With the best of intentions, people ask me how I feel about the death last week of my grandson, Gabriel Aaron Meehan. I keep wondering how to answer that. Of course, I feel awful, as do my son and his wife, and my wife and other members of the extended family. But there is more, so much more to how I feel, and to what I think. I wouldn't even try in this tender time, following the baby's death from a condition called anencephaly, to convey what everyone else may be feeling. Sorrow has them in its grip, I'm sure. So I'll keep it to me. The experience was tragic and terrible, and yet it's been in many ways wonderful and even transforming. It's probably best to start at the beginning.
A dark day
First arises the picture on the big IMAX screen of the movie "The Lion King." It's the powerful opening scene in which the father lion, Mufasa, presents to the horde of animals gathered on the savana his baby son, Simba. In the background plays the song sung by Elton John called "Circle of Life." I'd never seen the movie before and was struck by the immense gathering of animals -- looking as if they filled the whole world -- to view and honor new life in the form of the cub. My mind turns to that film because it was right after taking my grandson, Zach, to see it that I learned of the ultrasound that diagnosed the condition involving the incomplete formation of Gabriel's brain. I had dropped Zach off at the doctor's office, to which his parents had gone to see the photos of the baby developing in my daughter-in-law Kelly's womb. This was to be their third child. A day that had been filled with joy and expectation turned suddenly dark with terror. My son Ben didn't know everything that day, but he knew enough. "It doesn't look good. We need to see a specialist who'll tell us more," he said right there in the parking lot. Only later did Kelly let us know that in the early going, right about Christmas, one of the doctors recommended that she terminate the pregnancy. We didn't talk much about this. But I do recall sitting with her at a second birthday party for her daughter Emmarie and listening to Kelly talk about what she confronted. These aren't her exact words, but they went something like this: "I know this won't be easy. I feel the baby kicking already. But I think in the end it will be easier if I see this through. Already I love this baby."
The big question
To be sure, ethical issues and dilemmas abound here. Some people say that an anencephalic baby is not really totally human, that this child can never be conscious, that it could never feel pain or be aware of its circumstances. Others argue that such children, born often with many otherwise healthy organs, ought to be candidates to become organ donors. (Federal law, in most instances, prevents these children from being donors for various medical and ethical reasons.) Still others say that carrying such a child to full term is bad for the mother and father, given the trauma they face knowing the child is so damaged and likely will not live beyond a few hours. Why put them or the baby through such anguish? On the other side is a right-to-life position that says we need to preserve life at any cost. This side argues that this is a child in God's image and likeness and deserves to be born and to breathe and to live out its life in a natural fashion. I'm not really sure how Ben and Kelly wrestled with this, but I have a notion that they didn't have theological or philosophical debates over what constitutes life or when does a soul arise in a fetus. No, I think it was fairly clear for them from early on. This baby was theirs, an integral part of their lives as soon as it was conceived and that they would give it a chance at life. At times, I wondered what I would have done in the same situation, as did my wife. It's a tough call. My sister, a high-risk-pregnancy nurse, later told me that she has cared for a few of these babies and that she believes the decision to carry the baby to full term is very personal.
The birth
The months of waiting ended about noon on April 15 when Dr. Anita VanDeBurg, after holding hands and praying with us in a hospital room, delivered baby Gabriel through a Cesarean section at Spectrum East in Grand Rapids. Not long after, my son carried the baby down the hall to a recovery room. Once things were settled, I walked in, wary and worried and wondering how I would react to seeing and touching my new grandson. What struck me first was how tenderly Kelly was holding him. Blue from lack of oxygen, the child was nonetheless bravely breathing. And his mom was right there, encouraging him to grab whatever life he could. And he did. A powerful life force pulsated in his tiny body. Hearing him breathe, seeing his face, listening to his mom offer her love made me gulp with emotion. This was high-stakes drama, and a story that could too easily turn into melodrama -- except for this, the sheer reality and weight of that baby. He was real. He was not an ethical question or a moral quandary. No, he was a baby boy in the flesh. Under the knitted cap were brain tissue and a barely functioning brain stem. But that isn't what we looked at in the hours that followed as all of us got the chance to hover by Kelly's side and to watch as she mothered her child and as my son acted with great dignity like the father that he is. My wife, Mary, and I got to hold him a few times. He was a little person in my arms. His eyes, maybe only on reflex, opened at one point, as if, as my wife said, he was checking to see who in the world were all of these people who filled that room with such love. Because it was love, a solid, sure feeling of compassion and concern, of warmth and ready willingness to be a part of this day, that was so prevalent there.
