Monday, November 22, 2010

Lessons from my children: Billy Boy; A Time to Grieve

Dads are supposed to teach their kids, but in my case the experience has been reversed. Of course I have shown my children how to hold a baseball bat, or how to throw a Frisbee, but the important lessons, I have been the student.

My wife, Sheri, and I are the parents of eight children, five boys and three girls. Our first baby boy was stillborn. In our elderly years we have been the foster parents to about 30 children. One of our foster children we have adopted; three-year old Tony.

And so what are these life lessons my children have taught me. To explore that, I need to go slowly, and talk about each child

Billy Boy

Billy Boy is the name we gave to our stillborn baby. He was our firstborn, but actually our second pregnancy as a miscarriage had preceded him. We were always going to name our first born, after my wife’s brother, Mark, who died when he was young. However we didn’t want to waste that name, and so in our haste to change the baby’s name it came out Billy Boy. The hospital had already given him the name, Baby Boy Wardle, so we just changed it slightly. Sheri and I wanted to be parents so much it hurt. We had moved from Utah to faraway Nevada to start our family. We lived in rural Duckwater. (Duckwater really was rural. It was 70 miles to the nearest grocery store over good roads. If you wanted to go over dirt roads there was a grocery store only 50 miles away. We generally shopped in Ely, 70 miles, and that is also where medical care was found.

>We were very excited for a baby to come to our family. When Sheri was eight months along in her pregnancy, I picked her up after her regular medical appointment. She was all upset and had been crying. She reported that we needed to go to Salt Lake City because they feared the baby had died. They could not find the baby’s heart beat when they attached a monitor to see how the baby was doing. They did not have ultrasound equipment in Ely, Nevada at that time, so we were referred to the University of Utah Hospital for an appointment and evaluation the next day.

I remember, before we went home to Duckwater, I took several pictures of Sheri. I wanted to get a roll of film developed and there were pictures left on the end of the film. I guess I was in denial that anything could really be wrong. We then drove to Duckwater in silence. Sheri had already accepted that the baby had died. She had noticed that the baby had stopped moving inside her, and the report from the doctor in Ely only confirmed this. I had no such belief, and was not ready to accept any such outcome

The next day, after packing, we traveled to Salt Lake and the hospital, Leaving Duckwater by five in the morning. I remember the trip was somber. I made several attempts at levity, which seemed to falter and fall flat, like something in your stomach that doesn’t want to digest. We arrived in Salt Lake late morning, and went directly to the hospital. Initially they tried to find a heart beat by monitor, and when that was not successful we were referred for an ultrasound. After a couple hour wait we were with the ultrasonographer and he was using KY Jelly to help with the review of the baby’s systems. It was at this time that Sheri’s belief was confirmed, and my denial was proven to be false. They could not find any activity on the part of the baby. They looked at the baby’s heart, and it was not beating.

We were advised get a hotel room and then return the next morning when they would start Sheri’s labor and deliver the baby. We had dinner, and Sheri started to have contractions, but not very regular. We went from there to get a hotel room, and Sheri couldn’t sleep because of the pain. We called the Dr. and I returned to pick up some sleep medication for her. Turns out the hotel was mostly a waste of money. (I seem to think about money a lot.) Sheri had a bath, but then couldn’t get to sleep. She had gone into labor of her own self while we were having dinner. Initially the pains were not very alarming. By the time she got out of the tub her labor was very active. We returned to the hospital about 10:30 that night, after not getting any rest.

After returning to the hospital, the baby came quickly. I was to coach and help Sheri. Sheri at one time became frustrated with me, and socked me. Sheri did not get an epidural. They didn’t have time to get the anesthesiologist and she just had local pain medication in her IV. When the baby came they did a major episiotomy, and Sheri also tore considerably. The baby was born just after midnight on Sunday morning, December 9, 1984, within two hours of the time we returned to the hospital.

They figured the baby had been dead for about a week. The only thing we heard from the autopsy report was that his heart was enlarged. This meant he had been under stress for some time. We never were given an explanation as to why the baby was under stress.

Even so, when the baby was born, I wanted, beyond hope for some miracle to take place. I waited for the Dr. to pound him on the chest and bring him back to life. He never pounded. The baby was dead.

They moved Sheri to a regular inpatient unit rather than to a maternity ward. I think I would have preferred the maternity ward, but Sheri asked the hospital staff to put her someplace where she wouldn’t be around people with live babies, as that would have been hard to deal with.

I went to the room with Sheri. My first after-birth task was to massage Sheri’s belly, which was suppose to help her uterus contract and return to its normal size. As the morning dawned, I was given another task, to call family and let them know we were in Utah (my family lived in Northern Utah and Sheri’s in Eastern Utah,) and also to inform them of our loss. I didn’t much like this a chore. However it was within just a few hours that people started showing up to wish us well. For my side of the family, a loss of any kind, other than grandparents, was something new.

