The phone rang in the dark. I turned on my side and grabbed my cell phone from the nightstand. I hadn’t been sleeping, and like most nights when I was unable to do so, my thoughts were consumed with our daughter. This late night call could only be about Anna; no one else would call at this hour. I roused Ben while I answered the phone.
I stepped out of bed, and began to dress while I listened. They weren’t sure what was going on, but Anna was definitely in trouble. We needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible. By the time we got there, they would know more.
I was tense, terrified, as Ben drove us to the hospital. I was desperate to know what was wrong with Anna. How could the doctors not know what was wrong? The nurse on the phone had said that Anna hadn’t woken for her most recent feeding, her breathing wasn’t what it should have been, she was unresponsive. She was back on the ventilator while the doctors ran some tests.
Ben clung to my hand with one hand while using the other to drive. We couldn’t even talk to each other, each wrapped up in our own fear of what this might mean, neither wanting to put a voice to those fears. Two months after our daughter was born too soon, we were once again faced with losing her.
It was agony to stand outside the NICU, scrubbing our hands per hospital instructions. When we stepped into the NICU, we found the room packed with doctors, nurses, and specialists. Ben and I stepped back against the wall. He reached over and clasped my hand. No one came to speak to us, as if our arrival had gone unnoticed. We had been through so much for and with our girl, and suddenly we could only stand there helpless while she was in trouble. I hated feeling this helpless. What was going on? What had happened to her to turn things around so suddenly? She had been fine that morning while we were watching her, while we celebrated her second month with us, distributing cupcakes like we had done the month before.
After a moment, one of the nurses looked up and noticed us there. She came over and led us from the room. She took us straight to Dr. Steven’s office. It was still several minutes before he joined us. While we waited, I buried my face in Ben’s shoulder, knowing that this was it for our girl. We had fought hard for her, and she had too, but we were reaching the end. It was instinctive, this knowledge that suddenly things had gone too far. Up until now, I’d always know that she could be okay, that she could keep fighting. Suddenly it felt different, and I didn’t know why.
It wasn’t fair, I thought. It wasn’t fair that we had worked so hard for nothing. That we got this close to the one thing we wanted more than anything, only to lose it. But then I realized that it hadn’t been for nothing. We had gotten two months with a beautiful little girl, our daughter, our Anna. Even if we were about to lose her, that time had been wonderful. It had been everything I thought it would be. To see my own child, to hold her, to see Ben with her. Everything we had gone through had been worth it for that.
Dr. Stevens came into his office and sat behind his desk.
“What happened?” Ben asked.
“Anna was unresponsive at her feeding time. While we worked to assess her condition, she had a seizure. When we did an ultrasound on her head to check for any changes in her brain, we found that she had had a cerebral hemorrhage.”
For a moment, I believed that my instincts had been wrong, that everything could be fine. Anna had already suffered a brain hemorrhage, and she had recovered from it as she’d recovered from everything else that had been thrown at her. There was almost no evidence left of the first one. Something in Dr. Stevens’ manner implied that this was different.
“She’s been through that,” I said, hoping that my conviction that she could be okay would be enough to make it true. “She did fine after the first one.”
“That one was small, only a grade two. This one is a grade four.”
“Grade four?” Ben repeated. “What does that mean?”
“There’s been a great deal of bleeding in her brain, and it’s probably continuing to bleed as we speak. At this point, there is also a great deal of swelling.” He paused. “Your daughter is on life support right now. She hasn’t regained consciousness since the seizure.”
Life support. So this was it. He was going to tell us that she was brain dead, and that we had a choice to make. We were now faced with losing our daughter, the child we had wanted so much, the child we had worked so hard for. For four years, we’d tried to get Anna here. How were we supposed to let her go?
“Can we have a moment?” I asked Dr. Stevens.
He left us alone in his office. I turned to Ben, tears streaming down my face. I knew what our decision would be, what we would have to do. But it was so impossibly painful to say those words. How could we make this choice, the only choice to make, after everything? We had seen our daughter fight through so many problems, and now it felt as if we were giving up on her, telling her that she hadn’t done enough. All of her trials, everything she had been through, had been for nothing.
I looked up at Ben. “I want to see her. I need to see whether she’s still there.”
“Are you sure?”
“I need to see for myself that she isn’t here anymore.
Ben rubbed his face with his hands. “You think we’ll be able let her go?”
“I don’t know. I do know that I need to be with her right now.”
“Let’s go then.”
We stood next to Anna’s isolette, staring down at our two-month-old daughter. She was splayed out on her back, the ventilator tube in her throat. It wasn’t like before when she’d been on the ventilator. Then, her eyes would open, or she’d fidget about. Now she was perfectly still, not even her eyelids twitching, her chest rising and falling in time with the breaths that were being forced into her.
