Child of My Heart: Michael’s Story
There is no pain on earth like the ache of a mother’s empty arms, no agony deeper than that of a father torn from his child. The loss of a child is a heartache too deep to fathom living even once. But my husband and I have lived it twice. Twice I have felt my heart torn from within me. Twice I have said goodbye to a precious baby boy.
The loss of our firstborn son Owen was the first great heartbreak of our lives. The years of infertility that preceded his arrival were a difficult journey, but one that had led us to the incredible blessing of Owen, our miracle baby boy. But then one cold winter morning early in our pregnancy, a routine ultrasound revealed the news that would change our lives forever. At just 18 weeks gestation, our beloved little Owen was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition incompatible with life outside of the womb. We determined to love Owen without reservation and care for him every moment he was with us. We spent the remainder of our pregnancy praying ceaselessly for our son and cherishing each tiny kick and hiccup. Our strong, brave, beautiful Owen blessed our lives beyond measure, and passed away at birth.
The loss of our deeply loved newborn son was a heartache so shattering that it was beyond our ability to imagine, even in those precious but heartbreaking months leading up to his death. Our pain in losing him was so all-consuming, so shattering, and so intense, that it seemed to us the very limit of what any person could be asked to endure. Overwhelmed in the face of our intense grief, loved ones attempted to bring comfort by promising that surely this was the limit of our pain, that surely our lives would soon become easier. Those well-intentioned promises hung in the air as my husband Mike and I clung to one another in the church foyer following Owen’s funeral. One by one friends and family attempted to comfort us. “You guys have been through so much,” they told us, patting me on a back now stooped under the weight of crushing grief. “I just know that things will get better. I just know that God will bless you.” That cold spring day as my body still ached with the pain of giving birth and my heart ached with a pain infinitely deeper, those comments felt callous and cold. I could not bear to think of a future without our son, our precious, loved and longed-for baby boy. The pain of his loss consumed me completely, and no part of me believed that life for my husband and I would ever get any easier.
But as time passed and joy found its way into my life once again, some small part of me began to hope that those promises were true. To hope that we had been through our quota of pain. To hope that God would not allow any more. Because joy had found its way into our lives again. Just nine months and eight minutes after Owen passed away, his baby sister Nyomi was born and joined our family through adoption. And while the ache of missing Owen was in no way made less, the ache of empty arms and a home silent in the absence of baby cries and coos was replaced with the joy of our beautiful baby girl. We delighted in each and every moment with Nyomi, our grief in losing Owen causing us to appreciate fully the blessing of each moment with his new little sister. Our lives were finally what we’d always dreamed they might be one day, as we relished raising our little one and excitedly anticipated adopting more children.
And then one day the telephone rang. And at the other end, a social worker bearing wonderful news. We had been chosen by a birth mother to adopt once again. A two-week-old baby boy. Our hearts danced with joy. Our pulses raced. It was Wednesday evening. We would meet with the birth mother Friday. And on Sunday, we would bring our new baby boy home.
Hands shaking, heads swirling, my husband Mike and I sat on the family room floor, listening as the social worker relayed the details over the phone. There were “red flags”, she warned us, explaining a bit of the birth mother’s social history. There was a chance that she could change her mind. But before fear had the opportunity to find its way into my mind, she gave us the details that confirmed to my heart that this baby would indeed be ours. Throughout my life, God has given me images in my mind; specific little glimpses of the children that I dreamed would one day be mine. Some of those very specific images have been with me since childhood. I never forgot those dreams, but never knew for certain if they would one day come true. As the social worker spoke, joyful little shivers ran up and down my spine. Because as she spoke, I knew for certain that this was the baby God had whispered to me about since my childhood. Specific details I had never shared with anyone turned out to be a detailed description of this tiny baby boy. And as one final confirmation, his name. Without having seen our profiles, without knowing anything about us, his birth mother had named him Michael. The name of my husband. The name of the daddy God had chosen for this very special baby boy.
The following days passed by in a blur, as we scrambled to prepare our home for the arrival of a new baby. Our meeting with the birth mother went well, and she told us that she was certain we were the parents she wanted to raise her baby. Passionate believers in open adoption, we reassured her of our love and great respect for her, and in our interest in her ongoing involvement in the life of our family. The following day, we introduced Nyomi to her new little brother. And that Sunday morning, we brought our precious Michael home.
