Most families treasure memories of shared experiences and holidays, stories and anecdotes that make us laugh, piles of photographs waiting to be put into albums….. In our family, we each have a “special box” containing various treasures we’ve collected throughout the years. Perhaps a first pair of shoes, some special cards or letters we’ve received, some of the kids’ poignant pictures or photographs and other various mementos. We each have one box.
Cody, our son who lived for only nine hours and six minutes, has two! Two boxes of mementos from a life that lasted a mere 546 minutes.
Every year on his anniversary, I allow myself some time to remember my son who was earthside for such a short time, to reflect on the impact his death has had on our lives. The grief gets easier to live with as time goes by, and these days I usually find that compartment of my heart buried beneath the busyness and joy of sharing life with my husband and four living children. On this day, however, I give myself the gift of some personal time and space to blow the dust off the boxes, open the lids and reflect on all the keepsakes collected there.
This year, on Cody’s birthday, which happens to also be the anniversary of the day he died, I took some photos of the various box contents, and thought I would share them here for posterity’s sake.
Unlike our special boxes, Cody’s are not filled with memories of anything he did in his life; instead, they are filled with memories of our pain, our loss. The photos I have are photos of my son on life support, of us holding our dead baby, of Cody in his coffin, of us standing in shock and horror at his graveside.
However, there are other treasures, too. Treasures that shine like little lights of love; messages of love and care from dear friends and families who reached out to us in our sorrow, who walked alongside us when we could not bear to walk alone; gifts that were given, pictures that were drawn, words that were shared to encourage and support us on our path through pain.
Cody’s “Special Boxes” (which are actually falling apart after nineteen years! I think it may be time to get a little wooden box that will hopefully last a bit longer, but still be light enough to carry in case of emergency):
Blessed by the kindness and compassion of others….
Giving something back…..
Feeling cared for, even after all these years…..
I have received so many lovely messages and comments today, some from people we no longer see but who walked those early years with us, others from people who didn’t know us then, but know us now and reach out with love and support, even diarising his birthdate so they won’t forget. There has also been support, of course, from our immediate and extended family who have been there from the start.
If you know someone who is recently bereaved, please don’t hold back from showing compassion and empathy. Perhaps you will be inspired by some of the wonderful things our friends and family did for us (not all of which are recorded here, of course). Perhaps you will be inspired by this post, too.
And please don’t assume that grief ends as time passes. It changes, for sure, but random acts of kindness are always appreciated. Let’s do our bit to make the world more kind, loving and compassionate.
Cody died the day he was born. Nine hours isn’t much time to spend on earth. I’m glad he was born alive though and I’m glad I got to hold him. I wish desperately that I had been allowed to feed him and still find it incredulous that I wasn’t, but at least I got to see into his eyes.
It is said that the eyes are the window to the soul and it did feel like that. But for those who sadly never get to see the eyes of their little one, the parents whose baby dies before taking the first breath, I’m sure there is a soul connection of a different kind. In fact, I believe there is, or can be, a deep connection with a baby while they are still in utero. We may never be able to understand each other’s pain and loss, but I want to honour those who have suffered the death of their child at any age, either in utero or much, much later.
I don’t remember much of what happened between the time I was informed of Cody’s death at the end of his helicopter journey, and us arriving at the big children’s hospital about two hours later. I don’t remember who drive. I think we briefly stopped at our house on the way.
I DO remember the wheelchair journey from the car up to the “Grace Ward”. It didn’t feel like grace to have our baby taken from us so soon. But there were hints of it.
One sprinkling of grace was the midwife, Karen, who had come out with the NETS Team. The one who had held my baby while he died. Her shift had finished hours earlier, but she waited for us.
She, the one who had held our son as he breathed his final breath, wanted to hold us.
We wept. Oh, how we wept.
And then came the moment I did not want to face. I could not believe it was true. I didn’t want to believe it was true. But what I was about to face was an unmistakable, inescapable reality, whether I wanted to believe it or not.
They ushered us into a small, dimly lit room with wood panelling on the walls, and a sofa against one wall. We waited there, to be reunited with (the body of) our son.
They wheeled him in, in one of those plastic bassinets hospitals are so fond of. He was wrapped in blankets, and dressed in nice clothes, which was of some comfort. The plastic bassinet wasn’t so nice. I wish someone had carried him in to us, and placed him in our arms.
