As of this writing, it’s been 10 years since our youngest daughter was born — and died. Rarely during that time has a day passed without thinking of her. As this round-number anniversary approaches, I’ve also been thinking more about the impact that day has had on me, my wife and our other daughter, who is now 12.
I can’t help but feel that this reflection is, at heart, a self-centered endeavor. My instinct is to lock it up and hold it in. Even though we are in an era of sharing — photos, articles, music, likes — sharing something like this isn’t akin to moody Metro pics or lovely sunsets. It seems aggressive or arrogant, or both. This is thrusting one’s emotional baggage onto another. But, over the years, I’ve come to realize I need to get it out, whether or not anyone else needs to read it.
Perhaps that’s partly because others have told their stories — many far more painful, beautiful, and brave. Recently the Huffington Post run a heartbreaking story about a baby boy who died two days before his due date. There’s the story of the Cleveland kicker and his wife, who lost their baby daughter. And Matthew Teague’s story about his dying wife and the friend who helped him through it is about as high a bar as can be set. While our story is just another in that list, it is still our story.
In late 2004 we had our hands full. It was no time to get pregnant. It’s not that we didn’t want a second child. It just wasn’t the right time. With a toddler, home renovation and two careers, we just had too much going on.
Besides, Cynthia’s pregnancy with Samantha had been rough. Periods of unexpected bleeding or prolonged vomiting required multiple trips to the emergency room. A year before becoming pregnant with Sam, Cyn had miscarried a baby boy, causing everyone involved to be more nervous and more careful this time around.
The miscarriage was tough, of course. They are more common than people realize — and often only discover that fact when they suffer one themselves. Friends, neighbors and family come out of the woodwork to share their experiences and mourn with the once-excited parents-to-be whose hopes and visions of the future are suddenly, devastatingly dashed.
So when Cyn started having problems again, bed rest was ordered. Prescriptions flew off doctors’ pads. During one ER visit, a drug intended to stop the vomiting instead turned Cyn into a human marionette: her arms and legs were violently and uncontrollably jerking around the hospital bed. The panic look on her face pleaded with me to make it stop.
Toward the end of the pregnancy with Sam, Cyn became lactose intolerant. In the first trimester, she couldn’t get enough chocolate milk — we bought it by the gallon. But by month seven, it wasn’t just that a glass of milk would send her to the bathroom; even a trace of a whey protein hidden in a granola bar would make her painfully sick. The “Parve” label became a beacon in the grocery store. Vegan cookbooks began to line our shelves. We hoped it was just one of those pregnancy things that maybe would go away after the baby was born, but who could be sure?
She went into labor the afternoon of April 1. Like the pregnancy, the birth was trying. As minutes passed into hours, drugs wore off and doctors chatted about how to proceed. Finally, on the morning of April 2, more than 14 hours after we stepped foot in the hospital, there was the flash of a scalpel, the clank of forceps, and then the emergence of our daughter. She was healthy and beautiful. Samantha.
But the long and troublesome labor had done more damage than either of us realized. Not only had the doctor needed to use a scalpel to help the baby pass through the birth canal, but Cynthia had torn terribly. The tear became infected and within a few weeks, she was unable to stand without pain. She had lost all of her pregnancy weight and then some. And she was still struggling to eat without getting immediately sick.
She developed a fistula, which had also become infected and, in previous medical eras, could easily have killed her. Breastfeeding had to end. Multiple surgeries ensued. Work was limited and medical bills added up.
The lactose intolerance didn’t abate and indeed, seemed to worsen or spread to intolerance for other foods. She would get inexplicably sick. Eventually the reason why was discovered: Crohn’s Disease.
An autoimmune disorder, Crohn’s Disease is an infection of the intestinal tract that can hamper healing and irritate the bowels. It was hardly what one would call good news, but it explained so much and put in place a path toward better health. We were pleased to get a diagnosis.
She underwent multuple surgeries and was put on strong drugs — the sorts of drugs you’re advised not to take if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant. With my wife trying to recover from her surgeries and illness and us raising a baby, getting pregnant again didn’t seem to be much of an issue.
It also was an unlucky time. At the end of 2004, I was laid off from my job just as medical bills and invoices from renovating our house started piling up. Fears of a vanishing career, bankruptcy and ill health left us irritable and frightened.
So as Samantha turned 2 and Cynthia told me she was pregnant again, it was a shock. How would we pay for this? Would the baby be affected by these medications? Have we already harmed it? What difficult decisions lay ahead?
A Bad Sign
Not only had I lost my job, but we started losing loved ones as well. Cynthia’s grandmother died. My biological father suffered an embolism and died. All three of our pets died. All in the space of just a couple of months.
But there were also signs that things were starting to turn around. I landed a dream job. Cynthia started recovering from her surgeries and was responding well to treatment. She was happy to get her career back on track, and our little girl was a delight. Maybe it would all work out after all.
We met with doctors who, after reviewing our sonograms, agreed that the drugs Cyn was taking seemed to pose little risk to the fetus, adding to our optimism. We started thinking about names. Cyn wanted “Matthew” if it was a boy. I always liked “Sydney” for a girl and thought it would be a nice call back to Cyn’s native Australia, where we met. My middle name, “Taylor,” could serve as a middle name for either sex.
