We got home from the hospital two days after Annie was born. Our air conditioner had gone out in the days before we went in to deliver, and we were so preoccupied we decided not to even mess with it until later. When we got home, Robert put a window unit in the living room and that kept it pretty comfortable in there. I tried to sleep on the couch but it was too soft to support my healing body. Robert drug a mattress in for me and I spent the next few days lying on it on the floor in front of the TV and eating chocolate (that sounds sooooo depressing, but it was actually pretty comfy and relaxing). The first few days that Rob and I were at home, Dylan & Harper Lou were still staying with grandparents. I had planned on using those days to do all of my weeping and wailing so the girls wouldn’t see. I remember during those days I was feeling empty inside and longing for my baby, but there was no weeping. I felt like I was doing something wrong. I would tear up from time to time, but I couldn’t really cry. It is so strange to experience a piece of your own heart leaving, never again to return to this earth, and to be unable to physically express what you are feeling inside. I wanted to sob uncontrollably while my husband held me and stroked my hair and told me everything would be OK. When that happened while I was pregnant it always made me feel better. Instead, I was living with a lump inside my throat and there was no way to get it out.
Even though I carried that grief, I still had a divine peace about everything. Annie came, we were able to love her urgently and intensely, her family got to meet her and be blessed by her, and all of the unknowns were finally known. The physical part of our journey was over. It was almost a relief, and I feel a pang of guilt when I say that. It was such a long process for us, and the knowledge of impending loss of a child is a burden no parent should have to bear.
Our girls came home a few days later, and when they got home we had to resume sort of a modified “life as usual.” I completely ignored my post c-section discharge instructions. I picked up my girls (who weigh way more than 10 pounds) as often as I could. At my post partum check up with my doctor I told him I knew I had been overdoing it and I was worried that one day things were going to start falling out… ya know… He laughed at me and said, “Abbey, you’ve had three kids. Things are going to fall out no matter what you do.” So, unfortunately gravity is inevitable, but I was able to continue to love on my girlies as much as I needed to without feeling guilty or scared about it.
We made the arrangements for the memorial service, and we lovingly referred to that day as “Annie’s Day.” We also planned a come-and-go reception. I’ve never been to a funeral for a baby before, so I had no one to ask what to do. We just tried to do the best we could. During these arrangements we were shown several more ways that God continued to shelter us. One of Robert’s lifelong friends has family in the funeral home business, so he helped us make the arrangements for Annie to be picked up from the hospital and taken to be cremated. When Robert and I had to go to the funeral home and sign the paperwork, I wanted to vomit. I was signing papers to give these people permission to have my beautiful daughter’s body taken from me forever. Like I have stated before, I know that her body was just a vessel. Annie was not her body, she was so much more. I knew she had left it behind, but it was still the most difficult signature I have ever written. I couldn’t help but think that one day she should have been there to sign the paperwork to have my body cremated, not the other way around. When we tried to pay the fees for the cremation and paperwork, we were informed that they were already taken care of. Some of our dear friends had already taken that burden from us. Our friends and family have continued to do God’s work in our lives, and this was an excellent example of that. Our load has been lightened, piece by piece, from those who love us, and we are eternally grateful.
Once we finalized the details of Annie’s Day, we didn’t really know how to spread the word. We wanted her memorial service to be small and intimate, so we notified family and close friends when to be there for that portion of the day. Then there was the matter of the reception. We have been supported and prayed for from all corners of the globe from the very beginning of our journey. We have gotten countless messages from friends we haven’t spoken to in ages about their thoughts and prayers, their heartache for us and our family, and genuine offers to help in any way they could. I was so undeniably changed by Annie and her time here with me, I didn’t want to deny anyone the opportunity to be a part of her celebration. The only thing I could think of to let everyone know about Annie’s Day was to create a Facebook invite… It makes me cringe to think about it. I love social media as much as the next guy, but I try to keep my feeds lighthearted and happy (and incredibly sarcastic at times, because I think I’m hilarious). I detested the fact that we were even having to think about how to do this, and I hated that this seemed to be our best option. After I put all of the details into the invite I just went through my friends list and invited anyone that I remembered who had reached out to us. I wanted everyone who had prayed for and loved on us to have the chance to celebrate our precious girl. I hope no one who was invited felt obligated to come. To all those who did come, especially those I haven’t seen in years, your physical presence was very much appreciated and Robert and I both thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your love and support.
