A friend from high school died this week. Everything we all
hope to be, she already was. She left this world at 33, leaving behind so many
who loved her fiercely.
I can’t count the number of funerals I have been to. I lost my dad at a young age. I have been to the funeral of my first prom date and to the funeral of a friend I had loved from the first day of kindergarten through graduation. I have watched friends carry the caskets of their babies. In my lifetime, I have experienced loss. We all have and we all will. The more loss I experience, the more I realize how difficult it can be to talk about grief.
I have never understood the phrase “So sorry for your loss.”
Maybe it’s because I have experienced deep loss early in my life. Maybe it’s
because I have dedicated the last 16 years of my life to studying expressive
and receptive language. I love language and the power words can have on the
world. Grief is hard to express, so incredibly hard. What if we found a way to
express it in a way that others can understand? What if we found a way to say
these words with depth and meaning?
I quit saying, “I’m sorry,” at funerals years ago. I know
why people say it; they say it because at least it is something. It is
acknowledging a loss, but ‘sorry’ is what I say to someone when I accidentally
bump them with my shopping cart. I always felt that “Sorry for your loss,”
would be fitting for a lost wallet, but not the love of your life or a parent
you’ve never lived a day without.
When my dad died, I wanted someone to use words that made
sense. I didn’t like the cliché sympathy card sayings. Actually, I couldn’t
stand those sayings. Time wasn’t going to heal anything and while things might
happen for a reason, I just wanted my dad back. My friends all had one and I
didn’t understand why I was the one who didn’t. I wanted someone to say, “I know what it’s
like to miss him on this big milestone days, but to miss him even more every
day in between.” I wanted someone to
say, “I know what it’s like to miss him when you drive by his office and his
car isn’t there, but you still look just to make sure it’s not a bad dream. I
know what it’s like to see a tie you know he would like, wishing you could buy
it for him. I know what it’s like to watch your teammate’s dads walk into your volleyball
game and you look up every time those doors open, even though your dad won’t be
walking in.” The summer after high school, I sat next to my friend’s casket,
alone in the funeral home before the visitation started. I wanted someone to
acknowledge the way my heart hurt. I felt as if my heart had truly broken and
“sorry for your loss” didn’t recognize that I would never hear his voice again.
I wanted someone to say, “I know you are going to keep dialing his phone number
for years to come, I’ve been there, too,” and “I know you’ll miss him all over again
when there’s an inside joke or an event he was supposed to be at, and for a
fleeting second you forget he isn’t here to share it.”
This week I will go to a funeral to say good-bye to one of
the sweetest girls I ever knew. I was lucky to know her. I was lucky to call
her a friend. I will tell her family that I loved her and that I will miss her.
I will tell them that for years to come. I will make sure her husband knows
that I will be cheering for their son at his future football games. I will make
sure her best friends know I will be thinking of them when her birthday rolls
around this fall and it’s the first year in 20 years that they haven’t spent it
I wish that when people offered sympathy, the conversation would change. Rather than approaching someone to offer condolences, we would share a favorite memory and follow it with, “Moments like that are what I’m going to miss about him.” Maybe we could do more to check on grieving loved ones, not just in the days that follow, but in the months and years, too. The greatest thing we could do is not be afraid to mention their names. I love nothing more than hearing stories about my dad, whether I have heard them before or not. When you know there will never be a new memory, you never tire of the old ones. Maybe when we think of a grieving friend, we can actually take the time to let them know. When we say, “Sorry for your loss,” what we really mean to say is, “I’m sorry my life and schedule will resume when I leave this funeral, but your house will be dark and quiet when you return home. I’m sorry the household duties you once shared are now entirely up to you. I’m sorry that you’ll keep waiting for the sound of the garage door, wishing he would come walking through the door.” Maybe when we said, “I’m sorry,” we could find a way to really say it.
Grief is real and raw and deserves so much more than the empty cliché quotes. The memories we had left to make deserve to be said aloud.
I was in 7th grade when I lost my dad to cancer. As an only child, our home suddenly felt much quieter. It has been almost 20 years since that grey, February morning when we became a family of two.
My family are the people who were there for us during the 14-month cancer battle – and continued to be for 20 years, just like they said they would. My family are those whose actions I watched as I grew up.
