Reader alert: this post is a serious one.
This week in trying to locate a file hidden somewhere in my computer, this popped up. It was an essay I wrote at least a decade ago about our first child. I decided to share it again.
It was mid-October 1969. We were enjoying a quiet meal in Chapel Hill at the house of two our closest friends, a classmate at the School of City and Regional Planning, and his wife. Actually “enjoying” is probably not the right word. Embry and I were wiped out, having been on pins and needles all day as we nervously sat in the waiting room of University of North Carolina Hospital. Our daughter Katherine–ten and a half months old– was undergoing a heart operation to correct a birth defect.
By early evening we were finally able to relax. Late that afternoon the heart surgeon had appeared briefly with a smile on his face, and our cardiologist emerged to let us know the operation had gone well and that hopes for a recovery were very good. Having dinner with friends was a welcomed relief—almost a victory dinner.
After I graduated from Union Seminary in New York in 1968, we had moved to Chapel Hill where I enrolled in planning school at the University of North Carolina, and Embry had a job working for one of the planning professors as a computer programmer. We lived in rundown house in nearby Carrboro, in an African American neighborhood, close enough to bike to classes and to work. We loved everything about Chapel Hill— the house and neighborhood, fellow planning students, a good job for Embry, a beautiful campus, a progressive university, and a relaxed, laidback atmosphere.
But most of all we loved Katherine.
Katherine was born Thanksgiving weekend in 1968. Allard Lowenstein, the famous social activist, and his wife, Jenny, were staying with us and sleeping on our couch in the living room when Embry went into labor. Around midnight we said a quick goodbye and charged off to Watts Hospital in Durham. Early the next morning Embry gave birth to a six-and-a-half-pound baby girl using hypnosis as a natural childbirth technique.
We were alerted that Katherine had a heart murmur shortly after her birth, but that this did not necessarily mean anything serious since often these symptoms disappear. We agreed we should not worry about it but would let the doctors know if we noticed anything unusual. To us Katherine seemed perfectly normal. She was a pure delight, and I had never seen Embry happier. Not long after we first met, Embry mentioned casually that she loved children and would like to have at least four—maybe six. And Embry was a loving, joyful mother, beaming most of the time. We were lucky to find a kind woman with infant care experience who provided day care for the newborn children of planning school students. It was certainly one of the happiest times of our lives.
It was when Katherine was about three months old that we first noticed that when she got excited or particularly active, she seemed to turn slightly blue and lose her breath. After a couple of episodes we took her to the cardiologist at the UNC hospital for a series of tests, which revealed that there was in fact a problem with a heart valve after all, but it did not appear to be imminently life threatening and was fixable. The cardiologist recommended that if her condition continued to worsen, Katherine should undergo an operation to address the problem temporarily until she got to be somewhat older and could have it fixed permanently through open heart surgery. The operation was called a “Blaylock shunt” and involved rerouting vessels around the heart—a proven procedure with a very high success rate. And the hospital had a good pediatric heart surgeon. Of course, we were apprehensive, but given the diagnosis, generally hopeful and positive—just another one of those hurdles to overcome. It took several months of monitoring the situation and consulting with the cardiologist before the operation finally happened.
That is why when the phone rang at our friend’s house around ten pm just as we were ready to return home, I did not think much about it. “It is for you,” my friend said, turning to me, “and it is the hospital.”
I suddenly felt a cold chill come over me as I took the receiver. The person calling was the cardiologist, who said there had been some complications, and we should immediately come to the hospital. We quickly said our good byes and rushed to the hospital. Neither of us said a word. We were met at the door by the doctor. He had been such a help to us during the entire experience—a kind and gentle person, who gave you the facts but let you know he was in your corner all the way. By the ashen expression on his face, we knew the news was not good.
The facts were that she had been doing fine– in fact doing so well she had been taken off the ventilator–but that suddenly at some point her heart had stopped. They had tried to revive her, and she was still alive, but things did not look good. There could be irreparable brain damage from lack of oxygen. We sat there in frozen disbelief. He then excused himself. The cardiac surgeon suddenly whisked past us with a frown on his face, did not say a word, and did not look us in the eye. A few minutes later the cardiologist returned. He had tears in his eyes . Katherine had not made it.
I do not recall much that happened immediately after that. I do not think either of us got much sleep. The next day calls were to be made to family, relatives, and friends. Embry’s parents were on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. My parents said they would jump on the first plane.