As we carried our tiny new bundle of joy up onto the front porch of our home, his smiling big sister toddling along beside his car seat, I was overwhelmed by a sense of completeness. This home that had for years echoed with the emptiness of infertility, then became just an aching shell of longing after Owen passed away, would in just one moment be bursting with life and joy and wholeness. A newborn’s cries and coos. A toddler’s chatter and laughter. This was the home we had dreamed of and longed for all those long, lonely years. The joy I felt in that moment was pure and perfect, the years of pain leading up to it only brightening the intensity of the sparkle in my eyes.
And oh, what a joy our precious Michael proved to be. The happiest, most contented baby I have ever known, he smiled early and often. He loved to be cuddled, and his big chubby cheeks were endlessly kissable. Nyomi soon fell in love with him, stroking his thick, silky hair and gently rocking him in his bouncy seat. He was clearly daddy’s little boy, and was never more content than when curled up in a plump, cozy ball against my husband’s chest. Rocking my baby boy late in the night, he’d look at me with sleepy eyes almost drunk with happiness, and my heart melted again and again. All those aching, empty years, I could never have dreamed of moments as perfect as these, with my little girl asleep just down the hall, and her new little brother cradled in my arms.
Six beautiful days passed, our home so alive with the sound of little voices, our hearts so full of happiness. And then one afternoon, the telephone rang. And this time, the world stood still as my heart was shattered once again. Because in just one instant, I learned that we would again lose a baby boy. Our precious Michael. Our child. Our son. His birth mother had changed her mind, the social worker told us. We had the night to say goodbye. And then we were to give our baby back in the morning.
The next few hours are a confusing blur in my memory now. They are hours I have tried to not to replay in my mind, and have difficulty thinking of even now. I remember little aside from the feeling of being frozen – unable to move, unable to speak. Almost unable to breathe. I don’t remember hanging up the phone when the phone call ended. Just somehow nearing Michael’s car seat, where he was sleeping peacefully. Unbuckling the seatbelt with trembling hands. Feeling his warmth. Smelling his baby skin. And I remember late that night preparing bottles and packing tiny clothes, as Michael lay cuddled, so safe and so happy, against his daddy’s chest.
That night we held and rocked and sang to him. Bathed him in his little baby bathtub. Dressed him in his coziest sleepers. We held him together, arms wrapped around one another, and prayed, begging God for a miracle. Begging that Michael would stay. We anointed his soft little forehead with oil. And as we had done with his brother and sister before him, we dedicated his little life to the Lord.
In the months before our first son, Owen, was born, we lived with the knowledge that unless Owen was miraculously healed, he would die either before or shortly after birth. During the months that we lived with that knowledge, I at times thought fearfully about what the most difficult moment of my life might be. I imagined that moment would be the moment my little boy died. But I was wrong. By far, the most difficult moment of my life was the moment, two days after Owen was born and passed away, that I placed his tiny body in a hospital bassinet, kissed his soft, cold cheeks, and walked away from my little boy forever. It was the moment that Mike and I clung to one another and walked out of that hospital room, knowing that we would never again hold our son in this lifetime. The agony of that act was unspeakable, and I survived it only by the merciful grace of God. Two years and two months after living that unspeakable pain, Mike and I would be forced to live the same nightmare all over again. But this time, our son was living and breathing. This time, we would hear him cry as we walked away.
That heartbreaking morning in early June, both precious baby Michael and his big sister Nyomi awoke early. We brought them both into bed with us, Nyomi cradled in my arms, Michael cradled in his daddy’s. And as we lay there together as a little family, Owen’s picture on the bedside table beside us, we longed for the sun to stop rising and for time to stand still. Even knowing what that day was to bring, there was a sense of peace in my heart that morning, just for a few precious moments. Both Michael and Nyomi fell asleep between us, and Mike and I lay there watching them dream. Our precious, beautiful children. Our beloved baby boy.
All that morning I fought to be strong. Because this time, it would not just be Mike and I losing a child. This time, our beautiful, tender-hearted daughter would be losing her baby brother. I couldn’t prevent our family from being torn apart. But I would do everything within my power to prevent this loss from traumatizing my daughter. So as the morning hours passed by too quickly, Mike and I maintained the appearance of calm. Cuddling Michael. Playing with Nyomi. Busily washing and sterilizing baby bottles. And carefully wrapping gifts – cozy new baby clothes, a soft stuffed lamb, a favourite storybook, a CD of lullabies – small things to go with our sweetheart, to bring him comfort when we could not.
My parents arrived to care for Nyomi, and I stressed my need for calm for Nyomi’s sake. I watched as they held their grandson one last time. Just as they had held Owen. My heart broke as I took him from my dad’s arms, and I struggled to continue breathing, continue moving. But the hands on the clock continued moving. I had no choice but move with them.
