The pose you see in this photo was not a customary one for Hudson. All through her days as a young infant, I kept waiting for her to start snuggling with me like this routinely, for her to rest her head on my shoulder for comfort and warmth. But not my girl. She practically came out of the womb holding her head up, and from that point on, she always wanted to know what was going on around her, and that required that she be upright and paying attention. I have no idea what inspired her to rest her head on me in this photo—I know it was taken at Thanksgiving, so maybe the cumulative effects of the long, exciting day (when she took her first tentative steps) and a big meal just got the better of her and she decided to take a rest. I’ve cherished this photo ever since I first saw it, though, because it’s one the few I have of us like this (beyond the first few days of her life). I cherish it even more now, for reasons you will soon understand.
Hudson started feeling bad early in the morning on Mother’s Day. After waking up a few times in the night with a fever, I figured she needed plenty of rest to help her get over whatever bug she was fighting off. She was fussy and whiny, as kids tend to be when they don’t feel well, and insisted on being held most of the day. So when she wouldn’t nap in her crib, I picked her up and brought her out to the glider and let her sleep on my chest, with her head tucked in on my shoulder, just like you see above. It worked like a charm—she napped soundly there off and on throughout the day. The following night and morning, about which I’ve written more times than I care to remember, were even rougher than the first night, and we were up and out the door at 7:30AM Monday morning for our early trip to the pediatrician. After that visit, the doctor sent us down to the lab to get bloodwork and a chest x-ray, where Hudson continued to rest in exactly that same position while we waited to be called for our turn for each procedure. We loaded her back into the car, not surprised that she sacked out in the car seat pretty much immediately. She was such a tired little monkey and had been poked and prodded at all morning after having a really fitful night of sleep. Once I got her back home, I took her straight to her crib to put her down for some more sleep. She rested there for about 10 or 15 minutes and then began to fuss, so I brought her out the glider again, where she spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon sleeping on me, interrupted only a few times by my asking her if she would try some water from her cup, to which she replied with a feeble “No.” She stayed in that position while I called the pediatrician again to ask if I should be concerned that she had not eaten or drunk anything since 7PM the night before, at which point the doctor sent us on to the ER to get fluids, just in case. The entire time at the ER, standing in the triage line, sitting in the waiting room, talking to the triage nurse, she stayed in that same position. In fact, when we finally saw the triage nurse, I made of a point of the fact that she’d been in pretty much the same position all day, hoping it would be a red flag that would get us seen sooner rather than later. It worked. We were finally seen about 2 hours after we got there, and Hudson was admitted with a meningitis diagnosis Monday evening.
Little did I know that I would be unable to hold my girl like that again while she was alive. I said to Ed afterwards that I was so grateful, both for Hudson’s sake, and my own, that she spent her last two days of consciousness snuggling with her mommy, resting in my arms. Because the next three days are a terrible nightmarish blur with too many awful frightening points of clarity, many of which I’ve written about before. Once Hudson was hooked up to an IV and other gadgets, we were unable to hold her in our laps or do much more than just sit by her and hold her hand while she was still conscious. Once she was sedated, and later in a coma, we could lay on the bed beside her. But we couldn’t hold her. The one time we tried, with the nurses’ assistance, to pick her up off the bed so that we could hold her in our arms, the experience was fraught with peril, setting off alarms left and right, bringing four or five nurses in at once to try and fix the line that had been broken somehow in the process. Needless to say, it was only so comforting.
How I longed to hold my sweet girl during those terrible days, to comfort her, to be comforted by holding her close. I didn’t get the chance again until it was time to say our final goodbyes. We had said goodbye once before, earlier that day, not long after our endeavor to hold her, when her system appeared so unstable that we just weren’t sure when it would finally give up. We wanted to be sure that we had said what we needed to say to her and hugged her and kissed her so that we wouldn’t be forced to do that in another nightmare of alarms and rushing around. But then came time for the real goodbye. Her little body had held on, supported by a dozen different machines and medications, for one brain death test on Wednesday night and the repeated test on Thursday night. We had known at least since the middle of the day on Tuesday that the injury to her brain from the infection had been catastrophic. We had known at least since late Tuesday and early Wednesday that she could no longer breathe on her own and that her brain was not even performing a basic function of regulating her temperature. We had known since Wednesday night that her brain showed no signs of any activity and that nothing was likely to change between that first test and the second test that would occur Thursday night. Ed and I have discussed before that in some ways, she “died” several different times during those days—over and over again, we got new information, each piece more cataclysmic and irreversible than the last. Until it was finally time. The doctors had told us that once the second brain death test had been performed, they would be required to declare her dead and to remove all life support not long thereafter. We could have some time with her before they did it, but not a lot.
