by Michael Evans
Author’s Note: This is a true story. Some of the names have been changed. This story also appears at Medium.
Stuck at malfunction junction, I thought, “What happens if they don’t eat between five and six o’clock?” My parents had invited me to supper at their house and I couldn’t figure out why they always had to eat before seven o’clock. Maybe it was an age thing; after age 60 you have to eat before prime time or chaos ensues.
Memphis’ malfunction junction, where Interstate 55 meets the Interstate 240 loop, is the expressway disaster nobody in civil engineering has ever solved. At rush hour, I-240 turns into a parking lot of weary downtown workers, mixed with long-haul truckers passing through Arkansas and Tennessee. Meanwhile, more truckers join the entanglement driving rigs from the Gulf Coast to Chicago along I-55. To make matters worse, the intersection lies a stone’s throw away from the Memphis International Airport and FedEx’s hub. It all combines to create a massive headache for drivers who just want to get home to their families.
I had rushed from the mayor’s office a half hour earlier, taking just enough time to stop by my apartment for a quick change of clothes. As I darted from the office, my co-worker Barbara asked, “When will you be an uncle again, it should be any day now?”
“It’ll probably be a couple of weeks. My sister usually goes past the due date,” I said. The again part of Barbara’s question referred to my nephew, Cole, whom my coworkers were watching grow up though the assortment of family photos I kept on the credenza behind my desk. He recently had turned six and the photos showed the progression of a bald-headed infant in a christening gown to a curly-headed little athlete, mingled in with pictures of my parents, my sister Louise, and her husband Bernie.
As the traffic finally started moving, I felt relieved and hungry, so I rode the accelerator hard the rest of the way. I used my key to let myself into the house in which I had grown up, where I found my parents in their usual end-of-the-day places, Dad in the dad chair watching the news and Mom in the kitchen preparing dinner. After a quick greeting, I plopped down on the sofa to get my first breather of the day. I had worked as the mayor’s photographer for about a year. Since I was the first full-time photographer, the stacks of assignments never seemed to end, making the pace hectic at times. It felt good to relax, and the smell of Mom’s fried chicken—one of my favorite meals—teased my taste buds.
Just as we sat down to supper, the phone rang. My mother answered and I could tell she was getting some news. “Well okay, we’ll be there as soon as possible.” As she hung up the phone, the color faded from her face and her eyes filled with tears. “Louise is going into labor. I’ve been praying it wouldn’t happen on this day, but I guess we don’t have any choice.”
This day was the seventh anniversary of Lexie’s death. Lexie, Louise and Bernie’s first child, was a beautiful little girl who one day, at the age of three months, stopped breathing and never started again. The coroner ruled the death Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which occurs with no warning and no answers to make any sense of it. Everyone in the family read the literature the SIDS Institute mailed to us. It gave us all the known data, including the names of movie stars who had lost children to SIDS, but the answers to how and why such a thing could happen weren’t known. It was one of those gut-wrenching, unexplained life experiences that leads to confusion and anger—and one that shattered my family.
We quickly finished eating and I jumped in my car, headed to Baptist East Hospital. Nothing in Memphis is close, the result of urban sprawl and white flight. The trip from my parents’ house to that part of town usually took half an hour on the interstate. Mom and Dad trailed behind to pack a bag, knowing they would need to stay the night at Louise’s house to babysit Cole. As I drove to the hospital, old memories and feelings started to rush back in, like floodwaters raging past a collapsed dam.
Cole was born a year after Lexie died. Louise and Bernie decided the only way they could move past Lexie’s death was to have another child as soon as possible. By the time Cole was five years old, his parents decided he would be an only child. They couldn’t bear the thought of putting themselves through the anxiety of another infant in their lives. The rest of the family felt the same way, but shortly after Cole’s fifth birthday, Louise discovered she was pregnant again.
