When all the final arrangements had been taken care of – the hospital bills paid, the grave stone in place, the bereavement cards sent – the vast emptiness of death really sank in. There was nothing mundane to distract me from my loss; grieving was the only thing left to do. Likewise when all my concerned friends and family had checked in on me once or twice after the funeral, conversation moved on. There was nothing more to say about my baby’s death, no new developments to report. I would usually get a sympathetic, “How are you?” and was expected to return a brief reply. Life goes on and it’s infuriating to the person who feels the loss of death most acutely. How can the world keep spinning? How can people continue to interact with me like my loss never happened? How can I get up, shower, shave and head to work like I used to? Nothing will ever be the same and yet nothing has changed. How dare life go on! But it does. Maybe the rest of the world was ready to move on, but I wasn’t. There was still so much I wanted to say though no one wanted
to listen. People don’t seem to have much attention span for continued talk about loss and grief after about a month; worse yet, if you don’t take the cues to move the conversation quickly to the present, people start worrying about you being stuck in the past and they start saying things like, “Maybe you should see a grief counselor.” I know that’s a well-intentioned remark, but it’s insulting as well. I would have liked to respond, “OK, sure, ride with me and I’ll drop you off at sensitivity training on the way.” It was at this point in my grief that I decided to begin a journal to my baby, Hunter James. I selected a handmade book and learned calligraphy so that what would result would be more than just some thoughts and recollections, it would be a thing of beauty. I didn’t intend to make the journal public. The thought occurred to me while I was still writing that some of my closest friends and family should know the answer I had so desperately sought to the “why” question. However, after I finished, I determined it was too personal and maybe even too morbid. Maybe people would think I am crazy if they read this. Even as a woman of
strong faith, I’m rather skeptical about other people’s experiences with personal revelation. Would my own revelation shared with others hurt my credibility? To top it off, I knew the answer I got from God would not be easily received by a broader audience. God is love; we hold this truth to be self evident, right? Because of that truth, we have a tendency to reject the notion that God could have anything to do with death. The Bible indicates that death wasn’t in the original Garden of Eden plan and it resulted only because of our decision to separate ourselves from God through sin. So evil must be responsible for death, right? Sounds logical but if you study God’s word, and you don’t even really have to look that closely, God takes lives all throughout the Bible history. He pronounced us mortal in Genesis 6:3 and four versus later announced his intention to wipe the earth clean of every one, save Noah’s family. Fast forward to Revelations and you’ll find more divinely appointed death than you can stomach. From beginning to end and so many points in between, in both Old and New Testaments, God is responsible for death. In fact, our salvation hinges on the most significant death God ever planned
– that of His own Son. To say God has nothing to do with death is simply not Biblical. If you can swallow that truth, then accepting the fact that God disciplines us shouldn’t be so hard. Yet many Christians today reject the idea of God’s discipline in the form of punishment. Christ took away all our sin, they say. In God’s eyes, we’re forgiven, they say. This is true but it doesn’t mean that God has taken away the natural consequences of that sin – it means that He’s not going to hold that sin against us on our day of reckoning. When we sin, we set in motion a series of consequences from which it would take a miracle to escape. I believe God does sometime, though rarely, provide that miracle and rescue us from our stupidity; but more often He, as the master logistician, uses those negative consequences we’ve set in motion to bring us closer to Him. Just like the forest fire that actually regenerates the forest, God gives His children beauty for ashes from the fires we started, as well. This message, which I hope comes across in Hunter’s journal, is the one that God would not give me peace until I shared.
This journal ends as I am emerging from the dark tunnel of grief a new creature. It will only take you a short time to read it, but it took me more than a year to get through that tunnel. It would take another book to describe the beauty God has given me for my ashes, and He’s not finished yet. At the time of this writing, my family is expecting a new child by adoption. That will be a beautiful story and I feel certain it’s one that never would have been told if Hunter had lived. We focus so much on a person’s life and the impact he had while he lived. My son never lived to see the light of day yet while he was alive his impact was to enhance the bond of our family and make his daddy and me a happier couple. I have come to appreciate, however, that some people can have an even greater impact on others through their death. I think this can be particularly true of an untimely death. Hunter’s death seemed senseless when it happened, but from the vantage point of a couple of years later, when I take stock of all the positive changes that relate back to that catastrophic event, I can’t help but note the significance of his contribution to the lives of many through his death.
So because I like myself a whole lot more now than I did before my son died, would I change the past if I could? You better believe it! I’m human and I’m a mother and even though life is tough, I’d choose to be with my son regardless. I would make a choice that was not in my or my son’s best interest just so I could be with him. I’m selfish that way, as most parents are. But I can’t change the past and God didn’t give me a choice. So what’s to be done about it? I could have allowed the experience to embitter me to God and life and I could have become a sad and ugly person as a result of my son’s death. No, I want to honor my son. To allow his life and death to have an overall negative impact on me would make him a liability to my life. I want to remember my son as a credit to my life instead. His life and death can serve to make me a better person and that honors him. So that’s my choice.
The Journal Dear Hunter, I have been reading about a coping strategy in which I, the mom who lost her baby, should learn to communicate with you, my deceased baby, in different ways than I would if you had lived – learn to make you a part of my life, to live with you on a different plane. This is a hard concept for me to take hold of, but I know I will never have any greater motivation. I think of you constantly and it’s very sad. If I could make you part of my every day life in happy ways, showing you rose blooms and hummingbirds, singing songs to you, perhaps some of that constant thought of you could make me happy and make you more proud of me and maybe, who knows, maybe you are with me and can see these words I’m writing and share the wonder of a hummingbird with me. In these matters in which no one can prove otherwise, it only matters what I believe. And I choose to believe that you and I can stay in touch until I join you on the other side of life. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, To most today is a happy Mother’s Day. But to me, it is sad and I don’t feel like celebrating. I wasn’t much of a mother to you. What kind of mother gives her baby a fatal disease? Regardless of my intentions, I understand that it was my foolishness that led to your early death. I feel quite sure that you are well enough in paradise, but I denied you the experience of life. For all its pains and disappointments, I, for one, would choose to have it – but you didn’t get to. Last year, I was a mother of two. This year, I guess I still am, but only one is accessible to me. Only one can wrap her arms around me and say, “Happy Mother’s Day,” though even she did not do that – she did holler it from her room when she woke up. This second Sunday in May can never be wholly happy for me again for I will always be reminded of the mother I was to you. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, As the days pass, I feel you slipping farther away. Some mornings, you aren’t the first thing on my mind as you have been, or were, every day for the first three months after you went to God. I worry that if I don’t capture some of my thoughts soon, they’ll be gone. And now, I feel such clarity of purpose and place of your life in mine – I truly believe God has answered my question, “Why?” I want to record it all now so that time doesn’t make my present thoughts seem like the simple product of grief.
