Nothing could have prepared me enough for the shock and horror of finding my newborn daughter not breathing that early morning of November 2014. I wish I weren’t telling this story, because I would never want to have this story. But I’m willing to tell it because the pain my husband and I have endured has opened our eyes to the tremendous pain of a fallen and broken world and the suffering of fellow sojourners this side of Heaven.
It might sound freudian, but I think it’s easier to know where I am now by understanding where I’ve been (and I’m an Enneagram 4, so my orientation to time is the past 😉 ) My childhood was easy, mostly delightful and fun, I was well loved by my parents and older brothers, and I learned young to be imaginative, to love books & stories, to draw & paint, to investigate and learn about God. In contrast, I married a man who was raised agnostic, taught himself how to hack computers in middle school, jammed to heavy metal, and joined the Air Force right after 9/11. We met online in 2010, like so many other 21st century relationship-seekers, and discovered that we loved so many of the same things- truth, faith, family, animals, children, farming, brainstorming, designing, building, and dreaming. We worked hard to develop our relationship since we were basically a cross-cultural blend- me being of deep Virginia roots and him being a Pacific North Westerner. We married two years nearly to the day after we’d met, and though he had a steady civilian career as a Firefighter Paramedic he was also training into a specialized military force through the Reserves and he left two months after our wedding. I mourned the lack of connection and stability that I so longed for in a newly forming marriage, but I thrived in our little gingerbread house up on the hill in a tiny Mayberry-like town with our old dog and threw myself into my dream job as a Vision Therapist in the field of Developmental Optometry. Toward the end of my husband’s months of extensive training and travel and only just after a year of marriage (that had struggled significantly due to his absence), I was shockingly and unexpectedly pregnant (I blame it on what POW training will do to a guy). I was devastated when I found out. My husband was thrilled but I felt our marriage wasn’t strong enough, and I desperately didn’t want to forsake my job to become a stay-at-home-mom (due to my husband’s civilian career and our finances I would have to stay at home once the baby was born).
On November 1st, 2014 I went into labor in the early morning and it became a hilarious story of not really knowing I was in labor and the labor progressing very quickly and then my husband noticing that our daughter’s head was being born and his desperate call to the midwife to get her ass over to our house and me trying to hold the baby in until my husband could calm down. We have fond memories of that entire ordeal and it’s an event hard to forget. Heidi Lee came into the world beautifully healthy and strong and full of life. She was a carbon copy of my husband, but she had my fingers and my feet. We were immediately in love with her and smitten with our new life as a family of three (along with an old dog and a puppy). Those first three days were blissful and unforgettable and delightful, full of grace & the sweetness of God’s precious design. On the fourth day I woke to nurse my daughter and realized instantly that something was wrong. I had nursed her just three hours before, and she lay gently swaddled, lying on her back, and I had checked on her a few times. I woke with a sudden start of urgency at 3am but figured I was just experiencing hot flashes post birth; I gently scooped up my daughter, admiring her soft features and angelic face; when I kissed her cheek I noticed that she felt cool and that seemed odd since she was swaddled; I quickly turned on the light and saw immediately that Heidi was unresponsive. I screamed from the depths of my soul for my husband who was lying beside me unaware, and he frantically began performing infant CPR while at the same time instructing me to call 911, get dressed, and put the dog behind closed doors. I began pacing in the nursery, praying out loud over my husband who was in our bedroom crying out in distress as he desperately tried to get Heidi to respond. I just remember saying over and over and over, “Please give her back. God, please give her back. But if you don’t, we will still trust you, we will still praise you, we will still seek you.” I knew even then in the depths of my heart that my sweet and precious daughter was already with Jesus and the Saints in the Heavenly places.
There is nothing like having the doctors of the Emergency Room come to you and say, “We’re so sorry. There’s nothing we can do.” And there’s nothing like watching them hand you a memory box of her hair lock and her outfit and her foot print and watching your husband clutch that box and scream out fiercely and fall to his knees, “NO! NO! NO! I want my baby back! I just want my daughter back!” It is all seared into the depths of my soul. And we have never been the same since.
