How My Dying Father Saved My Daughter’s Life
Though I don’t believe in meant-to-be, I believe in this.
I had to put my daughter in her bassinet and sit on the floor next to it, taking deep breaths, desperate to stop my trembling. This isn’t how it's supposed to be, I thought. I was a new mom and, looking at my baby, all I could think was how much pain she had ahead of her in this life.
My Daddy was hospitalized on my birthday, 11 days before my baby was due. I had no idea he was sick. I knew he had had surgery to correct spinal stenosis years before—a surgery for which I moved home for three months to help out and one from which he never fully recovered. When my parents came to my wedding in 2015, he didn’t sleep for most of their visit.
“This is my last trip,” he told me. I thought he just meant that flying sucks, and it’s torture for someone with back pain. I don’t think either of us imagined that the source of the problem was going to kill him, and soon.
A year and two months later, on my birthday, my father’s kidneys began to fail. Hoping it was just the kidney stone they saw on the CT-scan, my parents called me and sang “Happy Birthday” just like they do every year.
It was the last time I talked to him. A few weeks later, I would remember that final conversation and smile. We talked about my hemorrhoids. I whined, and we laughed. They told me how excited they were to meet their granddaughter soon. I didn’t know that the whole time, he had been talking to me from a hospital room.
My father was hospitalized on a Saturday. On Wednesday, they found cancer cells in fluid from his abdomen, and that’s when they told me he was in the hospital. By that time, he was on so many drugs that he was no longer able to talk. His kidneys had never come back online, and he was receiving long, painful dialysis sessions every day. He couldn’t undergo any treatment or surgery. He simply wasn’t strong enough.
Meanwhile, four days before our due date, my husband and I went to our OB, and I was just sure I would be on the verge of labor. My doctor shook her head, “Nope, nothing’s happening yet.”
I’m sure that pregnant women burst into tears in that office all the time, but I must have done a special version. My doctor looked startled. I told her what was happening with my dad, and she said, “What do you think about moving things along?” I balked at induction, but she reassured me, “You’re almost at your due date, and you’re almost 40. We wouldn’t want you to go late.” Soon, we found out exactly how right she was.
A couple of hours later, I was in bed, all hooked up to monitors and IVs. The real action would start in the morning with the Pitocin. My job was to get some rest. A couple of hours later, though, my water broke. Seven hours later, I was pushing. One more hour, and my daughter Clio was born.
She was blue. She wasn’t breathing.
The nurses, including our friend Mary, grabbed our tiny blue baby and began pumping air into her lungs. In moments, she was fine. But the childbirth gods weren’t through with us yet.
While they were getting my daughter to breathe, I kept laboring, and my doctor pulled out the placenta with a stunned, “Oh.”
“What now?” I gasped.
She pointed out how the umbilical cord didn’t attach properly—what’s called velamentous cord insertion—which meant that the baby could have moved or kicked and detached her umbilical cord, causing her to bleed to death. The condition becomes more dangerous the longer the pregnancy goes on. Because of my father, our baby was in the world with us, instead of still inside, the risk of being stillborn increasing with every hour.
My husband had been texting my parents updates all along, and I was looking forward to FaceTiming with them. I was sure that seeing his only granddaughter’s face would offer some kind of pain relief. And I would also get to tell him, “Daddy, we’re on the way.”
I waited for them to call, but no one did. They were probably letting me rest, I thought. I’ll just call them.
But, when my Mom answered, she was in the car. I could hear the road noise and then my brother spoke, too. I knew immediately that they would never have left my father alone.
In the smallest voice I’ve ever had, I asked, “Mom, did Daddy die?”
And then the long pause.
Finally, she said, “Yes, honey. But I didn’t want to tell you. Not today.”
Somehow I choked out a laugh. “You were just going to avoid talking to me the entire day on the day I gave birth?”
Mom laughed a little too. “It wasn’t a great plan.”
The panic attacks began the day after I left my mom and brother in the airport following the funeral. I never saw my Daddy again, I began to think. I could easily never see my Mom again, too. Or my brother. Or my husband. My baby almost died. My Daddy did die. I had only barely recovered from a case of mastitis that made all of my doctors’ faces go pale.
The next day, I was trembling too hard to hold my baby.
I had always lived in such security, grounded by my parents’ dependable presence. But in that two-hour window when Clio was born and my father died, I transformed. I was no longer flesh-and-bone, but glass. In every corner of my mind and body, I felt that even the tiniest knock would shatter me.
This lasted for eight months. Anti-depressants only amplified my feelings to an incredible, shrill level. Therapy helped, though, and after talking my way through a few months, I felt strong enough to drop therapy. But I was by no means going it alone.
When the panic attacks began, my first call was to my husband, but my second was to my Mom. “Can you come back?” I choked out. “I’m already packing,” she answered. She was with me in two days.
And when she arrived, she said the thing that would change everything: “I think I’ll just buy an RV and stay for a while. Just until you don’t need me anymore.”
I don’t believe in meant-to-be or providence, but when I look back, it does seem like my father was already our angel before he even died. Our daughter needed to be born, and he inspired an induction I never would have chosen otherwise. My labor was a stunning eight hours long. But what is even more remarkable is that, thanks to my water spontaneously breaking and the wildfire speed of labor that followed, Daddy did, in fact, get to see his only granddaughter.
“Hang on, Gary, Clio is coming,” my mom told him. “She’s going to be here soon.”
My husband texted them a photo of Clio, then one of me and Clio. But Daddy waited until he got the third photo, one of me, my husband, and our new daughter all together, and he said, “Okay. I know Rick’s got them, and it’s okay now.” And he died.
I will never escape this new thought, and I still think it every day, all the time. It’s two thoughts, actually, and they are like perfectly fitted puzzle pieces: I am so lucky; I have so much to lose.