Robert built a handsome little box out of cedar to hold Annie’s ashes, and carved a cross with beams of light behind it on the face. He also built an altar out of logs to use at her service (seriously, what CAN’T he do??).
Annie’s service was something I will adore for all time. When we planned it out I estimated it would take about half an hour because there wasn’t really that much to it. Once it started, however, it flowed like a mighty river. There was no stopping it. Our friend Kyle Simmons had graciously agreed to lead it for us, and he started things off. He shared what Annie had done in his life, and what was on his heart. One thing he spoke about that I swore I would endeavor to change but have still struggled with was the tragedy of Christians telling each other that we are “fine.” We are called to help carry each other’s loads, and we do each other a huge disservice by not permitting this to happen. I don’t know how many times in life I have absolutely NOT been fine, but said so because I don’t want people to see the darkness in me, or to see past my facade of happiness. Kyle’s words were mighty and compelling, and his sense of humor and joyfulness were present, as expected. He shared with us his discovery that in Hebrew, Annie means prayer and Rachel means lamb. Annie Rachel was and is our little prayer lamb. So perfect. He also discovered that Ahern means “Lord of the Horses,” but you really had to be there for that to all tie in… 🙂 Kyle, you gave us a brilliant gift with the way you led Annie’s service. I laughed genuinely, you provoked my thoughts, and you celebrated our girl in a way only a true friend could. Thank you.
We listened to the beautiful song “Tomorrow Will Be Kinder,” for which this blog is named after. This song has been a favorite of ours ever since we received Annie’s diagnosis. It’s somber and haunting, but contains a beautiful message of hope. If you haven’t heard it, here’s a link to a YouTube video with the lyrics.
Robert stood and bravely read something he had written to honor his daughter. I seriously don’t know how he had the strength to do this. My admiration and love for that man only deepened as I listened to him speak. He boldly admitted his doubts and fears, and shared with us a crucial moment in his journey.
“Then one night I read Psalms 139:13-16 ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.’ This verse was a turning point for me. I realized God was with Annie and He loved Annie more than I ever could, He had given His life for her, she was His child.”
I could not hold back my tears as Robert described Annie’s physical form in the way only a loving father could. He had loved every inch of her. Her dark hair, her grip, her mouth and nose that looked just like her big sister Harper’s. She was his for only a moment. My heart broke as I watched my husband share his heartache.
The sisters were up next. My sisters Jenny and Emily took a seat up in the front, and Annie’s sisters Dylan and Harper Lou climbed up onto their laps. One of my favorite parts of Annie’s birthday was when Dylan wanted to read “Heaven is for Real: for Kids” to her sister. She wanted Annie to know all about heaven and how awesome it was going to be so she would not be scared to go there. We decided that everyone needed to hear about where Annie was living now, so the girls shared their book with us. (***insert waterfall of tears here***) It was an incredibly loving act for Dylan to care for her sister in this way, so I was crying tears of sadness and bursting with pride at the same time.
Once the girls were done, my brother read a touching poem by Edgar A. Guest entitled “Miss Me – But Let Me Go.”
When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom-filled room.
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little–but not too long
And not with your head bowed low.
Remember the love that we once shared,
Miss me–but let me go.
For this is a journey that we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all a part of the Master’s plan,
A step on the road to home.
When you are lonely and sick of heart
Go to the friends we know
And bury your sorrows in doing good deeds.
Miss Me–But Let me Go!
He finished with a smile and a wink to me. There is so much truth in this poem, which I did not know he was going to read. We were sitting underneath a canopy of trees on a gorgeous July morning with the Oklahoma sun shining and the breeze blowing, not in a gloom filled room. There was a comfort about us. We were surrounded by our friends and family. We knew our baby had been set free.
Our friends began sharing next. Robert and I are part of a marvelous little group of friends that get together once a month or so. These get-togethers, which we have dubbed “Sombrero Saturdays” (we usually eat Mexican food), are filled with laughter, squealing kids, storytelling, theological discussions, and maybe a beer or two… These friends were instrumental in helping to support our family during the past few months. Their lives were greatly impacted by our daughter’s life, and several of them felt led to share their thoughts. Our friend Blake Behrens read a piece written by his mother after the death of her daughter Erica, Blake’s sister, when she was just a baby. I was filled with joy listening to him speak. One of my biggest fears is that Annie will fade away into a distant memory, but by Blake’s own admission, his life has been changed for the better because of his sister. I know that my life will never be the same, and listening to him read and speak about Erica gave me hope that Annie will help mold her sisters lives in a positive way. Thank you, Blake, for giving me that hope.
