Bevely's Story: Part Four

Many people who suffer unexpected tragedy turn to generosity and giving back as a way of making meaning in their experience. Though many years had passed, I was thrilled to see Bevely at Empty Arms’ 10 year anniversary celebration last May. With her, she had her two little boys and together they made a quilt square and decorated rocks for Jelyna. During that time, we started talking and she told me that she was really interested in giving back and helping other people. I was so glad –  a bilingual woman, Bevely had so much to offer, especially as we began to make our move towards expanding to Baystate. Here, Bev talks about what it’s been like for her to turn her grief into a mission of helping others.

For years, ever since Jelyna passed, I wanted to do something but I didn’t know how or what. So I started going to some of your Empty Arms events, and reconnecting with you – it felt like a calling. And then the opportunity just came up – it felt like it was meant to be. It was the right time, I felt ready. Years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready. Unless I had the support, maybe that would have made me ready. I just want to give back.

The first time I went to a mother’s house and spoke to her it felt weird, but I had to remember: we are women, I’m here to support her. I wanted her to feel what I would have wanted somebody to do for me when Jelyna passed. I let that weird feeling go away, I got up, and I hugged her. She just cried and cried. And I cried with her.

Yes, it brings up memories, but it feels good to be there for somebody and show them that they’re not alone. It brings memories back but it’s in exchange for feeling good while doing something for somebody else.  It’s being able to bring someone else something that you didn’t have.

I told her it’s okay to cry, breaking that silence and that barrier – it’s okay that you feel like this, and I was honest with her – this is how you’re going to feel for a while and it’s okay – I didn’t know what I was going to feel and what it was okay to feel. It seemed like everyone expected me to be over it and I needed her to know that you don’t just get over it. It’s rude to expect someone to get over it – that’s not how you comfort them. You have to accept that they’re going to feel it for years to come.

You’re never the same person after a traumatic event. There’s no such thing as your old self, you have to learn to live with what just happened to you. Even family members who mean well don’t understand – they go on with their lives. For us, we have to almost build a new path – we can’t go on the same path anymore. So helping people, it’ sad – but it’s so rewarding to me, it makes me feel good. Now it’s been 12 years, so of course I’m still sad and I’ll still cry, but it’s easier for me to be a better support. And to show other people that you will get through it with time. You heal.

When I supported the most recent mother, I said look: I know how you feel, it will get better but it will never go away. You’ll always have that little part of you –  it will never be filled. It’s OK – years from now, you keep her memory alive, and it’s OK if you cry. Just because it’s been 5, 10 years it’s still a loss, you’ll still remember that person. You’ll function, like you’re supposed to- but it doesn’t mean it’s not OK to mourn. Others will move on with their lives, but they don’t realize the impact this has on somebody. It’s true – you’ll always mourn your baby.

That mother was talking about the baby’s stuff, and how hard it was to think about getting rid of stuff – I was like DON’T. If you want to hold onto it, you can! Make a box and hold onto it! And her family expected her to get rid of everything, and I helped her to know she could keep things. I said, get a box, create something and hang it on the wall – you don’t have to hide her, you don’t have to hide her stuff. She really liked that, I think. She was explaining how she had the baby’s name up and her son had asked her to leave it – I said, then leave it! She’s a part of your family, she’ll always be your daughter, always be the sister. I was encouraging her to let people see the baby. And a lot of people need that encouragement because society teaches us to hide people after they die. When you have a child and you lose them, your feelings don’t go out the window. She’s always going to be part of your family so keep her part of your family. Keep her alive somehow. That’s what I try to do.

I understand how this works, because I didn’t know how to do this.  I needed advice and guidance – I would never have known what to do except for the things people told me I could do. That’s why I think Empty Arms is such an awesome and amazing group. The awareness is not there in the general public, there is no other support, Where are these women going to get the support and the OK and know what they can and can’t do? I wish I had the support at the time. And now I’m happy to help and support it in any way, and want to continue to be involved in as many ways as I can!

