I have been promising myself that I would write about the death of my twins when I was ready. Ever since that fateful day more than 11 years ago, I have tried to write, dozens of times, but my attempts have drawn many tears and very few words. I tried again very recently, but didn’t get very far. The school shooting in Newtown changed everything.I felt their pain, and I felt it was finally time for me to deal with the demons that have haunted me for more than 11 years. I felt compelled to give my son and daughter a voice. My son and daughter never had the chance to create their own legacy, and I wanted to provide that legacy for them by offering my support and understanding to other parents. Since Newton, I have had my story published, month by month, in the Jewish Press. What follows is the most emotional piece I have ever written. It was painful to write, and even painful to read, but I hope other parents find some comfort in it and find a little time to think about my beloved children, Asher and Devorah.
I am sitting in the second bedroom in our new apartment. It is a nice new place, bigger to accommodate our incoming twins. But alas it shall remain empty, a constant reminder of what we lost.
Two days ago, the doctors told my wife it didn’t look good, a few hours later they told her it was over. Yet my wife still had to do the unthinkable, go through full labor and delivery knowing she would not bring her babies home. They were just under 21 weeks and would die soon after birth. We wished it would be quick but it was not. Her water broke at 2:00 a.m. and she did not give birth until 4:00 p.m. the following afternoon, 14 hours of knowing this process would kill our children but knowing there was nothing we could do to stop it.
They were born within minutes of one another, my daughter, my first born, was 13 ounces. She came out gasping, trying to breathe but her lungs could not.
My son was born soon after, 12 ounces. He came out moving his left arm in a flailing motion. My wife and I both held each child. I then held my daughter, cuddling her, telling her how much I love her until she died some 20 minutes later.
My son was more complicated. He would convulse, opening his mouth in a desperate attempt to breathe. He tried so hard, his entire back would jerk, but it could do nothing. He died in my arms soon after.
After a while, my wife and I asked to see them once more. The boy is a carbon copy of me, from his lips to his face to his stumpy legs…and he’s gone.
My daughter looks like my wife. They have the same face and head…and she’s gone…and I, as their father, failed in my most important task, I could not protect my own children from their fate.
Today the boy had a bris. His name is Asher. He is buried next to my daughter Devorah. They are gone, never knowing what it would mean to live and be loved. We both tried to tell them how much we loved them, yet they never saw us as their eyes were fused closed. And I know they couldn’t understand…and there was nothing I could do to save them. Good night my sweets. Forever is a long time.
It was hard to see the computer when I typed those words years ago as my eyes were blurred with tears. When I read it now, it feels almost clinical and devoid of emotion. I berate myself for not adequately describing my feelings. That task gets harder, not easier with time, and what follows is my best attempt to tell the whole story.
Time crept as slowly as possible that day. I remember davening quickly early in the morning and then waiting for the incremental changes in my wife’s dilation. I don’t think most people can understand execution day for a condemned inmate, as a very alive person counts down the hours until their scheduled death, but we certainly do.
We didn’t know how long it would take, but we knew the babies were fine as long as they were in utero and would die as soon as they were born.
It is amazing how strong people can be when they have to, and this was one of those moments. But as I mentioned once before, there is a psychological price to be paid for that strength that you can never really overcome.
I have no memory of my wife being wheeled into the delivery room, and I also have no memory of putting on the scrubs that were required for my wife’s safety. But before I knew it, I was standing next to my wife who was on the delivery table.
Many of us are familiar with an expectant mother’s pushing while in labor. It is painful and exhausting, but it produces the greatest gift on earth. Try to imagine the pain of being told to push, knowing that each push brings your children closer to their deaths.
Sadly, there was no other option. All I could do was try to provide some comfort and support for my wife. There were such mixed emotions. On the one hand, we had to get through this and the longer the experience the greater our pain, and yet on the other, every extra moment was another moment that our children could live.
I also don’t recall how long the process took, but I clearly remember the nurse telling us that she could see our babies. Once again, that is usually the best news that parents can ever hear, yet for us it meant our children’s lives would soon end.
My daughter was born first. I know that my emotions were playing tricks on me, but as she was delivered and I saw her turn her tiny head and kick her foot, I was overwhelmed by the notion that she looked very scared as she quickly gasped for breath.
She was whisked away quickly, weighed and cleaned before being handed to my wife to hold. She didn’t move for long. By the time my wife held and cradled her and the nurse passed her to me, she had already stopped moving. She was alive, technically, as her heart was still beating, but she never took a real breath. I held her and stared intently into her face, trying to find some way to let her understand how much I loved her and how very sorry I was. I said it over and over. “Abba loves you. Abba loves you and I am so, so sorry.”
There was this terrible moment when I had to pass my daughter to the nurse so I could share a few moments with my son as well. He was born only one minute later. He came out flailing his left arm, but unlike my daughter, he did not stop moving so quickly. There were some slight movements when my wife held him, but he seemed so still when he was finally handed to me.
Once again, I had to try to express my love, a lifetime of emotion to a child that I would only know for a few moments. And then it happened. As still as he was, my son suddenly and unexpectedly opened his mouth and tried to take what looked like a deep breath, but his underdeveloped lungs were not capable of handling it. His entire upper body shook and convulsed for what felt like forever.
I recoiled in horror. Seeing how I moved, my wife asked me what happened, but I never told her. Of the entire ordeal, that attempt to breathe haunts me the most. My son had the will to live, he tried his best, but there was nothing he could do. Even worse, there was nothing I could do to save him.
I spent a few more moments with him before the nurse put both children on a table. They still had a heartbeat and they were still technically alive. The anesthesiologist decided my wife had suffered enough and put her to sleep.
I was caught in this awkward place, stuck between spending the last few moments of my children’s lives with them and checking on my wife’s condition. I walked back and forth several times, almost ordering the doctor to make sure that my wife would be ok. I had already lost enough that day.
Almost half an hour later, when I was hovering above my children, my son opened his mouth once more. He was too far gone to even try to take a breath, but I could see a little movement in his chest. Once again I recoiled in abject horror. Why couldn’t I help him? Why couldn’t I save them? I am a failure as a father!
Their little hearts kept beating for about 55 minutes. As their pulse began to fade, I walked over to each and put my hand on them and spontaneously said, “Good night my sweets, because forever is a long time.”
It was then that I looked up and realized that the table had a heat lamp normally used to keep newborn babies warm. The nurse had neglected to turn it on. I was devastated. Not only couldn’t I save my children, I couldn’t even keep them warm while they died!
That was the breaking point for me. I ripped my surgical mask off and threw out my gloves. The neonatologist stopped me from walking out by telling me that rules prohibited fathers from leaving and reentering the delivery room.
Having gone through the worst pain imaginable and what would be a precursor to the many callous comments my wife and I would endure in the coming months, the doctor then said something that even after all we had been through, shocked me to my core…
Chaim Shapiro will continue this story in the Jewish Press in the coming days. Be sure to connect with him there to read the continuation of this story.
Chaim Shapiro, M.Ed is a freelance writer, public speaker and social media consultant. He is currently working on a book about his collegiate experience. He welcomes comments and feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his website.
This article was reprinted with permission from the author and was originally published in the Jewish Press. We are honored to reprint it here in effort to reach more families who might receive comfort from learning of this family’s experience.