Your story starts about as far back as you’d care to go – in short, it’s one of the sins of the fathers visiting the third and fourth generations. Not that I’m blaming my parents and grandparents, but it is all part of the context of how I could arrive at adulthood a rather weak individual when it comes to matters of resisting sexual temptations.
Of course there is an element of sexual appetite, but my weakness stems more from yearning for intimacy – however shallow. It was this weakness that resulted in Gwen being born in unfavorable circumstances. And though she and I have both suffered under the natural consequences, by and large, Gwen has been the best thing to ever happen to me. God does give beauty for ashes and I trust he can do it again. Though I feel certain I will never say your death was a good thing, I’m praying I’ll one day say that of your life. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, As I said in my wedding vows, shortly after my 36th birthday, in a desperate single moment en route to Austin, I told God I was ready to get married. I had often wanted to meet my true love before but the adventurer in me was never quite ready to give up the single quest. But finally, I was ready and I told God that. I asked Him to send me a husband and less than a month later, I met John – your daddy. Now for the part I didn’t say in my rows. That same day en route to Austin, I made a deal with God. I promised Him chastity if I could have an engagement ring on my finger before my next birthday. God kept His half of the deal but I didn’t keep mine. And Daddy was an accomplice. When we were getting close to breaking my promise, I told Daddy about my deal with God and asked him to help me by respecting it as well. Our resolve did not last long. For the remaining months of our courtship, we attended church and otherwise led the life of faithful God-fearing people (except Daddy had a bad habit of falling asleep in church) with one area of our lives inconsistent. I felt mild guilt and tried to figure out what God must be making
of it all. Finally, I concluded that He was merciful to me in my weakness. That He was – He gave me a good husband and has continued to bless us in so many ways. However, I now believe that my betrayal, my broken promise and Daddy’s part in it, did not go unpunished. From the Living Bible: “The Lord has commanded that when anyone makes a promise to the Lord, either to do something or to quit doing something, that vow must not be broken: the person making the vow must do exactly as he has promised.” Numbers 30:1-2. “But if you don’t do as you have said, then you will have sinned against the Lord, and you may be sure that your sin will catch up with you.” Numbers 32:23 “God delights in those who keep their promises, and abhors those who don’t.” Proverbs 12:22 “Does not God have a perfect right to show his fury and power against those who are fit only for destruction – those he has been patient with for all this time? Romans 9:22
“Notice how God is both kind and severe. He is very hard on those who disobey, but very good to you if you continue to love and trust him. But if you don’t, you too will be cut off.” Romans 11:22-23 Like a good and caring father, God carefully planned my discipline – consequences appropriate to the offense and at a time when my response would not forever separate me from Him. Beginning with tithing back in 2000, I have been learning to trust God more and to see Him as my Heavenly Father – a real father figure. In these last months, I’ve learned new aspects of that relationship – that it is not about God giving all the time. Just like my earthly father would, God has to discipline me to keep me from turning into a spoiled brat. How I’ve come to this understanding is several letters away because first I want to tell you about your brief, but very significant life.
You were conceived on April 11, 2004. For about two weeks, I didn’t have any idea you were inside me busily multiplying on the cellular level. It wasn’t long until I began to suspect you though, and a cheap pregnancy test confirmed your presence. I wish now I had been more thoughtful and creative about breaking the news. I simply took the pink test strip and walked into the kitchen and handed it to Daddy and awaited his response as he figured out what it was and that it meant he was to be a father of a “brand-new” baby. I think he felt a little weak when it hit him. That’s how he acted – weak in the knees with some tears of joy and basically stunned into a stupor. Though poorly orchestrated on my part, it was one of those moments of marital bliss I’m sure neither of us will ever forget. I want to hold this happy thought for a while.
Dear Hunter, I’ve been mulling over what will go in this letter to you – what I will inscribe as formal recollection of your life while you were inside me, which was, of course, the only life on earth that you knew. I wonder what it must have been like for you. Did you know you were a part of me? Did you sense happiness when our family laughed together, anxiety when I was yelling at Gwen on the basketball court from my seat in the bleachers? Did you feel adventure at the change of attitude when we flew to Chile and did you note the change in speech sounds when I spoke Spanish at least half the time during that week? Did you have favorite foods? Did your tummy seem particularly satisfied after I ate a big bowl of ice cream? I hope you’ll answer all of these curiosities for me someday. I don’t recall the first time I felt you move, but it was somewhere in the fifth month. One night I was watching TV in bed and I had an excruciating electrical pain that shot on the side of my belly. I imagined that you had tripped over a nerve or something. Later in child birth classes, I learned it was a round ligament stretching – not caused by any movement on your part.
