Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Power of Words to Take Our Pain and Make It Worse

I've mentioned online before how the death of my godparents' daughter deeply affected me and, in many ways, defined me. If you've heard this story before, it may have a different twist in this telling of it. My godparents walked through the troublesome circumstances of my birth along with my parents, supporting them through what they thought would resolve in my death as a newborn. Their daughter, Anne, would have been six years old at the time I teetered at the threshold of death. I think that it's ironic that when turned six years old that I would be in a similar situation, begging for God to spare Anne's life, even at the expense of my own.

When in labor with me, my mother was given Demerol during a long labor which stopped her contractions and likely caused me to aspirate. I had both APGAR scores of “2” and seized for the better part of three days. (Today, if a baby is less than 8 at 10 minutes after delivery, in many hospitals, they spend time in NICU for observation.) As my mother tells the story, the doctor who would eventually become the Director of Pediatrics at that hospital spent three days and nights at my bedside, carrying a hint of the time that our Savior spent in the grave before He arose with the keys of death, hell and the grave. It was certain that I would die and my grandfather went out just a few hours after I was born to buy burial plots for the family. One would soon be needed. I after the first three days of seizures stopped, I lingered on the ventilator as everyone waited for me to just give up on clinging to life. In the very rare chance that I came off ventilation and somehow lived, my parents were told that I would have to be institutionalized because of all the signs of severe brain damage that I demonstrated.

My godparents were distraught and called everyone they knew to pray. They talk about my father wandering into their apartment, weeping at how perfect my body looked but how he grieved my impending death. My godmother called my godfather's aunt who attended the United Pentecostal Church, as she was known to pray for people. Just a day or two before I was discharged from the hospital, my godmother received a call from her husband's aunt who said that she had “prayed through” and she knew that I would live. This took place about the time that doctor who had laid by my bedside told my mother that she would soon be able to take her normal baby home. She responded with “Is this the lull before the storm?” because she could not believe it. When she pressed him for answers, Dr. Forrest Moyer told her that he had no medical answers for her and that my recovery was nothing short of a miracle. My godparents' aunt prayed for me, and to this, my family attributes my miraculous recovery. I was discharged to home on day 14 as a normal baby (all but for my dark, curly temples shaved where the intravenous needles had been).

A few months after I turned six and just a few weeks before Christmas, Anne, my godparents' 12 year old daughter, became ill with a virus or something. I spoke with my godmother just a few weeks ago who remembers absolutely every detail about everything. Anne became ill at the end of the week and she was given Aspirin for a fever. We now know that this can start the cascade of multi-system organ failure from Reyes Syndrome (now a well-understood pathology and contraindicated because Tylenol has replaced Aspirin for use in children). My godmother can tell you what time she called the doctor, on what day, the time they got to the hospital, and every small and seemingly insignificant detail of everything. A specialist from Boston told her that he had seen Reyes Syndrome there and that this fatal condition resulted from the aspirin that my godmother gave her. I asked about how long Anne had lingered, and she told me every detail up until the day she died and when the funeral took place.

What is interesting to me now, considering the latest ignorance and venom that Vision Forum has been spewing, was how this topic came up in this recent discussion with my godmother. My father often talked about their family dog who would start rejoicing and run to the door to wait if someone mentioned my father's name. (Dogs love my father, and he loves them.) As we talked, I told her that I couldn't remember anything about the dog, though I had always heard about him as if I was expected to remember. In the discussion, my godmother admitted that the dog bolted out the back door one afternoon when she was in the kitchen, and they could not find him. Later, a neighbor found him laying dead along a major road. Consider what my godmother said, and recall that this is nearly 36 years since her daughter's death: “ You know, I suppose that I killed that dog just like I killed my daughter for giving her that aspirin.” This is after 36 years of time and healing and grieving.

On the White Washed Feminists website today, I posted my own response to all of this and wrote of my own survivor guilt concerning my godmother's daughter (oddly sharing the same spelling of the name of this blog host of the WWF site). Given that it was Anne's aunt who prayed for my healing, I found it very troubling that I received life and Anne died. I begged and bargained with God for her to live and I felt guilty for taking her family's miracle. She was also more wonderful than me and less problematic and one of my most favorite people in the world. But instead of a call from her aunt like my godmother received to declare that I would live, a friend of my mother's from church whose two children died from adverse reactions to DPT immunizations called to tell my godmother that she “Saw Anne worshiping before the Throne of God.” And then came the fateful call from the hospital that Anne had died.