It was my neighbor who told me that Cynthia had fallen and was in the hospital. We were carpooling together and he drove that day. When he picked me up in the afternoon he told me what he knew: Apparently while picking up our daughter from daycare, Cynthia fell backwards and, as she tried to catch herself, dislocated her shoulder and had to be taken to the hospital. My neighbor’s wife, whose kids where in the same daycare, took our daughter back home with her. I was to get to the hospital as soon as possible.
When I arrived, Cynthia was still writhing in pain. It had been at least 90 minutes, maybe longer, since her accident. It seemed too cruel not to have treated her yet, but the doctors wanted to make sure her shoulder wasn’t broken. Finally, after what seemed an interminable time to me — and I can’t imagine how long it felt to Cyn, who was crying and moaning the entire time — they tied a towel around her arm and slotted her shoulder back in place.
It’s hard to remember what time we got home. It was late, I’m sure. We left our daughter at our neighbor’s and Cynthia decided the couch would be the most comfortable place for her to sleep. She could be upright and keep ice on her shoulder, and maybe sleep a few hours.
By morning, she knew something was wrong. “I’ve been bleeding,” she said. “We need to go to the hospital.” I was, typically, slow to understand and frustrated at the prospect of more time in the hospital. But she was adamant. And of course she was right. We needed to go. Our neighbors kindly agreed to keep a watch on our daughter a bit longer.
We had been pleased at the idea that Samantha would have a sibling. We both have siblings, though of different sorts. Cynthia is an identical twin. So identical, in fact, that she and her sister shared the same due date for their first pregnancies, the one that ended in miscarriage for us.
I have four half-siblings, all considerably older than me — from nine years older to 23 years older. Because of the age different, I experienced what it was like to be part of a big family and, when the siblings had all left home, as an only child. I didn’t like the latter. So for both Cyn and I, it was important for us both that our daughter have a sibling to share her life with… to complain about us together… and to create that special relationship only siblings have.
But it would be only one sibling for Sam. Cynthia and I agreed this pregnancy would be the last. The previous two had been so hard, and this one wasn’t much easier. She just couldn’t take it, especially with the Crohn’s Disease. She would deliver this baby via Cesaerian section and have her tubes tied.
When we arrived at George Washington hospital, we were escorted to radiology. The sonogram showed that the fall had created a placental tear and thus the source of the bleeding. Cynthia, of course, immediately grasped the significance of this. In fact, she later told me, she had probably gone into labor the previous afternoon after the fall. I didn’t know this and just figured bed rest and maybe some medications were in store. Doctors could solve anything. My immediate concern was that we hadn’t seen Samantha since the morning before and she hadn’t seen her mom since the fall. It simply hadn’t occurred to me that the pregnancy was in any danger.
The nurse could see what I could not. My wife was worried and getting scared. I was selfishly withdrawing and concentrating on the wrong thing. Eventually the nurse took it upon herself to go beyond her job description. “You need to stay here.”
When the doctor came in, she was equally direct. “You’re in labor and we can’t stop it,” she explained to Cynthia. The baby was 22 weeks along. Babies born before 23 weeks or less than a pound weren’t viable, she said. “If she’s over a pound, we can try to save her. Under a pound and there’s nothing we can do.”
In short order, Cynthia was being prepared for surgery and wheeled into the operating room. After several minutes, I was summoned. Cyn lay on a bed, an apron erected jut below her neck. She was drowsy from the drugs. I gave her a kiss on the forehead.
Sitting on Cyn’s left, just next to her head, I watched the half-dozen doctors and nurses gathered around. The surgeon cut into her abdomen. The separated skin wrinkled up and back and I stroked my wife’s face.
Within a few seconds, they pulled the baby from my wife. They turned and set her on a table, weighing her. The doctor looked at me and shook her head from side to side. Under a pound.
In the intervening years, I’ve replayed that scene hundreds or thousands of times, often rewriting my part. Why didn’t I urge them to try anyway? Why did I accepted her fate so willingly? I can’t help but look back and feel like a coward for not standing up for her. What kind of father just accepts his child’s death as a fact?
They wrapped her up and handed her to me. Her face was barely the size of of a plum. Her whole body rested in my palm. Her little chest raised and lowered with each breath. Her eyes were shut. Her skin translucent. My wife was nearly unconscious, but I held her up to her and introduced them to each other. “Sydney, this is your mother. Cyn, this is Sydney.”
As I sat there, the surgeon caught my eye. Cyn’s uterus lay on her abdomen. Did I still want her to proceed with the tubal ligation? Now that I knew our daughter would die?
I knew the surgeon was asking out of compassion. But it was a vicious question. My daughter, in my hand, was dying. My wife, who had suffered so much over three pregnancies, lay unconscious with her insides sitting on her outsides. The only answer was to nod. She had already decided. We had already decided. Enough was enough.
The rest of that afternoon we spent in a room overlooking 23rd street. Sydney’s breathing slowed over the course of a few hours. I sang to her and watched Dick Cheney’s entourage circle the hospital for a checkup he had that day. A train of black SUVs and secret service agents armed with rifles were there to protect him. Nothing could protect the infant who slowly died in my hands.
