It was February seventeenth, just after midnight when she woke me. My wife stood at our bed’s side, hands clasped at her waist, and by the look on her face I knew her heart was racing. “It happened. The baby’s here.”
Her direct phrasing and doe eyes transported me. Almost to the hour, ten years prior, the same tone and countenance aroused me from my sleep in a North Carolina hospital. On the sixteenth of February, 2004, our first son, Caedmon, was born and twenty-four hours later, just after midnight on the seventeenth, his mother woke me. “Something’s wrong with Caedmon. He’s not breathing.”
Now, ten years later, the same mix of wonder and sadness colored her face and I knew what had happened.
We knew this moment was coming. Six weeks prior, Jeni and the kids came by the PHI Center so we could get our first ultrasound of the newest Sprague baby. Everyone was looking forward to that day. About a month before the ultrasound we made this video to tell everyone we were pregnant and the anticipation grew. The five of us waited while Jeni received the clinical component of the scan and then I joined Jeni so the two of us could meet our new baby together. I knelt beside my glowing bride before the nurse’s trembling voice shattered our world, “I can’t find a heartbeat. I’m so sorry.”
I held Jeni while she wept.
The wonderful team at the PHI Center gave us our space but then surrounded us with support and sympathy, stepping into our grief to walk through it with us. We then spent some long, agonizing hours waiting in the ER for the second opinion we hoped would find life. It did not. And so began a six-week journey of anticipation and mourning that peaked this night of February 17th when my wife woke me, “It happened. The baby’s here.”
I was instantly alert and sat up, my left leg provided a seat for Jeni. Her leg had a tremor similar to the one she had after delivering Lucy. My right hand tried to calm her leg while my left held her back. Nearly breathless, she spoke of what just happened. Moments of anticipation, eager yet sorrowful, when she knew the baby was coming. Points of terror when she thought she’d somehow missed the birth. Both overwhelmed by a sense of peace when she finally laid eyes on all ten fingers and toes of our fifth son.
We were supposed to be having a girl. We already named her Annie and the boys loved her name because it reminded them of Annie from Frog Creek who travels through time and space in The Magic Tree House. She grinned when she told me, “I’m pretty sure it’s a boy,”
My breathing matched her hurried pace before we both calmed and she took me in to meet him. Those few steps were full of anticipation, curiosity, and surprisingly little sadness because of Jeni’s peaceful enthusiasm. She was so calm, so gentle, so graceful.
We spent the next few moments in childlike fascination. Lying before us was the tiniest little boy either of us had ever seen. His miniature heart had only been beating for about two months before it finally stopped and in those days he’d only grown to be three and three-quarters of an inch tall, but his body was so complete and so detailed we knelt in awe. We took turns making observations and pointing them out to each other, “Do you see his ear?” “Look at his toes!” Our proclamations were interrupted by one word, gasped over and over again, “Wow!”
Just like I had with his older siblings, I cut his thread-thin umbilical cord and we made plans for the brief time we would have with him. Leading up to this moment I’d found some good thoughts at Heaven’s Gain.com. One was to place the baby in a saline solution to help preserve him until it was time to say goodbye.
This is one of those moments you can never be fully prepared for. We read a bunch, talked to many, and prepared as best we could, but you really do have to be there to understand it. We were prepared with a perfectly practical storage container to hold our child, but we made those preparations before we knew the moment and in the moment our plan was found wanting.
We tip-toed to our kitchen, careful not to wake his big brothers and sister, in search of the perfect resting place. The good Lord, as he did many times that night, gently led us to exactly what we were looking for. A few years ago, a talented friend of ours gave us three beautifully handcrafted bowls. They are kind of like our sons – not identical, but so much alike you might think so. We both knew one would hold our son. God used that bowl to remind me of another. A book I value speaks of a special red bowl and God used that memory to give me our son’s name. I kept the thought to myself.
We walked back to his side. Jeni filled the bowl with the solution and then I gently placed him back into an environment he was much more familiar with. The next step was to get a footprint. I went searching for the materials and left Jeni with our son. For the canvas I found an envelope with 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 scripted on it and we picked a classic, baby boy blue as our paint. Jeni was so delicate, so precise as she succeeded in getting a little footprint, one no bigger than two side-by-side grains of rice, for our memories.
