Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Happy Birthday Abigail

In less than an hour it will be October 19, 2010--one year later.  One year after the birth of baby Abigail Rose.  I will forever measure moments by their distance from that day.   We’ve looked forward to this day for a long time--partly because a first birthday is a watershed moment in one’s life, and partly because October 19th will also be a special day, a special place to return to whenever we forget what matters.

A few weeks ago we got to reminisce (in person) about those days at Stanford, a time when our circle of concern was small and each moment of life was packed with joy and meaning.

The setting was familiar.  The context was not.  It was just me, Lisa, and Abby in Palo Alto.  It was a similar time of year:  temperature in the 70’s, college football was in full swing, our kids were in school, and grandma was in charge at home.  This time, though, there was no uncertainty to our trip--other than the question of which restaurants to visit (and even then, we had already put our “favorite” Palo Alto eating establishments on the itinerary).

Lisa, Abigail, and I returned to Palo Alto in September for a weekend trip. We went under the guise of attending a NICU reunion that is held each year on the “Dean’s Lawn” at Stanford.  I use the word “guise” primarily because the NICU reunion was really our “excuse” for going--that extra little motivation needed to justify a weekend escape from an otherwise over-programmed and over-committed life; it was our excuse to spend time together with our baby--time we really haven’t spent since leaving Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital (LPCH) last year.  Perhaps "spent time” is the wrong choice of words.  We’ve spent plenty of time since last year.  We just haven’t created enough opportunity to invest our time.  And weekends like this are investments of time whose returns compound over time and yield very fruitful returns; they are deposits into the safest investment accounts that result in what every stock broker wishes he could always deliver for his clients:  consistent and predictable returns that still yield exponential returns; the one stock that can be both safe and very lucrative.

Lisa and Abby back for a second visit to Leslie Neumarker's English-garden backyard.

So, the NICU reunion was the excuse behind our investment, but despite telling everyone that we were going to Stanford to attend the reunion, we knew that we weren’t really going for that event.  We went there mainly because the Stanford community is a “happy place” for us, and we wanted to relive the memory of our unique and beautiful stay there just over 11 months prior.

We left Orem on a Thursday after work, and returned late that Sunday night.  As we left our house, I hugged Emma, our eight year old--the child who used to be our baby; the child whom we figured would forever be our baby before the surprise of Abigail.  Emma, a sensitive and affectionate girl, squeezed a little longer than normal.  As I loosened my grip around her body, I placed my big “daddy” hands on each side of her face, and without premeditation said, “This goodbye is a lot different from the last time Mom, Abby, and I rushed off to California, isn’t it?”

Just after I asked that rhetorical question to Emma, I suddenly felt like part of me had experienced some type of time-warp back to the past.  I felt it again.  Though not nearly as intense, I felt a tinge of the emotion that Lisa and I experienced last October when we hurriedly kissed and hugged our children goodbye, as the Life Flight team whisked Mom, Dad, and the encased Abigail out of the NICU at Primary Children’s en route to board a Life Flight to Stanford.  Just as smells, music, and sounds can flood a soul with very real and poignant memories bulging with emotion, every time I see a Life Flight helicopter pass overhead (our house lies very near its path between Salt Lake and Utah Valley Regional Medical center), I pause, and part of that emotion returns.   I hope that a helicopter always stimulates that emotion.  It’s good to pause and remember.

The walls of my throat thickened as I pulled away from Emma.  As Lisa we walked through our mudroom and into the garage, I said, as my voice teetered and cracked, “That was hard.”

Lisa and Abby at Stanford

There were several moments that brought back sweet memories during the trip.  Another was Lisa nursing Abby on the plane.  Abby has been an on-again, off-again nurser, and the in-flight nursing wasn’t much different.   She didn’t want to nurse for too long, but I watched with amusement as Lisa patiently endured the following.  Abby followed a familiar pattern of latching on, then pulling off and looking up and smiling at Mom while she gurgled out baby speak, trying to carry on a conversation with Mom, as if she were at “afternoon tea,” then latching back on only to pull off a few minutes later, and so forth.  The scene caused me to remember those first tenuous days of nursing--the anxiety we felt about whether she would eat enough to gain sufficient weight to be released from the hospital, the challenge of latching on to the breast after a month of being fed by a tube, and the concern that she may, like many heart-patients, never learn to nurse.