Bevely's Story: Part Three

Knowing Empty Arms is there is something that Pioneer Valley families can return to again and again. While there are many families who use Empty Arms daily or weekly in the beginning, some only cross paths with us briefly, and yet our impact can still be significant. I often share this story with the people who are training to become peer companions to remind them that we can never measure our impact by how often we see a family return:

Many years ago, I was called to Cooley Dickinson to visit a family who had delivered their baby girl at just shy of 18 weeks. They had requested my presence, but when I entered the room, which was filled with siblings, loving family members, grandparents and friends, I was met mostly with stares. When I offered the menu of what Empty Arms could offer in terms of support, the mother very politely thanked me for coming and let me know that she’d call me if she needed anything. I left, thinking that the visit had been a failure, and worrying that I’d invaded their privacy. The next day, I returned and took photos and did tiny hand and foot casts of their tiny baby. The mother sent me a lovely text thanking me for those mementos, and I never heard from her again… until about 14 months later. That’s when I received a lovely note sharing with me the news of their new baby girl, born healthy and robust, and thanking me for all that I had done. “You were there for us at such a hard time and you were such a source of support for us”, the mother wrote. Who, me? I couldn’t believe it. I felt like I hadn’t supported them at all. But what this mother pointed out is the power of knowing that the resource is there if you need it. She may not have called, but it brought her great comfort to know we were there. Our presence, even though it was brief, made a difference. I have always remembered this story.

In this blog post, Bevely will talk about the ways in which she returned to Empty Arms after years had passed. Many families have come back to us after years, and it’s a privilege for us to be there for their life journeys.

Carol: What do you think drew you back to get involved?

Bev: I should have never left, first of all! I was trying to figure things out on my own, but when I got pregnant with my first son, Jon Carlos (2009), I thought about going back, but I felt better about it and my husband was very supportive. When I got pregnant with the second one, Jovani, (2012), I was so scared and worried. I don’t know what happened – I was scared and worried, I started having memories, I felt the emptiness again. I remembered looking up Empty Arms and realizing you guys had classes for somebody like me –  I was like OMG – it was meant to be!

I remember reaching out. I only went to 2-3 but then I went into birth a month early. It helped me tremendously –  it made me feel like I had people supporting me through the pregnancy. Nobody understood me! My family was like, you already had a kid and you were fine, so what are you so worried about? It made me feel like I’m not crazy, it’s normal for me to be feeling like this, and it’s OK. I went into labor early,  because I was having complications, everything was fine. He was just really colicky! It was the hardest thing ever.

Even after him it was hard –  because at a certain age, newborn age, with the hat on, both boys looked like Jelyna. So for both of them I went through a period where I was down, I’d cry and let it out. Especially the last one looked so much like her, it was so hard. For the first time ever, it was hard for family members. My sister saw what I saw and it was hard for her, too.

Honestly, when he was born, the pediatrician came in and told me that if it wasn’t for my doctor and her call, he wouldn’t be here today. I’m very intuitive, I think there was a reason I was so anxious. I didn’t feel like the doctors took me seriously – they thought I was anxious, but I was in labor. They had to give me a shot and stop my labor. The doctor had me come every single week. Every friday at my lunch break I had an ultrasound and a non-stress test.

That Friday, the ultrasound the lady did not like what she was seeing. When she got concerned, because he would not move, when she said we need to see the doctor, I can’t even describe how I felt. Then they said you’re having this baby today. I was crying and crying, I was so afraid. It’s funny because the doctor I avoided the whole pregnancy –  the one who told me about Jelyna – she was there to deliver my baby. She was scared, and I was scared. When he was born he had something wrapped around his leg (an amniotic band). The doctor at delivery said you have to commend your doctor for knowing he needed to come out. Imagine all that! I was a mess! But I knew something wasn’t right. People should listen to us women!

I’m so happy that new doctor came in and listened to me and took me seriously. If I hadn’t been getting checked every week, how would we have known? It helped going to those meetings because I was a mess to begin with! It made me not feel crazy. People, even the doctor, were like, you already had a healthy baby – what’s the problem? Why don’t people understand this?  I’m scared! I didn’t think there was a right or wrong to the situation. How dare people say that to people like us! That fear is always deep down in your mind whether you like it or not – it’s reality to us. It’s not a fear in our mind, it’s reality. This could happen.