This wasn’t our baby. Our feisty little girl was gone, replaced with her empty body.
All I’d wanted for years was a child, and now as I stared at Anna’s body, I realized that this chance at parenthood, the chance to raise Anna, was over. Our daughter was gone.
I had thought it would be harder to make the decision to let our daughter go than it was. We had spent so long getting here, and I was loathe to give up, but we told the doctor to turn off the life support, knowing that it was truly the right thing to do. This little girl would never smile at me. She would never run, or play, or speak. She was gone.
One of her nurses began to gently disconnect the various lines and tubes connected to Anna’s body. Out came her feeding tube and her IV. Off came the bands and the bracelets. She looked smaller than ever, with all of her machinery disconnected. The ventilator tube was removed, and then the nurse wrapped Anna in a blanket and handed her to me.
I held our baby girl, rocking her gently, the way I was never able to do while she was alive. While she had been alive, we held her against our chests. Now I cradled her in my arms the way I had seen so many mothers hold their children. I looked down at her tiny face. She could have been sleeping. I didn’t know what to say to her. I wanted to apologize for not doing a better job of keeping her inside me, of making sure she was big and strong before she came to meet us. I wanted to tell her how much we loved her, and how much we would miss her. I couldn’t find the words. She was leaving before she was even supposed to arrive. How do you say good-bye to someone so small?
What had I said to Daniel? When I lost him, it was so painful, both emotionally and physically. Through the pain of the miscarriage, I had spoken to him, telling him that the pain I was in wasn’t his fault, and that I still loved him very much, and how sad we were that we wouldn’t get to meet him. What could I say to Anna, who had fought so hard to be with us?
“You’ve been so strong and brave, our little warrior. You fought so hard, and we know that. It’s not your fault that you couldn’t stay forever. We understand. We still love you so much.
“When you get wherever you are going,” I said softly, “there will be a little boy there named Daniel. He’s your big brother. Please let him know that we still love him and miss him very much. He couldn’t stay with us for very long either. It was very hard to let him go, like it’s hard to let you go, but we know that it’s the right thing to do. He’ll take care of you. That’s what big brothers do.”
I leaned down and kissed my daughter’s forehead, and then handed her to her father. Ben cradled her in his arms, tears wet on his cheeks. He kissed her face, and her tiny nose that looked so much like his own. I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t take looking at this perfect little girl, our perfect little girl, knowing that she was gone. I knew that letting her go was the right thing to do, but that didn’t make it easier.
“Good-bye, our brave little girl. Things won’t be the same around here without you,” Ben said softly.
He handed Anna back to the nurse, who would be making sure her body was taken to the funeral home. Anna would be cremated, and we would keep her ashes with us to remember our brief time with our daughter. I didn’t want to leave the hospital, knowing this was our last time with our daughter. Once we left here, we would never see her or hold her again. This was it. Our final moments with our daughter.
I leaned against Ben as we walked out to the car. He drove us home, and it looked as if he was driving by rote, not paying attention to where he was or where he was going. His movements were mechanical, wooden. Then, so were mine. It was as if all our emotions had been sucked dry.
Our house seemed quieter than usual, emptier. The idea struck me as ridiculous, as Anna had never entered our house. It should have been a safe place, where memories of her didn’t exist. Instead I felt the emptiness of losing our daughter, even when I was far from the place she had lived her short life.
Ben and I stumbled up the stairs to our bedroom. It was early, barely mid-day, but the weight of the day was too much. We couldn’t be expected to go about the rest of the day as if nothing had happened. How could I do mundane things like shop for groceries when our daughter was gone?
In the bedroom, I leaned my head against Ben’s chest. I didn’t know what to say to him, what he could possibly say to me to make things okay. How had we gotten to this place, this empty cold place? We were together, but it felt so much like we were both alone in the same place. There was nothing we could say to comfort each other.
Ben tipped my chin up so that I was looking at him. Then he bent down and kissed me. He kissed my lips, my nose, my eyes, my cheeks; everywhere he found space for his lips. I began to respond, kissing back, feeling the need to comfort him, and to let him comfort me. There was something in our kisses that was so obviously our desire to forget about the events of the day, to immerse ourselves in something different, something better.
We made love slowly, carefully. It was about comforting each other, not about the release. It had been years since we had made love to make love. It was exactly what we needed. We needed to turn off our brains, our thoughts, our emotions, and simply be together. Only us together, with no distractions, nothing outside of us. Because this was what it would be from now on. We would have to face the future, with all the pain it might hold, together.