I talked the talk. Every life is a gift, and worthy of defense. We are not promised a particular quality of life, or a number of days that we will get to live. We are only promised that our lives are God-given and their length, their demise, is not for us to determine. These are truths that I have espoused since the days I felt myself called to be an active part of the pro-life movement.
Then one day I was asked to walk the walk. In a cold, sterile ultrasound room a doctor – Not even my doctor, but some stand-in – shattered the world that I knew when she told me my child, gender then unknown, had a condition that she described as “incompatible with life.” My mother cried, my ex-husband held my hand in stoic silence, and my mind raced to try to keep up with what the doctor was saying. My child, the 21 week old fetus whom I would come to know as my son, had anencephaly. If he were born alive, he would die shortly thereafter.
There really was no decision to be made, only an inevitable outcome to wrestle. I would live every parents’ nightmare and witness my child’s death, but it would not be a death at my hands. I would live as I believe, and I would let God’s will for my child be done. This was the path I had been given, and I soon realized that while I would spend the next 19 weeks hoping for a miracle, I had been tasked with praying for the grace to accept God’s will, whatever it may be.
My family and I carried the heavy secret for over a month. In that time we saw a specialist, who confirmed the diagnosis. Another ultrasound was performed to learn my baby’s gender. The images only told me what I’d known in my heart since the day of my positive pregnancy test. This was the baby boy I’d been dreaming of longer than I could remember. Slowly we let friends and extended family in on our news, the burden becoming lighter as people rushed to help carry us along. We received more support than I ever expected and I began to realize that while my son would never be an MLB pitcher or a Supreme Court Justice, he was doing what politics cannot – He was changing hearts and minds.
Still, the remainder of the pregnancy had its lonely and heartbreaking moments. An unknowing stranger would see my growing belly and smile, and just their smile hurt. At home there were times I could feel that my ex-husband and I were being strengthened by this journey but at other times, I could see that there was a tremendous difference in our responses.
Gabriel Michael Gerard Cude was born on June 10, 2011. His name, Gabriel, was chosen for its symbolism. Of course, Gabriel is the archangel known as the messenger angel who delivered the news of the impending birth of the Savior of Man. Since his diagnosis, Gabriel represented a message that I could only speak, but that he was living: Every life matters. Gabriel means “God is my strength,” and I know that when I was weak, it was God who carried me.
It must have been God’s strength that fueled Gabriel, too. He defied the odds and everyone’s expectations. The hours after his birth clicked by with friends and family filing in and out of the delivery room for a chance to meet him. Hours, and then a milestone 24th hour passed as Gabriel quietly and stoically held on to his earthly life. After two days the hospital discharged us. I remember our discharge nurse’s parting words, “You’re three of the luckiest people I’ve ever met.” In these decidedly unlucky circumstances, I knew that she was correct. We were living what every parent who walks in my shoes dreams of. Hardly anyone gets to bring their anencephalic baby home.
For ten days Gabriel clung to this world. On that tenth day, through tears my ex-husband and I told our son we loved him, that he had given us more than we could have asked for, and that we knew it was time for him to go. In our arms, Gabriel took his last breath. We washed and dressed and held his lifeless body until the funeral home’s representative appeared to take our son away. His tiny body was respectfully placed in a car and we watched as it backed out of our driveway and disappeared at the end of the street.
One year later, almost to the day, I watched as a moving van packed full of my ex-husband’s belongings backed out of that same driveway and disappeared at the end of the same street, bound for the East Coast after a tear-filled goodbye that rivaled Gabriel’s passing. When we started down the path of carrying our terminally ill son to term, no one could have convinced me that our marriage wouldn’t survive either.
In my research leading up to Gabriel’s birth I learned that it is a misconception that most marriages do not survive the death of a child. In fact, in a situation such as ours, the decision to carry to term when an estimated 92 to 98% of parents facing the same diagnosis choose to have an abortion is often a decision born of faith, suggesting that same faith would guide the couple in fighting for their marriage. My marriage didn’t end because our son died, any more than a marriage ends because a child lives. My marriage ended because through the death of our son, which occurred less than two years after we were married, our differences were magnified.
Under the microscope of child-loss we allowed ourselves to become fractured to a point where we simply couldn’t put things back together again. Through the Catholic Church’s annulment process I discovered neither one of us was emotionally equipped to enter into the marriage in the first place, and the emotional trauma we experienced with Gabriel only expedited this discovery.
This is the part of the story that probably causes the most discomfort. Some people only want to think about the life of our son Gabriel, and the defiance of the odds in our choice to carry him to term and in his living for ten days. They don’t want to think of the hundreds of days we’ve lived since. Others seem to look only at the end result, wrongfully asserting that terminating Gabriel would have given our marriage a better chance of survival, and questioning whether we should have held greater priority over each other, rather than this terminally ill child who was just going to “die anyway.” Both sides miss the mark.
Gabriel was never a choice. He was always our son. He will always be our son. We might have done a lot of things wrong, but Gabriel was the thing we did that was the most right.
I talked the talk. Life does not promise us happiness, only an opportunity for happiness. With heavy feet I tried to walk the walk. In my grief after losing my son, and then after the dissolution of my marriage, I had no idea what life held for me. Life didn’t seem to mean much at all. I had to remind myself and allow others to remind me that life is a gift, even when it’s tragic and challenging. I had to will myself to go on, because a big part of me simply didn’t want to.
I have since remarried, and so has Gabriel’s father. We each have little girls now with our respective spouses. Life is good – beyond good. Life is better than I ever thought it could be when I was in my moments of despair. That nurse was right. We were three of the luckiest people she’d ever have the chance to meet, though happiness hasn’t looked like I expected. Happiness looks like my husband, and my beautiful little girl Eden, and the knowledge that Gabriel’s father may have found the same thing with someone else, on the other side of the country. We are only promised life, not days, not outcomes, not ease, and not happiness. We chose to make the most out of what was promised. We chose life.