Short term daddy

When you ask someone if they have children, sometimes the answer is a complicated one.

This is an especially bittersweet time of year for me: seeing the Janeway Telethon raise money to provide very much needed equipment that helps save children’s—and especially babies’—lives. Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU) are very expensive places, with amazing staff, and every little edge helps those little ones beat the odds and maybe grow up to be ‘normal’ children. In a few days from now it’s also Father’s Day, one of those times of year when I think back to my own experience of the awe, love and hope-for-the-future a father feels for his child.

When you’re young(er) and encounter an awkward conversation it might be because someone asks who you are dating, how the dent got in the car, or who owns those condoms? At my age, it seems, topics of conversation have become considerably more adult: Are you married? You’re in Labrador, have you left Ottawa? What do you do for a living? Do you have a house? — I saw your renovations on Facebook!

And the all-time awkward moment question….

Do you have kids?

It’s a complicated question. “Yes and no,” or “not anymore” flood into my head and it’s directly related to why all the other answers come out in the negative as well. I’ve grown accustomed to people’s responses and so it depends how much energy I have to deal with their follow-up questions, and how much time I have to play with the English language to answer them.

Sometimes I try humour to set the stage: “One, that I know of…”. Sometimes I’m in a less-than-jovial mood and say “I used to have a daughter.” Or “I have a daughter (…but),” and kind of hope I don’t have to deal with the mood-dampening followup. It’s not that I’m not proud of having a daughter—I want to celebrate her life and affirm her existence—but she’s no longer with me.

The Story

Five years ago my partner and I were looking to take our union to the next level(s). Tired of wasting money on rent, relatively satisfied in our incomes and careers, we shopped around for a house that we could invest in, renovate, and make a home – and a family. In the fall of 2009 both of those wishes were granted. We found a 100-year old home needing some serious love. And ‘we’ were pregnant.

The following months were the scariest times of my life. Pregnant. And ripping out walls, gutting the kitchen. We got swine flu while we were racing the clock making sure the floors were manually scraped before the flooring company came. The electrician removed power to half the house and then disappeared. By month four of the pregnancy (and month two of the reno/disaster) my partner was put on bed-rest jail in the one finished room. I was cooking on a BBQ and microwave in winter. I had to go to work during the day. It was hell.

But that was just the start

All you daddies (and mommies) out there know the natural fears that come with your first child. Am I good enough? Can we DO this? Am I ready? Looking around the wreck of a house I could almost feel it screaming at me, that indeed I was not ready. Add to that the very high probability that we would have a premature baby. The clock was ticking. Lemme tell you something: when you are (probably) going to have a preemie the entire future is counted in gestational days and statistics associated with each passing week. Probabilities, bed-rest chat rooms, and YouTube videos frightened the crap out of us.

We didn’t do it alone, never think that; we had family cycle through helping us get ready. But we bit off more than we could chew and we had no idea how hard it would all be to swallow. At 28 weeks (March 25) my partner went into labour – never made it to the magical ‘safe(r)’ zone of 30 weeks. We thought it might be Braxton Hicks, so I tried to sleep through it (work night). Nope. (Another reason to feel guilty.)  Rushed off to the hospital just in time for her water to break and to be scurried into emergency C-section. I sat and watched it all happen with her. Scary (and fascinating to me as a biologist).

They immediately rushed the little one to the huge team of specialists — I was allowed in there too, partially to relay to mom that it was going well I’m sure. At 2.5 pounds she was so small and fragile, but she looked like a little person – the toes! Little tuft of curly hair! I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with — hope? Love? Statistical fear? Anyway, we got to roll mom in to see little Sila Morell Morris-Pardy the next day and everything was going to be all right after all.

The next three weeks

Well I don’t have time to explain it all. Let me just say NICU units are weird. All those babies at differing levels of care, with different equipment — respirators, machines that beep alarmingly, feeding tubes, incubators. One can’t help break out the statistical probability charts that show your baby will grow up with neurological problems if X doesn’t happen by Y time, which other babies have it worse, and so on. Regardless, ours was quite the little fighter and she beat all the probabilities.

By week 3 she was in a “big girl bed” out of the incubator, she was taking mom’s milk no problem, we got to bathe her and change her diapers, and my favourite: give her kangaroo care (which means skin to skin cuddling — great for babies’ development and bonding). She was even transferred to a lower care hospital close to our house! We stopped worrying about the odds of things going wrong, and starting thinking about which activist summer camp she’d go to.

