When I was first approached about writing a blog for Anna’s Grace Foundation, I immediately said yes. What better way to honor my twin boys and give back to an organization that has done so much for me and my family.
However, during the time between my initial response and actually sitting down to put my thoughts on paper I became apprehensive. While reading through the journeys of the other families, with tears in my eyes and my mouth hanging open in anguish, I wondered how my blog would be received. The father’s experience with infant loss will always pale in comparison to the mother’s, at least in my view. I never felt our children kick in my womb or respond to the sound of my voice. I never felt them as a living part of my body.
My wife and I had experienced two perfectly normal pregnancies before we were blessed with our twin boys. Our journey was so different than a lot of the families we’ve come to know through Anna’s Grace. While our story is unique, our path to parenthood has been filled with a lot more joy than grief. However, the thing I’ve learned from each of these families, as well as our friend Monica Alley, is that each family connected with Anna’s Grace is treated with the same dignity, compassion, and respect as the next family, and the one after that, and the one after that. The fathers receive the same offers of support and condolences as the mothers do. So while I undeniably cannot speak to the depths of grief that my wife experienced from the loss of our twin boys, Gabriel and Joseph, I can speak to the unique perspective of the father. In that spirit, and in the spirit of honoring the memory of Gabriel Lee and Joseph Poleman Lockhart, here is my, and their, story…
On November 30th of 2016, my wife and I discovered that we were pregnant for a third time. Our initial reactions were mostly of shock and fear. We had a happy and healthy 23 month old son and 9 month old daughter at home that were keeping us on our toes to say the least! My wife and I try to be planners whenever possible, so we had decided that she would resume birth control after the birth of our daughter to give us some breathing room while we decided if we wanted to continue to try to expand our family. Needless to say, God had other plans!
During the time leading up to the first sonogram, we were able to talk through our initial shock and became excited at the idea of adding another bundle of joy to our family. The first ultrasound showed almost nothing that gave us pause; just one seemingly healthy and happily developing baby. The measurements were a bit off in conjunction to the estimated due date, so we were scheduled for another scan on January 18th. Our experience with the second ultrasound was much different. They discovered two babies! We were having TWINS! At that point the technician stopped and brought in our doctor who told us in a very kind but clearly concerned manner that she was going to schedule us an urgent visit and ultrasound with a different doctor who specialized in pregnancies with complications. Even though she assured us that this was standard procedure for twins, we still left the office that day with more questions and a creeping sense of dread that this experience was going to be decidedly different than our first two pregnancies.
The next ultrasound confirmed our worst fears. There were, in fact, two babies. Two babies with such severe and complicated anomalies that there was no hope for viability outside of the womb. Devastated, we sat there while our doctor gave us our options. We were still early enough in the process that we could allow him to authorize the termination of the pregnancy, or we could leave things in God’s hands and allow nature to take its course. There wasn’t anything to even consider. We knew that the best choice for our family was to leave things to God’s will.
Our doctor told us that in his 30+ year career he had seen our situation three times and each time the mother miscarried before 15 weeks, so this was our likely outcome. In the meantime, he would schedule us for an ultrasound at his office every other week until the end. He told my wife that she would likely experience a strange feeling of loss if and when something happened, so to feel free to call his office any time she wanted to check on the babies and he would work us into his schedule. We walked out of his office in a daze and headed home.
Through tears, we talked about how we would handle the particulars of this pregnancy to try to make it as painless as possible. Who would we tell, how would we plan, what kind of support would we need, what would we do about work, etc. We also promised each other that we would be there for each other throughout the process. We would be a team, pick each other up when we needed and allow each other space when we needed. It was very important to my wife and me that we do everything possible to use this experience to strengthen our faith and our relationship with each other and our children.