I held back from touching him. If I touched his cold skin, it would be true.
But they had done a remarkably kind thing and kept him warm for us. Strange to think that he was given better, more attentive care after his death, than in the first two hours of his life. He was warmer now than he was when he was alive.
Yet I still couldn’t touch him. Even if his skin was warm, I knew that it was his body in the room with us, not HIM. Not Cody. It was his shell, and I needed time to prepare myself to hold him.
Geoff went first. Oh, how thankful I was for his courage and strength throughout all of this. I fear I depended on it too much. I didn’t expect it but I certainly appreciated it.
I had to be encouraged to hold him. It certainly wasn’t something I’d planned to do when I woke up that morning. Actually, thinking about it, I hadn’t woken up that morning. I hadn’t slept since Friday night. I had gone into labour on Saturday night before going to sleep, and it was now Sunday afternoon. I don’t think it was my exhaustion that had me falling apart at the seams though. It was my dead baby, the one I loved whose body was about to be placed in my arms.
It was the strangest thing to hold him and I was tentative in my touch at first, yet once I took hold of him, I did not want to let him go.
After awhile they let our big boy in to see his baby brother. This was absolutely gut wrenching. It was certainly NOT the “hello” we had anticipated between two brothers. Travis was 21 months old, and already he was facing the death of a sibling. He had no idea of the hugeness of it all though. He poked him, cuddled him, and ate crackers while we posed for the type of family portrait we had never anticipated. The one with Mum, Dad, and two kids. One alive and munching crackers. The other, dead.
Our parents came, too. I felt their love. And also their pain. It was hurting them, too. They were still coming to terms with being grandparents, and yet here they were saying goodbye to a grandchild. Their strength and support in the midst of their own grief was a tower of strength to us. I imagine they cared for Travis for the rest of our time at the hospital. Or maybe they drove him home. My mind and heart were in that little room with the ugly wood veneer panelling.
My beautiful, desperately desired, much loved baby was gone.
The reality of it was sinking in. Through tear-filled eyes we gazed at each other in disbelief. Through our fingertips we felt his body going cold.
The staff were again so amazing. They cut off a lock of his hair. They helped us get hand and footprints of our baby. They pretended not to notice that we were finding it hard to stretch out his fingers for the handprint because his poor little body was succumbing to the hard realities of death.
It was time to go.
And yet I didn’t want to.
I couldn’t bare the thought of walking out that door without my baby.
Geoff felt a strong desire to leave, as Cody’s cold, hard body was becoming a stark reminder that this awful nightmare was, in fact, reality.
As much as I had found it so hard to hold him at the beginning, I found it almost impossible to let him go at the end.
It pains me deeply even now, after seventeen years, to think of it.
Cody Luke Ahern.
Born: 1st October 1995, 3.40am at Camden District Hospital Died: 1st October 1995, 12.39pm at Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, Sydney
Our only child so far who has ever had a ride in a helicopter.
Days 2 – 4
I have to lump these days all together because they are a blur. Not because it has been seventeen years, but because I was in a state of shock. These are the things I remember.
The dark solitude of night time when all was still and quiet, and there was no distraction from my pain. Oh how physical is the grief when a baby dies.
My breasts were engorged with milk yet I had no baby to feed.
My eyes were overflowing with tears from a well I thought may never run dry.
My arms were desperately aching to hold my baby.
I was bleeding, in more ways than one. It was as though my whole body was weeping for the one who was gone.
A house filled to overflowing with friends and family who loved us.
People arriving with flowers, sympathy cards and toilet paper.
My friend Bonnie, rescuing me from the one phone call I’d so bravely tried to make to the funeral agency. The only words I got out were “Our baby died….” before collapsing in a heap, thankful for a friend standing by my side. She also accompanied us to meet with the funeral agency to make arrangements for the Thing we didn’t want to do.
My friend Pateenah, somehow managing to visit us and show such compassion, leaving her newborn at home so that I wouldn’t be confronted with seeing him.
My friend Jane who lovingly sewed a beautiful little outfit for Cody to be buried in.
Our extended families somehow managing to rise above their own despair to be a tower of strength and support for us in uncountable, immeasurable ways.