As for Billy Boy, the hospital staff tried to remove his birth covering and clean him up, however in doing so his skin peeled. Consequently they stopped and he was left with what looked like a red rash where they had cleaned him up. We have one picture of him, and you can see his red rash.

I held him. He was very tiny. He weighed just less then five pounds. Sheri did not hold him, and she has expressed regret at this since.

My older brother’s father-in-law, Bishop Garbett came to the hospital.He was a former bishop and we consulted with him about the proper way to proceed with a stillborn in terms of church blessings. We decided there was no reason we shouldn’t give him a name and a blessing, so we did. My brothers assisted me. They brought the body to the room and I gave him a name. I don’t remember much of the blessing, but it was very short.

We did not take the body home for burial. The hospital staff said they would conduct an autopsy, and then dispose of the body for us.

That is the story of Billy Boy. From this experience, I learned there is a time to grieve. The grieving process was not just a one-day thing, but took place over several weeks, even months. How do you grieve for a baby you never cuddled and held? It wasn’t hard. The baby was real to us, and we had made plans to make him part of our lives. Sheri’s grieving was intense, because she had felt every kick and movement while the baby was inside her body. I had felt kicks, but only when Sheri shared them with me.

We went to spend a week with Sheri’s family for bereavement. It was a comfortable week for me. Not so much so for Sheri. They had given her what would be an inflatable tube for her to sit on to aid in her heeling process. We spent most of our time in the living room while Sheri tried her best to get comfortable.

We returned to Duckwater after at week of grieving leave. I worked for the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, and while we were gone an elderly tribal member had passed away. I am not sure why, but where this gentleman had been a member of the Church, it fell upon me to talk at his funeral. Preparing that talk, and remembering the eternal nature of life and family, helped me along my grieving process. The funeral was attended by the entire reservation of almost 200 people. I had received delivery of two large turkeys from BYU Community Outreach, which I brought back with me for a tribal dinner for the Holidays. We used these for a tribal feast to honor our newly departed elder. I felt I was handling everything OK.

Sheri did not grieve for some time. In fact she really didn’t grieve until a couple years later. My niece had a stillborn baby boy, Skyler, for whom they had a funeral. Sheri finally was able to grieve at that funeral, and let out her feelings about Billy Boy. In the mean time we had a new baby girl.

It’s funny about grieving. It is not a one-time process and then you’re done with it. Grief is less intense over time, but it is something that comes back. I wrote in my journal about having a bitter day a month after losing Billy Boy. Bitterness is evil and to be avoided. It can blacken your soul. I avoided bitterness by leaving things to the Lord and accepting that all will work together for our good. (See D&C 122:7) There is peace in that thought, and peace replaces bitterness.

A couple years later I wrote in my journal:"When Billy Boy died I remember asking myself inside for a long time, 'Why? Why? Why?' The question went away, but I’m not sure if I ever really answered it for myself. I do know when Tali was born and I saw how beautiful she is, the hurt seemed to fade—although for a time it was more piercing as I realized what we had missed. God, I know, has blessed me greatly, but it was after the tribulations and trials that allowed him to pour our more abundant blessings and make Tali so beautiful."

My trials have not been near so hard as others--As Job who lost everything, but was then able to see God. Or as the pioneers who lost so many children. (In uncovering an old burial site archeologist discovered four times as many infants as adults. In my own family there are stories of numerous children dying on the trek.) But these families overcame and built a city and temple with God’s help.

I know I can expect more trials, likely of a different nature. I have further to go to be in control of myself, and my own destiny. It is through trials I can prove to myself that I have made gains towards becoming more like Heavenly Father and Jesus—more perfect.

Sheri, for her part, fought depression. I realize now I wasn’t there enough for her. I wasn’t open to her talking about her loss and her issues. I just wanted to go on. A coworker suggested that perhaps we needed counseling to help deal with the loss. This seemed foreign to me.

23 years later, I still have days when I miss Billy Boy, or where he is acutely in my thoughts. At every funeral I attend he seems to be there. A few years ago we traveled to Arizona, to bury the nephew of my wife who had been struck by a car and killed while bicycling home from high school. That was a funeral with a significant amount of grieving. Seeing Sheri’s brother, wife and family, and their grief was painful. I started to write a poem I couldn’t finish:

One thing I would never wish to be
Is the guest of honor at a funerary

Parents should grow old, and their children should bury them, who are buried by their children and so on. Everything should be done in a proper order, but things don’t work that way. I remember the words of the poem The Weaver:

The Weaver(author unknown)

My life is but a weaving,
between my Lord and me,
I do not choose the colors;
He knows what they should be.

Ofttimes he weaveth sorrow,
and I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper,
and I the underside.

Not till the loom is silent,
and the shuttles cease to fly,
Will God unroll the canvas,
and explain the reasons why

The dark threads are as needful
in the skillful weaver's hand
As threads of gold and silver
in the pattern He has planned.

I am grateful for Billy Boy, and his short time in our lives. I still look forward to the day when I will be able to parent him and hold him in my arms. In the meantime, I feel his presence, and his loving concern for Sheri and I, and our family.

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