In the summer of 2010, Amy, pregnant with our third child, came home from a maternity appointment with news: we asked to know if the baby was going to be a boy or a girl. The doctor wrote the sex on a piece of paper and folded it up. Amy didn’t look at it, and came home. I remember it clear as day, standing on the deck together, both secretly hoping, and then rejoicing when we found out: we were going to have a baby girl.
Oh my goodness … we were so happy. We were so filled with joy and dreams and expectations.
- We envisioned a little girl growing up with temper tantrums, dance recitals, and soccer games
- We laughed at the thought of giggling girlfriends, high school boyfriends, and her relationships with her big brothers
- Like any Dad I foresaw myself dancing at her high school graduations, and then her wedding
- We were both so grateful and relieved, knowing that a girl – our girl – would maybe stick around home when older, would have her own children one day, and – when we got old and grey – would maybe help take care of us.
A million thoughts and feelings in a flash. And as beautiful and wonderful as that moment was, looking back, Amy and I were living life fast asleep. I had ambitions and was going to build businesses and be successful because I thought that was what a good father should do. Amy was going to be a Mom in a nice house with what may as well have been a white picket fence. We were so, so asleep. Fast asleep.
Gabrielle never should have been born. Amy, her mother, at 37 weeks pregnant, went for her regular maternity check-up and, even though she was told everything was fine and good, she insisted, with no good reason other than mother’s intuition, to be sent to the hospital. Once there, the doctor called for an emergency C-section. When she was born, we knew she was a “Gabrielle” … not a Breanna, or a Madelyn like we planned. Gabrielle means “God is my strength.” She was so small and so different looking. Maybe that’s how angels are supposed to look. And we were rushed in ambulance to BC Children’s Hospital. Before Gabrielle was even born Amy had saved her life.
All this week the saying, “Only in the end did they understand,” has surfaced in my mind... over and over. It’s so true. In an interview, Joseph Campbell, the master mythologist from the last century, was asked, in relation to getting older and coming closer and closer to death, about his views on life. He answered the question by quoting Schopenhauer, a famous philosopher who I’ve never read, and said,
“It’s almost as if, when you look back on your life in your old age, it almost seems as if there was an order to things, as if someone composed them as a song.I love this. It fits so well for Gabrielle and our time with her. Only in the end are we starting to understand.
When we were given Gabrielle’s diagnosis, when we passed through the iron cold gates into the fields of sorrow and grief, the dream of the healthy girl we imagined – the dream of a happy normal life – died. It was our first death. It was devastating. But it was also the beginning of our awakening.
How do raise a child you know is going to die? How do you find comfort and meaning and build a life and a family around such a reality? … Why us? These were the questions Amy and I asked ourselves over and over and over. You know … over the past two years, when people have asked us “How do you do it?” we’ve usually replied “Well, you just do it. And you probably would too.” … but, looking back, with a clearer understanding, that wasn’t completely true. We had Gabrielle and her little spirit to show us the way.
Oh Gabrielle, you were so, so beautiful. You were so strong. And you just filled us up with such love and wisdom – all of us – and your smiles and cuddles woke us up every morning and reminded us that everything was meant to be and everything would be OK.
My goodness did you love your brothers. You were so feisty. We had a wonderful family from Minnesota fly to visit us who had lost their boy to I-Cell disease a year earlier, and they couldn’t get over how loud and strong and scrappy you were. You had to be. From the day you were born your brothers were all over you giving you kisses and trying to wrestle with you … and you loved how they didn’t care whether there were NG tubes or oxygen tanks … James and Michael couldn’t get enough of you, and you couldn’t get enough of them. The love between you was amazing. Totally and utterly amazing.
You taught them about love and special needs and finding beauty in life and now in death. You would laugh at them when they did silly dances for you and made them feel like kings with your little giggle. And every night they would ask a tired Mom and Dad, a tired Mom and Dad who often suspected they were stalling, but a Mom and Dad who now understand that they were being genuine and real and wanting … and every night they would ask “But I haven’t kissed Gabs yet, can I go back up and give her a kiss.” They were so gentle with you. You taught them to be such gentle little boys and you filled them up with love. Simple love.
And when Jonathan was born, you knew your days as the baby were over. He motivated you so much. We watched you watching him advance past you physically, and man did it piss you off! You knew, with Jonathan, you had to get stronger in order to protect yourself, your toys, and your pride. Your fiery spirit didn’t want to be left behind. And I’ll never forget how, when Jonathan started crawling a month ago and would start pulling himself up with the help of your exersaucer that you were standing in, and would stare you straight in the eye and see your little altar of play, you would screech and swat and bat him away and grab your toys and turn away so as to keep him away from them. You loved him so much, your baby brother. You, a big sister.
Gabrielle, was such an angel. She taught us that life is not forever. She taught everyone here that our nice clothes and houses and cars don’t matter. Nothing in this world matters beyond our relationships with the people we love … and Gabrielle taught us that we are all capable of so much love … so, so much love. …
The more I think of it – that is, the more I think of what made our beautiful Gabrielle such an angel – the more I realize that Gabrielle did not give us anything we didn’t already have. All she did was awaken something within us – and everyone who met her or followed her story – something that had been there all along.
Her loving smile. Her wise eyes. Her infectious laugh. This beautiful girl, this complete and utterly helpless little girl, awoke the love that’s inside all of us. I believe that every time anyone – including us – shed a tear thinking about her, what was really happening was they were simply experiencing the love and light that Gabrielle made real. Love and light we have always had in our hearts. Pure, unadulterated, unconditional love. No strings. Just love.
Life isn’t always pretty. Believe me, we know. Life can be hard. There are lots of fights that need to be had. There is anger to work through. There are tears and losses and hurt feelings. Gabrielle taught us this. She taught us that all these things are okay and normal and part of life … but, as you work through them and with the people in your life, if you fill your heart with love and light, everything will be okay. Everything will be so much better.
To quote my wife who said this through tears as we wrote this together, “I am the luckiest Mom in the world. And you are the luckiest father in the world. And I’m so, so proud of her. And who she was. And what she brought to our lives.”
Many times, while caring for Gabrielle, Amy and I found guidance in a quote from one of our favourite stories, Lord of the Rings. Long before we had children, we both read and talked about this story, so much so that when the movies came out, Amy’s family teased us about whether or not we were going to wear our hobbit-feet slippers to the theatres on opening night. But, before the brave characters embarked on what seemed to be a hopeless quest, like ours seemed to be at the beginning with Gabrielle, Frodo, the meager Hobbit, asked Gandalf the wise wizard,
"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.And then Gandalf said,
"So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."While Gabby was fading, all I could whisper in her ear was “Thank you. Thank you so much my little angel. My little princess. You saved my life, and your mother’s life, and you taught your brothers and all of us so much. You woke us all up. We owe so much. And we’ll do everything we can to make you proud.”