Our friends presented my family with a sapling from the Survivor Tree that still stands at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing, and they all brought a jar of soil from their homes to mix with our soil here at our home. This unique and deliberate gift is so heavy with symbolism, I don’t even know where to begin. To have a piece of this tree and all that it stands for for us and for this city is an unbelievable honor. These friends have enriched our lives in ways we can’t even describe. They are a group of very diverse minds and opinions, thus giving us perspectives during this time that we never would have seen on our own. Thank you, Michael, for your words on that day. You have been a constant in my life since we were young, and my life has been better for it. Thank you for hurting with me, laughing with me, and loving me and my husband the way you do. Kara, I can’t tell you how much this gift means to us. You are an incredible woman. Thank you so very much.
Our friend Eric Lyons got up to speak and his words really caught Robert and me by surprise. We met Eric and his wife Kylie about 8 months ago at a Sombrero Saturday party. During this initial meeting, Robert and I were both very impressed by them. They were genuine, intelligent, and honest. We learned that they were in the process of adopting a child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This process is long, complex, and insanely expensive. We could tell just in that first few hours how passionate they were, and how these two people would move heaven and earth to bring home their baby. From the time we had come to terms with what would likely be our own baby’s fate, we had decided to ask for donations to a good cause in her honor in lieu of flowers, we just had not found the perfect one. On our way home from meeting Eric and Kylie, I could not stop thinking about them. I knew that it had to be them. What better thing to come from the loss of our child than to help another couple gain a child? I told Robert this, and that I could not shake the feeling of how incredible this could be. He was in total agreement, and the more we thought and prayed about this, the more it was cemented in our hearts that God was telling us to do this. We were not really sure of how to approach Eric and Kylie about this, because we were brand new friends with them. Would we offend them? Would we scare them away? We had no idea. I was too scared so I made Robert call. 🙂 He called Eric and told him what we felt God had put on our hearts and suggested that they start a gofundme.com website so people could donate to them online. Eric thanked him, and it was settled. When Eric spoke at Annie’s memorial, I could not believe what he was saying. He said that he was driving when Robert called him, and he was so stunned by their conversation that he had to pull over. They had been trusting in the Lord, praying that He would somehow provide. When this call came, out of the blue, from someone he had met only once, it was apparent that God was at work. As Eric stood before us, I saw a man, a father, longing to hold his baby, just as we were longing to hold ours. My heart was broken and rejoicing at the same time. I am so completely blown away by what God has done for this couple. Their financial goal has been completely attained. I cried tears of joy every time I saw on their website that someone donated “in honor of Annie Ahern,” or “for little Pistol Annie.” If you gave, please know that these two people are going to make phenomenal parents. Thank you for playing a part in helping to unite a beautiful family! You should check out their site so you too can see what God has done! http://www.gofundme.com/homesweethoma (They also have a blog: http://ericandkylielyons.blogspot.com/ ) Eric and Kylie, thank you for being an incredible example of what it’s like to walk by faith. You both will never know the depths that your words about our daughter have touched our hearts. We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of your son, and know that we are so proud to be a part of your village.
Annie’s neonatologist, Dr. Nandyal, who worked with us came to the service and had several kind things to say. He spoke of how he would not soon forget Annie, or “Baby Annie” as he liked to call her, because of all of the remarkable things she had accomplished. Several different groups and departments within the hospital had come together, and valuable relationships were built because of our sweet baby girl. She has made undeniable headway for infant organ donation in the state of Oklahoma (and elsewhere). I loved when he told of the debriefing the medical team had after everything was over. He said they discussed what was done well, what could have been done differently, etc. They decided that things had gone amazingly well, and the only thing that could have been done differently was to have had someone shadow him during Annie’s birthday so they could have been trained. Dr. Nandyal told us he that he thought of that beforehand but declined to do so because he did not want anyone to possibly screw things up. 🙂 This man was so kind and gentle to us during my pregnancy, and did everything he could to help our daughter have the best possible moments with us. It was an honor to hear him speak so highly of her.
