Death and Life
A tale of two sisters.
On January 13, 2012 Josephine Valentine and Andromeda Jane were born at 33 weeks and five days old. Thirty-three weeks isn’t very premature these days in the world of prematurity so I expected they may spend a month in the NICU and then we would welcome them to our chaotic happy home. That wasn’t our story.
Both babies were born with respiratory issues. Andi had severe persistent pulmonary hypertension. In the middle of the night she began crashing and an emergency transport team took her to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to try and save her. The nurse’s eyes were too knowing to be a comfort. My husband Todd went with her to stand vigil. I stayed with Josephine. The next day Andi continued to be very unstable and Jo seemed to be strengthening but I was sure we would all pull through. That wasn’t our story.
Three days after birth within the span of a few morning hours Jo’s skin bleached to lead white. She began making unfamiliar noises and I saw in the stretch of her neck and navigation of her eyes she was looking for escape from a body that had turned against her. There had been a mistake that could not be undone. This was the healthy baby… I was allowed to hold her once. My arms were no comfort or cure and three days after she was born, in a fury of epinephrine, under the weight of the hands of well-intentioned strangers Josephine died. I told her she was strong enough. I told her she would survive. That was not her story.
I held her as she cooled. I pretended she could feel me. I kissed her neck and told her I was sorry. I was so sorry. That night I left the hospital a brick of grief. The hospital attendant who had twice before packed me and perfect babies in my car to sail home now dropped her secret on me. “No one can know how we feel, honey. It ain’t right to leave without your baby. Nothin can make it right.” In the relentless beauty of a Los Angeles sunset I traced the whole of Wilshire Blvd. from the ocean to the ghetto with only a bottle of Xanax and a broken man to carry me. I was leaving my dead baby to sit at the bedside of a baby I was afraid would be close behind.
I didn’t want to see Andi because I knew I would love her and I didn’t want that love. The responsibility of love was too much for me to hold. I thought it would kill us all. I shuffled into the lobby of the Children’s Hospital pushing my feet, dragging my glued belly passed clusters of other families stricken with their own burden of love. I hid for a few minutes in the elevator until we reached the third floor. Antibacterial hand sanitizer, intercom, double doors, ID check, sign in sheet, antibacterial hand sanitizer, two minutes of scrubbing in too hot water and soap, double doors, 50 yards of terrazzo and strangers, yellow isolation gown, surgical mask, antibacterial hand sanitizer, single door, wall of 30 IV meds, acrylic warming bed, jet ventilator, pulse ox, baby girl, Andromeda Jane, love.
Four months and three days after she was born I finally took my fragile but perfect baby home. Our lives were far from normal. It took a color-coded spreadsheet to organize her medicine, treatments and feedings. The meds disappeared one by one from the spreadsheet and she started to take milk without drama. Caring for a child is so tangible. You see a need and fill it. Hunger needs food. Exhaustion needs rest. Sadness needs comfort.
Andromeda Jane. What would her story be?
Two letters for two sisters
It is a beautiful autumn day, just the kind I dreamed about sharing with you. The sky is clear cerulean and the cool air is perfumed with creek water and trees sending their leaves to the soil with the red of joy and the gold of loss. Your family is all here to celebrate your short time with us. They are a fantastic and crazy bunch. You, sweetheart, carried them in your bones and blood. We in turn carry you in our hearts.
The nine months I carried you in my belly were a painful privilege. I will never feed you at my breast. I will never kiss the bottoms of your feet. I will never dry your tears or learn the melody of your laughter but, sweet baby Jo, you will be with me every day I walk this earth. Every time a hawk draws a circle above my head or a piano charges the air, I promise to share it with you through the blessing of my memory. You will not be forgotten my love. I have memorized the impression of your body in my arms. It has changed the shape of my arms forever and whatever I carry will be marked with your beauty.
It is a beautiful autumn day, just the kind I have dreamed of sharing with you. Today the mountain is your cradle and the light of fall has made the shine of your face even brighter. Welcome to the earth, remarkable little child of courage, strength and hope. Your family is all here to celebrate the triumph of your birth and the gift of your future. They are a wise and complicated bunch. Flashes of their genius, their courage, their resilience, their joy, their love, and their determination have already flowed through you. I have no doubt they are part of the reason you are still here with us. Their love is so deep and their character so profound I have no doubt they will save and protect you many more times on your journey. We are so grateful to them it is impossible to put into words but,
Andromeda, you are also entirely your own miracle.
The lessons you have taught me about patience, generosity, strength, gratitude, and love are astonishing. You have already made my life so much bigger than I could have ever imagined it could be. Thank you so much, sweet Andi, for the privilege of being your mama. We are so lucky. We have a lifetime of snowflakes and etudes, and pigs in blankets to share. Of course you also have a lifetime that will grow far beyond me and your dad, and the rest of your tribe. This terrifies and thrills me. You are beginning an amazing flight. It will be as breathtaking as the galaxy you were named after. Andromeda, there will be darkness and there will be stars; may you fill yourself up with the wonder of their embrace.
Rebecca Campbell is a former (and, we hope, future) Salt Laker living in Los Angeles. She is a painter, represented by L.A.
Louver Gallery. RebeccaCampbell.net