Chris and I were recently invited over to my baby sister’s house for dinner. Since she only lives about two minutes away from our house, it was easy enough for us to make last minute plans, throw our dogs in the car, and head over with some ingredients to make dinner and watch basketball. As we pulled out of our neighborhood and began toward her house I began to feel a growing ache in the back of my mind and in my heart. This trip to Chelsea’s house was something she, Chris and I dreamed of doing regularly once Joe was born, and now, as I drove slowly through the quiet streets to her house, I was deeply struck by the sad weight of our empty backseat.
For a very long time, Chelsea has wanted nothing more than to be an aunt. She was insistent that she would be the most familiar face to our baby (after mine and Chris’s), so her presence with him would be essentially constant. Her persistence on the matter was one of the most endearing qualities about her through her years in college and after she graduated.
My sister is such a beautiful soul. Seven years younger than I am, she has a vulnerability about her, which shows through her tough exterior as she goes above and beyond for the people she loves most. There is not a person in this world who I trust more with the responsibility of loving my family with her whole heart. While still learning the difficult and often painful lessons of early adulthood, she manages to show up for every important moment without hesitation, and with a passion that is unparalleled by any other person outside of my home. She loves hard and she loves well.
The first time I became pregnant, she had exploded into tears of joy. I adored watching her begin to formulate her vision of herself as an actual aunt. Unfortunately, this first pregnancy resulted in a first-trimester miscarriage. My miscarriage might have been one of the hardest things Chelsea had ever gone through. She undoubtedly wanted to fix everything in those moments we spent together grieving the dream of that baby, but she understood that just being with me was the only thing to be done, and she did it well. She always heard that it was truly a miracle when babies were born healthy, but now she knew personally just how miraculous it really was. Things don’t go perfectly just because you want them to. Along with us, she was already learning some real-life wisdom that she would no doubt need to depend on in the future.
I told Chelsea I was pregnant with Joe during a sleepover we had while Chris was away on a work trip. While she was ecstatic about this news, I could tell she was protecting herself from getting too excited. She already knew the potential for heartbreak all too well. As my belly grew and my pregnancy progressed, Chelsea cautiously allowed herself to express her joy for our little one more and more. She spoiled me with gifts for the “Dub Cub” at every shower and was adorably infatuated with touching me all the time. Together we daydreamed about walking from one house to the other all summer long, and she was adamant about being our first choice anytime we would need a babysitter. She even tried to convince Chris to let her move in with us so we could be “stay-at-home-sisters” who effortlessly raised the baby and ran the household while Chris supported all three of us. Although this plan was flawed and (mostly) for giggles, it was clear how deeply and sincerely excited she was to have a baby to call her Auntie Chels. The dream was fully formed and she literally vibrated with anticipation as I headed into the last six weeks of pregnancy.
I’ll never forget her face when she came to the hospital once she learned about Joe. Completely shattered and heartbroken, she came straight to me and held me in my hospital bed and we cried together. I stroked her hair and tried to tell her it was okay, but no other words were spoken between us. Without even meeting Joseph yet, she knew exactly what we had lost: our dream. Both of our hearts were broken - for Joe, for each other, for Chris, and for our lost dream of bringing Joe home to our loving family. Through all the confusion on that first day, my instinct was to protect her from the sorrow of what was happening… and what was still to come. But, I quickly learned that I would not have to protect her at all. In fact, my baby sister showed me how capable of extraordinary loyalty, devotion, and love she was. She was not going to allow anyone’s focus to be on her for even a second. She knew we needed her and she never failed to keep us the priority. She showed up to the aunthood that she was given and took every opportunity she could to be with us and her nephew.
Without hesitation, she devoted every moment of the next six days to being at our side for whatever we would need. She arrived at the hospital early in the morning the day Joe was born and stayed by my side through every moment through the afternoon and into the evening. While Chris was at Children’s meeting with Joe’s doctors, she was with me, holding my hand. When everyone else went home and my dad and I took a nap in my hospital room, Chelsea went with Chris to keep Joe company. She met him before I did. She felt his skin and held his hand before I did. She fell in love with him before I did. I thank God every day that my baby was surrounded by and felt her love on that first night in place of mine. I will never forget the peace her presence brought me as I tried to rest and gather the strength to join them. She brought me care packages from her friends and chose the string we used to make the “Joe bracelets” for our family and loved ones. She was eager to ease our pain however she could and I’m sure she felt some relief in the actions she was able to take on our behalf.