I started calling my husband Manly back when we first started dating. He’d been in the military for nearly 10 years, was a firefighter, built & collected guns as a hobby, brewed his own beer, smoked cigars, rucked for miles in the worst conditions, could build or design almost anything he put his hands to….. I mean, he was pretty manly.
He was also quiet, reserved, introverted, sarcastic, dry-humored, a conflict avoider, and kept most relationships to a minimum or at a distance. But when he was with me he could talk the hind leg of a mule, laugh like a school boy, be spontaneous & romantic & sweet, share his deepest pain & his deepest desires, humbly listen to advice or willingly work with me in my weaknesses. I was warmed by his rough & tough exterior and his sentimental thoughtful ways.
I felt safe with him. And I knew I could trust him.
The day our Heidi passed, after we’d come back home from the hospital without her, it was as if the entire fire department dispatched out to us. My husband was unraveling by the minute, trying to tear apart the deck board by board and his buddies were trying to keep him from doing harm to himself. Meanwhile, I was only four days post giving birth, lying down with my eyes closed, trying to shut out the horror of my world.
Since my husband is trained in specialized military operations and a trained medic, he knew he could not fight the beast of our tragedy without intensive intervention, so he relentlessly called therapist after therapist after therapist. Several of them said that our case was too severe and that they did not specialize in that type of trauma. Within two weeks, we came in contact with a Christian Counselor named John who worked in a counseling group connected to our church (Presbyterian Church of America), and he told us upfront that, though he did not have specialized training in our type trauma, he was an ex-cop who had worked in domestic abuse & violence and therefore was very familiar with trauma and suffering and grief; he said he would be willing to work with us and that we could explore for a few weeks if it was a good fit for our needs. At that same time, my husband also began a type of therapy called EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – which has been widely effective for victims of abuse, assault, and veterans of war. This type of therapy was performed for him due to the never-ending flashbacks that he experienced daily. He could not visualize her as being alive & beautiful but only as her being lifeless & growing gray & gaunt from the effects of death. EMDR rerouted my husband’s brain and its ability to process the memories and the emotions associated with the traumatic event of Heidi’s sudden passing. After a few months of constant therapy & counseling, the flashbacks began to subside, though he did experience intermittent night terrors & fits of anxiety & panic attacks.
“You have suffered a tremendous amount of loss and pain,” our counselor would remind us after working through 90 minute sessions of anger, bitterness, outbursts of cursing, disappointment with God, and painful questions that seemed to have no adequate answers. He told us when we began counseling that it would take two years and probably longer to work through the mountain of trauma & grief we had accumulated from Heidi’s death. It truly seemed insurmountable, and that’s because it is. A mountain of grief cannot be climbed, it has to be chiseled. One cannot overcome it, he has to go through it. And so we have been, slowly & steadily for the past four and a half years….
Since I liked to paint, I wanted to paint little creatures for the nursery and I thought it would be therapeutic for me since I wasn’t thrilled about the pregnancy. I was into the first trimester, sitting at home alone one sunny early spring day, and noticed out of the corner of my eye a flash of bright blue fly across the back deck, land on the railing, and then flutter off just as quickly as it had arrived. I wondered what sort of bird it was, because I wasn’t too familiar with birds, particularly birds native to the Shenandoah Valley. I discovered from my research that it had been a delightful little Eastern Bluebird and I knew then that I should paint it. I was a little rusty, but the painting didn’t turn out too badly, and I finished it just the week before Heidi’s birth.
A dear friend of mine wanted to take me away for a few days so that I could grieve and mourn without being a burden to my husband who was still in the throws of turmoil and anguish. She took me to a lake house just five weeks after losing Heidi, and I brought my journals, a photo album of Heidi, and a stack of books about grief & God. I sat outside that chilly December morning on a tree swing overlooking Lake Anna, and my heart was far below freezing, more so than that body of water. I stared into the distance and slowly let each tear fall, one right after the other. I said firmly, “God. If you’re even here. In my life. You’ve got to show up.”
