When I look back on that September day, what I remember most is what a beautiful Indian summer day it was. As I pulled onto the tree lined street I lived on, I was struck by the fact that the world just kept on spinning. The street still looked the same. The garden I tended with such loving care still bloomed with flowers. Our little white Cape Cod was no different. The neighborhood kids laughed and played as usual. Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
Only minutes before, I had laid the motionless body of my infant son down in his hospital bassinet for the last time. As I cradled his small body in my arms, I witnessed his last breath and felt the warmth and life leave his little body. The silence in the room was deafening, the stillness of his chest unnatural.
We had been warned all along about how sick he was. How infinitely small his chances were. My heart protected me from the truth. My mind blocked out the inevitable. I had never let the reality of any of it seep in. Yet, there I stood in my driveway, empty and knowing his loss had changed everything, wondering how do you say goodbye to your future?
The loss of a child, no matter the age, is incomparable to any other life experience. It breaks you. It shatters you into pieces like glass, jagged and sharp, fragile and brittle, splintered hopelessly beyond repair. Days turn into months as you wait for the grief to find a bottom. I remember falling and falling and wondering when it would end. At times it feels like an abyss.
My son Erick was born with a genetic disorder called Asphyxiating Thoracic dystrophy. There is no cure and virtually no one survives it. We had no warning. The news was delivered while we waited expectantly for his first cry. All that came was silence and the frantic rushing of the medical staff to save his little life. Tubes, IV’s, wires and a ventilator cradled my fragile baby. I could barely touch him, was not allowed to hold him. He could not eat, or pee or breathe on his own. The month that followed was a death watch. I see that now. Hindsight is so crystal clear.
The loss almost killed me. It brought me to my knees in a way nothing else ever had. The funny thing about being knocked down is that you either get up or life just steps on you or over you. The world has a short attention span for grief and illness. People stop calling. The meals stop being delivered. Your husband goes back to work. The mailman still delivers the bills. Life moves on. The world just keeps on spinning.
When I crept into the closet on that November morning, it was only to steal a few minutes with his blanket and undershirt. The nurse had given them to me as a memento on that final morning. I swore I could still inhale the scent of him, even though months had passed. The grief had so encompassed me by then; it took so little to make me cry. As I laid there on the floor sobbing, I pleaded with God to take away my pain, to help me find a way to survive or to let me die too.
I can’t even explain what actually happened. I was not a church-goer or even remotely religious at the time. All that I know is that on that morning I was overcome by a sense of peace and grace. My torture was eased, everything inside me got quiet and I knew what I needed to do.
The next day, I applied to nursing school. I had never considered a career in nursing. I had never wanted to be a nurse. I was actually already an accountant. What I realized on that day was that the only way I could survive this loss was to make something good come out of it. The nurses had been so kind to our family. They enveloped us in love and understanding and accepted that we couldn’t hear the truth. They encouraged us to bond with our baby and were there to help us pick up the pieces as he slowly died. If I could do that for someone too, Erick’s life would mean something.
It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done either, burying my son had taken care of that. It took 3 and half years, but I graduated with honors and passed my nursing boards with ease. Sixteen years later, I still practice nursing and every day my goal is to honor the memory of my son.
As a nurse you enter people's lives when they are scared, vulnerable and often times devastated. What I learned through the loss of my son and the way the nurses treated us, is what an impact you can have with kindness and compassion. Skill, knowledge and excellent care are important, but seeing into the heartbreak and easing it is the medicine that heals. I will not ever mend the tear left in my soul by the loss of my son. I miss him to this day 20 years later. But being able to honor his memory and make his life count has helped me to not only survive his loss, but find a different way to live. I know he smiles down on me every day, and that makes me smile, too!