Yesterday would have been my son Christopher’s 18th birthday. Or rather, it was his birthday, but he celebrated in heaven. I wonder if he’s all grown up now?
One of the things that I wonder about is what I would have called him. I call my daughters by the short forms of their names–Rebecca is Becca, Kathryn is Katie. Would Christopher have been Chris? I never had time to find out. I guess that’s still to come.
It really was Christopher’s short life and death that started me writing. My first few articles I wrote were all about grief and going through hard times, and one of my first books was How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, where I share some of the things I learned about yelling at God–and what God whispers back. I’ve written a second edition to that book now.
The very first thing I ever had published, though, is still one of my favourites, and I thought it fitting to run it today. I couldn’t run it on his birthday since it was a Wednesday, and I always do marriage posts then. But here it is. It was first in print in the magazine Celebrate Life back in 1999.
The cardiologist walked into the room, glanced at my chart and asked, “So you didn’t get an abortion?”. As I was 34 weeks pregnant, it seemed an unnecessary question.
For one agonizing night we actually considered it. Twenty-two weeks into my second pregnancy we learned the boy I was carrying had Down Syndrome and a serious heart defect. Though my husband and I detested the idea of abortion, we wondered if we were cruel to let him live. On April 17, 1996 we sat in our living room, numb with shock. “What if sparing him suffering is the only thing we can do for him?” Keith asked our minister, Duke Vipperman, who had come by to talk to us.
“You sound as if you believe it is you who are causing his suffering,” Duke replied. Then he explained that we do not cause suffering, it just happens. Those closest to God, who are most at peace, are often those who have suffered the most. “If you try to ease his suffering by denying him life,” Duke told us, “you are in essence saying you can do God’s job better than God.”
For Keith this settled the issue. He had never wanted to abort, but as a physician he wanted to “fix the problem”–to make sure he was doing all he could for our baby.
I knew I could never go through with an abortion, but it was not just because of my moral objections. I had felt him kick. Even though he was small, I sensed him fluttering at only 14 weeks, and he just kept growing more active. I could never abort him. I loved him. He was my son.
Christopher arrived eleven days early on August 6, 1996. Suddenly he was no longer a medical problem but a tiny bundle who breathed a little too fast, and who stared into my eyes with recognition and, I think, love.
His first two weeks were peaceful ones, as he was healthier than we expected, and we learned all the facets of his personality. He enjoyed being cradled and listening to singing, but would kick and scream in indignation if he lost his soother. When our 1 ½ year old daughter Rebecca visited him, she would lean over the bassinet, pat his blond fuzzy head and say, “My baby?” I would nod, and promise that we would take him home soon.
But we couldn’t. As his heart began to fail Christopher grew increasingly tired and lost weight instead of gaining it. He was transferred to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children to await surgery.
During the evening, as I sat alone with him in his room, I would hold him and whisper, “Do you know how much Mommy loves you?”. Babies, so tiny and helpless, inspire a purer love than most. It is an unselfish love, since babies–and especially those who are sick–cannot promise anything in return. I am a goal oriented person, yet with Christopher, I learned to sit and just “be”. I had no choice. And in the quiet, I sensed God whispering His own unconditional love to me, too. “Thank you, God,” I whispered, “for the chance to know this precious boy.”
Usually his room was bustling with visiting friends, relatives, and Keith’s colleagues. We even held a dedication service there. The event was somber, for though we were celebrating his life, we all could see how tiny he was for the battle that lay ahead. The doctors gave Christopher a 25% chance of post-operative survival, for he was only 4 ½ pounds.
On the morning of his surgery I was terrified I wouldn’t hold him again. “I want so much more for you, honey,” I said. “But I am glad to have the chance to love you. No matter what happens, I will see you again.”
For five days he recovered well, and the doctors grew optimistic about his chances. But on September 3 Christopher’s breathing again grew rapid. That night my mother watched Rebecca, and Keith and I visited him together. “Mommy loves you, sweetheart”, I whispered as we left his room. It was 9:30 p.m.
He was only 29 days old when he died later that night.
The number of people at the funeral amazed us. Along with family and friends, many from the hospital attended, too. We asked Duke to talk about the importance of Christopher’s life, as we felt so many had discounted him because of his disabilities. “We must not look down on little children, for they are our model of God’s kingdom,” Duke preached. Jesus Himself chooses to identify with them, for whoever welcomes them, welcomes Him (Matthew 18:5). “Christopher was what we are to be: a little one, utterly dependent on God, struggling against apathy and everything that would deny us the sweetness of life.”
The two years since his death have been full ones. I have shed many tears, but I also smile now when I remember him. We have a new baby girl, and Keith is establishing his own pediatric practice. I often think about how different life would be had I aborted him. I would have no memories and no peace. And how do you talk about your pain? People understand my pain when I say I had a baby who died. Would they understand if I had aborted a baby at 4 ½ months? I can visit him at his grave. But most of all, I can look my girls in the eyes and tell them with conviction that I love them unconditionally. And they believe me, for I loved him.
Many may think his was a wasted life. He never came home from the hospital, he never smiled, and he was rarely even awake. But they didn’t watch the faces of his grandparents when they held him, the nurses as they watched us, or the people we have comforted since. They do not know how Christopher changed us. And so they cannot see that his life is much more than those 29 days. Recently Rebecca told me not to be sad, because Christopher is in heaven, and he is happy now. I think she is right. And one day we will meet him again, and the blessing that was his life will be complete.
My book, How Big Is Your Umbrella: Weathering the Storms of Life, deals more fully with this story. Find out more here.
You can also watch a DVD series that deals with the pain in our lives here.