I suddenly felt my shoulders lift in a way, as if some of the weight of grief over me were lightening, and I noticed that there were many sounds around me and that I wasn’t actually alone. Nature was happening all about me, but I had been too consumed with my pain to care. I looked straight ahead of me and heard birds chirping and saw birds flutter by. I didn’t think much of it at first, except that several feet away perched on a branch I thought that the bird looked like one I’d seen before, but I doubted my ability to identify it since I still wasn’t too familiar with naming types. I watched it swoop off the branch and down into a gathering of other birds like it as they all fluttered and twittered about. And then it hit me- they were all Eastern Bluebirds. Flocking in mid December. And the last time I’d seen one up close was the Spring before.
We’re dry, traditional Presbyterians. We don’t practice “signs & wonders” and we don’t believe in personal revelations as God’s way of speaking to individual people. But I knew in my heart that I couldn’t deny God’s presence that day at the lake, and I knew I couldn’t mistake a bluebird for God’s act of responding to my plea to be known in my deepest sorrow.
It became undeniably true the night a few months following when my husband experienced two consecutive night terrors while we were staying with my parents. Night terrors are not bad dreams; they are an episode of screaming out in complete and utter terror, as if you are about to be murdered, and they happen during one’s sleep without warning. After the second episode that night, I asked my mom for help, because I didn’t think I could sleep with my husband anymore that night (or peacefully ever again). She pulled up a chair by his side of the bed where he was fitfully trying to sleep (night terrors happen during deeper sleep patterns and the adrenaline of it causes a person to continue sleeping, almost as if the terror hadn’t happened at all). For two hours she read scripture and prayed in rotation while I watched him like a hawk, waiting for the next wave of horror to hit him and jolt us all out of our holy huddle. I was not prepared for what would happen next. I saw his eyes start to flutter in his sleep, heard him mumbling, and noticed that he was becoming more restless. In my fear of experiencing another one of his episodes, I jumped on top of him and shook him hard to get him to wake up. He grabbed my arms, shook me in return, opened his eyes wide and announced loudly & clearly: “I’m okay, Babe! I’m okay! I saw a bluebird. I saw a bluebird in this room. I heard your mom reading and then in my sleep -like a dream but it seemed real- I saw the ceiling of this room become blue skies and clouds and I saw an eastern bluebird fly across the room and land on the dresser next to your mom and then come and land on my shoulder. Then I woke up because you were shaking me. But I know that God is here and I know he sent that bluebird to quiet my mind and to set me free from remembering Heidi when she was dead. I believe that God sent the bluebird for me. It’s going to be okay now.”
I was in shock. I didn’t really know if I could believe it or not. But I didn’t think I should deny it either.
To put it simply- Thus began our long journey, that we still traverse, of trusting God when all seems to be falling apart around us. We have seen God show up in astounding ways for us- we nearly lost the sale of our house and it was an epic real estate battle to secure the purchase, but God pulled through at the last second when we had lost all hope; friends we had already been close to became even dearer to us and supported us no matter how badly we behaved in our wrecked state of grief; people came out of the wood work – or more literally from across the globe – to tell us how much our story of tragedy and our willingness to believe the Truth had impacted their pursuit of a Creator; our second daughter, who was conceived just two months after Heidi’s passing, was born 9 weeks premature and God, I believe, literally had his hand upon every detail of that ominous ordeal; my husband’s health has continued to be a challenge, but God has met us at every turn with excellent physicians and counselors and medical input and my husband does not just survive, he incredibly thrives; God blessed us with the bright smile & cheery disposition of our second daughter as well as with the vibrant light of our son who is a constant companion to his sister as she oftens refers to their older sister that lives with God & all the Saints in Heaven.
We have been traveling a weary road these last four and a half years, and we don’t claim to have faith that makes it all acceptable and easy and manageable. We have come to our knees many times, and we have wrestled with God’s tenacity to test us in such strong and unyielding ways. It.has.not.been.easy. We often say that we would wish our story on no one, not even our worst enemy. My husband and I continue with our counseling that helps us process so much of our life beyond the upfront grief & trauma; we continue to share our story of God’s grace being made manifest through suffering; we continue to trust that this life will be fraught with trials and that God does have an eternal plan for all to be set right & made whole.
All of the above is just the back-story in a nut shell. I write here on my blog to record the story that God himself is telling. No matter your circumstances, may you see God in your story. Feel free to come along with me, and may we both find encouragement where we need it most.