Today, in honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day/Month, we are sharing Ashley Ortiz’s 2014 Walk to Remember Speech in its entirety:
We have a beautiful six and a half month old daughter named Nora. She is loving, intelligent and hilarious. Her personality fills every room we enter. She is incredibly charming. And while it’s endearing, her smiles and laughter often lure strangers into asking us questions about her. The questions are always the same. How old is she? Is she your first? Jesse and I always look at each other and pause unsure of exactly how to answer. In some ways she is our first child. She is the first child we got to bring home from the hospital. She is the first child to wear the clothes we bought for her, to read the books we collected, the first child we get to endlessly cuddle with, laugh with and explore with. But she isn’t our first child. Nora is our second child.
In what seems both like a lifetime ago and like yesterday, our son Gavin was born. On August 16, 2011 we welcomed a beautiful little boy with light skin, a ton of velvety brown hair and dark brown eyes. He weighed 1 pound, 7 ounces and he was absolutely perfect from head to toe. He was born nearly 16 weeks early, but his birth was not a surprise to us. My pregnancy was very difficult and wrought with worry and medical complications but not absent of hope and love.
When I was just 12 weeks pregnant, I had developed sub-chorionic hemorrhage, a small tear in the placenta. It wasn’t significant but it was enough to prompt bed rest and several follow up appointments. On a scan just two weeks later, it was gone. The hemorrhage had reabsorbed. I continued to restrict my activity, even though the doctor said everything was fine. I wanted to be extra careful. We carried on our journey, thinking the worst was behind us and continued to satisfy every desire to buy lots of cute baby clothes, books, toys and everything else the baby would need or want.
Several weeks later, we were scheduled for a second trimester anatomy scan. We were so excited at possibly of being able to find out the gender of the baby and of course seeing how big the baby had gotten since our last ultrasound. The scan went deceivingly well. We found out the baby was a boy despite the fact that he spent the first 20 minutes trying to hide from us. We were given lots of pictures to keep. The technician left smiling and told us our doctor would be right in. As we waited, we went back and forth suggesting a plethora of hilariously bad boy names. In the middle of a fit of laughter between us, a group of people, including my regular doctor came in. We were immediately quieted as this was not the standard protocol after an ultrasound. My doctor sat down in front of us and explained that my cervix was dilating and that the baby was sagging into the top of it. I would need a cervical stitch in order to carry the pregnancy to term. She had already called the hospital and they knew we were coming.
As we filled out paperwork and did all the necessary tests, nurses came in and out asking us all kinds of questions regarding our wishes during delivery should it come to that. I was just shy of 18 weeks pregnant. We had no birth plan because we hadn’t gotten that far. I was put on antepartum while I waited to have surgery.
Two days later, I was wheeled into the OR hoping that this surgery would allow me to carry my pregnancy full term. As I laid on the table with the curtain pulled up so I couldn’t see, I heard the surgeon say “this isn’t what we expecting at all” to a nurse. I began to panic, started to cry and repeatedly asked if my son was okay. I was given a heavy sedative to calm me and don’t remember anything until I was being woken up in the recovery room. The surgeon told us that the surgery went well, but it had been considerably more difficult than they originally planned for. A routine cerclage turned into a rescue cerclage when they realized that my cervix had dilated substantially and the baby had descended below my cervix. Essentially, I was in the process of miscarrying my son. During the surgery, I was inverted to allow gravity to drop him back above my cervix. To make things more complicated, not only did they find I had a weak cervix, but also a short one. They stitched together what they could, but held out no guarantee that the surgery would be enough.
I spent the next week in the hospital trying to come to terms with the reality that I would not be able to carry my son to term. I would not be able to provide a safe haven for him to grow in until he was ready but rather when my body could do no more. As his mom, realizing that I had no control over his safety and well-being was agonizing. All I could do was continue to hope that whatever time we did have together, that it would be enough for him to be delivered safely.
I was discharged from the hospital with the understanding that I would be strictly monitored and have ultrasounds every week to ensure that the stitch was holding and that my cervix wasn’t weakening any further. We held our breath during every scan. For several weeks, the scans were promising. Our little boy was growing stronger and my cervix was showing no change. But at the beginning of August, we got the news we had been dreading. There was significant change in my cervix and it was time to go back to the hospital. I needed 24 hour monitoring.