You were a very cooperative baby â€“ most active when we would read Gwen to sleep and then quiet most of the night. Without a doubt, my most cherished memory of your life was the few precious minutes during which we saw you in action via an ultrasound. Cousin Kristie was an ultrasound tech at Baylor in Dallas and she offered to scan us. I so wish we had known we could have videotaped that. All of our faces were frozen in smile and eyes glued to the monitor as we watched you in action. It appeared you were sleeping fitfully. You yawned a few times and Kristie snapped a picture while your mouth was open. It looked like the mummy, from the movie of the same name, when he opens his mouth and pours out a sand storm. Yep, not the most flattering image, but priceless and precious to me nonetheless. Those minutes were sheer bliss to me and to Daddy. It was then that Aunt Violet learned you were a boy. We wanted to know your sex, but more so, we wanted the surprise of opening the mystery package on your birthday. Gwen was eaten up with curiosity so we made a deal with her that on December 1st, she could find out if she promised not to tell a soul. We all had our doubts as to whether intentionally or unintentionally
she would “let it slip” to someone. We will never hesitate to trust Gwen with a secret again. For more than a month and despite some pressure from a few folks, she kept the secret that you were Hunter James and not our choice of names had you been a girl, Ashlan Rosaleigh. During the final weeks of your life, we all grew very impatient to see you. You were due on New Year’s Day, so we fretted the whole holiday season about the possible timing of your arrival. Would you come on the day of Gwen’s Christmas dance recital? Would we have to take our stockings to the birthing center and open presents on the day after Christmas? (For your sake, I did not want you to be born on Christmas.) Would we spend New Year’s Eve in labor, watching the ball drop between contractions? Would we get the 2004 tax break or be the first baby in 2005? Each passing day, those cares drifted and we were left with plain ole impatience. I went on several walks in those final days of waiting on you, just me and you and the dogs. On my walks I worried about how I would manage all my responsibilities – my new job as editor, Gwen’s schooling and a newborn. I envisioned you in the cradle next to my desk and nursing you with a snugly wrap while I typed.
All foolishness – as were my many concerns about some delivery complication that would result in a big hospital bill. Foolishness that robbed me of the joy of being with you, of singing to you and tapping out rhythms for you. There’s so much I didn’t do that I would have done had realized it was my only time with you. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, I go to so much effort to redirect my mind away from these memories, but now I’ll let myself go back to the dark place and look around and contemplate it in order to preserve these memories for the day – years, maybe decades, from now – when I lose clarity of recollection. On Sunday, January 2nd, I began running a fever while sitting in a meeting of Gwen’s dance company. Out of sheer ignorance – inexcusable ignorance – I didn’t think too much of it, not even enough to purchase a thermometer to see how high the fever was. And as if that is not reckless enough, I let it go unabated for almost 24 hours. That Sunday evening, I did see the midwife and mentioned my symptoms to her. To her shame, she didn’t check my temperature either. With that said, I must also admit that I have no idea if that had any relevance in your demise. But I do know now that a fever is a high-risk factor for group B strep infection in neonates. I took some Tylenol that night.
Monday in the early morning, around 4 a.m., I woke up and went to the kitchen – the last time for a long time I would go there in the middle of the night without trepidation. I ate a bowl of cereal and sat on the couch and felt at peace like I knew you’d be along shortly and I was ready and very calm about it. The next morning, I slept late and then stayed in bed even after waking. I shifted positions – no small feat – and my water broke. I calmly cleaned up a bit and then went to tell your daddy who became quite nervous as soon as he realized what I said. Within about 90 minutes, we were in the birthing center and I was getting IV antibiotics. Anita, the midwife, said she felt like it was the work of the “Great Spirit” that my water broke and we would have time to get antibiotics on board. I felt the same – very confident that God was directing everything just as it should be. They didn’t check me in at that time because labor was not really progressing much. So we got a room at Motel 6 across the street and waited there until time to return for another dose of antibiotics.
The next time I went in, my fever was high – 102ºF – and labor was still slow-going. We stayed for a while but then went back again to Motel 6 with instructions to return in time for the next dose of antibiotics. The next time we came back was in the middle of the night and we stayed. I was still not very dilated and contractions did not seem to be growing in intensity or coming quicker. I tried walking, time in the hot tub – which was miserable when I got out with the shivers. It was just about this time that you died – around 7:30 a.m. After I got out of the tub and dressed, the nurse took our vitals and your heartbeat had dropped, I think it was 119. During your life, it had always been around 130, so 119 didn’t seem too low. Anita told Daddy and me that we needed a plan. It had been 20 hours since my water broke. We said at 8 a.m. we would go to the hospital. They made me a cup of tea and we sat in the comfy arm chairs talking about snakes. Then the nurse came to check our vitals and there was no heartbeat for you. There we sat sipping tea and telling stories as you slipped into God’s hands – no ceremony, no panic, no nothing – you were just gone. The
nurse moved me to the bed to try to find your heartbeat; she looked for three to four minutes. Anita said, “We need to go,” so we packed up and drove so St. Edward’s Mercy – just five minutes away. Daddy was obviously nervous and Gwen was in tears. I told her we didn’t need to be upset yet. I was just not accepting that you could be dead. It just was NOT a possibility to me. At St. Edwards, they quickly put a fetal monitor on your head and found a pulse. I asked the nurse to call down to the registration desk where Daddy was and let him know they had a pulse – which she did. I was so relieved. Then they hooked me up to the monitor and saw that my pulse was 113 – the same pulse they had registered for you. The fetal monitor had picked up my pulse through you but no pulse for you. My chest is tight as I write this- just as it was that moment. An ultrasound was ordered and Dr. Marvin had arrived by that time and he did the ultrasound. He found no movement and an unexplained black mass in your middle – to this day I’m not sure what that was. Nothing was ever said about it and it didn’t seem
to show up in any of the test results or the autopsy – but at the time, we all saw it and Dr. Marvin had no explanation for it. Dr. Marvin gave up looking for a heartbeat but said something to the effect that he wouldn’t pronounce you dead until the ultrasound tech confirmed his results. So I waited in disbelief. In the meantime, Daddy had come up to the room and learned that you had no heartbeat. He immediately started sobbing and Gwen had been weeping the whole time since we got into the car to go to the hospital. I had no tears though, only groans, until the ultrasound tech gave up and put her cart back in order and left. That was the last chance for the whole thing to have been just a scare, an interesting labor story. She gave up and there was no hope left and I realized God was not going to work a miracle; God was not going to pull me through my own stupidity this time. God was gone – as C.S. Lewis says, I was knocking on the door and though I could feel Him just on the other side – He wouldn’t answer – He was silent – no help for Donna this time. “WHY?” I thought that word a million times a day over the next
month or more. WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY? WHY?