Bevely's Story: Part Two

Coping with the early days and months can be the hardest part of loss. Often parents feel as if nobody understands, and that feeling of being misunderstood can prevent them from being present in their normal, daily routines even many months down the road. At Empty Arms, we’re able to structure for each family a network of support that feels right to them: whether that’s support groups, therapists, working with their family members, communicating with medical professionals, or setting up individual peer support. We have seen, over and over again, that when we offer families safe spaces to be present with their story, to honor their grief and move forward with healing at their own pace, they are much better off in other areas of their lives. It’s an honor to provide this space.

Carol:  What were the hardest parts in the beginning? What memories still stick with you?

Bev: Giving her back that second day – my family left and I had her all day with me. I didn’t know how to say – take her. How can you determine how you are ready? I should have just stayed with her until I left the hospital, but I felt like I was on a time limit. I felt rushed, like I had to give her back. So saying my goodbye, and letting them take her, that was the hardest thing. Then, going home to a house with all her stuff there, and still with a belly and no baby when I went home, reality struck. I don’t have a baby and I’m supposed to have a baby. I think it hit even harder when I got home. You go home empty, and you feel so empty and lost.

Carol: Did the people in your life understand?

Bev: Honestly I did not feel like anyone understood. I wanted to be alone, but I did not want to be alone at the same time. I remember talking on the phone every day, all day with my mother in Florida and occasionally my sisters. They were the only ones who comforted me, and all they did was listen! I needed them to listen. They did not know how I felt, so all I needed was for people to listen. Everyone else was saying, oh I’m sorry, oh I understand, but they did not know how I felt. But the nurses in the hospital, they referred me to a therapist, who used to work for Cooley, I contacted her. And I got the information about the meetings at Cooley Dickinson  (referring to Empty Arms).

I waited, and that’s my regret. I waited to get help, and when I finally went, I realized wow – now I feel I belong. Because I felt like these people truly understand how I feel. So if they say, I know how you feel  – it’s comforting because I know they truly feel that.

But I knew where to go when I needed help. It’s my culture – it’s how I grew up. It’s hard for me to express my feelings. Now I know it’s OK to seek help. I’m so glad Empty Arms was always there and never said no. I could come back every single time I needed Empty Arms. I’m grateful  – you guys helped me tremendously. You’ve made an indent in my life, just being there.

Carol: Do you think it would have made a difference if you had a companion?

Bev: I honestly truly believe that if Empty Arms had been there when I lost my baby and explained to me what was going on it would have made a huge difference with everything. I didn’t know anything  – I had never heard of a stillborn! I didn’t know anything about what I was supposed to do. If I had support with me it would have helped me to understand what I was going through. It took me such a long time to heal, and it was basically on my own. And then with the groups that I did go to, and the therapist, it made it okay to feel the way I felt. If I had support to say it was okay to feel those things, to guide me to recuperate, it would have made a big difference. You have this blow, and your sitting there broken and alone, and if I had the support that we give to everybody now –  it would have made a huge difference. I got depressed, I broke up with the baby’s father, I started drinking – I never drink – for almost a year, I drank every single day. With support I would have been completely different. I lived in Greenfield all by myself. After the funeral they were back to their lives, but I wasn’t. People go right back to their normal lives and don’t realize that I’m still not OK. And, my partner wasn’t supportive. He left me home and went back to work. That’s why I was calling my mom all day every day. I was alone. If I had somebody there to help me and support me, lives would have been different. I would have been able to heal quickly. It took many years, many years.

The way I started coping was telling my story again and again. It has helped me heal. I’m pretty good talking without crying now!

Bevely's Story: Part One

This is the first in a series of four pieces about Bevely Gonzalez. I met Bevely for the first time several years after the loss of her second daughter, Jelyna, who was stillborn in 2006. Over the years, Bevely kept disappearing, and then showing up. In 2012, at a Subsequent Choices meeting, there she was. Then again in 2017 at our 10 year anniversary party, we reconnected.

When we spoke at the party, Bevely was effusive about how important Empty Arms had been to her in her journey of healing. As she stood there, in the bright light of the party, her two young sons running around at her feet, I remembered the woman who had sat in the chair in the meetings years before. Here before me was a new version, one who remained deeply connected to her past, but who flourished in the present. Bev was a beautiful example of a person who had not just survived, but flourished after her loss.

