Day 2-3: Walking On in the Ugly Beautiful Bitter Sweet

The sun went down on our first day home and pain blindsided me in a moment I didn’t expect. You might wonder how it blindsided me when it had been the only constant, but some happy moments were even sadder than the sorrowful ones. I glanced outside as the sun went down to see Leslee pushing our girls on the swings.

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It was a sweet moment, but I felt the bitter start to build inside me. He was smiling, they were giggling…laughing, and I was having a hard time with the image of happiness this scene was portraying. It was surreal…standing there fully aware that this was my life and yet I was so far removed from it. In my mind, I was wherever Leif was. That’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be witnessing a happy family. I didn’t belong there.

I remember a conversation I had with my mom before I left the hospital. A conversation about how life goes on in spite of you. I told her I didn’t know how in the world I was going to move forward. That I had no desire to. I can’t remember everything she said, but one line stuck with me. “That’s the hard, but somewhat merciful thing about life…Whether we want to move forward or not, as life moves forward, it tends to drag us along with it.”

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I stood there looking out the window and realized this was one of those moments. This beautiful, ugly, golden, bitter moment where I first experienced that she was right. I was going to be dragged along whether I liked it or not. It was happening as I stood there. My family was going to drag me along.  I might as well find the beauty over the ugly. The sweet over the bitter. I got my camera. It occurred to me that I might want to remember this. This…the moment  life started to move on. The moment life looked like nothing horrible had happened to us.  A normal, happy family playing in the yard.

I saw Leslee pushing the girls and I wanted to embrace his strength. This was a joy-filled moment. For him. I was sincerely thankful for that. He found solace in two little girls. I took pictures. Someday, we’ll all get back to this, right, Father? I have to believe that.

**

My head hit the pillow that night and I passed out. But not before I cried some more. For as I had gone to turn out the light under our cabinets, there lay the pacifiers I had bought last week.

**

I woke up the next morning feeling a lot more rested. A little stronger. I moved through the fog that surrounded me and prayed a thousand prayers. Every moment, I need You. I need You. Give me the strength to get out of this bed. Give me the strength to make breakfast. Give me the strength to plan my son’s funeral today. Let me feel you, Lord. Heal my broken heart. Give Leif a hug and a kiss from me (I love you, sweet boy). I need You. Please comfort me.

If my own prayers weren’t enough, I was covered.  In prayers and love. I could feel it. A warm embrace. Prayers went up…the Lord’s presence intensified. So tangibly. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced and it’s difficult to put into words. He was there…through a loving, specific, well-timed word from Leslee. Through a heart-felt message from friends or family.  Through hugs. Through generosity. Through meals. Through His Word. Through tears. Lots and lots of tears. When I broke down, He carried. When I leaned into the pain and the flood broke forth, His strength could handle the storm. When I whispered, He whispered back.

However, that day was a hard day. We met with the funeral home and made the arrangements for Leif’s service. I sat there and could hardly speak. I was grateful that Leslee did all the talking. We wanted a little handout for people to have at the service. I was frustrated that I didn’t have full control over the design, the font, the colors, the EVERYTHING about it. Amidst my gratitude that the funeral home was willing to do an infant service for very little cost, it worried me that it might not be our idea of perfect. I just wanted everything to be perfect. I wanted to control the details because I couldn’t control anything else.

And then I found out I had to write the obituary. I guess I assumed they would have kind of a fill-in-the-blank template for us.  Yeah, something mindless would be best for me right now. I don’t want to think. However, in my current state, I’m certain I would have wanted to hijack that, too. I needed something to give me purpose. Something to throw myself into. I couldn’t be pleased. And the responsibility of writing my baby’s obituary left me feeling overwhelmed.

The ride home was long. There was silence, but feelings and thoughts filled the car.  I stared up out the window, blue sky, white cotton clouds, trying to draw near to those heights. Trying to lose myself…hear God…find my son. Tears were ready and then Leslee grabbed my hand and squeezed intuitively.

“What are you thinking right now?”

Floodgates opened as I turned my head to look at him. “I miss my son!” I wailed. As I cried, he squeezed harder and continued to hold on as tears brimmed in his own eyes. No words were necessary. He missed him, too. His generosity in asking me time and time again to share my thoughts was not lost on me. Giving me permission to unload on him is what he’s always done, but it’s easier to hear when you’re not in it. When you’re not the one unpacking the baggage. We were sharing a suitcase on this journey.

“I love you, Breauna. I miss him, too.” A phrase he uttered countless times never grew old. It grounded me.

When we arrived home, he went to take care of some chores and I sat down at my computer, wrote the first line of Leif’s obituary, and sobbed. I wrote another line and had to stop because I couldn’t even see the screen. Another line. And another…until I had reached 8 lines that I absolutely hated. If ever anger presented itself, it was in that moment. I was angry at myself for not being able to articulate what I wanted to say about my baby. A baby I had only known through little kicks and twists and rolls in my belly. A baby that knew me so much better than I knew him…or would ever get the chance to.   I should have been able to DO this, but it sounded so flat. I looked up and said, “Father, You’re going to have to help me with this. Give me inspiration. Give me the words. I need You.”

