Heartbreak after losing our son
Last year, my 4-year-old son, Grayson, was in the shower of our hallway bathroom with my wife. Halfway through bath time, the bathroom lights flickered for about 10 seconds.
“Jaxson just wanted to play,” Grayson told my wife.
She smiled at him and agreed. Jax, his older brother, had drowned three years earlier at a neighbor’s pool party across the street from our Corona home.
On June 24, 2012 – the Sunday morning that he died – my wife, Kristina, came home after a two-night shift as a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach.
While I dressed our toddler twins (Grayson and his sister Elliette) for church, Jax peeked in to that same shower in the hallway bathroom to find Kristina.
“I just come be with you,” he said, in the most adorable 4-year-old voice you’ll ever hear.
The two sat on the bathroom floor and Jax told Kristina about his weekend. It was the last time they would embrace. While I was at the party with him, Kristina and the twins were at home napping.
What followed after our son’s death – shattered faith, crippling grief and a family on the verge of destruction – could have broken us.
Instead, we’ve weathered a four-year-long storm and the most beautiful rainbow now arcs majestically overhead.
A history of infertility
Jaxson William Keichline was born Jan. 29, 2008, at Long Beach Memorial Hospital. We struggled with infertility and needed artificial insemination to conceive Jax, and Kristina told me infertility treatments tend to result in girls more often than boys.
“Holy crap, it’s a boy!” I shouted, when we found out the sex of the baby.
Jax was the first grandchild born on either side of the family, and, naturally, everyone cherished him. But he wasn’t our first baby, nor did his birth mark our first battle with infertility.
After we married in 2003, Kristina and I took a couple of years to enjoy each other before deciding to start a family. We tried for a year to conceive before we visited Reproductive Partners in Westminster for infertility guidance. In-depth testing determined that my sperm liked to swim in circles. Other than that, we were generally healthy, and doctors couldn’t diagnose our fertility issues. We just knew that Kristina couldn’t get pregnant without some help.
A successful intrauterine insemination brought about Kristina’s first pregnancy. Sixteen weeks later, after we escaped that risky first trimester, announced the news to family and friends and started planning our new life, things came to a screeching halt. Our baby was dead. A couple of days later Kristina underwent a dilation and evacuation at a clinic in Los Angeles. We elected to run tests to determine the sex and cause of death. It was a girl, but no dice on the cause of death. We named her Presley.
In 2011, thanks to in vitro fertilization, Gray and Ellie were born. And our family was set – or so we thought.
Many people have written that losing a child is the deepest pain a person can experience. It’s worse than that.
A common phrase in grief recovery is that you don’t move on from losing your loved one, you move forward. And you do. Until you slip backward and fall into the pit.
After Christmas in 2013, I was in the pit. It’s a deep, dark place where anger stews and the hopelessness is suffocating.
I felt alone. Everything had changed: the way I related to people, the way people related to me. Broken relationships. Apathy. The fake smiles. I was pulling away, anguished and isolated.
For me, the pit turned kitchen knives into tempting distributors of self-punishment. Bottles of booze became a numbing escape. And my mind constantly echoed a horrifying theme: “It’s your fault. You deserve this.”
I’ve climbed out and fallen back into the pit numerous times. The more often I fell, the easier it was to climb out. The repetition bred familiarity. I slowly added more tools to my survival toolbox.
Kristina and I dealt with our pain and grief differently. Soon after Jax died, I dove into the internet for comfort, where I found two online communities for parents or grandparents who have lost a child. I just wanted to talk to others who knew my pain and wouldn’t judge me, so I joined chat rooms.
“Why would you even want to do that to yourself?” my wife asked with a compassionate smirk after finding me one night with tears running down my face, typing to a chat room.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Conversely, Kristina preferred to bury the grief and distract herself.
Looking back, some things helped me traverse the grief more than others. I started a personal blog that I shared with friends, family and other grieving parents, which helped me release some of my heartache into the universe.