Our church family and other friends gathering around us with such love and compassion, and doing a house and yard blitz while we left the house to make funeral arrangements.
We felt carried. We somehow floated through those days in a state of shock and despair and oblivion to the practicalities of life. Other people just did it all. I don’t remember changing a nappy for the first two weeks. I’m sure someone did. Probably Geoff.
Ah yes, Geoff. Thank you for being my rock during those early days. Without you I think I would still be in that ugly little wood panelled room clutching on to the body of my second born son.
The longings, expectations, hope and excitement surrounding the pregnancy and birth of our precious second son were similar to that of most expectant parents:
Parents envisage who the child might look like and whether it will be a boy or a girl.
There may be a baby shower or blessingway.
There are discussions (and perhaps arguments!) about baby names.
Baby clothes are purchased.
Dreams are dreamt of all sorts of possibilities for this precious little life in the days, months and years ahead…..
For some of us, sadly, what we end up with is death.
It is the furthest thing from the mind of most expectant parents. “Do you want a boy or a girl?” we are asked. “Oh, so long as it’s healthy”. No one thinks to say, “Oh, so long as it lives.” The truth is, in our modern, westernised society, the majority of babies DO live. This is a great thing! But it also sets us up for the shock of our life when the opposite happens.
We expect: “Congratulations! It’s a girl!”
We get: “I’m sorry. Your baby is dead.”
In my previous post, I wanted to celebrate the life and existence of Cody Luke, because he did live. Not for long. And it certainly wasn’t an easy nine hours for him. Or us. But live he did. Both before he was born, and for a short time afterwards.
The headstone on his grave reads:
Nine months to know you
Nine hours to be with you
A lifetime to miss you
Eternity to be together
When he died, we received many many cards of sympathy, one of which congratulated us on his birth. I must admit I would never think of sending such a card, but the truth is, it really blessed us! It was an acknowledgement of his life when what we were facing was his death.
Here is the story of his transition from the womb, to our arms, to the neonatal ward and a helicopter, and then to the grave.
Early Hours After The Birth
When I was pregnant with Cody (precious memories, those ones!), I was declared to be “low risk” and “perfectly suited” to a Birth Centre delivery. How quickly those predictions can change, like the toss of a coin, or flick of a light switch.
Cody’s triumphant moment of entry to the big wide world was accompanied by a strange sound. A kind of thud. It was the sound of his ruptured umbilical cord dropping to the floor (I was standing up). It was so random and unexpected that even the midwife didn’t notice and we had to bring it to her attention. (This was the first of her many mistakes.)
One of the failings of the Birth Centre where Cody was born was that, if a delivery occurred during the night, there would be only one midwife in the entire unit and no one else would be called in to assist at the moment of birth. One midwife can only observe and deal with so much. (This is one policy we fought hard to have changed after Cody died.)
When we brought the ruptured umbilical cord to our midwife’s attention and she noticed the large volume of blood on the floor (sorry, this might be a messy blog post!), she suddenly started barking orders at my husband, Geoff, instructing him on how to provide medical care for his baby while she attended to me. Mistake number two. Unless the birth had occurred out in the bush or some such, she should never have expected the father of the baby to carry out any medical procedures on his own baby.
She did not call for help from any of the trained staff that were readily available in the delivery suite upstairs, or in the postnatal or antenatal wards. Pressing the buzzer that was attached to the belt of her pants, or pushing the emergency buzzer on the wall was a simple thing to do, really. Yet she didn’t do it. Not at the moment of birth, nor at any stage during the next two hours. Mistake number three.
She busied herself massaging my abdomen, fearing that the massive blood loss indicated a haemorrhage. Meanwhile she shot rapid instructions at my husband, telling him where to find the resuscitation equipment in the bedside table and how to use it, to enhance our son’s oxygen intake. (He was breathing but needed help.) When she glanced over to see if he was doing it correctly, she seemed quite angry, and raced over there showing him how to press the oxygen mask down over Cody’s nose and mouth to force air entry into his lungs, rather than just holding the mask above his face as my husband had been doing. Mistake number four.