At this time I felt like I had no resources outside of our doctor and our family to talk to about what I was feeling. The most important thing for me was to make sure that I was the best support to my wife that I could possibly be, but I didn’t really know how to do that. Luckily, I had a good friend from back home in Tennessee who had been very outspoken about her own family’s struggles with infertility and loss. I summoned up the courage to call her and ask for help. She was an absolute blessing to me, and I’ll always be grateful for her advice and friendship. She spoke at length about what to expect, about the time it takes to heal, and about what she felt. The most important advice she gave me was regarding the things her husband did to support her during the pregnancy, the loss, and the aftermath. I felt like I had a better handle on things at that point and was able to provide a better level of understanding and support for my wife.
The weeks and visits continued to pass with little to no change. We continued to gather more and more information about our growing twins. We learned that they were as close to being conjoined twins as you could be without being physically attached by skin. They seemed to be sharing everything, which meant that when we lost one, the other simply wouldn’t be able to survive without the other. We learned that their organs were forming on the outside of their bodies. We learned that they were boys. One day my wife called me at work, frantic. She had a splitting headache and an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong with the boys. I raced to the hospital under the assumption that this was it. I found my wife in her car in the parking lot in front of the emergency room in tears and in pain. After checking her in to the ER, they quickly determined that she was having a severe migraine, but that all of the vital signs from our boys were normal.
As the day progressed to evening the doctors tried to find a way to quell the migraine, but to no avail. At one point my wife was screaming in pain so loudly that I could hear her outside the hospital at her car where I was grabbing some of her things. I would come to know that feeling of helplessness very well as there was nothing I could do for my wife but sit there with her in a completely dark room with a wet towel over her eyes.
After this unplanned hospital trip it became apparent that we were going to have to begin planning for naming our boys in order to fill out a legal death certificate, as well as to plan their Christian burial. One thing that I kept getting stuck on was “Why?" Why could they not survive? Why was there nothing that the doctors could do? Why could they not fix them? My wife is a nurse, so while all of this made sense to her, and she tried to explain it to me countless times, I just didn’t understand. That failure to understand turned into frustration.
I had begun running as a way to get into shape before the birth of our first son. With breaks in between to help care for a newborn, and then again with the birth of our daughter, I had been fairly consistent about running. To me, running was a way of blocking out the noise of the day to have some time that was mine only before re-entering the wonderful circus of raising a toddler and a newborn that were 14 months apart. When my stepfather died in 2014, I used running as a way to both deal with my grief and to feel close to him, since he had been an avid runner before he got sick. Now I ran as a way to burn off my frustration in an attempt to keep it from turning to anger.
It seemed that our boys were waiting on us to finally process things to the point of truly preparing for their arrival, because around midnight on Thursday, May 18, my wife’s water broke while we were lying in bed talking about the boys. This was a new experience for us since our son and daughter were both induced. It took us a few minutes to realize that our boys were finally coming to meet us. The range of emotions was wide at this point. Excitement, nervousness, panic, and terror overwhelmed us as we scrambled out the door and sped to the hospital.
Once we were checked in to our room, the nurses wheeled my wife into a special ultrasound room so we could check on our boys. We learned that while most of her amniotic fluid was gone, the boys were still resting very comfortably in her womb. While they could stay in there for days or even weeks, the odds of my wife contracting an infection were pretty significant. Because of the inevitable prognosis of our boys, the doctors advised us to induce labor to protect my wife from infection and we agreed.
As we rested and waited to meet our boys, we discussed names. We had floated several different names and various combinations of names during the pregnancy. After a couple hours we settled on their names: Gabriel Lee & Joseph Poleman. Gabriel was always my wife’s choice if we had another boy, and Lee was a family name for my father and me. Joseph was a family name for both my wife and me, and Poleman is my wife’s maiden name. The Biblical implications for the names were very important for us. We spent time in counsel with our priest learning about how our babies would be received into heaven, how to honor their earthly memory, and how to honor them with strong Christian names.
As the day stretched into the evening we grew more and more anxious. We had been awake for going on 36 hours and it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen anytime soon. Suddenly everything happened at once. The babies were coming now and a lot of things needed to happen in short order. My wife was terrified of what to expect. Would they be born alive? How much time would we be able to spend with them before the end? Moving quickly, our doctor positioned my wife to begin pushing, and I prepared to meet my sons.