My family is the couple who picked me up from school one cold January day when my dad was about to have his first brain surgery. Logistically, I had to stay behind as my parents went to Minnesota for this surgery. There were too many unknowns for me to make the trip with my parents. To this day, I cry when I think about seeing this couple walk into my school to pick me up. They told me we had a flight to catch. This moment was everything to a 12-year old girl who didn’t know if she would ever see her dad again. I still cry when I think about that drive to the airport and that quiet flight to Minneapolis. For twenty years, they have met up with me whether it be a quick trip home from college or a Sunday brunch. They were at all of those ‘big events’. They were there for those days in between, too. They never left our side. They sponsored my daughter’s junior golf program so she could learn one of her grandpa’s favorite hobbies.
My family is the woman who stayed with me during the numerous trips my parents took for surgeries and treatments. Taking in a middle school girl would not be an easy undertaking for anyone. She got me to those 6am basketball practices. She let me choose the radio station on those drives to school and somehow always knew when I just didn’t feel like talking.
My family is a couple I consider my ‘second parents’. He was one of my dad’s best friends. They have never missed one of my events, and in fact, drove my mom and me 762 miles to the National High School Rodeo Finals the summer I qualified. They have invited us to every holiday for as long as I can remember. They come to my daughters’ preschool programs. We call him “Papa Larry” just like his grandsons do. They moved us into my new house when the windchill was -4. Their son and daughter are the “sister and brother I never had”, except, I do have them. I’ve always had them. Sharing the same family name would not have made me love them more.
My family is my best friend since sixth grade, who has been by my side through it all. She introduced me to the world of instant messenger in middle school. She made the best mixed CDs. From prom dress shopping to wedding dress shopping, we did it all together. We even joined motherhood just three months apart. The week after I filed for divorce, she gave me a stack of cards friends had sent to her from friends all of over the country. She reminded me I could – and I would, get through this, too. There is not a second of her friendship I have taken for granted. My family is her two little girls, who are the same age as my own, who are two of the most incredible little beings I know.
My family is my dear family friends, whose little girl was the first baby I held. She started high school this fall. Her mom was an inspiration for my profession. My high school and college years consisted of sitting around their kitchen table, whether it be to hear the latest or for life advice. Now I watch the way my little girls idolize Emily, and I am grateful for the love that has been shared through the generations.
My family are the friends who moved me out of my house in the pouring rain. They showed up with their trucks and horse trailers and started packing boxes. I was an unorganized mess, an emotional mess. They reminded me that things would get better. They were right.
My family are the college friends, those my daughters call “aunt so-and-so”. They are my sisters – and they are the most loyal friends you’ll find.
My family is the woman who has babysat my children for their entire lives. She was their stability when they needed it most. She taught them how to read. She shows them love and compassion in a way no one else can, because everything she does is done in kindness. She is everything to us.
My family is the boy who loved me when he was 17, and now again at age 31, he loves me even more. He builds us anything we ask for and doesn’t say ‘no’ when we find a new animal to take in to our petting zoo. He builds little houses for my pet pigs, the pet pigs I dreamed of having my entire life, the pet pigs he let me get. He is a coach, a mentor, a constant in our lives. They call him “our Casey”, because there is no categorical term for someone like him. He is not their dad, but they have opened their heart to him. How lucky these little girls are to be loved by so many people.
My family whose bloodlines I share, they are pretty incredible, too. Our time together is few and far between, but I thank God for them and those occasional weekends we get to share. My other family, the ones whose paths I cross every day, they could never know what they mean to me. They could never understand the ways in which their actions have impacted my life.
As a girl, I quickly realized it takes a village. Our joys and our sadness and the days in between are filled with love. As a mom, I understand it in an entirely new way, in the kind of way you can’t possibly understand until you are packing up a life to start again. I appreciate these people in the way That can’t be explained. These are the people who promise you that you can get from here to there, even when you can’t see it yet. They are my family.
This is a story about two kittens who needed to be saved and a mama cat who needed a home. This is a story about a series of events with wonderful people and complete strangers doing what they could to help two kittens make it.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to rescue animals. I had an incredible childhood that included dozens of pets. I made a promise to myself that someday, in adulthood, I would adopt animals that needed a home. In theory, it sounded wonderful. What I wasn’t prepared for was the expense, the hard decisions, the commitment and the heartache that would go with it.