Not two days later, I was buried in my office, deep in a search for the best way to develop meaningful services for Spanish speaking women who needed our services. Hospital interpreters would not even come close—if our goal was to offer a peer, the support needed to be offered by a peer. Suddenly, I thought of Bev. Could she help us out?

I emailed her the next day, cautiously suggesting that we might be looking for people to help to support others in Hampden county, and that we were specifically searching for bilingual support. Within minutes, an effusive, enthusiastic reply was in my inbox. Bev was in!

It has been beyond a pleasure to have  Bev join our team. She carries with her years of experience, a bright sense of humor, and a frank realism about the challenges that life can bring. This winter, I sat down with Bev and interviewed her, in the hopes of bringing her story to our community. It is a story of a mother who, determined not to be alone in her isolating journey of grief, sought out help again and again. And it is the story of that same mother who has been able to transform her own sadness into an energy that can help to hold others afloat in their darkest moments.

Thank you, Bevely, for offering yourself so unconditionally to the woman and families who have benefitted so deeply from your support. Empty Arms is grateful to have you as part of our team, and it’s my hope that your words, which will be shared in four parts over the next few weeks, will touch lives as you personally demonstrate the power of friendship and community in the face of a very difficult experience. - Carol

Post #1: Bevely’s story.

It was 2006, and my daughter Elyssa was only five years old, just shy of six. I just remember, we were very excited, we had planned for our new baby and we were looking forward to her. Then, I got into a minor fender bender – someone hit us from behind. I didn’t pay any mind to it, we went to the hospital and checked her and she was fine. Then, two weeks later, I noticed that she wasn’t moving anymore, and it felt like my stomach had gone down. I remember calling the doctor and asking about it, telling them that things looked smaller and that I hadn’t felt her move. They told me the normal things, she’s probably growing, and it’s up to you if you want to come in or not. So I waited until my appointment.

It was a nice, energetic Northampton doctor, she didn’t have any concerns. And I was there like so concerned, so concerned, so concerned! She almost let me go without checking the heartbeat. But I asked her, and she got the doppler, and she was looking, and looking, and looking. She got nothing, so she put me in the other room to check with ultrasound. I just started crying, because deep down inside I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to look at the ultrasound, because when I did glance at it nothing was moving, and I knew it was bad. I looked at her face, and I knew something was terribly wrong. She went from being so happy and energetic to being flushed and her eyes were watery, she couldn’t even talk. There was silence –  which felt like for a long time. It was very silent, nobody spoke.

Finally, she cleared her throat and with a voice where you could tell she wanted to cry, her voice was cracky, she said, “I’m terribly concerned, is there any way you call  someone to come be with you? I don’t want you driving. I need a doctor to come and look at this, and I need the ultrasound technician to come in.”

I had to wait an hour. She closed everything up and said to call someone to be with me. I tried to call the father, but my aunt and my sister were nearby, so they came and picked me up. It was horrible because I was crying, but they were saying “Everything is going to be okay.” They didn’t understand how I felt, and how I knew something was wrong. They were so ignorant to the situation – they didn’t know what was going on and they wanted to think I was overreacting. And that made me cry more, and I remember yelling at them, saying, “You’re not understanding, there’s something wrong!” I made them bring me back to the office.

I was on the phone, trying to call the father. I got ahold of a different aunt, who had to drive to my house to pick the father up to bring him to Northampton. I called my mom, I was crying, I called my best friend. I was non-stop crying, I knew deep down inside something was wrong. That hour seemed forever. So I waited, and when the baby’s father came, they brought us into the room. The ultrasound tech was there and she did another ultrasound. She didn’t say anything, and told me the doctor would talk to me. They took me into another room, then the doctor came in and told me there was no longer a heartbeat.

It was a long wait to find out something that I already knew.

I was shocked, confused. I’d’ never heard of a stillborn before, I didn’t know that was possible. I wondered, how would they would get her out of me? The doctor told me I’d go to the hospital and they’d induce me, and I was like what!! I’m going to do what? She told me I could go home to take it all in, or go straight to the hospital. I felt like she was crazy – why would I want to go home? I was so scared!

