Wednesday, February 11, 2009
We've come to expect stories of love for Valentines Day. Although its a few days before the 14th, I'm choosing today to share a piece of my heart in the telling of my nephew Hunter's story. Its a true story of love and it deserves a special time to be told. And you can't help but look at these pictures and not see the love flowing out.
He was born on October 16th, 2000. My bond with him started before he was even born. I had already decided with the blessing of my husband that on the date of his birth I would fly to Minnesota with my mother-in-law and Nolan who was just 5 months old. I wanted to seize what I knew may be the only opportunity to be around for the birth of one of my nieces or nephews. So while Rick's sister, Missy was having her c-section, Rick's mom Carole and I and Nolan were on a plane on our way to Minnesota from Idaho. Here is what I remember upon my first meeting of Hunter... he was a tiny little peanut weighing in at just 6 1/2 lbs. After lugging about my chubby 5 month old who gave me a pain in the back and aching arms whenever I went to hold him, Hunter was light as air and snuggled just perfectly in my arms. I delighted in his wrinkly skin and the little "o" of his mouth. He was perfection. Missy on the other hand had a nasty sinus infection and pain from the c-section incision that caused her to wince whenever she moved. I just enjoyed the extra snuggling time it afforded me. Until, the Grandma's arrived that is. And there were many of them, more than just the standard two. As the friends poured in the scene became that of a little party with oooohs and ahhhhhs raining down over this tiny bundle of love.
I enjoyed one last visit with Hunter after he had been brought home from the hospital. We weren't sure how big brother Gunnar was going to take having a new little brother around, but if there are any doubts one only needs to just look at the pictures. To this day Gunnar has a very loving nature and a sensitive heart, the seeds of which were no doubt planted in those early days with his new little brother.
Our next trip home to Minnesota was over Christmas when Rick and I were honored to be asked by Missy and her husband Dan to be Hunter's godparents. We had stayed out at the lake with Rick's mom and dad the night before the baptism. Nolan was in the early stages of teething and a miserable night ensued. I recall walking the floors with him most of the night until Grandma Carole came and rescued me in the early hours of the big day. To say that I was sleep deprived is an understatement. So often my own journey of being a new mommy with Nolan was a rough one filled with days of colicky discomfort, crying jags that lasted for hours and too many sleepless nights to keep track of. I honestly remember very little of the details of the church service and the baptism itself. We were clearly on autopilot.
And Rick's job was a demanding one. So while we knew Rick's Grandpa Harold was having heart problems and scheduled to have bypass surgery in January, we ran out of time and did not get a chance to go and visit him before we left for Idaho. It was a growing period of unrest in our personal lives. The pressure and demands of Rick's job were mounting. Each long drive back to Minnesota, an 18 hour drive through the mountains which was tricky at best, was now complicated with the addition of our tempermental baby who cried his way through many of those long drives. But between baptisms and births and holidays and surgeries our pull for going to Minnesota became a mighty tug on our hearts.
It was out of the blue that one day in February that Rick declared his regrets over not having spent time with his Grandpa over Christmas. It seems that he was just as mired in uneasiness as I was. So while we heard Grandpa had come through surgery fine, Rick said he thought he would feel better just to see him for himself. It would be one of our quickest trips ever to Minnesota spending just a few days before we would return back to Idaho, but I was buoyed by the sense of how much it nourished my soul every trip home we made. In the back of our minds I think we both knew we wanted to have this visit with Grandpa in case it was indeed our last.
It was a whirlwind trip to be sure. But at the center of it all was the time we spent with Grandpa Harold and Grandma Ethelyn. Rick's parents were taking care of Gunnar and Hunter that week so on the day before we left we all gathered one last time and took this one quick picture of 4 generations... from Great Grandparents down to the newest Great grandchild which was Hunter. Hunter had just come from his 4 month check up and Grandma Carole filled me in on all the details as I fed him his bottle that afternoon. I intentionally savored the moment as Nolan was breastfed and bottles weren't part of our routine. I still recall how tiny he was, but fiercely strong at the same time. He was hungry and let us know with a short burst of loud crying.
But the unease and unrest in our lives continued to plague us. It was palpable. Yet nameless and shapeless, hanging over us like a too heavy blanket that neither one of us could muster enough strength to get out from underneath.
The night before we left Minnesota, Rick and I went out for dinner alone, taking advantage of a babysitter in my mom. We had planned an early start for our drive back to Idaho, so we packed the car that night and headed off for bed. In the middle of the night, I awoke with my stomach churning. In an instant I was running for the bathroom, praying I wouldn't wake Nolan up. I was violently sick in three different waves that night. Whether it was a case of food sickness or stomach flu, we couldn't be sure. I have always said my gut speaks to me and yet, to this day I don't know why I chose to ignore the signs that night. I woke up weak and tired. I begged for one more day to stay and rest. I felt heaviness and dread over leaving. But Rick was getting worried about missing yet another day of work. I had to stick to my end of the bargain. I gathered some strength and as soon as I could keep a few sips of Sprite down, we left for Idaho. To this day, it was one of the most miserable rides home. Nolan was downright inconsolable, cranky, with two blistery bumps appearing on his gums, we assumed to be teeth trying to come in. Rick was stressed with email and voicemail backing up and mounds of work piling up at home. And I was sensing the heavy blanket descending upon me again, having only managed to kick it aside temporarily.