Over the past few years, we accumulated quite an assortment, including Patsy Cline, a sweet and shy white barn cat. She preferred to stay in the barn, but in recent months, she would let me know she was at the door at night. I would be up late rocking the baby watching Friends, and she sat next to my chair eating a snack. We both loved the company. Her kittens were born in April and my little girls were so excited to learn kittens were in our barn. Two days after they were born, my husband came in from chores with grim news. Patsy was hurt and a decision had to be made. After two phone calls to vets, we decided we couldn’t let her suffer anymore. I went out to the barn to tell her good-bye, sobbing as she looked at me. I thanked her for her companionship during my late nights and I told her how much I was going to miss her. I promised her I would do all that I could to save her kittens. My own baby had been saved six months earlier by the NICU team. It had been a particularly emotional few months in our home. When it came to these kittens, I was not going to let nature win.
My husband brought the tiny kittens inside. I immediately posted on social media and reached out to several rescue groups looking for a foster mom cat. I knew it was a shot in the dark, but I was desperate. A stranger responded that she had a cat whose kittens had just left the previous day. Her only stipulation was that I adopt her cat. Her landlord had agreed to let her keep it until the kittens had found homes and now it was time for her to re-home the cat. I absolutely did not want another cat and knew the stress of moving into our chaotic home would not be ideal when trying to convince this cat to raise a litter that was not hers. I also knew I was running out of time.
I drove across town to pick up the cat. I learned that this mama cat had belonged to the woman’s grandmother, who had died a few months earlier. The cat’s name, a word I cannot spell, meant “unwanted” in Lakota. My eyes filled with tears as she told me how much she loved this cat and how grateful she was that it would be moving to a good home. I understood all too well the bond you can have with a pet when it is your link to a lost loved one. I promised her that her cat would be well loved and cared for. I then stopped at Pet Smart to stock up on orphaned kitten essentials.
When I returned home, my hope of love at first sight was immediately demolished. She wanted nothing to do with the kittens, growling out of irritation. I didn’t blame her. Our home had two little girls and a baby boy. It was a strange place and she had lost the only home she had known. I again tried to find another foster mom cat. In the meantime, I was doing what I could to keep the kittens alive. If you have ever taken care of orphaned kittens, you know exactly the amount of work that is required to bottle feed and stimulate them and keep them warm. The next day, a friend of a friend offered her cat as a foster trial and I drove straight there. Her kittens were approximately four weeks old and we hoped this first-time mama would be okay with two add-ons. She immediately let them latch on and I cried tears of relief. However, the relief was short lived as the woman texted me early the next morning to tell me her cat had rejected my kittens.
Again, I posted on social media asking for help. A stranger, Jennifer, a local cat rescuer, contacted me. She was willing to meet to give me some supplies, such as better nipples and a scale. We both left work to meet. My friend, Kristina, a teacher, had offered to help me bottle feed the kittens as she was on spring break. She was willing to spend her coveted spring break doing the countless things these kittens would require while I was at work. (I spend my days doing home visits and our April in South Dakota was cold and snowy, making it impossible for them to stay warm in my car.) The three of us met at a gas station. I sat there in amazement, listening to a stranger give us a kitten 101 lesson and a tote of supplies. People can be so amazing. Jennifer told me she thought these kittens might make it and I believed her because I wanted to. I spent the next week caring for the kittens around the clock and dropping them off with Kristina during those first few days while I worked. Kitten duty on top of full-time, self-employed working mom life was exhausting.
It was around the fifth day at our house that “Unwanted”, who we had renamed “Mama Kitty” (due to our inability to pronounce her beautiful Lakota name) decided to check out the kittens. It was as if she had decided I was failing miserably at doing all that was necessary to keep them alive. She walked over to the kittens and laid down, letting them latch on. I thanked her as I watched her start licking them. From that moment on, Mama Kitty took over. She had spent ten weeks raising her last litter and she did not know these kittens, but she knew they needed her. I continued to bottle feed the kittens regularly, not knowing if she had enough milk to feed them. One morning, I woke up to Mama Kitty dropping two starving, loud kittens next to my bed. She sat there, staring at me as if to say, “It’s your turn, Lady. I finished the night shift.”
