*Each day this week – the week leading up to Brenna’s first birthday next week – I’ll be posting a part of a series I wrote about Brenna’s first week of life. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. Thank you for sharing our story this past year.
In the spring of 2011, Evan’s younger sister Alayna turned in her forms at the University of Illinoisto study abroad in Belgiumfor the fall semester. His parents made plans soon after to visit her at Christmas time and then to fly back with her as she returned to the United Statesafter four months abroad.
In the days following Brenna’s birth, Bill and Jeannine strongly considered canceling their trip so that they could stay by Brenna’s side and be present to support us during that difficult time. On December 23, we encouraged them to go ahead with their travels, which included a two-week trip visiting several different countries, a trip that they had been looking forward to for months. One of our neonatologists also assured them that even though Brenna’s condition is very severe, she was stable for the time being.
Now, just a day after his parents departed for Europe, Evan faces the fact that he must call his parents to tell them that their granddaughter is dying.
To find a little privacy, he takes his cell phone into the hallway outside of the family suite and punches in the number of his grandpa’s cell phone – who is also traveling with his parents – figuring that, being seven hours ahead of our time, they will likely be waking up.
Upon hearing his father’s voice and having to deliver the news that we’ve just learned about Brenna’s condition, Evan’s voice chokes and he breaks into loud sobs, leading to several babies beginning to cry along with him. His parents are devastated and feel completely helpless being thousands of miles away during this crucial time.
My dad sits watch over Brenna then, and we quickly decide that my mom needs to come to the hospital as well. Thankfully, I remember that my best friend Kristin is attending midnight mass with her family, so at 12:15 a.m. on Christmas Day, I reach her husband Brian. My voice catches repeatedly as I try to explain what is happening, and when Kristin gets on the phone, there is no hesitation on her part as she assures me they will head straight to our house and Brian will drive my mom to the hospital.
When Mom arrives about a half hour later, Brenna’s breathing is still rapid, but has not gotten worse.
At this point, my mom brings up the subject of baptism, and we all agree quickly that we want Brenna to be baptized as soon as possible. We are a Catholic family, and St. John’s Hospital is a Catholic hospital, so there is a brief discussion about getting the chaplain on duty to come perform her baptism.
Evan interjects, wondering about his childhood pastor, who also happens to be a chaplain at St. John’s, though not on duty that night. He sends Pastor Larry, who has been aware of Brenna’s diagnosis from her birth, a text message at 1:15 a.m., asking if he is awake and if he could come to the hospital to perform an emergency baptism.
Larry texts back almost immediately, letting us know that he is on his way.
It is, of course, not the baptism that I had imagined when I planned for the birth of our little girl. I had pictured a sleeping baby dressed in the beautiful baptismal gown that I had worn as a baby. I had imagined us proudly holding her over the baptismal font, flanked by her godparents, with all of our family watching and praying.
It feels like the whole world is sleeping soundly, safely, in their beds except for our tiny group crowded around our dying daughter – Evan and I, my parents, our two nurses and our doctor. No godparents, no other family, not even Evan’s parents are able to be there as our daughter’s original sins are forgiven and her life is given to God.
I send a text to Kristin, who is Brenna’s godmother: “We are baptizing Brenna. I wish you could be here.”
Seconds later my phone beeps with a reply: “I’m there, my friend, I’m there.” I feel hot tears on my cheeks that blur the message, and I have just set my phone down when Pastor Larry enters Brenna’s pod.
We thank him for coming, and he nods gravely, saying that he is honored to do this for us. He inquires about whether to use the baptismal shell he has brought, but we all agree that it is best to keep Brenna’s contact with the outside world at a minimum.
My heart is pounding as Evan, Larry and I wash our hands and pull on gloves and yellow plastic hospital gowns. Kara is thoughtful enough to offer to take photos, and I tell her to take as many as she can.
There are two arm holes on each side of Brenna’s incubator that snap shut when not in use. Brenna lies sleeping as Larry opens the top hole of one side, and Evan and I each put in one of our arms on the other side.
We lightly touch her side, which heaves up and down with short, labored breaths, as Larry begins the baptismal ceremony. With my hands covered in gloves, I cannot wipe my eyes, and tears stream down my face as he expresses what a gift Brenna has been to our lives and to our family. God’s presence in our dark, quiet, crowded little hospital room is overwhelming
“Brenna Helen Marie, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” Larry says with grace and conviction, and my shoulders begin to silently shake as I bite my lip to hold back a sob.
As the final prayer is said, my heart feels so heavy with both grief of my daughter’s likely death and also relief that Brenna is now given to the Lord. It is the one missing piece to her very short life that is now complete. I now feel at peace with saying goodbye, knowing that she has been a cherished gift to us, given by God and ready to go home to him whenever he wills it.
Following the baptism ceremony, we receive the news that Brenna’s latest blood gas has shown a very slight improvement in her breathing. For now, all we can do is wait…wait to see if Brenna’s tiny body can fight to keep living, to keep breathing, to battle this aggressive infection.
As the clock nears 2:30 a.m., my mom and I decide that we might be able to sleep in the family suite. I am so exhausted – both physically tired and so emotionally drained – but I wonder if I can let sleep prevail over the concern for Brenna’s life.
We find the large couch has been pulled out for us and made with sheets, and there are blankets stacked on a nearby chair. Another lounge chair also pulls out to a bed, and Mom sets up camp there. Though we are only just down the hall, I feel so very far from Brenna’s pod, and I make Evan promise me several times that he will come wake us the second anything changes in Brenna’s condition. He and my dad perch in two high office-style chairs at Brenna’s bedside to watch over her as the medical staff continually observes her and draws a blood gas every hour to monitor her breathing levels. With each draw, there is a very slight improvement…so slight that it is not much to base any hope on, but giving us hope nonetheless.
When Evan touches my arm at 5:30 to wake me from a fitful sleep, my chest immediately constricts and I look up at his face with alarm.
“Is she OK? What’s going on?” I demand.
“She is stable still; her tests are continuing to slightly improve,” he tells us.
My mom and I push our beds back into couches, pull on our shoes and gather our belongings before returning to Brenna’s bedside. Through her north-facing window, I can see the beginning streaks of the rising sun.
A new day. Christmas Day.
My shoulders sag with the weight of what we have all endured over the last few hours – the pain and suffering of my daughter, pleading with God to let her live, having her baptized at 1:30 a.m. on Christmas Day as we cried over her helpless body. We are by no means certain that she will live, but for the time being, Brenna is stable, and so after a lot of hesitation, we all agree to go home and try to sleep for at least a couple of hours.
While my body and my heart have been with Brenna, my mind has also been on Connor, and the traditional Christmas morning that he was not going to get. Brenna’s stabilized condition and being home on Christmas morning seem like a double blessing from God at this moment.
As we walk slowly, wearily, toward the sliding glass doors that mark the entrance to the hospital, the bright winter sun streaming in seems surreal.
I look back at the lobby nativity scene that I passed just 7 hours earlier, though it feels like 20 years. Baby Jesus now lies in his manger, arms extended up to heaven.
Thank you for reading! Check out my book A Different Beautiful for more to this story.