The only thing that stood between me and the NICU on that Monday morning was the shower I had to take. The nurses at the hospital where Joe was born handled me with such amazing love and respect. They were all very sweet and nurturing, with the exception of the last nurse I had during that morning. Marian was much older than all the other nurses and was anything but warm and fuzzy. She was firm and matter of fact, nothing like what I was used to and not at all what I wanted in the final hours before leaving for Children’s. The other nurses carefully supported me as I got out of bed to use the bathroom, but Marian insisted I get there on my own. It took some time, but I came to realize that Marian was actually trying to prepare me for what life would really be like once I left that hospital room. She challenged me to believe in my own strength because she knew I would need it in the days, weeks, even years to come. I came to love and appreciate her more than any other nurse I encountered during my stay there. The last thing she told me I had to do was take a shower so I could remove the dressing covering my incision, and feel refreshed so I would be my best for Joe. She gave me the necessary items to complete the shower, gave me some short instructions, and swiftly left Chelsea and me alone in the room. With Marian’s subtle nudging, I was confident that I could get myself safely into and out of the shower, but Chelsea being there as my second hand was extra assurance that I would be able to do it. Having no idea what to expect, we both fumbled around trying to undress me, situate my things so I could successfully bathe, and redress me afterward. She was so brave and patient with me as I requested assistance with one thing after another. With her help, I was able to do the last thing the nurses required of me before I was discharged. I was going to finally be with my baby and I will never forget how much Chelsea’s presence that day allowed me to get to him as quickly as possible.
Chelsea was consistently the healing presence our souls needed throughout the long afternoons and even longer evenings in the NICU with Joe. Although she had to return to work after a day or two, she visited with us as soon as she possibly could every day, sometimes returning twice in one day if we asked her to. She brought us anything we needed, along with things she couldn’t help bringing just to add some special sweetness to her little nephew’s life. Like when we learned that Joe loved being read to, which we knew because his heart rate would slow down when he heard the rhythmic lull of a familiar voice telling him a story, she showed up with more books from the same series as the first book we ever read to him. She sometimes ate meals with us in the hospital cafeteria, talking with us as we processed our thoughts, emotions, joys, and fears. She helped coordinate our other family members’ visiting times so that Chris wasn’t always taking on that responsibility. And, perhaps most special of all, Chels was able to participate in Joe’s care. One of his favorite things was his lip care, which involved applying a small amount of my breast milk to his tiny lips to keep them moisturized. He loved it so much, whenever we applied it, he immediately licked every bit of it off. His enjoyment of the lip care thrilled us so much that we would put it on there just to watch him lick it off. Doing this gave me an immense feeling of accomplishment and helped me bond with him because it was the closest Joe and I would come to breastfeeding. Chelsea giving Joe his lip care is a sacred memory that I will cherish forever. She was gentle and loving, and talked to him the whole time. She was, indeed, the aunt she was always meant to be.
On the day we said goodbye to our sweet baby, Chelsea worried for me. She anticipated that I would be a mess after Chris and I eased Joe out of his body, which was a very fair thing for her to expect. When Chris and I entered the room where our family waited for us after Joe passed, Chelsea’s eyes were locked on me. She was ready to throw her own grief aside and be the strength I needed, whatever that might mean. When she saw how happy and relieved I was, she took a deep breath, and, with cautious hope, followed my lead. We all went back to the Wallens’ house for dinner and she was the perfect outgoing buffer that my parents and Chris’s parents needed to feel more comfortable. She had spent the entire week being what everyone else needed without ever putting her needs first.
What amazes me most about this young woman is her ability to show up. Not only during this crisis, but also continually after. To me, she is an angel, she is a friend, she is a mother, she is a saint, she is a blessing, she is a true selfless hero. I still haven’t seen her put her needs first when it comes to our experience with Joe. She is still his aunt, but in a different way than she anticipated, which must continue to be devastating to her. I assume she is still exploring what this all means for her, and I am certain that her grief is as strong today as it was then. Only momentarily do I see glimpses of the internal world that she masks for my sake. My work is to give her the space, the safety, and the support to acknowledge and uncover her own grief. I am here to allow her to finally put herself first when it comes to Joe. Joseph is a blessing to her in ways she will continue to learn throughout her entire life. I am most looking forward to how Joe’s life will influence the mother she will someday become. When I become an aunt myself, there will be a rightness in the world, as those little babes will undoubtedly grow up knowing their cousin in an entirely different way than any of us are capable of. They will never know a life where Joe did not exist and that is infinitely magical.
Going forward in our lives, Joe is always with us. He shows us how close we are to him all the time with little signs that we call “Joe moments.” Chris and I experience them almost daily, and I am looking forward to all the moments to come in the future. Chelsea is navigating her young life with an angel to protect her. She has many, many angels protecting her, but one of them is especially strong and significant because of the love they shared. My hope for her is that she grows closer to him and experiences for herself the truth of the place where he now resides. No matter what earthly concern arises in her life, I hope Joe reminds her of the unconditional love that surrounds her and protects her. This love is the one thing we can fully believe in during our lives here on earth. This love connects us to each other. It is never lost, and it never, ever ends. This love still connects my sister to her Little Joe. In the future, Chelsea will most certainly experience aunthood in the more traditional sense. There will one day be a baby in the backseat as we drive to her house for spur-of-the-moment hang outs. But Joe and Chelsea were connected by the love they shared, and that connection will always exist between them. I hope she leans on that truth as she bravely faces each new day on her life’s path. She will have her loving family and her amazing friends to help her along the way, and she will always, always have her Joe.
Joe on baby girl,