It was this act of forced air entry, without having first cleared his upper airways of possible meconium, that was ultimately a major contributor to Cody’s death. And it was Geoff’s participation in this act, following the exact instructions of the midwife, that has caused him so much distress over the years, due to strong feelings of guilt. Even if guilt is completely unfounded and illogical to an outsider, it can eat someone up from the inside, displacing logic and rationality, and in their wake leaving fear, regret, shame and despair. I feel so sad that he still blames himself for following the instructions of the midwife, trusting in her competence and instructions, and blaming himself for not somehow knowing better than a midwife with 25 years of experience.
……. Pause to collect myself and settle my shaking fingers ……
After awhile, Cody was given to me with the excited proclamation that he was a massive 5150 grams (11 pounds 6 ounces). It seemed that the midwife was very proud of our successful and comparatively simple birth process, considering his size! I felt quite proud too!
As she handed him to me, she commented that he was a bit cold and needed to warm up a bit, so she wrapped us both in a warmed blanket with skin to skin contact, and made me a cup of tea! She then left us to relax and enjoy our new baby. Mistake number five. A baby who is born in anything less than normal circumstances needs careful monitoring. This cannot be done from a separate room, relying on inexperienced parental observations only.
I was oblivious as to what was “normal” for a newborn, because I slept through the first hour of my first son’s life (in fact, I also slept for the fifteen minutes between the delivery of his head and the rest of him!). So to me, the fact that Cody was pale, whimpering occasionally, and very floppy, was not as much of an alarm bell as it should have been. When my third son was born 11 months later I suddenly realised what a healthy newborn looks like! Cody did NOT look healthy.
The midwife came back into the room once or twice to check up on us. I informed her that he was quite floppy in my arms and just grunted if I tried to move him or scoop his legs back into my embrace, because they kept flopping down. Our midwife simply gave me a freshly warmed blanket and another cup of tea. Was she British perhaps? No, a cup of tea really doesn’t fix everything!
She said that he would have to be taken to the intensive care nursery at some stage because he was over 10 pounds and asked us what we wanted to do about that. We deferred the decision back to her, saying that she could decide because she was the midwife, but that if it was important for his health then of course we wanted him to go now. She declared that it was “A silly hospital rule” and left him with us.
After quite awhile, she took Cody from my arms to perform the Apgar tests, which should be done at 1 minute and 5 minutes after delivery. This had obviously not been possible, due to the fact that he was having air pumped into his lungs at that time, and the midwife was busy with me. When the Apgar results were written in his notes, it was stated that they were in fact performed at 1 minute and 5 minutes, which they were not. He was also given a rating of 8 out of 10 for his 1 minute Apgar, and 9 out of 10 for his 5 minute Apgar. She rated him 2 out of 2 for “respiratory”, even though he was being given oxygen at the time the tests were supposedly carried out! I’ve lost count of the number of mistakes.
At the time of performing the Apgar tests, the midwife called us over to the bed and specifically pointed out the “signs of respiratory distress” present in our baby. She showed us his chest recession and the nostril flaring and the grunting sound he was making with every breath, as he struggled to get enough air to survive.
She gave Cody back to me for some more “bonding time”, and again removed herself from the room. I will not bother trying to keep count of her mistakes.
During this time, as day was now dawning, Geoff began making what should have been excited phone calls, but they were tinged with a sense of tension, using words such as, “He is apparently a little bit stressed from the delivery” and “Please pray”.
After awhile, the midwife returned to our room, felt Cody’s skin and decided that he was still a bit cool and needed to be helped along a little bit. She took Cody from me and I decided to have a much-needed shower. My wonderful husband helped to clean me up, which took quite awhile, due to the messy nature of the delivery and the length of time since. It felt good to be clean!
I needed some supplies from the car, so Geoff went out to get them, surprisingly discovering our midwife outside smoking a cigarette and writing up Cody’s medical notes (one long entry of what she could remember from the last two hours since he was born)!! Geoff asked her where our baby was, assuming he was in the intensive care nursery upstairs, but she replied, “Oh no, he’s in the utilities room.” Up the hallway. Alone.
Geoff was shocked! He quickly came back inside to where I was waiting for him, gave me my things, and then went to get Cody from where he had been left ….. alone ….. under the warming trolley, surrounded not by professionals or loving parents, but by empty urinals and other medical equipment.
Geoff, with his heart full of love for his son, asked if he could carry Cody up to the nursery, rather than having him wheeled along in a trolley, and the first thing he did was to bring him to me so I could see him once more.