So we went straight to the hospital, and I sat around for hours crying. I’ve never cried so much in my life. Nurse after nurse was coming in trying to speak to me, trying to make me feel better, trying to relate to me. At this point, I just didn’t care. I wanted to be alone.

When the doctor came in and started prepping me, I realized I had already started going into labor. I had my grandmother and another aunt and my uncle come and visit me. They were supporting me, and talking to me. My mom was in Florida so she couldn’t support me. The baby’s father didn’t say nothing – he was in shock, too, so we didn’t say much. I felt pressure  while we were talking, so I said go get the doctor – and she was coming out.

So she just came out – and it was so shocking at first, they put her on top of me, and I was so scared. You don’t know what to expect. I realized she looked so much like a perfect little baby – I wondered what could have gone wrong? I held her for a while, and then I called my sister and told my sister to bring my daughter Elyssa in so she could meet her. She came, I let her hold her. It was very emotional. We just cried a lot. My grandma held her, she cried so much I thought she was going to have a heart attack. My aunt held her, I had support there with me. It was just hard. I remember holding her for hours, and looking at her, at her hands and her feet, trying to figure out who she looked like. I remember I was exhausted. I was so drained. I just told the nurse to take her – I didn’t want them to take her, but I was so physically and mentally exhausted that I told them to take her.

I passed out for a while. And then the next day, I remember getting up and I had family come visit –  another uncle, and the baby’s other grandmother. I still felt the same. I was crying and crying all day, and one of the nurses realized I had more family from afar coming to visit. She asked me if I wanted to see the baby again. I was so shocked – I didn’t realize I could see her again. So I said yes, and they brought her back. She looked different to me, though. She looked even more like a normal baby. It was weird. She was wrapped in a blanket, with a hat on. My daughter came again. Even my nieces came.

I remember the priest coming and I remember asking, what do I do? Do I baptize her? He said no, we don’t have to –  she wasn’t born into sin – she is a pure angel. He said the church would pay for the funeral costs, which made me cry, I was so grateful for their help. I was so naive – I didn’t know I would be planning a funeral. I was in so much shock. Shock is the only word to describe it.

Every March comes by and you feel the sadness – but you just keep trooping through it. It’s been 12 years, but it’s still there. I tell people all the time – my oldest is going to be 18 – I would’ve had a little 12 year old as well. I work with kids now, there are a lot of girls who are like 11, they randomly give me hugs and I can’t help but think, wow, I would’ve had somebody around this age doing that. I’ve been fine all month, then some old friends brought it up. My friend was crying, and I was OK. She just kept wanting to talk about it, so then we all got emotional! She told me that she had a miscarriage, and how hard it was. So it was therapeutic for her, and for me to support her...


Bev’s story will continue in the next post.

Zady

                                     

waiting at the operating room door

waiting at the operating room door

When they wheeled Yahayra out of the operating room, her tiny, 4 pound, 10 ounce baby lay on her chest, bleating like a newborn lamb. Her friends and family-- numbering close to 20-- were gathered around the door of the surgical suite, and when baby Zady let out her first audible cry, the adults all gasped in unison and broke into enormous smiles. Laughter and coos began to echo down the hallway as mother and baby were wheeled down to a postpartum room, and excited chatter began to replace the hushed silence that preceded those operating room doors opening. What would follow was truly magical. 

I first met Yahayra nearly a month before Zady’s birth. At that time, she was seven months pregnant with a baby girl she knew would not survive. It was the first time I’d ever met a mother during her pregnancy with a baby who would certainly pass away. When Yahayra had gone for her 20 week anatomy scan, the ultrasound had shown that her baby girl suffered from anencephaly, a rare neural tube defect where a major portion of the brain fails to grow. Babies with anencephaly sometimes live for a short time, but they also frequently pass away in utero or die during the delivery. Mothers in this situation are always given the option to medically interrupt the pregnancy, either through early induction, or a medical termination through a surgical procedure. Because babies with this diagnosis can not survive, this option is often encouraged by health care providers. However, Yahayra felt compelled to spend as much time as she possibly could with her daughter.  So onward she marched, her belly expanding-- patiently explaining to her two older children and numerous family members about Zady’s unique condition.                      