The first time I offered them canned food, she sat next to them, letting them eat first. I have since noticed, every time I feed them. she lets them eat first. Some evenings when they are particularly wild, she throws them down with her paw and holds them there until they decide to use their manners. She is not afraid to put them in their place. When she needs a break from them, she sits outside their pen with my little girls, enjoying being doted on but always keeping a watchful eye on the kittens. When my baby cries, Mama Kitty comes quickly down the hallway, concern in her eyes for what he might need. She cares so much for everyone in our home.
The kittens are now eight weeks old and thriving. The female is white like her mom and named Patsy Cline Junior (“PJ” ) in her memory. The male is orange like his dad and named Merle Haggard Junior (“MJ”) in his memory. They each remind me so much of their parents. I think about that day I said good-bye to their biological mom, and I like to think she knows I kept my promise. I think about the day Mama Kitty had to say good-bye to the only family and home she knew, and I hope her family knows she is still loved and well cared for. I think about the stranger who gave me the materials they needed, a friend who gave me her time, and my mom who was willing to kitten-sit when my chaotic schedule or the cold temperatures made it impossible in my workday. I think about the dozens of people on social media who helped me find a mama cat, that unexpectedly became one of the sweetest cats I’ve ever owned. The kittens’ survival depended on each and every person in their story. Many life lessons were learned by my family over the course of the past eight weeks. Although her name meant “unwanted”, God made sure she would find her way to a home – and two tiny little beings – that needed her the most.
This week will mark the 20th year since I lost my dad. I can’t wrap my mind around that concept. The days and weeks and years just continue to keep going. February 9th creeps up on us every year and suddenly one day you realize this year means two decades.
I was thirteen years old when his glioblastoma took him away from us. My friends were spending that winter of our 7th grade year excited about seeing the Titanic a dozen times or comparing Backstreet Boys to Hanson. I was making frequent trips to the rehab hospital, grateful for those afternoons after school when I could stop in and see him and we would watch a syndicated show together. We could sit in silence and know that just being together was enough, because those afternoons in that hospital room would be as close as we would get to normal.
It is incredible to me what our memory is able to retain and what it chooses to let go. I can’t remember what I wore yesterday, but I can tell you everything about that cold February morning when he left. Every single thing. I can tell you what the sky looked like that morning and hear the voice of the hospice nurse say, “Time of death…” I can remember calling my best childhood friend and telling her the news in such a matter-of-fact way, because it seemed like I should tell someone. I remember writing a note for my dad as quickly as I could, because that’s what 7th grade girls do, but this one would be buried with him forever, so I had to make it count. I remember looking at the clothes my mom selected to take to the funeral home. I remember the funeral home arriving with an unmarked minivan, thinking this is not what minivans are for. On that first day, the day your life changes forever, you can’t possibly imagine all your life will consist of, this new life, and that’s a blessing. It would be too much.
I was 13 years old when he died. This means I’ve now lived far more years without him than I did with him. That being said, I realize how much love and commitment he put into my life in those short years. He went above and beyond to provide for his family. He was the guy everyone wanted to talk to when he entered a room. He was the guy who made everyone laugh. He absolutely adored my mom. He was the patient who brought the surgeons donuts on the morning of his brain surgery. He helped coach my teams and he drove us late through the night to get to horse shows. He treated everyone with respect and kindness, always offering a hand to those who could use it.
What I couldn’t have understood at age 13, is to what extent that year would change every aspect of my future. I would sit in the hospital room, fascinated by the speech-language pathologists and the way they seemed to work a magic, the way they could bring words out him even after the glioblastoma had taken his speech. Twenty years later, I became that speech pathologist. Twenty years later, I still remember what it feels like to be the family member as you hold your breath and pray your loved one could say something, anything of meaning to you. My dad had a love for Make-A-Wish. While in the university hospital, his roommate was a teenage boy also battling a glioblastoma. I sat on the floor in the hallway with tears pouring down my face as I listened to Make-A-Wish volunteers ask what he would like for a wish. Twenty years later, I have the honor of being a wish granter for this organization my dad loved so dearly.