Okay, now this is very hard to write, but write it I must. When I saw Cody I was shocked. He looked…. grey. His mouth was sort of hanging open, as he gasped for intermittent breaths. It seemed very odd to me, and I commented on it to Geoff. We were both VERY concerned by this time, and very angry that he had been left alone.
The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
As we made our way to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, with Geoff holding Cody, he mentioned to the midwife on more than one occasion that Cody seemed to be “gasping for breath”, to which she replied glibly, “Oh you’d be a bit stressed too, if you’d just been born”…. ????
Upon entry to NICU, the midwife did something that she had only done a couple of times in the past hours. She laid him down, fully removed his blanket covering and actually looked intently at him.
“OH MY GOD! HE’S NOT BREATHING!!!!”
Those words haunted me for years to come.
The staff at NICU were absolutely and completely amazing. They literally RAN to Cody’s aid. With lightning speed they had his blood tested, and his poor body prodded and poked and hooked up to life support equipment. They immediately summonsed the on-call paediatrician, whose Sunday morning plans no longer mattered. A life was at stake.
Upon arrival to NICU the fantastic paediatrician immediately set to work. The first words I heard him utter were, “WHO THE HELL DID THESE APGARS??!” He was looking at a baby in full respiratory arrest, with blood tests that were incompatible with life, and he was reading test results that showed he had scored 2 out of 2 for the respiratory part of the Apgar test. He later told us that the only rational reason he could think of for the inconsistency was a rare medical condition that can cause a respiratory shut down after two hours. But this was not the case.
The next few hours are a bit of a blur. I remember asking for a lady from our church who I knew worked at the hospital as a midwife, and she was thankfully just coming on for a shift. She came straight to us and was literally a tower of strength for which I am still thoroughly thankful. I remember telling her a bit of the story, and mentioning something about the broken umbilical cord, which really shocked her! There had been nothing written in Cody’s notes about this very important fact. She rushed down to the birthing unit and discovered (in the rubbish bin!) the discarded cord, which she retrieved and sent away for pathological testing.
….. Pause Breathe Cry …..
I remember a blur of people coming and going. Friends. Family. Medical staff. I remember the paediatrician asking if we wanted to have our baby baptised, the suggestion of which made me angry. Or perhaps shocked. I was in such denial at the reality of what was going on, and this suggestion was like a slap in the face, trying to wake me up. I did not want to be woken.
We were informed that Cody would need to be airlifted to the major children’s hospital in Sydney, and that the Newborn Emergency Transport Service (NETS) team would soon be arriving by helicopter. Reality was beginning to sink in.
Airlifted to the Children’s Hospital
The team that came to help our baby were so wonderful. They were competent and professional, which helped us trust them, and compassionate, which helped us feel cared for. The nurse, whose name was Karen, was particularly supportive to us.
I was surprised how long it took them to do their thing. I thought they would rush in, grab him on a trolley, and rush back out the door to the helipad. It took almost over five hours for them to stabilise him enough for transport!
I remember being informed that by this stage, with his blood levels severely acidotic after extensive oxygen deprivation, if he lived (IF??!), he would almost certainly be severely brain damaged and require major ongoing medical care for his entire life. Again, I was angry at the assumption that this somehow seemed to diminish his worth! I told everyone that I would love him, no matter what, and do whatever it took to care for him. Of course I would have preferred that “healthy baby” we all wish for, but I knew that I could and would love my baby in any condition. I just wanted him to live.
The thought that he might not live was still far, far from my mind.
Thank God for the numbing benefits of shock!
We had to make a very, very difficult decision regarding his helicopter trip to the hospital. The number of staff required to provide his care during transportation meant that there was only one spare seat on the helicopter. This meant that only Geoff or I could accompany him. At this stage we did not think we could cope with being apart, so we decided to travel together by car to the hospital, desperately needing each other’s support to get through this. I still regret that choice to this day.
When Cody was finally prepared for transportation, we were able to say goodbye to him. It was gut wrenching to see him with so many cords attached to his (not so little) body. I managed to stand up to get closer to him, and said the words I didn’t want to say: “Good bye Cody. I love you.” I still assumed that I would see him soon. Now some may think it is my wishful imagination, but I am absolutely sure he opened his eyes just a little bit at that time. It was the last time I would be able to look into those deep, beautiful, soulful eyes.