My tears finally came as the ultrasound tech rolled away my last hope. Lots of tears – hand in hand with Daddy and Sissy – we missed you. I asked Gwen to tell us who you were; only she knew. She said, “Do I have to?” – such a heavy burden for a young child. She told us you were Hunter James. We might as well have been on Mars at that time. I felt so alone – like it was my little family to battle the greatest enemy the Universe has ever known – death. We’d lost and we knew it. So small, so alone.
Then a rush of rational, logistic concerns: I have a dead baby inside of me. What’s to be done about it? I will be forever grateful to Dr. Marvin for the advice he gave us just then. He told us to see you and hold you. It is my greatest regret – the greatest I’ll ever have – that I did not take greater advantage of the time with your body that we had in the hospital. I would have opened your eyes. I would have unrolled you from the blanket they had you in. I would have held your hand and kissed your feet. I would have taken pictures of us together. I would have spoken to you, sang to you, told you I love you and run my fingers through your hair. All this and more I would have spent hours doing until they insisted I give you up. I would have brought you home and laid your body in the bassinette with the blue bunny bumper pad I made just for you. Just one week later- with the perspective of one brief week – I would have done all that. But on that day, with my unfamiliarity and ill-conceived ideas about death – I can think of no more apt way to say it – it freaked me out! I have experienced surreal and it is no longer a term I would employ lightly. Surreal is going through the pain of childbirth –
of a nine-pound, six-ounce baby – knowing the baby you’re birthing is lifeless. Surreal is the odd sensation I had as you were stuck in the birth canal – your head crowning but not making any other progress for half an hour. The sensation that you were opening and closing your eyes or mouth. It was a physical sensation like eyes blinking. Surreal is holding your dead baby. Love, Mom
It seems now that all has been said and there’s nothing more to do But in my silence – in the loneliness of my mind, I’ll just miss you… And keep missing you…
Dear Hunter, So much yet to say and it must be said quickly before it’s gone in that black hole that is my mind. And this is primarily the reason I so regret the shock of that day and how it stunned my mind into immobility. How I wish I had taken pictures – so I could have those images in front of me always. Such sad and dark moments, yet so precious to me. For the first four months after you were gone, I tried to keep my mind from visiting those places. Now I find myself rehearsing those thoughts – trying to keep them in the memory. All I have left is the memory of the warmth of the towel they wrapped you in and the weight of your body. Though you were a big baby, you felt so tiny to me. Sometime I will pick up something that is about the size your body is – always will be – and I think of you. I may cradle it or hold it up to my shoulder, but it doesn’t feel right; it is usually too light and not warm and not soft yet firm yet cuddly. I can remember that sensation, but I can’t recall what you looked like in my arms. To see you, I have to go too the image in my mind of Daddy holding you. He sat up so straight and stiff just as a person holding a newborn does. He would
look down at you in his arms and then up to me with tears in his eyes. If my heart wasn’t broken by then, it surely was as I took that in – the proud father who had waited so long to see you – so much love in his eyes mixed with sorrow instead of the joy such a moment deserves. I felt then the guilt of denying Daddy that joy. Of course, anyone would say that I am not guilty of your death – and by the laws of the land I certainly am not. I never wished such a thing for even a nanosecond, so why I would feel guilt? I should feel anger or rage but I didn’t and never have, though I have had to continue to deal with the feelings of guilt. I don’t know if Gwen really wanted to hold you or she just did so in keeping with Daddy and me. But she held you; that image is about 92 percent gone from my mind. Then the nurses took you and did God knows what with you. I’m not sure if it was just then, it probably was, that the head nurse took pictures of you, the one I have on my desk. God bless that woman for that and making plaster casts of your hand and foot. We have sent those off to be bronzed and I’m praying they come back undamaged. I don’t like the idea of holding the cold metal, but
it will warm in my hands and we needed a medium we did not have to worry about breaking. Then a nurse brought you back in and asked if we wanted to hold you again – and this is my most painful memory of all – we said “no.” How could I not want to hold you? That will be the only moment for the rest of my life that I would not want to hold you. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, It’s been more than a month since I last wrote. We’ve been on vacation, as I hope you know. I would like to think you were with us in the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon and Arches, etc. But I think that death probably separates us from this earth and, if anything, you may be able to hear our prayers at times – when they come from the deepest places in our hearts and souls – when they come with tears of sincerity and imploring. It’s from this possibility that I continue to write you, praying God will let you know your mother’s heart. We got a baby goat. It is still bottle-fed. It’s very cute and it soothes me in a way as an outlet for some of the mothering I’d thought I’d be doing right now. Zipper the kid follows me everywhere, just as you would have, and longs to be with me every moment. My heart aches because he can’t come inside.
After you were born, we stayed only about three hours more at the hospital. Getting in the car seemed so wrong. It just didn’t seem real to have been through what we had been through in the last 24 hours and then just get in the car, drive through a deli to get some dinner and head home – with nothing. I was numb, which is exactly what I needed to be. I came home, got in bed and I have no idea what happened next – for about three days – until we had to go to Missouri for your burial. My mom, your Nanny, was there – though she had said she could not make it for your birth, she was able to be with me after your death. Nanny called about a dozen of our closest friends, or those who needed to know for one reason or another, and emailed the rest. Immediately the condolences started coming in – so many asking, “What can I do?” In my mind I replied that unless they could bring you back, there was nothing they could do. I was so ashamed and broken. I didn’t want people to send things like flowers. I felt those things would only intensity my feelings.