And then in the playroom, the moment I cannot forget. Holding out sweet baby Michael, and asking Nyomi to give him a kiss. Fighting harder than I have ever fought, an ocean of tears and cries of agony held back only by the force of my love for my daughter, and the power of my desire to protect her. No goodbyes. Just a little kiss from her sweet little lips, planted softly on his forehead. And with trembling I stood and walked away, Michael in my arms, Mike’s hands supporting me as together we climbed our basement staircase, trembling under the weight of our grief.
I sat in the backseat as we drove to our social worker’s home, the agreed upon meeting place. Michael slept peacefully beside me, as I held his tiny hand, stroked his hair, and took the last few precious pictures. Mike and I spoke little. And the drive ended far too soon. We arrived purposefully early, sitting alone in the living room and cradling our baby boy, watching him sleep. And then, a vehicle in the driveway. Another social worker, the birth mother and a friend. All calm or semblance of it immediately disappeared. And I began to sob with a depth of agony I had never before experienced. Never. Not even when our precious Owen died.
And so we clung to our sweet Michael, and clung to one another. I held him. Mike held him. We changed his little diaper. Stroked his chubby cheeks. Rocked him and told him how much we loved him. Soon he grew hungry and would be consoled only by me. I remember so clearly the moment Nyomi preferred me to anyone else – the moment she knew for sure that I was her mommy. And that moment came with Michael the day we were to say goodbye, warming my heart and shattering it all at the same time.
When the time came for us to leave, we brought Michael into a private room. Took turns holding him, cuddling him, and showering him with kisses. We told him that we loved him, and that we always would. That he would always be our baby. That we would never stop waiting for him to come home. Holding our son and holding each other, we prayed for this child, our son. We prayed that the Lord would hold him, shelter him, and bless him. That the Lord would take care of him when we could not.
Our anguished cries to God over the past twenty-four hours had left both Mike and me with just one clear impression on our hearts. God seemed to speak to both of us, telling us that we must choose not to let anger consume us, but rather to let Michael’s birth mother see only love in our eyes. We wanted her to know our true and complete love for Michael, and – as difficult as it was under these circumstances – also our love for and acceptance of her. So when the moment came for us to leave, I placed Michael in his birth mother’s arms. Voice breaking with emotion, Mike thanked her for entrusting him to us, even for a little while. Sobbing and shaking, I had no voice. But I as I stood there sobbing, one hand on my child, I placed my hand on his birth mother’s shoulders. And with just a touch and a look in her eyes, tried to convey that we would always love them both.
Two years earlier, as we walked down the hospital corridor, away from our newborn son Owen, I felt God’s hands – literally felt them – holding me up and supporting me. Those hands carried me through the hallways, sustaining me in that, the very worst of moments. Our entire journey with Owen had been one of contrast – devastating pain and heartbreak, but also a great sense of joy in his birth, and peace about God’s nearness in our journey. This time, as I walked down the hallway of our social worker’s home and out to our vehicle, I did not feel God’s hands. As I walked away from my second baby boy, I did not sense God’s presence. Only the searing, suffocating agony of loss. And the added agony of living twice what no parent should live even once, as we willed ourselves to walk away, leaving our beloved child behind forever.
Driving home, I watched my husband weep over the loss of his baby boy. Watched his daddy heart break for a second time. And I felt the familiar, piercing grip of grief plant itself around my heart, stabbing and searing with each slow and shuddering breath. We spoke little between us as we drove. Uttered another tear-drenched plea for Michael. And prayed for our Nyomi, our reason to continue on in spite of the pain. We vowed to one another to protect her as best we could, to shelter her from our grief and maintain the best semblance of normalcy possible. And united in our resolve to be strong for our daughter, we gripped one another’s hand tightly and turned on the road towards home.
Grief, though familiar, is never the same. Our recently shattered hearts were now broken once again. But this time the fracture lines were entirely different. And the pain of each jagged break was new. As I examined the damage to my heart those first agonizing days, I noticed the complicated pattern the fracture lines in my heart had created. Two baby boys in two years. Two unfathomable losses. And yet the pain of losing Michael was entirely different than the pain of losing Owen. And this journey of grief was something we would have to learn to walk, just as we had learned to walk the long and continuing road of grieving our first baby boy.