I felt so connected to him in that moment, as though all the life-giving cords, the resuscitation equipment, and medical teams were not even in the room.
Time stood still.
The Final Moments
We prepared ourselves to leave for the Sydney Children’s Hospital at Camperdown, but before we were able to depart we received the phone call that no parent EVER wants to receive.
“I am so sorry. We have done all that we can do. Cody suffered seven more cardiac arrests during the twelve minute flight. We are keeping him alive artificially and need to know what you want us to do.”
It was my husband that took the call and gave them permission to turn off Cody’s life support. If it had been me, I may never have been able to make that choice. When I allow myself to think of it, I still feel a deep, deep sadness that I was not with my son when he died. That I did not have the courage to go in that helicopter with him, so that he could die in my arms.
The midwife who had come with the NETS Team was called Karen and she had been so lovely to us, so it was a small consolation to know that she held Cody in her arms while the life support cords were removed, and she poured into him some of the love that I desperately wanted to give, as he breathed his final breath.
I’ve left the photos until last, because they may be upsetting to some people.
My next posts will talk about the early days of grief, forgiveness, and life after loss. They may be awhile in coming!
The brief, WAY-too-short amount of time I got to spend with my second son before he died.
The springboard from which would come my determination to hold my children close. To make the most of each moment.
Those brief nine hours had a far-reaching effect that I don’t think I’ll ever be fully aware of (in both my own life, and that of others too, I’m sure). The impact of those few short hours showed up in all sorts of areas of my life, such as my absolute determination to breastfeed my third son, in spite of five bouts of mastitis in 8 weeks, intense pain & discomfort & details I won’t go into here! and numerous other challenges including my personal lactation consultant eventually suggesting that maybe I was one of the few that might not be able to feed my baby. Talk about a red flag to a bull! There is no way THAT was going to happen this time. I had fed my first son for only 1 week, after having all sorts of issues and a clinic nurse who handed me a packet of formula instead of the support and help I needed. And then I never got to feed my second son during his short nine hours, in spite of me saying I desperately wanted to. So NOTHING was going to stop me this time around. And it didn’t. 🙂
Later, at the end of a four year court case, those nine hours would be the impetus for us moving to live in a Christian Community to try to work through a few (well, maybe a lot of) faith issues we were struggling with. And this in turn affected our decision to live where we do today, which has affected who we spend our time with, who our closest friends are, and the friendships our children have formed.
Then in a roundabout way the impact of those 9 hours would also be part of the catalyst for bringing my children home from school; a decision that has enabled me to have many more moments with my children than I could possibly have had if they had been at school five days a week; a decision that has given me ….. time.
I still often get waylaid by the ordinary everyday pressures that are part of the stuff of life. Well, alright, I OFTEN get waylaid. But underneath it all is a current that sometimes becomes a raging force in my life. An undercurrent that reminds me of the frailty of human existence, the uncertainty of what tomorrow might hold, the undeniable reality that shit happens to us all at one time or another, and only we get to choose whether to allow it to become into a festering quagmire for us to wallow in, or a fertile meadow filled with unexpected wild flowers, bursting forth from the soil.
So you see, nine hours is more than just “nine hours”. One nine hour time period can have ripples that scatter far and wide. And in that nine hours there are many, many moments. Moments filled with choice and opportunity.
We can choose to hate, or to love.
To hold on to our pain and the desire that someone should “pay”, or to forgive.
To hold on to resentment, or let go and live freely.
To wallow in self pity, or take off that heavy sack and lift our face to the sun.
To look for the worst, or the best.
To be distracted by the stuff of life, or engage deeply with our loved ones.
To rush frantically, or to stop and smell the roses along the way.
To act mindlessly, or mindfully.
To disconnect, or connect.
To stress, or to breathe.
To seek power, or partnership.
To be boring, or to play.
To treat a child with harshness, or kindness.
To listen with one ear, or two.
To merely glance at our child, or to gaze with love into the window of their soul.
What I would give to have nine more hours with my second son, Cody! Even just one more moment where he opened his eyes and looked at me.
What about you? If you could only have nine more hours with your child, what would you do? How would you treat them? What would you most treasure?
What will you do with the next nine hours of your life?