Fatherhood, from the very beginning. (A wife’s perspective)

With Father’s Day rapidly approaching, I have started thinking a lot about fatherhood, especially as it pertains to bereaved fathers like my husband. A few days ago I recalled a phrase I’ve heard several times through the years.

“A woman becomes a mother when she learns she is pregnant, but a man doesn’t become a father until he holds his child for the first time.”

You know, I really hate that phrase. I’m not a father, but it even feels like a slap in the face to me. It’s so dismissive, and really belittles the incredible connection that men share with their unborn children. This is the very reason men have such a difficult time understanding their emotions while grieving the loss of a baby, whether it happens early in pregnancy or shortly after birth.

Let me tell you this, my husband became a father the moment he learned I was pregnant. His journey began when our daughter was the size of a sesame seed. I can say this with great confidence because I have walked this path alongside him every single day of our daughter’s brief life, and beyond.

When I was just five weeks pregnant with Aria, our doctors warned us that our pregnancy may not be viable. They couldn’t find a heartbeat, or any evidence of a baby inside the gestational sac. My hormone levels, and the date of my last menstrual cycle led them to believe I should have been far enough along to see much more development than that. After a week and a half of worry, Aria finally allowed us to see a glimpse of her on the ultrasound, and her rapidly beating heart.

But while we were in that limbo period, waiting to find out if I had miscarried or not, I watched my husband behave exactly as a father would. He drove home from that doctor’s appointment with tears streaming down his face. He was already in love with our child, and we had only known I was pregnant for a week. The thought of losing this baby was devastating to him. In that moment, to tell him he wasn’t actually a father would have been grossly inaccurate. He had never met our child, he didn’t know if we were expecting a boy or a girl, and he didn’t even know if this baby was going to survive – but he was a father.

He fathered our daughter throughout my entire pregnancy. He took care of me as I battled horrendous bouts of morning sickness, and fetched whatever food I could stomach at the moment without a single complaint. He enthusiastically helped me assemble her nursery furniture, and even made a shopping trip to Babies-R-Us on his own. He spoke sweetly to my belly, and loved feeling her little kicks. He prayed for her, planned for her, and hoped for her from the very beginning.

When our daughter was diagnosed with CCAM at our anatomy scan, he stood bravely beside us. He went to every single high risk appointment, which involved two hours of driving once (and sometimes twice) a week, and a lot of time away from work. I never once asked him to do that. In fact, I told him not to worry about it every. single. time. But he felt very strongly that Aria needed him, so he was going to be there. That, my friends, is what a father does.

By the time Brian held Aria in his arms for the very first time, he had already been a father for months.

And let me tell you one more thing about fatherhood, it does not end.

He did not stop being Aria’s father when she took her last breaths. He did not relinquish that bond when her heart beat for the very last time. In fact, his love for Aria has grown exponentially, and completely transformed since she left this world. He is still her father, and he still fathers her – no, not in the typical way, but in a way that is unseen to the naked eye. He is fiercely protective of her memory, and constantly searching for ways to grow her legacy.

He is Aria’s father – he has been from the moment she was conceived, and always will be.

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Brian after setting up Aria’s crib – November 10, 2015

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Our third wedding anniversary is almost here.

A few months ago, I wasn’t sure if we would make it to our third anniversary. As I laid in Brian’s arms while in my hospital bed, I wondered if the aftermath of our daughter’s passing was going to tear us apart. I knew this tragedy had the potential to completely destroy us. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been all that surprised if it did. Disasters of this magnitude can easily break down the strongest of relationships. Sadly, it happens all the time and I completely understand it.

So that night as I listened to the sound of my husband’s heartbeat while I laid my head on his chest, I prayed that I wouldn’t lose him. As hard as it seems to imagine a greater tragedy than losing a child, losing Aria and Brian would have been even worse. I was so afraid that my best friend would become my enemy, and our grief would cause us to forget the commitments we made on our wedding day.