Over the weeks as I met with Yahayra we spoke of her fierce love for Zady, and we laughed together as we watched little Zady’s feet poke Yahayra’s expanding belly. We shared the hope that Zady would be born alive and we would all get to spend some time with her before she died. During our visits we also made plans for how we would capture as much of Zady’s life as we could. Right away, we made plans for a belly cast (thanks to Karen Kurtigan) and prenatal photographs (Thank you, Erin Long). We brought Yahayra roses, her favorite flower, and helped her to create a birth plan that felt just right for her. Yahayra knew that when Zady was born, her goal was for a peaceful time together. Sadly, there was no way to save Zady’s life-- her brain was not formed enough to sustain her for the long term. It was Yahayra’s goal to hold her daughter and be with her while she died peacefully. A sad, dreadful, and awfully brave goal.                                     

Yahayra was scheduled to be induced on Monday, April 4, at 36 weeks gestation. I can hardly imagine what it was like for her to anticipate that date. Her body was essentially keeping Zady alive and stable-- delivering to her all the nutrients and oxygen she needed. There was no telling what would happen to Zady when she was born, if she even survived the birth. For Yahayra, to deliver her baby was to hasten her death-- an impossible predicament. Yet she also knew that for Zady’s birth to be induced while she was still alive increased the probability that she would be able to spend time alive in her mother’s arms. So onward Yahayra marched, hands clasped around her ever-growing belly, facing an impossible future yet head held high. 

Yahayra smiling through labor

Yahayra smiling through labor

Yahayra’s water broke early in the morning of Sunday, April 3. It was as if her body knew it was time-- she had been in countdown mode for so long, and she was ready to go. She came to the birth center and was greeted by a warm, supportive staff who had been anticipating and preparing for Zady’s birth for weeks. They settled her into the largest birthing suite, right at the end of the hall, and began to wait. 

The people streamed in. By the time I arrived at 1 pm, the room was full. Husbands, wives, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, and friends surrounded the laboring Yahayra and Gilbert, Zady’s father. A baby slept in the corner. A few small children darted in and out of the room. I entered with photographer Erin Long, who had also developed a strong friendship with Yahayra during her pregnancy. The two of us came in and were instantly wary of the apparent chaos in the room. There was Yahayra, in hard labor with a baby who would not live, and we worried that all of these visitors might just be too overwhelming. In hindsight, I cringe with embarrassment at this thought: this opinion was me looking at the situation through my own eyes. Later, I would learn that all these people were a gift. Erin and I gave Yahayra hugs and Erin took some labor photographs, and Yahayra welcomed us to join the crowd, to stay and join the wait for Zady’s arrival. We settled in and waited.

A family photo taken during labor

A family photo taken during labor

While the labor had begun on its own, for a variety of reasons in the early evening the midwives determine that the best course of action was to deliver Zady by c-section. I breathed a sigh of relief myself. Watching this woman labor with enormous physical pain and knowing the emotional pain that would follow was exhausting. I wanted her pain to stop, I wanted her daughter to be delivered safely and alive into her arms, and I wanted her anxiety about whether or not Zady would survive the birth to be answered. Erin and I stepped out of the room as Yahayra was prepped for her surgery. Her family was given another hospital room to use as a waiting area. 

In our own little room, Erin and I talked candidly to each other about how important we thought it would be that Yahayra and Gilbert would have some time alone with Zady in the surgical suite. We felt that given the volume of guests at the birth, and given the emotional intensity of meeting Zady, the quiet moment of birth for just the two of them might be preferable. Erin trustingly passed off her professional camera to an assisting midwife to photograph in the surgical suite, and then we sat back and waited. 

Not too long after, the midwife re-entered. She held the camera in her hand, her expression grave. Zady had been born, and she was alive. She had a heartbeat and was blowing some bubbles, she said. She didn’t think she’d last very long. Erin pushed the camera back at her. “Please, then. Go back and take some more photos of her while she’s alive”. The midwife left the room.

When she returned, the news was better: Zady was pinking up, she was making noise. Yahayra was stitched up and they would be moving her back to her room in a few minutes. We were invited to the hallway to greet her. The family gathered around. The doors opened. 