Abby has nursed in waves.  She has nursed everyday, but sometimes her patience seems to wane, and she opts for the easy approach--the bottle. Other than the occasional two-week hiatus where Abby nurses sufficiently to fill her up, Lisa has dutifully pumped just about everyday since Abby was born.  That pump was a good investment, and Lisa has had the patience to consistently use it so that her baby could partake of the "good stuff."

Abby, happy to be at Stanford, tube-and-worry free.

The plane ride to California this time was certainly different, with Abby standing most of the time on Mom or Dad’s legs, and wiggling constantly back and forth between the two of us.  Her bedtime was long past due, as our flight was delayed by an hour out of Salt Lake.  Like most babies, the later it gets, the louder and more volatile she becomes.  I am quite certain that our fellow passengers were thrilled to have the flight come to an end.  By the time we got our rental car in Oakland, Abigail was down for the count.

Our trip to the delightful town of Palo Alto was fantastic.   We visited the Farmer’s Market, Stanford Campus, and made multiple stops at our favorite Super Market, Andronicos, for a pastry, some cheese, and soup.  We spent some time with our gracious host, Leslie Neumarker, with whom we stayed for the three weeks that we were at Stanford.  We also spent a day in San Francisco, and rented bikes (mine came equipped with a baby seat) and rode through the Presidio District, like I had done with the kids the November before.

The NICU reunion was what we thought it would be--balloons, punch, cookies, a clown, about 150 people that we hadn't ever met nor probably would ever see again.  Unfortunately, no doctors or nurses that we knew were there, nor were there fellow NICU parents from the year before.  But that was okay.  Our visit wasn't about the reunion.  It was about returning to a happy place.  Stanford is a happy place for us, just as Primary Children’s will always be.  And it is good to return--not only physically but spiritually and mentally.

On a bike ride in the Presidio District in San Francisco

On our way to dinner with Leslie Neumarker

So, as I sit here on the eve of Abigial’s birthday in a familiar spot--in a comfortable chair with my computer in my lap late in the evening--my thoughts return to that day almost a year ago.  Lisa is dozing off to sleep, and I am writing.   Those days seemed to last forever.  In fact, the month in the hospital with Abby seems like a longer span of time than the 11 months that have followed it.   As my mind and heart return to that day on October 19, 2009, I get contemplative and quiet.  I want to slow down and remember.

I try to remember a good friend who spent his night with me at Primary Children’s, a friend who had the ware withal to ask questions to doctors that I was in too big a of a fog to ask.  I think of a cardiologist who stood up for me, and got the NICU to break their rules and let that friend give my baby a blessing that night when they wouldn’t let me and my “swine flu” near the NICU.  I think how grateful I am that the cardiologist was worthy to hold the priesthood, and ready and willing to volunteer to assist.

I try to remember grandparents, who put their lives on hold for four weeks to play parents to our children.  I try to remember a social worker at Primary Children’s who arranged for my children to see their sister before she was whisked off to California, and who made the Life Flight staff be patient enough to wait for the kids to have sufficient time with her.

I try to remember NICU parents, who struggled with far greater trials than we faced, who reached out to us, and were kind and solicitous.  I try to remember the admissions clerk at Lucile Packard, a man I referred to as the benevolent “Steve,” who volunteered an hour a day after worke to spend time with a four year-old, terminally ill girl, whose parents weren’t able to visit all that often.  I try to remember when I think about Steve how good, despite its many evils, this world still is.

I try to remember the pediatric heart surgeons at Primary Children’s who had the humility to send Abby elsewhere, as I think of a neighbor of Abby’s in the CVICU whose first surgeon in Phoenix wasn’t so humble, and whose first surgery was botched just prior to him being shipped to Stanford for someone else to clean up the mess.  I try to remember the United States Air Force who volunteered to fly that baby from Phoenix in a cargo plan because the life support equipment to which he was attached was so extensive that the baby couldn’t possibly be transported with Life Flight.  I try to remember how lucky I am to live in a country that values life enough to do such things, and that spends so much money to save babies.