Truthfully, we had no idea what we were agreeing to as we vowed to stand by each other for better or worse. We still believed in the illusion that a perfect wedding would lead to a perfect life. We never imagined we would become bereaved parents. No one ever does. But the beauty in all of this is that we never broke those vows.

Brian scooped me up into his arms when my grief brought me to my knees. He held me for hours as guttural sobs poured out from the darkest pits of my sadness. He has fed me when I wouldn’t eat, and helped me shower when I was weak. The moments when Brian needed me came as well. I ignored the fact that I had just gone through a major surgery, and immediately dropped to the floor with Brian when grief took his ability to stand. When Brian was having a difficult moment, my need to take care of him overcame my own heartache so that I could provide him with the love and support he needed. We never attempted to run from the pain, we always carried each other through it.

To be completely honest, there have been occasions when we have mistreated each other in the aftershock. We both became quick to anger because of the anguish we were feeling. Sometimes, it was much easier to snap at each other than admit to our pain. But we always did our best not to take it personally, and to understand the hurt our actions stemmed from.

The dynamic of our marriage used to revolve around a 50/50 split. We both felt that we should constantly contribute equally. That has completely changed, and now it often looks a lot like 100/0. There are many instances when I’ve been so broken that I had nothing left to give him. But Brian comes to me in those moments and gives me 100% of himself so that I can find my way out of the darkness. When Brian is struggling and completely unable to give anything to me, I step in and give him every single ounce of love I have in my body. Sometimes he’s saving me, and other times I am blessed with the honor of saving him. “For better or worse” means loving each other even when we aren’t currently receiving anything in return.

It has been five months since we lost Aria, and I can say with great certainty that this is not going to rip us apart. Somehow, we have forged an even greater bond in the midst of such a tragic loss. Our third year of marriage has been filled with the most wonderful moments, and the absolute worst that we have ever faced, but it’s a milestone with great meaning. We will celebrate this anniversary with a greater sense of accomplishment than any other year because we have overcome the impossible. We have survived. We will go into our anniversary on June 15, 2016, as a completely changed couple. We are more broken than before, but far better than who we once were.

Brian, it has been an absolute honor to be your wife and I’m so grateful that I get to share the rest of my life with you. You are my guiding light, and you have brought me through life’s most impossible moments. There are so many times when it feels as if you have reached into my chest, taken hold of my heart, and forced it to keep beating. Without you, I wouldn’t be here. I love you.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

I wanted to take a few pictures of Aria’s nursery since we will be moving soon, and from then on her room will only exist in boxes. I wanted to have photos to look back on through the years, so we never forget what her room looked like.

I decided I wanted to take a few pictures with me in them as well. To be honest, I’m not really sure why. I know it may seem a bit strange to take photos in her room after her passing, but this phase of my life is so pivotal that I felt I should document it. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I can feel her presence every time I set foot into her room. So in some way it almost feels as if she’s with me in these pictures.

This image stands out to me the most.

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There is so much more to this photograph than meets the eye. The pink blanket in Aria’s crib is one of two that were handmade by my sister. One of the blankets was given to me, and the other was placed on Aria just before she was buried. It’s such a symbol that although Aria is no longer with us on earth, we are still connected in so many ways. My head is lifted towards the sky instead of gazing downward into her empty crib, for she soars above me in heaven. My eyes are closed because her presence isn’t something that I can see, it is felt deep within my bones in ways I can’t explain. When I quiet the noise around me and really focus, I can still feel her. The connection between mother and daughter is unbreakable, not even death can destroy it.

I am constantly amazed at how frequently I find pieces of Aria’s legacy in my everyday life. Aria has impacted me so much more than I ever realized she could. I have been forever changed by her existence – in the most beautiful and powerful ways.

And the old saying is definitely true, a picture really is worth a thousand words.
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Embracing the void.

It shocks me that there are moments when Brian and I are truly and genuinely happy. It seemed so impossible that we would find joy a few months ago, yet here we are. These little bursts of happiness are so delicately sprinkled between the most intense feelings of sadness. It’s a sacred balance, and it stops the pain from completely swallowing us.