Loneliness had overwhelmed us after losing Owen, as we missed him with a longing no amount of support from friends and loved ones could assuage. But when Owen died, there was a funeral. Two hundred fellow mourners, hugging us and offering condolences. Struggling for words. Crying in our presence. And when Owen died, there was a mantle full of sympathy cards, a refrigerator full of casseroles. There were vases and vases full of flowers. The day we lost Michael, we came home with an empty car seat in the back of our car. Home to piles of baby boy laundry, much that still smelled of him, carried traces of him. There were tiny diapers to be packed away. Baby bottles in the kitchen sink. There were signs of our little boy everywhere, but he was gone. Absent from our home and our family in every bit as tangible a way as Owen was absent. And yet there were no cards, no flowers, no casseroles. There was no funeral at which to express our brokenness. And no opportunity to see that others were broken, too.
There seemed to be a sense among others that somehow this pain could not be as deep as the pain of losing a child in death. And in some ways, it was true. There is something so heart-wrenchingly permanent about death, something so unique about the death of a child that no other pain can compare. But what proved difficult to understand was that the pain of an adoption loss is also a very unique kind of pain – one marked, in our case, by trauma even more severe than the trauma of losing a child in death. When Owen passed away, we clung to the comfort that he was safe, loved and cared for in heaven, and that we would one day see him again. With Michael, there was no such comfort. Only the knowledge that he was out there somewhere in the world, at risk for all kinds of hardships and pain that we were helpless to protect him against. When Owen passed away, I used to have terrible dreams. Nightmares in which I knew that Owen’s heart was still beating, but no matter how hard I tried to reach him, he was nowhere to be found. In Michael’s case those nightmares became reality, as I lay awake late into the night wondering if he was safe.
And always present in this new grief were the questions, and the agonizing struggle that arose in my spirit as I wrestled with God over the unique nature of this new loss. Much of that struggle arose from the comments, delivered in love and with the best of intentions by some hoping to bring comfort. Struggling to make sense of it all, as we were, there were those who attempted to find answers rather than simply walking with us through the questions. Surely this must be God’s will, we were told. Perhaps Michael was never meant to be ours. Perhaps it was better this way.
Those were the thoughts that cut at my soul, those long, sobbing, sleepless nights. I was a mother mourning for her child. Or was I? I had lost my little boy. But had I also lost the right to call him my son? Had I lost the right to mourn as his mommy? In the depth of my grief over losing Owen, I clung to one unchangeable fact – the fact that even though he was no longer in my arms, I would forever be his mommy. Now as I navigated the fog of grief once again, even that comfort seemed to be taken from me. I had felt so certain that Michael was meant to be ours; that he was the baby I had dreamed of since childhood. And once joined with our family, he had been our son, loved as deeply and as completely as we loved our other two children. Yet now I was a heartbroken mommy, stripped of even the right to be acknowledged as one. Had this been God’s will for our family? Had it been His will for our little boy? Had God intended that our family be torn apart?
Never have I struggled with God in the way I struggled those early days. How could I trust a God who could allow not just one, but two children to be taken from us? How could I trust a God who could allow such depth of heartache? And worst of all, how could I trust God to take care of Michael, taken from our loving and stable home into circumstances I felt certain were far less than ideal? I felt battered, broken, and betrayed. Abandoned by the God I had trusted implicitly through the loss of our first child. And utterly alone.
But I was not alone. And under all of the layers of grief and trauma and anger a small voice whispered. So quietly that I could not hear the words above the rush of emotion. But with each whisper, I felt God’s breath on my heart. So lightly, at first. But gradually growing stronger. And as the days and weeks turned to months, the whispers grew louder, becoming almost audible even through the storm. And then one day, rocking my daughter, I asked the Lord to let me hear. And tears streaming silently down my face, I finally heard what the Lord had been whispering all along…
“I am the One who understands. I have adopted you.”
Never in my life has God spoken to my heart so clearly. And never before have such few words brought such great comfort to my soul. Those words were not an answer to all of the questions that still flooded my heart and mind. But they were the anchor I had been waiting for, a comforting , solid promise to hold on to as the torrent of uncertainty continued to rush around me. God was my adoptive father. He had chosen to adopt me into His family (“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” Ephesians 1:4-5), just as we had chosen to adopt Michael into ours. And no matter what the circumstance, my adoptive Father’s love for me was unending.
And if the God of the Universe, who created and ordained all things, chose to make me His child through adoption, then that was assurance that the love and purpose of families He had chosen to build through adoption was in no way secondary. Suddenly I understood for certain that He had not willed that our family be torn apart. His plan in joining our lives with Michael was a loving one, interrupted by complexities of a fallen world that I cannot pretend to understand. And just as my Heavenly adoptive Father’s love for me would never end, my love for Michael would not end either. Michael would always have a place in my mommy heart. And no one understood that better than the Lord.