I try to remember what it was like to travel through so much uncertainty in those early hours and days following Abby’s birth, and yet to feel so much peace.  I try to remember leaving Timpanogos Hospital to update our kids on Abigail‘s condition, wondering if I would get “the call” from Lisa, telling me that Abby hadn’t made it.

I try to remember myself sitting alone in the cafeteria of Primary Children’s, and for the first time a long time completely and unequivocally surrendering to God, telling him that I would accept and embrace with any outcome.  And interestingly, I really meant it.  There was no superficiality nor contrivance to that statement--there was no “sense of duty” to compel me to say that God, or no “this-is-how-I-should-feel-so-I-better-say it” feeling.   I try to remember how liberating that was, how much peace that gave me, and how much happiness that brought me.

Sadly, I too often forget all of that.  And so every once in a while, when a birthday rolls around, or a Life Flight helicopter soars overhead, something tells me to remember.   And whenever I do, I feel happy.  Happy Birthday, baby Abigail.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Dear Abby

Dear Abby,

Today we blessed you--a tradition in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, where a priesthood holder (typically the father of the newborn) presents his child before God and before his congregation, and states the name by which the child shall be known upon the records of the Church and then proceeds to pronounce a blessing on the child.  It's a beautiful and tender thing. By the time you are able to read this post, you will have witnessed many such blessings.

Big sister, Emma, holding Abigail at home after church

And though I am quite certain that your spirit comprehended the experience and the goings-on of the day, I wanted to record some of my thoughts from the day so that someday you'll know what happened.  And while there were no (visible) heavenly manifestions during or after the blessing, I suspect that when you read about this someday that you will receive the subtly powerful confirmation that the priesthood is a real power.

I looked forward to today with some angst.  We hadn't decided to take you to church yet, as we are trying to desperately to keep you away from large crowds.  If we can make it through this winter without you catching the flue, we're home free.  We're still afraid that you're recovering body may not take well to a bout of RSV or the flue.  But even though we were nervous about taking you to church, we wanted to perfrom this blessing before you started walking.  We thought about just doing it at home, but somehow that didn't feel right.  We wanted to share this experience with our congregation, the Hillcrest 8th Ward, who had exercised so much faith in your behalf. 

So we decided to bring you to church today, the first Sunday of the month--the Sunday where such blessings typically occur.  Our plan was to keep you safely cocooned in your car seat, then take you just before the blessing, and have Mom leave with you just after the meeting.

Do you think Abigail gets enough love in our house?

I didn't expect the emotion I felt as I stepped foot into our church building today.  It hit me.  There I was in a building where a fast for you had been consummated, a building where I have spent almost every Sunday for the last 13 years, a building that for a bit of time, I wasn't totally sure you would ever see.  My throat suddenly seemed to swell, and my eyes started to moisten,  just as they did when we left your siblings in the hallway at Primary Children's or when we walked beside you at Lucile Packard, as the surgical team rolled you and your bed from the NICU to the operating room. 

On both of those occassions I tried to conceal those emotions as best I could, trying to not look anyone in the eye, and just marching toward an open pew.  I struggled through the opening hymn, after which I leaned over to your Mom and said, "I am not going to be able to make it through this."  I'm going to be a blubbering, bawling idiot up there.

However, they were happy tears. They were grateful tears.  They were humble tears.

After the opening hymn and prayer and the obligatory announcements and ward business, we were invited to begin the blessing.  Mom had already taken you out of your car seat, and had handed you to me.  There you were in your simple and elegant white dress, a whiteness that symbolizes the purity that defines you.  I took all nine pounds of you from Mom, cradled you carefully, and walked up to the front of the chapel, where several members of the family met us to assist in the blessing.

Abby was excited to be at church today as well.