I spent the next 12 days trying desperately to stop dilation and contractions. I went back and forth between antepartum and labor and delivery almost a half dozen times. Each time I went to labor and delivery, we prepared ourselves for our son’s arrival knowing his chance of survival was slim. For those 12 days, I was filled up with anti-contraction drugs, given steroids to hasten our son’s lung growth, inverted to keep pressure off my cervix, given magnesium along with a whole battery of other drugs, tests and procedures. At the end of day 11, I went to labor and delivery for the last time. In the middle of the night, my room flooded with people from the NICU. They explained what they would do after our son was born. He would be stabilized, intubated and taken to the NICU.
At 7:28AM on August 16, 2011 we met our son Gavin Michael Ortiz. In spite of being born at 23 weeks, 6 days gestation, our sweet little boy managed to fill his lungs enough to cry on his own in the delivery room. He also opened one of his eyes long enough for his daddy to get a peak. Before they left the delivery room with him, Kerri leaned him over to me to get a quick look I smiled and told him, “You are the sun that gives me light and the moon that guides me at night.” For the next few days, Gavin battled against many medical problems, most significantly life threatening lung issues. Despite the medical circumstances, we felt nothing but love, hope and inspiration.
On the morning of August 18th, I awoke early, about 4:00 and couldn’t fall back to sleep. I quietly got dressed, kissed Jesse and told him to rest. I walked myself to the NICU and spent the next 4 hours sitting with Gavin. I don’t all together remember what I did in that time other than just sit and stare in amazement at this beautiful little boy we had given life to. At one point, Becky, Gavin’s night nurse, excitedly told me that Gavin’s eyes were both open. I pulled my chair around and just gazed into his eyes. They were so dark, almost black, exactly like his daddy’s. I put my hand softly on his chest and watched him wiggle his feet with pure joy. My heart literally felt like it was going to burst at the seams from the love I felt rush through my body as we sat there watching each other for what felt like an eternity.
A few hours later, around lunchtime, I was discharged from the hospital. After some time with Gavin, Jesse and my mom thought it would be good for me to get a hot shower, a good meal and a nap at home and then come back to spend the evening at the hospital. I protested, but they insisted. I cried the entire way home. We had barely got our stuff unpacked when we got the phone call that would change our life forever.
The first call I missed because I didn’t pick it up in time. The message, one that I held on to for nearly a year said, “Ashley, this is Sonya, Gavin isn’t doing so well and I need you to either call me or get here now.” Before I could dial the phone to call her back, she had already called back a second time. To be honest, I can’t remember the exchange between us, but when I hung up that phone I literally ran to the car screaming for my mom and Jesse to hurry up. That car ride felt like it took forever. Nothing could get me to Gavin quick enough.
When we arrived at the hospital, Jesse dropped my mom and I off at the front and he went to park. We ran to the elevator smashing the buttons as if that would make it go faster. As we arrived at the third floor, I pushed my way through a group of women and ran to the front desk. The secretary would not give me a badge to go in and kept leaning back in her chair saying loudly “Ortiz is here, ORTIZ is here!” As I washed my hands, Jesse came in and did the same. As Sonya exited the NICU to meet us, her face flush, I almost fell to the floor. What came next is almost a total blur. She told us that Gavin was stabilized for the time being, but that he was in very critical condition.
As we walked into the NICU to be with him, I could hear his monitors blaring. His heart rate was so low despite being on 100% oxygen. We were both terrified and just held his hands and repeatedly told him we loved him. Before I knew it, my husband, my mom, my in-laws and I were all seated around his isolette watching him fight for his life as they tried desperately to resuscitate him. Sonya was behind us explaining what they were doing, but when the pulled out the epinephrine needle I looked to Jesse who shook his head once “no” and to my mother-in-law Lucy who whispered quietly to me, “Let him go”, my mom too just put her head down. I said “Stop” and like a movie, everyone stepped away, they pulled him off everything that kept him attached to those machines and handed him to me.