At age 13, I couldn’t have understood what it is like to be a single mom. At age 30, I learned what it was like. Twenty years without a parent gives you a tremendous respect, the deepest appreciation for a mom who did it all – and mine absolutely did it all. After I became a mom, I had a realization that changed my life. Prior to parenthood, I had never thought about his perspective as he battled brain cancer. I thought of the memories I had yet to make with him, but I had never once thought about the memories he had yet to make with me. Twenty years ago I didn’t think about the decades of parenthood he hoped to experience, and the joys his future granddaughters would have brought him.
One of the most fascinating aspects of then and now is seeing how much his granddaughters share the traits and characteristics of a man they never met. My oldest has his frown when she’s deep in thought and his sense of humor. My youngest shares his passion for good-looking cowboy boots and a sharp suit coat. They both inherited his love for music, even the kind he loved in the 70’s. They both talk about him as if they knew him, as if they had the privilege of his pony rides and listening to his bedtime stories. They love him and they miss him, too, as if they somehow know how worthy he is of being missed.
The day a loved one leaves you, you can’t possibly prepare yourself for all of those milestones they’ll miss, the holidays that will seem so quiet. Yet, when they leave, you also have no idea how much their life is forever embedded in yours. You will one day find yourself grabbing a bag of candy he loved at the gas station or downloading a song you remember him singing to you on the way to school. You will one day realize you chose this career because of him. You will one day be volunteering for something he loved and you realize just how much you love it, too. I couldn’t change the outcome of his cancer, but I could change the outcome of my life without him. I could make sure he was remembered. I could make sure that the things he loved so much with his giving heart, would be honored. I don’t love all of these things only because he did, I love them because what was part of him innately became part of me.
This week will mark 7,300 days without him, which was over half of my life. What I have come to realize is it’s not just the day I want to think about him, honor him – it’s those minutes that have made up the 7,300 days. It’s the minutes that will make up the rest of my life and the lives of my little girls. It’s the way his life shaped every aspect of mine. When you lose a parent as a child, you have no idea how that will impact how you parent. You have a deeper understanding that these days aren’t promised.
One winter day, my parents left a doctor appointment and our plans were diverted. Life is a combination of moments and certain moments will change everything. We will live our moments with compassion and kindness. We will find humor even on the toughest days. These moments go too fast, whether we want them to or not, but we will make them count.
And just like that, today is the last day. Nine months ago I was packing her back pack with brand new school supplies, wondering how I was going to send her off to kindergarten. I stood on the playground, tears pouring down my face because I wasn’t ready for this first day of kindergarten – but she was ready. Today I will be standing on the playground, once again with tears, because this precious time went by too quickly. There were a thousand things she absolutely loved about kindergarten, but I know her favorite part (and my favorite part) was you. This week I realized that I never told you “thank you.” I don’t know how a parent can in the way a teacher deserves.
We first met you at open house the week before school started and I immediately knew you would be the type of teacher we would appreciate forever. It was during the first week of school when I started to understand just how amazing you are. While the students lined up for the day, you touched each one on the shoulder as you greeted them. Every single day. You noticed the anxious ones, the sad ones, and the ones who just weren’t acting like themselves. Somehow, already in the first couple of days, you just knew. If a student was having a tough morning, you quietly held her hand and walked her into the school hand-in-hand with you.
I got to know you as I volunteered in the lunch room. You, as well as the other kindergarten teachers, made sure your students were all ready for lunch before you went on your own lunch break, which had already started. You noticed who needed help with their ketchup packets and who forgot a spoon. I got to know you as I “volunteered” in the classroom, which we both know meant I was just a body in the room, you had it all handled. You let me be in there for me, not for you. Your baby would be moving on to middle school this year so you understood how quickly these days would go. You had a classroom of 24 kindergartners and never once did I hear you raise your voice. Never. Once. When you needed their attention, you tapped these chimes that worked like magic. Your class was not an easy one, but you sure made it look that way.