But there was one group that didn’t get that message – Gwen’s dance company – and they responded with so many thoughtful gifts, from meals to plants, money, and one gave a porcelain figure of a butterfly perched on a flower. We have set this on top of your memorial box that Daddy made for your things – locks of hair, precious strands of the rarest matter on earth. All of that came after we got back from your funeral in Missouri. I didn’t hesitate about where you would be buried and didn’t even ask Nanny for permission to use one of her plots in Union Hill. I am glad that there was a place for you where you could be with others of you own name, though I don’t like being so far from your body. It’s been three months since we’ve visited your grave and that adds to my sadness, but is not feasible to go frequently. Maybe that’s good anyway as I don’t want to think of you as being there but rather in heaven. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, Easily the two worst days of my life were the day of your death and the day of your burial. We stayed the night before your burial in a hotel in West Plains which your Aunt Juli and Uncle James Ginn provided for us. The hospital had given Daddy and me some sleeping pills for these first nights without you and though I took them, I could not sleep. I spent hours in the dark thinking about your little body being in a building a few blocks away. Daddy had gone earlier that evening to the funeral home to arrange some things in your casket. I couldn’t stand the thought of putting you in a cold January ground so we brought you a blanket and a stuffed puppy and a picture of your family. It was very crowded in your 19-inch box. I was upset by that – that your box was two inches shorter than you. Neither Daddy nor I knew to ask for anything different, but I saw some weeks later that we could have ordered a 24-inch casket. I’m sorry for that. On the Saturday of your burial, we were allowed an hour to view you and then we moved to the cemetery for the burial. I can’t recall just who was there for the viewing, but I think it was just
Nanny, Grandpa Hunter, Juli, James, Gwen, Daddy and me. And I think for the burial Tammy, Felicia, Chris (Felicia’s boyfriend at the time), K.C., Martha and Bob Jones (James’s parent) were the only others to join us. We had not really invited anyone and only wanted our closest family there. Your Uncle James Schillinger, for whom you were given the middle name James, was trying to make it from California but his flight was cancelled due to inclement weather or something to that effect, and he was not able to make it. I was in a good deal of physical discomfort to add to the emotional torture of the day. And the day matched our moods with thick, gray skies. At the viewing, I pulled up a chair to the table where they had your casket; you looked different, and of course, heavily made up, but still cute and very much mine and Daddy’s son. You have Daddy’s hairline and your hair is surprisingly dark and so soft. I kept caressing it. I wanted so much to hold you but I couldn’t because of embalming. Finally, I picked up your casket and sat it on my lap. I felt so good to be holding you if even that way. I was
actually content there. The time flew by and soon it was time to let them seal your casket and transport you to Union Hill – about 15 miles away. Gwen went with Juli and James, while Daddy and I went for a cup of coffee at the Huddle House. How absurd to be sitting drinking coffee on a cold Saturday, as if we were just any couple, while actually waiting for a few minutes to pass between our baby’s viewing and burial. I sat thinking, as the warm liquid worked its way down my throat, that just now, they were sealing my son in a box that is guaranteed for 100 years – as if that is supposed to offer me some comfort. Daddy and I were the last to arrive at Union Hill. We got out of the car and walked about two steps when Daddy turned and started crying saying, “I don’t want to do this.” We held each other for just a minute and I probably tried to say something to comfort him. Daddy and I have taken turns being strong. I’ve read this about other couples, too, and I think it must be a design or a pattern for love and grief. I was strong in that moment for Daddy, but mostly throughout the month of January, it was Daddy who was strong for me.
The brief ceremony was very touching. Grandpa Hunter started his remarks with a Mother Teresa story which culminated in her telling God, “You’ve got a lot of explaining to do” – and that is how we all felt. Why God? Why? Just before we concluded, we sang a couple of choruses – slightly modified for you – of Braham’s Lullaby. I think Tammy and Felicia carried it but I sang the whole way through, choking with sobs – there were as many sobs as notes sang, but I wanted to sing to you as I had daydreamed so often of doing. Then it was over. People hugged us and we had to walk away. Separated for the rest of my life from my son. What can be harder? I Love You, Hunter. Mom
Dear Hunter, After your burial, we all went over to Nanny’s and had sandwiches. I was physically and emotionally numb as my nieces and sisters, mother and Grandpa Hunter buzzed around making sandwiches, eating, chatting. It was only slightly more sedate than any other family gathering. I would have liked to shout at them at the top of my lungs, “Hey, everyone, a little reverence, please. I just buried my son! Would someone, anyone mind talking to me about my baby?” Having been in that same awkward place before myself, I don’t blame them. None of them had ever lost anyone so dear to them as a child. (Though it would be only two and half months more until Grandpa Hunter and Nanny could really relate – when Grandma died.) Grandma Hunter sat babbling incoherently in a chair near me. I couldn’t help but think how unfair it was that death took you and she still had life when even she herself in her former right mind would have gladly taken your place in heaven that day.
We didn’t stay long. Daddy and I drove home, leaving Gwen to stay a few days with Nanny. On the way home I read a book by a woman who had lost two babies. It was the first of several I would read to understand, be comforted, keep my sanity and God knows what else I was trying to accomplish by reading those books. I must have read about eight or ten in all. I’m still working though the last two. I don’t read as much “grief literature” now as I did in those first days. I felt a real need then, and now, I read at my convenience and much takes priority over reading. In those first weeks though, and especially those quiet days without Gwen at home, the books calmed me – they were essential. Daddy sheltered me from the phone calls and from having to leave the house for any reason in those first weeks. In the afternoon, just before dusk, I would ask him to take me for a ride. We just drove around our house and maybe in to town to rent a movie or get gas. I always stayed in the car. Daddy fixed dinner most nights; I was working and he wasn’t yet in school so it was also an equitable distribution of labor. At night, we watched movies and took sleeping pills to fall asleep.
