morning, they were not. We spent Sunday afternoon holding Maggie as she died in our arms.
People say there are no words for this, but there are. They are just achingly hard words. People say that parents should not have to go through this, but they do. It is just overwhelmingly awful.
But what everyone agrees upon is that having to do this two days in a row – having to hold two children while their breathing slows and their hearts stop – is unbearable. Beyond the pale. Nothing but nightmare.
I am here to tell you that it is not.
On Sunday, we collapsed into bed with the full weight of grief. We knew the morning would bring the task anew, that now we had to say goodbye to Abby. I sobbed myself to sleep and I cried myself awake. I did not know how to do what we had to do.
We dragged our feet. We tried to eat breakfast. We prayed with the chaplain. Finally the terrible hospital phone screamed its shrill ring again. We knew we had to go. I winced into the wheelchair, and Franco wheeled me slowly down the hallways we had come to hate, happy paintings of animals and butterflies, cheerful photos of miracle survivors.
When we entered Abby’s room, her nurse asked if we wanted to hold her for a while before they started disconnecting all her tubes. There was no rush, she said. We could take all the time with her that we wanted. And did we want to do skin-to-skin time with her?
The lump in my throat escaped into a sob. No. I wanted to do skin-to-skin with two healthy twins ready to nurse. I did not want to do this with a tiny, sick preemie who would die within hours. I wanted anything but this.
The nurse persisted, gently. I could tell Franco was reluctant and weary, too. But something nudged us to relent. Ok, we said. We would hold her skin to skin.
This is where I have to pause the story. This is where I have to tell you that if someone told me what would happen next, I would glare and shake my head fiercely and deny that such a thing could ever exist. Let alone happen to me. That it sound like pure sentiment, a wistful dream. Nothing like reality.
I have to tell you this because I understand how the next part of the story sounds.
The nurses uncoiled Abby from her nest of cords and tubes. I tugged my shirt over my head and pulled the hospital gown around my shoulders. I inched back into the recliner, rows of stitches from Saturday’s two surgeries sending searing pain across my stomach. They slowly placed Abby onto my chest, covered her with layers of warm blankets, and left the room.
And every last dredge of sadness left my body.
I started to smile. I started to grin. This is not the reaction you expect when nurses place your dying baby to your skin. But everything turned inside out. I was flooded with peace. I was filled with the deepest joy I have ever felt. I could not understand why sorrow and grief had occupied any inch of my body before that instant. This was a different world.
Abby breathed and I breathed. She stretched out her hands across my chest, reaching with her tiny fingers. I held the smallest small of her back, felt her lungs and heart flutter against mine. I closed my eyes and sat there, smiling. The nurse came into the room and shook her head, I can’t believe you are smiling. Franco whispered into my ear, I wish you could see how you look right now. You are so full of joy.
It transformed everything.
After a while I tried to rationalize, gently. Surely this was just the oxytocin high I missed after delivery. All the love hormones rushing to help me bond with baby and let down my milk. I understood the physiology of labor and birth; I knew science could explain this. But after twenty, thirty, forty minutes of unrelenting joy, I started to wonder why there was no dip in the surge. Why I could not conjure a single sentiment of sadness. Why I could not remember why I had wept when we said goodbye to Maggie, when we knew this perfect joy was what awaited her.
It made no sense.
I opened my eyes, still smiling. Franco was at peace next to me, his body relaxed, his eyes unred. Do you want to take a turn? I asked him. Of course, he smiled. So with the help of two nurses, we carefully lifted Abby from my chest and placed her onto his. He closed his eyes and grinned; she stretched out her arms and held him.
And right before my eyes, I watched the exact same joy unfold on his face.
It was all the same bliss.
We held Abby for hours. We took turns. We took photos. Whenever we opened our eyes to talk, we had the same bewildered conversation.
I’m not sad anymore. This makes no sense. You look just like I feel. I have never felt so much joy. I think this is honestly what heaven must be. I never knew anything could feel like this.
And this is the part of the story I want to impress upon you, as deeply as that 1 lb, 5 oz baby impressed herself upon my chest. This was the happiest I have ever been.
You know those flashes you glimpse, when life seems perfect for an instant? A wedding day, the birth of a baby, a sun-soaked summer evening. We all have a handful of moments. Fleeting foretastes of the beyond. Glimmers of how good life can be here below.
But everything that had flashed before? It was nothing like we felt in that NICU room. This was heaven stretched out for hours.
It seemed audacious to say at first. We laughed about lumping ourselves into the same category as Aquinas and so much straw. Who dares to put themselves in the company of saints and visions?
And yet. And yet after hours soaking in this unrelenting joy, we could only conclude that we had been given a rare and perfect gift. We were in it together. Our tiny daughter, our second dying child, had opened up a space we never knew existed.
We were right inside the heart of God.
I will never again feel that much joy this side of whatever comes next. I am absolutely sure of this. And if I could share only a sliver of what it felt and breathed and loved like in that NICU room, you would never again fear any doubt of the divine or the existence of an afterlife. I am certain of this, so deep and enduring was what we experienced. It is anchored in every fiber of my body from now on.
This is the story I have to tell you. That right inside what we expected to be the worst day of our lives, we were given the fullness of joy. That as we met death face-to-face, we found it to be life. That when we expected despair, we discovered nothing but love.
It is a story that makes no sense. It is a story that changes everything. It is a story that has transformed what makes up our very being, how we want to spend the rest of our lives, and everything we know about God.
It may be only the beginning of the best story I have ever been given to share.