I wrote about my shattered faith. I binge-watched “Long Island Medium.”
The one place I feel truly myself is when I’m with another parent who has lost a child. Whether it’s a relationship online or in person, it’s the one place where I don’t feel the need to wear a mask. I don’t have to bury my junk.
There’s a kinship among us. We relate to each other the way our best friends can’t. We’re drawn to each other. They know exactly how I’ve felt, what I’m feeling now and what I’ll feel next year.
And the twins. Without Gray and Ellie, I don’t know that I’d still be here. I needed a reason to live, and I had two of them, looking to me to wake up every day.
Let’s stay together
A month after Jax died, I began grief counseling. Kristina started her own therapy a month later. In November 2012 we started seeing a marriage and family therapist in Santa Ana. It saved our family.
Kristina couldn’t stand me. She was angry, and it was obvious. I was barely dealing with my own junk, scared that I was going to lose more of my family. But those weekly counseling sessions chipped away at our issues. Kristina’s anger, eventually, lessened. I learned how to communicate with her more effectively and not be as sensitive to her body language. It isn’t all about me, after all.
It was a choice on our part to fight for our marriage. It’s been a long fight, and it doesn’t seem like it’s a fight that will end any time soon. We still go to individual counseling, and we still see that marriage therapist in Santa Ana twice a month.
At our wedding, the first dance song was Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” On our first date, we talked about the greatness of the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack and agreed that this was our favorite song. It’s just right now, writing this, that I see how apropos that song choice was.
What has helped us heal the most has been hope. A hope born during a 10-year wedding anniversary trip to Chicago in July 2013.
At some point on that trip, Kristina became pregnant. How could this happen? She’s never gotten pregnant naturally. I didn’t think she could. We were done having kids. We had sold off everything but a breast pump and a pack-and-play.
We’ve heard and read that the second year after losing a child is often harder than the first. That sounds impossible. But most of the support one receives in the months after the death of a loved one fades. People have lives to live.
We, the grieving, are still stuck. The loneliness is harder. All of the firsts – first Halloween, Christmas, birthday, remembrance – pass. All that’s left is our broken hearts.
After Jax’s remembrance service we felt the beginning of that rough second year.
But this pregnancy changed that. We felt hope for the first time. This baby was going to keep that second year from being worse. The baby embodied life after all we had known for a year was death.
A miscarriage on Aug. 19 crushed that hope. Misery, anger and despair swelled inside me. Kristina went on to have two more miscarriages over the next 18 months. Just like the Chicago trip, these pregnancies occurred naturally. Somehow, infertility was no longer an issue. But staying pregnant was.
From these miscarriages we learned that Kristina carried the gene mutation methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR). One side effect of this gene is elevated homocysteine levels, which increases the risk for blood clots. This could explain the miscarriages.
Kristina’s OB/GYN recommended we genetically test the frozen embryos left over from the IVF that produced the twins. The thought being that we could pull the genetically normal embryos, do an embryo transfer and, along with treating the blood clotting issue, limit the risk of future miscarriages. Yearning for hope, we had the embryos tested. Except that after the defrost, only three of the seven embryos survived, and of those three, none was genetically normal.
But we weren’t done. You can call it perseverance, but you’d be wrong. We were just tormented souls chasing a green light on a dock across the water. Our fertility doctor said the next option would be a fresh round of IVF. Too much money, I thought. But we tried anyway.
After testing, semen deposits, more genetic testing, three shots for egg retrieval, multiple ultrasounds and the egg retrieval itself, we were left with two genetically normal embryos. The transfer of one embryo held up (the other is frozen). Kristina was pregnant. Then came the difficult task of staying pregnant.
Kristina gave herself three shots a day – two in the stomach (Lovenox for blood thinning to decrease risks of a blood clot) and one in the upper tush (progesterone). Her belly looked like photos of galaxies far, far away – a mesmerizing mixture of purples, blues and pinks in disjointed shapes.
