Larkin Adelle Wilkinson was born Sept. 9, 1984, early on a Sunday morning. There had been many false alarms in the week preceding her birth and our family's excitement level was high when the moment finally arrived. Our older girls, Emily, 5, and Claire, 4, had spent the night at my sister's, so my husband, Ken, and I had had a peaceful evening alone together and were well rested when I went into labor around 6 a.m.
I remember marveling at the beauty of the late summer morning while driving to George Washington University Hospital. Crisp air, bright blue sky, birds chirping -- a perfect morning to be born. I thought of the poem about the days of the week -- Monday's child is fair of face, Tuesday's child is full of grace . . . This baby would be born on the Sabbath Day -- bonny and blythe and good and gay.
It was one of those births I had heard about but didn't quite believe possible. Once at the hospital, I went straight to the delivery room. Two pushes and our beautiful little blond Larkin was born -- wriggling and screaming and undeniably ours.
That magic moment: a healthy, glorious new life.
Unlike the women who suffer from post-partum depression, I found myself on a euphoric high. This was the planned baby and everything seemed perfect: Emily and Claire would be in school, our house in Great Falls was almost finished, we had hired an au pair to help with the children. There would be none of the novice frustrations of dealing with the first born, nor those of coping with a second child born a little too close to the first for comfort. I also found myself particularly associated with this baby, since I am the third girl in an all-girl family.
Larkin was received home with great fanfare. The big girls were overjoyed and proved to be excellent helpers, bringing blankets and diapers and washcloths on demand. The biggest source of contention was deciding whose turn it would be to hold the baby next. Friends streamed through bearing gifts and flowers and dinners, and we threw a spectacular christening party when the baby was 2 months old. Larkin's godfather told me later that as he contemplated our happy family celebrating together that day, he thought to himself: "They have it all."
Larkin lived a very full life. She went to the Whistler show at the Freer and the Van Gogh show at the Met in New York; she went to the first parents' night at both of our older girls' schools as well as to show-and-tell in each of their classrooms; she spent a night at the U.N. Ambassador's residence in New York, and a weekend with friends in West Virginia and in Flint Hill; she visited her grandparents' grave in Culpeper; she shopped at Giant Gourmet and Magruder's.
By Christmas she had reached that heavenly phase when smiles become free flowing. She would sit in her little chair in front of the Christmas tree, staring at the twinkling lights. Then Emily (who was the only one who could get her to laugh) would come chatter with her and dangle a toy until finally she extracted a chuckle that would send the whole family into raptures of delight.
It was a particularly beautiful Christmas. We spent the day at home, peacefully opening presents and drinking champagne, then in the evening went to my sister Steph's house for more presents and Christmas dinner. All eight cousins were gathered and the energy level was high. It was the way Christmas is supposed to be with just the right combination of chaos and magic. After the presents had been opened, Steph and I snuck off to her new daughter's room to nurse the babies in peace. A small Christmas tree twinkled in the corner of the room and we sat in rocking chairs facing one another feeding our children. We didn't speak. The moment was perfect.
I did not know it was the last time I would hold my baby alive.
Later that evening, we spoke with our youngest sister in California. I found myself saying to her: "Each of my girls is special in her own way and I love them all equally, but Larkin is such a gift!"
I awoke suddenly in the night with the feeling of something being wrong. Ken was awake too and went downstairs to investigate. He came back a little while later and said he'd found nothing and both of us went back to sleep with a sense of uneasiness. Why we did not check the children, I can't explain . . .
When I awoke again, it was nearly 8 in the morning. The baby rarely slept that late and I jumped out of bed to go nurse her. I opened the door to her room and saw her little shape under her pink and blue blanket, face down as she always was. I thought it strange that I couldn't see the movement of breathing, and I quickly put my hand on her back to reassure myself. No movement. I picked her up. Her face had already started to turn blue from lack of circulation. She was rigid and cold.
"My God, my God! Ken -- the baby!" Ken came running. We both knew immediately. There was no question that she was dead. He took her from me as I started down the stairs. "My God! My God!" I had no breath, I couldn't think, I was shaking and freezing and sobbing. Ken came downstairs after me. We embraced, both sobbing. "We'll have another baby! Tell me we will!" He agreed and we just stood there clinging to one another and crying.
Then an incredible calm came over me. "I must hold together for the other children. I cannot fall apart." Fortunately Emily had spent the night at Steph's. I called Steph and told her to come immediately but to leave Emily there and not to tell her. Then I went upstairs to tell Claire.
She had been awakened by the noise and was standing at the door to her room. "What is it, Mommy? What's the matter?"