One after another, people stood to share what Annie meant to them, what Annie did for them, and what they saw in her life. It was incredible. Parents, sisters, cousins, in-laws, extra-laws, friends, you name it. Our little girl has made her mark on numerous hearts. Several people’s words stand out in my mind, and I’ll never forget them. Thank you all so much for being there and for being brave enough to share with us, and for making Annie’s memorial the most joyful and magical service we have ever been a part of. Thank you for showing us how much our daughter has moved in you. We are so very appreciative of you all.
All in all, the service lasted well over an hour and a half, but it felt like it was over in an instant. The sun was starting to rise over the trees and it was getting pretty dang hot. We all moved inside and watched a moving slideshow full of Sarah’s captivating images of our beautiful daughter. Our sisters and cousins had arranged an impressive potluck breakfast, so we ate. We drank mimosas until we ran out of orange juice, then we just drank champagne. We talked, we laughed, we hugged, we cried, we retold all of the same stories we always tell when gathered as a family. Our sisters and cousins fed us again. We ran out of champagne and started drinking beer. The kids played. People came and went all day. We all were very sweaty (the AC was still out, and the window unit couldn’t keep up with the July heat, all of those bodies, and a constantly open front door). Annie’s day was a pretty fantastic day to be a part of.
The days since Annie’s Day have been difficult for me. Some days I am completely fine, while other days I don’t know how I’m going to make it through. Thankfully, when the sadness hits me it comes like slow and powerful waves. It forcefully knocks me down, but it subsides quickly and I have time to get on my feet before the next one comes. The times when I become overcome with grief and emotion are usually when we are doing something fun and I’m watching my two lovely girls playing together when there should be three (right now I’m tearing up because I can hear them in their room singing and giggling). My older sister told me after the birth of her third child that when she looked at her kids she had a feeling of completion. This was her family and they knew they were done having babies. Robert and I have always known we wanted a large family, but we were just kind of waiting for that feeling. Now when I look at my family I feel like there is someone missing, and I don’t think that feeling will ever go away no matter how many more children we have.
We have a very finite number of actual memories with our daughter, and that has been a struggle for me as well. When I lost my grandmother I had numerous memories with her. I remembered all of the times she let me string buttons together on the floor of her sewing room while she quilted. I remember the smell of that room, the hum of her machine, the clanging of the buttons when we put them back in the coffee tins where she stored them. There are several other memories that I can visit in my mind that comfort me when I am missing her greatly. With Annie, I only got 14 hours and 58 minutes of memories, and I did not even think I would get that many. We have decided that one of our family goals is to wear out Annie’s quilt. We keep it in the back of our car and pull it out whenever we can. Since Annie has been gone, we have used it at a Peach Festival, several picnics, two lakes, the ocean, and we have just lain on it in the yard to watch the kids play. A wonderful woman told me that this was Annie’s way of GIVING us memories (Thank you, Marla. I love you fiercely). We are now being so very intentional of our time together as a family, and one day we hope to have a tattered and stained quilt full of memories. This has been a huge reassurance to me. We are living this precious life we have been given, and I thank Annie for all of the memories yet to come.
Something else that has been an issue for me is anxiety. Any time we are headed to a social setting I get incredibly anxious because I can tell that no one knows what to say to me. People rarely mention my daughter to me, and it can get terribly awkward. I know that people don’t want to upset me, and if I look like I’m actually having a good time they don’t want to bring me down. I totally understand that. If this had happened to someone I know, I would have no freaking clue what to do/say either. I want to thank everyone for being so cautious and for trying to be respectful of my feelings. But I also want to say, please stop it. My baby died. You can’t upset me any more than that. I want to talk about her. I want to hear what she has done in your life. I love her, and I’m proud of her. If she has made you hug your babies tighter, I want to hear it! If she has taught you some sort of life lesson, tell me! The things our little girl has accomplished and the mountains she has moved in her tiny little life are nothing short of a miracle, and we SHOULD be talking about it! Never once has someone brought her up to me where I haven’t smiled and wanted to talk about her (I may cry, but Dylan calls that my “happy cry”). Usually after we get home from a social event I get a phone call from one of my sisters telling me how many people have told them to tell us how amazing Annie was and how much she has done for them, so I know I’m not the only one who wants to talk about her. It’s OK, guys. I promise I probably won’t freak out on you… 🙂
I have several more things I want to share, but this post is pretty long, I’m pretty tired, and my kids have stopped singing and I think they are beating each other up. I had better go break it up…