Our Baby Has Died (A Redemption Story)
“Jeff is in heaven. Knowing that we’ll be together some day, that’s what I hold on to.”
It is late December, 1992. Marvin and Emma Brandt have recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. In their 60s and long-time empty-nesters, they are experiencing the joys of retirement and grandchildren.
They have the freedom to pick up and go whenever it strikes their fancy, and on this Monday afternoon that is what they do. They make the hour drive from Defiance, Ohio to Toledo to see their son and daughter-in-law and their new house. After a nice visit, they head home.
They now face a daunting decision, for couples in their Golden Years one that is often rife with anxiety and second-guessing: where to stop for dinner.
Yes, life is good.
After finishing their meal at Bob Evans, they begin to make their way to the cashier. That’s when a woman seated at another table stops them.
“I think I’ve seen you before,” she says. “You live in Defiance where we do. Mrs. Brandt?”
“Yes,” Emma replies.
“I am so sorry, but I have to tell you something,” says the woman. “I just can’t keep it in any longer.”
§ § §
I am holding a pocket folder, thick with papers and documents of all sizes. On the cover is the image of praying hands and these words: Thoughts and Prayers Collection. Inside is a treasure trove of my family’s history: hospital records, photographs, newspaper clippings, photocopies from medical books. Most compelling are the several loose sheets of paper, a journal written by my mother’s hand.
As I read, an amazing story begins to unfold in front of my eyes. I had heard bits and pieces through the years, but this…I had no idea.
“Mother, could I ask you some questions about what happened? Actually, would you permit me to write about it?”
Without hesitation: “Sure.”
Emma Brandt settles into her over-stuffed recliner. She is 83 years old, a widow, mother to five living children and numerous grandchildren and great-grands.
I pull out my laptop to take notes. For two hours, I interview my mom about a very painful time in her life. I marvel at her telling of it; it’s a made-for-television story if ever I’ve heard one.
She is reflective, not one hint of grief. How can she not be bitter? How can she not want to lash out? How can she not be furious with God?
Instead, my mom is at peace. She is quick to answer my questions, a distinct eagerness in her voice. Clearly, this a story that needs to be told.
§ § §
Emma is in labor. Six weeks from her 25th birthday, she is about to give birth to the couple’s third child. Marvin, 30, is a truck driver. They and their two toddlers have recently moved into their new home, a ranch-style house Marvin has built with his own hands.
Life is good, the future full of promise.
Jeffrey Lyn arrives at 10:25 p.m. on May 30, 1957, a Thursday. The birth is routine, the baby healthy. It’s a boy!, Emma would write in her journal. My husband and I and our little son were back in my room and we were glad our baby was here and everything was ok.
It’s post-war prosperity in America, and the maternity ward is packed with newborns and new moms. The next evening, the Brandts gaze upon their son as he sleeps peacefully in the nursery. As visiting hours end, Marvin kisses his wife good night.
He stops for a beer on the way home, not an everyday thing for a young father on a modest income. But, this isn’t every day; there is cause to celebrate!
Now back in her room, Emma is being given a back rub by a nurse. This feels so good. I am so tired. Tired but so happy. We are blessed. Her thoughts drift to her new son.
The serenity is short-lived; there is a commotion in the hallway. A nurse sticks her head in the door: “Emergency!” Emma’s back rub is over abruptly.
Minutes pass. More strained voices and hurried footsteps. What is going on? Emma wonders.
Her roommate speaks up: “I hear someone crying.”
“Yes,” says Emma. “It sounds like a man crying.” From her hospital bed, Emma peers into the hallway. The man crying is her husband. Why has he come back? What’s wrong?
Marvin comes into the room, struggling to hold himself together. “What is it?” asks Emma. “Did something happen to Cindy or Greg?”
“Is it your dad?”
Marvin’s shoulders are slouched, his head hanging. The tears sting his eyes. How could this have happened? How do you even begin to tell your wife? The words don’t come.
Emma can see the utter grief on her husband’s face. Fear grips her. “What is it?!”
Marvin is finally able to force the words out of his mouth: “Our baby has died.”
What?! No, no, no…not our son. Please God, NO! It can’t be!
The nurses had been bringing Jeff in for feedings every four or five hours. Each time he looked fine and acted like a normal newborn. Just that morning the doctor had commented that Jeff was a healthy baby boy.
Emma runs to the nursery. There has to be a mistake. They must be talking about another baby. Please, God, please…
Her eyes go immediately to her son’s crib. Jeffrey is gone. He was just there a little while ago. Marv and I just watched him as he slept!
Your world becomes surreal, dreamlike. It’s like you’re watching a movie. Our baby has died. Can the human soul even begin to process those words?