This brings us back to the beginning of our story, where Zady and Yahayra emerged from the surgical suite. Yahayra was beaming. The family all leaned in, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the tiny, swaddled Zady. The two were wheeled down the hall and the family followed. The doors to the postpartum room opened and everyone streamed in and surrounded the bed. Yahayra lay there, her long, red hair surrounding her on the pillow, her icy blue eyes sparkling. She smiled down at her darling little girl, a petite, dark haired beauty wrapped in a blanket. Zady opened her mouth and let out a tiny cry, like a kitten. Everyone gasped, and laughed, and cried. It was the most adorable noise any of us had ever heard. Yahayra leaned down and kissed Zady’s little face. The family gathered quietly and respectfully around the bed, their faces glowing with pride and love. Everyone was taking photographs and doing the things you’d expect people to be doing-- whispering about how adorable the baby was, cooing when she made her sweet noises, and reaching out and touching her soft newborn skin. Yahayra raised her face to her family and said, “I know you all want to hold her, but right now the most important thing for her is to be with me”. No truer words were spoken.                     

I have rarely witnessed such beauty as that time around Yahayra and Zady, when dozens of people gathered around this baby whose life was limited and witnessed her beauty and her reality so honestly and openly. Suddenly, all these people-- who I had somehow, for some unexplainable reason, feared-- were a gift. They were all there as part of Zady’s family, as part of Yahayra’s community. They were gathered together in recognition of Zady’s life and to honor her parents during the short time they would actively parent her. What followed was an experience so authentic, so real, it made me think that as an Empty Arms companion I ought to have planned it thinking ahead to what would happen. Zady was absolutely confirmed and welcomed into a circle of love. Yahayra was confirmed and validated as a mother of three, Zady was confirmed as a sister, and her siblings were able to meet and interact with her immediately. In fact, they were able to help to dress Zady, diaper her, and interact with her just as siblings would.           

Yahayra with her children 

Yahayra with her children 

Cousins and aunts, uncles and brothers, and the pastor from Yahayra’s church gathered around, hearing Zady’s voice, telling her parents how beautiful she was, and filling the room with joy. There was not a hint of grief, anticipatory or otherwise, in the room during that time. Zady was perfect and beautiful in everyone’s eyes. They loved her for who she was, as she was.                        

Everyone gave their time, their presence, and their love to Yahayra, Gilbert, and Zady, and then slowly, one by one, they kissed Zady’s tiny face and said goodbye, just after midnight. Nobody knew how long she would live for. They all hoped for more time.              

Yahayra and Gilbert had three more hours with their darling girl, just the three of them. They changed her clothes, they held her some more, they slept some together. At just past three, Yahayra’s dearest pre-natal nurse, Megan, the only one who hadn’t yet met Zady, came on shift. She came into the room to give Yahayra her pain medication, and Yahayra woke up and excitedly shared her beautiful newborn girl with Megan. It seemed a miracle that Zady was actually there, that she had been able to experience everything that her mother had waited so long for her to experience. She had been held, loved, and cherished. She had been met by family, shared, and blessed. Everyone who had waited for her, who had hoped she would live to meet them, had gotten their chance. 

And then, just like that, quietly and peacefully, Zady passed on. In her mother’s arms, right there, warmly and softly. I was not present for this moment, but I have an image in my mind of her little soul rising from her body, contentedly rising to another place, having fulfilled her time here on earth. Yes, her time was much too short. Yes, her parents desperately wanted more time. But the experience she had was beyond value, and the sweet, love-filled memories that her family will carry of her will last forever. 

I have companioned with many families over the years, but I have never had the opportunity to build a relationship with a mother the way I did with Yahayra, as our friendship grew in anticipation of Zady’s birth and death. Being part of her birth experience, and being able to witness Zady’s life and her time with her family was a privilege beyond words. I feel so blessed having been able to know Zady, and to be part of her short life. I feel so grateful for having been able to feel her warm cheek beneath my palm, for having been able to laugh along with her family when she let out her beautiful cries, and to be able to shed authentic, love-filled tears after her death. Little Zady, whose full name is Zadhayra, taught me so much. I will always remember her. Her life was short,  but her mother and her taught me so much about patience, and bravery, and love.