The smiles, the laughter, it’s all so beautiful. I cling to those moments because I have felt the desperation of a joyless life. I was living one for the first few weeks after our daughter died.

But the grief still exists. It always does. No matter how hard I try to fight it, or tell myself I’m healing, the ache remains.

This evening, Brian and I decided to grill up some watermelon, peaches, pineapple and shrimp. It was a spur of the moment decision after a great day of browsing at the local farmer’s market and shopping. We laughed and joked as we prepared the food. I glanced out the window as Brian was getting the coals going on the grill, he looked so content and peaceful. It made my heart swell to see him like that.

Today had been such a good day. Brian and I were in a really great place. It was really wonderful, but I couldn’t block out the ache I was feeling. Something was missing.

As Brian came in to grab the plate of peaches, I looked up at him with misty eyes and said, “You know, Aria would have had so much fun with us.” We stood there for a moment, our eyes locked on each other. The emptiness swirled around us as we longed for our little girl.

No matter how well we seem to be coping, the emptiness that exists where our daughter should be is ever present and the ache is constant. Sometimes we try to tiptoe around it, so we don’t fall apart in front of everyone. We agree when people tell us we look great, or sound happy. But when it’s just the two of us, we feel our grief freely. We embrace the void because it comes from a place of great love for our little girl. We ebb and flow with all of our emotions because blocking them out only intensifies the pain. So we took a few moments in the middle of preparing dinner to grieve, then gathered ourselves and kept going. We ate, went for a walk, and the laughter returned.

Through the months, we have learned that the key to survival is learning how to dance between each emotion, and always welcoming joy when it comes.

1+1=3

As Brian and I walk into a restaurant, the hostess usually asks “Just two?” and I cringe. As hard as the words are, I manage to agree, “yes, just two.” But it feels like a big, fat lie.

For Brian and I are never just two. No matter where we go in life, our daughter is here. She is present in our hearts for every second of every day. To most of the world, we are just two people walking into a restaurant for dinner, but we know we are so much more than that. We are a family of three.

In the last three months, I have realized that our family’s structure just wasn’t made for this world. I hate filling out medical forms and legal documents for this very reason. There’s always that one, awful question; “How many children?” And though my heart longs to tell the whole truth and include Aria, I know what they are really asking. The IRS doesn’t even count her as a person because she wasn’t in our household for more than six months. So with great apprehension, I write “Zero.” And it feels like I’ve just written my daughter out of my life.

I think a lot of people tend to see us that way too. They see Brian, they see me, but they don’t see Aria, so she doesn’t count. It often feels as if a lot of people don’t fully comprehend her impact on our lives. Aria may not have been here long, but she is just as much our child as you are your parent’s child. We loved her just the same.

For us, 1+1=3, and I hope that when you see us, you see all three of us too.

Aria, the baby who saved me.

As mirror syndrome waged war on my body, and threatened to take us both, all I wanted to do was save Aria. We had come so far in our fight for her life, and I was not ready to surrender. The awful truth was that if I stayed pregnant in an attempt to keep her going, I would have left this world in a matter of days, and she would have gone with me. My body was no longer a safe place for her, and carrying her was no longer safe for my body.

The worst part was that once Aria was born, I would fully recover over time. The tumor in Aria’s chest had destroyed so much of her small body already that the world outside of the womb was equally unsafe. She didn’t have a chance inside me, and birthing her wasn’t going to increase her odds.

For the seven months I carried Aria, I thought I was giving her the gift of life. But I realize now that through her birth, Aria was giving life back to me. Even more than that, she fought to give us over an hour of her life after she was born, so that we could be the family of three we had always hoped to be, even if only for a moment. The weeks we spent fighting for Aria were so worth every single second of life with her.

While I’m grateful for each continued beat of my heart, I hate that my daughter couldn’t stay. A piece of me will always wish I could have taken her place.