"Larkin is dead. We don't know why or how. Get your clothes on and we'll go for a walk." It was a freezing cold morning but Claire and I were in such shock, we didn't feel it. "How did it happen, Mommy? Why did Larkin die?" "I don't know, darling, no one do knows."
At that point, I was convinced that I had suffocated her but was not about to discuss that with Claire. (I later found out that this is a very common reaction on the part of SIDS mothers.) The guilt was already unbearable. To make matters worse, the police and ambulance were at the house when we got back.
"Could we ask you a few questions?" a young officer asked. Homicide had to be ruled out, of course. (Until 1969, SIDS parents were usually charged with negligent homicide. At that time, the term sudden infant death syndrome came into general medical use. SIDS became an acceptable term for general use on death certificates after 1973.) The police were very gentle and caring, though. I was very concerned that the baby not be removed before I was ready to part with her. They assured me that we could take our time.
Meanwhile Ken had had been making phone calls. Our lawyer (and personal friend) and his wife were there as well as our minister, and Steph arrived soon. Claire was still clutching my hand and asked where Larkin was. Could she see her? I told her that Larkin was gone but that she could see her dead body. Steph wanted to see her, too, so we went up to Ken and my bedroom where her body was lying in our bed.
I'll never forget the expression on her face as long as I live -- not one of peace or of suffering but of lifelessness. The little life had been snuffed out and only this empty vehicle remained. Larkin was clearly gone. I haven't regretted allowing Claire to see her, for that reason. The issue of body and soul becomes so much clearer once you've laid eyes on the dead body of a beloved one.
Ken and I were left alone with her for half an hour or so after that. I held her for the last time, still in a fog, unbelieving. My breasts were starting to hurt as they filled with milk for the morning feeding. Our minister came in and said a few words. I kissed Larkin goodbye and went downstairs to prepare myself for her departure. Steph and I stood by the door, Claire clutched my hand. A police officer came down with the little body all wrapped in a sheet. Ken followed and took my other hand as he reached the door. We clung to each other as we watched our baby leave the house for the last time.
The next few hours were utter confusion. I was terribly concerned about Emily. The house was filling with people, phones were ringing. We arranged for Steph's husband, David, to drive Emily over and to tell her in the car on the way. I stood anxiously by the door awaiting their arrival. Poor little Emily! The look of shock and disbelief on her face was terrible to see. She was more outraged than Claire -- "Why Mommy? Tell me why! I loved her! Why did she die?"
But the worst question, the least answerable one, came a few hours later. "What next, Mommy?" As if, given the proper preparation, she could handle tragedies of this magnitude -- but a little lead time, please. I sat in my bedroom with Emily on my lap for a long time. We just hugged and held one another. It was still way too early to really think about it all. Besides, by now my whole body was throbbing with the urge to nurse and I felt physically ill.
The way our friends and family rallied around in the next hours and days was truly remarkable. Several were cleaning and restoring order to the house after the Christmas chaos; one answered the phone and took charge of informing people; others tended to Emily and Claire. Food and flowers were already pouring in.
Meanwhile I stayed in bed upstairs with cold compresses on my breasts. The doctors had said there was no easy solution to stopping nursing so suddenly. Even a breast pump didn't solve the problem. They had prescribed "dry up" pills which would take several days to have any effect. Until then, they said, it would simply be painful.
A nurse friend stayed with me much of the day, and by mid-afternoon, I was so engorged she felt we should find a baby to nurse and alleviate the pressure. Another friend applied herself to the task of finding an appropriate baby. She found a neighbor with a 1-month-old who agreed to drive from Bethesda to Great Falls to allow a total stranger to nurse her baby. I'll never forget that act of charity. The physical relief was incredible.
Ken had thrown himself into arrangements -- the funeral, the cemetery plot, the casket. He and Steph drove to Rock Creek Cemetery where he chose a beautiful spot next to a little holly tree near the wonderful "Grief" statue. At home another friend was finding a singer for the service, while several others investigated places for Ken and me and the girls to "get away from it all" after the funeral. Our woodworking friend started designing the casket, which he and Larkin's godfather made together.
I sat up in my bed and received friends one or two at a time. There was nothing to say but their presence was comforting. Downstairs buzzed with activity and voices as more friends came from near and far. Just knowing they were all there was a tremendous help.
My doctors had not given me tranquilizers or sleeping aids. Being a non-pill-taking type, I had gone along with this advice, which I later realized was a mistake. The first night without Larkin ws unbearable. To lose a tiny baby whose total sustenance had come from your own body is something akin to amputation. Sleep was impossible. I kept hearing her cry or would suddenly relive that terrible moment when I had picked up her cold stiff body. Then I'd be stricken with the fear that perhaps Emily or Claire had stopped breathing in their sleep and would rush into their rooms to check. Finally I woke up my younger sister in the next room and she very obligingly massaged my back and talked to me until I fell asleep close to dawn.
