After losing one baby, she couldn't bear to lose another.
Posted in , Oct 24, 2008
Outside the window, a branch creaked mournfully. With the wind chill it was going to hit 37 degrees below tonight, the TV weatherman had said. Cold even by Canadian standards.
I pulled the comforter up and snuggled closer to my two daughters, hoping they were comfortable enough to fall asleep in a strange bed. Elsie, my two-year-old, was next to the wall, and 13-month-old Erika lay in her diaper, safely sandwiched between us. "Still awake, Baby?" I whispered, wrapping my arms around her and breathing in her sweet smell. "Don't worry, Momma's here to keep you warm."
Three weeks earlier someone had broken into our apartment. They took everything—my money, my furniture, even the food out of the refrigerator. I couldn't stay there after that. I felt so vulnerable alone with my girls. So unprotected. My dad put us up for a week, but housing a single mom and her kids was a lot to ask of him. I moved from one friend's house to another, trying not to be a burden. That night my friend Robin had let us have her daughter's room.
I rolled over and stared out the window at the moon, bright in the February sky. I was pretty tired of not having my own house. All I wanted was a place to settle down—someplace safe, where I wouldn't worry about my girls all the time. I could relax only when I had my arms around them, like I did now. Everyone said I was overprotective, but wouldn't you be too if you'd lost a child?
In 1994 my daughter Kayla was born with a rare heart disease. I prayed and trusted that God would work a miracle. After all, he loved her every bit as much as I did. Thirty-four days later she passed away in my arms. Part of me died that day too, a hard, bitter death. How could I trust anybody now? I pushed away the people who reached out to me—my father, my friends, the man in my life. I even pushed away God. Especially God. If he wouldn't answer this prayer, what would it take? If God hadn't loved my daughter enough to spare her, then I would make up for it by loving my children even more. I did everything I could to take care of them, worried myself sick, but still, I never felt completely secure. If only I could free myself from this pervasive fear.
I snuggled closer to Erika, listening to her gentle, steady breathing. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
I woke up with a start. The moon was gone from the window. The room was pitch-black. I reached out and felt Elsie's sleeping body. Erika! I sat up, patting the bed frantically. Empty. Calm down...calm down, I told myself, pulling on my jeans and a shirt. She can't have gone far. I hurried out into the hall and peered through Robin's door. No Erika. I went from room to room, calling her name. In the kitchen, the air felt cold. I flipped on the light. The back door was open. Wide open.
I stuck my head outside. The frigid air caught in my lungs. "Erika!" I cried. I stepped into the yard and sank up to my knees. A few feet away, clearly visible in the moonlight, a small dark shape lay in the snow. My baby!
I struggled over to her, barefoot but too numb with terror to feel the cold. Erika lay face down. Her bare legs and torso were half-buried by the swirling snow. She was completely still. A scream rose from somewhere deep within me. I dropped to my knees and snatched my baby up. Her body was stiff. So stiff. I had to get her inside. I charged back to the house and stumbled into the kitchen. I pushed everything off the table and put her down. Clunk went her body against the wood. She was literally a block of ice. A white layer of frost covered her pale cheeks. Her lips were blue. I pressed my ear against her chest and then held my breath, listening for even the slightest heartbeat. No trace. Nothing! Then, involuntarily, like the scream, a prayer welled up.
No! I thought. I can't rely on him.
Robin was awake now. "I called an ambulance," she said, pushing a blanket at me. "They're on their way."
I wrapped Erika tightly, holding her to me and rocking her for what seemed like an eternity. Robin hugged us both. Soon red flashing lights appeared in the windows. EMTs rushed in carrying a stretcher. I let them take Erika from me and tried to answer the questions they shouted. Why was she out there? How long was she exposed? Robin explained that the lock on the back door was broken, that the strong wind must have blown it open. I winced as the EMTs tried to insert an IV needle into Erika's arm. No go. Her veins were frozen solid. Their desperate eyes told me all I needed to know.
At the hospital, it was a long time before I could finally talk to one of the doctors. "Your daughter's body temperature dropped more than thirty degrees," he said. "She has frostbite on her fingers and toes. We might have to amputate. Her condition is dire."
He paused, making sure I was listening. "Erika's heart stopped for at least two hours. There's no way of telling what damage that caused. We just have to wait and see." Then he was gone.
I paced and paced in the waiting area, each step taking me farther and farther into a past I didn't want to revisit. The fluorescent lights, the smell of antiseptic, the doctors and nurses in their blue scrubs—they were all like bad memories. Kayla. I'd had so many dreams about that last night in the hospital with my daughter, sitting by her bedside as she slipped away from me. I already lived through this nightmare once, I thought. I can't go through it again.
I wandered out of the waiting room and through corridors full of patients and hospital personnel, until I found myself in front of an open door. I peeked inside. A wooden cross hung on the far wall, illuminated by a soft light. The chapel. I stepped in and slid onto one of the chairs. I couldn't carry the weight of this anxiety anymore—not alone. But where could I turn? God had turned his back on me before. He'd chosen to ignore my pleas. Why trust him again now? I looked up at the cross. He lost a child too, I suddenly thought. He must know how I feel. Maybe instead of blaming God, I should trust him. I hadn't prayed since the day Kayla died. Could I ask God to help me now?
One thing was clear: I could not do this alone, and no earthly force could help me. The strangest feeling came over me, as if the ice that surrounded my heart for seven bitter years was melting away.
Lord, I can't bear another child's death. I'm just not strong enough. I need your strength. Erika needs it. Help us.
It didn't make any sense, but as I prayed, a powerful conviction took hold of me: Everything would be okay. A few hundred yards away my daughter was lying in intensive care, but the fear that had gripped me like a fist all night long suddenly loosened. I'd done the best I could to look after my baby, but in the end, it wasn't up to me whether she lived or died. Someone else was watching out for Erika, someone who loved her every bit as much as I did. And who loved me just as much. I had no choice but to trust him.
I spent the whole next day in the hospital. Every hour or so I'd hear some new piece of good news. Each seemed like a reminder from God: Remember, everything's going to be okay.
Erika's temperature returned to normal. Her heart rate grew steady. That evening a nurse led me into pediatric ICU to see Erika for the first time since I'd given her to the medics the night before. Surrounded by life-support machines, shielded by a plastic bubble that maintained her body temperature, she lay sleeping calmly, her tiny chest gently rising and falling. The same sense of peace I'd felt in the chapel the night before rushed over me. My daughter hadn't come alone through the darkness and cold; someone had protected her, guided her. How else to explain her survival? And he would guide me too, if I trusted him as absolutely as I loved my children. That trust would be my freedom, that safe place I'd been looking for.
Erika stayed another week in the hospital. She had a skin graft to repair the frostbite on her hands and foot, and it's healed nicely. The doctors have cautioned me that there's no way of telling what the long-term effects of hypothermia might be. Somehow, I'm not worried. They all say she is as great a medical miracle as they have ever seen. I only have to hold Erika's warm hand to remember that her life is a gift from someone who loves her just as much as I do. And that is the greatest miracle of all.