Women carry the baby. Some for weeks, others for months. They hold them until that final moment. Their emotions are ever-present in the souls of their eyes. Women talk. They write. They find groups. They seek support. But what about the dads in the scenario? The ones who sometimes never get to see, touch or hold their child. These pillars of physical strength that have their heart brought to its knees on the inside, while they fight off the urge to show it on the outside. Let’s take a walk into the often closed but never imagined thoughts of the grieving father.
There are few things more vital to a man, than the significance of his very existence. Especially with regard to his family. Whereas a woman longs for and needs security, a man longs for and needs significance. The instant life becomes uncontrollable and a man’s significance is suddenly erased by a weakened grip, a man can collapse inward without anyone knowing it – including himself.
Seventeen months before what would become the darkest day of my life, my then newborn son, Caleb, was doing great. That all changed on the 28th day. (See more on this story here.) At 28 days old, Caleb was rushed to the PICU. He wasn’t breathing. He had developed Pertussis. He didn’t want to, or rather couldn’t, breathe when the disease would rise up in his chest.
We stood by, helplessly watching as he turned frightening shades of purple each time a new spasm wracked his tiny body. We watched with begging eyes as his heart rate dropped dangerously low — the anticipation cutting off our own breath. The nurses rushed about, as they tried to get Caleb to breathe with the aid of an am-bu. It became a pattern for him to hold his breath as his body clinched against the attacks. Each time the cessation lengthened, my wife and I assumed that this was it, fear strangled our hope and we felt good-bye creeping into the room.
Caleb’s unprepared body, hidden by a mess of tubes and wires, would go limp in the over-sized bed. My eyes would dart from the over-head monitor to his small face. The feeling of insignificance had never been more brutally honest. I stood there watching helplessly as my son fought to breathe, realizing that I could not do anything to help him. Although he couldn’t speak, his wide-opened eyes stared hard at me, almost pleading for me to help him. It was as though there were an invisible wall between what I could do and what he needed. It taunted me ferociously, pressing an insurmountable distance between us although I stood only inches from him.
Twenty-one long days later, Caleb finally got to come home. The nightmare had ended. I thought I had learned just how little a part I played in the whole life-and-death saga. Eventually, those fearful feelings and inadequacies slowly faded back into the memory vaults of my mind. The routine of everyday life pressed the images from those scary nights in the ICU into a corner rarely visited. The illusion that control was back in my hands had allowed me to falsely believe the thought that even if things got unbearable, it would all work out.
Then the darkest day of my life arrived.
Seventeen months later, there I stood staring at a blank screen that was supposed to project the images of my daughter, Bella. The doctor wrapped up the cord to the sonogram wand and uttered the words, “We’re sorry, her heart has stopped.” Once again, I was violently reminded that I had no control. The prison door of my limits slammed in my face. It was my responsibility to fix things. There was no fix to this. There was no manual to reference. There were no words of comfort to deliver to my sobbing wife who had her shirt pulled up with the residue of the gel still smeared across her swollen belly that held my still daughter.
In this instance, unlike when my son was fighting with the notion of death, death was here. Suddenly the almost moments with Caleb paled in comparison to this very real moment with Bella. Uninvited, unexpected and unwanted, death arrived — to stay. I wasn’t prepared. Is anyone?
Not knowing what to do in a spiraling situation may be the biggest fear to enter a man’s mind. I still remember the doctor asking simple, basic questions like, “Do you need to call anyone?” or “Do you guys want to head to the hospital today?” The answers were far from where the reach of my understanding and dropped off the cliff of confusion. I felt myself falling out of the sky. No parachute. No safety net. No answers.
The instinct to protect and comfort my wife was natural but oddly forced as I stumbled over robotic, one-liners that most sappy soap-operas would pass on. I couldn’t even put together one single sentence of hope. I didn’t believe the words as they left my shivering lips; how would she? I couldn’t find the words to begin to make sense or even understand the loss of our baby girl. This was the first moment in a string of events that I began to shut down my emotions. This may also be the moment that other grieving dads begin to shut down.
Ironically, these first few moments of horror were just the beginning of what my life and mind were about to face. The days were about to get silently darker and much longer.