 

I decided to leave it for a while. Walk away and put it off. I needed to message a friend and tell her I was using her poem in the ceremony. Little did I know she would help me finish the hard part of his obituary with her response. Her words were perfect.  Yet again, and as always… there He was.

 

Leslee

I finished up my chores and went for a little drive around the farm to clear my head. I had gotten upset upon arriving at the funeral home to find my son was still at the hospital. I beat myself up. I should have brought him there myself. I left him thinking they would pick him up that day. He spent another night at the hospital alone. The thought cut me to the core. I know I was somewhat irrational, but just because he wasn’t living didn’t make me any less his parent. It didn’t make me love or care for him any less. It’s not a switch I can turn off. The funeral director assured me someone was on their way to get him as we spoke, but I was visibly frazzled. These woods and hills brought me peace.

I decided checking my cameras would be a nice distraction. I enjoy tracking the deer population on the farm, hunting sheds…hunting, period. I like to watch the little bucks grow and ponder what they might mature into. I had had my eye on one in particular. I had watched him grow. I had held onto his sheds. He was on my list. I loved how symmetrical he was. The best way I can explain it…He was just my kind of deer. And we had a history. He was stealthy, though, which made him even more of a challenge.

I drove up to one of my cameras, scrolled through a few photos, and there he was. Front and center. His face and his antlers filled the screen. Yes! I thought. What day was this?

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I looked down and it suddenly hit me. 8/27/17. I’ll admit I’ve always been more a believer in coincidence when it comes to details. Small things. This feeling that washed over me was more up Breauna’s alley. I always just kind of grinned and let her tell me a story about details she saw God’s hand in and thought, Well, maybe…But I’ve never felt or experienced anything like that personally.

God wasn’t going to let me write this one off. There stood my special buck—the one I’d hardly talked to anyone about—on my camera on the day we said hello and goodbye to our son. The photo sent a message straight through me. I know you. I know all of the little details. Things you don’t share with everyone. And I know this moment because I know this buck is special to you. Hear Me: It’s going to be ok. If this photo says anything to you, let it be this. If I can work about this tiny thing that speaks volumes to you, I can work about the big things. Start trusting I do indeed speak and work in the details.

I hopped in my side-by-side and ran home to show Breauna my picture and the date. She would know. She would understand what it meant to me and I understood her even better now. I had a story—an encounter of my own—about how God reaches us and how very resourceful He is.

I named the buck Leif’s Buck. Never had I wanted to see a deer live so bad in my life. As long as he stayed on the farm, he was safe. And that day was a turning point for me. God had my back and all the little details in between. He orchestrated them and there was a peaceful blessing in being able to see. I simply had to put the right glasses on when I scrolled through the camera.

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Leif’s Story, Day 1, Part 3

Leslee

I made arrangements for the girls to be brought to us in the city as Breauna rested. I had laid Leif in the little crib cart the nurses had brought to our room and sat down. Heart broken. Spent. Still in shock. All I knew was that I had to be strong for Breauna. My mind raced. Maybe something was wrong with him and that’s why God took him. As an act of mercy on us. No…no no no…He was perfect. I know in my heart there wasn’t anything wrong. Why, then? Why did he make it to this point and then…? I wanted answers so badly. It’s me, isn’t it, God? It’s not Breauna. She’s suffering because of me. Because I just can’t get my act together. I battle controlling my mouth. I battle so many things. I’m not who you want me to be, right? I  think it’s pretty obvious right now that I am cursed. Two out of four…not a real great success rate… But over and above all that, I looked over at my wife and wondered what she was thinking and feeling. I felt for her more than I thought of myself. What was it like to bear a child? What kind of pain did that entail? What pain she must be in…far greater than mine…to have carried him for nine months, felt every kick, felt every roll,  and lost him. What was she feeling right now? What was she thinking?

I watched her bring Leif into the world knowing he was dead and I couldn’t think of anyone I’d ever known who was stronger than my wife. I was thankful-so thankful-that she was here. I may not have had Leif, but I still had her. I knew what it was like to lose my whole family–

My outlook took a turn there. Was I discouraged? Yes. Was I hurting? To the core. Was I afraid of what lie ahead and how we would navigate it? Yeah…a little…because I’d gone down this path before. But, I was harder now. Stronger. See, that’s the thing about death and loss—at least for me, anyway—each time I suffer, I get tougher. The dark places of this rough road are familiar. Call me callous, but the first time I went down it was the hardest. After that, I knew how to get where I wanted to go. But, I could not imagine going down it without Breauna. That would be a whole different road. That’s the other thing about death and loss—for me, anyway—my loss caused me to love Breauna like I’ve never loved before. That woman lit up my road—lit up my entire life. I didn’t have to wonder what it would be like if I lost her—goodness, I didn’t even want to think about that. Black. The darkest black. Blind black. Black I didn’t think there was any way I could ever recover from.

