The Kind Of Dad With Big Enough Shoulders To Carry Our Family's Grief––That's My Husband

by Emily Henderson
Courtesy of Emily Henderson

Trigger warning: child loss

My husband Nick is the kind of dad with tools to build a playhouse and purple dye for crazy hair day at school. He wrestles our 10-year old son and 8-year old daughter and doesn’t care that our turf grass rubs his 42-year old knees raw. He is the kind of dad with big enough shoulders to carry the grief of our whole family.

It’s five years earlier; our children are six and four. We are having the conversation many couples have, “Should we try for a third?” I worry about starting over with diapers and sleepless nights. Both of our kids are healthy. I wonder if we are tempting fate.

But we are baby people.

I often joke if we had married when we were 18 instead of 30, we would have a baseball team by now. I love how Nick’s big hands look, folding onesies and bundling baby socks. I want to see him again with a newborn swallowed up by the crook of his left arm while he grills tri-tip with his right.

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I am pregnant, and then ten weeks later, I am not. We hold each other in the doctor’s office when she says, “There is no heartbeat.” Nick isn’t afraid to be hopeful when soon after the miscarriage, I am pregnant again. I, however, am afraid to move.

Our third child is born uneventfully. Nick lays him on my chest and tells me we have a son. It is just him and me in the safety of our cramped hospital room while we get to know our new baby. I snap a picture of Nick holding the baby with his fingers under his armpits causing the baby’s fists to push into his cheeks. We start calling the baby Smusherface.

On the morning we are discharged, we settle on naming him Aiden. Nick tears up, maybe sensing this would be the last baby we will ever name.

Once home, we fall into the rhythm of becoming a family of five. Nick and the older kids are in a race to see who can make Aiden laugh first. Nick gives all the baths because even after three kids, I am still afraid of making the water too hot. As Aiden grows, I watch through my fingers as Nick tosses him into the air. Self-assured in his ability to keep our children safe, he says, “I haven’t dropped one yet.”

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Nick is the kind of dad who doesn’t worry until there is something to worry about. I worry about things that might happen. I lose sleep Googling developmental milestones and pictures of strange rashes.

Aiden is 15 months old when I notice his head tilts a little to the right, kind of like he is asking a question. I ask Nick if he sees it too. He sighs and gives me his, “There she goes again” look. I’m annoyed and call the pediatrician anyway. I want the doctor to put my mind at ease. I want to be wrong. As our appointment nears, I notice Aiden wants earlier naps, and he is shaky when he wakes up, and he stops being able to use his fingers to pinch blueberries and bring them to his mouth.

One appointment leads to another, and then to an MRI, and finally to a brain tumor.

Nick is the kind of dad who can carry his 17-month-old son into brain surgery. He listens to everything the oncologists and surgeons say so he can explain it to me over and over again later. He is the one who Googles now. He doesn’t tell me what he reads, but I learn later it’s not good.

We spend the next 105 days in treatment. Nick and I take turns sleeping in the hospital with Aiden. Nick takes most of the turns.

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Even in the hospital, Nick still finds a way to play with his son. He expertly maneuvers the tubes and cords coming from Aiden’s brain and arm, and heart. He tickles him and plays peek-a-boo. When Aiden grows tired of his toys, Nick blows up a blue surgical glove and bats him in the face.

Halfway through Aiden’s first round of chemotherapy, he vomits bright green. At midnight I ask for an MRI, and it shows swelling in Aiden’s brain. We transfer to the ICU, and he is scheduled to have a shunt put in the next morning, my 40th birthday.

Nick stays in the ICU overnight, and the nurses check Aiden every 15 minutes. Before I leave for the night, Nick hands me a letter saying that I will spend the day with a friend and meet him for dinner in the evening. Nick is the kind of dad who can plan a surprise birthday party for his wife with 25 of her closest friends while his son battles brain cancer.

On a rare night home after Aiden’s second round of treatment, he spikes a fever. We drive to Children’s Hospital at 2 am, and Nick sleeps on a gurney built for a child while I sleep in the back of our SUV in the parking lot. We don’t know that soon we will leave the hospital with an empty car seat.

A few weeks later, during a second attempt to remove the remaining tumor from his brain, Aiden dies unexpectedly during surgery. Nick gives Aiden his final bath.

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Nick is the one who tells me when it’s time to go. He is the one who drives us home in silence. He is the one who tells our two older children their baby brother died. My lips can’t seem to form the words.

I wake up in the middle of the night gripping my chest and crying for my son. Nick is next to me helpless while I squirm and kick my legs reaching for Aiden. Eventually, I tire and settle with my head on Nick’s chest.

When it’s Nick’s turn to grieve aloud, he says, “I wanted to fix it. I am supposed to fix it, but I couldn’t fix it. I’m sorry.”

I want to absolve him of the responsibility to fix anything. I want to take some of the weight off his shoulders.

I let him speak until there are no words left, and then I remind him, “It couldn’t be fixed. Aiden was perfect. He should have never been sick in the first place.”

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It’s the summer after Aiden died. I’m standing at our back door. Nick is throwing a football with one of our kids. The other is drawing with chalk on the driveway. The grill is going. I look out at this beautiful mundane scene and notice something is missing around knee height. Aiden should have celebrated his second birthday by now.

When Nick sees me coming toward him with a closed-lipped smile, he meets me halfway.

“I miss him,” I say.

“I know,” he says. “He would be walking by now.”

Nick moves his right hand down his side, palm facing the ground, waving his fingers back and forth. I can almost see the blond curls between them as he motions to tussle our son’s hair.