As you will have seen by now, when we bless a baby the father or person giving the blessing stands in a circle of people (typically with family and/or friends). Each member of the circle rests his left hand upon the shoulder of the person next to him, and with his right hand he joins the other members of the circle in holding the baby.  That circle and the physical unity of its members has symbolic significance, just as most elements that make up such ordinances do.  Today that circle represented lots of things:  the love that your uncles, cousins and grandpas have for you; the fact that many people will join hands to bear you up and lift you throughout your life; and the fact that many loved ones will unify their faith and their prayers that you might become the person that God wants you to become.

Standing next to me in the circle was your older (and only) brother Jeffrey.  Though Jeffrey isn't old enough to hold the Melchizedek Priestood, he stood in the circle to hold the microphone so that Dad's voice could be amplified to the congregagtion.  By the time that you undergo your next priesthood ordinance--baptism at the age of eight--Jeffrey will likely be serving an mission somewhere in the world, and he won't be there. I am grateful that Jeffrey, who loves you with a tenderness and a maturity that is not typical of a 12-year old boy, got to participate.

As is typically of your father who is burdened with a mild speech impedement--a blessing for which I will always be grateful (it keeps me more humble than I would otherwise be)--I began the blessing with a bit of a stammer, but as it progressed, and as the spirit grew thicker, that stammer disappeared.  Every time I give a public blessing or a talk, I worry about that stammer beforehand. I worry how bad it will be; I worry about whether it will get in the way of me being able to communicate what needs to be said.  I worried about that this week, and I prayed that it wouldn't get in the way.  And it didn't.

Nothing like those big blues. You should see her eyelashes as well.

I spoke about your heart--a heart that has been repaired both because of the expertise of skilled surgeons, nurses, and doctors, and because of the faith of many.  I blessed you that your heart would not only remain physically strong, but that it would be spiritually strong, and that it would a receptacle of purity throughout your life.  I reminded you that your life so far has inspired others to be better, and I blessed you that your future actions, words, and thoughts would continue to inspire people to become more like Christ.  Finally, I blessed you that someday that you would be able to find a companion like I have in your Mom, someone with whom you can kneel across the altar of the Temple, and with a pure heart and clean hands, be married for eternity.

Abigail, there was something else that I didn't mention in your blessing that I would like to close this letter with.  There are three women that I hope you will emulate.  The first is your mother. I hope you will always look into her eyes with that same gaze of love, wonder, and trust with which you now shower upon her.  Your mother is a beautiful person on every level.  Your mother doesn't appreciate or even understand the depth of character that she has given your siblings and is giving you know.  She is a compassionate, caring, and selfless person.  Yes, she isn't perfect.  She will probably even teach you a few bad habits like your father and all parents do.  But she will teach you an infinitely greater amount more of good habits.  Most importantly, your mother will love you unconditionally and will serve you unconditionally.  You will feel that.  Please continue to love her back.

We continue to be proud parents

There are two other women that I want you emulate--both of whom you were named after.  The first is Abigail Adams, who is not only one of the greatest American women, but one of the greatest Americans. Abigail loved her husband passionately, but she also loved true principles passionately. She loved her country.  She understood the concept of duty, and she understood that doing what is right is not always convenient and that it is sometimes expensive.  Primarily self-educated, she never stopped learning, reading, or writing.   She enjoyed discussing big ideas and was never afraid tangle with the brightest of her age.  She knew who she was and the confidence that came from knowing who she was made her a powerful women.   I pray that you too, Abigail, will learn who you are.  You are a miracle.

Finally, you are also named after your great-great-great Aunt, Anna Rosenkilde, affectionally referred to by the patients and staff of Primary Children's Hospital as "Mama Rose."  I don't know enough yet about Mama Rose, and I intend to study more about her. But what I do know about Mama Rose is that she served people passionately.  I believe she actually lived at the hospital for a good period of time.  She committed her life to the care of others.  She understands what all truly happy people understand--that happiness is found when you stop thinking so much about your own happiness and worry about the happiness of others.

I love you, Abigail.  Though I gave the blessing today, I have received far greater blessings because of your life.  Good night.