For anyone hurting this holiday season. May you know God’s presence right where you are.
Six years ago today, everything changed. December 23 had historically been a day of good news and rejoicing, of festivities and fun. On December 23, 2008, we found out we were pregnant for our firstborn Cohen. In any other given year, December 23 would find us wrapping presents or blasting Bing Crosby en route to parents’ homes.
But on December 23, 2010, we were none of these places. The day felt neither merry nor bright as Ben and I barely spoke, driving through thick Indiana snow to get to a neonatologist appointment. I was 27 weeks pregnant with our second child. After an inconclusive ultrasound with my OB-GYN, we had been sent to a specialist.
Due to the weather, the drive to Downtown Indianapolis took longer than normal. The roads were questionable, and every driver wanted to get home and hunker down through the holidays. We pulled into the medical center—a giant multi-building complex that was ominous and difficult to navigate. I felt so small.
“Everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay,” I told myself, cradling my pregnant belly as if by instinct.
We managed to park and find our way to the neonatal office. The waiting room was small and sterile, designed more for function than for hospitality. A woman behind a sliding glass window told us to fill out some forms and take a seat. Only one other couple sat in the chairs near us. No one said a word.
“Sarah Westfall.” The sound of my name broke the silence.
Ben and I gathered our belongings and were ushered back to a tiny, dark ultrasound room. It was so small it barely fit an examination table, a small chair for Ben, and the necessary equipment. A perky and fast-paced ultrasound tech explained how the HD ultrasound worked and that she would do the initial scan and then the neonatologist would come in to explain the results. We nodded our heads. Neither one of us took our eyes off the screen.
The tech asked if we knew the gender, and I explained how we thought the baby was a boy but that our physician had a difficult time saying with any certainty. She smiled and optimistically said that we could get it figured out once and for all.
She began to work her way through the ultrasound checklist that had become all too familiar. Head, limbs, fingers, toes, eyes, ears, and nose were accounted for. She agreed that while not 100% sure, she would bet our baby was a boy.
A boy. My heart warmed with images of Cohen and a brother playing together. I saw Legos and Tonka trucks and lots of time spent outdoors.
But what happened next snapped me back to reality. The tech had turned somber.
Without another word, she put down her equipment and went to find the neonatologist. She returned with a woman who could have stepped off the set of Grey’s Anatomy. She was Dr. Bailey reincarnate. The doctor came in to the room, introduced herself, and got to work. The rest of us watched and held our breaths as she moved the ultrasound instruments over my bare belly.
After only a few minutes, the doctor put down the equipment. She sat on a stool in front of me, put her hands on my knees, and looked me in the eyes as she spoke the words that would change me forever: “Your baby has not developed kidneys, which is why he is not releasing fluids back into the amniotic sac.”
Where most people see a sea of black surrounding the ultrasound image of their baby’s outline, we saw nothing. Everything looked cramped.
“No kidneys?” I thought. “What does this mean? Dialysis? Transplant? Surgeries?”
The doctor continued, “Without kidneys, your baby can function normally while inside you. However, when he is born, he will not be able to sustain life.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ben—my rock, my man who I’d seen cry only twice—begin to weep. He held my hand while the doctor continued to talk: “No kidneys . . . Bilateral renal agenesis . . . Rare birth defect without cause . . .”
I heard nothing beyond “will not be able to sustain life.”
I felt nothing. It was like I had floated up outside my body. I looked down at the four people crammed into this dark closet of an ultrasound room. All I could do was look at the man, his wife, the doctor, and the tech and think, “This is not my story.”
I had prepared myself for prenatal surgery or even deformities or disabilities. But nothing prepared me for the news that my son, the baby boy still kicking and wiggling inside me, would die. Not once had I entertained this loss.
“I can’t do this, God,” I thought. “How can I give birth to my baby knowing he will not live? I can’t do this. I can’t do this . . . This is not my story.”
Eventually, the doctor ushered us into a larger room with bare white walls and a wood table in the center. I’m sure the staff was kind and compassionate, but in my current state of shock I just wanted them all to go away. They asked questions, concerned for our welfare and ongoing support. At some point, someone handed me a white folder filled with the results of our ultrasound, 3D pictures of our son, and more pamphlets on infant loss.
Eventually, the medical staff left us alone surrounded only by the white walls. We sat in silence for a while, drowning in tears that would not stop. To this day, I have no recollection of what Ben and I said to each other while we sat. All I remember is feeling like I had shattered beyond repair.
Life no longer made sense.
I replayed the last five months in my head. I had made good choices. I ate healthy. I didn’t drink alcohol or smoke. For goodness sake, I didn’t even eat lunch meat! But there I was, the woman whose baby wouldn’t live more than a few hours at best.
We couldn’t be in that hospital any longer. I became frantic to leave, to get out of the office and away from the people who had exposed our son’s rare birth defect. As I grabbed the white folder and hurried to put on my coat, I prayed, “God, you either need to be everything You say you are, or I’m done. I can’t do this.”
The holidays that year were bittersweet at best. Tears came easily, and I’d often sneak away during family gatherings to be alone. I stopped trying to “be” anything. Instead, I let the waves of grief roll over me when they came. I let myself laugh or smile, only then to acknowledge the guilt that inevitably followed.
“Lord, help me. . .” I’d whisper over and over again. I couldn’t bring myself to pick up a Bible, let alone entertain the idea of a miracle. Instead, I’d say my “Lord, help me,” and then cling to His admonition to “Be still, and know that I am God.” It wasn’t an act of bravery or authenticity. I just didn’t have the capacity to do anything else but be.
Take a shower . . . Lord help me.
Get Cohen his breakfast . . . Be still.
Lay on the couch . . . Let God be God.
While my heart was raw, I began to catch glimpses of something spiritual happening. I found redemption in watching our 16-month-old Cohen open presents and give squishy, toddling hugs. I found rest in being surrounded by family, who took care of Cohen at a moment’s notice. I felt love from friends and family as emails and Facebook messages poured in; each one like the breath I needed to get through that moment.
Six years later, I know God answered my cry to “be everything He says He is.” He did not take away my pain, but He met me there. In His goodness, He gave us people to watch our son and bring us meals. In His patience, He let me scream and weep and ask questions. In His grace, He gave me the words I needed to hear when I thought I couldn’t go on. Like a mother with her tiny, helpless babe, wailing and flailing in her arms, God held me close.
Days turned into months that became years. Even today, I’m only catching glimpses of how present God was on that December 23. But He was there. Of that, I have no doubt. He did not come with trumpets and fanfare but with a quiet presence that stood firm in the deepest parts of me.
To you who are hurting: Know you are not alone. God is with you. Even if you can’t feel Him, He is there. That’s the great thing about God: He doesn’t need our feelings to be who He says He is. He is good. He loves you, and He will meet you where you are. Cry out, “Lord, help me” and be still. He is there.
feature image: lone tree in winter landscape via pexels (public domain)