The one morning I forgot to pack a drink in her lunch, you helped her order a milk. You checked on her when she went home sick. You remembered the weekend she had a dance recital. You had 24 students and took the time to really know them. You kept track of their big things and their small things, because as a veteran kindergarten teacher, you know that the small things are the big things. I saw the way you listened, and I mean truly listened, every time your students had something to tell you. They always had so much – and I mean so much – to share with you. I loved the way you valued what they had to say. Maybe they were telling you about a weekend event or maybe they were telling you that “mom” has an “m” in it, either way their faces lit up and you knew what they had to say mattered to them, therefore, it mattered to you. I loved the way you made each and every one of your students feel so special. Being chosen as your helper was the ultimate honor for them. Somehow in the midst of all that you did for them, you also taught them. They learned how to read and they learned how to add. You helped them fall in love with school which is so crucial at the start.
I wish we could take you with us to the next 12 grades. I’ve had the entire school year to try to think of a way to thank you for what you did for those 24 kindergartners this year – and I still don’t have the words.
On the first day I had to hand her to the world, I thank God it was you that I could hand her to. I thank God that you were there for her – and for me – this year.
To all of the teachers in the world who are like you, I wish you knew how grateful parents are for you. We are in awe of what you do. We adore you, respect you, and appreciate you. We are so incredibly grateful for your influence. We don’t tell you enough – we probably don’t tell you ever. You’ll never fully know the impact you made on your families. Thank you for this year. Thank you for being a teacher we will remember forever.
It’s hard to find the words to thank you. I’m in awe of you and yet I don’t think you understand it. How can I put into words how essential your role is in our world?
I have observed the way stepdads don’t get the credit they deserve. While I always admired the men who are willing to step in, I never truly understood it until you were here for us. I didn’t understand this kind of love until you arrived in our world and promised the girls and me that you were here to stay. You promised us you would love us through the good and the bad. You promised my girls that you’d love their mom forever. I heard you one night, whisper to them that although you love their mommy more than anything, you love them more.
Sometimes I feel like “step” in front of dad somehow lessons the meaning of dad but how I wish it wouldn’t. You’re not trying to be their dad or replace anyone, you’re just here to love us. How lucky they are to have this person in their lives who shows them unconditional love and means it. For us, stepdad is the man who decorates for epic Halloween parties and let us get our first kitten, despite your allergies. Stepdad is the man who can build or fix anything for us and is the first to sign up to coach a team. Stepdad is the man who has never missed a Christmas program or an awards night, not once. They always ask you repeatedly if you’ll make it to these events, even though we all know you’ll be there- because you always do whatever it takes to make sure you are. You wouldn’t miss it. They start to smile before their name is called at an awards ceremony, because they know their stepdad will be whistling that deafening whistle. You’re the man who gets volunteered for far more than your share because you’re the one who goes above and beyond for those he loves.
When I tell you ‘thank you’ after a dinner out, it’s not just because you picked up the tab. It’s because you took us somewhere that wasn’t one of your top picks, but you knew they loved it. It’s because rather than ordering something you would’ve preferred, you ordered something you knew they would want to try. When I tell you ‘thank you’, I hope you realize it means thank you for being here. Thank you for all of this.
I especially appreciate you on those quiet nights when it’s just the two of us. Those are the nights I’m crabby and sad. You know how I can’t stand a quiet house. You know how much I miss them. You know every suggestion you offer will be met with resistance, but you still try. There are nights when you might be on the receiving end of my anger and frustration, over situations that are no fault of your own, but you still try.
Parenting is hard. I can’t imagine what it’s like to walk into it overnight. I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have much say in most things. I just wish you could see how incredible you are at it. I wish you could see how they proudly talk about all of the things you do with them to their friends. I wish you knew how much I admired you and respected you. I hope you understand that by me choosing you, it meant I chose you to help me raise these little people I love beyond comprehension. It meant I entrusted you with what is most important to me.
I see you and I love you. I see all you do for us day in and day out. When you chose me, you chose all three of us. Our family vacations revolve around American Girl doll stores and zoos, nothing you have any interest in, but you’re the first dad there when the doors open. You have missed opening day of hunting season to do whatever two little girls needed you to do.
It is your actions they quietly observe when you kiss me on the forehead or hold the door open for us. It is you who treats their mom like a queen and it is you whose same characteristics they will look for someday in a partner.
