Sunday, January 08, 2012

Gabriel and Amy

I wrote yesterday on the nasty piling on that some liberals have given Rick Santorum and his wife concerning the way they chose to deal with the heartbreaking circumstances surrounding the birth and death of their infant son, Gabriel. For reasons that weren't clear to me initially, this particular episode of political blood sport bothered me more than similar episodes of crappy behavior from the pundit class. Writing for National Review, Mark Steyn made the following observation:
The short life of Gabriel Santorum would seem a curious priority for political discourse at a time when the Brokest Nation in History is hurtling toward its rendezvous with destiny. But needs must, and victory by any means necessary. In 2008, the Left gleefully mocked Sarah Palin’s live baby. It was only a matter of time before they moved on to a dead one.
While that's true, there's more to it. And I figured out what it was. While I've never had to make the horrifying choices that faced the Santorums, my parents did. And the toll it took was larger than I ever really understood.

Like the Santorums, I come from a big Catholic family. I am the oldest child; I grew up knowing three brothers and two sisters. But I had another sister, whose name is Amy. And Amy is largely a mystery to me.

Amy was a twin, born the same day as my brother. Paul was a healthy baby and he is now the proud father of three fine children. Amy was born and died the same day, in October of 1966. I am not even sure that my parents even knew that my mother was carrying twins, as ultrasound machines and such were rarities in those days. Paul was born first and apparently arrived without much incident, but the story goes that after Paul was born, my mother's obstetrician noticed that there was another baby. That was Amy. From what I understand, it was immediately evident that Amy had severe birth defects and was not going to make it. Amy died within an hour of her birth. She apparently had a funeral; I say apparently because I was about a month shy of my third birthday when Paul and Amy were born, so I have no memory of these events. It's possible, even likely, that I didn't attend the funeral.

Growing up, I knew about Amy's existence, but my parents didn't really want to discuss the matter very much and I was usually too busy pursuing my own agenda to worry much about family history. From time to time we would go out to the country cemetery in Mackville, a crossroads about 5 miles north of town, where Amy was laid to rest, alongside other infants and young children of previous generations who had died from the fatal childhood diseases that were once a sad part of life. But while Amy wasn't a topic of conversation very often, throughout my mother's life it was clear that Amy's absence was on her mind. When my mother passed away, some 34 years later, her remains were buried in the same plot where Amy was laid to rest.

Both of my parents are deceased now. So is the obstetrician who delivered her. I am not aware of any pictures or other evidence of her life, beyond the grave marker out in Mackville. It's likely that no one who still walks this earth has ever seen her face. Yet Amy was here. She is my sister and her life, however brief, has meaning, just as Gabriel Santorum's life has meaning to his parents. And because of the choice that Rick and Karen Santorum made, his siblings have at least some understanding, or at least a tangible memory, of the brother they have.

In the NR article, Steyn points out that the choice the Santorums made isn't weird at all:

Not many of us will ever know what it’s like to have a child who lives only a few hours. That alone should occasion a certain modesty about presuming to know what are “weird” and unweird reactions to such an event. In 1996, the Santorums were told during the pregnancy that their baby had a fatal birth defect and would not survive more than a few hours outside the womb. So Gabriel was born, his parents bundled him, and held him, and baptized him. And two hours later he died. They decided to take his body back to the home he would never know. Weirdly enough, this crazy weird behavior is in line with the advice of the American Pregnancy Association, which says that “it is important for your family members to spend time with the baby” and “help them come to terms with their loss.”
I don't know, and will never know, what drove the choices my parents had to make. They had to deal with two toddlers (my brother Pat was 20 months old at the time) and now another baby boy, all of whom needed their love and attention. They may not have had time to grieve, considering the circumstances. Still, the reality of this sister I never knew is something I carry with me. I don't know that if I'd been able to see her face, or hold her, it would have made that much of a difference in my life. I suspect not. But it would have meant a connection that I cannot now make.

This much I know -- I am glad that my father was a businessman and not a politician.


Joey said...

My daughter was stillborn 10 months ago. My twins had just turned a year old so they weren't exactly aware of much. We didn't take her home and frankly that idea strikes me as a bit strange. But as you noted, grief is a funny thing and there is no normal way to deal with it. We had pictures taken of her and have one of us with all 3 of our kids. While my stillborn daughter intentionally isn't very visible in the photo, that photo is incredibly meaningful to us. Our kids see it on the living room table, point to my daughter being held in my wife's arms, and say, "Kaylee!"

We have friends whose son was stillborn a year ago. One regret they have is not bringing their kids (2 and 4) to the hospital to meet their brother. A constant fear with stillbirth is you'll regret not doing something you could have in the few short hours you have with your child. From that perspective, I can absolutely understand the Santorums' decision. The criticism of it is outrageous.

Mr. D said...


My condolences on your loss. Thank you for sharing this.

W.B. Picklesworth said...

I was talking with a parishioner this morning. And he told me about he and his wife's first pregnancy in 1963. They didn't know that she was pregnant with twins until she went into labor six weeks early and lost them both. A lot has changed in the past 50 years, their daughter had twins 20 years later and they survived an early delivery, but the fundamentals haven't: losing a child, even one you never knew, hurts deeply. Anyone making fun of that diminishes himself. Whatever we might feel about politics, this is about humanity.

This was a good essay, Mr. D. Thank you.

Mr. D said...

Thanks, WBP. I really don't like Rick Santorum the politician very much, but it's quite important to call out the nastiness that he and his family have been subjected to in recent days.