However, Aria’s story did not end on January 2, 2016, it was only just beginning. You see, in a lot of ways her life continues through me. It is now my responsibility and privilege to live a life so full that it satisfies the both of us. On the day God calls me home, I want us to have a million stories to share about how wonderful life has been for me on earth, and for her in heaven.

This is the very reason I get out of bed each day. I want to have a lifetime of joy and hope to share with her. It took me a while to see it, but my will to live now comes from a 2 pound, 11 ounce baby girl named Aria.

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Can we talk about God real quick?

People often turn their backs on faith in times of despair. It’s natural. We tend to ask “If God is real, and says he loves us, why did he do this to me?” I have asked that question more times than I can count, and I will probably ask it again in the future. No one is immune to doubt. We all feel it at some point, and it’s part of being a Christian. God gives us free will, you can choose to believe just as much as you can choose not to. God is not a puppeteer. 

When we learned that our daughter’s chance of survival was incredibly slim when I was almost seven months pregnant, I felt so abandoned by God. How could he do this to me? How could he do this to my baby? She’s so innocent, she did nothing wrong! I cried out to God asking why he was punishing her. I was enraged. 

Then my husband, Brian asked me to pray with him. Excuse me? You want me to pray to the very God who is going to let my child die? I wanted to refuse but I saw the hope in Brian’s eyes and couldn’t say no. So we prayed. 

And my heart softened. 

Then Brian asked if we could meet with the chaplain at the Children’s Hospital. I dragged my feet, and made plenty of excuses. When we found out the chaplain wasn’t available right away, I told Brian it was probably best if we just went back to our hotel. But he pushed, he wanted to wait for her. Once again, that hope in his eyes was enough to shut me up. So we met with the chaplain. We talked about God, we talked about faith, and we prayed.

And my heart remembered the promises of the God I once loved. 

The bible says God is near the broken hearted. He grieves with us and feels our pain. He doesn’t want us to suffer, but that is the cost of living in an imperfect world that has been torn apart by sin. He has not abandoned us, and our faith will be redeemed.

At the biggest and most heartbreaking moment of our lives, we chose to have faith. We chose to trust in the Lord’s plan for our lives. So Brian and I began to pray, hard. We forced ourselves to sit in silence and wait for God to show us the way. We even stopped praying for him to save our daughter because we didn’t know if that was his will. We prayed that God would lead us down the path that we were meant to explore. If he was going to save her, we asked him to bring us through it. If God was going to send us into the valley and call our daughter home, we asked Him to be our guiding light. We continuously prayed for His will, and the Lord provided. 

I’m sure a few of you are wondering how I can say our prayers were answered when our daughter did not survive. That is because we didn’t pray for our own will. Every single ounce of my being wishes that my baby was still here. I will miss her for every moment of the rest of my life. Losing her ripped a massive hole in me, and I’m not sure that hole can ever be fully repaired. We wanted to be able to keep her and watch her grow. But the reality is that having her here is not the life God intended for her. She was just passing through this world, blessing our lives for a little while before making her grand entrance into heaven. God showed us that, and we have felt His healing presence throughout our grief. We asked Him to guide us, and He has. 

There is a song called “Blessings” by Laura Story and in it she sings:

What if your blessings come through rain drops

What if Your healing comes through tears

What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near

What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise

This song resonates with me because it relates to our experience in multiple ways. Our daughter’s health problems were incredibly serious and complex. Even in the womb, the safest place for her, her little body was fighting. One doctor told us that if she did survive, we needed to be prepared to see her suffer. That was incredibly heartbreaking to hear but she was being honest and I’m thankful for that. God calling our daughter home prevented her from ever feeling pain. In her short but meaningful life, she knew only love. That is God’s mercy working in her life. He did save her, just not in the way we truly wanted Him to.

So I ask of you, if you find yourself at a crossroad in life, choose faith. God will not let you down, no matter how dire the situation may seem. Even the world’s biggest tragedies can bring hope. 

You can read our daughter, Aria’s full story here.