Joseph came first. He was bruised, and beautiful. He looked like a teddy bear. The doctors had warned us that he had severe cystic hygroma, so it would be difficult to make out his facial features. His organs were in a sac outside his body. His legs had grown backwards. And he didn’t appear to be breathing. The nurses took him aside to begin cleaning him up and checking him out, and with tears in my eyes I looked at my wife and shook my head. He didn’t appear to be alive.
Merely a minute later we met Gabriel. As long as I live, I will never forget looking directly into his eyes as he entered this world. I was the first thing he saw. While he didn’t have the hygroma like his brother had, his organs were also in a sac outside his body. He took a big breath, and I jumped, screaming to my wife through happy tears “He looked right at me!”
The nurses brought me Joseph swaddled loosely to keep from damaging his organs. I asked the nurse if he had felt any pain before he passed and she smiled at me. “He’s alive. Look!” Gently peeling back the swaddling cloth you could see his little lungs breathing and his tiny heart beating. I was shocked. The word miracle gets used pretty liberally, but this was definitely a miracle. I looked at my wife in amazement and saw the same incredulous look on her face as she held Gabriel. His little lungs and heart were visible as well, beating and breathing away. He had the look of peace and contentment on his face that you would normally see from a baby being held by his mother for the first time.
We were blessed with an hour and a half with our boys before God called them home. They fought for about 30 weeks for those few fleeting moments with us, and we took full advantage of their courage by rocking them, singing to them, crying with them, and kissing them. They taught us so many lessons in that short time that will stay with me forever. They taught me never to underestimate. They taught me that two things can be true at once. You can be happy and sad, you can laugh and cry, your heart can be full and broken, you can be thankful and angry, and full of gratitude and sorrow. I learned what it truly is to fight for something. I learned that life is worth living for as long as you can live it. I learned that thoughts and prayers matter.
The grief in losing a child is overwhelming. But equally overwhelming is to see your wife in pain and to not be able to fix it. There are things that people say to those who have lost a loved one, and there are normal responses. The most painful thing for me to hear was, “At least you have two happy and healthy ones at home.” While my wife and I were eternally grateful for our son and daughter, our boys are, and will always be, part of our family. The weeks we had to prepare and come to grips with our impending loss helped to cushion the initial blow, but it didn’t ease the loneliness and pain we felt as time moved on. The funeral offered some closure, but almost two years later we still don’t feel “normal."
Some mutual friends mentioned a wonderful organization called Anna’s Grace that could assist us through the grief and burden after losing our boys. Monica Alley and Anna’s Grace have been an absolute godsend to our family and to me personally. My wife and I decided that once we felt up to it, we would do whatever we could to give back to this wonderful organization that selflessly offered love and support to us in our darkest hour. We attended the Walk to Remember with countless other families and finally got a chance to meet and thank Monica in person. She encouraged us to attend the Quarter Marathon in the spring and to start a fundraising team to honor our boys. I promised my boys that night that I would complete that Quarter Marathon without walking as a tribute to the way they fought and never gave up.
The Quarter Marathon was cathartic for me. I drew strength from the other families honoring the memory of their babies. I carried Gabriel and Joseph’s spirit with me the entire time, and although I almost had to stop a few times, I never did. Later that day when we got home, a beautiful double rainbow appeared over our neighborhood where I’d trained for months to run that race. I knew that while I didn’t set any records that day, my boys were proud of their Daddy.
I look forward to honoring the memory of Gabriel Lee and Joseph Poleman Lockhart each year with Anna’s Grace.
About Anna’s Grace Foundation Anna’s Grace Foundation is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supporting families in the Greater Baton Rouge Area who experience miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. Each and every day one of our neighbors, friends, coworkers, or family members will experience the devastating loss of a baby, and Anna’s Grace is there to provide emotional and financial support so that families can focus on healing. The Anna’s Grace Quarter Marathon is on March 24, 2019. For more information or to register, visit http://www.annasgrace.org/registration.