And I spent a better part of my life thinking that God had made a cosmic mistake. She should have lived and I should die. Other factors in my life would strengthen that idea as I grew older, an argument that I had with God until I embraced His sovereignty and trusted His providence in sparing my own life. But until very recently, I carried that heaviness and that desire to sacrifice myself for the better of another. These thoughts have been especially troublesome for me as I have faced other deaths: those of my patients who could not be rescued and the loss of my own unborn baby. All of these circumstances always bring me back to the memories of my survivor guilt with Anne, whether I had done something to harm someone and whether there was something that I could have done to have realized a different outcome. These are questions that I still sometimes ask, but I purpose not to get caught in them and just let them move over me and through me. By God's grace and lots of work and grieving, I have finally moved through many of these great losses, but with the loss of Anne as my most painful, significant and life-altering. It has colored and shaped my own identity, one that God has purposed and continues to heal.

A few years ago, one of the elders wives at my church spoke to me about the approaching anniversary date of the death of her young son. She knew that I worked at hospice, and we spent many hours on the phone talking about her grief. While visiting my Godmother shortly afterward, I spoke to her about how she felt about Anne. She wrote down the poem for me that she wrote soon after Anne died as I asked my godmother how I could help “Pat,” the elder's wife at my church. We wept and talked about how it never stops hurting. You go on living, but you are never the same. I brought the poem home, sat down with the guitar and sang the poem through as if it was something I had practiced and my fingers knew where to go. What's funny about the cords on the guitar is that the pattern makes a circle on the guitar neck. I played and sang it for Pat and her family (making the pronouns masculine) on the notable anniversary of her son's death. For Pat, the details are are real as well. It is something that trauma burns into your heart in a place that you always feel but no one sees.

When I saw this photo on the White Washed Feminist site today, I was flooded with this again. Anne Basso hoped that this photo of her grieving family might instill some understanding into the heart of Doug Phillips who states that women who do not die for their unborn who have no opportunity to live just wipe their eyes and continue on with their own interests. I know personally that the process doesn't work this way. It is an ever present wound that a woman carries in her heart always.

I am blessed that I am no longer grounded in the memories of the very deep grief and guilt that I used to find a part of myself living in always, though life went on around me. The healing of the past year has been tremendous, and the pain of many losses do not wound me so deeply as they did, but they are still very tender and their memories bring tears to my eyes. So for those who understand what it is like to lose a child, particularly those that do not live to enjoy their lives outside of the womb, I offer this song of the poem my godmother wrote. I also include the photo that Anne Basso posted on White Washed Feminists today, wishing that this song could have been a comfort to her on that fateful day when she lost her sweet Sarah. You can read about her grief here, read Sarah Anne's webpage here, and also on the WWF site. I imagine that this song of my godmother's grief over the loss of her Anne could well be sung by Anne Basso as she laments the loss of her little, precious Sarah.

When we all stand in heaven, on those streets of gold when God has wiped all the tears from our eyes, I hope that we all have a grand reunion of joy. We can meet one another and remember the love that we had for those we lost and by then will have been reunited with them in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

Ellen’s Song
If I could see her one more time
If I could hold her hand
If I could touch her lovely face
And make her understand
How very much I loved her
This child God gave to me
I’d hold her gently in my arms
And kiss her tenderly
But I know she’s safe at the Master’s side
In the joys of heaven above
And nothing I could give her now
Could compare to her Savior’s love
One glorious day, I’ll hear God’s call
And earthly treasures forsake
To stand beside my Jesus
And the child He chose to take

(Original poem by Ellen Bradbury, circa 1973; Named “Ellen’s Song” when I set it to music [played in A minor with a resolution into C major] in 1996; I sang a masculine version of it at Severn Covenant Church, Severn Maryland for a mother named “Pat” on the anniversary of the death of her son. If you make it masculine, call it “Pat’s Song.”)