Which part of your child’s face is your favorite to study? You know what I mean. When he’s still (for two seconds), when she’s sleeping, when laughter alights their faces? I love Valerie’s freckles, sprinkled across her nose like stardust. I adore Sylvia’s sweet little cheeks; there’s something of the baby I carried still there. Joncarlo’s eyes truly stop traffic. Have there ever been such beautiful big, brown eyes? I could stare at my children’s faces all day. Unless said children are whining. Then I get coffee.
I have previously chronicled the injustice of studying Elliot’s face only in pictures, now four years old. I can’t picture a four-year-old him. I have no concept of how he might appear in Heaven. My gift is the pictures captured during his days of life on this earth, both the ultrasound and pregnancy pictures of his days inside my womb, and the dozens of photos from his five days outside. In these images, I see his brow like Sylvia’s, his lips like Valerie’s. His innocence like Joncarlo’s.
The year and a half of being “pregnant” with the adoption process of Joncarlo created a world of suspense I am relived to be finished with. It was no small task to get out of bed each day holding the tension between raising my daughters, grieving a son who had died, and pursuing a son who was waiting. I felt no certainty, no “peace” that Joncarlo would come home (especially in light of Covid), only a heavy hope that it would be so.
And thank God, it is so.
Now that he is home, the shock is beginning to wear off and many realities are beginning to set in. Our family dynamic is forever changed. A new little person with a big personality impacts each of us in different ways. Sylvia loves playing with him but is not so keen on extra noise, so she’s allowing herself more alone time in her room. Valerie’s intense emotions manifest as joy when she and her brother chase and pretend, and fierce jealousy and grief when she’s feeling forgotten. Dustin and I recall our days as foster parents when another child in our home similarly caused a season of simultaneous stress and delight. But this child, our son, gets to stay for good.
And our little Joncarlo. I imagine sometimes what it’s like to be inside his mind, having experienced all this from the view of those big brown eyes. Being dressed on May 13 by his foster mother, the only mother he had ever known, then being taken to a neutral child welfare building and put into my arms. What could that have been like? And all the days since? Days of being carted on airplanes, in hotels, restaurants, meetings, paperwork, doctors. The transition of arriving in Colorado and learning the sights and smells and strange expectations of a new family and new home. The absolute grief he must feel but can’t articulate at leaving his foster family and never seeing them again. Even with all the empathy I can muster, I cannot truly comprehend what my little boy’s heart has endured.
And with these children and changes bouncing around me, my Elliot feels far. It’s been a part of parenting I never could have understood without experiencing it—this parenting path of loving my child who has died. Elliot has never ceased being my son. In all the hustle and immense learning curve of this new season, I don’t know how next to honor my beautiful, deeply missed little boy.
Last week his precious legacy, however, stared me in the face. Joncarlo’s complex medical needs necessitate a journey of referrals to specialists, doctor’s appointments, and eventual surgeries and therapies. I thought about this hard as we decided to pursue his adoption. We are still in the same network of doctors’ offices and hospitals we utilized during all five of my pregnancies and three losses, and I knew that triggers could await me at every turn. But I knew as an adult it was my responsibility to face these triggers for the sake of a child needing excellent medical care.
But that doesn’t make the triggers easy. For one appointment recently, I took Joncarlo to get an ultrasound of his kidney (he has something called a horseshoe kidney). I didn’t expect it to be hard. But the ultrasound room. The hum of the machine. The exact same “ding” as the ultrasound tech took pictures. I was suddenly transported to the ultrasound appointment which changed everything, which I believe directly contributed to Elliot’s death. If you’ve experienced trauma and know what a trigger is like, you know there’s no getting out of it. There’s just getting through it.
I drove home in the murk of tears, dreading an even more intense set of triggers likely to come for Joncarlo’s next appointment. The next day would be Joncarlo’s first appointment with the pediatric orthopedic doctor for assessment of his radial club hand. The orthopedic department of Kaiser is in an office building downtown, across the street from St. Joseph’s Hospital.
I have not been back to St. Joe’s in some time. It is not normalized for me. It is the site of the most beautiful days of having Elliot in my womb, lying in a hospital bed for 50 days on bedrest trying to save him. Those were the days of hopeful expectation, child-like trust that he would be fine. I can still feel his kick patterns if I close my eyes allow my heart the painful gift of remembrance. Those were the innocent days of he and I surviving his traumatic birth, the joy gazing on his perfect face, the privilege of holding his precious hands in his incubator.
That place, that beautiful, awful place, is where reality ripped in two the moment my son died. And reality has not mended since.
I texted my husband after the ultrasound appointment and told him I could not go downtown by myself the following day. And he understood. He always understands better than anyone because, of course, Elliot is his son, too.
