Thirty-four years ago today, you and God made me a mother.
Yes, I was still a teenager. And no, I never got to bring you home, never got to "mother" you in the traditional sense.
But I was no less a mother, my life changed forever by the first look at you.
You arrived three months before we expected you. The details of your early delivery and the poor medical decisions that were responsible for it have now faded into the mists of time and are no longer important. What never fades is my awareness that you were the one who brought to me, in your short life, a role that I would never again lay down.
In the delivery room, you took one unassisted breath before your lungs collapsed. From that moment, in the deathly quiet that shouldn't have been, I waited for the sound of your cry. I never heard it. Your next twenty days, the whole span of your life, were spent in a silent fight for every breath. Dad and I fought with you, and while we felt that we lost, we know that, ultimately, you won. Your days of pain were short and you have already lived for most of my life in the presence of the Father.
When I kissed you goodnight on the night of January 29, 1974, the doctors had just told us, for the very first time, that they believed you were going to pull through. They assigned a social worker to help us get ready to care for you at home within a few weeks. They talked about the remarkable progress you had made and how the things they were learning with you would help them save other preemies. We drove home that night stunned with joy. We spent the next two hours looking through all the baby clothes we had feared you'd never wear; we set up the crib and imagined how you would look under the blanket I had made. And then we fell into bed in an exhausted ecstasy, believing that our long battle might be coming to an end.
The phone pierced the pre-dawn darkness and woke your grandfather first. Within a few moments he had roused us and handed us to the sad voice of your special doctor. It seems that soon after we left the hospital you started showing signs of a virus, probably the simple cold that all babies get sooner or later...but not all babies fight for every breath for three weeks and you had no bank of resources with which to take on a new war. For three hours the NICU staff labored to keep you breathing, to keep you from choking on milk that wouldn't stay down, to restart your heart five times.
And then, you rested. Instantly in the arms of the One who had so recently given you life, you surrendered this life and traded it for the one that someday we'll share.
There are no words to describe our heartbreak. I had nothing to prepare me for the sharp pain of losing my first child...nothing to prepare me for the dull ache that replaced it and lingered for longer than I could have imagined...nothing to prepare me for the task of choosing a casket for a newborn. It felt to me like my life had ended at 19.
I don't need to tell you about the faithfulness of our Father: you had a complete understanding of His care many years before I will know it in the same way. But He was faithful. His tender care for Dad and me through the valley of the reality, not just the shadow, of death shaped our young lives. His grace prepared us for a life of caring for not just our future family, but for other people broken by their own losses and hurts. I don't believe there was any other way to get us ready for the road ahead than walking us through that fire.
Each year on your birthday I look at the nine children that followed you and I wonder if you can see them. If you can, I know you're proud of your six beautiful sisters, compassionate and funny and bright and capable. You would love your three brothers, growing into manhood with strong convictions and the gentleness and winsomeness of their father. You would have reveled in the hordes of nieces and nephews that now populate our home. You'd have loved our Thursday night dinners with all their banter and laughter. You'd have loved watching Sam dance to the the Bee Gees' "Tragedy" and seeing Tim sword fighting imaginary foes for hours on end. You'd have been proud to stand beside your sisters as they married men you had helped "vet". You'd have marveled at Josh's ninety pushups and Shelley's piano recitals. And they'd all have looked up to you in all the unique "you-ness" that God gave you.
Someday, when we've all lived together in our heavenly home for ten thousand years, these few years of separation will seem insignificant. While we live them, though, we sometimes chafe at your absence and sense deeply the hole that will always exist in our midst. But unlike those who grieve with no hope, we look ahead with joy to the day when our family and all those who have gone before us are reunited and can see with new perspective all the reasons for your short life.
Happy birthday, Jonathan. Thank you for being my first taste of motherhood and my most tangible hope for the family reunion. I love you still.