Expecting moms and dads can’t help imagining when a nurse or doctor will place their child into their arms for the very first time. It’s the moment when a new kind of love comes racing into their chests and life gets bigger and the heart fuller. Soon after my wife became pregnant with our first son, I began longing for that moment—tragically it came sooner than I expected.
Watching the doctor examine my twenty-two week pregnant wife was torture, and what she said next, death. “Your son’s foot is halfway out of your womb. Which means in all likelihood he will be born tonight—and there’s less than a ten percent chance he‘ll survive. If he does, he’ll be mentally impaired and physically disabled all his life.” I’ve never felt fright so strong and solid in my body like I did in that hospital room. Our son Smith wasn’t born that night. My wife struggled to hold him in her womb ten more days, giving him as much time as possible to develop and grow.
I’ll never forget watching this pint-sized person slide out of her womb. You could hold him in the palm of your hand, which is exactly what I wanted to do—but the neonatal nurses and doctors raced him to an incubator to give him the optimal chance at survival. I couldn’t hold him. We were separated by an inch and a half piece of plastic and a synthetic breathing tube. Day after day we waited and prayed and cried and forced smiles and hoped and believed and doubted and despaired. Some scenes from that time are photographic, especially when the doctors and I walked the incubator from the Labor and Delivery wing of the hospital to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. There I was, a first-time father, and all I could feel was fear. I remember passing family members, I remember their faces, the strain in their smiles. I wanted to be strong but all I could manage was a pose. On the inside I was a shattering piece of glass.
As the days ticked by, Smith’s lungs got weaker. Each time they lost strength the doctors were forced to increase the pressure of his ventilator so he could breathe. On the eleventh day our doctor pulled my wife and I aside and said, “If we increase the pressure any more his lungs could rupture, if that happens, not only will it be excruciating but his lungs will fill with blood and he’ll drown...it’s time to let him go.” I’m not sure I can put down on paper the way that felt—the grief, the guilt, the relief, the terror. We sat down beside his incubator and looked over him, stuck with so many wires and needles, a patchwork of bandaids and gauze, and a little chest racing up and down desperately trying to breathe.
The nurses took off every IV, wire, and bandage—everything but the breathing tube—and my wife and I gave him a little bath, gently scrubbing the dried blood and adhesive off his skin. And then the doctor said it, the the thing that I’d been longing to hear from the very beginning—would you like to hold him? The first time I held my son would be the last. The nurse placed him in my arms and we got as close as we could, touching his toes, caressing his head, and kissing as much of him as we could. And then the nurse slowly slid the breathing tube from his lungs and vanished behind the curtain. We were all alone, my wife, myself, and my dying son—finally in my arms. And I just held him and cried and whispered into his ear, over and over again, “Daddy’s got you...it’s okay...I’m here now...I’ve got you...Daddy’s here.” And in a matter of minutes he was gone. He slipped out of our world and into God’s.