Eventually Cynthia woke up and was able to see and hold her little girl. But by evening, Sydney’s short breaths were less frequent. And at some point, they simply stopped. The nurse who earlier had the wisdom to shake a fool husband from his self-absorbstion, took Sydney away, dressed her, photographed her, and left us to mourn.
That night, Cyn stayed in the hospital to recuperate. Friends visited, and after she had fallen asleep, I went home to pick up Samantha. Our neighbor had brought her home so she could sleep in her own bed. Although nobody had explained to her what had happened, she seemed to know. When I came in, she wrapped her little arms around me and hugged me longer and harder than she ever had before.
After putting her to bed, I took a shower and wept.
Not only did Cynthia have to recover from the c-section, her shoulder was still a mess. The next few years would bring yet more surgeries, including two to reconstruct both of her shoulders.
Meanwhile, I attended to Sydney’s cremation. She was taken to a funeral home in Hyattsville, Md. It sat on a hill with a large backlit sign — black cursive text on a white background. The house looked like the Bates mansion. When I picked up her ashes, they nearly fit into a jewelry box. Although I still see the house and sign in my mind, whenever I drive past it, I looked away.
There was no funeral. No service. We put the ashes in a silver box on our dresser where we still see it daily. Our families never got to see her or mourn her. Only years later would I realize that we denied them that. At the time, their needs weren’t my priority — a view I now regret.
Cards of sympathy poured in. Flowers filled our house. Dinners appeared on our doorstep. I recall a smoked turkey. Lasagna. Friends and family kept us emotionally afloat. In addition to making us meals, they played with Samantha, helped Cyn get dressed, and got me out of the house. Family flew in from Australia, or drove down from Ohio. Neighbors from down the street would check in. They where there when we needed them and left we needed that, too.
Cyn and I were quick to anger. One day I received a bill from the insurance company. Sydney’s birth wasn’t going to be covered because we failed to ever add her to our health insurance. It was actually a moment of catharsis to take out my anger on the poor insurance agent when I explained that our daughter died that same day she was born. “Why would it ever occur to me to put my dead child on my health insurance plan?” I demanded, nearly screaming into the phone. It wasn’t her fault I was angry.
Laughter and joy were rare. Frustrations and tensions lurked around every comment. Tired of being a caregiver for the previous several years, I was impatient and withdrawn. Cynthia was depressed enough as it was. The last thing she needed was an asshole husband.
Later it would occur to me that traumatic events like these might physically change the brain. At work, I found myself easily distracted and had difficulty concentrating. At the end of meetings, I would find myself wondering what had been discussed, let alone decided. Jokes weren’t funny. I was worried that my dream job would slip away as I wallowed in self-pity and resentment. We made promises about the future, some of which we kept. Rocky times still lay ahead.
It was Cynthia who suggested we go to grief counseling. We had different ways of managing our grief. She wanted to talk it out. I wanted to stop thinking about it. I don’t remember what the counselor said, but I’m sure we took her suggestions and tried to implement them. No doubt they involved talking and listening and crying. But it’s telling that our photo library has a gap from July to November.
A month after starting counseling, Hurricane Katrina landed in the Gulf Coast. When I was asked to fly down, I told the counselor about the trip and that I’d be missing the next session. “You can’t do that,” she exclaimed. The death and destruction of Katrina would be too much for me to bear, she thought. And I’m sure Cynthia would have preferred I not go. But it was what I needed. A different headspace. A sense of purpose.
We all process these things differently. I wish I could say the experience has made it easier to know what to do or say for others during their times of need. On the one hand, I want to share with them so they know I really do understand. But then I worry they might think I’m trying to usurp or downplay their pain. Not sharing might further their sense of going through it alone. I don’t know.
For years, when I’d see a young family with a couple of little kids, I’d harbor resentment that everything seemed to work out for them — not bothering to recognize, of course, that any of them could have their own tragic backstories. Or that we are still fortunate in many other ways.
Well-intentioned questions or comments can hit hard. “Only one child?” someone might ask. They don’t know their innocent inquiry is a dagger. They’re just trying to be friendly.
We considered adoption, but decided that the timing and the finances would make it untenable. Through hosting foreign exchange students, though, we have begun to create a global network of siblings — a brother in France, a sister in Switzerland, another brother in Mexico. Whether those bonds hold over time remain to be seen, but the paths have been laid.
Only recently has Samantha asked more probing questions about Sydney. We’ve told her what happened. We’ve shown her the pictures. She wrote a poem about it for school — a poem she was hesitant to let us see. In it, she exclaimed her sadness at losing her sister — a sister she never met.
At first I didn’t understand the level of emotion she expressed. But then I realized: It’s been 10 years for us, but for her, it’s still relatively new, and hopefully shallow.
For Cyn and me, the anger and resentment, the guilt and sadness have faded, but traces still remain. Some of the effects have been permanent. I’m less emotional, but maybe more sympathetic. Cyn feels closer to people, I think, than she used to.
The wounds have healed, but they’re not gone. They never will be.