The day of the funeral seemed more like May than December -- blue sky and 70 degrees. It was like a day suspended in time, and I felt Larkin's presence everywhere -- my warm little smiling baby. Emily came downstairs clutching the doll Steph had given the baby for Christmas with "Larkin" embroidered on the apron.
"This Larkin will not die," she said firmly, and she proceeded to hold it on her lap throughout the funeral.
It was a lovely service. The singer intoned, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine . . ." and we had each child present light a candle. I felt it important to include the children, since the idea of their own vulnerability had so suddenly been introduced by the death of someone even younger than themselves. My brother-in-law, David, delivered an eloquent eulogy:
Larkin Adelle couldn't "do" much. But what she did do was this: Every minute, every second of her short life gave only joy and happiness, to all who knew her . . . How many of us who can "do" so much more can say that of ourselves?
The following days and weeks are a blur to me now. I know that we kept assuring everyone we were "doing just fine" while wondering if we'd ever feel anything again. A friend lent us a condominium in Key West for two weeks in January and, while it was lovely to get away, the trip reinforced the reality that "getting away from it" was impossible. It seemed that every fourth person in Florida was 3 1/2 months old, and it pained me to even lay eyes on them. How could a parent be so calm in the presence of a sleeping infant? Why were they flaunting their good fortune at me?
When we got back I threw myself into structuring my life. I volunteered at the children's schools, took a drawing class, started jogging and swimming regularly and resumed a writing project begun before Larkin's birth.
Ken and I also started going to the local SIDS support group, which was the beginning of our education about that terrible affliction. I had initially been relieved when I had first heard the official news from the coroner's office that Larkin had died of SIDS rather than suffocation. I was unaware at that time of the shocking fact that so little is known and so little is being done in the way of research. The federal government allotted $657,000 for research in 1984, down from $3.36 million in 1981.
Perhaps the hardest fact for me to assimilate was that the chances of a second occurence are quite high (one in 50 as opposed to one in 500 for a first occurence), and I had assumed we would someday have another baby.
There was a rash of SIDS in the Washington area that Christmas. Another child died in Alexandria the same day as Larkin, and at our first SIDS meeting, there were seven new babies represented. While the meetings were depressing, there was something reassuring about being with people who had experienced the identical kind of blow.
Ken and I also started back with a counselor we had seen years before to help alleviate the stress on our marriage. When both parties are suffering so intensely and simultaneously, it is impossible to give or get the kind of support needed and expected.
Eight months later, the pain has subsided somewhat. I no longer think of Larkin every minute of every day. I still find it very hard to be around friends and their babies. Four close friends had babies within two months of Larkin's birth. Seeing their development and growth will always make me think of her and miss her.
But I am no longer as haunted as I was. I don't hear her cry at night or see her face on strangers' babies passing by. I am capable of real sleep. The rest of the family is doing better, too. Emily, who before Christmas had been an enthusiastic, successful first grader, went back to her classroom after the tragedy on her hands and knees and talking baby talk. She spent much of her time with her head on her desk and often refused to participate in activities. She is repeating first grade this fall and seems excited about school again.
Claire has had more than her usual number of nightmares, but they, too, have become less frequent with time. Ken has been a tower of strength, and our marriage has reached new levels of cohesiveness and depth from surviving the experience together.
Slowly, the word has spread. I never anticipated how painful the casual "How's the baby?" in the grocery store could be. Just when you're thinking that surely everyone in the world knows, it will happen again, leaving the well-intentioned acquaintance as excruciated as I.
Then there are those who were too overwhelmed to send a note or call when Larkin died and who now feel compelled to avoid crossing paths for fear of embarrassment. I've found that many people are awkward in the face of our pain and look to us for help and guidance in social situations.
But time has a way of forcing even the most outrageous events into history, and I've felt myself recently accepting Larkin's death on a level that I was still fighting just months ago. We've just found out that we're expecting another baby next March and, in spite of the fears that will accompany this pregnancy, birth and baby, we're all very excited. I also think it's the only way for us to begin to close the wound.
For me, the most important lessons to come out of this whole experience were ones of faith. First, that we are not in charge of our lives and that, like it or not, whatever one's religious beliefs, the greater powers have the ultimate say. And second, I have truly gained insight into the old saying of "counting one's blessings" and appreciating every minute of every positive aspect of one's life.
We will never forget little Larkin -- her gummy smiles and belly laughs, the incredible joy she did bring us. But we must go on with our lives and tend to the living too. And we'll pray all goes well this time.