The traffic was still heavy with post rush-hour commuters, as I turned into the hospital’s parking garage, wiping tears from my eyes. Baptist East was new, but had already become the suburban choice for labor and delivery. As I walked into the maternity wing, I saw the family room just to the left, where Maggie and Bennett, Bernie’s mother and stepfather, sat waiting. Cole was there too, and as I entered he ran to me, his red curls bouncing, “Uncle Mike, my mommy’s having a baby.” His eyes were big as baseballs and his exuberance filled the room.
Cole had already gotten a lesson in what having a baby in his family would entail. He’d asked for a brother or sister for several years, so Louise and Bernie included him in everything concerning his future sister or brother. He had attended a sibling course one Saturday afternoon and joined in a CPR class with the rest of the family. Doctors strongly advised CPR training for SIDS families, so Cole practiced life support on the dummy with the rest of us.
“What do you want the baby to be Cole, a boy or a girl,” I asked. With a shrug of his shoulders he answered, “I don’t care.”
Maggie greeted me with a smile, which seemed to hide an uneasiness behind the veneer. She gave me the update; it was still early and the baby was not likely to arrive for a few more hours. Before I could settle in for the long wait, my parents walked through the automatic doors. Cole ran to them, shouting the same message, “Mimi, Pawpaw, Mommy’s having a baby.”
“I know,” said my father. “Do you think you’re going to have a little brother or a little shister?”
As a small child, Cole had a slight speech impediment and we had grown accustomed to hearing a shhh sound in some of his words. Dad was an avid fisherman and Cole often asked to go shishing with Pawpaw. We were classic enablers; we thought he would outgrow the problem, and knew it was best to encourage correct pronunciation, but we thought it was cute, so we often lovingly mimicked him.
Mom walked toward Maggie, repeating what she’d said at home earlier, “I was hoping it would be any day but today.” Maggie, trying to keep the occasion bright said, “Well, I think this might be our miracle baby.” It was a hopeful sentiment, but one that made me feel a little apprehensive at first. It was hard to believe anything could erase the pain, anger, and confusion that lingered after Lexie’s death. I wanted to cling to the memory, to defend myself from hope. Anything could happen, at any time.
It was clear the anniversary was on everyone’s mind. Talk of Lexie began to work its way into conversations. We’d swept a lot of emotional baggage under the carpet and it was starting to leak out. How could we hold it back and how could we ever hide it again? It was as if life had ripped off a bandage; as much as we hoped to find healing, we instead found the same open wound, desperately needing air.
That night, seven years earlier, brought much darker news. I was living in my parents’ house at the time, working two jobs as I finished college. My primary job was a graveyard shift, so I had to sleep from mid-afternoon to early evening, after attending a full morning of classes. I was asleep at the back of the house when my mother’s piercing scream awakened me at about 6:00 p.m. Running into the living room, I saw my parents sitting with my sister’s priest, Father Morgan. Mom was screaming and crying, and Dad’s face was red, tears flowing down his cheeks. “The baby’s dead,” my father said. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly. Maybe I was asleep, just having a nightmare.
“What do you mean, what happened,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“She was at the babysitter’s, it looks like crib death, but they don’t know,” Father Morgan said.
I started going numb and my mind switched to autopilot mode. I ran to the neighbors’ house to tell them what had happened. My parents had lived next door to them for thirty years and both families attended the same church. I asked them to call the family doctor, who attended my parents’ church too, because I thought my mother would need a sedative. When I returned home, my parents were still sitting in the same places where I left them, sobbing. From my bedroom, I called my parents’ closest friends. I explained that Lexie had died and asked them to come to our house immediately. They lived twenty-five miles away, on a small lake in Mississippi, but I thought my parents needed them. After checking on Mom and Dad one more time, I jumped into my car and drove to Louise and Bernie’s house.
When I arrived, several cars sat outside the house. As I found a place to park along the street, I peered through the distant living room window and saw a small army of Louise and Bernie’s friends. As I started across the lawn, I felt faint. I could see my sister through the window and she got a glimpse of me. I continued walking, but my pace slowed. As Louise walked onto the porch, my knees buckled and I went to the ground, weeping. Louise walked over and hugged me, as we cried together. I couldn’t think of anything to say and or do. Both of our lives were devastated. I felt a closeness with her that I’d never felt before, the type of connection that emerges in the midst of tragedy; a feeling one despises because of circumstances, but hopes will continue after the suffering ends.