Dustin immediately informed his supervisor he’d need to leave for a few hours the next day to accompany Joncarlo and me to an appointment. The day of the appointment as he drove us and we approached the streets leading to St. Joe’s, I almost thought I would be okay. But as soon as we made that final turn and St. Joseph’s Hospital came into view, any illusion of okay dissolved. My heart raced, my breathing quickened, and I felt the panic of losing Elliot rise in me as if I could somehow still save him. I don’t know if there are words to adequately describe. I still somehow want to save him.
All the worst fear of losing a child, all the ridiculous wrongness of that fear coming true, it returned as just the sight of a building brought every feeling and memory flooding to my body. That’s the thing about trauma triggers-you don’t just get triggered in your mind, you get triggered in your entire body. Thankfully, with Dustin there, with a job to do for the sake of Joncarlo, I was able to experience the overwhelming intensity of that moment, then find myself in the present again.
Joncarlo is quite intoxicating to look at. He gets a lot of stares, and it’s less about his radial club hand and more about the reality of his being the cutest boy on the planet (not biased). There is something about him. The x-ray technician noticed this as he complied with every stance and position she needed to x-ray his hands, arms, and spine. “He’s just so sweet!” she’d declare over and over to this proud mama. “Look at those eyes!” And then, as we finished the final x-ray, she spoke to Joncarlo, “You have such a beautiful soul. You’re going to change the world.” She told me just being with him had made her day.
Wow. What was that?
After a positive meeting with the orthopedic doctor, we exited and began to drive away. The sight of St. Joe’s didn’t attack me with as much force the second time. In fact, something touched me deep inside, where Elliot lives in me, in the deep places Jesus guards tenderly.
I realized I had both my sons with me that day.
The doctor’s office where Joncarlo will need the most care sits across from the site of my other son’s brief earthly life. The profound meaning of this fact showed me Elliot’s face the way I see my living children’s faces every day. Though part of me hates I will be forced to endure this trigger many times, the other part intuitively knows the truth.
Elliot’s influence in my life directed me to Joncarlo.
I’ve chronicled elsewhere my derision with the theological line of thinking that Elliot’s death was somehow intended by God, and especially I throw up a little with the idea that Elliot dying was to bring about Joncarlo’s adoption into our family. That progression of thought is not only is just fallacious thinking of God (in my opinion) but belittles the value of both boys. God’s plan is life, and therefore Elliot’s death was a sad tragedy God did not plan nor want for our family. And the God I know could have easily directed our hearts to Joncarlo with Elliot still here with us. You can debate that with me if you want, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I will go full mama bear.
But God is pretty amazing at taking the worst pain and tragedy of our fallen world and bringing beauty and meaning from it. I tell you, the first time I saw Joncarlo’s file, none of his medical needs scared me. All I could think was, “I would have done this and more for Elliot.” Elliot’s needs may have been very severe with his underdeveloped lungs, with the amount of time he may have needed in the NICU. But I would have done it, as you would for your child.
And yet more than simply being a perspective-bearer on medical needs, Elliot was somehow very involved in the decision making of our adoption of Joncarlo. We very seriously considered what Joncarlo in our family would mean for our lives and for his life. We thought about it and talked about it for months. It may sound mystical or a little contrived, but as I’d spend time in contemplative prayer, which often led to laying my wounded mama’s heart to God, I’d cry for Elliot but I’d see Joncarlo’s face. I’d just, I don’t know how to put it…I loved Joncarlo with a mother’s love. Before I even knew he was going to be my son. The two boys felt connected to me. It was like Elliot was rooting for me, saying, “Yes, mom, that is my little brother! Go for it!”
It might sound crazy. But it’s how it happened.
So, we went for it, putting in our letter of intent for Joncarlo right after Elliot’s 3rd birthday. Little did we know, due to Covid, it would be another entire year before we’d get to Joncarlo. The timing of his official adoption decree in Colombia coming through 3 days before Elliot’s 4th birthday, flying home with him the day after the anniversary of Elliot’s death—the significance of how the days lined up is not lost on me.
And so, as I drove away from St. Joe’s after Joncarlo’s appointment, the reality hit me that Joncarlo is here, in many ways, because of Elliot. That little, sweet baby boy who lived just 5 days outside of my womb is, like the nurse said of Joncarlo, “changing the world.” And the beautiful soul inside of Joncarlo that she could so clearly see? I think it is shared by my sons. I think they are brothers in a way we’ll only fully understand in Eternity.
I wish they were growing up together, side by side. Joncarlo’s precious presence does not fill the absence of Elliot. Sometimes it amplifies just exactly what we’re missing by not having Elliot here. But deep in my heart I know Elliot is here, albeit not in the way I desire. Each time I drive to the orthopedist with Joncarlo, I’m sure I’ll look at St. Joe’s through streams of tears. My tears will be both bitter regret that Elliot died in that place and overwhelming privilege to care for Joncarlo’s needs in a place nearby. My heart deeply grieves that Elliot did not come home. And my heart rejoices that Joncarlo did. Never can I separate these two stories, because they are one story: the story of my sons.