It’s October 5, 1997, and I’m pregnant with my first child.
My husband, Jon, and I decided to forego the gender reveal at our ultrasound, but I’m 100% sure it’s a girl and her name is Hannah.
It’s a spectacular day in Jacksonville, Florida where we live. I imagine this is what weather will be like in heaven…sunny skies, 75 degrees, low humidity. Additionally, I’ve had an amazing pregnancy. The hormone-gods were all smiling down on me. My skin is clear for the first time since I was prepubescent. My hair is thick and shiny. My mood is consistently joyful (weird).
It’s a good day. I am 29 years old.
We are on our way to the hospital on this Sunday afternoon. I feel guilty because I took Jon away from a Jaguars football game to drive me there. I’m not in labor. I’m only 33 weeks along. But I haven’t felt the baby move in a long time and I’m scared. I apologize no less than 10 times on the way there. I’m sure everything is fine.
When we get to the hospital, one of the nurses makes a sarcastic remark calling me a “nervous first time mom.” Did she just roll her eyes at me? I slip into a hospital gown and allow her to hook me up to the fetal heart monitor. She also turns on the football game for Jon. Good. Now he won’t miss it. We’ll be out of here in no time.
She says almost nothing. Nothing bad. Nothing good. But she asks me to drink some Coke for the sugar and caffeine. I tell her I’m not drinking caffeine during my pregnancy, but she says she wants the baby to move.
For the next several hours, I lay on my left side, strapped to the fetal heart monitor. Occasionally, the nurse pops in to tell me the doctor is on the way, but he’s with another patient in labor and that takes priority, obviously. I mean, if something was wrong with my baby, he would be with me…right?
Just to make sure, I ask her if everything is okay. She doesn’t really answer me. She just repeats that the doctor will look at everything when he gets there. It won’t be long.
After four hours on the hospital bed watching the gentle blips of the fetal heart monitor, my doctor finally arrives. He bursts into the room, and immediately begins scrolling through the yards of paper that reveal Hannah’s heart rate since we arrived. The look on his face says something is wrong. He stands up and announces, “We need to get this baby out NOW.”
Suddenly, the room is full of hospital staff and they are wheeling me into surgery. I start crying and tell Jon to call my mom. They place a mask over my face and tell me to take deep breaths. I’m having an emergency c-section.
The next conscious thought I have is that my throat hurts. I think I hear someone say it’s a boy??? Jon is telling me my mom is on a plane from Toledo to Jacksonville and will be here later. What is happening?
That day, I give birth not to a girl, but a boy. Not Hannah, but Noah. He’s 6 ½ weeks early and weighs only 3 pounds. He has extensive brain damage from a lack of oxygen in utero. They show me a Polaroid picture of him—I can’t see him in person yet. He’s very sick, they say. I have a crude incision across my abdomen. I throw up and I scream out in pain.
This is my introduction to motherhood. Nothing about this is what I expected.
Fast forward three weeks.
I’m home warming up baked chicken and green beans from a disposable metal tray—one of several meals dropped off from friends, neighbors, and people from church I have never met. Everyone is bringing me food, which is kind and thoughtful, considering I am not yet cleared to drive a car, but Noah remains in the NICU 30 minutes from my home.
The phone rings and it’s someone from the hospital asking if I can come right away. Noah has had a seizure and the doctors would like to meet with Jon and me now. I leave my cold dinner on the counter and we drive.
We are seated in an ugly yellow conference room around a table with doctors and nurses and two of our pastors. The only décor are the images of Noah’s brain displayed on a lighted board attached to the wall.
They explain the damage from a brain hemorrhage has left Noah brain dead.
He can’t feel pain.
He will never see,
or recognize us as mom and dad.
If he lives (which he probably won’t, they stress) we will need 24-hour-a-day nursing care for his entire life. Our pastors ask if we can have a moment alone, and I cry hot bitter tears—I’m angry and confused and profoundly sad.
We decide we can’t take him off life support. Not yet.
Three weeks later, we arrive at the hospital. I’m crying again.
