A few weeks ago, in my post What Does the Word “Dad” Bring to Mind?, I introduced you to 5 of my 7 children. Today’s post is about Gabriel Liam, our angel. It was a hard post to write in a way that communicates what I want to say, and it may be a hard post to read because it’s about the tragically brief life of our baby boy. Fair warning, there is a lot of sadness in what follows – but also an abundance of joy.
Yesterday would have been Gabriel’s 11th birthday. He was with us just 48 very short hours and yet touched us, and many people around us, in ways more profound than many who live long and full lives.
Gabriel’s birth was much anticipated. We were as ready as it’s possible to be, and we were looking forward to welcoming another son into the world. But Gabriel was very big – he was just under 11 pounds at birth – and his birth was precipitous. Maddie went into violent and full contractions suddenly, in the very early morning of June 30, 2000. Much later, when we found we were expecting Sam, we discovered that the precipitous labor was almost certainly due to a placental abruption – the placenta prematurely detaching from the uterine wall – which in turn was caused by a pregnancy-related clotting disorder in Maddie. At the time we knew none of this – we only knew he was coming too fast, at home, and we knew it was trouble.
Gabriel Liam was born into my hands as we did everything I could think of to get him delivered. Finally, desperately, I was able to free one shoulder and pull him out. He was blue, not breathing, not responding. Maddie took him from me, called to him, breathed for him. Help arrived, too late, but they took him from us and rushed him to the hospital, with Maddie. To this day I do not know how I got through those next minutes as I found someone to come stay with the older kids, grabbed what I could, and rushed to the hospital. To this day I cannot hear the sound of an ambulance without feeling a dip in the pit of my stomach.
At the hospital, Maddie and I waited. We asked for word, but none came for hours. When it finally came I knew it was bad, but there was some hope. Gabriel was breathing, with help, and we could see him. It was hard seeing him with tubes and wires and a respirator, seeming so small and helpless for all that he was huge as babies go. It wasn’t good – he’d been too long without oxygen, but there was hope however slim.
So we went to the house, collected a few things and Gregory, who was just 2 then, and waited and watched, visiting Gabe in the Neonatal ICU when we could, one or both of us with him almost all the time. Later that day an EEG confirmed that he had no brainwave activity. Gabe was not going to come home.
Maddie and I talked, and we knew what we had to do. That evening, before the doctor, who was a saint if ever I met one, could finish her speech – the one where she breaks it to us gently – we told her we understood, and knew that it was time to disconnect the respirator. She worked through the details with us, never flinching, always open. We decided we’d bring the other kids to say goodbye, and then would wean Gabriel from support.
And then we waited by his side, now in a quiet room with a crib and a rocker, the only sign of the medical world a heart monitor in the corner. We’d take turns, spending as much time with Gabriel as we could. I learned something then about the tenacity of life – Gabriel stayed with us for 24 more hours, slowly fading away.
Late on the night of July 1, Gregory woke from a nap and wanted to see Gabe. He reached out to touch him, looked up at the ceiling, and pronounced, “Baby sick, baby go up now.” Remember he was 2, and that he was born to parents who weren’t particularly religious and certainly hadn’t talked to him of a “heaven” up in the sky. But there it was. He doesn’t remember anything of this, but we will never forget it.
Less than 3 hours later, in the early morning hours of July 2, almost exactly 48 hours after his birth, Gabriel Liam Kertay took his last breath and died in my arms, for the second time.
As tragic as that moment felt, over the course of the next few weeks we experienced an outpouring of love and support from the universe that was almost miraculous. Everything seemed to conspire to try to give us some peace. Three white doves showed up at our house repeatedly, apparently escaped from their owner, over the course of a few weeks, and then disappeared again. People came up to us at the funeral service to tell us how touched they’d been, and how much this tragedy had helped them see what really mattered. We asked for donations to buy rockers for the parents at the NICU, and there was so much we were able to give back to those amazing people. I think in part because we grieved out loud and with our community, we were able to find some measure of peace, and Maddie and I became stronger together, when so many couple lose each other to compound the tragedy of losing a child.
There is nothing I have ever experienced that compares to the agony of a child’s death. When I hear of other parents suffering such a loss I still catch myself wondering, “How do people ever get through that?” Then I remember I’ve already been there. I meet others in the oddest contexts and find they, too, have lost a child, and I realize there is no outer mark, only the inner scars to remind us of wounds partly healed.
And yet, Gabe’s brief life gave us, and so many people, a reminder that what really matters is each other, and our loved ones. He is a beacon to mark “home.” Each year, though I am saddened by the memory of his death, I celebrate his birthday with a moment of gratitude for having been touched by an angel, our angel.
Happy birthday, Gabe!
Les Kertay, The Moments Project