SHARED BY NATALIE M.
BOARD MEMBER OF STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES
One of Those Friends
In August of 2010, I took my daughter to her kindergarten classroom for the first time. I was minding my own business, as I typically do, and relishing my daughter's joy in starting school when a strange woman began to approach me. I can tell you exactly what went through my head because it's the same thing that goes through my head every time a strange woman approaches me. "Please, please, please tell me you're not coming to talk to me. Please, please, please tell me you're not one of those moms. Oh god, she's headed my way. What's the fastest exit route? Shit. Her husband and kids are blocking the doorway. Shit. I'm stuck. Well, I'll just smile and be polite."
Luckily for her, our daughters hit it off (and are still best friends today), so she gained a really awesome friend.
I couldn't dodge her that day, and I haven't been able to dodge her since. Today, I don't try so hard to get away because, over the last six years, I've learned she's not one of those moms. She's a fantastic human being, a wonderful friend, with a way-too-kind-for-this-earth heart and a determined soul. We've had days when I want to punch her in her naive head, but we've had many more days when I want to punch the people who cross her in their stupid heads. I never do either because she's constantly reminding me that she doesn't have bail money saved up and that I look terrible in orange. Damn her anyway.
In the Trenches Together
I don't remember where I was, what I was doing, or what I had for breakfast that morning. What I do know is that I had to resort to my coping defaults—logic and sarcasm.
"Nat, there's something wrong. His head is measuring big."
"That means he's gonna be smart, or cocky. Either way, I'm sure everything will be fine."
I knew better. There was something really wrong with this baby. (Read Eli's story here.)
I left her house that day and knew I could not allow myself to get too close to the idea of this baby. There was no way I could love on that baby knowing he was only going to be here for a little while and be strong enough to be there for his mother once he was gone.
I took phone calls from Jen no matter where I was or what I was doing. I jumped at every text and email alert on my phone. I helped with the girls whenever I could. I only made it to the hospital once. I sat with Jen during a procedure of Eli's. I can't remember what it was for, as I only had one hour of sleep before making the trek to the hospital. My boyfriend at the time had fought with me all through the night before. I sat there clutching my coffee, forcing myself to stay awake to be with her because Tim had to be at work. I visited Jen as much as I could when she was home. It wasn't always easy to get away with a narcissistic, alcoholic boyfriend at home.
When Eli came home for the first time, my kids and I rushed over to meet him. As we approached her front door I saw my friend sitting on her couch with all three of her children in her home. I just had to stop and take it in. I can see that image still. Once inside, "Give me that baby. Oh god, those thighs. Look at those cheeks. I just want to bite him. I don't care what anyone says, this kid can hear. Jen, did you see him turn his head when you spoke? He knows your voice." I held him until I felt my icy cold heart start to thaw. I had to put him down and get out of there. I'm sure I made some excuse as to why I had to go, but I don't remember what it was. What I do remember is making it very clear to myself: that would not happen again. As I tucked my daughter into bed that night, she asked me why her friend's brother was sick. As I tucked my son into bed, he asked me why babies can die and told me Eli can't die because he needs a boy to play with and give his old toys to.
No more, Natalie. We can't go over there any more. Jen will have to come to us. Our house can be her place to escape for a few minutes. From there, lots of nights were spent in my garage, listening to Jen talk about this boy—the boy I refused to allow myself to believe really existed—and everything else she was trying to manage. Occasionally she wanted some outside world noise, so I gave her little bits of my seemingly normal life. That summer flew by. I kept willing it to slow down so my friend could spend long days holding her baby, yet I wanted this crazy life that revolved around feeding tubes, medications, doctors, and hospitals to be over for her.
Mid-October, I got a phone call from Jen telling me that they were able to get a nurse every day except four hours on a Thursday night, and her husband had to be at work then. My kids were spending the same Thursday night at their dad's house, so I offered to come hang out with her and help with the girls while she took care of Eli.
The Tuesday before, Jen called to tell me they weren't taking Eli to his doctor appointment on Wednesday. "He's not doing well. The home health nurse doesn't think he'll make it to the hospital without his oxygen."
Oh, hell. Shit. Shit. Shit. Here it comes. This kid is going downhill. Fast.
"Ok. Let me know if you still want me to come over on Thursday."
No doctor appointment on Wednesday. No word from Jen all day. I woke up on Thursday, October 25th, in a panic. I had a dream about Eli. I couldn't get to him or Jen. She asked for my help, and I was trying to get to them but I couldn't. It was just a dream.
I called her before I was out of bed. I told her I woke up thinking about them; I asked if everything was ok. It wasn't. He had stopped breathing during the night. The nurse had woken Jen and her husband, and they had been awake with him since. I told her to go back to her boy and to let me know if she still needed me to come over. Nothing. Silence all day. Not a word. So I decided to head over. I walked in the door not knowing what I would find. There sat Jen, her best friend from high school, her mom and her stepfather, the girls were playing on the floor. No baby. Where is the baby?
Upstairs. He was upstairs with Tim and the nurse. I popped up to see him. His breathing was so labored. I stared at his chest. I stared at his pulse oximeter. I sniffed him. He still smelled like a baby. Yep, time to go back to the adults and pretend that the baby didn't exist. I have to be tough. There are problems to solve. Where are the girls sleeping tonight? Who's at the door? Do you want guests? Go be with your boy. I'll deal with the people. Go eat, I'll sit with Eli. If anything changes I'll come grab you.
At 8:50 p.m., I stepped outside to take a phone call. At 8:59 p.m., Eli stopped breathing. At 9:03 p.m., Jen's best friend from high school, whom I had just met that night, came outside to tell me he was gone. My friend's five-month-old son had died. There was nothing I could do to make this better. All my preparation was wasted. All I could do was sit next to her and let her cry while she held her sons lifeless body. I stepped in when she couldn't. I stood by to make sure that boy got a proper bath. I held him, only for the second time, while the nurses made a mold of his hand.
I left for a few minutes to get myself together. When I returned, the hearse was in the driveway. I walked up the sidewalk and into the house to see Jen and Tim walking down the stairs, holding Eli.
I've had my heart broken many times in this life, all of them very different—yet nothing compares to the pain felt while watching my friend place the body of her infant son on a stretcher in a hearse. I've zipped several body bags throughout my career; this one, I just could not watch. I turned my head as Jen and Tim said goodbye to their son in their driveway. When Jen turned to me sobbing I wasn't sure which one of us was going to hold the other.
The Journey to Stories from the Trenches
Earlier, I mentioned the nights in my garage. What I didn't mention was where my head went after Jen left. I would stay up for hours worrying about what would happen to her after Eli died. I had myself convinced she'd end up over-medicated on antidepressants and possibly in a padded room. I didn't want that for her, but I knew it was beyond my control. At some point, I decided that, if that's what happened, I'd stand by and continue to help with the girls and whatever else I could do.
That's just what you do when you decide to do life with someone, and that someone decides to do life with you.
About a year or so ago, Jen came to me with her idea for what is now known as Stories from the Trenches. She wanted to unite women, give them a place to find hope through their struggles. She reminded me how desperately she looked for this place while in her deepest and darkest after losing Eli. Never did I think she'd drag me into this idea of hers. When Jen asked me to follow her into her dream, I couldn't say no. I was way too proud of her choice to be constructive with her pain. If I decided stick by her through the insane asylum, this was going to be a piece of cake.
My love for Jen, my pride in the direction she took her pain, and my loyalty to those I love are the reasons why I'm here on this board of directors.