Early in the pregnancy, my wife noticed some blood. It was more than spotting, but less than a period. I panicked. Again, really? This early? I tried not to let her see my fear. Now, I’m not a super optimistic guy. Especially after the past four years. But I tried to be that rock for my wife, Mr. “Everything is going to be OK” guy. The next day she went to Reproductive Partners, a heartbeat was found and everything appeared normal.
That fear, though – it just doesn’t go away. Every time she went to the bathroom I pushed down expectations of her walking out of the room crying.
Before Christmas, we were going to tell Ellie and Gray about the pregnancy. When I got home from work, my wife said she was bleeding a bit, and that we should wait. I agreed. Fifteen minutes later, things changed.
Ellie was sitting on the couch next to me and wanted to show me a photo on my wife’s phone from earlier in the day. I unlocked it for her, she swiped through and showed me the photos. My wife sat down on the couch next to us a few minutes later, and we talked a bit.
“Is this a baby?” Ellie asked. She held up the phone with an ultrasound my wife texted to her mom earlier in the week.
I looked at my wife with an “oh-crap” look.
“What do you think it is?” I replied to Ellie.
Gray, who was playing with toys on the floor 10 feet away, ran over to look. He couldn’t make out the ultrasound.
“A baby,” Ellie answered.
“We’re having a BABY?” Gray squealed. I teared up. His reaction was beautiful. He was genuinely so excited.
I told them that we were. After they soaked it up for a few minutes, my warning message followed. I told them it would take a long time for the baby to grow and be born, and that we’d have to pray to God for the baby and Mommy to be healthy, and that the baby could die, like the others. I encouraged them to help Mommy while she was pregnant – to keep her and the baby safe.
Later that night Ellie sat on the couch next to my wife.
“I don’t want this baby to die,” she said.
On July 19 at 2:44 p.m., Phoenix Davis Keichline was born weighing an even 8 pounds and stretching 20 inches long. He was born at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange. Jax died next door at Children’s Hospital of Orange County.
On day three of our hospital stay, two hours before the scheduled discharge, we finally decided on a name – mainly because the birth records department forced us to. Davis was Kristina’s grandmother’s maiden name. Phoenix has more of a story to it.
The phoenix represents renewal and resurrection. The story goes that when this mythological bird feels near its end, it sets itself on fire, and out of the ashes, a new phoenix arises. Death, transformation and renewal.
When Jax died four years ago, the death beset our family, only to be followed by the closure of our church – a major loss for our family – and then my wife’s three miscarriages. We’d been transformed, and not for the best. We were just … different. Hardened. Aged. Jaded. We now hold a new appreciation for the fragility of life, and a lesser fear of death.
And then came renewal. It’s been noted as a cleansing. Wash away the death and all that came with it. For our family, this baby represents that. He’s brought us hope, and along with that, a renewed sense of life and energy.
On the morning of Kristina’s scheduled C-section, I woke up early to wrap up some unfinished work at the office. While in the shower of our hallway bathroom, I prayed for health for Kristina and the baby. I asked God’s permission for Jax to be there with us at the hospital, and I asked Jax’s permission to let myself off the hook from my self-imposed punishment (at the recommendation of my therapist). The whole thing lasted about a minute. A few seconds after I started talking until the second I was done, those lights dimmed and flickered. It was Jax. I was certain.
To be clear, Phoenix’s arrival doesn’t magically make everything better. We’d never expect that. We continue to grieve daily, dodging the pit on our journey and fighting for our family. But squeezing Phoenix’s chubby cheeks and gazing into his blue eyes does help ease the heaviness of it all. And those flickering bathroom lights remind us that Jax is always with us.
“I just come be with you,” faintly repeats in my heart, spoken by an absent 4-year-old, when those lights flicker. “I just come be with you.”