Jeffrey is pronounced dead at 9:00 p.m. He is here, and then gone…in less than 24 hours.
The reality that their son is dead eventually sets in. They are numb, too numb to even grieve; that will have to come later. As a father myself, I try to imagine what my dad would have been thinking.
You need to be strong for your wife and your kids. But, this is so…God, no! No! Okay, just breathe. Start…by…just…breathing. Hold it together. You can do this.
Marvin calls his parents and Emma’s sister, who rush to the hospital. “I am sorry, son,” says Marvin’s dad. “I am sorry.” Over and over again — “I am sorry, son” — too many times to count.
Marvin asks to hold his son one final time. Emma cannot bring herself to join him.
They leave that night. The hospital wants Emma to stay, but she refuses. “They weren’t going to keep Jeff there that night, anyway,” she tells me. “I wanted to be home with my husband and children.”
Life Without Jeff
Marvin’s sister is staying at the house to watch the two older children, Cindy, 3 and Greg, who has just turned 2. “Where’s our baby?” asks Cindy. Emma explains that Jeffrey has gone to be with Jesus.
The young Brandt family has a nightly routine. Cindy says the “Now I lay me down to sleep” prayer (Greg tries, too) while Marvin and Emma then pray the longer Lord’s prayer.
Emma writes in her journal: We talked with Cindy and Greg and then I said, “We’ll just say the short prayer tonight for bedtime.” Cindy sensed all of our hearts and said, “I’ll say the Lord’s Prayer.”
Cindy has, of course, heard the prayer many times but has never prayed it. This night she does, all 70 words, at age 3, as her parents sit silently.
The next day, Marvin and Emma make final arrangements for their son. Emma writes: A nurse met us at the funeral home to view our son for the first time — how thoughtful of her.
The official cause of death is interstitial pneumonitis, a general reference to inflammation of lung tissue, and pulmonary atelectasis, a partial collapse of the lung. The doctor on duty that night, who had earlier examined Jeff and declared him healthy, tells the couple that their son has died from a virus.
It’s the 1950s. You don’t ask questions.
It’s no surprise that Emma is battling depression. Marvin blames himself: if only he hadn’t stopped for that beer; he should have been there. Mercifully, in time the grief passes. Life goes on. And it does get better. Four more children are born, all boys, all healthy.
There is healing. And then…
§ § §
“This has bothered me for 35 years,” says the woman in the restaurant, “and I am sorry, but I have to tell you.”
She proceeds to drop a bomb on Marvin and Emma, right there in the middle of Bob Evans. She was in the hospital the night their baby died. Peering through the nursery window at her own baby she noticed that Jeff, laying face down, was in distress.
She and two other new mothers told a nurse that they feared for the baby’s safety. The nurse dismissed their concern. “Oh, he’s okay,” she said.
No, there is something wrong with this baby. You need to check on him!
No one tended to the baby, she said. This was just 30 minutes prior to the staff finding Jeff unresponsive. “We should have screamed at the nurse until she picked him up,” she says. “It’s our fault.”
Emma and Marvin are stunned, the events of that night at the hospital flooding back into memory. Emma assures the woman that she is not to blame. “You did what you could,” she says. “Our baby is in heaven now.”
Outside the restaurant, Marvin and Emma Brandt sit in their car. Early December had brought a blanket of snow, but an unseasonable warm snap has melted it away. Now it’s cold again. It’s cold and it is gray. Everything is gray.
They just sit, in silence. Neither can bring themselves to speak. “It was like we had lost Jeff all over again,” my mom recalls. Marvin eventually starts the engine. On the hour-long drive home neither say a single word; they are lost in their thoughts.
Did we really just hear that? And why now, after all these years? Why, God? Why did this have to happen? And why was it kept from us? We live in the same town as this other woman and now, we see her in a restaurant 50 miles from home and that’s how we find out?!
They had thought the pain of Jeff’s death was behind them. Now, they are reliving it all over again. And, the story is far from over.
The Search For Truth
Emma needs time to process all of this. What now? What do I do? Is there a right way to feel about this?
Eventually, she settles on what needs to be done. She writes in her journal: I proceeded to check into the cause of our son’s death. Was it negligence?
She goes to the local library and researches pulmonary atelectasis, a partial collapse of the lung. It is caused by obstruction of the bronchial passages (such as a plug of mucus), by accidental inhalation of a foreign object or by external pressure. Once the obstruction is removed, there is often full recovery.
Seeking more medical details, she calls the health department. They refer her to the doctor’s clinic, who refers her to the county sheriff, who refers her to the court, who refers her to the country records department, who refers her to the coroner, who refers her to the hospital. It’s a frustrating and maddening goose chase.
