When you google “What it means to be a Dad”, there’s all kinds of things that pop up. Be present. Be responsible. Do things with them that are meaningful to them. Love and respect their mother. I’ve yet to find any article that says anything about carrying your child’s casket.
And yet, Friday, April 11, 2014, I found myself doing just that. Oddly, in that process, I think I may have come to understand more about what being a dad is, than I had in the 6 previous years of being one. Five days earlier, my wife and I had gone through the hardest day of our lives. The day had really begun 6 days earlier, a Saturday. I had to work that morning, but by about noon, my wife began telling me her labor was real this time. She was a week or so past her due date with our third, so it made sense. I came home, mowed the yard (why I remember this is beyond me), and we began getting ready. By midnight that night, we were at the hospital, and something was wrong.
Our first two babies were perfectly healthy and we had no reason to expect this one would be any different. We didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl, but we were excited. The doctor said something about an emergency C section. This really didn’t even worry me at the time, because my oldest had been born via C section, and was just fine. My first inkling that this may not be normal was when a doctor came in with a nurse and asked to speak with me privately.
My parents and my mother in law joined me and to be honest, I didn’t understand all of the details mixed in the with medical terminology. What I did get was that I had a son! I remember now that the indescribable joy of that knowledge lasted exactly as long as the doctor’s pause between sentences. She told me that my son had been without oxygen for at least 8 minutes, perhaps many more. He was alive though, and they were working very hard to save him. My wife was also alive, and her team was working very hard to keep her that way. Then, she had to go back to the operating room. If you had asked me at that moment, I would have told you this is absolutely NOT what being a father is about.
There’s a skybridge between the hospital where my son was born, and the children’s hospital where he was taken immediately after. We rushed through this bridge, almost running. I was accompanied by my parents, but I was torn. Doctors were fighting to save my wife in one hospital and more doctors were fighting to save my son in the next.
Once they stabilized my son on life support, it began to be clear that he would not recover from the lack of oxygen. My mother stayed with him and my father walked back over the bridge with me. There, I was greeted with the news that my wife would be okay, though she had to have multiple blood transfusions and faced a difficult physical recovery. As she began to wake up from the anesthesia, naturally her first question to me was where her baby was. I faced the excruciating task of explaining the situation, slowly, to her. Then, I had to do it three more times as the anesthesia wore off. I didn’t check at the time, but I suspect my previously mentioned google search would not have made this process easier for me.
Later, a very nice doctor and nurse came into my son’s room to discuss end of life options. Signing a document that allows a doctor to remove your child from life support was also not what I had in mind for the day. Neither was holding him as he took his last breaths and then somehow giving his body to a doctor knowing it was the last time I would ever feel the small weight of it in my arms.
A day that had begun some 36 hours prior filled with joy, excitement, and endless possibility had ended with me listening to my wife’s rhythmic breathing as she slept in a hospital room and crying myself to sleep. And then, just when I thought the day was mercifully over, not more than 60 seconds after I was asleep, my phone rang. I have no idea why I answered, but it was a representative of Lifegift, wanting to discuss organ donation. I’m glad I picked up, but at the time, it was just one more example of what being a dad is not supposed to be about.
The rest of the week presented many examples of this, and to be honest, so has the last 5 years. However, when I think back to the example that my own dad set for me that day and week, I think that my initial, grief filled denial, may have been wrong. That day and week, were ENTIRELY what being a dad is about. It’s overwhelming joy mixed with pain and fear, and the gradual realization that all I can do is love my kid and there is a point beyond which I have no control.
The day was hard, no doubt, but it was filled with some joy as well. Further, I watched my own dad accompany me on all of these things, just being supportive and present. I certainly didn’t have a lifetime to do those things, but I did the best I could then and there. All of those things that I thought had nothing to do with being a father, it’s really about trying to do the thing that was very best for my child. I hate that I had to make those decisions and have those conversations, but the dad in me certainly wouldn’t want anyone else doing them for my child. The day of my son’s funeral, I could think of nothing that showed my love for him more than to carry his casket. It hurt, but I’m still proud that I did it.
I know that Father’s Day can be tough for guys who have lost a baby either through infant death or miscarriage. You don’t have that lifetime of memories to look back on. Often, all you have is the memory of the excitement and anticipation of a new baby, and the awareness of the emptiness and longing that has replaced it. Fortunately, this lack of “stuff” to see and touch and remember your child with is zero indication of your baby’s worth in this world or your love for child. Your baby mattered, and still does, even if all you got was one day to hold her. Your baby mattered, and still does, even if you never even got to see him or hold him. Further, you are no less of a father because your baby isn’t here for you to hold. If anything, you know much more about this fatherly cycle of love, pain, and ultimately releasing beyond your control than others do.
I pray that you have a peaceful Father’s Day. I hope you can rest easy in the knowledge that your baby, no matter his or her age, matters very much.