Thursday, September 9, 2010

When life doesn't make sense

Whenever I get an email and the subject line only features the name of a friend, co-worker or family member, I always hesitate a second before opening it. There's obviously news about this person. Certainly there's a chance it's positive or uplifting, but my experience is that something bad has happened. Someone lost a job. Someone was involved in a car accident. Someone's father or spouse died.

So it went yesterday when my friend Dean sent an email with news about a former co-worker of ours from our days in Fargo. The subject line was "Vandro," and the subject was our good friend Terry Vandrovec.

Terry is a sports reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. He covers South Dakota State University. He's a superb, award-winning writer and those are only two of many adjectives that could be used to describe his skills. He's also a fine reporter and a prodigious worker. He churns out blogs, video reports, features and game stories on a seemingly nonstop basis. He's always been that way, even when he was at the Fargo Forum and working full-time while also attending Concordia College full-time. But as great as he is at his job, he's an even better guy. Smart, passionate, giving, with his only obvious flaw being an allegiance to the Packers.

On September 3, Terry's wife, Jessica, a teacher, gave birth to twin girls. Breley and Kailey. Jessica was only 24 weeks pregnant. Two days later, Breley died.

Through his grief, Terry wrote Breley's obituary, calling it the most important story he would ever write. He also wrote about his daughter on his newspaper blog, saying, "She managed to hold off on being born for four days, buying crucial development time for her sister and protecting her from the outside world." It's impossible to read either of Terry's stories without having a knot the size of a fist develop in your stomach.

It's type of event no one prepares for. To think about the possibility beforehand is morbid, perverse. A baby's death is an impossibility, right up until the moment it happens. Even then, it remains impossible to comprehend.

My parents lost a baby girl a few years before my birth. The little girl died and my mom very nearly did. Back then, parents whose babies died barely had time to mourn them, though they'd remember them forever. The Catholic Church didn't do much to help, teaching that babies who died without being baptized went into limbo, a belief the church only recently began to reconsider. Parents destroyed by grief in the present received no comfort from their religion about eternity.

My grandfathers buried the little girl in a small cemetery in southwestern Minnesota, her casket sharing space in the grave with my dad's infant sister, who died shortly after birth. There's a marking for my aunt, but not my sister, something we've talked about rectifying for several years now. But when we visit the cemetery - where numerous family members are buried - the little girl is always remembered, her place in everyone's hearts as secure as those who lived long lives.

We never talked much about her. Only in the last few years, with Louise - who extracts information out of people with the skill of a criminal investigator or a priest in the confessional - joining our family, have I heard my parents talk about it in more detail, revisiting those painful days and all the years since. When listening to them now, the memories they own seem to be as clear as they were when she died four decades ago.

Growing up, I didn't think a lot about the sister I never knew. I had my one older sister. As I got older, I did begin - perhaps inevitably - thinking more about her. What would she have looked like? What would they have named her? Would she have teamed up with my older sister Lisa and picked on me? Would she have been like everyone else in our family and played sports, or unlike everyone and been good in math? Would she have kids now?

They're the questions that can never be answered but will always be asked. But I think about her like a brother thinks about her. A brother who never saw her or celebrated her impending birth and mourned her devastating death. Only a parent who loses a child can really completely understand that grief. My parents, ultimately, bear that grief together.

Just like Terry and Jessica.

Babies die. Two words that should never be connected. Doctors provide the how, but not even the gods can provide the why.

None of it's fair and none of it makes sense and bad things happen to good people and worse things happen to great people. Yet life somehow, impossibly, goes on. Parents somehow, impossibly, go on. Life marches on even though friends and family and parents never forget the one who died.

Breley's sister Kailey remains in the hospital. Terry and Jessica - and their oldest daughter, Mya - wait at home for her to join them. Kailey will grow up in a world without her twin sister, though she'll be surrounded by memories of her and by those who will tell her all about her birth and Breley's birth, and Breley's death.

Life will go on. But that doesn't mean it will ever make any sense.

1 comment:

Terry Vandrovec said...

Thanks so much for the kind words and for drawing attention to our amazing little girl. We have established a fund in her name at the Sanford Health Foundation.