The gift of watching a child die

(I wrote this post shortly after the events of that fateful day, 21 June 2017, but never shared it publicly. I decided to share it today, on the anniversary of Princess’s death, in her memory, but also because I remain grateful for the lessons I learned through the tragedy.)

The Gift of watching a child die

I had second-thoughts about that title. I realized it could sound sick. Twisted. My aunt still mourns the loss of her son 13 years ago and I don’t know how she’d feel if someone referred to his death as ‘a gift’. Perhaps it might be better if I make it very clear that the death of a child was not a gift in and of itself, but what I learned from it was. It is an honest title though. Because that is the raw, awful truth: watching a child die was a gift to me. Painful? Yes. The rip-your-heart-out-and-put-it-through-a-shredder kind of pain that actually words cannot even begin to describe. But a gift, still.

A message came through on our neighborhood group that a child had been hit by a car on a road that runs parallel to ours. I started to fume. I’d said countless times that that road was a hazard. Then another message: ‘Help! Child needs CPR’.

I yelled for my eldest daughter. She has training in infant and pediatric CPR.
‘You drive!’ she yelled back as she threw me the car keys, grabbing her sneakers.

As we ran out to the car we could hear sirens in the distance. Messages were coming through the group saying EMS were enroute but still a few minutes out.

It took us less than 60 seconds to reach the scene. As we ran towards the crowd we saw a paramedic arrive to take over from a civilian who had started CPR. We pushed through the crowd and saw her. A young girl lying on the pavement. More medics arrived and got to work quickly, setting an IV, bringing equipment, continuing with CPR.

Not far from her a woman was on her knees, crying a hoarse, gut-wrenching cry. The child’s mother. Still unsure of what had actually happened, I asked her.

“The pool. She was in the water.” she told me. She said it a few times, as if still processing it herself.
“Not a car accident?’ I asked.
“No. The water.” she said.

At this point I realized what was later confirmed. The child was found floating in the pool. No one knows how long she had been there. Carrying her, the mother had run into the street to flag down a car for help. That’s how she landed up beside a busy road. That’s why people presumed a car had hit her.

She scrambled to her feet and started moving towards her daughter who was surrounded by at least a dozen medics. My daughter and I held her back.
“Let them work. They need space.” we told her. She collapsed, sobbing. We wrapped our arms around her. She was wet. We prayed. We tried to speak words that soothed and comforted. But what do you say to a mother watching strangers try to pump life back into her lifeless child?

Every few minutes the medic in charge would ask how long CPR had been in progress, and he’d ask to check for a pulse. He asked for more adrenaline to be administered a few times. The medics took it in turns to keep CPR going.

After a while, a friend arrived to offer the mother support. Relieved of my duty, I moved away, closer to the child, and just looked at her.

My youngest daughter is around the same age. In fact, she has a pair of sweat pants identical to those this girl was wearing. I thought about how when her mom dressed her that morning, she had no idea it would be the last time she’d ever dress her little girl.

Whoever began CPR had cleared her airway first. There was some vomit beside her. Her mother could not have known that breakfast would be the last meal she’d ever prepare for her child.

I looked at the braids in her hair. Her beautiful, soft skin. Her arm, limp and lifeless beside her. The enormous hands of a paramedic pumping her chest, her soft tummy distended below it.

I saw the paramedic in charge signal to his team that CPR would continue for two more minutes, and then they would stop.

They did. After 30 minutes, the child was still unresponsive. This precious Princess (her name really was Princess) was pronounced dead. There on the pavement. Spitting distance from my home. A place I pass almost daily. This beautiful, beautiful child, was gone.

I don’t know if anything can prepare you to watch a child die. To watch a mother watch her child die. And as the scene played out in my mind over the next days, and the image of her limp, lifeless frame came to mind over and over, in wakefulness and fitful sleep, I realized that I was traumatized.

This felt selfish. She wasn’t my child. I’d never met her. Her mother works at a home very near to mine, but I may never see her again. But I’d seen a horrible ordeal. I’d gazed upon a beautiful child, lifeless beside the road, and hoped and prayed with every fiber of my being that the monitor would show a pulse, that she’d start to breathe. I held a mother while she lived through what every parent dreads most: the death of a child. I knew my life was forever changed by watching this sweet little girl die.