It was just two short hours from our home in Twin Falls, Idaho that we got the call. Rick answered his cell phone and he was extremely quiet. Between the whimpering cries of Nolan and the hum of the tires on the road, his voice was barely audible. He put the phone down and said not a word. Assuming I knew the words he was about to speak I said something to the effect of "I'm sorry. We knew your Grandpa was sick and this is what we expected."
He remained quiet. After a minute, maybe two, he finally spoke. "It wasn't Grandpa who died, he said, it was Hunter. He went down for his nap at daycare and did not wake up..."
When "they" say your life changes in an instant, looking back, perhaps we began to experience what that means on that day. For me it began in that moment. I remember grabbing Nolan from his car seat, and holding him, tears streaming for the longest time. When I did speak I began whispering in his ear. I told him I understood how he must feel. I told him it was okay if he felt like whimpering. In fact he could whimper, cry and scream and I would try harder to comfort him. I was done complaining about his way of being in this world. I was done on many levels.
The ache in my arms from holding Nolan became a sudden comfort to me, because I could only imagine that real aching comes from not being able to hold your child anymore. A mother was born again that day. My tears mingled with Nolan's as we held tight to each other the rest of the ride home. I had no idea our new path in life was beginning to stretch out before us.
It was suddenly like the priorities in my life had become subject to a game of 52 card pickup... they were thrown in the air, reordered mid-flight and tumbled down in randomness. The old pattern was worn, rendered useless and eventually abandoned. We were guided now to make the best decisions based on our new sense of the precariousness of life. We hadn't been called home for Grandpa, but for Hunter. While easily acknowledging we had each felt a compelling need to go to Minnesota, we were so out of touch, we hadn't understood the real reason.
But we had been reawakened. Our frequency had been changed. Rick didn't even hesitate. This time we would fly back to Minnesota. He would sit next to me, taking turns holding Nolan and giving us his now undivided attention. For the first time ever he sent out an email to his customers telling them about his personal life and asking them to understand his absence yet again. It began a new relationship with many of those customers who became friends and family that day, sharing in our grief. I couldn't have articulated at the time, but Hunter's love had a firm grasp on our future.
When we arrived in Fargo two days later, late at night, I shouldn't have been surprised, but Missy herself was there to greet us at the airport. In one of the most loving gestures of a newly grieving mom I have ever witnessed, she grabbed Nolan from Rick's arms and hugged him, without a moment's hesitation. It was the first of many acts of love to come.
While I certainly can't downplay the grief that we all felt, it was the loving gestures that have stayed with me and I choose to focus on. Over the course of the next few days there were hugs, shared stories, lots of pictures of a deeply loved little boy, and too many tears. But there was an absence of the why me's, and the why's in general. I am not saying we didn't try to make some sense of it. I am not saying there wasn't hurt and anger and a deep sense of loss. But no answer was sufficient. We were instead unified in our love for Hunter and his family.
I know now, that there are varying degrees of the kinds of grief you feel. The grief for a child is as much about all you knew about them, and all that you would never get the chance to know. But I envision them. Especially when I see the display in the picture below. I think of the 8- year-old things he would have been doing now. I wonder if he would have ended up with red hair? And I pray every day that he knows how loved he is and that we think about him all the time.
My mother-in-law came up with the idea of the little display shown in the picture down below. It has one of the flowers from his funeral and a little angel pin attached to it. Missy's own mother-in-law, in an extremely loving gesture took her wedding diamonds and had them set inside Missy's angel pin that she wears daily. My display sits in my living room, with a picture of Hunter, and is my own daily reminder of all of the blessings that have flowed through him. But its a choice I make every day. The tears still come at times, but over time the joy has filled in around them.
I still think we work at reconciling the loss of a 4 month old. And in time some things have come to light that help give some perspective. I found myself sitting next to Missy and Dan at Uncle Jack's funeral earlier this year. Apparently she was on the same wavelength as I was. We both saw that Uncle Jack and Aunt Alice had lost an infant many years ago. The week before, as we sat at Grandma Etheyln's funeral, we were reminded of the twin baby girls that she and Grandpa Harold had lost. Maybe, genetics played a bigger role than I could have imagined.
Ultimately I credit his little life with the monumental task of bringing us home. It still took us almost 2 mores years to facilitate a move from Idaho. But putting our family first has never been in question again.
Missy and I have emailed back and forth these past few days. I thought the last little bit she shared might be useful. Its so hard to know what to say at a tragic time of loss. What she found to be the most useful? Were the people who offered their love and hugs and said very little at all. Words meant for comfort, while being well-intentioned, can fail miserably at times like these, more than we know.
What I do know is this. I was so very honored to be given this chance to share Hunter's story. What I also know, 8 years later, quite simply, is this. His life mattered. He mattered. He is missed. He is loved. He lived a big life for 4 short months, but the blessings and love he brought to our family will last a life time.
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