We asked our families to leave us alone with Max for a bit, and hoped they would all try to go get some rest while we all waited for my brother and sister-in-law to arrive.
It was a tender time; just the three of us. Three of us. After so many years, there were finally three of us, but we would have to leave the hospital tomorrow and be just the two of us, again. I prayed that the hours we had left would feel like days. I prayed that every moment would be carved into my memory and never forgotten.
One year later, and that prayer was surely answered.
I close my eyes and I am in the hospital room. It’s cold, and smells stale. I feel the pound of a headache from lack of sleep, hours of crying and little to eat. My breasts are painfully engorged, but now that I’m trying to dry up I have to wait longer to pump. I’m so exhausted I’m practically dizzy when I stand. I have no idea when I last slept, or showered… Maybe it was Sunday? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I’m not worried about any of it, because I’m holding Max in my arms, and Tyler is laying across the couch with his head in my lap, cheek to cheek with our son and I am soaking up every last minute I get to experience it. One arm cradles his ever-growing head, and with the other I memorize every inch of my sweet miracle boy. I feel his pudgy arms, every crease and every roll. I kiss his chubby little cheeks. I tickle his clubbed foot. I trace my finger from the top of his forehead and down to the tip of his little half nose. He’s always loved that, and it seems to calm him. He’s just started to spike a fever in the last hour, and I can tell he’s in pain. Every now and then he peeks at me through his one good eye and I think, for a moment, that maybe he can see. When we make eye contact, it is as if he is asking me if it is time. But I just can’t let him go yet, so I beg him to fight a little longer. I promise him it will all be over soon, if he can just hold for us for a few more hours. He seems to agree with me, closes his eyes and nuzzles his cheek back up to Daddy’s.
I remember all of it perfectly.
Sometime after midnight, my brother Jason and his wife Alex arrive. They get washed up and come in to meet Max. Like everyone else, they are instantly in love. He even perks up a little for them. We spend some time together, letting them have a chance to be with him for the first and last time. Then the rest of our family gathers in. We are all together; our parents, our brothers and our sisters-in-law.
We wrap Max in a beautiful white afghan, and Tyler blesses him. Max’s mission is fulfilled. His short life’s great work has been completed, and the Lord is ready to welcome him home. It’s time.
I am holding Max, and Tyler is holding us.
One by one, each grandparent, uncle and aunt step forward. And as if bowing to a king, they kneel so reverently before our perfect son and whisper their gratitude and tender goodbyes.
Teresa is here. She has been by our side, by Max’s side, since the beginning. And now she’s here with us to finish his journey. She holds my hand, and puts her other hand on Tyler’s shoulder. Her face is wet with tears. She tells us she will bring in the respiratory therapist, and they will turn off the machine and remove all his tubes. Since he hasn’t breathed on his own in two days, she says it shouldn’t take long for him to pass.
Tyler squeezes me tighter. I look into his eyes, reflecting just as many tears as my own. Our foreheads fall together, and we just breathe for a moment. He kisses my forehead and says “It’s time. It’s okay. It’s time.”
It seems to take forever as the carefully remove every monitor stuck to him and every cord hooked to him. At last, Teresa gently pulls the tape away that has been covering his cleft lip. For the first time, I am seeing my son. All of him. He has no upper lip, except for a tiny little flap just below the left side of his nose. It’s adorable!
She slips the breathing tube out, and his winky eye pops open in surprise. And he sighs, like it is the greatest relief, at long last, to be rid of that stinking tube! A smile stretches, and we can’t help but laugh. “Does that feel better, baby?”
He coos a soft beautiful sound. And he breathes. This incredible little boy is actually breathing. They said it was impossible, but he is doing it.
I don’t know how long this goes on for, it feels like forever, thankfully. But, eventually, his breaths become labored. We can see it in his eyes. We can see the struggle. He is running out of fight, but he doesn’t want to leave us. We promise him that we’ll be okay, and we tell him he can go. “Go with Grandpa King and Grandpa Garrett,” Tyler whispers to him, “they will guide you.” We say “We love you” a million times, like a mantra, “We love you. It’s okay. We’re okay. You can go.” After a few more gasps, he is just a body.
I know this is just his body now, because I watch his spirit walk away. He is tall, like Tyler. He walks ahead into the brightest light where ahead two men wait for him. My grandpa and Grandpa King take each of his hands, and all three of them walk forward and then are swallowed up in the light.
I am hallowed out. Max is empty, therefore, I am empty. My heart is in throes of pain. I can feel it breaking to pieces every second I am in his spirit’s absence. I leave Max with Tyler and I run from the room and out of the NICU, no longer able to take it. I run into my Daddy’s protecting arms. He holds me together, and then passes me to my mother. He holds all three of us together until the others make their way out to join us.
Tyler pulls me into his arms and I collapse into him. I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know how he is being so strong, but I am so grateful. And then, suddenly, there are three of us again. Tyler is holding me, and there are big and strong arms wrapping around both of us. We are forehead to forehead, smiling at each other through our tears and drenched in the sweetest peace I have ever known.
Max is not gone. Max is here.
One year later and I can still remember every beautiful moment with Tyler and Max those last days. Heavenly Father answered my prayer and granted me the perfect memory of it.
I have missed my sweet boy every moment since his spirit entered heaven. He has been in my thoughts every day of this last year. It has been a h a r d year. It has been hard to continue in life without Max here. And then we lost another baby, our little Todd, who only lived a couple of months, growing inside me.
Yes, it has been a hard year, but it has also been an infinitely blessed year.
Tyler and I are outnumbered in heaven. We have three reasons to return, waiting for us. We are blessed to know that death is not the end. We are blessed to be an eternal family. Our children wait for us, and we have to live up to the great spirits they are. We have to make them proud.
Max made us so proud every single day of his life, and every single day since. Now, I just have to do the same for him. I have to be the mom he deserves. I have to live up to the potential I must have, the reason he picked me… I am so lucky he picked me! We’re so lucky he picked us! He was worth all the heartbreak that came before him and any that comes after. He was worth it.
So, now we have to be worth it. We have to live worthy of Max. We have to live up to what he expects of us.
So, just like Max, we can arrive at the gates of heaven and hear,
“Well done, my good and faithful servant. Now enter into my rest.”