When I got home after leaving the scene, I looked at my youngest who had toddled out to meet me as we drove in. I mean, really looked at him. The look that comes from genuine love and concern. I had been so ratty with him that morning, before that fateful message came through. He isn’t a good sleeper. Never has been. He’d had a particularly bad night. And I had held it against him. I realized that mother would have given anything, anything to hear her child cry again.

As that thought filtered down through my brain and into my heart, my perspective changed. It wasn’t a voluntary flick-of-a-switch kind of change. It wasn’t a decision or a process of thought. It just happened.

I have spent too much time getting worked up about things that just don’t matter. I’ve allowed things beyond my control to stress me out. I’ve permitted people who don’t have my best interests at heart to drag me down. I’ve half-heartedly lived through many moments, not paying enough attention or worse, getting frustrated and irritated because I’ve been distracted by other things, more important things sometimes, but usually just other things that selfishly pull my focus away from ‘little’ things like helping a child with their jacket buttons, pushing a child in a swing, listening to a story or changing a diaper. I’ve worried too much about things that really, truly just do not have any significance later, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year… eternity.

We all know this stuff. We really do. It’s the stuff we all say. It’s the stuff authors and motivational speakers and Oprah say. It’s the stuff we say to our friends, and they say to us. It’s the stuff I’ve said. It’s the stuff I knew. Theoretically anyway. But where the rubber hit the road, it is not what I lived. Watching Princess die ripped open my very soul, exposed its inner workings and reprogrammed it to operate differently.

Yes, my baby boy is still clingy and cries a lot. He doesn’t sleep much. But I will sleep again. Probably within the next few months. At worst, a year or two. It’s not forever. Soon all his baby-problems together with all his baby-cuteness will be gone altogether.

And the children drag dirt into the house and leave toys scattered about. It doesn’t really bother me anymore. But it used to drive me bananas! Now I’m just glad they’re having fun. Honestly. I just don’t mind cleaning it up anymore.

Our humble home with its cracked windows, holes in some couches, doors that don’t close properly, the unfinished concrete floor in the bathroom still awaiting tiling. Our kitchen that is, quite literally, falling apart. We’re comfortable with it. It is perfectly functional and in very creative ways, we’ve made it all work. We live here very happily, and host many, many friends and travelers who, mostly, seem to be happy and comfortable too, even if a bit taken aback at first. I say mostly because we’ve had the occasional snipe and derogatory comment. And I gave those people and their opinions way too much power. I allowed them to make me feel ashamed, embarrassed, and fear that I had nothing to offer.

In the weeks following the drowning, those feelings have blown away like clouds in the wind on a beautiful sunny day. Not because I decided I needed to get over those negative feelings. Really, I didn’t sit down and analyze anything and everything in my life and decide I needed to change my perspective. I didn’t choose this any more than I chose the color of my eyes or how tall I’d be. And yet, my perspective on everything has radically changed. I see my life, indeed the world, in a vastly different way.

Now more than ever before, worldly preferences and silly comforts just seem, well, silly. Empty. Foolish. Inconsequential. What has opened up before me is a life of thriving, not merely surviving. Abundant living like I’ve always said was my goal.

I could write volumes about the real, practical ways of how this change in perspective has affected my entire life in the most phenomenal ways. But this post is already long enough.

All that really remains to be said is this: Watching a little girl die was one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. My life changed that day. Suddenly what does and what does not matter became crystal clear to me. What does not matter no longer gets my energy and attention. And what does matter has been getting the very best of me, perhaps for the first time in all my almost 40 years. The trauma is healing, but I will never be the same. Thank God, I will never be the same.

Rest In Peace, precious Princess. Your loss of life helped me gain a whole new life of my own. Thank you for teaching me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned.

(In the months following the drowning, while completing the CPR portion of her first aid training with the American Red Cross, my daughter went to pieces. She reached out for counseling and came to recognize she had suffered post traumatic stress. She is doing better now, but she too seems changed forever by what we saw that day.

If you ever witness an ordeal like this, please reach out for help and support. It’s not selfish. It’s not weak. It’s not pathetic. It’s the good thing to do.)