It was that central understanding that brought the first glimmers of peace to my soul – the assurance deep within me that God understood my broken mommy heart. The image of Nyomi’s birth mother returned to my mind again and again, as I thought of her different but important kind of motherhood, and God’s blessing in joining our family with hers. Suddenly I came to understand that like Nyomi’s birth mother, my role of motherhood was different but forever worthy of recognition. I was not the every-day-and-forever-cuddles-and-kisses mommy that I had hoped to be. But I was forever a mommy in my heart.
And so I coined a new term for myself. There are birth-mommies, step-mommies, foster-mommies – all sorts of mommies in the world. And just because this difficult kind of motherhood that I was faced with was not common and had not been named, didn’t mean that it did not exist, and did not deserve to be recognized. So I named myself Michael’s heart mommy. And Mike, his heart daddy. Terms that made sense to us and that affirmed what we knew to be true - that in a very real and very important sense, Michael would forever be our little boy. Not to remain forever in our arms. But to reside forever in the deepest and most loving places of our hearts.
Much has happened in the months since we lost Michael. And the understanding of Michael’s permanent place in our hearts and our family has been a comfort through it all. God continues to work in ways that we cannot pretend to understand, and the road has taken many unexpected turns. Among those turns has been a very unexpected continuation of our relationship with Michael and his birth mother. In the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Michael, God spoke just one thing clearly to our hearts – that we were to show only love to Michael’s birth mother. And through what we can assert could only be a miracle, love is what she saw. Michael’s birth mother maintains contact with us now, emailing occasionally and sending pictures. She continually thanks us for our love for them. Refers to us as family. Speaks of our importance in Michael’s life. We have even visited on a couple of occasions, holding Michael in our arms once again. Michael now lives half way around the world, and the plans for his future are uncertain. The continuation of this relationship has been a complicated blessing, and one that often brings more questions than answers. Still, we choose to open our hearts, knowing that we cannot live our lives simply trying to avoid pain. We choose instead to live with our hearts wide open, knowing that we risk pain, but that we also allow opportunities for God to continue working, taking the pain and the struggles and ultimately creating something that is good.
We still live each day wondering what will become of Michael. What the future will hold for him. What kind of person he will become. We pray each and every day for this child whom we love, the passion of those prayers matched only by the prayers we have spoken for Nyomi and Owen. Our prayer is that he will be protected in this life, and one day rejoined with our forever family in heaven. We pray continually for both Michael and for his birth mother, that both of their lives will be blessed. There are many who tell us that perhaps that was the purpose in it all – that we would come to love Michael for the sole purpose of praying for him for the rest of our lives. I believe that is part of it. But I do not believe it is that simple.
Our human hearts long to understand, to have answers to the questions that unsettle us. But God’s work is not an equation to be solved. Not a simple question to be answered. I know now that there is no such thing as a “pain quota”, at least not in the way that I would like such a thing to exist. God has protected us from much in our lives. But some pain and trauma He has allowed us to walk through, and will continue to allow us to walk through. I do not claim to understand God’s plan for our lives. I do not claim to understand His plan for Michael’s. But I have learned that in life’s deepest trials, we may not always find answers. Just the presence of a God who understands on our behalf. Who walks with us through the heartache, seeing what we cannot or will not in the moment, things that we may never see. The God who understands all has walked with me through my darkest nights, and carried me even in the moments when I could not feel His presence. I pray each day that He will carry my baby boy, the child of my heart, the way He has carried me.
Michael’s loss and the emotional and spiritual struggle that accompanied it are things I will carry with me forever. There are questions that will remain unanswered, spaces that will never be filled. And those fracture lines on my heart, though softened over time, will never disappear. Rather, they will weave and curl and intertwine with the other lines of love and of loss that make my heart unique. At times, the weaving will tug and pull, as the pain of my losses will feel raw and new. But at other times, I will see glimpses of the beauty of this weaving. Not merely a random assortment of threads, but part of a larger tapestry that God is creating within me. And in amongst the threads of pain, ribbons of blessing, thankfulness and joy. Thankfulness for each my three children, and joy that I was chosen to be their mother. Because whether in heaven, in my arms, or in my heart, each of my children is a blessing. I know now that this painful weaving is likely to continue throughout my life, and that I may never fully see the picture that God is creating. But I have learned to trust His handiwork again, to trust the voice that whispers to me when pain threatens to engulf me. It is because of the loss of my two boys, not in spite of it, that I have leaned to trust my adoptive Father in heaven to continue His work in my life. I trust not because I have all the answers, and not because I understand. I trust because He is the One who understands. Because He has adopted me.