'A piece of our hearts'
The Rev. Ray Townsend, pastor of Leighton United Methodist Church near Middleville, was there for most of that day and saw the love there, too, and mentioned this love in his sermon at the funeral. "God enabled this family to love, to hold, kiss and love this tiny child, and then they gave him back," he said. What Ben and Kelly did, Pastor Ray said, is something "few can understand in our busy world filled with confused priorities." During the hours in the hospital room, I remember how Kelly's dad, Shorty Williams, held Gabriel, his eyes misty, and spoke of all the things he wanted to do, but now never would, with his grandson. "We'd go mushrooming and fishing and walking in the woods," he said. "I'm trying to pack all of that into one day." He was filling the short hours with thoughts of what could have been, and with a grandpa's love riddled with loss and sorrow that nonetheless carried hope. In her eulogy given at the funeral service, Kelly's mom, Barb Williams, put it this way: "He was a strong little boy whose heart wanted to stay with his loving family, but instead he went to the loving arms of Jesus with a piece of all of our hearts." As well as with Gabriel's short life, I remember the baby's death. My wife and I returned to the hospital, not long after having left for the day, following Ben's call to tell us Gabriel had passed away. Alone in the room with Kelly, Ben had been holding the baby and counting his respirations, hoping and praying with every breath Gabriel took that his fragile life would last. But soon, his son's breathing slowed and Gabriel died. When we came into the room not long after, Ben was mixing a plaster solution with help from a nurse to use to make a mold. He and Kelly wanted a reminder of the shape and size, the wrinkles and edges, of Gabriel's tiny foot. He worked slowly, carefully, helping to create something that would be among the many things that keep Gabriel's memory alive. Then there was the funeral, and I had the chance to give my own eulogy. As fate or maybe something much stronger would have it, my granddaughter Emmarie let me hold her and take her with me to the altar. That's when I spoke about "The Lion King," the movie her brother and I saw last December when Gabriel's condition was discovered. In my eulogy, I also recalled being in that hospital room -- with the pastor, the doctor and all of the others -- surrounding Kelly, Ben and Gabriel with our time and attention. On that day our priorities were in one place, around that bed, in a circle of life that goes on, in a process that is so hard to understand and yet is the one that sustains us best. With Emmarie in my arms, I had the chance to read parts of a poem, given to me by my boss, that refers to "the Spirit of Light of the Circle that continues without end." Finally, the burial, which was held on a cold, windy day in a country cemetery. I recall my son carrying that small white casket across snow-spotted ground, weaving through grave markers and then setting it down on the green carpet covering the hole in which Gabriel would soon be put to rest. I was proud of Ben and thought of the day going on 30 years ago when I was in the delivery room and he was born. He came out crying, a small bundle of flesh and bones. As the circle has expanded, he grew up, met Kelly, built a house in Middleville, had two children and then a third. His name was Gabriel. He's flying now with the angels, and possibly doing it in circles. They say that the baby never had consciousness and that he never felt pain. Maybe so. I do know, though, that those of us who walked with him for the few hours that he was here have awareness and we feel pain. But there is more. There is always more. I want to raise Gabriel up right now for the world to see. I want to celebrate that often difficult and yet comforting circle of life. Thanks, Gabriel, for bringing me into the circle and reminding me that love weaves through us all.
I suspected that the column I wrote last week about the birth and death of my grandson, Gabriel, would generate some phone calls, letters and e-mails.
I was right.
But in all my years as a reporter (now going on 25), I've never gotten the volume, nor the depth of emotional outpouring, as has come my way in recent days.
Maybe the ease of communicating electronically makes a difference.
Letters and cards coming into my office and home number in the teens. I've gotten maybe a dozen phone calls, directly related to my story that looked at what my family went through April 15 at a hospital in Grand Rapids.
E-mail messages, however, have been coming in at a fast pace. At last count I had about 70 of them.
Many people have offered amazing words of consolation and comfort. They have also given me a look into their own lives. The story of Gabriel Aaron Meehan, a nearly 6-pound baby born with a condition called anencephaly, stirred several people to write about their own losses.
I've had the honor of reading about parents who balked at bringing into this life a disabled child but are now profoundly pleased to have done so.
Then there were those who have had to face the devastation of a child's unexpected death at birth.
I heard from a grandmother who still grieves the infant she only saw once, in the casket, just before the funeral.
Then there were the couples who years ago had children suffering from the same condition -- an unformed brain -- as Gabriel's.
But these parents, in an age when doctors apparently believed they knew best, were told not to look at their baby. It would be too hard. These children were left to die in a nursery, cared for by professionals and not the parents themselves.
I've read so many stories, and I've passed some of the particulars and all of the kind words on to my son, Ben, and his wife, Kelly.
I know the support they are getting, from both strangers and friends, helps.
All of the emotion that has flowed my way, especially by e-mail, is almost overwhelming. Clearly, my words touched a chord.
What I find so surprising, and yet so reassuring, is the common bonds so many of us share. At deep levels, something resonates when we think about babies.
They are, after all, so helpless. They are mirrors of ourselves, and yet they are entities unto themselves. They come from God, people have written to me, and back to God they go when their time -- be it 10 hours, as with Gabriel, or many years -- is finished.
My sense is that baby Gabriel is an emblem of a kind -- a sign of tender life that two parents chose to nurture in whatever fashion that it came.
Many people have commented on the photos that appeared with last week's column. I know that these images gave a look at critical moments in the life of my son and his wife and Gabriel.
Part of me still wonders if my writing and these photos were a little too personal. And yet the response, from everyone involved in the story and from Gazette readers, has been uniformly positive.
There are so many people who have reached out to me and to my family, and I only hope that our story can help others link in similar ways as they, too, undergo hard times.
Today I want to share a few of the comments that our story generated. In so doing I hope I can reflect the deep gratitude I feel for the way readers have responded.
I want this column, among other things, to be a thank-you. I'm hoping that by doing this I can acknowledge another incredible process -- the interplay between one writer and so many kind and caring readers.
This opinion column was written by Chris Meehan, Gabriel's grandfather.  Chris works at the Kalamazoo Gazette.
Family has scant 10 hours to cherish infant, to give him to Jesus and to reflect on what might have been
"Some children come into our lives and go quickly.
Some children come into our lives and stay awhile.
All of our children come into our lives and leave foot prints -
Some oh so small;
Some a little larger;
Some, larger still,
But all have left their footprints
On our lives; in our hearts,
And we will never, never be the same."
Doreen Sexton
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