Pastor Bill and Debbie Allen were the only ones to visit. My heart was so wide open during those weeks; I spoke to few people, but with those to whom I did talk, I didn’t restrain my tears – more correctly, I could not restrain them. For at least three weeks more, tears crept down my face all day long. When Gwen came home, she brightened up the house considerably, and for her sake, I tried very hard to continue our routine as usual. Daddy carted her to her activities until he started school and couldn’t any longer, then I started to take her places again, but I would just sit in the car waiting for her at Girls Scouts, dance, etc. At night, after we read stories, and as I sat in the dark on Gwen’s bed waiting to hear her sleep breathing begin, I felt then more than most times throughout the day, that I would just go mad. I had such a desperate longing for you. Never had I wanted something so badly for which there was no recourse, no way to satisfy the longing, no way to make it better. So many disappointments in life end up having happy endings. But this
cannot. There is no way to bring about a happy ending for Hunter Schillinger. Your story will always read, “Never opened his eyes.” Of course, you are now in the presence of pure good and can only be peaceful and happy and you are where all men would choose to be. So, in the big picture, you missed only the opportunity to have your soul stolen from God. But it seems you must have missed more. Why could we love life so much if there were not more good in it than bad? And why would God have us to live life if we were all better off dying at birth to immediately be with Him? Yes, I think you were robbed of something and I’m the one who denied you. My body carried the deadly bacteria and God allowed it to take you as a punishment to me. I’m so sorry. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, Today is November 27, about 10 months since those first weeks, and though my life is quite different in a number of ways – thanks to your life – the grief is not different. My heart feels at times as if it will burst. Some days the tears are just at hand and have to be chocked back. Some days I don’t even try and I just let myself cry. I feel better for a day or maybe even up to a week, and then the grief has mounted up so I must let it flow again. I’ve been setting time aside on Sundays to work on this journal to you and let some of the grief out. In a way, I feel it cheapens the experience to schedule a time, but plenty of unscheduled tears come as well. Twice in the last month, I had major cries in public – very humiliating and proof to me that I’m nowhere near healed of the hurt. Once was at the memorial service that St. Edwards Hospital had for babies who had died. As they ran a slide show of each of the babies’ names and their life and death dates, I cried harder and harder the closer we came to your name. Then outside when we released butterflies, I opened the box and my butterfly was dead – not just sleeping – dead. That really upset me. An African (or maybe Caribbean) nun came over and hugged me and I cried with heavy sobs on her shoulder
for several minutes. I was so thankful for her as I was by myself that day. Then about two weeks later, in church one night, we were supposed to break up into small groups and pray for missionaries. I just knew I could not pray out loud – anything that personal opens the floodgate to my emotions. Just thinking of what might happen, I started to cry and when I heard the first sob escape, I couldn’t control myself and I cried for a long time – like half an hour. Debbie Allen stayed with me. As your birthday approaches, and the holidays, my feelings are intensifying. I can’t help but think to the hope we had at this time last year and how, in retrospect, life seemed so innocent – impervious to sorrow and grief – to the death of a child. Much of this year has been spent trying to recapture hope and building faith. I have much to do yet and I have a strong desire to be restored. Things can never be the same, but I know I can have joy again – I can see that. I still hurt too much for it just yet, but I know it’s possible. And I want a joy that is far better than I had before – than I’ve ever had. I think back on my pregnancy with shame that I was not joyful at that time. At that moment, I
had more to be happy about than ever, but I literally moped around and my face was glum. I was like Eyore the donkey. I remember last Christmas – what a perfect day – and though I felt its perfection and I had a deep contentment, I had no joy. What happened to the sprite young woman I was? I cannot pinpoint when or where I lost her. I would fool myself into thinking my former glee was immaturity and that becoming stoic is a result of maturing. But I reject that now and feel ready to break through my crust. I want to shine again. I recently read an article about a woman who lost her husband, and then not long after, her only child. Yet the article said of her, “…presence, humor, honesty, joy and sadness pouring through a shattered heart. Some people are darkened by unbearable grief, others become incandescent.” That’s what I want and I’m so sure you would want for me – for your life to have polished me to a fine shine. I can’t imagine I’ll ever not feel hurt – the wound your death caused will always remain open – but like one of those people (like Christopher Reeves) who actually become better people as a result of some permanent damage, I want your life and death to transform me
from a pretty decent person to an exceptional person â€“ one with a complete joy, made complete by the full understanding of sorrow. I feel ready for that process to begin. I pray for that to begin. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, When you first left us, when that full understanding set in, I felt like God had abandoned me. Though I can’t say I’ve ever heard God speaking to me like a voice, I’ve felt God’s presence just us you would if you were at home in one room and someone, like Daddy, were in another room. That feeling is quite distinct from the feeling of being alone in the house. Alone is how my spirit felt after you died. Where is God in those times? Is He like the parent who closes the child up in her room while she cries the tears of anger, frustration and humiliation after being punished? As I began to read my grief books, I felt the door to my room of spiritual isolation crack open, but God was still nowhere I could find. In those first weeks, and perhaps up to about two months, I felt very alone and afraid. I was scared to leave my bed at night. I wanted more lights on while we slept and I was even afraid to go to the bathroom alone – though I made myself do that much. The fear really surprised me because I am generally a courageous person. I feel fear, but I overcome it easily enough. This was different though, as if all that other fear I ever felt was like watching a scary movie, not really anything to be afraid of,
but now, the source of the fear was real. My baby was dead; God has allowed it; anything could happen to me. Finally one Sunday night, I got up the wherewithal to go to church again. The pastor was out of town and Deacon Bob Fraser was filling in. Bob read a passage from a fiction book about angels and spiritual warfare. Then he led us though six or more scriptures about angels. I have never given much thought to angels though I do believe they have protected me before. One time Iâ€™ll never forget was when Grandma Anderson, Gwen and I were on our way home from Mexico and we had driven all day and were looking for the same hotel we had stayed at on our way into Mexico. I had been intensely worried, thinking I had passed it because the road conditions were poor and it was getting dark. I didnâ€™t know where else we could stay the night and if I had missed it, there was not a town for a long time more. Finally we came to the hotel and when we got settled in, Gwen crashed in the bed, exhausted from the trip. Grandma was
