Seventeen years ago this month — August 28, to be exact — our middle son, Marshall, was born.
Three days before, because I was pushing 40, I had seen my obstetrician for a 16-week ultrasound. Thinking everything was hunky-dory, I hauled my already bulging belly onto the table with excitement, my brain crowded with thoughts of the future, hardly able to wait to see pictures of this newest member of the family.
The moment the technician touched the wand to my belly and the picture of our son came into view on the screen, I was filled with uncanny dread. There was our baby alright, but rather than a tightly coiled ball of arms, legs, and head, he looked more like a lost astronaut floating in the quiet, infinite abyss of space. Quickly, the technician put down her baton, mumbled that she needed to find the doctor, and exited the room.
My science background always offers much more information than I tend to want in certain situations. Panic swamped me, and I had to actively push the worst thoughts from my mind to concentrate on the calm, quieting words of reassurance from my husband.
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Fortunately, the doctor returned quickly. Unfortunately, his troubled eyes spoke the words no parent ever wants to hear before I was even able to hear him utter them. “I’m sorry, Mr. and Mrs. White, your baby is dead.”
Waiting For Us in Heaven
I remember every single thing about every single moment of that day from that point on as though recorded on celluloid visible only behind my eyes and I’ve relived it — in thoughts unbidden or not — uncountable times since that moment.
There’s no way to articulate my thoughts as his voice fell into silence, other than possibly sheer horror. Not only was our child dead, but I was carrying our dead child inside my body, and that thought itself horrified me.
For some reason, every decay process I’d ever studied tripped across the folds of my brain and the thought of our baby slowly degrading inside my belly made me literally sick to my stomach and created an overwhelming urge to want him out immediately — a notion that then flooded me with guilt.
Arrangements were made for us to check into a local birth center to start labor as I sat sobbing uncontrollably, unaware of much going on around me. Quickly, we were ushered out a back door so my horror-stricken, tear-stained face didn’t upset any other expectant mothers in the waiting room. I felt like a bereft pariah.
Once ensconced in our room, it took nearly 72 hours and three blood transfusions to give birth to our son, who sat patiently atop a placenta that wouldn’t budge. I’ll not forget the moment Marshall entered the world mere hours before I was scheduled to be taken to a surgical room for his delivery. My patient and steadfast husband — who had left my side mere moments over those horrible hours — had walked out to his car on an errand and to clear his head before surgery.
The doctor returned, pushed down on my belly a few times, and Marshall appeared as I cried tears of exhaustion, frustration, relief, sadness, and loss. He was unbelievably tiny; his head mishappen by his ordeal, but his eyes, fingers, nose, toes, and everything else about him was perfect. The sweet nurses at the hospital who had endured the unendurable with me gave me a tiny blanket they’d crocheted for him and several pictures of his tiny feet and hands.
We left the hospital that night. The sweltering late August night air engulfed me, and I remember seeing the shimmer of the parking lot lights in the waves of heat rising from the blacktop pavement. I was empty. Physically, I no longer housed life, nor did any bundle of flesh tighten my biceps as I walked stiffly to the car. Emotionally, I had cried every tear I was certain I could ever cry.
It seemed unfair, knowing a bill would come due for the delivery of a baby I’d pick up from a funeral home rather than one who’d pitch a tantrum as he was buckled for the first time in his car seat. Yet although I never met him, Marshall has never left my heart or my thoughts.
In pictures where I’m lucky enough to get all five of our children together, I see him smiling between his brothers and I can’t help but wonder what he would have looked like, what interests he’d have had, and whose personality he’d have favored. Since his death, his blanket and photos sit in a shadowbox on a wall in our bedroom — a reminder that, though he’s not with us now, he was a child of God who, though with us briefly physically, is forever ours in our memory and waiting for us in Heaven.
Perseverance and Hope From Suffering and Loss
Years after Marshall’s death, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer, which had to be treated with numerous surgeries just as we were finally nearing the end of a long, protracted overseas adoption of two sisters, which itself then caused years of familial frustrations and struggles. Not long after that, our oldest son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
Today, as I watch the specter of COVID-19 cause fear in so many, even people I’ve thought of as essentially fearless, I look back over my life and realize that through all its travails, pains, and losses I’ve gained perspective many others may lack.
Something that kills 48.9 people out of 100,000 (2.3 percent of the population) when I’ve survived cancer, a disease that kills 139.6 people out of 100,000, doesn’t truly scare me. Our oldest son is one of 34.1 million people (13 percent of the population) diagnosed with diabetes, yet he works hard at managing his disease and is healthy and thriving today. I’m among one in 1 million women in the United States whose pregnancies ended in stillbirth, yet, after a rocky start, we brought home another healthy son nearly a year later.
In hindsight, I can see that for every cloud, a silver lining shone through. I found life in Jesus through the death of my son, which instantly reshaped my entire thought process, rearranged my priorities, and allowed me to make sense of my immediate suffering and the exceedingly challenging experiences that later dropped into my lap.
After I began to tell Marshall’s story, I found commiseration and friendship with women who had also lost beloved babies — one of my best friends carried a baby with hydrocephaly to term knowing he would die in her arms after delivery — and I learned to let go of the notion that I could overtly control all aspects of my life.
My fight with cancer allowed me to put to rest the ridiculous notion that I’m somehow entitled to living simply because I was born, that I automatically had a right to live every day, and made me understand how illness could make my body do things I didn’t want it to do.
The years of parental struggle taught me the importance of forgiveness and understanding, the real significance of marriage vows, the concept that two parents are stronger than one, and that selflessness is a harder climb than Mt. Everest on its worst weather day.
For me, it boils down to this: life is a condition that ends in death 100 percent of the time for 100 percent of human beings. There’s no stopping it. It will come whether we’re ready or not, and possibly when we least expect it.
What’s important is how we live our lives during the days, weeks, and years in between. If we allow fear of illness or death to rule our lives, we’ll be unable to learn the lessons we learn through all life’s trials, troubles, and struggles — and isn’t that what makes life worth living?