This is Not My Story

For years, I was a fan of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy. Although I’ve since fallen off that wagon (I couldn’t keep track of the catastrophes. . . ), one particular storyline became infinitely woven into my own.

In the season three episode “Where the Boys Are,” a young couple comes to the hospital; the wife had fallen in the shower and broke her wrist. Eight months pregnant, this twenty-something woman—glowing with the anticipation of parenthood—mentions that she hasn’t felt the baby move much since the fall. The doctor orders an ultrasound. The room goes silent, and the young couple’s smiles quickly fade as the doctor delivers the devastating news: The baby’s heart is no longer beating. The young mother then has to deliver her stillborn child. Tears poured down her face through each contraction. She agonized through the delivery, knowing that only grief waited for her on the other side. And then the baby was born.

As I watched the young woman hold her stillborn son, I remember sitting in in my living room sobbing. Not yet a parent myself, I couldn’t fully understand their grief. But I could imagine it—and I ached. “How could anyone get through that?” I wondered. It all just seemed like too much.

***

On December 23, 2010, my husband and I sat in the waiting room at the IU Women’s Hospital of Indianapolis, Indiana. We were 27 weeks pregnant with our second baby. A routine ultrasound had detected some irregularities in my amniotic fluid levels, so my OB-GYN had referred us to see a specialist. So there we were. Waiting in silence, save for the overhead hum of the fluorescent lighting.

We knew something was wrong. While nervous, I walked myself through the worst-case scenarios. I mentally prepared for the possibility of complete bedrest, amniocentesis, or maybe even fetal surgery. But the actual situation was not even near my radar.

“Sarah Westfall.”

The call of my name broke the silence. Ben and I scrambled to gather our things as we were ushered back into a small, dark room that held little more than an exam table, an ultrasound machine, and a chair for Ben. I exposed my belly, and the ultrasound technician went to work. Initially peppy, she grew quiet and then excused herself to go find the neonatologist.

A few minutes later, the tech returned with a woman who ironically looked an awful lot like Grey’s Dr. Bailey—short stature, shoulder-length hair, and (had she been my friend and not my doctor) a body built for the perfect hug. The doctor introduced herself and immediately turned to the ultrasound machine. A few clicks of the computer, a few movements of the monitor across my belly, and she put her tools down and helped me sit up at the end of the table.

And then—her dark brown eyes looking directly up at mine—the doctor sat down in front of me and placed her hands on my knees. She then said the words that changed everything: “Your son does not have kidneys. I’m sorry, but while he can survive in utero, he will not be able to sustain life after birth.” She went on to explain the particulars of bilateral renal agenesis (the condition we would later Google obsessively). But all I heard was a blur. For me, time had stopped in that moment.

I felt as if I had floated up above myself. There I was, looking down at the scene in front of me: The doctor gently trying to explain the details of this rare birth defect. The young husband, his head buried in his hands as tears poured down his face. And me—the young mother—sitting in shocked silence, nodding my head as if I were being given directions to the nearest WalMart. The words “not able to sustain life” seemed to echo in the room on repeat.

Looking down at this scene, I thought, “This is not my story.”

***

Flash forward. Tomorrow marks eight years since our baby boy Carter was born and died an hour later. His body was indeed unable to sustain what the medical community has called “life.” But I think they had it wrong. “Life” cannot be measured in minutes, in the ability of our bodies to keep us breathing long enough to go to school, get married, have babies, and do something in this world. Because, frankly, Carter experienced more life in his one hour than many people do in a lifetime.

In one hour, Carter knew love. He was held close and cuddled and kissed. Wrapped in a hospital blanket (that I still have tucked away at home), he was passed around amongst grandparents, aunts, uncles, close family friends, and finally his older brother Cohen—only 15 months his senior. And God was there. While our grief was heavy, God’s presence was thicker still. It felt like He was standing among us, just watching the love in that room with tears in His kind eyes. He was so close, I looked for Him.

Losing a son was never a path I would have chosen for myself. As much as I wanted to write about life, that’s not the story I had pictured. That’s not the tale I wanted to tell. And for a while, I thought God had it wrong.

But in the wake of grief, here’s what I’ve discovered: My story is not my own.

What unfolds in front of me is not the culmination of all my good choices resulting in being #blessed. My story is only a continuation of God’s story, His gospel unfolding in my life as He stakes His claim on all the pieces of my wounded heart. Grace doesn’t always come in pretty packages. Sometimes, it comes as a gift of brokenness. That pain—the murky, feel-like-I-can’t-breathe mire—was exactly what I needed to see God the clearest, to know just how deep His love can reach.

Grief has become my deepest grace. God redeemed my black ash into a rock I can stand on. It has become the story I tell—not because I think I “handled it well” or because I want to glorify the pain—but because it was in the pain that I discovered the abundance of God. It was here that He weaved His story into my own. And it was here in the bitter places that I tasted His goodness.

And that is a story worth telling.