It seems weird to say, but I remember feeling so calm even though everyone around me, including the doctors, nurses, support staff and my family were crying. For the first time since my son was born I was able to hold him, to kiss him, to study his features. In the middle of the worst moment of our life, I looked at Jesse and proclaimed, “He looks like a white Jesse!” (A fact that I had been denying since his birth). In that moment, everyone turned to us and laughed.
Little more than an hour later, it was official; our little Gavin had left his earthly body. We spent the next several hours loving him, hugging him, kissing him and sharing him with his grandparents and a pastor from Jesse’s parent’s church. We had beautiful photographs taken by Kristin Boone from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. We made a few phone calls to our most immediate family members including Jesse’s brothers, my sisters, my dad and Gavin’s godparents. Becky, Gavin’s night nurse for the entirety of his life, supplied us with endless warm blankets and told us to take all the time we needed. To be honest, no amount of time would have ever been enough.
Very late into the night, we finally gave Gavin to Becky. Handing our son over for the last time was the single most painful thing we’ve ever done. We waited patiently for her to return with his outfit, his hat, his blankets, his hand and feet prints and a clipping of his hair. We left the hospital with a bag full of items, but without what we really wanted, our healthy son. I thought the drive to the hospital was the longest of my life, but the drive home was even longer. Going home to an empty house with an empty nursery with empty arms was unbearable to us both.
In the days and weeks that followed we had a flood of cards, gifts and meals provided for us. We had a beautiful memorial service with a few of our closest family members many of whom traveled long distances to be with us. I didn’t really appreciate anything then. I just wanted the whole world to stop turning and for me to wake up from this nightmare with a healthy baby in tow.
After the socially accepted “grief period” and the cards, calls and meals stopped, we had the realization that we now had the enormous task of picking up the pieces and moving forward. We had to move forward without ever being able to fulfill our hopes and dreams for Gavin and for ourselves.
In the wake of Gavin’s death we struggled with exactly how to do that. Gavin’s death destroyed our trust in the world. It destroyed our fundamental ability to hope and to dream. Gavin’s birth had brought such a depth of beautiful emotions, his death destroyed it all. Our home was no longer filled with laughter, but with sobs that truly felt unending. We often sat in complete silence, lost in a world that we no longer knew how to be a part of.
In the first few weeks, I got to work planning exactly how we would get through this. I made timelines and made endless effort to make my grief as textbook and as linear as possible. I read more books and newsletters on grief than most psychologists do. If we were going to have to do this, we were going to do it the right way. I tried to force myself into believing that I could expect to know how I would feel and when I would feel it. I had always been such an intricate planner, but I quickly realized there was no way I could possibly plan out any of this. No book had prepared me for how I would react seeing my own nephew, who was born 6 days after Gavin died. Never was it said that I would break into an outright sob, right in the middle of the store and it surely didn’t say that beeping freezer sounds, ambulance sirens and the smell of hand sanitizer would send me into deep unrelenting anxiety attacks.
I had to admit to myself, to Jesse and to everyone, that like everything else in the months that proceeded us, I had absolutely no control. Grief wasn’t a linear process, it was a vicious cycle that meant sometimes I felt sad, sometimes I felt angry and sometimes I just felt numb. The most painful part of all this was realizing just how isolating grief is. I wanted so desperately to share my grief, to feel connected to anyone and everyone. Those closest to me including Jesse, caught in their own grief, were never in the same phase as I, at the same time.
I felt trapped and alone. So, for the first time in my life, I reached out and asked others for help. This translated into desperate phone calls at all hours to my beloved cousin Heather, sobbing to the point that I couldn’t speak. Though Heather doesn’t have children of her own nor has she ever experienced a similar loss, she was everything I needed her to be. I didn’t need someone with all the answers. I just needed someone to listen.
A month after Gavin died, I started to see a therapist a few times a week and shortly after, I went through the 8 week Heartstrings program with Jesse. I researched both online and local organizations that would connect me with other bereaved parents. More than anything else, I needed to talk about Gavin, to talk about his life and to talk about his death. We recognized early on that we needed to surround ourselves with loving, supportive and comforting people with and without their own loss. In that process, we embraced those types of people and we distanced ourselves from those who were not.