Embry was despondent. There is something sacred about the bond between an infant and her mother that we men cannot fully understand. When that bond is broken, life for the mother will never be the same.
I was doing the best I could to try to hold things together, without a great deal of success.
Before he left, the doctor had told me that we had been assigned a chaplain, who wanted to meet with us first thing the next day. Having had my fill of seminary and religion at that point, we had not even entered a church building in Chapel Hill and had no religious connections there. My fears were confirmed when it turned out that the guy was an evangelical Southern Baptist. I could envision his first comment would be something like this was God’s will and we needed to accept it. Not taking any chances, I blurted out something to the effect that I was a seminary graduate, knew about God and religion, and had actually served as a hospital chaplain myself, and I did not want to hear one word about how this was God’s will. If he even suggested such a thing, I threatened that I would throw him out of the room.
He seemed to understand, blushed, and nodded. He turned out to be kind and supportive and honored my request regarding no religious “explanation.” I later felt guilty about giving him such a hard time at the outset.
When tragedies like this happen, people rally. The very next day food started appearing almost by the hour. Friends stopped by for tearful hugs and embraces. The phone was constantly ringing. Our living room was full of people almost all the time. Having family and friends present in situations like this makes all the difference. Nobody has to say a word. Just being there is what counts. The wife of the head of the planning school organized most of the food delivery effort, which resulted in enough food to feed us and our visitors for well over a week.
My parents arrived the next day. It was the first time I believe I ever saw my stalwart father wiping tears from his eyes. It took a couple of more days for Embry’s parents to get from their cruise ship to a plane to the US and then to Chapel Hill. I can’t remember all the people since so much remains a blur, but it seemed at the time that most of the people we loved and cared about were either there or with us by phone. Several of our African American neighbors, whom we really did not know very well, stopped by. Without all the love and support we received, I do not know how we could have pulled through it.
The funeral was held in Davidson, and the idea was to have a small, family, graveside service at the cemetery where Katherine’s ashes would be buried in Embry’s family’s plot. When we arrived in Davidson and went to Embry’s parent’s house, we were astounded to see the living room–and virtually the entire house– packed with my planning school classmates. Practically the entire class was there, occupying every chair with most sitting on the floor. The school must have had to cancel classes.
I remember very little about the service itself except that it was short, and there was no mention that this was the will of God.
Of all the help we received, the most comforting probably came from the cardiologist. He was a real pro who had been through situations like this many times, yet for us there was no hint that he had lost his empathy and compassion. He said one thing that particularly stood out. It is the kind of thing that if said by someone else might be taken as a cheap shot. But in his case it was profound. “Think about it, “he said in his soft, gentle voice, “Your daughter lived a wonderful though short life. She had loving parents and was until the very end, happy and cared for. In the fullness of time, all life is short. Eleven months? A hundred years? Of course, on one level there is an enormous difference. But on another level—a more profound human level—the fact that she lived is what is important. For this you can be thankful.”
As I reread this account in my 80th year, I think back about how fortunate we were to have had this child, even if for a short time. Next week Katherine would be celebrating her fifty-third birthday were she alive today. I can’t help wondering what her life would have been like. I wonder where she would have gone to college, whom her friends would have been, what kind of career she might have pursued, whom she might have married, and the children that she might have had. I know deep down that she would have been a kind, loving, and caring person, and that in the end is all that really counts.
I also know that tragedies happen all the time to a lot of people. It is part of the life that we humans must endure. Life on the planet Earth is not easy. It has never been easy; and as we now stare at the face of climate change, racial injustice and emerging authoritarianism, we slog through as best as we can, realizing that we are leaving our children and grandchildren a world with challenges far greater than the ones that we inherited.
But that is just one side of the coin. The other side is the joy we humans experience by simply being alive. We were blessed by our short time with Katherine and have been blessed by so many other things– by the two wonderful children that came after Katherine and their spouses and the four extraordinary grandchildren they have produced, now all teenagers or close to it. We have been blessed by the friends that we have, the careers we have pursued, good health, financial security, and the various pursuits that have enriched our lives—travel, singing, and hands-on volunteer work (Embry)–photography, writing and sailing (me). For all this and simply being alive on the planet Earth for almost 80 years, I am thankful beyond words.