Then she hit her first hurdle

She hadn’t really had one yet — they supposedly all do — and was developing and growing so well. Her eyes changed from big irises in the beginning to beautiful little blues like mom. She had so much character developing too! Ripping off her monitor leads, squiggling out of her bed, haha. Rebel. Mid-February she got sick. Really sick. Some kind of bacterial infection and off to CHEO (Ontario’s Janeway) she went to get the highest grade care available in the country.

February 16 — things were getting pretty desperate. All that hope and promise and statistical junk was under fire. They had given us a family room near the unit she was in so we could try to rest up and call our families for support. I called my own father and we talked. I can’t tell you how afraid I was, but I prayed. This isn’t something I normally do — not to a specific individual being anyway. Neither does my father but I asked him to as well. She was so seriously sick that I told him I was praying for a miracle…or mercy.

St Patrick’s Day, 2010

Sila got her mercy. Continued care was unlikely to save her and she died in her parents’ arms. I’ll never drink green beer again. (This isn’t a great lament of mine.) The mother of my daughter worked in Child and Maternal Health at the Canadian International Development Agency at the time. She saw the conditions in which mothers and babies die in developing countries first-hand. We all know, on some level, that we can be doing more. But how can this happen in Canada? How can bacteria—now made super-deadly because of hospital disinfectants and antibiotic over-usage—take down OUR child (and others at the time apparently) IN CANADA? People ask why we didn’t sue the hospital. For what? Anger? Even if there was fault, we’d just be hurting the system for other people.

We went to counseling. We went to group therapy. Nothing took away the pain and nothing took away the dead, grey hue life seemed to take on. There were moments of being almost normal again, happy days and smiles even. The movie “Rabbit Hole” (neat trailer: have a watch) came out that year and kind of summed up group therapy and predicted a few things like the statistical probability of divorce that would come years later.

Pain doesn’t go away, but gets easier to deal with

There are days of every month (the 25th, the 17th) which are always subconsciously harder for me. Her Birthday/deathday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day remind me as well. Seeing children that are the same age Sila would be. Walking, talking. I’m happy for people, seriously. I’m not a baby-phobe or anything; I love children.

One piece I read this past Mother’s Day spoke to me, and kind of kicked my butt to finally write this actually (so thank you Claire McCarthy). She said: “At first, we are different because of our raw sadness. But over time, the sadness moves from our skin into our bones. It becomes less visible, but no less who we are. It changes into a wisdom, one we’d give up in a heartbeat to have our child back. We who have lost children understand life’s fragility and beauty. We who have lost children understand that so many things just aren’t important. All that is important is those we love. All that is important is each other. Nothing else.”

The world has colour again

I can’t explain the dark places my heart has been to, the guilt, the depression, anger, lack of direction. All I can tell you is that at some point I realized I had to change. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’. I was in an Aboriginal Leadership Development Initiative with some of the most impressive souls I have ever met. Maybe it was then. Maybe it was the passage of time. But I realized I used to be a passionate person. My (now) ex-partner and I grew apart, dealt with it differently, separately. I was gone too far into the grey.

The only thing that keeps me out of the grey these days is being open to it all. I can’t explain it but the way I feel and experience the world has an off or on switch now. I see/feel/experience the dull grey, or I see the vibrancy and love and light and colour of the world, far brighter than it was before. I understand the shortness of life and love and I’m not afraid to experience it for as long as it lasts. However, when this mode is on, I also feel the lows and the darkness much stronger too. I’m sensitive to people and the world like I never was before good and bad. Otherwise I feel nothing.

So yes, I have a child

Don’t pity me. This is why I dance around the question sometimes. I know the response is going to be some form of pity. People are afraid of their mortality, and their children’s mortality; I get that. Sometimes they’re afraid to ask me how I am, or feel sorry for asking if I have kids because they hate reminding me. Don’t worry — I remember her every day.

It’s not me that feels awkward in this conversation; it’s OK to have weird feelings of your own. But it is still nice to meet you. I am happy Sila (click the link to learn the meaning of her name) came into this world, and I want everyone to know who she was, and THAT she was here. Her little footprint is tattooed on my foot so she can walk the world with me; ditto her mother’s. Her hand print is tattooed over her grandparent’s hearts too. It’s a delicate dance to share this with people, and not lay eggshells around myself, or identify myself as simply the dead-baby’s-daddy.

Please, consider helping those in the community who are going through special care, or grief. Even a hello will go a long way.

Please, hug your kids/each other, more.

Please, wash your hands when you’re at a hospital. Like, a lot.

If I hurt or alienated anyone along this path, I’m sorry. Thank you to all those who just said hello, or dragged me out of the house.

Happy Father’s Day.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome thoughtful and articulate Letters to the Editor. You can email yours to: justin(at)theindependent(dot)ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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