Emma finally gets the coroner’s report. An autopsy had been performed, and the report describes Jeff’s time in the hospital as routine: “at no time was anything noted unusual in the clinical condition.” The medical examiner writes, “The complete organ system was removed; no gross abnormalities were seen.”
The normal birth, the eye witness testimony, the medical evidence — one could begin to build a case for negligence.
Emma turns next to learning the identity of the nurse on duty that night. She told the two women who were concerned about Jeff that there was nothing to worry about. Why? Who is she? Emma just has to know. She makes more phone calls, but they lead to a dead end. Days go by, then weeks. It appears that the nurse’s identity will remain a mystery.
Months later, Marvin and Emma are attending a community meeting that includes a dinner. Standing in line to get their food, they are engaged in conversation by a woman ahead of them. The woman is a nurse. She knows about Jeff’s death. She knows the name of the woman who was on duty that night.
I look up from my notes. I’ve already heard the next part of the story, but never in the context of all of the details that I’ve now learned and shared here.
I am looking at my mom, trying to read her. Is there still pain? Is she bitter? Does she want justice? If she does, could you blame her?
§ § §
Emma walks up to the door, her pastor by her side. This is it, the big moment. All these years they’ve lived just 8 miles apart and have never…How will it go? Will it be cordial? Combative? It’s been a long time. Will the nurse even remember?
She rings the bell. Susan (not her real name) answers the door and invites them in. Emma and Susan sit on the couch while Pastor engages her husband in a separate conversation.
“I’m learning about my son’s death,” says Emma. “It appears that a very young nurse was on duty that night. Can you tell me who it was?”
There is silence. Awkward silence. Emma sits quietly.
Eventually, through tears, Susan speaks: “It was me. Can you ever forgive me?”
Emma puts her hand on the nurse’s knee: “I already did, before I even walked through the door.” They embrace and Emma and her pastor leave. The visit is a mere 10 minutes.
Wait a minute! You didn’t scold her? You didn’t accuse her? You didn’t demand justice?
“I felt so bad for her,” my mom tells me. “She had to be carrying such a burden. I wanted her to know that she is forgiven.”
Forgiven? Just like that?
“Yes,” says my mom. “I missed Jeff, but I wasn’t carrying what she had to carry.”
Emma made a decision to forgive. No conditions. No expectations. Just forgiveness. Just like that.
This is what the example of Jesus does in us when we allow it. This is how the love of Christ transforms our hearts when we give over to it. Jesus came to this earth to redeem mankind and mankind responded by mocking, falsely accusing, beating and murdering their own savior. And yet Jesus forgave us.
Just. Like. That.
That December — it’s now been nearly a year since my parents saw the woman in the restaurant — Emma receives a Christmas card. It’s from Susan, thanking her for their new friendship.
Eventually, they lose touch. Years after their encounter, Emma reads a newspaper story about several local citizens being honored for their efforts in the community. One of them is a retired nurse who volunteers at a crisis pregnancy center. Susan had become a counselor for at-risk, pregnant women.
§ § §
One final thread in this beautiful, God-woven tapestry: After some time had passed following her visit with Susan, my mom had an epiphany — she remembered Susan as the nurse who was the first at the funeral home, all those years ago.
Isn’t it amazing how God orchestrates things for our good? He is always, always looking to redeem us. He will put us directly in front of the people we need to be reconciled with, even if that means meeting them at the funeral home door. Reconciliation doesn’t always happen right away, but God does not give up on us. It may take another 35 years. It may take a chance meeting at a restaurant, a timely conversation in the food line or something even more extreme, but God will never, ever give up on us. He loves us that much.
As I close my computer and end the interview, I see it: God’s hand on my parents’ lives is so evident. His great love is evident throughout this whole ordeal and it is beautiful.
I have often wondered what it would be like to have Jeff in my life. Would he have the steel blue eyes that his dad had, that I have? What would he be doing for a living? Would he live near us or somewhere far away? Would I have additional nephews and nieces?
Then, there is this: Was Jeffrey Brandt’s death preventable? I don’t know; nor do I need to know.
Knowing that Susan has had her burden lifted, that the woman at the restaurant can go forward in peace, knowing that my mom and dad have closure, that Jeff is gone but for a moment and is waiting for us — these are enough for me.
My mom paints a perfect end to this redemption story: “Jeff is in heaven. Knowing that we’ll be together some day, that’s what I hold on to. I can look forward to holding my son. I don’t know if he will still be a baby, but I’ll hold him either way.
“If I can get him off Marv’s lap.”