In October, two months after Gavin died, I went to meet a dog Jesse was absolutely in love with and needed a home. I wasn’t sure about it but my hesitance had nothing to do with the fact that he was a pit bull mix, that he was deaf or even that he had previously been in an abusive home. I just wasn’t sure that I was fully capable of loving a dog in the way it deserved to be loved. Despite my reservations, I went to meet him and was warned that he was shy and might not come around to me right away. I sat down in the lobby on a bench and as the dog came running out, he immediately jumped into my lap and laid down. I was completely taken off guard. This dog who I had already decided I wasn’t going to adopt before I got there had changed my mind in all of two minutes. He needed me just as much as I needed him and we both knew it. So Dexter, as we soon came to call him, came home with us. His physical wounds healed quickly, but his emotional ones are still a work in progress. One could see the obvious parallel to me. It didn’t take my body long to forget that I had given birth, but the emotional wounds are still healing. We are two beings, on a similar journey of learning to love, trust and hope again and if nothing else, we are better off doing it together.
In addition to all the therapy in both the traditional sense and the non-traditional canine sense, Jesse and I got to work finding non-profit organizations whose missions aligned with ours and allowed us to honor Gavin’s life in deeply meaningful ways. We have helped raise thousands of dollars for Graham’s Foundation, a support foundation helping families with micro-preemies in the NICU and with micro-preemies who have lost their battle. During the holidays, we bake endlessly to provide treats for the Ronald McDonald Family Room in the NICU at the medical center. Each year, on Gavin’s birthday we donate a truck load of toys and food to the Ronald McDonald House of Winston Salem and every Fall, we volunteer at the Heartstrings’ Walk to Remember. The selflessness and kindness of others is not lost on us. We know it is through the generosity of others that we have been able to so deeply and so richly honor Gavin’s life and his legacy.
In the time since Gavin’s birth, we have been given so many amazing opportunities. I’ve done several talks, bereavement training seminars for hospital staff and have become a support parent with Heartstrings. I’ve made friends with a bunch of absolutely wonderful parents who like us, have lost children. They have become a wonderful support system. In March of this year, we welcomed our beautiful daughter Nora. She is so full of energy and love. Each new day brings an exciting new adventure. None of this is to say that we don’t continue to grieve nor go a day without missing Gavin but our life is so deeply full of love because of him and his little sister. His death while heartbreaking has not negated the beauty of his life nor our ability to appreciate the enormity of the love that continues to surround us.
The past three years have been indescribably beautiful and difficult. To watch the beginning of your child’s life collide with the end of it is unimaginable to most and we will never be the same because of it. But I will say, as crazy as it sounds, I would do it all over again if it meant we got to spend that precious time with our son again. Every last second of his sixty and a half hours on this earth were miraculous and beautiful and for that, we will spend an eternity being grateful. We heard him cry when he was born, watched him wiggle his feet, held his hands, saw his beautiful eyes and even if only for a short time we were able to watch him in complete and absolute amazement.
Because of Gavin I stand before you today and if I leave you with nothing else, I hope you all can learn from us that this journey while painful is also full of beauty. Tears and laughter can live together and your baby’s impression on your heart can never, ever be erased. Open your hearts to people who want to help, who speak your child’s name, who cry with you and who love you without condition.
Before I finish, I would like to leave you all with this beautiful poem written in honor of Gavin by my sister Jessica. I hope it brings you as much comfort as it has me.
God made a sweet child
A child that would never grow old
He made a smile of sunshine
He molded a heart of pure gold
God made that child as close to an
Angel as anyone could ever be
Then God saw His wonderful creation
Growing tired and weak
So He wrapped the child in his loving arms
And said “you my child I keep”
On the far side of the sky
You spread your wings to fly
I hope you land next to a lion
And run your finger threw his mane
Or find out what it is like to ride a drop of rain
You will walk with my grand daddy
And he’ll match you step for step
Please tell him how much I’ve missed
You both every minute since you left.
The mountains have called to you
You have left this home,
But sometimes I ask the moon
Where it shined upon you last,
And shake my head and say
“It all went by too fast”
When you see your makers face
You’ll be free from hurt and pain.
Stand forever in the light
Of His amazing grace.
I’ll love you forever, until we meet
Among the angels on a golden street.
Be the shining light that guides us down the road we’re walking on.
So when they ask how far love goes
You’ll be the one who knows.