Only this time, it’s tears of joy. Noah has made a dramatic and miraculous recovery. Today is the day we get to bring him home! He has passed his sight test, his hearing test, and he takes all of his feeds by bottle. He is off all life support, including oxygen. He has proven all the doctors wrong. They call him a “medical miracle.”
Finally, we become a family at home, where round-the-clock feedings, pumping breast milk, laundering burp cloths, and wearing my five-pound son in a carrier strapped to my chest are my new normal. It’s not at all what I expected, but I’m all in and I’m loving it.
I thank God for healing my son.
Eight months later, we are in Toledo celebrating my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.
Except, we are standing in the funeral home, and hundreds of people are hugging me. Noah lies next to me in a casket that looks like a wooden cradle.
We have so many questions. We don’t have a cause of death. I don’t understand any of this. Wasn’t Noah healed? How could God take my son from me while I’m begging for his healing? I don’t get it.
I can’t even talk to God, I am so disillusioned. This is not at all what I expected.
Fast forward four months.
I’m pregnant with my daughter, Rebekah. I know for sure it’s a girl this time—for real. No more surprises. I’m done with surprises.
The phone rings and it’s Dr. Shehata, the physician who performed Noah’s autopsy. He has a post mortem diagnosis and it’s not good news. Noah died from a genetic disorder, completely unrelated to his traumatic birth. Jon and I are carriers of a recessive gene mutation. Rebekah has a 25% chance of having the same disorder. In addition, Dr. Shehata has also diagnosed the cause of Noah’s trouble in utero. I have a condition with my placenta that prohibits oxygen from getting to my baby. I probably have it now. I’m devastated. This is not at all what I expected.
A month later, my mom dies,
suddenly, unexpectedly, and I find myself standing in the exact same funeral home with the exact same people filing by to hug me.
Fast forward 21 years. It’s April 2019. I’m now 50 years old.
I wake up early to get Elijah, who is 17-years-old, and Elliana, who is 12, up and off to school. I make them egg and cheese burritos—their favorite. I will let them buy lunch at school today (it’s Chick-Fil-A day!).
I kiss Jon goodbye as he heads off to work. We’ve been married for 25 years now.
I let Elijah drive to school today—he’s getting his driver’s license soon—and I remind Elliana she has drama club practice after school. We pray in the carpool line.
After I get home, I text Rebekah to say good morning. She’s just turned 20, and she lives in an apartment about 30 minutes away. She’s not sure whether she wants to return to school next semester and just got a new job.
She does not have the genetic disorder that killed Noah, thank God..
But getting from that point to this one has been an intense walk of faith.
If I could summarize my mothering journey in one phrase it would be this: Nothing about this is what I expected.
Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love being a Mom. I’m the little girl who played with baby dolls until I was 13 years old. This is what I’ve wanted my entire life. Indeed, motherhood has surprised me and changed me in ways I could have never anticipated. The good stuff is crazy-good.
But, the hard stuff…the hard stuff has often driven me down to the floor on my face, begging God for strength. It’s so much harder than what I thought it would be.
I, for one, was not prepared for the hard stuff.
In my almost 22 years of parenting, I have experienced the following:
a high-risk pregnancy
the birth of a premie
the death of a child
two adoptions (one domestic infant and one international toddler)
a diagnosis of clinical depression and anxiety in both a child and myself
an ADHD and Asperger’s diagnosis in another child (not myself)
I’ve successfully moved one child out of our home and have almost gotten a second one all the way through to adulthood (yay!). I’m fairly certain he will make it, as will his little sister behind him…though, I’ve learned the hard way, there are no guarantees in parenting.
If you are a mom who also feels blindsided by the challenges of motherhood, you will love my new podcast: The Balanced MomCast with Sandy Cooper. Each week, I discuss the challenges and joys of being a mom, and offer strategies and insight into overcoming the hard stuff.
This blog post is adapted from Episode 1, where I also tell you a little more about what you can expect from future episodes.
If you prefer reading to listening, no worries. I will post a similar adaptation of each episode here on the blog.