What The Death Of My Child Taught Me About Life

death of child made me realize what really matters
Nicole Hughes

Trigger warning: child loss

My life is divided into two sections: the time before my son died and the time that has followed. The dividing line is a seemingly mundane moment. I glanced over the railing of a second floor balcony and into a swimming pool. I always assumed that when tragedy happened — to “other people,” of course — a trail of clues would lead up to it. Yet, a distinct line delineates the moment when my world stopped spinning. For, when I peered over the balcony this time, I saw my 3-year-old son, Levi, face down at the bottom of the deep end.

Over a decade ago, during my husband’s medical residency at UAB, we became more family than-friends with several other couples. While there, we began an annual beach trip to Fort Morgan, AL, which we continued when our paths took us to 6 different states. We have spent the last 7 years in the same house, each year adding new babies into the mix. What started as a child-free trip grew into one with 17 children. Levi, the second youngest, was 10 weeks old on his first one. This year was his 4th, and he asked me constantly in the months leading up to it: “Mama, we going to the beach, soon? With our friends?”

Sunday, June 10, 2018, our first full day, was filled with swimming in the pool, eating gummy snacks on the beach, and slipping right back into the ease that comes with effortless friendships. That evening, we gathered in the kitchen to wait for the much anticipated crab-hunting trip. Levi, wearing khaki shorts and a neon yellow crab-hunting shirt, sat on the couch with the other kids, watching a silly raccoon on America’s Funniest Videos. Ten adults, including me and my husband, were in the room; we were not on our phones or drinking. I gave Levi a bowl of Cheetos and part of a brownie, unaware that tragedy loomed only moments ahead. Somehow, (and even after analyzing these preceding moments countless times, I still only have the word somehow), Levi slipped out the back door without any of us seeing him. HOW did I not see him? The desperation to go back in time suffocates my every moment.

Levi was gone for such a short amount of time that we didn’t even know he was missing. I had split a brownie with him, and part of it was still in my mouth when I jumped into the pool. His bright yellow crab-hunting shirt had filled him with pride just moments before but was now a dagger to my heart. My mind reeled: You can drown when you aren’t even swimming? When you are sitting on the couch in khaki shorts surrounded by people who love you?

I ran screaming down the spiral staircase. I cannot remember the exact sounds that I hurled into the universe. Later, I would ask a friend, “What was I screaming? How did you all know to come running?” He would look at me, his eyes broken, determined to protect me in even this small way, and tell me, “It doesn’t matter.” But, even I could feel the echoes of the anguished cry lingering in the air afterward.

As I jumped into the pool and grabbed Levi, someone else grabbed his other arm at the exact same time. I had no idea who it was, but in that horrific moment that I am condemned to relive for eternity, I was not alone. Later, I would find out that one of our friends had rushed out the door, seen Levi, and hurled himself off of the second floor balcony in a desperate attempt to save our baby. From the very beginning, I have not been alone in this journey. It was my first gift of beauty in the midst of tragedy.

Somehow –– again, this word, but the meaning is so different here — somehow, my husband and our friends, 6 physicians, were all there, by the side of the pool, ready. I do not know how they got down the stairs in a split second, nor how they managed to keep their composure as they began CPR and fully intubated Levi. Despite my every instinct demanding differently, I GOT OUT OF THE WAY. If anyone could save my son, it was these experienced professionals who happened to be some of our best friends.

I hung onto the pool fence, literally gripping it as an anchor in the storm. With dripping wet clothes and my son just feet behind me, fighting for his life, I raged at the universe. ONE MINUTE. I just needed one minute back. Please. There is no desperation like that of a mother pleading for her child’s life.

In this most unimaginable of all moments, when Levi was not coughing up water like people do in the movies, I reared back my head in despair. When I opened my eyes and looked toward the ocean, I saw a patch of rainbow, its bright colors sketched vibrantly against the darkening evening sky. There was no light anywhere in the expanse of gray, except for these gleaming colors — smeared and incomplete, like a child’s finger painting.

My eyes locked onto this rainbow as time paused around me. The world had just cracked open and proven to me that life can change — that it can end — in an instant. I assure you that when you are standing on the precipice of life and death, things that seem to matter, like money and material goods, do not surface. Instead, an epiphany revealed itself in full clarity, as if it had been waiting patiently for me to discover it. Every other thought in my mind blurred except for this realization: Relationships Matter. More than anything else in this lifetime, people and connections with others matter. This split second of peace passed as quickly as it arrived, but not before etching itself into my soul.