Cole, filled with excitement, could not restrain himself. He moved back and forth between playing, asking when the baby would arrive, and fighting to stay awake. Among the waiting room crowd, Cole was most enthusiasm. His parents had never kept secrets from him. He had always known about what had happened to Lexie, but he still wanted a little brother or sister, and this pregnancy was giving him the family of his dreams. Cole had always been such a little man. For him, the reality of a SIDS death was part of the family history. He understood Lexie’s death, but it was difficult for other children to comprehend. On a couple of occasions, when he told his friends that he had an older sister who had died, some of them seemed uncomfortable, but Cole always took it in stride.
Brooks, Bernie’s brother arrived at the hospital with his daughter Abby. She was two years old when Cole was born, an only child herself, and the pair had become like brother and sister as they grew up together. We were glad she was there, because Abby would create a distraction for Cole and occupy his time on a kid level.
When Bernie made an appearance from the labor room, I thought of a comedienne’s routine I once heard about childbirth. She was talking about fathers’ presence in the delivery room so they could be “part of the experience.” The punch line was, “unless you’re passing a bowling ball, you aren’t part of the experience.” Bernie said it was still early; the baby likely wouldn’t be born until late in the night. He spent some time with Cole, telling him he would have to be patient—a difficult task for an excited six year old, but Cole was no typical little kid. He had waited years for a little sister or brother, so he could wait a little longer.
Lexie died on what seemed like a normal day. At the end of her workday, Louise drove to the babysitter’s house directly from her office. But as she walked through the door, the babysitter called out from one of the rooms where the children slept. She had gone into the room before Louise arrived to gather Lexie and her belongings; that’s when she discovered the baby was blue and wasn’t breathing. She immediately pulled Lexie’s medical file, and after calling 911, she started CPR. Louise took over life support, as the babysitter waited outside for the paramedics to arrive. The EMT’s did everything they could to revive the baby, as did the doctors and nurses at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, but their efforts couldn’t bring her back to life.
Lexie’s death touched more people than we could have imagined. My family and I felt removed from the world around us, but dozens of calls and letters started arriving at my parents’ home—some from people we didn’t know. It seemed so unreal, the child who recently had visited the doctor and received a perfect bill of health, and the child whom I had held just days before, was gone.
The day of the funeral was like a slow, endless slog. Louise and Bernie decided to forgo a funeral and only have a graveside service; it was all anyone in the family could bear. Family, friends, and well-wishers packed the funeral home before the service. People we had not seen in years suddenly appeared. Many took their turn viewing the body of the tiny child in the casket, a teddy bear tucked under her arm. A chill ran down my spine as I watched the funeral director carry the tiny casket to the hearse, with no assistance. The finality of the situation flooded my mind and bore a hole through my heart.
Cole started to fade. He had fought sleep all evening, but by 10:00 p.m. he nodded off on a sofa in the waiting room. By then Brooks and Abby had gone home and Cole had a hard time playing in such a small space. Normally, play meant anything involving a ball, so trying to keep his attention with toys and books proved futile. During one of Bernie’s visits to the waiting room, he told Cole we would not let him sleep through anything, we would wake him the moment the baby arrived. That seemed like enough reassurance for him to stop fighting the inevitable slumber.
Cole’s delivery had been very different. After carrying Cole for nine months, Louise was in such an emotion state that the doctor decided to admit her into the hospital and induce labor. The doctor had become her partner in grief during the months following Lexie’s death, because around the same time he had lost a son-in-law in an automobile accident. He was the doctor who had delivered Louise and me, but by the time Louise conceived Cole, he had become her friend, too.