The hours we’d spent with him felt like minutes, but it was nearly 2:00 AM and his mother and I needed to talk. We covered his bowl with the muslin we bought for that purpose and retreated to our bed. We continued to marvel at his incredible little body, but most of the conversation focused on selecting his name. At some point Jackson woke from a bad dream and was now sleeping beside Jeni while we talked. When the time was right, I told her what I believed to be his name, “Oliver Joel Sprague.” She listened but continued scrolling through name meanings so I reminded her how significant the book The Power of the Powerless and the story of Oliver De Vinck was to me and all the writing I’d done about it. I told her about the bowl and my desire to use the last remaining bowl as a reminder of our fifth son. She loved and appreciated what it meant to me, but she wasn’t as sure as I was.
Name meanings had been particularly important to us as we thought about this child so I began looking to see what Oliver and Joel meant. While I was looking Jeni began telling me about the process and how she was going to describe it to her mom. After six weeks of anxiety and fear of the unknown, she found the actual event was uncomplicated and far less emotionally or physically painful that she’d feared. There was one word she felt portrayed the moment and her emotional state and that word was peaceful. I felt our Heavenly Father’s guiding hand once more when I learned what Oliver meant. “Jeni,” I said, “Oliver means Peaceful.” She said she still wasn’t sure, but she smiled and I knew. Each of our kids has a middle name inspired by someone from Biblical history and Oliver is no different. Joel was just a hunch but the meaning was again what confirmed it. Joel means “Yahweh is God” and the truth of that statement is an anchor for our family and what fit this particular storm perfectly.
There was still so much to discuss, but it was nearing 3:00 AM and we were drained so the rest of our conversation focused on making the necessary plans to spend the morning together and talk through all our questions. A miscarriage forces parents to consider things previously unimaginable. Questions like, “Is it okay to take his picture?” “Do we show the boys his picture?” “Do we bury him and if so, where and how?” Some we had been thinking about since the ultrasound, but the moment changed everything. I carried Jackson to his bed and Jeni and I tried to sleep.
In the morning, we circled the boys together on the floor and told them the baby had been born and that “Annie” was a boy. Their sweet faces glowed with curiosity and wonder when we showed them the tiny footprint. Jeni had a tearful conversation with her mom and then we set about our day. Jeni would normally teach at our co-op on Tuesday mornings but the other teachers rallied and absorbed her kids into their classes. I would normally go to work but my co-workers rallied as well so I could be with my family. Nana took Toby and Lucy, then the three older boys went to school while Jeni and I found a place to talk. We sat at a cafe table and shared a cinnamon roll while a little water feature babbled beside us and we talked. We enjoyed such harmony in agreeing on our burial and memorial plan and confirming Oliver Joel as his name. The toughest issue was whether or not we would show the boys a picture of their little brother. They were already so curious but we were concerned their hearts just weren’t ready for a reality this tough. We went back and forth but were always on the same page. Finally, discretion won out and we decided the only pictures they would see now were of his tiny foot and hand, the rest could wait until they were older. With both our sweet conversation and sweet meal complete, we picked up the older three boys and took them to lunch to talk with them about Oliver.
We wanted a flower to plant where Oliver was to be buried so later that night I took Andrew and Jackson with me to pick something. It took longer than expected and I received one phone call from Jeni while we shopped. For the first time since Oliver was born, she cried to me. The house was quiet and the weight of the moment was pressing her heart. She quietly said goodbye and we made a hurried selection before heading home, but we had to make one stop on the way. Upon Jeni’s request, Nana knit a perfect little white blanket to wrap Oliver and we went to pick it up for the morning.
I returned a little after 10:00 PM and helped the boys get to bed. Jeni was already in bed but not quite sleeping. I spent some time preparing for Oliver’s memorial before I fell exhausted into bed. The last time I’d fallen asleep on this bed I was awoken to meet my new son, and I knew this time I would rise to bury him.