We had decided that anyone in the family who wanted to could be present when they disconnected everything. By this point, I had bared the rawest parts of my soul to total strangers as I wailed in the waiting rooms and walked zombie-like through the hallways of the PICU, eyes staring at nothing in particular. There was no way to orchestrate these final moments with Hudson “just right”—it just had to be whatever it was.
Once we got word that the final test was over (my dearest Ed somehow managed to be present for the entirety of both tests—he just felt like he needed to see for himself, and we have never really spoken of those moments since then), and after some mix-ups and explanations with the new attending on duty about how everything would actually happen, everyone came back into the room. We asked the nurse to turn off all the monitors. Everyone who wanted to gave Hudson a kiss and then formed a half-circle around the bed, arms around each other (I’m certain in some cases, they were literally holding one another up). Ed and I sat on the bed next to our precious girl and waited as the doctor and the nurse pulled out each tube and disconnected every machine. I remember hearing sniffles around me. I remember sitting there with a half-smile on my face, amazed for the moment that I did not feel the need to cry, and then thinking about how in Steel Magnolias, M’lynn describes this same moment when they disconnected her daughter’s life support, saying, “There was no noise, no tremble, just peace.” And that is what I felt at that moment—somehow, I just felt peace. All I wanted was for them to get all that stuff off of her so that I could hold her.
And that is what I did. As soon as everything was gone, and she was back down to just her diaper, I scooped her up in my arms, cradling her like I had when she was a tiny infant, with her head in the crook of my left elbow, pulling her close to me. I remember thinking how incredible it felt to hold her again, to feel her weight in my arms, to snuggle her close. I hadn’t been able to do that in over three days, the longest time I’d gone since she was born without doing that. Ed and I sat with her in our arms for the longest time, until finally everyone else drifted out of the room and left us alone with her. Still, I didn’t cry.
Until I put her up on my shoulder. I turned her upright and rested her head on my shoulder and for a fleeting moment, I could pretend that none of it had happened, that the last three days had just been an awful dream, that she was just sleeping peacefully on me like she had on Mother’s Day and the day after. Finally, the tears fell. They turned into sobs, as I realized that it was all real, that my gorgeous, amazing child was dead, that once we left the room, I would never get to hold her again. I rocked back and forth with her on my shoulder, crying for her, crying for us, crying all that would never be.
We continued to hold her, first one of us, then the other, then us both, until it just seemed time to let go. I laid her back on the bed and pulled the blanket up to her shoulders. All the swelling from all the fluids they had been pumping into her had finally receded and she looked like herself again. I was so grateful to get to see her that way. She looked like she was sleeping.
We cut locks of her hair for everyone in the family who wanted one and talked with the nurse about making her handprints and footprints and the mold of her hand. And then I really have no idea how the rest of it went. Somehow, we started packing up the room, cleaning up all the debris of a three-day stay in the PICU, balloons, books, toys, clothes, phones, food, trash. Somehow, we carted it all out. I think about it now and wonder how in the world I participated in that, when my child was lying dead on the bed in the center of the room. I’ve felt regret over it, thinking of how we bustled about as if she were no longer even there. And I honestly can’t remember leaving the room for the final time. I can’t remember if I lingered at the door for one last look at her. I hope I did, but I really don’t recall. I think I was just on autopilot. I don’t know that there was any other way to be.
But what I remember, what I will never, ever forget, was the feeling of her resting on my shoulder, both in our glider at home and there in PICU as we said goodbye. Every time I see a child resting on a parent’s shoulder in that same way, I remember. Such an ordinary, typical pose for them. Such an extraordinary memory and meaning for me.
Rest, my sweet, sweet girl. Rest in so much peace. Mommy loves you.