By Lexi Behrndt
We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain.
We met on the 11th floor of the children’s hospital. It was in the summer, I remember but not because of the weather. It could have been storming or blazing hot outside, but we never would have known the difference. Our entire worlds were wrapped up in those tiny, sterile rooms with the rock-hard, pull-out sofas, monitors beeping at all hours, and the sticky hospital floors. Our children were both inpatient, receiving treatment and care for complications surrounding congenital heart disease. Our “home” was the pediatric cardiac unit.
When it came to other parents, I generally kept to myself. It’s not that I wasn’t friendly; I like to think of myself as a generally extroverted and warm person. But it got old after four months of seeing so many families come and go, sick babies in, generally healthy babies out, all while my infant son lay in the same bed and only moved as far as from floor 10, the ICU, to floor 11, the recovery floor. My friends were the staff. They were the constants I had and held onto, as they cared for my son Charlie; they popped in to visit and check on us day after day.
One morning, my social worker asked me if I would be willing to reach out to another parent on the floor. I had picked up my home, which was two hours away, and relocated to live next to the hospital, so that even when my son was well and discharged, he would be close enough in case of emergency. This mom, with a three-year-old who was a “frequent flier” at the hospital, was in the process of doing the same. I hesitantly agreed to meet her, and she came down to my son’s room.
She walked into his hospital room, and it was like looking in a mirror. Hair thrown in a disheveled ponytail, sweatshirt and yoga pants, dark rims beneath her eyes, and a mixture of ease and exhaustion. Like me, she was young, and like me, she had spent enough time in the hospital to have grown accustomed to the environment. Her name was Makenzie. Her little three-year-old, Jaedyn, a feisty red head, would eventually need a heart transplant. It could be years, but it was her airway issues that were causing her frequent hospital admissions.
Makenzie and I talked that day, and we bumped into each other a couple more times as we met over the community coffee pot in the early mornings, desperate for friendly conversation and caffeine. Jaedyn was discharged a couple weeks later, and they made their way back to their current home in South Dakota to tie up ends for relocation. Meanwhile, my Charlie stayed. Two weeks later, he moved from the recovery floor back down to the Pediatric Cardio Thoracic ICU where there he stayed.
The months went on, and sometime in mid-October, I parked my old minivan in the hospital parking garage. On my walk to the elevators, I ran into Makenzie and Jaedyn, who were leaving after a quick appointment. We talked briefly and casually, completely unaware of what the coming days and months would hold in store. Neither of us understood the weight of those days. We do now.
A quick conversation in passing, and we had no idea the significance it would hold. Charlie passed away the next Monday morning.
Jaedyn was readmitted to the hospital and put on the transplant list in February. Makenzie and I had lost contact, all except for casual conversation through social media. We had never talked much to begin with, besides friendly conversation over morning coffee, but the death of Charlie only created more distance. We were living in two different worlds, she was fighting for her child’s life, and I was aching to have mine back in my arms. She may have reminded me of what I still could have, and I may have reminded her of what she could lose. But when I learned through Facebook that Jaedyn’s condition worsened, and she became critical, I lost it. I texted Makenzie, called her, and I did whatever I could to support her, because Charlie died, but Jaedyn wasn’t supposed to. And I knew the pain, the deep, deep pain, and I did not want Makenzie to feel it. Ever.
I could barely think. It put me right back in Charlie’s hospital room, standing over my child, oscillator running, barely able to hear my own thoughts. ECMO (life support) on, blood being pumped through his body by a machine, oxygenating and giving life and beating his little heart.
And when Jaedyn died, I was there— not there with her physically— but I was jolted right back to the room where I held Charlie for seven hours after he died. I couldn’t let go. I knew Makenzie couldn’t either.
And it was in those moments, after losing Charlie, after supporting Makenzie through losing Jaedyn, that I made a vow. We couldn’t have our babies, but we sure as hell had to make sure the other made it out alive. She was stuck with me. The bond we shared is a bond of pain and loss and heartache, and I vowed to never let her face it alone.
We are made to carry one another when we’re too weak to go on. This is community. This is survival through the pain. This is the bond between grieving mothers—the soul tie exchanged between moms who have to kiss their babies goodbye, who have to give them back, who have to walk away, who have to live with the constant ache. We don’t have to face the impossible alone. I’ve seen that with so many strangers who have become sisters along the way, and I’ve seen it especially with Makenzie, the mom I met on the 11th floor.
We stood together on the side of life, while both our children lay in hospital beds, three rooms apart. And now we move forward together, with ashes, memories, slightly morbid senses of humor, and broken hearts, clinging to hope, and holding just enough joy to share with one another when it’s too hard to go on alone.
Lexi Behrndt is a single mom of two boys (one in heaven), a writer at Scribbles and Crumbs, and a communications director. Connect with her on Facebook.