I know they always want to sit by me at dinner or join “team Mom” in any disagreement, but I wish you could see the way they talk about you when you aren’t there. I wish you saw that they ask where you are when I pick them up or how excited they are to tell you the latest about their school day. I know you’re not their dad, but you are someone that has earned our deepest respect. We know you weren’t there when they were born, but you’re here now because you chose to be. There’s something about being in our family now, by choice, which speaks volumes.
I didn’t know my story would have a sequel, and I can’t imagine writing it with anyone else.
My life forever changed in October. I have since thought about that fall day, and the 16 days that followed, with the deepest gratitude and appreciation for those who were in it.
We were so excited for the arrival of our baby boy. As a mom of two little girls, I was eager to learn about the adventures of being a boy mom. The big sisters were over the moon at the thought of having a baby brother. My husband, a college baseball player, would finally have the baby boy he had waited for. It was the week of the World Series and his eyes filled with tears when I told him he would get to spend this World Series night rocking his baby boy.
The moment our precious baby boy arrived, we immediately knew something wasn’t right. You hear stories about how people seem to be in the right place at the right time in the situations when you need them most. Our delivery and NICU experiences were a series of events in which exactly who we needed was where we needed them to be. I have always been a firm believer that there is no such thing as coincidence.
We were only able to hold him for a few minutes before the NICU staff wheeled him away. There was no time to take his measurements or smile for a family picture. This was not the way it was supposed to go. He was born full term and I had no complications during my pregnancy. When I was wheeled into our Level III NICU, I was overwhelmed with a fear that I had never known. I looked around this unfamiliar place, a place I never wanted to find myself. I had no idea the way our lives were about to be forever changed by the staff in that NICU.
His little bracelet said “Baby Boy Klapperich”, as did the computer screen with his monitor. I wanted to scream that he has a name; he has a real name, and I wanted the permanence of a name. While it didn’t change on the computer screens for days, the nurses called him by name and it meant so much to me. It would take a couple of days for the team to diagnose what was causing our sweet boy such difficulty breathing. In the meantime, he was intubated and had two chest tubes and umbilical lines. We could not hold him or even change his diaper in that first week, but we were thankful to slip a finger under his little hand in between labs and x-rays and echocardiograms. The nurses treated us as his most important people, even though we felt helpless and could do nothing but stand next to his warmer. They would ask for our input, even though we all knew they were the experts. Their equipment and staff were keeping our baby alive, but they still treated us as his parents. They asked us to write the names of his family on a card that was next to his warmer. One night my husband wrote, “See the ball, hit the ball.” This was a line his late Legion baseball coach always said and these words seemed to change the momentum for us.
My post delivery room was across the hall from both the NICU and the nursery. I remember just standing in the doorway, looking at the two doorways facing me, thinking how different this all would be if he could’ve entered the world breathing without difficulty. He would’ve been wheeled into the door on the left, the nursery door, after his bath and the nurses would’ve told me to get some rest. My biggest decision would’ve been which adorable outfit to dress him in for the trip home and his sisters would’ve been on cloud nine as they held him. My reality, however, was the door on the right to the neonatal intensive care waiting room. I would be educated in the thorough scrubbing in process and I would be lucky if my little girls would be able to even see the baby they had been so eager to meet. I would spend the next 16 days in a giant room with no windows, where you lose track of time and spend your hours watching numbers rise and fall, initially not knowing what any of it means. Your scattered thoughts are interrupted by the constant beeping. I would pray as I never had before.
I often heard stories about how exceptional NICU nurses are. It is something so many of us know but hope to never experience firsthand. As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, many of my patients have been NICU grads. I often nod along as parents tell me about their NICU experiences, but I never truly understood. These nurses and physicians have dedicated their lives to saving the tiniest and most fragile of lives – and they have a way of taking care of the parents, too. There are no words to explain the miracles they perform minute to minute. The other crucial part of our baby’s journey was who was on the outside of the NICU, cheering on my little 8-pound boy with gorgeous dark hair. I never could have prepared myself for the outpouring of love, kindness and prayers from friends and even strangers. While the NICU nurses and physicians were saving him behind those doors, countless others were on the outside, too.
