I was starting to emerge from the fog of newborn days. I had recovered some sleep during the past few days. Happy to be at home with this new bundle of life. She was perfect. I regained enough energy and settled into somewhat of a routine. Well, as much of a routine as you can have with a newborn baby.
The only sound I remember was Mike, my husband, telling me that until this new baby of ours was born, he had not experienced joy in the past six-and-a-half years. It was the time of day between afternoon and early evening; the sun was still out, but it had begun to lower. We were in the kitchen. I was trying to prepare dinner, and he was holding our youngest daughter, Anya, as she lay sleeping contently in his arms. She was small but looked especially so in his arms. Early evening in our house was usually a flurry of activity especially since bringing a newborn into the mix. We now had three girls and the outside sounds of laughter, tears, music, fighting, and/or homework were not in my periphery.
My first thought after hearing this confession was WOW! How did I not know this? We had shared a tragedy and yet I had no idea that the depth of his pain reached this far. Our lives had seemed more settled than they previously were. It was the Spring of 2008. We had two older girls, ages nine and eleven. We had been living in our suburban home in a nice neighborhood. His job was stable after many years of instability in the job markets due to the aftermath of September 11.
Our beautiful and very different girls had friends, participated in extracurricular activities, and appeared well-adjusted given the past tragedy. They were both so ecstatic to learn we would be adding another child to our mix, especially after experiencing my miscarriage the previous year. Hannah, the oldest, and a worrier by nature, had been tentatively excited about this new baby, but cautious due to the previous year’s miscarriage which had thrown her off kilter. Although neither one of them would admit it, I think they were both relieved to learn that their new sibling was a girl. In fact, upon hearing the news, Hannah burst into tears of happiness.
So how did I not notice the depths of Mike’s pain? Was I that self-centered, worrying too much about Olivia’s situation and my own, oblivious to my husband’s feelings?
The year 2001 started off so bright and full of promise. I was a stay-at-home mom to two beautiful girls, and we were living in a nice neighborhood. Our home was one of the smaller ones and, since the real estate market was booming, we thought this might be the time to upgrade even though we had only been living in our home for a little over two years. So, we upgraded our home and built a bigger one just a few miles from the old one. We finally moved into our new home in November 2001, a few months later than we expected, but we weathered it well.
A week after our move — while still trying to unpack and organize a house full of furniture, clothing, toys, books, and the million other things we had accumulated over the past eight years of married life — our world started to crumble. It fell apart block by block, each one appearing to be worse than the previous.
First, Olivia, three years old, was diagnosed with strabismus, an eye condition commonly referred to as crossed eyes. However, in Olivia’s case, her eyes went to the far corners instead of crossing in the center. I, too, was diagnosed with this condition at the same age and ended up having surgery to correct it. As silly as it seems now, I was devastated. I did not want my daughter to go through this as I had. The doctor recommended patching her weaker eye in hopes that the other eye would become stronger and align itself.
When we arrived home that evening, I was met by Mike in the kitchen, which was really surprising since he normally didn’t get home that early from work. I soon learned that the reason he was home was that the company he worked for had laid him off. I was shocked! I remember feeling like I had been punched in the gut. Hard!! WOW! We never saw that coming. His company hadn’t given any indication that things were going south and, in fact, he had been given the opposite impression.
Once we recovered from the shock, we pulled up our bootstraps and got to work. We didn’t tell our children what had happened since Hannah was a worrier by nature and we didn’t think she needed any extra concerns.
Mike began his job search immediately and was offered a part time consulting opportunity following Thanksgiving in New England, just a short airplane ride from our home in Virginia. He left for the job the Sunday following Thanksgiving as I held down things at home with the girls, going about our routines as if there wasn’t anything to worry about.
Two days later, on November 27, 2001, the girls and I had to attend Hannah’s “Nutcracker” rehearsal. She was so excited to finally get to do her part on stage, and she was bounding with energy. We got into the car, and as I was pulling out of my driveway, the girls were singing along to a “Blue’s Clues” CD that we had in the car. That is my last memory of the early evening.
The next thing I remember, I heard a paramedic trying to speak with me, and then I heard Hannah yelling, “MOMMY, WAKE UP! MOMMY, WAKE UP!” The paramedic asked whether anyone was sitting in the back seat of my minivan. I understood later why he had asked.
I instinctively knew something was wrong with Olivia. My memory fades in and out, but I remember waking up in the emergency room on a gurney with Hannah sitting in a chair in the room. The nurse told me that they couldn’t reach my husband on the work number I gave her but that they did leave a message on our home phone. I was so confused. I asked Hannah where her Daddy was and she reminded me that he was in New Hampshire. I apparently had given them his former employer’s number and our home number which, thankfully, was transferred to the new house. I had also given the nurse the name and number of a close friend who was on her way to accompany Olivia to a trauma center.
Once I was cleared to leave the ER, and Hannah had been taken care of, a friend drove me to the hospital where Olivia was being cared for. Ironically, Mike and I arrived at the same time. He had come home early from his trip, unbeknownst to me. We arrived in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit immediately after Olivia had been brought up from the ER.
The next morning, the chief neurosurgeon took us to a small, cold, and dark room to inform us that Olivia had a severe Traumatic Brain Injury and a fractured skull. She was still unconscious, and he did not know when or if she would wake up, and he didn’t know what her prognosis was.
Mike told me that was the moment he stopped experiencing Joy. It wasn’t a dramatic shift but one that continued to evolve over time. In fact, he hadn’t realized how profound of a loss it had been until the birth of our third baby girl. He explained that he went into survival mode at the moment the doctor told us about Olivia’s injuries. He turned his focus to getting his family better and providing for them. Because of that, he never realized that there had ever been a deficit in his feelings. Did he experience happy times during the six-and-a-half years between the accident and birth? Of course he did. But the happiness was just that. Happy feelings. No profound joy. No jubilation.
That brings me back to the question of how I missed this. I didn’t realize how much he had held back all those years. Our whole family had suffered terribly in our own ways, both physically and emotionally. We all dealt with our pain in our own ways, and his way was to suffocate any feelings of joy until a renewal of sorts occurred. This renewal came in the form of this beautiful baby girl. She has made our family complete and has given her Daddy the best gift of all — his Joy!
Obviously, the past six-and-a-half years had been spent in turmoil. We had to bring our daughter back to life. She needed to learn how to walk, talk, eat, and play all over again. She also suffered from some serious cognitive deficits, processing issues, psychological effects, and a host of other complications. We have never been told, “Your daughter will be OK.” Instead, we continually heard, “We don’t know what the prognosis is; every brain injury is different.” Or “The little girl you had before will not be the same girl who wakes up — if she wakes up. You will never know what her potential was because it’s gone!”
Obviously, as parents, these words shook us to our core, but we had to remain strong and keep on fighting for Olivia to be the best she could be.
Our family now had this new bundle of joy who had taught us so much in the few short weeks she had been alive. How much more would she be able to teach us? It is true that a birth is a time of renewal, a beginning, and something to cherish. Not only had this little baby brought new life into our family but she had also brought us something we didn’t know was missing — JOY!
Originally published at medium.com