Every parent who has lost a child has a story like mine. They have held their tiny one in their arms while they gasped their last few breaths, found them on an unsuspecting morning, waited for hours in a hospital room just to be let down, or battled a terminal illness with them, only to look up and realize they had arrived on death’s door. The aftermath of the loss is hard. Missing your child is torture, but these moments, the ones that haunt and disturb you long after the fact just might be even worse.
The week was already weird. My husband Dallas was still on break from school for Christmas and we were both fighting terrible colds. We had holed up in our house for 4 days straight due to a combination of illness and back-to-back snowstorms. We had humidifiers running, and our schedules consisted of naps, Gilmore Girls, naps, PowerAde, and naps on an endless cycle (Yes my husband likes Gilmore Girls). I will always cherish that those last few days together, we ignored the outside world. We all just cuddled and cared for each other.
The night before, Dallas was playing with Alice while I was finishing up quilting a blanket for my sister. I remember Dallas fed Alice her very last bottle and got her dressed for bed. I wish we had given her a bath because she was obsessed with the water. Dallas snuck her out of the room. When he returned, I realized she was in bed for the night and said, “You didn’t let me say goodnight.”
We kept watching Gilmore Girls until about 2 a.m., when we finally decided to go to sleep. We read our scriptures, said a prayer and I tried to go relax. I remembered I hadn’t said goodnight to my sweet Alice, so I tiptoed towards her room. I snuck through the door and saw her swaddled snugly (her favorite way to be). I didn’t want to disturb her too much, so I lightly caressed her head and said “Night-night sweetheart”. She sucked on her binky a little more deliberately in response.
I slept well that night. I was sick and exhausted so I slept in until about 10. When I woke up I had the following text conversation with my sister Natalie:
Since Dallas was still asleep, I thought I would check on Alice. I peeked into the nursery and noticed that since she was in her rock and play sleeper, which is slightly elevated, she had managed to slip down low enough that I couldn’t immediately see her face. She had done that several times before and it was never a big deal. I went to move her up, but when I got close enough to see her face, I was horrified.
In this next part I am going to be very detailed about my experience so consider this a trigger warning/reader discretion advised.
I knew she was dead. Not that something was wrong, or that she wasn’t breathing. She was just, totally gone. She was so pale. Not even blue or purple. Just pale. Her eyes were slightly opened, glossy and lifeless. I quickly grabbed her and yelled to Dallas to call 911. As I picked her up, her binky fell out of her mouth and I noticed some bubbles at her lips. I muttered over and over “no, no, no, no”.
She was stiff- the rigor mortis had already settled in. I don’t remember how, but I had managed to call my mom sometime between finding Alice and taking her into my bedroom. She answered cheerily and asked how I was doing. I wish I could have broken the news to her more delicately, but I didn’t know what else to say. “Mom, Alice is dead!” I cried.
Her response was a chilling shriek and desperate instructions, “No! Honey, call 911! Do CPR!” I screamed through sobs that I was trying, but her jaw was closed too tightly. I had already started chest compressions, but Dallas and I ran into the living room to an open place on the floor to start giving her air as well. I heard Dallas assuring the dispatcher on the phone that I knew CPR, but at this point I wouldn’t have even been able to tell you my own name.
Dallas put the dispatcher on speaker as we heard the sirens approaching. He ran outside to show policeman how to get in to our basement apartment. The woman on the phone was calm and clear. She instructed me to tilt Alice’s head back, make sure her airway was clear and give her two small puffs of air. It felt like inflating a tiny balloon, but with more crackling and resistance.
Dallas and the police officer ran down the stairs together. The cop asked me when the last time I saw her was. I sat on the couch, wringing my hands and answering all of his questions. He removed the rest of her swaddle while I just stared in disbelief at her tiny lifeless body.
She was wearing purple footsie pajamas that were covered in bunnies skiing and said, “Let it snow!” When Dallas had put them on her just the night before, they were so darling, but now they seemed almost disrespectful. Didn’t they understand what was happening? The police officer was desperately doing compressions on her tiny chest and I watched as her limbs bounced up and down in response. Her fists were clenched tightly and her lips were slightly pursed, perfectly poised to hold the binky that had previously always brought her comfort.
Dallas and I clung to each other and I suggested we say a prayer. I started the prayer and begged, “Please give her back. Don’t take her from us. Send her back.” More police officers and paramedics started pouring in. They began to hook up Alice to a defibrillator and invited us to step into the other room. We accepted their invitation and stood purposeless in our bedroom.
That’s when I suddenly became aware I didn’t have pants on. I don’t like the way they tangle while I sleep, and I didn’t anticipate 15 grown men rushing into my living room that morning. Normally I would have been embarrassed, but that day I did not care. Dallas handed me some bottoms and we were escorted back into the living room.
We had only been gone a few moments, but the paramedics were already packing up their things and some of them were beginning to leave. One of the officers informed us that there was just nothing they could do. They hadn’t tried long, but we knew she was gone long before I found her.
I scanned the room for my daughter and found her tiny body placed delicately on the couch. It was comforting to know that these strangers had treated her with such care. I went over to pick her up, and kissed her soft head. We were then escorted upstairs to my brother’s house (we share a two unit home) to wait for a few hours while the police checked out the apartment. It was difficult to wait, but I can’t stress enough the importance of their thoroughness. For the sake of babies that are mistreated, I am grateful that these men make no exceptions. They followed protocol, and they were very kind.
By the time the police had finished their investigation, both of Alice’s Grandmas, as well as several of her aunts, uncles and friends had flocked to the house. We were helped back downstairs (I was physically weak from grief) and they invited us to hold our daughter’s empty shell one last time.
I looked at her pretty hair that was just beginning to fill in. I looked at her chin, with the surprise dimple that was always so endearing. I looked at her nose, which was a replica of mine and taught me that it’s beautiful. I looked at her hands and remembered all the times I had trimmed her microscopic nails. I looked at her eyes, which were once so bright and beautiful, and saw they were now lifeless, and stuck open. They were too difficult for me to look at. I knew she wasn't there, not really, but I thought perhaps her spirit was lingering nearby.
As I surveyed each of her sweet features, I kissed them over and over again and whispered a message I wanted her to take with her into eternity, “Mommy loves you sweet girl”.