We received hundreds of texts, calls, messages. Most we were never able to return, or even acknowledge, as we spent our days sitting next to his warmer with our phones rarely out. One of his first visitors was a dear family friend who knew how desperately he needed to be prayed over – and she knew we needed it, too. Shortly after, our church arrived with prayer shawls. Those 16 days would continue to be full of hundreds of people doing so much for us. Whether it was friends offering to take my girls trick-or-treating, dropping off coffee and restaurant gift cards, or cleaning my house – we were surrounded in love and strength. One of my best friends waited for my phone calls from 1,200 miles away on the nights I would go home with an empty car seat. I could do nothing, but cry, and she just listened and prayed. My mom brought us lunch and dinner every single day. She sat next to the crib when I felt I needed to be at school drop offs and pick-ups. My in-laws came every night after work, to remind their only grandson just how much he was loved and the big plans we had in store for his future. Once we could finally hold him, the grandparents didn’t want to put him down. My daughters’ teachers surrounded my girls with support and love, going above and beyond for us. College friends sent me messages from all over the country. Countless friends told us they added us to prayer lists in their churches. My business partner dropped everything for me, taking on most of my caseload in addition to her own, without hesitation. My closest friends were literally there at a moment’s notice for whatever I needed. Then there was my tribe of NICU mom friends. The moms who had been there. Some had short stays and some had babies they never got to take home. Their courage – and their comfort – gave me a strength I didn’t know I had. So many friends and even acquaintances were reaching out to me to tell me of their NICU journeys. I kept wondering, “What kind of friend was I to them when they were in my shoes? Why didn’t I do more for them?” I didn’t understand it before. That’s why.
I’ll never forget my dear friend (and most favorite photographer), Amy, surprising me to come take pictures for me. I knew she had lost a baby girl at birth and I admired her greatly for doing this for me. I asked her how her heart could continue to beat when it’s broken. She replied, “Years later I can say that the broken parts are where the light comes in.” I won’t forget those words. What a privilege it is to have so many friends who keep letting the light in.
Legacy Photo and Design
I couldn’t imagine how these pictures would turn out, as he was still hooked up to several cords. The moment she sent me the images, I cried. I didn’t see machines or cords or hear the constant beeping, I just saw my beautiful baby boy. It was the first time in his life I was able to look past the equipment and just see him. A few hours later, the neonatologist told me that he was ready to send us home. I let out a sob, that startled me as much as it did him. He smiled as he asked if I had misunderstood, and I said I understood and that these were the happiest of tears.
During our stay, it was clear to see that not all babies and not all families had the support system we had. I decided in those 16 days that when this would someday be a distant memory, I would be sure we always gave back the way we were given so much. I promised that our swings and equipment would be donated to the NICU. I promised that those onesies that were waiting in his nursery, in which he would quickly outgrow, would be donated back here for the babies who don’t have much to go home with. I vowed that I wouldn’t forget the birthdays of my friends’ babies and children who were in heaven. I made a promise that from that day forward, I would do more. I will be there, really be there, when my friends need it. I will pick up dinner or be a hand to hold in a waiting room. I will help raise money for our exceptional NICU and the organizations that support it. I will donate whatever I can to those who need it most. I will be there for whoever needs it – the way they were for us. There is something so powerful and so wonderful about the simplest of gestures that can have an impact years beyond that second in time. Even just taking a few minutes out of a busy day to let someone know you said a prayer for their child can be a moment they will forever remember. Our days in the NICU left a thumbprint I can’t forget, and honestly, I don’t want to forget. I can’t imagine living in that world where I was before, the world of taking for granted 2:00 a.m. feedings or hearing cries from the back seat.
Countless people went above and beyond for our baby and our family. They demonstrated a compassion like I had never seen. I don’t know how to thank them for the ultimate gift they gave us. I only know how to pay it forward. During those long, terrifying days, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Why did this happen to us? Why are we here?” A friend, and former NICU mom, dropped off a card for me with words I will never forget. “Being the parent of a NICU baby means you’re extra special. After all, God doesn’t just pick anybody to witness a miracle.” It was us because we were meant to hold the hands of those who will someday need it – and what a privilege it is to be there to offer a hand. To those who are brave enough to let their light shine through their brokenness, thank you.