I’m not cursed. I’m still very blessed. And I determined right there that we would certainly cry together—we would hurt—but I was going to be the one this time that lit our road. I was going to guide her down it. In the fog, I would try my best to bring clarity. I would validate her feelings. I would hold her when she cried—when we cried. And I would understand.

I tried my best to cling to that thought—how very blessed I still am—and decided to focus on what needed to be done right now. There was one thing nagging my heart in that moment: Taegan was on her way to the hospital and she didn’t know. My heart broke all over again thinking about her…knowing she was excited and happy. I asked our family not to say anything to her because it needed to be me. I was dreading that phone call, but I couldn’t let her get here thinking she was going to meet her baby brother and find out once she was here that he was gone. That felt cruel. So, I picked up the phone and called my sister.

“Hey, Tanna. Where are you guys at?”

“We just left…only about 5 minutes down the road from Mom’s.”

“Ok, can you put Taegan on the phone? I need to tell her.”

“Yeah.”

I heard some shuffling and then Taegan’s sweet little voice.

“Hi, Daddy!”

“Hey, baby…um…There’s something I need to tell you.” My voice broke and tears started rolling down my face.

Silence.

“Leif didn’t make it.”

“What…?”

“He didn’t make it, sweetie.” She started to cry and  the call dropped. Oh, no! Aw, man! I dialed it back as fast as I could and got Tanna again.

“Can you put Taegan back on the phone? I’m not sure if she hung up on me or if you lost signal, but I need to talk to her again.” I felt awful. There was no easy way to do this and I couldn’t come up with words. I could hear her crying in the background.

“Hello?” Taegan said.

“Hey, I lost ya there. Mommy and I want to see you really bad. I’m going to have Tanna text me as soon as you get here and I’ll meet you at the front door, ok? I love you, Taegan.” She was still crying. “Hey, I love you. I’ll see you when you get here, alright?” She wasn’t talking. Just crying.

Tanna came back on the phone and I said, “Hey, Tanna, just let me know when you’re parked and I’ll come meet you at the front door.”

“Ok, Leslee. Love you.”

“Love you, too. Bye.”

I felt awful. That was definitely one of the hardest phone calls I’ve ever had to make.

 

Breauna

I listened to Leslee make that phone call, tears rolling down my face. My mom had arrived and was sitting in the chair next to my bed in tears, as well. She was holding Leif and trying her best to be a comfort. The only thing I could think about was Leif. I beat myself up. How did I not know? I’m his mother! How did I not know?! I went shopping on Friday and bought the rug I’d been wanting for his room. I took the girls to the pediatrician and told her she was going to have a new little patient. And he was already slipping away…or gone! I didn’t even know! He didn’t tell me goodbye! Oh God, please say he didn’t suffer. I was supposed to protect him. He was supposed to be safe with me. I failed. I failed miserably. I failed my son. I gave him my best and it wasn’t good enough. Tears continued to come. I thought I’d never stop crying. I continued to pray for peace, comfort, and strength. I got it, but I found that tears were a part of it.

My sister arrived and we held on tight. “I wish I could take all of this on myself,” she said as she cried. “I wish I could carry this pain on me rather than see you carry it. I just want to make all this go away. I feel so helpless to help you.” These were the same sentiments almost verbatim that my mom had said when she had arrived earlier. “I wanted to let you know there’s a little bit of buzz on Facebook. Nothing specific. It’s all pretty vague, but people are asking questions.”

“Aw, man, are you serious?” I asked.

“Yeah…”

In that moment, I was frustrated that I had to do it, but I would much rather have had people hear it from the source than find out from someone else, so I quickly typed up a Facebook post.

 

I’ve heard there is Facebook chatter, so I’ll go ahead and address it. I went into labor this morning, got to the hospital fine, and found out our son, Leif Owen, was no longer with us. He’s with the One who gave him to us. We are experiencing the unimaginable, but I feel Jesus here with us. And through it all, we still believe that God is good. Your prayers mean the world to us. Leslee and I are leaning into each other while we trust the Father with this grief.

 

I clicked “post” and tried my best to think about some of my favorite songs. This is not well with my soul, Father. Not yet, anyway. But, I trust You’re going to make it so. You’ve always been my only hope. More so now than ever. So, don’t let me go. Peace came over me as friends and family started to fill up the waiting room. Never have, never will, it was as if He said. Messages of comfort and solidarity started pinging on my phone. Prayers were going up. Friends were crying with us. People loved us and they loved Leif, too. It wasn’t easy letting each of them see me so raw, but I found that visiting and having each of them cry, sit, and talk with us was a comforting distraction from solitude in our pain. I was thankful for that…and thankful for friends and family all over the country that were another vessel for the love God wanted us to feel. And for the rest of that day, I chose to dwell on that.

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