Because of SIDS’s mysterious nature, after Cole’s birth he remained in the hospital for a series of sleep tests, to monitor his heart rate and breathing. He passed each test with flying colors, but remained attached to a monitor for the first nine months of his life. It seemed like a curse for families who lived with a SIDS death. Even when a new child arrives, machinery has to be present as a constant reminder of the past. The first time I heard Cole’s monitor squeal—the result of a normal breathing pattern—my pulse quickened and I felt panicked. Although I wanted to be enthusiastic the night of his birth, I ended up feeling fearful.
We all began to wear down from the long wait and emotions of a new birth. Over the years we had recognized the anniversary of Lexie’s death less and less, but as Louise went into labor on the same date, it was difficult to keep those memories at bay. I would occasionally see a tear come to my mother’s eye, as she talked about the impending tests and monitors, while trying to balance the conversation with hopes and prayers for good health.
Even so, the anticipation of childbirth surrounded us, as we talked with the other families in the waiting room. Throughout the night the population dwindled, as we heard the news “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy” and then more people would arrive to start the waiting game. Mom and Maggie divided their time between talking with each other and calling family members to relay the news of the coming birth. Dad, Bennett, and I spent most of our time keeping Cole occupied. And at times, I drifted away, alone in my thoughts.
Shortly after Louise became pregnant with Cole, she and Bernie moved to a larger house. It was a short move, just around the corner, but the need for a new environment overshadowed the desire for more space. The year between Lexie’s death and Cole’s birth challenged them, to say the least. The death ravaged their lives as individuals and as a couple. During the first few months I visited them almost daily and Bernie uttered the same comment every time, “We just don’t want to be alone.” Those words troubled me, because they looked like they were spiraling into an emotional abyss. Theirs’ was the sort of anguish that could galvanize a relationship or tear it apart. They were alone, and their suffering made everyone around them feel helpless, unable to do or say anything that would spark even the slightest joy. My parents, consumed by their own grief, could only watch as their daughter suffered even more than they did.
My own sorrow, coupled with everyone else’s pain, left me feeling fragmented. Grief is such a strange experience; it stops the clock, puts hopes and dreams on hold, and sneaks up behind you when you least expect it. One day I found myself driving down the street when a song came on the radio that reminded me of Lexie. The next thing I remembered, I sat parked on the side of the road, crying, cursing, and begging for answers. Heartache remained for what seemed like an eternity, as I tried to go through my life mechanically, after my co-workers and fellow students had forgotten what had happened in my life. It was there, and would stay there until it decided to let go. There was no negotiating with my grief, it had control, and like everyone else in my family, I was in it alone.
By the time Cole was born, my own agony throbbed. For a year it seemed like I constantly moved back and forth between trying to comfort Louise and Bernie and my parents. I had to push back my graduation, because concentrating on my studies became impossible. My emotions were raw and at first I was hesitant to open up or get close to Cole. But as trepidation subsided, everyone in the family rallied around him to give him the abundance of support he needed. We attended all of his school and sporting events; my father even helped coach some of his little league teams. And I, with camera in tow, documented his early life.
It was just after midnight when Bernie, looking like a doctor in his green scrubs and surgical cap, made another appearance in the waiting room. This time he walked over to the sofa to wake Cole, who at first seemed disoriented, but soon remembered where he was. Bernie leaned over and whispered in his ear, “It’s a girl.” Cole filled with excitement as he walked hand in hand down the corridor with his father to go visit his mother and see sister for the first time.
I was excited and nervous when Bernie returned to the waiting room to invite us to meet our new niece and granddaughter. As we walked down the long hallway, Bernie told us that she had been born at 12:06 a.m. It was a new day and a new child had entered the world. A fresh, unfamiliar feeling passed over me—neither dread nor excitement.
The hospital room was dark, with pools of soft golden light. As I entered, I saw Louise lying in the bed, looking exhausted, but radiant. I looked around the room and spotted Cole, sitting in the corner, holding the tiny baby. His excitement left him almost speechless and a warm glow seemed to emanate from his entire body. He looked down, with eyes transfixed on what he was holding in his arms. After a long silence, Cole looked up and said, “This is my new baby shister, this is Grace.” As I gazed at my niece and nephew, and heard those innocent words, the wound in my heart healed.