taking her customary sweet time eating some dinner when she looked over at me and asked, “Where’s that other girl who was with us”? Thinking that in her Alzheimic mind she had forgotten Gwen and just didn’t notice her sleeping in the bed, I said “Gwen? She’s right here sleeping.” Grandma said, “Not Gwen, I know Gwen, I’m talking about that other girl who was in the back seat with Gwen.” As the theme from “The Twilight Zone” played in the background of my mind, Grandma and I went back and forth for a while about this fourth person – both thinking the other was crazy. I don’t think either of us were. I think Grandma just saw something I didn’t. The night after the church service about angels, when I got into bed and fear started to creep in again like a dry-ice stage fog, I prayed to God to send me an angel to do battle with my fear. Instantly, it worked. I truly believe God sent the angel I asked for – I hardly see how I could have cured myself of a fear worse
than any other I’d ever known with just those simple words. And though I still feel fear – like I have all though my life – I am not afraid anymore. I call on God to send an angel and, at times, I unmask fear by myself for what it is: an insidious tool of evil, a tool to rob me of the joy in life, of trust in God, of a strong relationship with God. Unmasking the tyrant completely diffuses it. With that success and sign that I was not alone spiritually, I began to see that God had been there – just outside the door – just like a loving parent is as the child progresses through the wide range of emotions that result from punishment. One thing I earnestly wanted to know from God was, WHY? Why had God allowed you to die, at best, or at worst, why had He taken you from me? I’ve read so many places that God does not often answer “why” because we are often not able to accept the answer. We want to argue with God. If God were to say, “Because it was best for you and best for Hunter,” I might reject that as impossible. How could not having my son for at least a few days not be better for me? Could we not at least have seen your eyes? Actually, I still wonder these things, but God has
revealed to me why He didn’t answer my daily prayer during my pregnancy for a healthy baby. The next time I went to church, Pastor Bill preached from the book of II Samuel about David’s infidelity with Bathsheba. He read some scripture and stopped, but I let my eyes trail a little further, as is my custom to give the selected scripture more context. Here’s what I read: “‘The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.’ After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had born to David, and he became ill… on the seventh day, the child died” (II Sam.12:1318). Reading that was as close to a revelation as I’ll ever come, I’m sure. It was just the kind of sky-opening sensation one would expect of a revelation. Over the next days and weeks, I put the pieces together enough to figure out the big picture which I’m still working on. As the months have passed, I’ve filled in more pieces, but I know I still don’t have the complete picture because just tonight as I was reading the scripture to copy in this journal,
I picked up another piece of the puzzle. The big question that was answered for me the night I read those words was that God does cause things like the death of a child. And I saw through that scripture and others later on, that He takes away our children to punish us. This is something Nanny doesn’t want to believe – that a wholly good God could cause death, or use death, and especially that of an innocent child. But if the Bible is to be believed, I guess it is so, though surely not every child’s death is a punishment for someone living – and maybe hardly any are. When I think about it, it’s a pretty masterful strategy. The child is instantly with God and suffers nothing. All the suffering belongs to the family left behind. It is certainly an attentiongetter and as consequences go, not as harsh as they could be. For instance, what if you had suffered? I have some peace in knowing, as my friend Lorraine pointed out, all you knew of life was warmth and well-being. Once I had my answer to my “why” question, it didn’t take long to figure out what sin I was being punished for – sexual sin. Of course, that thought had rushed to my mind early on only days
after you were gone. But so much I of what I read and so many people told me not to take on the guilt. And I think God didn’t want me to feel guilt either. When a loving parent disciplines, it is not with the intent of making the child feel guilty. Nonetheless, guilt is one of the feelings the crying child alone in her room must work though before she inches her way out to find her parent, apologize, restore the harmony and determine in her heart to do better. And so, although I felt a great relief and even encouragement at God speaking to me through His word, now I had to sit and think about all I had done wrong and what it had cost me: How I broke a promise to God, I caved in to temptation and weakness that God had already shown me quite clearly was not in my best interest and how I had “given great opportunities to the enemies of the Lord to despise and blaspheme Him.” I thought about the damage I may have caused to someone else’s life by having a position of influence in my church in Corpus Christi while I was living in sin (a literal expression). Only God knows how Satan used that hypocrisy to his advantage. Love, Mom
Dear Hunter, In this new year I’m reading a daily devotional by Dr. Robert Schueller that, strangely, seems more applicable to life last year than this year. Yet I know I could not have benefited from it last year – my grief was too thick at this time last year. One year ago today, we buried you. The devotional of the last couple of days has asked the question: Where is God in tragedy? It noted that when tragedy hits, we feel alone spiritually – it can seem that way. Schueller says God is out finding people to comfort us – to use in our help. I can certainly see how true that was in our case. It seemed every day in those first days without you someone was doing something extraordinarily kind for us. The funeral home in Fort Smith charged us nothing to prepare your body and drive it to Missouri. An anonymous donor paid all your funeral expenses. People gave us money, food, cards, gifts, etc. Of course, that all tapered off eventually and round about the time we started back to church, I was feeling God so much more that I guess He didn’t needed people as much to show His presence.
Once I had my revelation, I went through a new numbness and pain in coming to terms with my role in your death. During this time, God used the employees of Hobby Lobby to show Himself once more. I had taken your funeral picture in to be framed. When I went back to pick it up – by myself – the lady brought it out and showed it to me and said, “Is this your baby?” I said “Yes.” She replied, “We’re not going to charge you for this – it’s so sad.” I looked blankly at her for about two seconds then burst into tears – one of my few times ever to actually burst into tears. I had to go to the bathroom to collect myself. It was a significant gift these strangers were giving – valued at about $175. (I had spared no expense in choosing just the right frame and matting.) On the way home, I cried again as I realized this was God’s way of saying to me, “I love you still. Yes, you screwed up but I love you and there is still hope for you.”