I knew my baby was dying even as I watched our friends fight to save him. Levi regained a pulse and was airlifted to the hospital, but he never came back to us. The next morning, just hours after my husband and I walked out of the hospital room without Levi, our friends at the beach were packing up to go home. In the early breaths of morning, across the same Alabama sky where I had looked up and begged to trade places with Levi, above the same ocean where Levi had squealed just hours before, a full rainbow arched across the sky, as if nodding in agreement in our shared sorrow. Later that same day of June 11, my husband and I gathered up every ounce of courage to tell our daughters that their adored baby brother was in Heaven. Hours away in Tennessee, a full rainbow shone directly over our house, its graceful arms enveloping the only home Levi ever knew.

I am not ready for signs from Levi, especially ones that seem cliché. It is more fitting that my energetic, destructive all-boy would send me the actual thunder storm, rather than the peaceful rainbow. I do not want a sign, because I want him here, giggling and running around naked no matter how many times I beg and bribe him to keep on clothes. But, in my stronger moments, I realize I cannot overlook three rainbows, all within hours of his death. The universe has pulled me close and whispered this ultimate truth to me: when you look back on your life, your greatest treasures will be the connections you created with other people.

To be honest, grief is suffocating and I am not necessarily heeding this lesson every day.  We have passed the six-month mark without Levi. Six months without Paw Patrol pajamas in the laundry or sticky little boy hugs. Levi’s Spiderman boots are still sitting empty, their adventures permanently halted as they wait for a little boy who will never come. The phrase “new normal” does not apply; there is nothing normal about having to decide if you will bury or cremate your child.

Most days, I want to slide into the pit of despair and never climb out. Grief and exhaustion are a package deal, and I am mentally trudging through concrete. My brain is processing Levi’s death on repeat; over and over I see him, my baby, at the bottom of the pool. I have limited extra mental space and crave silence above all else. I suspect this side effect of tragedy is common and even necessary.

I allow myself to retreat but when I feel utterly paralyzed by a future without Levi, I force my mind to return to the beauty of the rainbows and of the goodness that has revealed itself since June 10th. We have paid the ultimate price to learn what matters in life, and I refuse to let the cost be in vain. So, we will chooseto gather people and to nurture the connections. We will choose to keep clawing through this grief.

Life is not easy or tidy. We are all busy, and relationships are the first to be tossed aside while we tackle jobs, running kids to sports, and endless piles of laundry. We cannot wait until life is less frantic to foster what matters, though, because that perfect time will never come. Admittedly, I am not succeeding in this area every day. However, I am allowing myself to remember that relationships- much like parenting and life in general- are not just built on big events but on the small moments that combine together to create the meaningful whole. It is not the elaborate dinner parties or major occasions that cement the friendships but rather the seemingly insignificant moments of genuine connection that matter.

We never know when tragedy is waiting around the corner. I do not say this as permission to live in fear but rather as an encouragement to build your life in a way that provides a foundation for the inevitable daggers.  Decide NOW the relationships that you will build. Start with words; they are what connect us as humans, which make them our greatest treasure. Text the friend from the past you haven’t talked to in a while. Talk to the person in line behind you at Target or at preschool drop-off.  Ask an acquaintance about the new puppy, the new job, their kid’s soccer game. Even though you want to make an excuse, don’t skip the next [work party / play date / book club]. Say “Hello.” Find the people who see good in you that you can’t always see yourself, and quietly break away from the people who make you doubt yourself. Seek out the people who will touch your like life a rainbow, and BE the rainbow for someone else.

Despite the heavy weight of grief, I am determined to keep nurturing these relationships that have proven to be lifelines during this tragedy. I am working to accept that I will never be “okay.”  Levi will never have a childhood, and no amount of choosing the good will bring him back. My love for Levi will last forever and so will my grief. But, if grief must be my lifelong burden to carry, I hope to lessen its weight through the beauty of connections with others. Life is short and all we have to offer in the end is how we loved.

I know it is a long shot, but I am crossing my fingers and hoping the Universe will grant this wish: If anyone was in the Gulf Shores/Fort Morgan, AL  area on the evening of June 10, 2018 and happens to have a picture of the rainbow patch in the sky, please send it my way.