I suddenly had an urgent curiosity to see what happened to David after his son died. I had not read past the verse where David says in resignation of his son’s death, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” When I got home, I quickly sought out my Bible and found the next verse – the very next verse – to be hope for me. “Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her, and lay with her, and she bore a son, and called his name Solomon. And the Lord loved him…”All that in one verse. That said to me that God will give me another child and it will be a great child with a great destiny and it will be a child God loves. I have held to this hope all this year and have been somewhat disappointed each month when I realize I’m not pregnant. Just now, reading this verse again, I see something else. In one verse, David comforts his mourning wife, conceives a child, Bathsheba bears the child and they name him. I see that though it was what immediately followed the death of David’s baby, it was not immediate. The verse spans perhaps a year, perhaps two or more. And so, I must be patient.
Whereas around August and September, I really wanted to be pregnant, I’m glad now to have observed a year of life without you. I think I would have felt ungrateful, shallow, flippant, guilty, etc., to have moved on so quickly from something so significant as was your life and death.
After finding hope that day, I found myself thinking about turning more to God’s words for comfort. At first it was very haphazard, or I should say, seemingly haphazard. One day, I opened the book at random and read: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back.” Isaiah 54:7. I didn’t need anything else, that one verse was God speaking specifically to me and it’s a promise I’ve held to in times of fear – as I continue to battle the messages of fear that start up at every opportunity: “Maybe this will be the last time you see your daughter alive.” “Maybe your husband won’t make it home.”
“Maybe you’ll be struck down with some terminal illness.” These are empty threats of the devil that serve only to make me fearful. I combat them with, “God is bringing me back.” That first Bible-opening experience was followed by several others that applied to me so personally. The second verse I came upon in the same random way (opening the Bible with my eyes closed and letting my finger land on the page before I open my eyes) was Isaiah 60:10b, “Though in anger I struck you, in favor I will show you compassion.” I thought this book of Isaiah must be full of this kind of verse! I was surprised later to learn that it’s actually a pretty depressing book of dreaded prophecies. Over the next days and weeks, I randomly read so many verses that their application to me was defying the statistical possibility of coincidence. I decided that if God was speaking so clearly to me through His word, I probably should start reading it more often. Just at this time our pastor, Bill Allen, was preaching much on how important it is to for God to be able to speak without having to shout to be heard through the clutter that’s filling our minds most of the day – how we must spend time daily with God to grow spiritually. I thought for a couple of weeks about
how to begin my own quiet time with God, but nothing occurred to me. I finally decided to just start from the beginning of the Bible in an effort to get to know God better. Who was this all-good force who could punish me in such a way? What has resulted over the last year is an understanding that God is my father. He loves me because I’m His child – and no parent needs any more reason than that to love. And true to His role, He has infinite compassion for me and mercy on me. He wants the best for me and with that goal for my soul in mind, He sometimes has to punish me. For a child’s own good, there are some things that simply cannot be overlooked with mercy. Taking you from me was an extremely effective punishment, the stronger faith I have today is proof positive of that. Maybe God takes children mostly when it would be a particularly effective punishment. Maybe this is the explanation for the irony of children being born to people who don’t appreciate them and children who are abused and neglected not being taken from the parents who torture them. To the drugged-out or abusive mother – the one who cares more about
her next fix for a physical need than about her child – losing a child wouldn’t be the same as it is to me. God also knew that though it would be an ever-lasting bitter pill, this discipline would not drive me from Him. It was very harsh, but not more than my soul could bear. In fact, it has been my salvation. I can only speculate at how my relationship with God would have been had you lived, but I know in 39 years, I had never learned to talk to God everyday and to listen to Him everyday. The difference in the relationship I had before and the one I have now is hard to qualify. Before, concepts like “trust,” “sovereignty of God” and “faith” were words I understood intellectually, but I know them intimately now. I had faith – but a thin faith, not one that can be described accurately with the word “substance.” Now I can sense the thickness of my faith, like a protective coating around me and my family. And I’m so glad for this – your gift to mother has been a Heavenly Father.
Recall I started reading the Bible from the beginning. I am in the Psalms now and it just so happens that Psalms 116 is my reading for today, your birthday. As I started to read, I immediately recognized the first verse – it was the opening of my wedding vows: “I love the Lord because he hears my prayers and answers them. Because he bends down and listens, I will pray as long as I breathe!” God gave me that verse for my vows. When I was preparing my vows, I wanted to acknowledge God’s role in bringing Daddy and me together, so I cracked open the Bible and thumbed through Psalms and when I’d found it, I knew it. I copied it down and shut the book. I didn’t read beyond that opening verse in Psalms 116. On the first anniversary of your life and death, I finally read the next verse and the rest of the Psalm: “Death stared me in the face – I was frightened and sad. Then I cried, ‘Lord, save me!’ How kind he is! How good he is! So merciful, this God of ours. The Lord protects the simple and the childlike… He has saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling. I shall live! Yes, in his presence here on earth.”
The Psalmist speaks of his own narrowly escaped death â€“ but I can read this thinking of your death. The death of someone you love so much, like your child, is the abyss of fear and sadness. And I sometimes think that when David wrote about the valley of the shadow of death, he may have been referring to the time when his son died.
Psalms 107 has a few different scenarios by which people find their way back to God, maybe every child of God can relate to one of them. Here is mine (verses 17-22): â€œSome became fools through their rebellious ways and suffered affliction because of their iniquities. They loathed all food and drew near the gates of death. Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for [all
people]. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.” Like the Psalmist, I too have cried to the Lord to pour out this balm of comfort over the large hole in my heart. I cry out to God whenever I need this comfort and I instantly feel the soothing of His “medicine” healing me. I have this same heartache to bear each year on January 4 and so many times throughout the year – every year until we are together. But thanks to God for His love that will carry me through. I pray that I will continue to seek God’s comfort – that nothing will turn my heart from God. I want eternal life, but even more than my own eternal bliss and soul’s salvation, I want to see my son. Please be there to greet me when I arrive. Love, Mom
Donna Lee Schillinger writes letters to her stillborn son, Hunter, in hopes of finding a way to incorporate him into her life and process he...
Published on Jan 24, 2009
Donna Lee Schillinger writes letters to her stillborn son, Hunter, in hopes of finding a way to incorporate him into her life and process he...